www.dotmusic.co.uk 7th July  2001
Dare To Dream

Dan Leroy

Secrets? New wave icon Philip Oakey apparently doesn't keep many. Ask the Human League's lead singer nearly any question about his 20-plus year career, and he won't equivocate.

 

On the League's studio prowess, or lack of it: "We just need producers. It's one of the things we're not good at. I myself don't care what the hi-hat sounds like--I just can't be bothered." On his oft-criticized vocals: "I don't like singing in the studio, never have. I'd rather make noises on synthesizers." And on the group's 1981 breakthrough Dare, considered by many a synth-pop masterpiece: "I find Dare a little too raw. I could've done with a couple more singles on there as well."

 

So in that spirit of openness, Oakey's hoping Human League's first album in six years, Secrets, won't be a covert operation in America. As on Octopus, the band's previous outing, he's joined by vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Anne Gayle (formerly Sulley), the only remaining League members.

 

And like Octopus, the new album draws on the classic techno-pop sound the group helped pioneer in the early '80s. Produced with maximum analog synth gusto by Toy, a production team featuring two former members of Bomb The Bass, infectious new songs like "Shameless" summon the League's Dare-era glories.

 

But Oakey also reached further back for inspiration. Nestled between the vocal numbers on Secrets are seven instrumentals, whose spare electro feel recalls the group's first two, Kraftwerk- and krautrock-influenced albums, Reproduction and Travelogue. "It's funny that now, people are very interested in that period," Oakey says, via phone from his hometown of Sheffield, England. "And I'm fascinated by it too."

 

The 70-plus minute CD format gave the group a chance to combine its pop leanings with the old experimental spirit, adds Oakey, who co-wrote most of the tracks with guest keyboardist Neil Sutton. "We weren't going to give people nine songs and pack in at 38 minutes. We took it as an opportunity to indulge ourselves, go back to the less commercial, early synth stuff."

 

 

In those early days, the League was acclaimed by David Bowie as "the future of music" and consisted of Oakey with Marytn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh--who split in 1980 to form Heaven 17. Oakey recruited a new lineup, plucking the teenaged Catherall and Sulley from a disco, and went on to global success with Dare and hits like "Don't You Want Me." But as the story usually goes, it came with a price. "We lost our focus," Oakey says, "because our aim had been, for instance, to have a number one record...and we'd got it."

 

The group teamed with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for 1986's Crash, which spawned the American chart-topper "Human." But the League didn't reconvene until 1990's disappointing Romantic?--and then, silence for nearly five years.

"I've gotta say, we didn't know what we were doing. We were really floundering," Oakey recalls. "We were never designed to be pop stars. We thought pop stars were funny people, and we laughed at them. I don't think we learned our job until the last album, really."

 

That was Octopus, which was a surprise British hit behind the single "Tell Me When." Current U.K. trends helped: The mid-9'0s not only saw the return of New Romanticism, via the fleeting Romo movement, but also the comeback of the analog synth. "Finally, people were making records with gear we understood," Oakey says. "All I'm really good at in music is making synths sound good."

 

Even though the group subsequently struggled finding another record deal, Oakey says the League's second long layoff was more pleasant than the first. "Some strange thing changed with Octopus. People are nice to us now, which is quite odd." Now, armed with new respect, the League plans to release an instrumental version of Secrets, and then they'll "tour, and try to find the people that like us anymore."

 

Some may be in America, where the League has been a well-kept secret for years. Oakey takes the blame for neglecting the U.S., but says there are benefits to the low profile. "One of the problems we have very, very much in Britain is that people think they know everything about us already. And," he says with a laugh, "they don't." Guess the League still keeps some secrets after all.