www.tranzfusion.net 5th August 2001

Phil Oakey from the Human League - Gatecrasher is Wonderful

Benedetta Ferraro

Initially emerging as avant-garde electronic experimentalists during the late 70s, Sheffield band the Human League rapidly became one of the biggest bands of the 80s, notably through their groundbreaking album Dare. Containing their worldwide smash Don’t You Want Me, the record brought Human League to Duran Duran level superstar success, selling 5 million copies in 1982. Despite that success, the band’s core members Phil Oakey, Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall remained pointedly unpretentious and humble, remaining based in Sheffield as their latter career dipped and soared. After moderate success in the mid 90s, the band found themselves sliding into ever increasing obscurity until 2000 began, when suddenly their fortunes changed. Increasingly recognised as true pioneers of dance music (particularly by US tastemakers from Detroit and Chicago) they were also endorsed by Ministry, who bought up the sampling rights to their superb electronic back catalogue.

One year on, they’re just about to release their already critically acclaimed new album Secrets, through their latest label Papillon. Returning to their trademark 80s story-book style electro, the album is a surprisingly contemporary record, that’s likely to see the band re-emerging yet again, on the world’s pop charts.

Human League singer Phil Oakey and a car-load of mates used to drive past Gatecrasher regularly until one night they plucked up the courage to go in. Yet despite being one of the true pioneers of flamboyant clubwear, the legendary New Romantic icon found himself unrecognised and undisturbed. ‘The clubbers there can hardly even recognise their friends to be honest,” he told Skrufff’s Benedetta Ferraro this week. “They don’t even remember who they came with. In the toilets they can’t recognise themselves when they look in the mirrors. It really is a place where you can get lost. You go in with people and you never see them again for the whole night, as it is so huge. Great. They wear fantastic make up, too.” Joining him for the interview were prototype club girls Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall, who first met Phil when he chatted them up in a different Sheffield nightclub back in 1980.

Skrufff: You’ve described Secrets as ‘probably your best album ever’…
Phil Oakey: “Yes, that’s because for the first time we’ve been working in total unison with everybody around us, from those at our record label to the album producer, my writing partner and so on. We are now involved with people who understand where we’re coming from, and we make all our decisions together. In that respect, this album represents our best working experience so far. However, you can hardly predict an album’s potential at this stage. Before ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was released, I would have never guessed the success it would have.”

Skrufff: Phil, you’re quoted on your biography as saying ‘old music is only good for ripping off’, how much did you actually look at your past when you were putting this album together?
Phil Oakey:
“Not very much until the lyrics stage, because we always tend to write the music first. I don’t listen to old music at all anymore; I don’t want to, I’ve heard it all a thousand times. There’s more good music around now than there’s ever been; you’ve got to go out and find it, which is hard ‘cause there’s so much of it out there. When it comes down to lyrics though, I become really old fashioned. I like digging out my old ‘60’s and ‘70’s compilations to give me an idea for the lyrics or the vocal line.”

Skrufff: I’ve notice that, when it comes to lyrics, love is still your
favourite subject…
Phil Oakey: “Only because it’s universal. To be honest the album was going to be pretty miserable, because when I was writing I was going through a rough time. When the lyrics were first written, they were all about anguish and pain. Then I thought we’ve got to get out of that, and re-wrote the whole lot trying to make them more cheerful.”

Skrufff: Were all three of you going through hard times?
Susan Sulley: “Kind of, but you can’t help not getting miserable when you’re dropped by your record company. We had come to a point where we had to question ourselves and our abilities as artists, and that’s not always pleasant.”
Phil Oakey: “The music business has become so businesslike that you find people around you talking in the way accountants do. That’s the world we’re living in these days and you cannot fight it. In the long term it’s doing them (the record companies) a lot of good, but as artists, we’ve all become pretty organised. If you’re not making money within six months, you’re out. That cannot go on forever. Nowadays it’s very hard to find British stars, with the exception of Robbie Williams and Dido, but who else has there been? In Britain we can’t afford to develop talent.”

Skrufff: You said that ‘writing this album had an overall vibe of ‘mental illness’. What did you mean by that?
Phil Oakey:
“Personally, I went through a funny period in my life when I had to reassess many issues. I decided I don’t want to have any children and that made me wonder ultimately what I’m living for. I went through therapy for a couple of years, read many books and that entire ordeal ended up being reflected in my lyrics. Things are much better now, I’m not on Prozac, and I’m not seeing my psychiatrist anymore, which is great since I’ve spent so much money during that time. Being on Prozac made me eternally dissatisfied and I could not pass by a shop window without buying something, I had no discrimination and I would buy a lovely Armani coat on the spur of the moment. If the album would have been completed at that time it would have been totally different; you would have found a lot of comedy in the lyrics.”
Skrufff: Is it true that in the late ‘70’s you worked as a hospital porter

‘throwing limbs into a furnace and watching them crackle’?

Phil Oakey: “It’s true. It was a children hospital. Seriously though, it was a good job for many reasons; there was no money in it, but it was a good job. It makes you look at life in a different way and you don’t even have to be mentally strong to do it, because you’re running around all day doing things that make you forget the darker aspects of the job. Watching people doing it would have being more disturbing, but in my case I just carried on.”

Skrufff: How interested were you in being experimentalists when the band started?
Phil Oakey:
“Being in a band is what I always wanted, so back then I behaved very much like a student, even if I wasn’t one. I was interested in all those ‘arty’ forms of expressions, like listening to experimental music such as Philip Glass or watching subtitled French films and so on.”
Susan Sulley: “At the end of the ‘70’s beginning of the ‘80’s it was possible to be a glamorous pop star and have credibility. These days a pop star is generally considered ‘fickle’.”
Phil Oakey: “I’m not sure about that…in a band environment perhaps, but as a solo artist you have more freedom to express yourself. The fans will change with you and through you.”

Skrufff: In the ‘80’s you had Oasis/ Britney Spears level of success for a number of years, how much did that success bring you permanent financial security?
Joanne Catherall:
“Financial security? We are NOT financial secure in the slightest, at least Susan and me aren’t. Obviously we made a lot of money with the success of ‘Dare’, but we also lost a lot of money recording ‘Hysteria’ and since then we’ve been on a financial roller coaster, having enough money to survive but going for months with virtually no money coming through. Fortunately we’ve bypassed signing on the dole so far, but we manage… we survive. We’re survivors in the way that we won’t give up just because five million people are not going to buy our record. To us that’s an incentive to carry on and make another one because… we’re gonna’ beat people into submission one day… ‘You will buy our record’… And in the meantime, we’ll survive the best we can.”
Phil Oakey: “It would be nice not having to worry about financial security. I want to move out of my house but I’ve never quite got the money to do it.”

Skrufff: You’ve clearly experienced loads of peaks and troughs over the years; was maintaining success easier or harder than getting it in the first place?
Phil Oakey:
“It’s much harder maintaining it. You spend the money that you’ve earned chasing it as well. It’s the British way, isn’t it? We don’t optimise what we’re doing or have. It’s a different story in America of course, where artists who’ve had just one big single are nurtured and sponsored. We’ve never had anything like that, we’ve never had any constructive suggestions.”
Susan Sulley: “We did get a sponsorship offer once, but it was Phillip Morris (tobacco) and we turned it down.””

Skrufff: Are you ever tempted to write songs for other artists or manufactured bands?
Phil Oakey:
“That would take up so much of our time. I’d prefer not to because it was never what we wanted to do in the first place. Besides it takes us four years to complete our own albums and doing all the bits to get money, look for deals etc. Our band is our focus and perhaps we wouldn’t even be very good at writing pop tunes for others. I’m the main songwriter in the band but the way I go about writing is very unorthodox. I like making dreadful noises on the synthesizer and the drum machine and putting on the vocals at the very end. I couldn’t do it any different.”

Skrufff: I understand that Gatecrasher was the place you first got into raving…
Phil Oakey:
“Yes it’s true. I missed all the acid house parties until the mid ‘90’s…”
Joanne Catherall: “That’s because you’ve never left the house during that time…”
Phil Oakey: “Well yes, but then I became single again and I had to make an effort, to go out. Me and my old mates used to drive past Gatecrasher regularly and once we decided to go in.”
Joanne Catherall: “That was a particular sad period in your life, when the six of you used come back to the house after driving around all night. Just imagine the scenario… ‘We drove past so and so, and then we drove past so and so’… AND? ‘And then we went home’… What an exciting night out! It’d be more interesting to just go in, don’t you reckon?”
Phil Oakey: “Often going in could be disappointing, actually. Nightclubs look far more interesting from the outside … But Gatecrasher itself it’s just wonderful. It’s the best nightclub ever with the best music combined.”
Skrufff: Were you ever recognised?
Phil Oakey: “No, not at all. They can hardly even recognise their friends to be honest… They don’t even remember whom they came with! In the toilets they can’t recognise themselves when they look in the mirrors! It really is a place where you can get lost. You get in with people and you never see them again for the whole night, as it is so huge. Great. They wear fantastic make up, too.”
Skrufff: Did you ever get dressed up for the occasion? I mean, after all you wouldn’t have been new to a bit of eyeliner…
Phil Oakey:
“Ummm, I’m too old and too self conscious these days, I’m afraid.”