“I thought we were a punk band,
to be honest, and The Human League couldn’t have existed without punk. Until
punk came along, people used to believe that you had to study an instrument
for years before being allowed in a band and punk warped all that; it was
25 years after The Human League first started making revolutionary
synthesizer music, Phil Oakey is set to return to the era to discuss a new
album of those recordings “The Golden Hour Of The Future”. Featuring the
fellow sonic contributions of Heaven 17’s Ian Craig Marsh and Wartyn Ware
plus Clock DVA’s Adi Newton, the CD is a surprisingly good collective of
experimental electronica, with lots of relevance for today’s electroclash
“I like electroclash, though I don’t think it has had the big hitters yet
that it needs,” Phil told Skrufff’s Benedetta Ferraro this week.
“There isn’t an Abba or The Beatles in the genre yet, but they’ll come, I’m
sure. I love Miss Kittin, Adult, Dot Alison, they’re fantastic.”
Skrufff (Benedetta Ferraro): Why have you decided to release this retro
compilation CD now?
Phil Oakey: “The decision really has nothing to do with me. I think
that it’s been down to someone else’s decision, since the time for us is
very much right. People are talking about us again and all we ever get is
requests for clearing up samples and cover versions. We are, in a strange
way, trendy again, which is quite handy but totally down to coincidence.”
Skrufff: Did you ever think back then that there would have been a time
in the future, when you could have put out these tracks?
Phil Oakey: “I thought for a long time that the tracks should have
been made available and finally they have been put together in quite an
amusing form. I’m certainly enjoying listening to them.”
Skrufff: Have they stood the test of time, in your opinion?
Phil Oakey: “I am really enjoying them, though some of those I sing
on, I do find a bit embarrassing, but I love those tracks written before the
Human League. I’ve always found them great, obviously, and that’s why I
wanted to be involved with the group. To me they recall a time when things
were very atmospheric. I love what Martyn (Ware) and Ian (Craig Marsh) were
doing in the studio back then.”
Skrufff: Are you still in touch with them?
Phil Oakey: “We do see them, but we’re not exactly in touch. We used
see quite a lot of Ian, since a couple of years ago he was setting up a
studio here in Sheffield. Then I think that Heaven 17 got a fair amount of
work and he’s been stuck in London ever since. I think he even let the
studio go. We occasionally play various ‘nostalgia’ shows with them, since
we’re always trying to earn money, and it’s nice to hook up in those
Skrufff: Martyn recruited you in the band because you looked like a pop
star, did this hurt you?
Phil Oakey: “Martyn did, really? Well, those were the times; it was
very much a brave new world. I think we were quite unusual, as nobody within
the band had any roles, we didn’t even have a drummer or a bass player or a
guitarist, since we had an instrument that was producing all the sounds.
More or less, we didn’t even have a singer. I ended up singing because I was
less good than the others at playing the keyboards. Martyn did a lot of the
singing initially, and anyone of us could do pretty much everything, like
turning up with riffs, bass lines or lyrics. It was fun. Less like a group
and more like… a theatre group, or a little performance art ensemble. It was
like having a hobby.”
Skrufff: Did you use to view
students as ‘cool’?
Phil Oakey: “Well, to be honest none of us went to university and I
didn’t even finish my A Levels, as I needed to work and earn money. Being in
the group was our chance to be arty, which included taking care of all the
aspects relating to a group, from the music to the image, the clothes, the
posters and so on. After I joined, Adrian Write did too, and of course, he
was an art student, so we introduced new elements to our live performances
like a slide show. It was a massive change in the way groups were perceived
at the time.”
Skrufff: Did you eventually enjoy being a pop stars and getting all the
Phil Oakey: “Yes, I think so. Yes, I like all that. I still love
playing live and am happy to be involved in music still.”
Skrufff: What drew you
towards disco, rather than rock or punk rock?
Phil Oakey: “I thought we were a punk band, to be honest, and The
Human League couldn’t have existed without punk. Until punk came along,
people used to believe that you had to study an instrument for years before
being allowed in a band and punk warped all that; it was inspiring. Martyn
and Ian used to play in a group called Vomit. Synthesizers largely
influenced us because we were big “Clockwork Orange” fans and we liked the
novelty element. Technology had just started to happen and we were there
when these machines were invented. The world changed then.”
Skrufff: Did you get any
grief from local Sheffield hooligans because of the way you used to dress?
Phil Oakey: “Not really, but I think we should have had. Martyn
very brave, because at the time
he lived in one of the toughest estates in the
middle of Sheffield. He dressed
up ridiculously, inspired by Roxy Music and David Bowie rather than disco.
The disco interest came after. We used to wear fluorescent green fake fur
jackets and six-inch heels, and walk around in the middle of the city. I
don’t know why we got so little trouble. I’m quite menacing looking. I look
serious and I look like I might be quite tough, which I’m not at all in
reality. We just knew enough not to back down. If you saw skinheads, you had
to walk through them.”
Skrufff: At the time Johnny Rotten called you ‘trendy hippies’ on the NME
Phil Oakey: “Oh, that’s very nice of him. You know, we were actually
glad that John would say anything about us at all; we were after publicity.
It wasn’t long until he started to sound like us anyway. PIL were quite
inspired by us and they used to ask Ian which synthesizers were worth buying.”
Skrufff: You had a manifesto, how serious was it?
Phil Oakey: “I don’t think it was very serious at all, and that’s
because we thought we weren’t going to get anywhere. We were playing with
the idea, and in a way, this made us more flexible. We wanted to do more
than just being in a group.”
Skrufff: Were did the girls, Susan and Joanne, fit in? Were they also
interested in performing art?
Phil Oakey: “Before they were recruited, the four of us had a couple
of albums out which really didn’t do as well as we hoped, even though we
were convinced that once signing a record deal you had made it. Our manager
at the time didn’t think that Martyn and myself should be in a group
together, since we were both fixed in our views and that’s why we split. We
owed Virgin Records £100,000, which also were split, we also had a European
tour under the name of Human League which had to be fulfilled or else we
would have been sued. We needed two more members. I liked Michael Jackson
and high pitch voices, so we looked for girls. We just went out to a club
were they played our kind of music, Gary Numan, Japan, and we saw Joanne and
Susan. They were two of the four people we audition and although we needed
just one of them, we ended up taking them both on board, since they knew
each other and could look after each other. To have chosen just one would
have definitely caused romantic disputes between the guys in the band…”
Skrufff: So, not to make anyone feel left out, you ended up having them
Phil Oakey: “Well, not really. Not at the same time anyway.”
Skrufff: You have recently headlined the School Disco festival in
London’s Clapham Common, what did you make of it?
Phil Oakey: “I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to do it. It was a case
of owing the organisers a favour, which would have resulted in court action
if we had pulled out. I don’t really approve of school discos. I think
Skrufff: You also played in Europe. How did that go?
Phil Oakey: “Extremely well, we played at a festival in Belgium and
two nights at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. I think we’ve recruited the missing
link in the band, a local percussionist called Errol, which has finally
added the element the band needed. It was great to be on the continent,
because electroclash, which is much bigger over there, has really revived
our popularity even with the younger audience.”
Skrufff: Do you like electroclash?
Phil Oakey: “Oh yes, though I don’t think it has had the big hitters
yet that it needs. There isn’t an Abba or The Beatles in electroclash yet,
but it will come, I’m sure. I love Miss Kittin, Adult, Dot Alison, they’re
Skrufff: Do you still go out clubbing?
Phil Oakey: “Not anymore. We recently played at Privilege in Ibiza
and we didn’t even stay there after our show. Also, all the big clubs in the
north of England are either closing down or going monthly. People feel their
time has passed, trance has become much more specialised and generally the
trend is towards smaller, more personal and less crowded venues, where the
music played is more song based. I think that’s a nice change.”
Skrufff: Last question. “Don’t You Want Me” has been featured recently in
a terrible car advert. I hope that at least you have received a fair wedge
Phil Oakey: “I hoped so too, but we didn’t get very much, and what we
received had to be split amongst the three writers. Again, it was something
that I tried to stop, but the publishers informed me that we couldn’t and
they were going to do it anyway. We actually begged them not to do it, with
no success at all. You see though, I cannot sit here and ponder on the
credibility of a song I wrote 22 years ago. It’s my duty now is to write
some new material.”
Skrufff: And are you writing new material?
Phil Oakey: “Er, no. I think we were really shocked that our last
album didn’t sell, although we though it was good. That threw us back.
However, we’re now playing live again, and once I feel more settled I’ll sit
down and write some new songs. I might write some electroclashy tracks under
a different name with some people here in Sheffield, which right now I feel
is going through a musical renaissance. I think the Human League name has
run it’s course, certainly here in England, so I’ll try a different route.”