www.tranzfusion.net 1st April 2003

Human League’s Phil Oakey On Richard X, Gangsters & Kids

Jonty Skruff

“I never wanted kids. I don’t understand why people have kids, really. I’d have liked to have been a writer, but I don’t think I would have been very good at it. I’d also still like to be a painter, but I can’t think of anything I’d like to paint.”

Chatting down the line from his beloved Sheffield, 80s pop icon turned revitalised electro figurehead Phil Oakey laughs as he considers what else he might do beyond sing with the Human League. Speaking to Benedetta Skrufff about the band’s latest Greatest Hits compilation (their fourth), he’s both cheerful and down-to-Earth, as enthused about Richard X’s remakes of his band’s music as he is about a recent holiday in Crete.

“I’d go and live in Crete if I could, I absolutely fell in love with the place when I was there on holiday earlier this year,” he laughs.

“I went to Egypt the year before that too and thought it was an amazing place but too frantic for my liking. So, if I make a lot of money I’ll spend half a year in Crete and the other half in Sheffield.”

Skrufff: You’re just to about to release yet another Best of Human League compilation, how do feel about these Greatest Hits albums generally?

Phil Oakey: “With this new album, it’s been a record company decision and not ours to release it, but it’s inevitable for these sort of things to happen if you’re doing all right and especially if you’ve been reassessed in the way we have. I think it’s all fine, the album is something that doesn’t require my creativity, like most others things I do, so I’m happy to let the record company get on with it.”

Skrufff: Richard X recently used two classic Human League tracks for his bootleg style debut album (Being Boiled and Things That Dreams Are Made Of), do you consider him as an artist?

Phil Oakey: “I do, yes, I listen to his stuff and I really enjoy it. He’s an artist who’s making the most of the technology of today. Then again, I’m not likely to judge him harshly because I know him and he’s also a really nice person. His album sounds really good to me, it has a lot of artistry and at least a couple more excellent singles on it. I’ve also noticed that our tracks are not exactly ‘our tracks’, they all have his additions, even just extra notes that weren’t in the originals.”

Skrufff: When you were writing the original Human League songs back in the early 80s; did you pinch any ideas or copy any one else?

Phil Oakey: “Oh yes, we were pinching ideas from everywhere but we weren’t very good at it, so it didn’t sound like the original. We were heavily inspired by Donna Summer and Kraftwerk. I was also a huge fan of progressive rock, bands like Yes, ELP (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), Van Der Graff Generator and The Nice and sometimes we were just very blatantly pinching stuff. In those days, because we didn’t have samplers, it would inevitably sound different and if you weren’t even a good musician it would sound even more unlike the original.”
 

Skrufff: Which of today’s pop bands, if any, remind you of the Human League?

Phil Oakey: “A couple of years ago I’d have said Kelis, at the time of her track ‘I hate you so much right now’. In fact I was very pleased when Richard X told me he’d got Kelis to sing on ‘The Finest’ single. She definitely had our spirit. Also Dreams Team, a band from Germany, and The Opal Bastards from Finland. I also listen to DJ Hell generally, everything that he puts out on his label and his compilations have got our spirit.”

 

Skrufff: Boy George recently blamed a lack of snobbery for allowing pop music to become so pedestrian and generic, would you agree?

Phil Oakey: “Elitism is good for creativity, but I don’t think that is necessarily what’s gone wrong with pop music. I think the marginal areas of music aren’t

very big anymore- we’re at the end of the pop music era. Within the next five to ten years no one will be buying records anymore. That means that as it’s ramping down, there will be less and less money to go out to the margins. The artists who are still doing well are those who are working the media well. I still think there’s great music out there, but it just doesn’t get in the charts. You have to hunt it down on the internet or go to the disco and listen to a good DJ to hear it.”

Skrufff: What stops record companies A&Rs from doing this?

Phil Oakey: “Well they’re terrified, aren’t they? Record companies face a very bleak future as they desperately try to hang on to a business model that is out of date. They sell what they can whilst people spend their money on Playstations and DVDs in a way they didn’t use to.”

Skrufff: Josh Wink was also telling us that since the RAVE Act, there’s less people in America who choose to become DJs, so there’s less people to buy new music…

Phil Oakey: “I can see that happening too. I love Josh Wink, he’s one of my favourite artists. He’s been a bit quiet lately, nevertheless I’ll always be his fan. I love the fact that he’s so daring, I think that ‘Higher States Of Consciousness’ is the wildest record that ever entered the Top 40. I couldn’t believe it when they played it. Wonderful.”

Skrufff: Changing the subject, were you ever refused entry for being inappropriately dressed in a club?

Phil Oakey: “I don’t think so… no, I’m pretty sure that’s never happened to me. I’ve always found ways to get in, either through the back door or because I knew the club owner. Recently we went to see a friend of ours, who was playing guitar for a comedian in a club in Yorkshire, which had a very strict door policy, so we all got in through the back door. Once in, they must have all thought we were the local drug dealers, as we were all standing around in trainers, whereas nobody else would have been let in without proper shoes on.”

Skrufff: Are you still proud to be a northerner, then?

Phil Oakey: “Yeah, of course.”

Skrufff: Do you ever get together much with the other Sheffield luminaries like Richard H Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire)?

Phil Oakey: “I see Richard a lot, we go to the same bars. If you like going out at night for a drink, you’ll always end up with the same people; the musicians, those who work in the bars and restaurants and the gangsters. That’s who’s out late at night.”

Skrufff: You were famously a punk back in the 70s, do you still feel like an alternative person?

Phil Oakey: “I don’t know, I still believe in some of the ideals of that era, for example, I believe in simplicity and that the simplest records are the best. I don’t believe in ‘clever players’, I don’t believe in ‘good singers’ I like people with rough voices… and I like all the music that people without privileged backgrounds can do, for example I really like ragga, because it’s the music that’s closer to the streets.”

Skrufff: David Bowie launched his new album this week- is he still someone you look to for inspiration?

Phil Oakey: “No, not really. I heard a couple of bits of ‘Eden’ and bought it, but I didn’t like it. I don’t really listen to songs anymore, I’m more into dance music and as soon as I hear vocals, it sounds old fashion to me. His stuff is so ‘David Bowie’ ad the same goes for Madonna… her backings sometimes are very good but then she sings on them and, well… I don’t really listen to albums with songs on.”