www.beatmag.com December 2005

In League With The Revel

Beatmag talks to Phil Oakey of the Human League about the band's current Synth City Tour of 2005.

 

The story of the Human League is a well-documented pop classic. In 1980, after two albums that set them up as Sheffield-based post-Kraftwerk electronic futurists alongside Cabaret Voltaire, the guys who ostensibly had the musical credibility (Ian Craig Marsh and Martin Ware) left, leaving their mate Phil with little more than a band name.


Singer Phil Oakey, who had initially been hauled in for his lopsided fringe as much as his vocal abilities, asked a couple of local girls at a Sheffield disco to join.
With a new line-up, and Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley at his side, Oakey's new band went onto global success with the 'Dare' album and the deathless single 'Don't You Want Me'.

 

Marsh and Ware briefly tasted the limelight again with Heaven 17 but it was the Human League who had a string of Top Twenty hits running all the way from '81 to '95. Among many others, these included 'Mirror Man', '(Keep Feeling) Fascination', 'The Lebanon', 'Louise', the Jam & Lewis-produced 'Human' (a US No.1 in 1986) and mid-'90s comeback single 'Tell Me When'.


For some years now it's been Oakey, Catherall and Sulley, with live/studio assistance, who comprise the Human League. Their profile rises and falls
with fickle public taste. One moment they're playing sets to drunken corporate parties or treading the boards at multiple act '80s nostalgia-fest Here & Now, the next they're being remixed, sampled, called an influence by hot young bands and heralded as godfathers of electroclash. In 2001 they released their last album, 'Secrets', but due to poor availability and a miniscule marketing budget it failed to set the world alight. It was as good a record as the Human League had ever made, with 24 carat electro-pop classics on board. Phil Oakey has grown used to such blows."


"I like that album," he announces down the phone from his studio. It must, however, have been irritating when it was ignored.
"Ah, well," says Oakey, at once resigned, pragmatic and cheerful, "these things happen."

 

The Human League are on tour again, the Synth City tour during which they perform songs from throughout their career. Far from being just Oakey, 'the girls' and some backing discs it's a full live band including Dave Beevers and Neil Sutton who've been members since 1986.


"Because of my unfortunate experiences right at the start of the Human League I'm really suspicious of backing tapes," says Oakey, referring to a disastrous
European tour immediately after the 1980 split, "and I try to make it

 

as live as possible. At one stage when we were really pretty big every note was being played on stage by a human finger. Now we do have little bits of sequencer although I'd prefer not to. I like live stuff and I think it's interesting that people are going back towards it. I'm enjoying it, especially as I'd given up on guitar bands. After T Rex I thought I'd never be excited by a guitar band in that way again. I went off on the synth thing and kept that up. But this year we've been listening to Interpol, The Killers, Hard-Fi, Six Days of Static, Arctic Monkeys, and I'm really enjoying it."


As an interviewee, Oakey is one of the least pretentious people in pop and rock. He has a grounded understanding of where his band sits in the greater scheme of things, unimpeded by ego but still proud of their achievements. When the lie of the land is good, he enjoys it; when things get sticky, he rolls with the punches.
"You might as well let happen what is happening," he laughs, "Why our group is like it is, is we're not really musicians, we've never had particularly high arty aims. Most of us that were in the early part of the group, Joanna, Susan and myself, we never wanted to be pop stars or anything. That was entirely accidental and, in a way, that keeps us down to earth. By the time we did our comeback album in '96 we were so grateful that people were doing what we wanted that we started to look at what they wanted, which makes it a reciprocal thing. Our philosophy now is that if people buy tickets with our name on, we're going to do our best to give them what they want."


So the Synth City Tour will be a "sort of greatest hits thing" but done with passion and panache. What a name, though...
"We've always been a little bit over-serious and we always call everything serious names," Phil ventures, "We wrote a song on 'Secrets' called 'Sin City' which was actually inspired by the [original Frank Miller] comic. Then they did the film and didn't put our song in it - rotters! So we thought we'd nick some of the images and call our tour Synth City as a lark"

 

Phil is cagier about new Human League material.
"I've started doing some new stuff but I don't really know what I'm going to do with it." He pauses and thinks aloud, "It's got to be put out there in a different way."


Which just leaves time for Beatmag to ask what Phil Oakey wants for Christmas?
"A Bentley sports car is my only material ambition," Phil states categorically, "If you leave out musical instruments and collecting synths and stuff it's almost the only material thing I've wanted that I've never got... but I still can't afford one."
Well, if Santa's feeling generous after dancing to 'Love Action' on a few sherries...