Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
by Stephen Slaybaugh

To anyone coming of age watching John Hughes flicks in the ’80s, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (a.k.a. OMD) will probably forever be remembered as the auteurs responsible for slow dance staple “If You Leave.” But by the time that song peaked at number 4 on the Billboard chart in 1986, the band had been spinning synthetic pop gold for nearly a decade. Formed in 1978 by school chums Paul Humphreys and Andy McClusky, OMD had been at the forefront of electronic music’s rise to the mainstream, translating their love of Kraftwerk into songs like “Messages” and “Electricity” that were every bet as innovative as they were catchy. The band’s third album, 1981’s Architecture and Morality, was a huge hit in the UK, with three singles reaching the country’s top 10, and throughout Europe. But it wasn’t until Hughes solicited the band for a contribution to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack that they made inroads in the US.

Unfortunately, OMD didn’t survive their success in America intact. By 1991, the band dissolved, with McClusky working on his own under the moniker for three more albums before putting OMD to bed in 1996. Fortunately, however, the band was resurrected in 2006, with Humphries and McClusky testing the waters to promote an Architecture and Morality reissue before enlisting the other original members of the band, drummer Malcolm Holmes and keyboardist and saxophonist Martin Cooper. The reunion resulted in 2010’s History of Modern and a tour of the US. While the comeback album was hardly shabby, it pales in comparison to the band’s latest, English Electric. The new record is more in keeping with the band’s original mix of innovation and pop hooks. “Metroland” and “Helen of Troy” recall the espirit des corps of the band’s earliest albums, while the sparkling tones of “Night Cafe” are reminiscent of the best of the band’s mid-80s work.

As such, it was a real treat to catch up with Humphreys on the phone to discuss the band’s past and present after a triumphant performance at this year’s Coachella Festival.

You reached the height of your commercial success in America with “If You Leave,” but you had peaked earlier in England in terms of popularity. Was that odd for you at the time?

Andy Humphreys: It was frustrating for us. We were having huge hits all around Europe from 1980 onwards, but yet we’d come over to America and we’d play tiny clubs because no one had ever heard of us. The record company who we were with in the US at the time, Epic Records, did just the bare minimum. I think they got a package deal from Virgin for six or seven bands, and they weren’t interested in selling us. They were far more interested in selling Michael Jackson, which is kind of understandable. We fought and fought to get out of that deal, until we finally were able to sign with A&M. We released Pacific Age on A&M, and things finally started to pick up. Then John Hughes contacted us about doing the track for Pretty in Pink. We were finally up and running in America, but it was frustrating that it took that long.

Then it was just a few years before the band disintegrated, right?

AH: The thing was we were slogging our way around America for years, and it became really exhausting. We were touring too much. We would tour for nearly nine months of the year, and we were making records that we weren’t happy with because we didn’t have enough time to make them. We’d tour for nine months, then we’d get home and the record company would ask where the next record was. We hadn’t even started it yet because we were so busy trying to break America. Andy and I always say that in trying to break America, America broke us. It was difficult, so then we disintegrated in the ’90s.

Coming back to it now, did you feel like you had a legacy to live up to?

AH: We came back with no expectations. The good thing was that the climate had changed. OMD was trying to be the future in the ’70s, but when we got to the ’90s, the future was Oasis and Nirvana and Blur. Electro was out, and the future ended up referencing the ’60s and ’70s. It completely confused us. Apart from the dance scene, there was no electronic music happening, and there was kind of no place for OMD.

Now we’re in a post-modern era, where all genres are acceptable. Everything used to go in a linear fashion where one thing replaced the next, but we’ve kind of hit a brick wall now where everything is possible, you just have to do it well.

Do you think that’s a cultural shift or is it a matter of our technology now, where people can pick and choose whatever they want and what’s popular isn’t dictated by media?

AH: Certainly the internet revolution has changed the music industry and the consumption of music in such a radical way that it is unrecognizable from the way it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Musicians see the internet as both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing as a fantastic marketing tool for getting to people who perhaps you may not have been able to get to before with radio being so conservative. Of course, the curse is that it’s degraded the value of music.

I think it’s still a transitional period, but that people are beginning to get a little bit better handle on making money via the internet.

AH: I see it as a transitional time too. I’m not so bleak about it. I think we are in transition to somewhere else with it. Ultimately, musicians still need to make money by having people pay for the music that they make. It is still quite expensive to produce music, and musicians need to buy shoes for their kids as well.

Let’s talk about this new music you’ve made. The first thing I wanted to ask about is the title, English Electric. Does this record feel particularly English or is there a reference there I’m not aware of?

AH: Well, we like the title because we’re English and we’re electric, but it’s deeper than that. There was a company in England in the ’50s and ’60s called the English Electric Company, and they were making things for the future. They were making incredible high-tech locomotives for the railways. They made the first super-computer, and they were making really high-tech airplanes for the air force. So they were manufacturing the future. The future is a theme of this record, so we felt like it really fit.

I think the album hearkens back to some of your earlier records. Was that intentional and is this future that you are talking about the future as you saw it in the ’80s?

AH: Before we started making this record, Andy and I looked at our complete catalog of what we have done thus far, and we agreed that our first four albums were our most musically interesting records. There is a certain simplicity about the first four records, which was mainly because we didn’t quite know what we were doing. We didn’t know what the rules were so we made up our own rules as to how to make a record. The more proficient we became, perhaps the more conservative we became. We started making albums full of songs with verse, bridge, chorus, verse, end. Whereas with the first four albums, quite often the chorus was a keyboard melody—it wasn’t a sung chorus—and the arrangements were incredibly unusual. “Maid of Orleans” was a big hit in Europe, yet it starts with 50 seconds of distortion. I don’t know how we got that on the radio. So with this album, we tried to go back to our more simplistic ways of putting things together, where less is more, in terms of instruments. We wanted it to sound recognizably OMD, but also have more experiments. We were far more experimental when we started out. We kind of tried to unlearn everything we’ve learned from 1984 onwards. But we didn’t want to be completely retro. We didn’t want it to sound like the album should have made in the ’80s. We used a lot of modern technology and production techniques to make it sound like it was made now instead of then.

In the Souvenir documentary, Andy breaks some of the songs apart track by track, and it seems like with some of your early songs, there were some happy accidents that became part of the songs’ fundamental structures. Is it harder to stumble upon those kind of innovations now?

AH: I think you have to keep looking and being switched on. The internet is a great source for such things. For instance, with the song “Our System,” we were bored trolling the internet and we ended up on the NASA website. The Voyager spaceship has now left our solar system, but when they built the Voyager, they put a kind of transducer on the front of the spacecraft which turned the magnetic fields that it passed through into audio. NASA posted all these sounds on its website. We thought, “Wow! These are real sounds from space!” Space doesn’t have any sound because it’s a vacuum, but they managed to turn magnetic interference into audio. We thought the sounds were so amazing, we did a whole bed of them and then built the song “Our System” around it. We’ve always been into the musique concrete thing, and anything that makes a noise is fair game to make music out of.

The limitations of the synthesizers of the time probably had an influence on your sound, so given the vast array of technology that is out there now, how do you keep your aesthetic intact?

AH: We call it “the tyranny of choice.” You’ve got so many options that you can get lost in them and forget to write a song. We’ve been really limiting our sound palette to certain synths and types of sounds so we don’t spend all our time choosing sounds instead of writing songs. We intentionally limited our palette for this record. As you say, when we first started out, we had no choice but to have a limited palette. In the ’70s, we discovered Kraftwerk, and they had an incredible amount of technology. But Andy and I were two working class boys from Liverpool with no money at all, so we couldn’t afford a synth. My hobby was electronics, so I built our first few noise machines and a drum machine from scratch. That was it: we had one drum machine, a bass guitar, an organ, a piano, and we would borrow a synthesizer from one of the two guys in the neighborhood who had them. We wanted to be Kraftwerk, but we didn’t have the technology so we had to be something else. Even though we were influenced by Kraftwerk, we didn’t sound like them. What became the OMD sound was not by choice, but by circumstance.

I know that you and Andy used to work in the studio together. Is that still the way that you collaborate?

AH: We have a bit of a geographical problem, because I now live in London and Andy still lives in Liverpool, which are about 200 miles apart. So for History of Modern, we thought we’d be hyper-technological about it and send files back and forth via the internet and work that way. It kind of worked, but it just wasn’t the same as sitting down in a room together. For our first four albums, we had a studio in Liverpool, and we would commute in every day. Someone would bring in an idea and we’d toss it around all day, bouncing ideas off each other. It sounds crazy that we’d try it any other way, really. So for English Electric, I went up to Liverpool and stayed at Andy’s house regularly over the last two years.

But you didn’t do that at all for History of Modern?

AH: Yeah, we worked separately. And I think that’s why History of Modern doesn’t have the unity to it that English Electric has, even though there is some good stuff on it.

How involved in the recordings are Malcolm and Martin?

AH: A little bit, but it’s always kind of been Andy and I who generate the ideas. They used to play more in the early days, when we had less technology, and they do contribute. Martin was a cowriter on “Souvenir,” “If You Leave,” and “So in Love.” He’s been a collaborator on quite a few of our hits, but the last two albums have been mainly Andy and I.

Would you have gotten OMD back together if Malcom and Martin weren’t involved?

AH: No, probably not. The value of OMD is in the original line-up. Although Malcolm and Martin haven’t been as involved in the recording process recently, they are still a hugh part of our live show, and it’s the chemistry between the four of us that makes the experience of OMD live. We instinctively know what to do. With the technology these days, you could mime and no one would know—and some bands do—but we love the challenge of playing everything manually. So because we are all playing together, there needs to be that chemistry, and it was important to me that it was the original four of us.

In terms of getting back together, was there some sort of reconcillation needed?

AH: Not really, to be honest. We never fell out, we just had differences of opinions. Andy carried on and did a couple albums without me, but I was happy for him to do that. I had reached a point where I was completely exhausted and I wanted to start a family. I wanted OMD to take a break for three or four years, because we were making records that weren’t nearly as good as they could have been and the well of ideas had run dry. But there was management and the record label telling us we had a contract and needed to get out on the road again. I said, “Well, I ain’t doing it!” Andy thought OMD should continue on, so I said he could. We never fell out. Maybe our lawyers did, as we had some business entanglements that had to be sorted out, but we always stayed in touch because we had to manage our children, which is our songs.

How important was it to have Peter Saville representing you visually again?

AH: It was very important because we wanted to maintain that visual link, and there’s really no one like Peter Saville. I think what he did with English Electric is quite modern, yet it has references back to the ’80s with the Hacienda stripes and things. And the great thing about Saville’s artwork is that when you reduce it to an icon size—which is important in the modern age—it still stands out on the page. Your eyes are automatically drawn to it because it’s so clever. So yeah, it was great to get him back, but we had to do a good amount of begging as he doesn’t do album sleeves anymore.

Talking about the past as we’ve been, having formed in Liverpool in the ’70s, did you have much contact with other bands of the time like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes?

AH: We used to hang out with those bands at Eric’s Club, which was the center of it all in Liverpool. All bands of my generation started out at Eric’s. But we were always viewed as outsiders because we were the only ones doing proper electronic music, though a few bands had a few electronic elements. We were also not from the center of Liverpool, where all the other bands were from. We were from the Wirral, which is across the Mersey River, so even though it was just a few miles away, we weren’t seen as true Liverpudlians. Then we signed with Factory Records, which was a Manchester outfit, and we didn’t fit in in Manchester because they thought we were a bunch of scousers from Liverpool. We never fit in anywhere!

On a larger sense, even though you got popular pretty quickly, it seems like you were on the cusp of electronic music being more widely spread. What difficulties did you face?

AH: We did get popular rather quickly, but it was still always a battle because synthesizers at that point were only used by Rick Wakeman and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Then Kraftwerk came along, but they weren’t really doing pop, but rather pieces 10 minutes or even longer. We distilled Kraftwerk’s keyboard melodies down to four-minute pop songs. We were one of the first bands to do that, and in the days before the internet, we had no idea that other people around the UK were listening to the same kind of music we were: Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Düsseldorf, and bands like that from Germany. We didn’t realize other people were trying to do the same thing until we discovered the Human League, The Normal, and Gary Numan. There were a few of us who had started up independently at the same time without knowing of each other’s existence. We all thought we were doing something no one else was doing, but we all had the same idea at the same time.

I know you toured with Gary Numan, but did you have any camaraderie with other bands?

AH: It was more like healthy competition. I think the Human League was as annoyed to find out about our existence as we were to find out about theirs!

Andy has called English Electric a definitive statement. Do you view it in the same way?

AH: I think so. It is probably our most conceptual record since Dazzle Ships. There are definitely reoccurring themes. Our mantra for this record was, “What does the future sound like?” I’m sure we didn’t answer the question, but it was an interesting question to ask. We’ve always been fascinated by the future. We thought we’d get to 2013 and we’d all be in flying cars. We’d all live for 200 years, and there’d be no famine in the world. We had this utopian view of future, but it turned out to be quite dystopian, and all these themes permeate the record.