Interview, text and live photos: Fredrik "Schlatta" Svensson
The legendary British synthpop band OMD has reunited. The classic lineup of Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes has a new album, "The History of Modern", and a new tour just around the corner.
Release was given the opportunity to speak to front man Andy McCluskey in Glasgow and we thought it was a good idea to let our live reporter and photographer Fredrik "Schlatta" Svensson make his first proper interview with these old pioneers of electronic pop. And we were right - it turned out to be an interesting conversation.
Building a live reputation
You have been supporting Simple Minds on their “Graffiti Soul Tour”. How has the crowd reaction been? What’s your impression?
– Generally it has been very good. You know there is a reason we did this tour. Simple Minds can play to more people than we can. They have been playing for longer and more consistently, we stopped for a long time so we can fill theatres but they can do arenas. And also we are sort of a strange band, a secret band. People who have seen us know that we are very good. People, who have not seen us, don’t think about coming to see us. They don’t think about us as a live act, so basically this is an opportunity for us to expand our audience with people who should know about us. And they should be programmed to like us. So we are going out there for 50 minutes and play 14 hit singles and try to put the base on our hook.
Could you describe the live setup: who is doing what, are you using a backing track and so on?
– There are four of us on stage. Myself singing and playing bass guitar. Two keyboard players - Paul and Martin - Malcolm on drums and a computer with Pro Tools. We used to use a tape recorder. When we started it was me and Paul and a tape recorder called Winston. So we have never had anything we couldn’t play running from tape. Now we run it from the Pro Tools sequencer instead. We are not miming anything, but if we can’t play it, it is run from Pro Tools.
And Paul and Martin are using the Roland Phantom X8?
– Yes. They are good machines. Really reliable, touch wood...
Technology catching up
– No… not really. The only problem with them is that if the power gets interrupted, it takes about five minutes to reboot. I mean the really wonderful thing is that technology for playing live has sort of caught up with what we wanted it to be 25 years ago. Now we actually can get them to do exactly what we want them to do. And it is reliable so it is great.
You have this huge treasure chest filled with really great songs, how did you decide on which songs to include in the set list?
– Very specifically, we reckon we are playing to 80 or 90 percent people who have not seen us before, well either not before or not for a very long time at least, so quite simply we just chose twelve hit singles and then we threw in “She’s Leaving” and “Statues” after “Maid of Orleans” so I can have a rest.
How did you go about recreating the sounds and backing tracks, did you use old master tapes or is it reprogrammed?
– We really started from scratch two and half years ago when we decided to go back out on the road. We had to get everything back again. Most of the keyboards we used to use we don’t have or they are not working anymore so we actually went back to the two inch multitracks and we sampled everything off them. Since the tapes were filled with moisture we had to bake them before we could do anything with them. They were very brittle. We were sampling individual notes and then expanded them so you can make them longer and then put them into the keyboards. It took months and months, but Paul and Martin are, in a very real sense, actually playing what was on the records because we sampled it from the multitrack.
– I think the thing now is basically, because you are using computers, when you start work on an album essentially everything you do becomes part of the recording process. You know, you don’t have to say we are going to make the album now, having demoed it or written it in the rehearsal room and then going into the studio for two months and record it all again. Everything you’ve done over the period of time becomes the ongoing master.
That is very exciting. Are you working in several studios?
– I have mine and Paul has his. So we just send each other soundfiles. My studio is located in Liverpool and Paul’s studio is in London.
What kind of equipment do you use in the studio?
– It is very, very minimal… it is Pro Tools and everything is done in the Pro Tools environment. It is funny really, the younger musicians seem to like all the old retro, real, play it by hand instruments. I want the virtual ones in the computer and I am not interested in the old stuff. We have got some of the old equipment, like the Korg Micro Preset, but we don’t use them. 99 percent is in Pro Tools and then a vocal microphone.
What kind of microphone do you use?
– I have always been a Neumann fan.
Ahh, like the U47 and those older models?
– It depends really. Sometimes people say let’s try this one and I do. I am not a snob about Neumann as long as it is a valve.
Could you describe the working process from idea to finished track? Where do you find inspiration?
– Yeah, well, I suppose it is the same as it always was. You get inspired by hearing something you’ve sampled or a new sound and going “oh I like that”. I usually start in the most abstract musician ways, with a single sound, rhythm, chord or something and then start building it up from those pieces. The music always comes first and then the lyrics are put on top. Some people sit down and write the song on piano or guitar and then they fill out the arrangements, I don’t do that, I don’t play piano or guitar. I start with the building blocks of the songs, the drums or a sample and it builds up to the vocals on top.
No escape for Paul
– Both on our own and together. The one thing we said we are going to do early in the New Year is to do something we have not done yet and that is to be together in the studio. And I think that it would be a good thing to do, actually sitting down and throwing ideas around. That is just because left to his own devices Paul is far too slow. Hahaha. So if Paul is in the room with me he has no escape. Paul has sent me bits of melodies and music and things and then I have moulded them and sent them back to him.
In the old days it was all much more played by hand. Paul would play different things and I would say “I like this bit” and “I like that sound” and then he’d start playing something and me going “oh I like that” or “no I don’t like that”. I’d be directing Paul and he’ll be playing stuff back at me and we just recorded that.
Before we had computers, we would write everything on to tape so we would have to put down five minutes of every part on tape. And then we selected something that we liked and then we went, well that is the intro, that is the verse and so on. Then if we found something that we needed to change, we had to go back in and overdub a changed chord or whatever. It was very linear on the tape. We would work on the tape. I think that is why some of our songs tend to be the same chord sequence all the way through...
“Using old sounds is allowed again”
– It felt appropriate. When we started we were very conscious of trying to be modern in the future. But that was over thirty years ago. You were trying to do something that was modern and then the world changes and what you did use to do somehow has become historical. So it seems to be in some respect some sort of a metaphor for the band. Also, currently electronic music is very much in fashion. But again, a huge percentage of it to me is really a pastiche of something from thirty years ago. They are not really doing anything new. They’ve just bought a lot of old records and copied them. So it is just this idea of perception of what is modern and what the future is.
– Essentially pop music is almost a closed circle now. It is kind of an old artform; it has done just about everything it is going to do. There is almost nowhere new to go now, we are in this strange post-modern era when there is nothing that is really new in fashion so there is nothing that is out of fashion either. It is just going round in circles.
But to me, the big difference with OMD, compared to many old bands that are doing lots of eighties revival shows, is that you are going to release new, or at least reinvent unreleased, material?
– Well we started there two years ago, we went out and played “Architecture and Morality” and then “Dazzle Ships” has been rereleased but now I think that we are in a position where we actually want to make new material and we are quite excited about it. I had quite a lot of new material lying around so I initiated the work. Paul had channeled his work through Onetwo with Claudia Brücken.
One of the tracks on the new album is “Sister Marie Says” which is about 30 years old, is that a typical song for the album, I mean it being an old rediscovered song?
– No, it has been with us in numerous versions, it has been done in different stages. And no it is not typical for the album; most of it is brand new. The songs on the new album are quite a varied mixture. With electronic music becoming acceptably current again, using old sounds is allowed again. It sounds like OMD.
What is the most profound difference in the music industry now compared with the music industry in the eighties?
– Well, it has changed a lot. There is a lot less money involved. They, or we rather, are competing with other things like video games. So it is a very very different animal. I wouldn’t want to be trying to get into the music industry today as a new band. If you are going to be successful now you have to have a totally different model. Getting a record deal and going on Top of the Pops are not going to happen anymore.
New generations, new behaviors
– It is the way forward you know. I listen to my music on the iPhone and it is very convenient. Most of the stuff I got in my iPhone is stuff that I have collected over the years and then gone back into iTunes and downloaded artists like Bowie and Roxy Music and when I download the artwork I remember the twelve inch sleeve and remember owning the record. So I am still thinking about the old fashioned releases when I am just listening to a file.
But I think most people these days who are a different generation, they don’t think about an object. They just think of it as an icon on the desktop or a file. So to them it does not seem to be a real object, it is just a piece of intellectual property which they don’t seem to have a lot of respect for. My son will quite happily pay 50 pounds for a game for his fucking Xbox, but he doesn’t see why he should pay 79 pence for something on iTunes. So it is a very different world.
Nowadays people seem more interested in single tracks instead of the album concept, or concept albums even, do you agree?
– I can understand that. A lot of people are so concentrated on trying to get a hit single, that they tend to make an album that is just a couple of hit singles and a load of other tracks that were not good enough to be hit singles. So you can understand why people cherry pick and just want the hit singles. We have always done quite a broad variety of songs, we have always liked to do some weird stuff, slow stuff, ambient and poppy stuff and it has been a much broader picture. You could buy just the OMD singles but I think you are missing out on a much bigger piece of art if you like. Because the album has got a lot of different textures and feels to it. If you just bought say “Souvenir” you wouldn’t get “Sea Land” or “Architecture and Morality” which are, in their own way, just as good and important as the singles. The other dilemma you’ve got now is that there is no such thing as a definitive album because iTunes wants a download only track on our album and HMV wants an only available in HMV thing and the band’s official website has got to have an official website only, and you have the collector’s box edition with a demo CD and you ask yourself the question what is the album? I think the most important format in the future will be digital one.
When Metallica released their latest album people complained about the loudness of the mastering making it painful to listen to and the so called loudness war was given new life. Even the remaster of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” suffers from compression defects, what do you think about all that?
– I think that people are trying to get their music to be around 0 dB these days. I am not a dB fascist one way or the other really. I do like dynamics. In the old days when recordings suffered from hissing noises, leveling it out made sense. I probably air on the side of variety of the volume, not just compressed fuck. It depends on how you conceive your music and it depends how you want people to listen to it. If you are a dance band or a metal band maybe you just want it full on all the time. If you want to do different things then you have to have different volumes.
“I hate recording studios”
– I am rather fond of “The Romance of the Telescope” and “The Avenue” which both happen to be B-sides actually. When we finished the albums and we knew that we had to make a few extra tracks we have this freedom, this carte blanche, we thought it won’t be played on the radio and it does not have to be the A-side so we can do what the fuck we want. So sometimes we really went out on a real voyage and made something really beautiful.
What is the most boring or annoying part of music creation?
– The bit I hate more than anything else is actually making finished records. I hate recording studios. I hate committing to the final version. It is not boring it is terrifying. When it is in the computer and you still can change it, then it is OK. You have not set it in stone forever and ever.
What is your single piece of advice to aspiring musicians?
– Ohh… in this day and age I wouldn’t know, you know I am fifty so I am not an aspiring musician anymore. I suppose the bottom line in the end is to believe in what you do and to do what you want to do. The strange thing with Paul and I was that we never aspired to be successful. We weren’t doing this for a business. It was a very stupid idea for a business. We were just doing it because it was our hobby, it was fun. And amazingly our hobby turned into our job and we got paid for it. So I would say, just do what you want to do and hopefully you’ll get lucky.
We asked Vince Clarke if he could invent any musician gadget, what it would be. He wanted an interface to make the idea in his head coming out of the speakers without having to go through his hands. What would yours be?
– In our generation, one of the reasons why we picked up drum machines and synthesizers was because we wanted make new interesting sounds and to get those sounds out of our head to the speaker as quickly as possible without spending years teaching our fingers to manipulate some instrument. So I would probably agree with Vince. Some way to think a sound and it would come out of the speaker.
Andy McCluskey on his favourite OMD album covers
“Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark” (1980)
“Dazzle Ships” (1983)
“Sugar Tax” (1991)
“Architecture and Morality” (1981)