It’s a sunny day in London, and in Soho House two diners are feeling particularly chipper. The return of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark has been one of the least predictable comebacks from the wilderness, but here they are – Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, both in the same room.
They’re not at the same table, mind – having temporarily split again, but just for the purposes of interviews. Andy it is who extends a warm greeting, and takes a seat. The big question has to be asked early. Why have they come back?
He smiles. “I think the bottom line is we felt we had something to say, and we felt we were able to say it in our own Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark voice, because these days sounding like that is actually quite cool again.”
Musically, it feels like the right time for OMD to return, though it wouldn’t always have been the case. “There was nothing considered more out of fashion at the height of Britpop than a 1980s synth band,” he says, “and we really felt we were banging our heads against a wall. But of course time marches on, and now the sufficient time has passed, so that our era, with what we did and with our contemporaries, has been re-evaluated. Looking at it in the place of the musical pantheon, as the history of music has gone along, it seems that we have been re-evaluated and people have said, ‘this was a time when people were trying to do something modern!'”
Standing firm in his convictions, he says, “It’s quite possibly one of the last times when popular music was actually trying to go forward rather than eating itself. I certainly never thought I’d be playing live again, and definitely didn’t think I would be making another record again under the OMD name.”
“We felt we had something to say, and we felt we were able to say it in our own Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark voice”
– Andy McCluskey delights in his band’s return with History Of Modern
These musings make the returning group’s album, History Of Modern, all the more appropriate in its title. “We’re not unaware of the circumstances we find ourselves in,” he says, “and we are clearly aware of perception, and current musical trends. It begs many questions. Such as – why is a band that used to be trying to be the future be making a record again now, 30 years later? Is it better at futurism? Is there such a thing as retro-futurism? There were all these question marks in our heads, so it just seemed appropriate to have an album called History Of Modern. We couldn’t think of a more appropriate title, frankly!”
In previous interviews McCluskey has spoken of ‘clearing the decks’; an implication that the reincarnated OMD has only just got going. “We’ve enjoyed making this,” he says with feeling. “We’ve taken enough time over it that we believe we’ve been fairly objective about it. In the old days we were making records so quickly that only afterwards you’d listen back to it and go ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. You’d be so close to the coal face you would only find out later. But we think we’ve done a good one here. So far the journalists we’ve spoken to confirm they think we’ve made a good one here,” he laughs, “so we still have a relevance, and people still want to hear what we have to say and do.”
He speaks for his band mate too. “Paul and I think we’ve only just got started actually, we were getting faster and faster with our songwriting as we approached the end of this album, so we felt like ‘let’s just get this one out’, which is nice to feel at the age of 51, to feel that you’ve got something to say. It’s better than being in a band and feeling that you’ve got to make records or that you’ve got to get out on the road and tour by a new name. There’s plenty of our contemporaries who are making those records now when they shouldn’t be. I shall name no names!”
The songwriting process has not always been so natural. “We were stuck in a rut,” he says of the late 1980s. “We’ve had our time when we were on the conveyor belt. We turned into the very type of band that we promised we never would. It’s nice now, because we don’t have to make another record, we don’t need to make another record, there’s no contractual obligation. There is no ‘I can’t pay my mortgage if we don’t get the next advance’ kind of thing. It’s a very nice place to be, so then you can sit back and hopefully try and make a record for the right reasons.”
McCluskey becomes suddenly confidential when discussing the source material for his lyrics. “They’re all over the place! The very first song, New Babies New Toys, for instance. When I retired myself from Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, I went in to creating songs for other bands and developing other artists, and I found myself in the disgusting, backstabbing, manufactured pop industry. That was quite frankly horrifying and soul destroying. So New Babies New Toys is about manufactured pop groups. History Of Modern Part Two, that’s about (the) history of modern music. In History Of Modern Part One the songs and music take on a life of their own.”
“We turned into the very type of band that we promised we never would”
– OMD’s Andy McCluskey on the OMD downturn in the late 1980s
It’s a weighty title, but one he has no problems with. “You can sit down and say I’m going to write a song called History Of Modern, it’s going to be about our place in music. And then you start singing and the words come out totally differently. So part one is actually about the end of the universe, and everything dying, and in my head it’s about whether there’s enough matter in the universe for it to recollapse and there be another big bang. Or not. The usual subject for a pop song!”
He laughs a lot in the course of the interview, giving the impression of a man finding a part of his youth again. So has the chemistry within the group changed since they got back together? He thinks for a little while. “Yes and no. One of the reasons we fell out with each other at the end of the ’80s was that Paul stopped doing everything I told him to. The bastard developed this opinion that he had something to say! That is still the case, it’s not just what Andy says goes. But we never really badly fell out, it was never an ‘I’ll spit on your grave and you’ll never darken my door’ kind of shit, you know, so it was quite easy to go back together again.”
Was it hard for him initially with the new way of working? “Well I live up near Liverpool, and Paul lives in London now, so there’s a geographical divide between us. We did try and we succeeded to a degree of success with the modern way of sending files through the Internet, through ProTools links, but you don’t get that immediate swift interaction that you do when you’re sitting in a room, and somebody has an idea. When it works and you’re on a roll you get this spiral of swift enthusiasm. The last track we completed on the album was New Holy Grail, which was going to be a bonus track, we were just having fun and wrote the song in less than two hours, so we phoned the label and said ‘Stop! We’re putting this on the album!'”
They have also used more equipment this time round, “a wide variety of stuff”, says McCluskey. “We both program on ProTools, and we have both got a lot of plug-ins and soft synth things. We grew up with bulky analogue keyboards, big fat Jupiter 8s and Mellotrons and god knows what, you know? Quite frankly I’m happy to have them all in a small box now, and not have to cart them around.”
The enjoyment of playing live remains strong, too. “Listen, we never thought we’d do this again – and nobody is more surprised than I am to still be doing this. Somewhere inside me there’s the 20 year old Andy McCluskey going: ‘Why don’t you retire, you old git – this is a young man’s business!’ But it hasn’t worn off yet. There was a real element of ‘I don’t believe we’re still bloody allowed to do this, this is great!’ This is what we used to do, it’s a bit like pretending to be 25 all over again, except my knees hurt more when I run around on stage! I can still sing, the band can still play, and in many ways we actually sound better because the equipment has caught up technologically. It’s great – and we’re loving it!”
Does that mean they were previously straining against the equipment? “Totally. What we were trying to do and what we were able to do were sometimes two totally different things. We decided to expand to a four piece when our first album came out in February 1980, and Paul built an electronic kit, and after it broke down on the first two nights, Malcolm said, ‘you’ve got to give me a kit’. But now his kit is mostly electronic and he can program it before each song. Paul and Martin now have one keyboard each that can do everything. The programming takes days, but it can be done. In the old days you had to fiddle fiddle fiddle, move all the settings around, in the dark, and Paul used to have a torch – and even then you’d come in and hope it sounded alright.”
That led to several mishaps. “We had a few gigs where it fell to pieces, yes. If it was so catastrophically wrong we would have to say right, let’s stop a minute, this is not going to work. Strangely enough the keyboard players usually managed to muddle through, but it was Malcolm who fucked us up, because he had to play with a click track in his headphones. In the days of tapes we’d have to make some up with the click track and the next time it would be a different level. Sometimes he’d take his headphones off, have a drink or something and put them back on. Paul had already started the tape, so he didn’t know where the click was, and he’d come in, and the bass sequencer would come in, and it would be like ‘Stop! Stop!'”
While they have been away, OMD’s stature has grown through name checks from the likes of LCD Soundsystem and The Killers. Does he feel there have been significant developments in electronic music in their absence? “It kept developing,” he says after some considerable thought, “and at the end of the ’80s you got your house and techno stuff, then your drum ‘n’ bass. Black American music has now all gone electronic, and hip hop and R&B is all programmed, which in many ways has been very interesting. One of the best songs of last year was Single Ladies by Beyonc, and the synthesizers in that song are like they’re from a different planet! I don’t know who programmed them, but it’s fucking bonkers and brilliant!”
“It’s a bit like pretending to be 25 all over again, except my knees hurt more when I run around on stage!”
– OMD’s Andy McCluskey finds the youth within
It hasn’t always been thus. “With the Britpop thing it was a rejection of going forward, and saying, ‘no, we don’t like this direction, we’re going back’. It was a rejection of someone else’s future, it was, ‘we’re going back to being The Kinks, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones‘. For someone who was trying to be the future in the late 1980s that was a bit of a headscratcher.”
There’s more. “When guys came along in the 1990s who were much younger than me, and said, ‘What you were doing in the ’80s – that’s out of fashion. The ’60s and the ’70s, that’s the future!’ I was like, ‘You what?!’ It was a bit strange.”
So what is the future for music in that case? He thinks long and hard, before taking a sip of water. “Is there anywhere else to go?” More intriguing silence. Does he think there is a chance that something completely new will happen in pop music? “Personally, I don’t think there is. Not just in popular music either. I think there are new things to be done in the cyber, Internet, mass media side of things though. Somebody’s going to combine an internet-gaming-Facebook-film kind of thing. A media hybrid. My son is almost 15, and music to him is a free soundtrack you nick. I have real trouble with my own son, it’s like, ‘your laptop was bought with my royalties, but you won’t give royalties to other people, you just think you have it for free!’ Ever since music stopped being an object – a 12″ record or a CD; ever since it became an icon or a file on a desktop – it’s not real any more, it’s just an icon you can delete, transfer, copy or forward.”
The subject gets bigger. “Popular music as an art form, I think, has run its course. Where would we say it started? Big bands, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, I guess. It’s old – 70 or 80 years old. It’s like the decline of the Roman Empire now, you know. Some kind of Visigoth is going to sweep us all away, but he won’t do it with music – it will be with something else. That’s my theory.”
Returning to the album in hand, we observe how Andy’s voice has kept its vitality, and he agrees. “I discovered when I started touring that I could still sing. So far no song has had to be pitched down which is great. Maybe it’s because I didn’t use it for 13 years!”
He was of course busy writing songs for Atomic Kitten – “you would mention that” – but not from the stockpile of OMD themes. “It was pretty much completely separate. The thing I liked about working with them was the freedom. The last record I made as OMD took three years to make, and most of that time was spent not writing the songs, but worrying what style they should be in. With the Kittens it was just pop music, and it didn’t matter. It was very liberating and I loved it! Unfortunately they became a pastiche of themselves, and I got a lot of shit for it. That first album, I wrote five Top 10 singles on it, and there’s some really weird stuff going on there for a pop album.”
Perhaps inevitably, once the biggest hit was found, the record companies wanted the same again. “With Whole Again we just happened to have it, and twisted their arm into releasing it. But then of course they wanted me to write another one and I refused, which is one of the reasons I got binned off! I remember having a conversation with Hugh Goldsmith” (who ran the Innocent label at the time), “saying ‘we write the songs, we feel like we’re other members of the band, we write for them and you’re asking other people to submit songs for them!’ And Hugh sat down and said, ‘I don’t care who writes the fucking songs, I want Whole Again, Whole Again, and fucking Whole Again’. So hence the song New Babies New Toys.”
With that neat move the interview has completed one revolution of Andy McCluskey’s career, both in an out of OMD. Yet it’s doubtful he’s been happier at any point in that time, as he extends a warm handshake and goes off to get some lunch. The History Of Modern may have a few more chapters to go yet.
OMD’s new album History Of Modern is out now on 100%, featuring the single If You Want It. The band will be touring the UK in November, details of which can be found at omd-uk.com.