Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
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Often labeled as the "Lennon-McCartney of synth-pop"—a weighty mantle that has as much to do with their hailing from Liverpool as anything—Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys ruled the better part of the '80s as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, one of the earliest synthesizer-driven bands to break out of the post-punk scene and lead the charge toward the defining sound of the decade. Yet for all its early innovation, OMD ended its career as just another follower, working within a once-exciting genre that had become increasingly formulaic, and trapped by the commercial success of its sappy New Romantic smash "If You Leave" (written for John Hughes' Pretty In Pink). After Humphreys—an electronics student who had been behind all of the band's headier sonic experiments—decided he'd had enough of trying to meet those newfound expectations, McCluskey ended their lifelong partnership and briefly soldiered on alone; meanwhile, Humphreys kept busy with The Listening Pool (formed with fellow OMD castoffs Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes) and with German musician Claudia Brücken, performing live as Onetwo and even occasionally as OMD Revisited.
After nearly 20 years apart, the original lineup of OMD recently reunited behind the 2007 re-release of 1981's Architecture & Morality—the band's third record, and the pinnacle of its European success—and embarked on a sold-out tour of shows to be captured for a companion DVD. The resultant Architecture & Morality And More, filmed last May at London's Hammersmith Apollo, finds the band obviously looking older and grayer, yet performing in its entirety an album that only sounds more timely and spry—especially in the wake of all the modern bands it's inspired. As the reformed, re-energized OMD prepares for its 30th-anniversary tour this fall, The A.V. Club spoke with Humphreys about his thoughts on his bandmates' evolution from new-wave pioneers to mainstream pop stars, the details behind OMD's dissolution and eventual reunion, and what it has planned for the future—including hints about a new studio album already in the works.
The A.V. Club: After all this time, why choose a tour around Architecture & Morality to reintroduce yourselves?
Paul Humphreys: It was timing, really. Before we'd toured with Architecture & Morality last year, we'd not actually done a tour together as the original lineup since about 1990. We'd been talking about doing some things together anyway, and then EMI said they really wanted to re-release and re-master Architecture. And you know, it's probably the album that Andy and I are most proud of. We're proud of quite a lot of stuff that we've done, but as an entire album, it's one of our proudest pieces of work. And actually, the journalist Paul Morley had said to me before, "You know, when you do go on tour, it would be an interesting angle to just play an entire album from beginning to end, because a few people are doing that now." So we thought, "Okay, let's go out on the road to promote it, and why not play the whole album?" We'd been talking about going back on the road anyway, just to see if there was any interest in OMD playing live again after all these years, so we thought "Why not?" We booked seven shows and ended up playing 50, so there was definitely a demand.
AVC: What did you discover, revisiting these songs that were written more than 25 years ago?
PH: Until we decided that we were going to do it and started rehearsing it, I hadn't actually listened to the album for many years, so it was quite interesting coming back. It was a little like listening to a different band, really. I had this perspective from it that I've never had before, and it really struck me how interesting the album was. It wasn't quite as commercial as I remembered. I think in my mind—because we'd had so many million-selling hits on the record, and the album itself had sold millions—I thought it must have been very commercial. But listening to things like "Georgia" and "The New Stone Age," I realized that, no, actually, it was quite experimental. Not to mention the title track, which is completely mad. And I do think those songs stand the test of time—which I definitely can't say about all the records I've made. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you remember about the original recording sessions for Architecture?
PH: We had our own studio in the center of Liverpool—on Mathew Street just up from where the Cavern used to be—and we started recording there. The album before, Organisation, was very much Joy Division-influenced, and with every album, we'd look for sort of a different angle on OMD, and try to reinvent ourselves. And just by accident, I had discovered all these choral samples—although in 1981, of course, there was no such thing as samplers, so it was really just tape loops. A friend of mine had recorded a choir, but he didn't have the facilities to loop all these individual notes that he'd recorded. We had loads of tape machines in our studio, so one day he knocked on my door and said, "If you help me make these tape loops, I'll let you have a copy of all these choral things." And that just set us off on a path, really. The first thing we did was "Souvenir," and I used all these choral loops, so we got off into all these choral, architectural, dark things, alongside using some shortwave radio and lots of synth. That set us off on the path that would become Architecture & Morality. There's definitely a thread that goes all the way through the album, this sort of choral, orchestral, electronic theme. A lot of our albums are a bit fractured, but that one seems to be very consistent. And after we recorded some of it in our own studio, we went to a studio that no longer exists in Oxfordshire called The Manor. So many amazing records were done there—including [Mike Oldfield's] Tubular Bells—and it was just a really inspiring place, this manor in the middle of nowhere. We kind of hung out in this big, beautiful house and were hermits for about three months, and that's how the album came out.
AVC: That noticeable lightening of the mood between Organisation and Architecture, was that indicative of something happening in your personal lives?
PH: I'm not sure, really. We've always been kind of dark Northerners. [Laughs.] No, I think it was just in the sounds we chose. For each album, we have this kind of palette of sounds that we choose from, and I think the palette of synths and choral loops just lent themselves to a lighter sound. It wasn't really conscious.
AVC: Was there a conscious move to write using more standard pop structures?
PH: Well, I think from the very beginning, we were writing standard pop songs. But because we started in 1978, the instruments we were writing pop songs on were not standard, so it had this really odd twist. Now everyone's using synths, but in those days, there were only select bands using synths, so they sounded weird, even though the songs we were writing, even on the first album, were conventional songs in their way. It was just the package that we put them in that made them a bit weird. And of course, we did our weirdest album after Architecture, with Dazzle Ships. Which was a hugely experimental album, and it almost ended our career. [Laughs.] We went from selling three or four million to three or four hundred thousand, because no one could understand the album. So there was a lot of pressure on us from Virgin to come up with a commercial record after that—pressure from the record company, pressure from management, but also pressure from ourselves. We'd gotten into the industry for our love of music, but suddenly we were a commercial enterprise, with all these people relying on us, staff who needed wages paid, mortgages, bills to pay. It was like, "We better deliver this time." Although I think we went a bit safe when we did Junk Culture and Crush. I think we were just trying not to lose our record deal. [Laughs.]
AVC: Dazzle Ships is also getting the re-release treatment, correct?
PH: Yes, after we did Architecture last year, Virgin decided it was going to re-master and re-release Dazzle Ships. It's amazing, because in 1983 when we released it, it got absolutely slated in the press. No one could understand it. And now, 25 years on, we're getting five-star reviews for the same record.
AVC: Was Dazzle Ships intended as a concept album?
PH: It was, in a way. Every album had been more and more successful, and I think after Architecture & Morality, it was like, "Well, we can just do whatever the hell we feel like doing, and people will buy it." [Laughs.] But also, people had been saying, "Oh, just do Architecture II now, and you'll be the next Pink Floyd." And it was like, "Oh God, that's the wrong thing to say to us! We don't want to be the next Pink Floyd!" We consciously went back to our roots, to things we were listening to when we first started—lots of Germanic, experimental stuff—and also, we'd found all this great new technology, because in the early '80s, it was changing so fast and so radically. So it was just us playing with this new gear that we could finally actually afford to buy. When we first started, you know, synthesizers were so prohibitively expensive. I studied electronics, so I was making our first synths and drum boxes from separate components. We couldn't afford anything, because we came from working-class backgrounds and had no money. So by the time we did Dazzle Ships, we had a bit of money, and we could buy all this new stuff that was coming out, which really lent itself to being more creative.
AVC: Now that you've reformed the band, all of that gear has been replaced by a Roland X8. Do you miss your old setup at all?
PH: I don't really miss the unreliability. [Laughs.] Because every night, I'd go onstage with my fingers crossed, going, "Is it going to work tonight?" And I got fed up with the Rick Wakeman-esque bit of having synths all around me. Now I enjoy putting all the work in before we go on tour, getting all the sounds absolutely perfect—because the X8 is just a giant sampler, really, even though it's got a great synth built in. So I can have all those sounds pre-programmed in and just push a button, and I'm not worried about all the instruments being in tune, whether the filters are right, all that. I can just enjoy the playing, instead of spending my life fiddling onstage, trying desperately to get songs to sound like they did on the record. Some of those early synths, every time you'd turn them on, they didn't sound the same as they did the last time you turned them on. But I still have all those old synths—and of course I went back and sampled them into my X8. Although to do the Architecture & Morality songs, we had some of the synths, but they didn't work anymore, so there were some frantic nights on eBay. [Laughs.] There was one synth I was trying to get where someone always outbid me at the last minute, on four different attempts, so I had to wait three months for it to come around again. And I know I overpaid for it.
AVC: Do you think that being forced to wrangle sounds from those early synthesizers also forced you to be more creative? As opposed to if you'd had a massive bank of presets to work with?
PH: Perhaps. A lot of the synths were very limiting, and they only made a certain set of sounds, so yeah, it forced you to experiment with them and process them to death through any box you could find, and really push each synth to the max to be different. I think now, if you're not careful, you can just go through that glorious set of presets, and now everyone's got the same sounds. I've always tried—through the years, and I've since got better—to invent my own sounds. I try to get my head into each synth I have and make sounds from scratch, make my own palettes. That's probably because I'm old-school, and I've had to do that from the beginning. I've made a conscious attempt to keep that going. Now there are just so many sounds available to you—just on your laptop and GarageBand, even—so I try to limit myself to a palette of sounds when I'm working on a specific project. Otherwise you can spend weeks just going through banks and banks of presets. And they're all quite boring, and you've heard them all before on other records.
AVC: Europe has always been more receptive to OMD's more experimental side, with Architecture being your commercial peak, yet in America, you're more known for your romantic pop songs. Why do you think the U.S. didn't embrace your darker side?
PH: I think one of our problems—and it was really a constant source of frustration to us—was, we signed to Virgin for the rest of the world, but Virgin didn't have a record company in America at that point. So they just licensed their artists to other labels, and they did this kind of bulk package of us and XTC and a bunch of other bands to Epic Records. And to be honest, Epic didn't really give a shit about OMD. They didn't even understand what OMD was, and they put absolutely no effort into promoting us. The weird thing was that Virgin did this really long-term contract with Epic that was like our first four or five albums. They wouldn't let us go, but they wouldn't promote us either. It was so frustrating, because we'd be playing these huge arenas in Europe, and then we'd go to America, and we'd be playing these tiny little clubs on Long Island, going on stage at 2 o'clock in the morning, on this tiny little stage where people were so drunk, they'd be vomiting on your shoes. [Laughs.] It was really quite soul-destroying. It was really late in our career that we managed to pry ourselves off Epic—A&M; had been wanting us for years, but Epic wouldn't let us go. When we finally managed to get on A&M;, that was when things started to take off. And that was also when we were consciously writing poppier songs, because it was specifically for things—like "If You Leave" was written for Pretty In Pink. And of course that was our really big hit.
AVC: Do you think that trying to create something more palatable to a wider audience—like "If You Leave"—cost you your early fan base?
PH: Yeah. And looking back, I regret it. One of the reasons we broke up was because I wanted to get back to more experimental stuff, and we were kind of stuck in this electronic-pop thing. Andy was still into the pop world, though, and he continued on in the band for a couple of albums after me before he packed it in. But I could also see going into the '90s—you know, there's nothing more out of fashion than what went on in the decade before, and electronic pop was really out of fashion as the '90s began. I could see we were starting to struggle, and I thought it might be time to hang up my boots for a bit. But what I really wanted to do was give OMD a big rest, and then come back and reinvent ourselves. I thought we'd gotten too conventional, and really let go of why we got into this, which was to be experimental, but do it in a palatable way.
AVC: What are your impressions of those later-period albums now? Do you listen to them?
PH: We still managed to write some good songs. I think we became—perhaps too much, in a way—like craftsmen. We learned how to write a pop song, so we kept applying the same formula to things over and over. That wasn't the right move, obviously. But in the later albums, there were still a few interesting things. We were still trying to push boundaries, but I think we locked ourselves into this more commercial path.
AVC: Did working with Erasure and Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague have anything to do with that?
PH: Yeah, I think so. Stephen always kind of encouraged that. He did some good things, and he's a very good producer, and he's done some amazing records over the years. But he was sort of drafted in to help us break America. Although he didn't do "If You Leave," he was kind of pushing us toward that. He took us more mainstream than perhaps I would have wanted to go.
AVC: The band broke up not long after that period, with Andy taking on OMD without you. How did that decision come down?
PH: As I said, I kind of really wanted to knock OMD on the head for a few years. We'd been in the band since school—although we didn't call ourselves Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark until 1978, when we were both 18. Music had been all I'd known since school. I never really got a proper job, because we'd signed to Virgin when I was 19. So I found myself as a 31-year-old not really ever having a life, because I'd been in this band. Even though I was married, it was more like I was married to Andy. [Laughs.] I saw Andy far more than my wife. I wanted to have kids, to kind of stop everything.
But OMD was this enterprise that needed a certain amount of income every year, and although Andy kind of agreed with me initially, he succumbed to pressure from the record company and management to make a new album. Virgin was saying, "Look, there's a contract here saying you have to make a new album every year." And I said, "Well, I'm not doing it." And Andy said, "Well, I think I might." So I told him just to go ahead, that I needed to take a break. It was all amicable, but of course Andy and I were tied up in a lot of business interests that had to be sorted out. So once our lawyers got involved, we started to fight. Typical, really. We laugh about it now, but at the time, it was really very awkward and very difficult and very acrimonious. And then Andy decided to pack it in himself, and then there was no more band until very recently. We always kept in touch, because we still had some mutual interests that we didn't separate, and we'd always say we should do something, but then Andy would have a project and I would have a project, so it was never the right time. It's only been in the last few years that we've said, "Look, if we're going to do this, it has to be now, before we're all Zimmer frames and wheelchairs." [Laughs.]
AVC: How did he reach out to you about putting the original lineup back together?
PH: Throughout the years of OMD being defunct, we always got these phone calls saying, "Can you come do this TV show?" and so on. We always, always said no. Anyway, one day Andy got this call from a German show—I think we had the number-one-selling record of the '80s in Germany, "Maid Of Orleans," and this TV station begged us to come play. They said, "We'll fly you over, we'll pay you, we'll put you in a five-star hotel. Please, please, please." So Andy phoned and said, "I quite fancy doing this. But if we do it, we're going to have to do it with the original lineup to do it properly." So we all phoned around to each other and said, "Yeah, come on, let's have a bit of fun." And it was a typical TV show, you know: You go there for two days and you only work for like three and a half minutes playing the song, and the rest of the time you're sitting around drinking. [Laughs.] So it was in those few days that we hatched the idea, "If we're gonna do this, we have to do it now, or we'll never get it together." Because we were always working on different projects and never had the time—so we decided to make the time.
AVC: What's the working relationship like now that you're all back together?
PH: It's a lot calmer. Because we're a lot older. [Laughs.] We're a typical band, really. You can't expect there to be an agreement between you every minute of the day. That's not normal when you live with each other. We've always had our fiery moments, particularly Andy and I. But everything's a lot calmer now. There's still a lot of admiration and respect for each other. I think we're probably getting on better now than we ever did. But that's probably just age.
AVC: What can you tell us about the new album you're working on?
PH: It's just in its infancy, really. We toured a lot last year and some of this year, and I just did a Onetwo tour. And before that, Andy and I played with a full orchestra in Spain—us and Simple Minds, playing our hits in these huge arenas. So in between doing that, we've just done starts, really. There's nothing concrete yet. Andy's probably a bit more advanced on them than me, because I've been so busy with Onetwo, so he's had a bit more time and has a few more songs sketched. But I started working while on the tour, because you can work on your laptop now, which is just fantastic. You can be away and still write songs, which you could never do in the '80s. I can say I'm heading in a very electronic direction—very experimental and odd.
AVC: And you also have a 30th-anniversary tour in the fall?
PH: Yeah, we thought, you know, it's been 30 years since our very first gig opening for Joy Division in October 1978. And we thought Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark was only going to be one gig, ever. So here we are—30 years on, we thought we should celebrate. So we're doing nine dates in Britain and 19 dates in Europe, doing songs from just about everything.
AVC: Is there a reason you haven't toured America for so long?
PH: It's funny you should say that, because we were trying to do it. But to be honest, one of the problems with coming to America has been, um, the weakness of the dollar. [Laughs.] Sorry to say. We were trying to put a U.S. tour together, but when we looked at the figures, we were losing an absolute fortune. We have to pay everyone in British pounds, our staff and the shipping and everything, and it just wasn't economically viable, to be honest. But we've hatched a plan to do it with another band of our sort of ilk and stature and generation. I can't officially announce that yet, but we're looking to do it next summer. But yeah, it's quite difficult. I know a lot of British bands are having trouble with it economically, because they're having to pay for everything in British pounds, and bands are losing fortunes with the way the American dollar is right now.
AVC: So you're saying it's another thing to blame on Bush.
PH: [Laughs.] Yes exactly, another thing to blame on old Dubya. But he'll be gone soon, yes? Right? I know Europe will be celebrating.
AVC: Speaking of playing with Joy Division, in your early days, you were also briefly part of Factory Records. Considering the mythology that's been built up around the Factory scene and the ongoing fascination with it, do you wish OMD had played a bigger role in its story?
PH: Not really. We were just kind of there when it all happened. It's been quite interesting to see these films and read all of these things about Joy Division and Factory—and yeah, we get a passing mention from time to time, but we didn't play a very big role in it. When we first joined up with Factory, Tony Wilson said to us, "Look, you just use me as a vehicle to go on somewhere else. I think you're going to be a successful pop band, and I don't think you can be that at the moment on Factory. So when we generate enough interest, I think you should move on." And of course we said, "No, no! We want to stay on Factory," but when Virgin offered a lot of money to have us, Tony was happy to get rid of us, and we were happy to go. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you have any regrets about that?
PH: It's hard to say. I can't complain, really, about my career. A lot of mistakes I've made have been my own mistakes—Andy's or mine—and I'm quite comfortable with that. I think I have a bigger regret that we had a hand in folding DinDisc, because DinDisc was a subsidiary of Virgin that—while it used all of Virgin's machinery and money—it almost had the feeling of Factory. Peter Saville was even employed by DinDisc to do all the sleeves, so we had the best of all worlds there. And through being young and naïve we fell out with Carol Wilson, who was the boss, and we never patched it up, and that ended up being instrumental in us getting off DinDisc and onto Virgin, the parent company, where we went from being the big fish to one of many big fish. On DinDisc we were the only big fish, and we had complete control, which we kind of lost on Virgin. That was the beginning of us losing our way.
AVC: In an interview on the Architecture DVD, Andy says that he feels like OMD is the "forgotten band of the '80s." Do you agree with that?
PH: In a way. I think people, when they think of the '80s—and on a lot of these retrospective shows they have on television, they portray the '80s as being Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and Culture Club. And there was a hell of a lot more to the '80s than that. We sold more records than most of those bands, but somehow people never remember OMD. People don't mention OMD as being one of the biggest bands of the '80s, which we definitely were, if you look at our record sales. So that's been a bit frustrating, that people don't give us the credit we deserve. I'm not really being egotistical about it. It's just that people are forgetting their history. That was one of the motivating factors in us coming back and doing it again, to re-remind people of our existence, and the parts we played in that movement.