Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
On Playing Coachella, Breaking America, and Why It's a Good Time to Be OMD Again
Jun 19, 2013
Released this past April, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's second post-reunion and 12th studio album, English Electric, goes above and beyond what anyone could—or should—have expected from two '80s synth superheroes both now approaching their mid-50s. OMD's co-founder, principal keyboardist, backing vocalist, songwriter, and occasional lead vocalist Paul Humphreys tells us that he even surprised himself. They're proud of the record. And they should be.
We caught up with Humphreys in Hollywood just after their widely praised first showing at Coachella to talk about the new album, their reunion, and why it's a good time to be OMD again.
Kenny McGuane (Under the Radar): How was Coachella? Success?
Paul Humphreys: It was amazing, really. I had an inkling that it would be on a big scale but I didn't think that the site would be quite on the scale that it turned out to be. It's absolutely massive, isn't it? It's incredible.
But just as we were going on stage, the wind started to pick up. We were in this sort of dust storm, a sand storm, really. We were getting our faces sandblasted between every song. We probably look a bit younger now, actually, since we must have gotten rid of all the dead skin. Between every song I had to get all the dust and sand off my keyboard.
What was interesting was that the demographic for Coachella is quite young. We didn't quite know what to expect and we didn't really know what songs to play.
We thought, "The only one that they may know is 'If You Leave,'" because "If You Leave" has transcended generations. Pretty in Pink seems to be important to many generations, including the young ones now. Indeed they did know that song. But they were so accepting of us. It went down amazingly well. We've had great reviews on the show as well.
Did you get the sense at Coachella that there was a decent-size group of people who knew OMD, knew Architecture & Morality, knew "Souvenir," knew all that stuff, or did the vast majority of them only know "If You Leave"?
What I sensed was that they didn't know that many songs but they really loved the songs that we played. For instance, the biggest cheer we got, second of course to "If You Leave," was when we played the eight-minute version of "Metroland" from the new album. They loved it. The crowd went mental after it.
It was like, "You couldn't possibly know this since it's just come out." That's the thing about festivals is that you have an opportunity to win people over. When you do your own concerts, you're largely preaching to the converted, whereas with festivals you've got to win over a crowd and that's the challenge of it, really. But I think we did that.
So on to English Electric, your new album: congratulations, it's fantastic.
I sent a link of "Metroland" to the guy who actually got me into OMD. He worked in radio in the late '80s and early '90s and he's really been a big part of my musical education. His response was something so interesting, he said, "It's amazing how much they sound like themselves." And I thought, "He's right. I can't remember the last time I heard an album where a band sounded more like themselves than you guys do on English Electric."
[Laughs] It's funny you should say that because that's what we intended to do really with this record. Before we started English Electric, Andy and I did this analysis, we did an analysis of everything we've done. We came to the conclusion that the first four albums that we made had the biggest OMD signature on them. And we wanted to recapture that.
When we started out, we didn't really know what we were doing, we didn't know what the rules were. We made up our own rules and those rules that we made up are the signature of OMD.
The more musically proficient we became in the later '80s and '90s, the more conservative we got. We didn't quite know what we were doing on the first four albums. We didn't stick to any traditional arrangements. The choruses on the first four albums were largely keyboard melodies, they weren't sung choruses. It was like the keyboard tune was the chorus. We wanted to go back to that, when we were more simplistic and more experimental in ways.
We got scared after Dazzle Ships because so much of it was very experimental. Coming so soon after Architecture & Morality, which was a beautiful album that sold millions, we completely confused our audience and then we got scared. We'd gone from selling about four million copies of Architecture & Morality to about 300,000 copies of Dazzle Ships. I was like, "Oh my God, we've done something wrong here."
We got scared and definitely got a bit more conservative in our songwriting. We just looked at the more simplistic ways [when it came to writing English Electric] we used to do things and the non-traditional arrangements that we did on the first four albums. And, yes, that's very evident on English Electric.
I've never really understood the insistence that bands are supposed to transform or reinvent themselves. If it ain't broke, why fix it?
Exactly, yes. It seems like people want you to change just for its own sake, really. It's like, why do you need to? If you've got something that works and something that sounds unique, why change it?
English Electric sounds like you and Andy just sat down and said, "We don't need to overthink this. Let's just make an OMD record."
That's exactly what we did, yes. The good thing as well is that we've got a newfound freedom being OMD. We're back to being our own bosses again. As OMD's career went on, we had less and less control. We were being controlled by management, by record companies, and [by] everyone telling us what we should be doing next.
There were too many voices in our ears and we weren't following our instincts, whereas now we're completely in control. We don't actually have to be OMD anymore. Fortunately, we've made enough money that we don't need to be doing this.
We're not doing this to top off our pensions, we're doing it because we're conceited enough to think that we've still got something interesting and new to say. So long as we still feel that, we're going to keep saying it, because we're doing it for the fun of it rather than for any kind of a job.
English Electric doesn't sound like an old band who just put an album together so that they could have an excuse to tour—that goes on quite a bit with bands from the '70s and '80s.
Yes. Some bands, I won't name any, but for some bands the well is dry of ideas. They're just putting down the first 10 ideas they have and then they say, "That's the album." Andy and I worked so hard on English Electric; we spent two years making this record because we wanted to get it right. We just felt with this album we knew what we wanted to do. We had a real vision of how we wanted it to sound, what the songs were, what the palettes of sounds were going to be. We wanted to make sure that the songs were good. We went from rewrite to rewrite to rewrite to rewrite to the final product.
What do you think it says about the current state of music that you can make a record like English Electric in 2013 and it manages to sound so fresh and modern? It sounds at once brand spanking new and like it could have been the second OMD album.
We wanted to recapture the essence of OMD in the early days. We didn't want to become a pastiche of ourselves. We wanted it to sound modern. We used a hyper-modern studio and we know what a modern record should sound like. We used a lot of modern production techniques, but we really wanted to get the essence of early OMD in there too, and it was a tricky balance to get that right.
The climate is very good now for OMD to exist. OMD stopped in the '90s. What you have to remember is that OMD were always trying to be the future. We were two kids from Liverpool trying to be the future in the mid '70s. We got into the '90s, and the '90s rejected everything that went before it and all of a sudden the future became Oasis and Blur and Nirvana and grunge and there was no way OMD could exist in that environment. We got disillusioned and stopped.
Do you think that English Electric would have sounded as current and relevant as it does right now if it had been released 10 years ago?
Maybe not, it's a difficult question to answer. We had to build to this album. Andy and I stopped as a writing partnership for quite a number of years, over 10 years, actually. We did a few bits and pieces together but we stopped. So we had to get the engine running again.
We had to fill the well with new ideas is what we had to do. When we got to the end of the '80s and to the '90s, our well was dry because we were touring so much and we were trying to break America. We'd get back off of touring for nine months and our record label would say, "Where is the new album?"
We did History of Modern a few years ago, which was us getting the engine running again and Andy and I getting used to writing songs again. We had to go through that process of doing History of Modern to make English Electric, because we learned so much from making History of Modern. As soon as we finished History of Modern we knew exactly what we should do next.
History of Modern was a warm-up.
Yes, it was a warm-up, getting the old car out of the garage, dusting it off, and getting the engine running again and getting it up to top speed.
Can you say more about why it's a good time to be OMD again?
In the mid-2000s all of a sudden there was a clutter of electro bands coming through. There were a lot of bands citing OMD as an influence, bands like The Killers, LCD Soundsystem, and The xx. All of a sudden the phone started to ring and people were asking if we'd be interested in doing a remix or producing or would OMD come and do a TV show. We kept turning those things down actually because we were doing other things. One day we got offered this huge TV show in Germany because OMD is massive in Germany. And because we all lived in different places—our drummer lives in Germany, Andy lives in Liverpool, and I live in London—we never got to see each other. So we thought, "Let's just do one TV show...where we can all see each other." We thought it was like a jolly away in a five-star hotel, all expenses paid, and we'd only have to work for three and a half minutes. The weekend of the show, we did so much talking and some other gigs had been offered to us, big gigs. We said, "You know what? OMD could actually exist in this climate. Shall we give it a go?" We made a decision and it was a wise decision, because we're so enjoying being OMD again.
Can you tell me a little bit about how your relationship with Peter Saville began?
It was accidental, to be honest. We only ever had one plan, we only ever made one plan, which was to do one gig at Eric's Club in Liverpool, because most of our friends thought what we were doing was rubbish—electronic noodling. "It's not real music, it doesn't have any guitars." We had no support group around us, but Andy and I thought, "Let's just go up onstage once and see what happens, just so we can say we've done it." We'd been working in my mom's back room for about a year writing these songs.
We did the one gig at Eric's and we supported Joy Division...that was our first gig. We talked to some guys there and they said, "Well, Joy Division have come from this club, Factory Club in Manchester, and we do this reciprocal thing so would you like to get one more gig in Manchester at the Factory Club?" We said, "Oh, OK. We'll do one more show there."
We did our second gig in Manchester. There we met a guy called Tony Wilson, who was a local TV personality. We cheekily gave him a demo tape because he used to let the local bands go on his TV show and play. We cheekily gave him the cassette and said, "Can we go on your TV show?" He got back to us and said, "Look, I can't get you on the TV show because the slots are all booked up. I'm starting this record label called Factory Records. I'd love to put out 'Electricity.'" And we're like, "Okay, that's amazing."
We went for a meeting at Factory Records. They were just starting out and just had Joy Division. And Tony said, "This guy Peter Saville does all the sleeve designs," and introduced us to him.
Tony also said to us, "Look, you are going to be a massive pop band." We said, "Fuck off, this is art! We're not pop stars; how could this be pop?" [Laughs] Tony said, "Look, I will be your stepping stone to a huge career." We said, "Yeah, Tony, yeah. Have another joint."
He sent out "Electricity" to all the labels in London, and this label which was funded by Richard Branson's Virgin signed us and then we went down to a meeting there. We walk through the door and there is Peter Saville. We said, "What are you doing here?" He said, "This record label has just signed me as their in-house designer." Which was quite coincidental, really, because we loved what Peter had done with "Electricity." So then he did all our sleeves for the next six albums. He eventually got bored of it, did other things, and stopped making record sleeves. We brought him out of retirement by doing lots and lots of begging.
Let's go way back to "If You Leave" for a moment. Did you and Andy take heat in England and Europe for that single?
Yes. They felt we'd sold out.
How do you and Andy feel about "If You Leave" today?
We're proud of that song. It's a great song. What's remarkable about "If You Leave" is that we'd been writing a song for Pretty in Pink and we came out to America with our reel to mix it. We had two days off in L.A., but one of the days we were going to mix the song for the movie, and then we were going to go off on tour. We get to L.A. and John Hughes calls us into a meeting and he says, "Listen guys, I don't know how to tell you this but I changed the entire ending of the film. That song you've written doesn't work anymore. Can you write me another one?"
We were like, "Oh shit, well, we've got two days and then we're off on tour for two months. How the hell are we going to do this?" We said, "Look John, book us a really good studio in L.A. We'll go in, we'll hire some instruments..." because our instruments were being shipped.
Went into the studio and Andy and I just sat there. It was the only time we've ever done this. I was on the piano, Andy had a notepad writing lyrics, and we fleshed out "If You Leave" on a piano. We've never ever done that before. We did a complete 24-hour session. We didn't sleep. By the end of the 24 hours, we were exhausted. And it was like 8:00 in the morning when we finished. We had no idea what we'd done, but we'd done it really quickly. We put it in a cab over to John Hughes and three hours later he called up and said, "Yep, that's the one, do it, get back into the studio."
We just got that so right, I'm not quite sure how we did it but we got that so right. To get back to your question, we are incredibly proud of that song. I don't understand bands who are embarrassed by their hits.
Was the pressure for OMD to break America self-imposed or was that coming from the labels?
It was a bit of both to be honest. We wanted as many people to enjoy and hear our records as possible. It was frustrating in America because Virgin Records had done a package deal with Epic Records where they did a six-band deal and they sort of got six bands for the price of one.
Epic had Michael Jackson at the time and so all their efforts went into him. Most of the other artists didn't get a look in. That was us; we were this weird electro band from England who were never going to do anything in America, according to Epic. They wouldn't let us go and we had this battle and tried to tear up the contract. We finally got off them and on to A&M, and as soon as we got to A&M Records things started to happen.
It was frustrating for so many years. And we'd be playing in these huge places around Europe because we were so successful there. One time we played this massive gig in Germany and then we came over here to the States and played in this little club in Long Island. We went on stage at two o'clock in the morning. My keyboard was right in front of the stage and this girl who was completely drunk vomited all over my shoe and I thought, "Oh my God this isn't right...we've got to do something about this."
We were driven. We wanted to do better in America. We wanted to do bigger shows. Ultimately, we were trying to break America but America broke us in the end, because we worked so hard. Andy and I felt it. The well was dry of ideas, really, when we got to the late '80s.
What's been the biggest surprise since the reunion? Something you really didn't anticipate?
My biggest surprise is that we managed to make an album like English Electric. That's my biggest surprise. I wasn't sure that we had it in us to go and make an album like that. People may have different opinions, but for me this album stands up with some of our better ones. I really didn't think that old men in their 50s could actually do that. We've done something good. Andy and I were talking about it yesterday and it's been interesting because there have been a couple of critics in Britain who would desperately love to knock this album down, but they can't bring themselves to do it.
I know you've been swamped and haven't had much time for new music, but do you have a favorite album that you're listening to right now or a handful of favorite albums from other artists? What's been on your iPod?
I've just bought the new xx album actually, which is great, really, really good. I love The xx. That's who I'm listening to at the moment. I've got a terrible memory and my phone just died, so I can't access my iTunes library on my phone—otherwise I'd tell you what I'm listening to!