Published Apr 23, 2013Chances are you've heard of, if not intensively listened to, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in your life. Even if you haven't directed listened to "If You Leave" (from the John Hughes classic Pretty In Pink) or one of their dozen odd silver, gold and platinum studio albums, you've certainly felt their influence, having been cited by headlining artists such as the xx, Robyn, the Killers and LCD Soundsystem. As such, though they've been releasing their brand of rough-hewn, punk-based, retro-futuristic synth-pop into the ether for some 35 years, it all still has a glint of the modern to it. It still sounds fresh and exciting, and they've remarkably captured that same essence on English Electric, their 12th album. Founding member Paul Humphreys talked to Exclaim! while on a North American tour for this album.
Hi, Paul. How's it going?
Good, good. I'm in San Francisco, which I love. I've just been having a little wander around this morning. That's one great thing about being on tour. You have to use the few hours you have in a city to go explore and have fun. Otherwise, it can be very easy to just sit around in your hotel room and wait for your sound check. I always like to get out and explore as much as I can.
Did you make it over to Amoeba?
I haven't made it to Amoeba. I was going to try to this afternoon, actually. I could do with buying some records. There are a few records I want to get, so if I can get time this afternoon, I'll shoot out there.
What else you seeing in San Fran?
I was just up at Fishermen's Wharf. Although it's become very touristy up there, which is a bit of a shame. But still it's nice and you look out over the bay. It's good. I love clam chowder.
You were just in Vancouver. How did you like it here?
Well, I love Vancouver. I've been to Vancouver many, many times. It's such a beautiful city and I've got friends in Vancouver, so I sometimes go to just visit my friends. I'm a good friend of Douglas Coupland, the writer. So, I've been up to stay at his house a few times.
You do any collaborations with him?
I did do a collaboration with him last year, actually. We wrote a song together, which got released on the internet. It was for a big internet company and they used our song in their campaign. Doug is such a creative man, and I love feeding off him 'cause he's so switched on in the world and to the world. I love his insights, and can feed off him a lot.
How's the tour going in general?
The tour's been going great. Gosh, the attendances have been fantastic. We've pretty much been selling out everywhere. We've got a sold-out show tonight in San Francisco. It's been a bit weird, though, because we had to start touring just before the album came out, so we've been playing songs that no one's heard. So that is a bit odd. But we had to bring our tour forward because we landed Coachella this year. It really messed with our schedule, but you can't turn down Coachella.
What's your thought process when selecting songs for a live set these days?
Our set varies depending on what country we're in. The weird thing about OMD is we've had different songs be hits in different countries. So we make sure that the ones that are incredibly well-known in that country, we play. For instance, "If You Leave" is our biggest hit in America, but in the UK, it barely even charted. People don't even know "If You Leave" in the UK, so we don't even play it there. We want to please our audience. The bands that I go and see, there are certain songs that they absolutely, in my eyes, have to play, and I hope they play them. Some bands are sort of embarrassed by their hits and do medleys of them or some kind of weird acoustic version of them because they're embarrassed by them. Our big hits have been very good to us. They've enabled us to maintain ourselves in our lifestyle for the last 35 years, so we're not embarrassed by them at all. We're incredibly proud of them, and still enjoy playing them. These songs, particularly our hits, they're like time capsule songs. They're hooks that you hang memories on. They transport you back in time. Andy and I went to see Kraftwerk a couple of months ago. They played at the Tate Modern in London, and they played a different album every night. Andy and I went to two nights in a row. We went to the Autobahn night and the Radio-Activity night. Kraftwerk were our idols growing up. And so Andy and I were listening to Radio-Activity, and they were playing songs that they'd never played live before, but they played them true to the record. We were transported back to my mom's back room in 1975. And we're like shaking each other going, "God, man! It's like we're back in your mom's back room with the lights off listening to Radio-Activity!" That's the power of music, and we want to give that experience to our audience. So yes, we do play all the ones that people will expect to hear, but also we like to play a few of the weirder ones for the hardcore fans that love some of the album tracks, and we're also really proud of our new album, so we're playing five tracks off that as well.
Speaking of Kraftwerk, you rework a Karl Bartos track for your new album. How did that come about?
Andy worked in the '90s when OMD stopped, and did a little bit of writing with Karl — he wrote that song with Karl. It was actually released on one of Karl's records or a compilation album or something. So that's the only song we haven't written in the last two years. I listened to the song, and, topically, I thought it really worked for this record. It really fit with the subject matter and concepts of this album, but I wasn't very happy with the way the song was done, so I said to Andy, "Look, do you mind if I take this song and do a brand new arrangement of it, completely change everything, and make it sound like our new album? Can you let me have a go at that? Do you mind?" And he said, "No, go ahead!" And Andy loved it so much, and Karl Bartos loved it so much, what I'd done to it, that we decided to put it on the record.
Andy had mentioned in another interview that you guys had tried to recapture your "dysfunctional" early working method for this album. How did you go about that?
We attempted to erase everything that we'd learned after 1984, which was a bit tricky. When we started out, Andy and I had no musical training or knowledge. We were just working on our instincts for the first four albums. But the more we played live and the more records we made, the more competent we became. I think our songs got a little bit more conservative in terms of their arrangements over the years. I think we got a little bit safer. But for our first four albums, there were no real rules. A lot of the choruses were keyboard melodies. They weren't song choruses. Because of the technology we had as well, and our lack of musical knowledge, our songs were incredibly simple and unusually arranged, because we didn't really know how to arrange them, so we tried to go back to the feelings, and those simplistic, unusual arrangements. If you listen to the new album, there are not many song choruses. A lot of the choruses, we've gone back to a lot of keyboard melodies, which was our original signature for OMD. We wanted to go back to that, but we didn't want to do an album that sounds like it could have been released in 1980. We wanted to use a lot of modern production techniques, and make it sound like we're going forward, but referencing the sound palette, the more electronic sound palettes and simplistic arrangements of the instruments, and also the conceptual. We were very conceptual in the first four albums, and we kind of lost that. Our albums after Dazzle Ships were more just a collection of songs, but in the first four albums, we were quite conceptual and moving to experiment, to try some different things, bring in a lot of found sounds, music concrete sort of things, so we decided to go back to that.
The new album feels very cohesive, more cohesive than 2010's History of Modern.
There's some good stuff on History of Modern, but it was stylistically a little all over the place. We wanted this album to be more cohesive sounding. But also, some of the songs on History of Modern were written over the years that hadn't been used, brought into OMD, whereas this album was really written over the last couple of years.
Can you go into the creative process behind "The Future Will Be Silent"? That track really stood out for me on the new album.
Our mantra when we first started work on this album was, "What does the future sound like?" That's what we kept saying to each other. When we started in the mid-'70s, we were making music for the future. Not many pop bands were using synthesizers, and we thought, "Well, let's try to make music for the future." The future has always been a theme for us. Now we're in this post-modern era, where... where can you go from here? So we asked ourselves the question, "What does the future sound like?" I'm not entirely sure we answered it at all, but we thought it was an interesting question. The future has always been a subject that Andy and I were fascinated with. In the mid-'70s, we thought by the time we got to 2013, we'd all be in flying cars, we'd all live for 200 years, and there would be no world hunger, things like that. And the utopian world that we saw as kids, that we'd end up in, has turned out to be more dystopian than utopian. So all of these themes have permeated our album. We coined the phrase "the future will be silent" because... We've used a lot of musique concrete over the years, using found sounds around us. If you take a steam engine, for example, its basic function is to pull carriages, but the by-product of that is the sound it makes. But as technology increases, the sound by-product seems to be reducing and reducing. A couple of week ago, the only time I've nearly been killed by a car, was when I was crossing my street in London, and an electric car comes up completely silent, and almost kills me. All I hear is the brakes, and I turn around, and there's a car behind me. I've been so reliant on my ears to recognize that there's a car in the street that I didn't even look. It's a reference to that, how things are getting more and more silent, and we are in control of the by-products of our machines, as to the amount of noise it makes. There is an electric car company now who are putting a speaker on the front of their cars that makes a noise because of this problem.
You mentioned the dystopic modern era. "Final Song" talks about bringing the bodies out after the plague. Margaret Thatcher just died as well. Is there a tie between this album and, perhaps, the failures of the past that brought us here? Why did you make this now?
This whole album, the concepts of the album, have just come out of mine and Andy's discussions over the past couple of years about the world. So yes, it's really quite topical with Thatcher dying. I'm seeing on the news now, that someone's released "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" as a song in the UK.
Was that Morrissey?
It should have been if it wasn't. She had such an impact on British society. Andy and I grew up in the punk era as well. And essentially, OMD was punk on synths. We've always been politically aware.
Circling back to "The Future Will Be Silent," do you guys ever go to raves? Like, costumes, glowsticks, the whole nine yards?
[Laughs] No, we're too old for that, far too old for things like that. But we're always switched on to what's going on musically around the world. We decided to bring in some of those elements, of modern dance music, with the sort of wobble bass that we used on it. I really like "The Future Will Be Silent." I think it's an interesting collage of ideas, which is what we've always done. We've always had tracks on our album that are not traditional songs. We're painting pictures with sounds to evoke thoughts and ideas.
You'd mentioned your penchant for using keyboard melodies as choruses. Have you considered doing a solid album like "The Future Will Be Silent"?
Perhaps the next album will be. Andy and I just laughed on the bus yesterday, "What's the mantra for the next album?" And I said, "Maybe it should be 'Yeah, what does he future really sound like?'" We'll see where we go. The thing is, Andy and I, we don't have to do OMD any more. The good thing about being in OMD now is that it's kind of like we've gone back to being kids again. We are in control of our destiny. We lost that as the '80s went on, the cart went before the horse. We were just involved in the industry, the corporate side of things, the pressure changed, and the records changed because of those pressures. For the first four albums, we were in control of our destiny, until we moved over to the big corporate label of Virgin, and then things changed. Now, we're just doing this for the fun of it. We don't need to do it because we sold records at a time when you could sell lots of records. We've sold like 40 million records over the years, so we don't need to be doing this. We're just doing it because we're really enjoying ourselves doing it. And I think the climate is such that OMD can exist now. Whereas, in the '90s, OMD was struggling to exist because what we saw was gonna be the future of electronic music, and we would be really progressing in the '90s with electronic music, all of a sudden the future was Blur and Oasis and Nirvana and things, and it was like, hold on a minute… We don't have a place in this. That's why we stopped. But in the 2000s, a lot of young bands were referencing us an influence, and there's a lot more electronic music around, and the climate existed again where OMD could also exist. So we're just enjoying being back doing interesting things again, but on our terms this time.