Paul Humphreys is one half of the legendary synthesizer duo ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK whose 1979 debut single ‘Electricity’ has inspired the name of this website.
Together with Andy McCluskey, they set a high standard of romantic retro-futurism with lyrical gists ranging from technology and war, to deceased religious figures and long distance relationships.
Not only did his KRAFTWERK, ENO and LA DÜSSELDORF inspired keyboard textures give OMD a distinctive melodic interface within an exciting era of electronic pop as featured on classic songs like ‘Messages’, ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’, Paul Humphreys was also the voice on two of the band’s biggest hits ‘Souvenir’ and ‘(Forever) Live And Die’.
Following his departure from OMD in 1989, Paul Humphreys continued making music. First there was THE LISTENING POOL with fellow OMD refugees Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper who released an album ‘Still Life’ in 1994 before working with PROPAGANDA’s Claudia Brücken, initially as producer on their aborted reunion album and then in 2004 together as ONETWO. The duo received critical acclaim for their excellent debut album ‘Instead’ and played prestigious support slots with ERASURE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE in 2007.
Not only is there now a new OMD album ‘History Of Modern’ on the horizon but he has also added DJ-ing to his repertoire of talents.
In a special interview for the website, The Electricity Club was invited down to Paul Humphreys’ brand new studio in London to talk about the past, the present and the future:
You had a very busy time the last couple of years touring with both OMD and ONETWO. With ONETWO, you toured with ERASURE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE and with OMD as support to SIMPLE MINDS? How did you find being a support act and how do you think you went down with the fans of those artists?
I’ve never minded being support, we did a lot of support tours in the 80s as well. We supported DEPECHE MODE, THOMPSON TWINS, THE POWER STATION, all kinds of people in America. It gives you a chance to expand your audience. And we chose to tour with SIMPLE MINDS because we did Night Of The Proms with them a couple of years ago and it was sort of a drunken night at the bar really, their guitarist Charlie Burchill went “Hey, why don’t ya come on tour with us?” so we said “oh alright, we’ll think about it”. And we got the call and we thought, it’ll be an arena tour playing bigger venues than OMD would normally play in.
But also, it gave us a chance to expand our audience because I think there’s still a whole lot of people of our age who think “OMD, it’s going to be boring electronic stuff and they’re probably not very good live” and all of these kind of prejudices. So it gave us an opportunity to play to people who may think twice about coming to see us to kind of win them over really so that next time we go round, their word will hopefully spread. And we went down really well on that tour.
Did you and Phil Oakey have a few laughs in the bar afterwards about the old ‘OMD versus HUMAN LEAGUE’ rivalry on their 2007 Dare tour?
We had some nights actually! We had some great chats, Phil is just a lovely man, I really like Phil a lot.
It was fantastic to be on the ‘Dare’ tour as well. Claudia and I would just go out and watch them every night because I love that album and they’re fantastic live.
We spent a few nights in the bar till late, just talking about the early days when we started out and what it was like. He was just as surprised to discover OMD’s existence as we were with THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s. We all thought we’d discovered this new sound ourselves and we were the only ones doing it! It turned out there was quite a few bands who latched onto the electronic synthesizer route in the late 70s.
What about that time when OMD and THE HUMAN LEAGUE made their first appearances on the same edition of Top Of The Pops in May 1980? Was there any tension there?
No more tension than with the other bands. There was terrific rivalry in the 80s between the bands and I think that was a healthy thing in a way because every band was trying to outdo the other, out-write them songwise! It upped the ante with the songwriting. Everyone was trying to write the best possible songs that they could. And I think the quality of songwriting in that period was fantastic.
The 30th Anniversary OMD tour in 2008 had an interesting set list featuring songs from ‘Organisation’ and ‘Dazzle Ships’ while the 2007 tour featured ‘Architecture and Morality’ in its entirety. What has it been like personally for you to revisit these classic albums?
The tour where we played ‘Architecture and Morality’ in full was particularly great for us.
We just loved playing those songs and we played a few songs that we’d never played live before so it was really fantastic.
It was a real challenge on that tour because we really wanted to do that album justice but we didn’t have any of the synths or anything we used to make those records. But we wanted to be true to the album.
So we had to buy synths off eBay to get those sounds back, and we then just re-sampled them. We even went back to the multi-track tapes. Anything that was a monophonic sound, I could slice up into notes, loop them and put them on each key so I could play the sound exactly how it was. It was great, great fun. I loved doing that and it was a really lovely moment.
I think ‘Architecture and Morality’ was a complete album, it was just so whole. The sound of it was unique, every song… it wasn’t a bitty album. A few of our albums are bitty but that was where we finally found a sound that was OMD. I think the first two albums were leading to ‘Architecture and Morality’. We were refining our sound and then we found it.
Was the selection of songs from ‘Organisation’ and ‘Dazzle Ships’ for the 2008 tour quite natural?
We just played our favourites really! Because when you’re playing these songs every night, you have to enjoy it. You have to want to play these songs so you pick the songs you want to play.
But you must be keen to get stuck into some new material now. How is it all coming along for the new OMD album The History Of Modern?
It’s coming along really well actually. I spent a few weeks up at Andy’s studio in Liverpool and I’ve been bringing stuff down here and working on it. We’re sending files using YouSendIt to each other. I have a play on it, he has a play on it! We just go back and forth but the album will be slightly more weighted with some of Andy’s songs because he did a lot of writing while I did the ONETWO album.
And last year for various reasons, I couldn’t do much writing. My mum died and I had a few things going on that kept me from writing. So Andy’s a bit further ahead with the songwriting but he’s done some really good things. And I’ve been taking some of his things that he’s already written and styling them.
How would you describe the sound of the album, if you can?
Electronic! Very electronic!
How have you been dividing your time between working with OMD and Claudia Brücken as ONETWO? Are there any other new projects on the horizon?
I’ve been working with the best selling author Douglas Coupland who wrote ‘Generation X’. We’ve written a couple of things together for use in film, television and advertising stuff. One piece we’ve written together is entitled ‘Math is Hard’, and wouldn’t sound at all out of place on ‘Dazzle Ships’!
I’ve been working with Claudia but she’s been rather busy working with several other artists/producers. She’s been working with Stephen Hague on a project, two songs from which will be featured on a forthcoming Claudia Brücken ‘Best of’ album scheduled for release in September. I’ve been doing some remixes for it as well. Claudia has done so many projects over the years and worked with such a variety of artists/producers that it’ll be great to have her best works all on one record. And, we’ve made a start on the new ONETWO album also. So yes, very busy!
Philip Larsen from production duo THE MANHATTAN CLIQUE is a member of the ONETWO live band. You once mentioned how important he was in helping to shape the ONETWO sound. How did he influence this?
Philip gives this edge and energy that we’d like to capture with the new stuff.
We wished we’d re-recorded the album with Phil and James Watson, our live guitarist because they brought an energy to our live thing that wasn’t quite on the record. They’re really going to be involved in the next record.
I do really like MANHATTAN CLIQUE remixes, especially ‘Home (Tonight)’ and MOBY’s ‘Slipping Away/Crier La Vie’. They get the beat right and make it danceable but they don’t lose the song which is often the problem with a lot of modern dance remixes.
Philip loves songs so he tries to get as much of the song in there as he can. I really love the remix that he did for ‘Home (Tonight)’ because he took the song to a different place.
Are there any other musicians/producers you’d like to work with?
I’m always interested in collaborating with other writers, not necessarily producers anymore. After 30 years, I kind of know what I’m doing!
How surprised have you been by the number of young ladies who have embraced the synthesizer recently like LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS, LADYHAWKE and LADY GAGA and the whole electronic pop ‘revival’? Are there any of the new acts that you like, or don’t like?
It’s not that I don’t like them. I think some are more genuine than others.
Andy told me he doesn’t get LA ROUX!
LA ROUX do have some songs that I like, but I’m a bit suspicious that it’s just more marketing than substance, but I do hope I’m proved wrong. I’m concerned that a portion of the electronic music made these days is more electronic music by numbers. Theoretical, rather than from the heart. It’s great that she’s quite flamboyant and it’s good to have flamboyant pop stars out there because there’s very few these days, everyone is so safe, so I do like that aspect of her.
Any opinions on the others?
They’re not on my iPod any of them! *laughs*
What did you think of GOLDFRAPP’s new single ‘Rocket’?
I’ve always liked quite a number of GOLDFRAPP’s songs, but I don’t get the new album to be honest. It’s like an exercise in how to make an 80s song. What’s exactly is the point? It’s obvious that it was a conscious decision to make an 80’s album, and smacks of jumping onto the 80’s revival bandwagon a little too enthusiastically. The thing I find about GOLDFRAPP is, she/they are musical genre chameleons. I mean what/who is the real GOLDFRAPP? it’s hard to tell if you jump around stylistically so much.
BBC6 Music arranged for LITTLE BOOTS to do a live session with GARY NUMAN and LA ROUX with HEAVEN 17. Which new act you would like to collaborate with, either as ONETWO or OMD?
There are a few new acts I’d love to do things with. I’m a huge fan of ARCADE FIRE, I think they’re fantastic. And I like THE POSTAL SERVICE, they’re a great band. I also recently discovered HANNAH PEEL. I heard a COCTEAU TWINS cover ‘Sugar Hiccup’ on the radio on my way home in the car from my studio recently and loved it, I got home and bought it straight away from iTunes only to discover the second song on the EP was none other than a cover version of ‘Electricity’!!
You recently contributed to BBC4’s Synth Britannia documentary. How did you think the programme turned out and what do you think has been OMD’s long lasting contribution to modern electronic music?
I thought Synth Britannia was great and I’ve had so much positive feedback on it. It was a really well put together documentary. And I think it really captured the essence of what IT was all about and there’s been very few documentaries that have done that. So it’s great that it’s actually out there now someone’s actually done it. And it was flattering to be involved in it.
As regards contribution to popular music? I don’t know if it’s for us to say. I think we’ve definitely made a contribution, there’s no doubt about it. I think we were involved in a movement that changed pop music.
Well, ‘Enola Gay’ gets played at French wedding receptions!
YES! RESULT! *laughs*
A lot of kids seem to know ‘If You Leave’ because of ‘Pretty In Pink’ being on TV and DVD but don’t know it’s OMD.
The song’s been covered to death by American bands and ended up in all kinds of TV series. We get requests for it all the time to be redone for TV shows…
… it keeps the bailiffs away!
Quite a number of the acts in the Synth Britannia documentary are playing live again like ULTRAVOX or have been revisiting their classic albums as OMD did like GARY NUMAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and HEAVEN 17. How do you think everyone shapes up with their live shows?
I think the bands that have gone out have been worthy. I think there are a few that shouldn’t be going out… I don’t think I should name them but there’s some who really shouldn’t be doing it!
Bands of our generation like HEAVEN 17 and THE HUMAN LEAGUE are playing to big audiences. THE HUMAN LEAGUE are fantastic! ERASURE are still doing it and doing good. So the criteria is, can you still deliver? A lot of these artists; they haven’t forgotten how to sing, they haven’t lost their voices. In fact, some sing better now than they ever did.
But after 30 years, you learn how to play as well. When we started out, we weren’t such great musicians but we’ve all become better musicians. And I think OMD play better now than we ever used to, there’s less mistakes in our set because we’re far more confident in what we’re doing!
But one thing I notice HEAVEN 17’s Glenn Gregory still does after all this time though is he still misses his cues!!
Oh he does, yeah! That gig in Sheffield, he missed a couple!! But he was moaning to me because ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ is so wordy. That’s the one thing that we all suffer from, Andy suffers from it too and so many singers do… you just forget your words!! It’s an age thing! It can become a head thing as well!
We’ve all got our cheat sheets to remind us on stage now. Claudia’s developed this technique where she’s got a book on the floor with all the lyrics printed bold in plastic and she flips the page with her foot and she looks like she’s dancing! *laughs*
But so many people have autocues, it’s just what happens. Trying to remember the lyrics for a one hour 45 minute show is a lot of lyrics to remember.
You had concerns about how music was being distributed over the internet in 2000. How do you see the future for musicians now in being able to make a living from their music? Is the physical format really on its last legs and therefore the future is in live performance, or soundtracks in computer games and films?
Yes, I think sadly the latter because the music industry has totally imploded! Some of it was its own fault in the corporate industry because it’s like a slow moving dinosaur. They should have latched onto the internet a lot earlier to sell music before this culture started of music for free. If they’d had done that and had reduced the prices, they would have created the culture of people just switching from buying music in shops to buying online.
But there was this whole limbo period that bred a generation of people downloading for free because some of the stuff just wasn’t even available. And kids grow up with that. They grow up thinking their entertainment should largely be free, particularly music. It’s been hugely frustrating because the internet is a fantastic place but it’s contributed to taking billions out of the industry which has brought it to its knees.
Your daughter must be of that generation?
Well, she’s been educated by me! So she’s knows and spreads the word with all her friends and frowns upon those who are downloading like mad!
Do you think with the internet that the word-of-mouth thing might work more now and we can by-pass the middle men in the record companies?
Yeah, that’s happening now. It’s not all negative at all but the whole culture of music’s completely changed. In the 80s you would tour, ticket prices were low and you would probably lose money but you would be promoting your record because that’s where the money was. But now bands put out a record, knowing they’re not going to make much money, as an excuse to go out on the road and they’ve put the ticket prices through the roof and make the money that way.
For bands like us that have made a name, the internet is an easy place because you’re a searchable commodity for a better phrase. There are people searching for OMD and there will be links to see what we’re doing individually. We’re all over the net because we were known. But for interesting artists starting out who need a kick start to make people search for what they’re doing, it’s a really difficult thing now. It takes money to do that.
So the worry is, artists in the future will be just stifled. You take the funding away from the arts, quality drops because people can’t do it full-time. Musicians have mortgages too and they’ve got kids that need new shoes and you’ve got to find that money from somewhere. If you can’t make it from music, then music is a hobby and you need that funding from somewhere to do it full-time.
But it’s really frustrating that people don’t see free download as stealing. I’d love to walk into Waitrose and help myself to some of the stuff on the shelves and walk out but I’d get arrested! But for some reason, music is not viewed that way. At some point, people are going to turn round and say ‘where’s all the good music?’ but they’ve contributed to it. Fortunately, there are still good bands around and there’s still some great songs to be found but it’s getting really hard to find them.
There’s no money in the labels because there’s no money in selling records; so there’s no investment in new artists. There are some artists now that are really successful who wouldn’t have existed in this climate because they needed investment to develop them like being put together with interesting producers who helped develop their sound. We learnt so much from the early producers we worked with like Mike Howlett.
So who’s your favourite producer that’s worked with OMD?
Mike Howlett, he really taught us how to refine our sound cos it was quite raw. The edginess was good but we needed tweaking to make us palatable to the masses.
Stephen Hague taught us how to arrange songs, we learnt so much about arrangement from him.
Tom Lord-Alge; we learnt so much from him.
Stephen Hague is one of my favourite producers but I often thought OMD worked with him too early. What I mean by that is he was only just starting out as a producer in his own right when he worked on ‘Crush’. It was almost like he was learning his craft working with OMD and then he had it sorted out when he worked with PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE, JIMMY SOMMERVILLE and NEW ORDER. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that?
We heard that Malcolm McLaren track ‘Madam Butterfly’ which he worked on and we just adored that.
I don’t want to knock him because we did some really good things with him, but he fundamentally changed our sound at perhaps the wrong time. I think you’re right. It happened at a time when… it helped us in a way to break America cos that’s what we’d tried to do for years and Steve was instrumental in that. He refined our sound and in some ways made us less electronic.
Although the irony of course is he’s now best known for being an electropop producer…
Yeah, that’s right, it is the irony! He did make us less electronic which made us more palatable to America.
And then PET SHOP BOYS go and have an American No1 with ‘West End Girls’ produced by him and it’s quite electronic!!
I KNOW!! It’s weird!
You recently performed your first DJ set at HEAVEN 17’s aftershow party in Sheffield. How did it come about?
I think it might be my first and last!! *laughs*
It went really well actually, it was really good fun. It was Glenn Gregory’s idea. I know Glenn really well and see him socially from time to time. Claudia and Glenn have been best mates for years so Glenn said “how d’ya fancy DJ-ing?” cos I told him I was to going to come up to see the Penthouse and Pavement show anyway as Claudia was singing with them.
And he said “whilst you’re up here, why don’t you DJ in the VIP room” and I was like “I’ve never DJ-ed in my life so forget it”! BUT, he announces it on the HEAVEN 17 website and I’m thinking “YOU ****!” *laughs*!!
So I’m doing it now! And I couldn’t get out of it. So do you want to know what I played?
ANDAIN Beautiful Things
KRAFTWERK Aero Dynamik [Hot Chip remix]
DEPECHE MODE vs BOOKA SHADE Enjoy The Silence In White Rooms
OMD vs LORRAINE I Feel Messages
SAM TAYLOR-WOOD & PET SHOP BOYS German Film Star [Gui Boratto remix]
GOLDFRAPP Strict Machine [Ewan Pearson remix]
ONETWO Home (Tonight) [MHC remix]
Was DJ-ing as difficult as you thought? Or was it quite easy, literally switching songs on and off?
I found a great piece of software so I cheated in a way cos this software is brilliant. You can play a song, bring in the next one and if you hit synch, it just locks it up! I just kept dropping things in and it’s got great effects on it as well to make fills etc. It’s kinda fun to do, I did enjoy it.
Which is your favourite synth, the one that you have the fondest memories of?
Synths have been my love so pretty much every synth I’ve owned has got something good about it. I have fond memories of the Korg Micro-Preset because that was our first synth we ever got and we got two really great albums out of that one synth. What’s great about it is that it’s really limited, so your options are really narrow.
And sometimes that’s really good in songwriting because you can have synths with a billion sounds and you spend your day going “I wonder if there’s a better sound”.
You lose sight of what you’re doing. Whereas the limited synths are great because they may only have a few sounds so you end up concentrating on the part rather than the sound. With this synth we just bathed it in reverb because it sounds sh*t on its own.
I just re-bought the Roland Jupiter8 as a virtual synth. The original was a staple synth for OMD that got us through ‘Junk Culture’ and ‘Crush’. It was a brilliant synth and even though it’s quite complicated, I learnt how to programme it completely. So it’s one of those synths where if I think of a sound, I can programme it. There’s very few synths I can do that.
The Prophet5 is the other one where I can imagine a sound and build it myself. I can programme it inside out. Those two synths are still my favourites.
Is there a synth you actually never owned but wish you did?
I’ve never owned a Minimoog which is funny isn’t it? I got this Minimoog module here, it’s the guts of one but it’s not quite the same. It is a Moog, all the electronics are the same but it’s not the Moog with the keyboard. There was something really sexy about the Moog with the keyboard and the back tilted up.
What about a synth you bought and didn’t use because it sounded rubbish!
A Wasp! It looks fabulous but I could never get it to work in a song. It had this touch keyboard which was a bit annoying, not very pleasant to play really. I just never really liked it!
How do you feel about the concept of deluxe edition albums with extra packaging and tracks? Is it the best way to go to market to fans?
There’s pluses and minuses to this. I think you have to use some of these tricks to get people to buy CDs because I still believe in the CD format. It sounds a hell of a lot better than MP3 and people are buying the whole album. It’s good to do tricks with iTunes to make people buy the whole album. People are doing certain tracks now that you can only get if you buy the whole album. The one thing that iTunes is doing is killing the album. People are cherry picking based on a 30 second snippet.
Call me a traditionalist, I used to love buying an album and I’d put it on. I’ve always found when you listen to an album all the way through, the band selected these songs to take you on a journey. And you are belittling their vision by just cherry picking songs. I always found, even with people like DAVID BOWIE that sometimes I’d put an album on and you’d go “that song’s s***, I hate that song” but you just leave it on anyway. And by the third listen, it becomes your favourite song! It’s the obscure track on the album you wouldn’t cherry pick. And I think people are missing out on that experience.
So what are your favourite albums of all time?
B*gger me, that’s a tough one! I can definitely tell you some of my favourite albums:
DAVID BOWIE ‘Heroes’
BRIAN ENO ‘Before and After Science’
DAVID BOWIE ‘Low’
LA DÜSSELDORF ‘La Düsseldorf’
ROXY MUSIC ‘Roxy Music’
JOY DIVISION ‘Closer’
TALK TALK ‘It’s My Life’
ARCADE FIRE ‘Funeral’
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Paul Humphreys
‘History Of Modern’ is due for release in 2010
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
24th April 2010