Interview: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

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This interview originally ran as the cover feature of The Herald Arts supplement on Saturday April 6, 2013, under the heading, ELECTRIC COMPANY.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark never intended to be pop stars.

The British electro architects’ legacy suggests otherwise – iconoclastic hits like Enola Gay and Souvenir; millions of albums sold over 35 years; the likes of Robyn, The xx and LCD Soundsystem citing them as a critical influence – but OMD were a product of post-punk: they wanted to change the world with their art. They wanted to merge Stockhausen and Abba. They infamously lost three million fans with the “commercial suicide” of their audacious fourth album, Dazzle Ships, and at the height of their fame, co-founders Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys grumbled to Smash Hits magazine that they were “eternal pessimists.”

Three decades on, it is therefore a joy to find these once-solemn young men from the Wirral as ebullient and quick to laugh, equally happy to discuss their early days on Factory Records, the parallels between OMD and Atomic Kitten (the pop group McCluskey assembled in the late 90s), and the aesthetics, themes and pop appeal of their twelfth album, English Electric. It’s a record that could be defined by one of its lyrics: “what does the future sound like?”

“I think that’s always been our mantra, and this album explores that,” says vocalist / bassist McCluskey, who formed OMD with school-friend Humphreys (keyboards, vocals) in 1978. English Electric experiments with new technology (laptops, phones) where once there were tapes and analogue synths, and it voyages through space and time: Our System is sound-tracked by NASA audio-files from the Magnetosphere of Jupiter; Helen of Troy evokes ancient mythology and recalls early-80s OMD chart-heroine Joan of Arc. Signature refrains like industry, uncertainty, loss and communication (or lack thereof) – not to mention technological change – align the record’s identity more with the band’s early-80s albums, rather than, say, 2010’s “comeback” LP, History of Modern.

History of Modern saw the original OMD line-up of McCluskey, Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper work together for the first time since 1986’s The Pacific Age. “We felt that History of Modern was a good collection of songs, but we’ve realised that we’re a band for whom just having good songs is not enough,” McCluskey offers. “We expect, and other people expect of us, a certain conceptual, intellectual content – it’s the ethos of OMD, it’s the reason why we got together in the first place – and so we consciously set out to do several things on [English Electric]. We wanted to strip the sound down to the simplicity of the early days. We wanted to unlearn the musical conventions that we’d picked up over the past 30 years. Basically, we saw our musicianship as a bad habit we’d got into,” McCluskey laughs. “When we first started, we didn’t have proper instruments – we couldn’t play any – and we had no idea how to write songs, because we’d never learned anyone else’s. So we made up our own rules. But somewhere along the line we rather abandoned our own song-writing parameters, so on the new record we also wanted to consciously unlearn the conventional song-writing we’d picked up. Finally, we wanted to include as many seriously pretentious conceptual elements as possible, which is what we’re famous for,” he quips. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s not enough of that around.”

Humphreys, too, perceives a kinship between English Electric and OMD’s early works. “We’ve gone back to more minimal instrumentation, unconventional arrangements, there are few vocal choruses –we’ve gone back to big sweeping keyboard melodies for our choruses,” he enthuses. English Electric’s reductive, tense, geometric artwork is also redolent of vintage OMD. “The visual side has always been really important – with graphic design, we’ve always wanted a consistency of look, and we got Peter Saville back in the frame as executive designer of the sleeve,” says Humphreys. Saville’s imprint visually defined OMD’s classic output, including their Factory Records debut single, Electricity (1979).

Humphreys fondly recalls their nascent Factory tenure. “When we released Electricity, [Factory boss] Tony Wilson said, ‘You guys are the future of pop music! I’m just here to get you a major record deal – you’re going to be massive superstars!’ and we just said, ‘Oh f*** off, Tony,’” he sniggers. “’This is art! This isn’t pop music!’ We started out in 1978 trying to be the future, and we chose synthesisers because they weren’t widely used, but it turned out our melodies were so catchy. We became pop despite ourselves.”

OMD went onto to release four vital, influential albums – their eponymous debut (1980), Organisation (1980), the three-million-selling Architecture and Morality (1981) and Dazzle Ships (1983) – and three less-acclaimed mid-80s albums, before the original line-up split in 1989. Humphreys, Cooper and Holmes formed The Listening Pool, while McCluskey retained the OMD moniker and issued, among others, 1991’s Sugar Tax, which marked a radio-friendly commercial (if not critical) renaissance for OMD.

Amid buoyant hits like Sailing on the Seven Seas, Sugar Tax contained a Kraftwerk reworking, Neon Lights, and the krautrock pioneers have proven an enduring influence on OMD. OMD’s second album, Organisation was thought to be a titular nod to Kraftwerk’s previous incarnation, and the Kraftwerk alliance comes full circle on English Electric. Kissing the Machine is a decades-old collaboration between McCluskey and Kraftwerk founder Karl Bartos that Humphreys has rewired for the album. Yet while Kraftwerk’s electronic music reflected, and travelled, on gleaming open stretches of autobahn, OMD’s romantic interpretation was, and is, fuelled by British industry and locomotives. English Electric was a company which manufactured train equipment, and new single Metroland echoes John Betjeman’s same-titled railway-focused TV play.

Metroland is a classic OMD pop single. It bursts into being after the album’s dystopian, spoken-word intro, Please Remain Seated, which installs in us a sense of dread before Metroland’s shimmering synth explosion. OMD always had an uncanny knack for harnessing euphoria and alarm. McCluskey nods. “Exhibit one M’lud, Enola Gay – that appears to be a bright shiny pop song, but there’s a melancholy in it, and lyrically it’s quite dark. Metroland comes in, banging with a regimented rhythm, but the melody is quite romantic and the lyrics are quite melancholy. And this is what we do – we take concepts, we think as deeply as we can, we experiment as hard as we can – but ultimately we want to put it in a format that is musical and listenable. So we play around with ideas like the utopian post-war vision that turned dystopian, and people will think, ‘How the f*** do you make a record out of that?’ Well, we think we can – because we did it with Enola Gay.”

This sense of unrest, and nuclear dread, ricochets throughout OMD’s pop idiom – new album titles include Atomic Ranch and Dresden – and such apocalyptic motifs have pervaded McCluskey’s career, including the time he formed a massive pop band, and called them Atomic Kitten.

McCluskey pauses. “Do you know, you’re the first person who’s ever said to me that name Atomic Kitten had an OMD resonance – but I can see it, it makes complete sense, it’s Architecture and Morality, isn’t it?” Whole Again is such a massive, if nonconformist, pop ballad (with a fittingly OMD B-side, The Locomotion) – how long had McCluskey been harbouring Whole Again? Did he create Atomic Kitten as an outlet for the song, or did he write it with the group in mind? “I wrote Whole Again in 1998, when I was planning the manufactured pop band,” he says. “In many ways it was quite liberating actually.”

OMD’s own “love songs” are considerably more complex, and wreathed in ambiguity. English Electric’s kiss-off is entitled Final Song, which could be read literally (it’s the last song on the album) or apocalyptically (its talk of plagues and gospel singing sounds not unlike the end of the world) but it is, says McCluskey, personal. “Generally, when I’ve touched on emotional subjects, I’ve always been a little skittish, possibly because I saw the, ‘I love you, you love me’, or ‘you don’t love me’ songs as being the hoariest of rock‘n’roll cliches,” he says. “So I’ve always laced my interpersonal relationship songs with shockingly clumsy metaphors. Final Song speaks specifically of my personal situation two years ago.”

Only OMD could write a break-up techno-hymn containing the lyrics, “bring out the dead now the plague has gone”, but then only OMD could break your heart with an ambient psalm about a power station (Stanlow, 1981), or make you dance to a dulcet robot proselytising on biogenetics (Genetic Engineering, 1983). “It seems a rather crazy notion that a young band somehow thought they were going to change the world by writing a different type of music, but that was the mentality. That led us to do something that was distinct,” McCluskey ventures. Some things never change.

* * *

SIDE PANEL: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Even in a new-wave climate that saw Merseyside bands adopt dreamy names like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Icicle Works and The Teardrop Explodes, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was surely a ludicrous moniker. “Oh you don’t want to know what our alternative was,” laughs Paul Humphreys.

Try us. “Well, Andy and I were in this proggy band, The Id. We played rock gigs, but we’d stay behind after rehearsals and do our electronic experiments, then we’d shift those to the privacy of my mother’s back room. We got a gig at Eric’s club in Liverpool – it was kind of a punk club, they had an alternative night, where you could play any genre – so we managed to get booked there to do our electronic stuff. They wanted to print posters, and the guy who was promoting it said, ‘you’ve got about two hours to come up with a name’. So we went up to Andy’s house, and he’d written down all these potential song titles on his bedroom walls.

We saw Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and we thought, ‘well, it kind of describes us’ – people would know that we weren’t punk, that we were a bit different. It was a particularly preposterous name, which we liked. But written underneath OMD was another option on the wall: we could have been called Margaret Thatcher’s Afterbirth.”

OMD play Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on May 12

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