Back To Where It All Started: Our Interview With The Human League's Philip Oakey

Today I have the absolute pleasure of talking with Philip Oakey, part of the trio - along with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall - that makes up that iconic band, The Human League! Although most people recall The Human League and immediately think '80s, the truth is they are a band who have been active, either making new music or playing live shows, almost continuously since their inception. In between tour dates I caught up with Philip to talk about their latest album, the beginning of MTV, and the hard work of everything in between.

(Total plus? Listening to his sexy English accent. HOT!)

How are you today?
I'm good, thank you.

So tell me about the new album, Credo.
Well, we just decided it was time to return more or less to our roots. In Britain we've been sort of a bit swamped with guitar records for a few years and there seemed a little opportunity - people have maybe gotten a little bit bored with the guitar stuff again - to do a synthesizer album. So we went out and did it.

Do you have a theme to the album?
The theme's more what it's based on and it's just the fact that it's based on old synths. Sort of new recording methods and so on but more of a sort of celebration of what got us into music in the first place. Which was, you know, synthesizers becoming available for the first time.

Now you've had a ten year gap between albums. How did it feel to get back into the studio?
Well, it was hard work, really. I consider myself a songwriter, more than anything else. The working live and the other stuff I see as support for making new music, really. But in the meantime, we've gone from sort of a music industry that really maybe had too much money and we'd work with a producer and engineers and tape up some things and it wasn't particularly hard. You would do your stuff and then get other people to do a lot of the work for you. But this time around we did it all ourselves, with the producers. We've got a studio in our home town of Sheffield and the producers have got their studio in Sheffield so we just worked, sort of on slightly different things. We recorded all the vocals while the producers were changing all the backings and then they put them together. You know, I was a bit surprised to find myself at the age of 54 or something still working until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning editing vocals.

Do you enjoy writing then or performing more?
Um... what I think my job is is to make new pieces of music and so I don't even know if enjoyment comes into it, it's just what I want to do. I've got older brothers and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles at a pretty young age. And even though I was young I realized that the important thing was that they made their own music; that they came from a generation where people would present songs written by other people for them. And I wanted to be a songwriter and so I don't really know how to stop doing it.

So did you like being able to do more of your own producing on this album than in the past?
No, not really. I loved the sort of luxury of the music industry that happened for us for about twenty years or so. You know we used to have big teams of people... two albums before this we hired, at one stage, I think we had six studios hired with people doing different things and I loved all that! I'm a bit of a consumer and I love the high life and it's a little bit of a shock to find you're doing it all for yourself.

[laughs] It's a bit more work, isn't it?
Oh yeah!

I think most people agree that "Don't You Want Me" is a signature sound of the '80s. What's your secret to enduring for 30 plus years?
The key to that song is that we didn't spoil it, I think. That with most songs you think of a couple of nice tunes and some words and then you start working and you work until they're not very good. We happened to stop before, stop while it was still all right. So in a strange way, it sounds complicated but it's a pretty simple sort of a song. It just does its job and then it gets out of the way and leaves people wanting to play it again. Enduring is more just that we didn't have anything else to do. We sort of learned how to be musicians and be in a group and we sort of weathered the storms as they came along. The core of the group is three people, myself and Joanne and Susan, and maybe it was a big help that we all do slightly different things and we never ever wanted to give up together. If one of us was down and just thought it wasn't worth carrying on, the others didn't. Joanne, for instance, Joanne never really wanted to give up at all. Joanne's very down to earth and just wants to keep working.

That's always great to hear that kind of support.
Yeah, I was very lucky. You know, the way people see the group they see it as this sort of male thing with a couple of backing singers. And the fact is the group is the three of us, and we have had a very strong loyalty all the way through.

So do you feel your sound has evolved over the years?
If anything it's devolved, because we saw more clearly that we had to be what we were. I think we did get lost in the middle of our careers because maybe the success was so big. And you take your eye off the ball a little bit and you start thinking, "Oh well, samplers are in, we've got to do that. And everyone's doing big metal guitars, we've got to do that." And we got a little bit confused, we started getting advice where as before we'd been left [alone]. And the great thing about this is we did it for ourselves. We didn't think it would be released as an album necessarily. Our aim was to do a few tracks. I quite like dance music and we were going to put out some 12 inch vinyl. And it just happened, luckily, that a guy we've known for a number of years said, "Well, I'd really like to put it out on my record label. I really like what you're doing."

That's great! Now I want to ask you a couple of questions about MTV. They just celebrated their 30th anniversary. How much of a role would you say MTV played in launching your career?
I think it was absolutely critical! Maybe people aren't talking about it anymore, the people that remember, but America was pretty hard to get to all at once. The only program that was played right across the country I think was Solid Gold, wasn't it?

And in a way, in Britain, we had one TV show which was Top Of The Pops, and if you did well on it you were going to do well in the charts. Whereas notoriously in America, for instance, you could rise up the charts for six months as different states started to listen to what you were doing. And it would often be led by New York or LA or something, and it was less quick to be known across the country. And suddenly MTV came along, which sort of suited us because we were all very interested in cinema - part of why the group came together was that we were interested in that sort of thing as well as music - and we happened to do the right video with the right song at the right time. I mean the reason why I'm standing here talking to you on the phone now is probably because of MTV.

Would you say your videos played a part in MTV's success as well?
Well, I don't know. I think it was a force that was going to happen as soon as someone decided that they were going to do that sort of thing. It was unstoppable! And I think it gave people something to aim for. People were doing videos before MTV, weren't they, so maybe the idea of the channel sprang from that. But really, you know, one or two bands dropping out or dropping in wouldn't have made much difference, I don't think.

Well, I think some of your videos were pretty signature.
We were very lucky. In Britain there was a band called Ultravox who suddenly stopped making their promos on actual video tape and they started using, I think, 16 mm film, so immediately it looked a little bit classier, a little bit more like you'd go to the cinema to see it. And we happened to strike lucky with our second video, "Don't You Want Me," we fell in with Steve Barron who eventually became a film director and he wanted to use film right from the start. We'd always sort of striven slightly for a classier image than rock artists. For instance, think of the cover of our biggest album was a parody of Vogue magazine. So it was just a load of happy coincidences that just worked at the right time.

Since you were interested in cinema, did you treat your videos as an extension of your art or as a way to market your music or a little bit of both?
Almost exclusively we had little to do with the videos. We more approved the director and then it just happened. Because even at that stage it became very quickly a very expensive process, and I remember that it wasn't very long before we were spending twice what we'd spent to do a whole album. You know and you take a year doing an album, [that] would be spent in three days doing a video. You couldn't really afford to get it wrong so we turned it over to directors. The few times that they used our ideas, I think they were actually inferior and the best ones were done by a director just coming in and saying, "I've got a good idea." You know, they'd all been to film school and they usually did have a good idea.

We were always a little tiny bit too arty, as well. So we'd come from... there was a sort of little theatre group was part of the start of the group and we were absolutely fascinated by film, big Clockwork Orange fans, and probably if we had done what we really wanted they would have been a bit crazy and not very commercial.

Did you expect MTV to get as big as it did?
No, really. When you look back, it sort of looks inevitable. But like I say, we thought of especially the US as sort of a very differing place. Mostly in Britain you can get around it pretty quickly, communications are quick. America's like several different kinds of countries all sort of stuck together. So that that mass feeling should sort of come over America was surprising to us. But that's technology for you, suddenly something changes and it hooks everything in.

Do you think anything exists today to help artists the way that early MTV did?
Oh, I don't know. I think it's very very hard. I despair for young talented musicians at the moment, because it seems... it's really the margins that have got smaller. For instance, we did two LPs that no one really heard about; one of them only sold 11,000 copies. But it didn't matter because we were on a label that had Mike Oldfield and, for instance, Sex Pistols were a big act, and they had had those just before us and so we could get by. And now record companies, their margins are so small that you either make it pretty quickly or you're dropped so I think that's a little bit sad.

You know I'm very glad to see artists... it's funny, it's the kind of music I'm not interested in at all. I would never buy it, but I'm so happy to see Adele doing well, in a very sort of traditional song-based way. There's a lot of business drive about music, in the way that Rihanna and Britney and The Black Eyed Peas will suddenly swamp all the media. And they do well out of it and indeed some of their records are very very good. But it seems hard for little artists to come up with something new, I think.

I think you're right. I've heard some great local bands that don't seem to be making much headway.
Yes. I've worked with people who should have at least have had a chance and as far as I know they don't even get to carry on doing music.

Yeah, that's really sad. So I hear you're currently touring Europe and about to kick off North America. How is the tour going?
It's all going pretty well, really. We're a little bit surprised because in our hearts we believe that we're current musicians but a lot of our opportunities to play are sort of things that they call rewind or replay or something. And we go and we play with a lot of people that have become friends over the years, other bands and things. But we still insist on doing... if we do an hour set we do two new songs, if we do more than that we do three new songs but so far it's going fine. We are actually hitting territories where they like the new songs more than the old songs. Ibiza recently, which of course has got a club culture. That happened that way, they were going mad for the first single. So it's pretty good. You know, we're a fairly happy little bunch and we just go and do anything we get paid for.

You spent quite a few years just doing live shows, is that right?
We more or less stood back, because we watched the music industry get turned on its head, we just took the opportunity. We weren't a terrible live group at the start of that because we were managed along the way by Miles Copeland who managed Sting, and I think he knocked some sense into our heads and we thought, people are paying for tickets, they deserve a good show. But we did an album in 2001 that didn't do very well and we just said, "OK, let's work on the live show," and we really tried hard to make it worth seeing. That sort of carried us through a little bit. It was hard work but it carried us through until, you know, maybe five or six years and then we started thinking, "Well, we've got to do some new stuff now. How do we do it? We've got learn some of these computer programs."

Do you get that itch occasionally, too, when you haven't created something in a while?
Oh yeah! I mean, I love all that sort of thing. I don't know why but my whole generation--it's weird, because I recently went to my first school reunion ever [laughs] and our generation seemed to want to do that sort of thing. We wanted to act and we wanted to write novels and we wanted to make films and make music. I don't know if it's sort of the welfare state in Britain or that little time when maybe money was good and it was all we wanted to do.

I'm actually excited because you are coming to my area pretty soon with The B-52's, and I hear you're also touring with Men Without Hats. Is there a difference between touring the US and touring Europe or other countries?
I think there is, yeah. There's a difference everywhere. We don't ever predict what we're going to do. It's great to be on a bill with The B-52's who are a band who are at least as successful and worth listening to as us. We all love America so we're looking forward to coming over. We'll just see how it goes.

I think that to America, we're not quite the group that they think we are and so in some places, they're a little surprised to see that we can be quite serious. We do three or four songs about wars in the middle of the set. And we don't sit with some of the revival bands as well.

So what do you think the impression is of you?
I often think that people are a bit baffled. They don't know why we're doing what we do because we're a strange conglomeration. We ended up in music, but we wanted to be in Alien or A Clockwork Orange or something. And also of course, we're older now so we're still doing things that people our age really shouldn't be doing.

Oh, aren't we all!
I hope so, yeah! The whole world has gotten pretty conservative, I think. People were very open-minded while we were having our first heyday, and now people are a little careful. There's not as much money about. I always say the odd thing now is that all the men I know have now got short hair and all the women I know have got long hair again. It's strange. A uniformity has come about.

It's weird over here. Our guitarist, he doesn't do it as much now, but he used to wear quite a lot of makeup. It was really weird--people used to start fights with him in bars. I thought everyone had stopped doing that sort of thing. I thought people were more accepting of other people. But you know, strange times.

What bands are you listening to right now?
It changes a lot between us. Susan sort of likes middle of the road and Joanne likes old Roxy Music. I dig a lot of the dance stuff although there are some quite interesting acts coming up. There's an Australian band called Empire Of The Sun, [they] are pretty good. We played a show the other night with an artist called Janelle Monae who I think is just a star which is better than a lot of the big acts out now. There's a guy called Jamie Woon who has released an LP over in Britain, is a good act. It's always the same for me. I'm always going for the synthesizer dancey stuff.

Now that you're in the middle of the tour and you've just released this album, do you have future plans yet after this album?
I don't know why, but I'm still terribly ambitious. The process of working with the producers of this album, who are one of the best bands (I Monster) in Sheffield actually, was so good that we're back communicating. Every time they have a few days off, they're like, "Come on! Let's work out what we're going to do next. Let's have a meeting." And then they'll make me go to Finland and do a festival or something so we haven't go it down.

But we're just looking forward to going forward. Again, you've got to take into account that maybe you're better off trying to do stuff for movies or trying to do adverts and not releasing stuff straight to CD. I'm always ambitious. I've never had a number one album in America and I want to have one.

Have you done music for TV or advertising?
No, not really. Quite early on, our big album had an instrumental remix album at the same time. We sort of pioneered it. That used to get on a lot of sports shows and things, but we've never done anything specifically for that. It's been near a few times, but it's even harder to make sense of the movie industry than it is the music industry.

Yes, but I could see you doing that kind of music.
We would love to but you have to work hard at that. I think it's more important that you stick to deadlines than you make good music in that. If they want it on Tuesday and you don't deliver it by Tuesday, you don't get the next job.

It's been absolutely charming talking to you and thank you so much. I'm really going to try to snag tickets to your next show.
Do come on to the show!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...