Dawn of a New Age
From synth pop to sequencers and back. Two-and-a-half years since they lost graced our front cover, Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey tell Tim Goodyer how progress is made, as album number seven hits the streets.
OMD take the Hammersmith Odeon stage to promote their seventh album, 'The Pacific Age. Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey, explain their progression from bedroom synth pop to eighties hi-tech chart music.
THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM. The band take the stage. A tape machine rolls. The first chords of the opening song, 'Southern', liberate the barely restrained exuberance of the crowd. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are doing what they do best.
The audience have been on their feet for over 15 minutes in anticipation of the show, but as 'Southern' develops, they are treated only to fleeting glimpses of the band as the musicians are caught by the erratic stabbings of the spotlights. Intriguing, frustrating sightings of Paul Humphreys' head bowed over an Emulator accompany Andy McCluskey's dancing form, partly obscured by his bass. Above them, monochrome pictures of sixties America and the distinctive figure of Martin Luther King are back-projected onto oddly-shaped screens.
In stark contrast to the early days of OMD, the tape machine isn't playing a major supporting role supplying drum patterns and sequences. Instead, it releases a series of King's oratories in lieu of a vocal line. It's also running free of any synchronisation with the musicians on-stage - it's all just spun in. The music changes to accommodate the fervour of the voice, rising and falling in sympathy with the message. I ask myself: Is this little more than a re-run of '19'?
"Our approach is quite different", asserts Humphreys, reclining in the peace of Virgin Records' London office suite. "We aren't using Martin Luther King as a gimmick, we aren't doing a '19'; it's the straight speech. We haven't cut the speeches to fit the music - we devised the music to fit the speeches."
"The music was the original idea", agrees McCluskey, explaining the background to what is perhaps the most unorthodox cut from the new OMD album, The Pacific Age. "In fact, some of the riffs and instrumentation had been lying around for years: the bassline is from a song called 'Telegraph' - that's four years old. It was supposed to be on Crush, the previous LP, but I couldn't sing anything to it so it got dumped.
"This year we had another go at it and decided we really liked the music. Coincidentally I bought a cassette from a place that sells recordings of famous people speaking. Martin Luther King's oratory on it was so powerful, we decided to see if we could work it into the song. The moment we rolled the cassette we knew it was going to work, and once we'd chosen the pieces that we wanted, we went back and rebuilt the dynamics of the song around what he had said.
"Using found source voices isn't new. Byrne and Eno did it and they weren't the first either. We've been using them for years but we're not trying to say this a new, exciting way to make a song - it just works, that's all. A lot of people that use found source voices tend to use them as an extra effect that they'll chop up. What's being said then is of no importance, it's just phonetic.
"We were conscious of not being disrespectful to Martin Luther King's memory or message; we just wanted him to be saying what he had to say. The speeches are all in chronological order, too."
Back on stage, the opening number is over. The lights come up to reveal McCluskey and Humphreys fronting a six-piece band, the remainder of whom reside on a riser towards the back of the stage set.
Old stalwart Malcolm Homes sits behind his drum kit, while the similarly experienced Martin Cooper alternates between guitar, Emulator II and a Super Jupiter, Graham Weir between trombone and Mirage, and brother Neil between trumpet and bass guitar. Humphreys' Fairlight, Emulator II and Korg Micro Preset (!) are tucked into a corner, leaving most of the stage clear for Andy McCluskey to launch into frenzied dance routines. The music builds on the impetus of 'Southern', but now the voices of McCluskey and Humphreys take the place of the pre-recorded monologues.
The set weaves its way through a collection of material both old and new, imparting it with an energy the band have never quite managed to recapture on vinyl. Songs from the new LP sit well alongside yesterday's hits, with little indication of the years that separate them.
"We wanted to try some of our earlier ideas with 1986 technology. It was an experiment and we didn't know if it was going to work, but we're happy with the way it turned out."
"We wanted to try some of our earlier ideas, but with 1986 technology", reveals Humphreys. "It was an experiment and we didn't know if it was going to work, but we're happy with the way it turned out."
Accompanied by some impressive lighting effects, the band launch into 'The Dead Girls' from The Pacific Age. The arrangement employs the kind of simple yet effective melodies that characterised earlier hits like 'Electricity' and 'Messages', McCluskey's lonely vocal set against a sparse backing of sampled choirs.
"It was definitely a conscious attempt to use our ideas from the Architecture and Morality period, but with the new technology instead of Mellotrons and other Heath-Robinson instruments", continues Humphreys. "We wanted to see how we could approach that sound now. There were only the Moody Blues using the Mellotron when we did 'Joan of Arc'.
"For the intro we used a French sampler, the Publison Infernal Machine. We fed in two phrases of the vocals from the end of the song where the girl's singing in French, and kept spinning it in until it fitted into the intro. The Publison does time compression so you can keep the same pitch, but extend the length of the phrase. It just spreads out the information over a longer period of time. I think it's the only machine around that will do it."
AS AN ALBUM, The Pacific Age sees OMD combine new technology with a more traditional style of songwriting that some would describe as mature, others as boring -though it retains distinctive elements of early OMD melody. The result is songs like 'Goddess of Love' and 'Flame of Hope' - simple, infectious tunes with a solid beat capable of swaying a live audience like a single body.
"In the early days our choruses would be a keyboard melody, but now they're actually sung. Maybe we're getting old and conventional", opines McCluskey. "Some of the ideas are old, like the military drum in 'The Dead Girls', but the sound is different to what we've done before on record. It's a lot more punchy, almost live, which is something we've wanted to achieve for some time."
Humphreys: "I think that's down to our approach to production. We didn't want to use many drum machines and sequencers; we tried to keep everything as manual as possible and to use as many musicians as possible, instead of computers. It's definitely contributed to the sound. Between Tom Lord Alge, the engineer, Stephen Hague, the producer, and the two of us, it was a real production effort.
"We recorded the album in a studio in France where the studio room was all mirrors and marble; it was very tight but very hard. It wasn't a processed sound like the Manor or the Townhouse stone room. It didn't sound so compressed; just very bright and ambient - and live. So the drums have got this real snap to them, rather than a Phil Collins type of compressed ambience."
McCluskey: "We started out doing everything ourselves - playing the bass drum, the snare drum, the white noise (rather than the hi-hat) one at a time. We used to like the separation that we got; you could put everything exactly where you wanted it in the mix.
"When you've got a whole drum kit, it's harder to get that situation. In the early days poor old Malcolm used to have to play the bass drum, then the snare drum... It must have been very frustrating not playing his whole kit, so this time we said 'go in that room and beat the living crap out of your kit', which is just what he likes to do. He was playing to sequenced bass, but he's a very tight drummer and, rather than dropping him in all the time, we let him go and then went back and manually played in a lot of the rhythm instruments. So the whole thing became manual following the drums.
"Our stage sound is dominated by Emulators. Soon we'll be getting hard disk updates on them, so there'll be no more planning the set running order around the loading time between songs."
"The Mitsubishi 32-track recorder was a Godsend too - we actually managed to get everything on one machine. We didn't want to have to slave up two 24-track tapes because it's such a tedious process, and when you come to mixing you're always having to wait for them to lock up. It takes twice the time to mix when you're running two machines in sync."
"The sound reproduction was marvellous, too", says Humphreys. "We'd sit there switching between tape and source and you couldn't tell the difference. It's not like with analogue where, after a while, you start to lose some of the top end, and end up having to boost it up in the mix. The Mitsubishi is exactly the same all the way through recording, monitoring and mixing - the sound does not change.
"The songs were a bit simpler this time too. We didn't have to do so many overdubs on them, though there were a couple of times where there were two or three instruments on one track and we had to use the computer to isolate them in the mix. That created a problem because we only had a 48-channel desk, so 'Our Tom' was always in the other three studios pulling SSL channels out of the other desks. There were a couple of other producers there getting really pissed off because they were losing channels from their desks."
IT DOESN'T SEEM too long ago that OMD would lock themselves in their own studio - The Gramophone Suite - to record their albums. Yet the studio has been out of favour for several years, as McCluskey reveals.
"After we did the Dazzle Ships album we got really bored with it. We'd written and partially recorded four albums in there and we couldn't possibly have done any more. It was like going to the office every day, so we needed a change of surroundings. It wasn't conducive to work. Every day you walked in you thought: 'let's go and get a pizza'. The more we worked in other studios that were more professional and had better atmospheres the more we hated going into our place.
"The problem was we bunged it together in two-and-a-half weeks with our first record advance. We thought 'right, we're never going to sell any records, so let's take the money and build a studio so we'll have something to show for it'. We recorded our first album in three weeks flat and, from that moment on, we never had enough time to take it apart and rebuild it properly. It was basically just a souped-up garage. We had a massive recording room and a tiny control room with bloody great JBLs that pinned you to the back wall if you got past one on the volume control."
Things have certainly changed since then, as the equipment list that accompanies The Pacific Age shows -though Andy McCluskey is characteristically modest about it.
"We have very little equipment these days. It's usually just the Fairlight, LinnDrum, Emulators and the Super Jupiter. Those few instruments are all we need, though it is quite a comprehensive selection.
"Our stage sound now is totally dominated by the Emulators - they cover almost everything. We'll be getting the hard disk updates on them soon, so there'll be no more planning the set running order around the loading time between songs. On more than one occasion we've had disk-read errors: if you've already started a song and Paul's standing there just looking at you...he's crossing his fingers, looking at his disk drive, and murmuring 'oh, God, please load this time'. It can get quite hair-raising.
"We recorded the album in a studio that was all mirrors and marble. It didn't sound as compressed as the Manor or the Townhouse stone room: just very bright and ambient - and live."
"For the last two years we've been out on the road running things from the Fairlight's Page R. But in America last year we did some supporting to try to crack the market there, so we thought we'd better get back down to basics. We really didn't want to have to take the extra time required to set up the Fairlight and then have to keep our fingers crossed that it would work, so we dumped all the Page R stuff onto tape and then played all the extra things from the Emulator."
But on stage tonight, it's the Fairlight that's running the show once again.
"We've had it updated to a Series IIX, says Humphreys. "That's been really helpful because, although the sampling on the Fairlight isn't too hot, it's a fantastic writing tool. Now we can get really crisp samples by MIDIing it to the Emulator. We still use it a lot, but there are still certain things, like sampling voices, that it can't handle."
McCluskey: "It's one of those machines that you have to play to its idiosyncrasies to get the most from. We've never worked on the Synclavier or Fairlight III, but the II, for my money, is a great composing tool, and that's the way we use it. I have no patience for reading manuals. I want to learn something for today, and the Fairlight is really easy to learn. Once you've picked it up you can really swiftly move through its functions, and put things together very quickly.
"We quite often use the Fairlight's Page R to write and put the demos together. But we got into big trouble earlier this year when we decided we were fed up with Page R and having to lay down the sync tone and everything. We thought 'let's do it manually like we used to do', so, on principle, we didn't use a sync tone.
"We put down some really dodgy LinnDrum to give us something to play, to, then we started to build the track. We thought it was dead good. Paul played the drums on 'The Dead Girls' the way we used to do, with a mallet for the bass drum and the snare drum sitting on a chair - it was a real engineer's nightmare. It all went well until we decided we wanted to put a sequencer in it, and there was nothing for it to follow. All we had left of the LinnDrum guide track was one tambourine, because we'd erased all the rest, and that was on a real off-beat that we could hardly follow. Repairing that track in Paris took us days.
"We ended up going back to the drum track and sampling out one of the bass drums and one of the snare drums. In the end our producer went through, dropping them in on the right beat. So much for going back to manual."
BACK AT THE GIG, no OMD live set would be complete without a rendition of 'Enola Gay', the rattling Roland CR78 drum pattern and sequence as compelling as ever. Sadly, the old CR78's days are numbered, not just by drummer Holmes, but by the acquisition of an E-mu SP12 drum machine. And McCluskey's obvious enthusiasm for the new machine conceals any remorse here may feel about the departure of an old friend.
"The SP12 is like a pile of AMSs, but with a built-in sequencer as well. We got fed up with the sounds in the LinnDrum years ago - even the new chips we got for it. In the end we never had access to the AMS in the demo studio because we were running bloody drum samples triggered off the LinnDrum. We don't have that problem now.
"Architecture and Morality' sounds the most dated of all our albums - it sounds like it's 1981. It's not a current sound any more because nobody else has gone near that style."
"We're going to load the SP12 with some of our old drum machine samples because, at the moment, we're still carrying the old CR78 Compurhythm around. That is the 'Enola Gay' rhythm machine. Once we've got those sounds we can dispense with that. Then Malcolm is going to hook up some pads to the SP12 to trigger some sounds."
Progress, as they say, is progress. But curiously, the same fate nearly befell a much more recent piece of technology - the Roland Super Jupiter synth module. Luckily for the machine (and for the stage show, where the machine comes into its own in the capable hands of Martin Cooper), OMD found a way of keeping it under control, as it were, after a few hiccups.
"We had trouble finding a keyboard to use with it", explains Humphreys. "We went through two Oberheim Xks that wouldn't talk to it - they just wouldn't listen to each other. Eventually we found out that the problem lay with the Oberheim, because we'd been using the Super Jupiter with lots of other MIDI sources without any trouble. It's fine now, but we've been thinking about getting a DX7 - because we don't actually own one - to use as a controller. The problem there is changing the presets on the Super Jupiter, because you can't do it from the DX7."
There's no sign of a DX this evening, though, and even less evidence of the old Mellotron, which has long since disappeared from OMD's stage instrumentation. But its tones linger on, issuing from Humphreys' Emulator II+, and where else should they be heard but on 'Joan of Arc'...? Back at the Virgin offices, McCluskey is at a loss to account for the original success of the song.
"I'm still amazed. I can't quite understand it. 'Souvenir' yes, because it was a ballad, but 'Joan of Arc' and the 'Maid of Orleans' version with all the choirs, I can't work out.
"I think we were on a roll so it got a lot of exposure. Had it been our first single, or had we released it now when we're not on the crest of a wave, it'd struggle to be a hit. But then it was our sixth consecutive Top 20 single, and people expected it to hit. Nobody else, not even us, has made that kind of record again, apart from a couple of tracks on this album."
Humphreys: "That whole period was exciting because Architecture and Morality was the first album that really did well. We're still proud of it."
"But Architecture and Morality actually sounds the most dated of all our albums", reflects McCluskey. "It sounds like it's 1981. It's not a current sound any more because nobody else has gone near that style."
THE CURRENT SINGLE, 'You Know We Love You', brings the end of the Hammersmith set in sight. Then the opening strains of 'Forever Live and Die', its recent predecessor, drift from the stage. Neil Weir has substituted for McCluskey on bass, and McCluskey, in turn, has taken Humphreys' place behind the Emulator while his partner in crime takes the lead vocal. From the moment the opening sequence first issued from the radio a few weeks ago, you knew OMD were back, but equally that they'd chosen a single that lacked the harder edge of some of their LP material. McCluskey can only agree.
"We do suffer from this image of being rather a nice and pretty band, which isn't necessarily the case. This time I think it was the record company being convinced that 'Forever Live and Die' was the right single; they were unanimous about it. But we're going to choose the next single so it'll possibly be a remix of 'Stay'. For the first one we narrowed it down to 'Stay' and 'Forever Live and Die', so we did finished versions of those and 'Stay' didn't turn out quite the way we'd imagined. 'Forever Live and Die' is hardly representative of what's on the album - it's perhaps one of the softest, most polite songs and the other stuff has got a lot more punch.
"'Stay' was one song we had a lot of arguments about. For the most part we were unanimous about how things were being produced and mixed, but I was rather upset about the way that one turned out. Everybody else said 'it sounds fine', but to me, it's just not how it should be."
Not that any member of this audience would agree with him. The strident rhythm of 'Stay' lifts them to new heights. And not just the fanatical front few rows the balcony is more demonstrative than some bands' most ardent followers.
It's a long time since I saw a band earn their encores as OMD did at the Hammersmith Odeon. The audience let them off with just two more songs, though maybe that was out of respect for their heroes' health more than anything else. Eight years and seven albums on, OMD still have a lot of life in them.