Synth-pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark talk to Dan Goldstein about the twists and turns in their musical development, and how they managed to make their new album, Junk Culture, sound more acoustic through the use of computer instruments.
History will probably remember Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark as being the first of many synthesiser-based duos that helped shape British popular music in the late seventies and early eighties, but there has always been more to OMD's repertoire than a narrow vocabulary of electropop love songs. Dan Goldstein spoke to the band's founder members, Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey, about their musical techniques, attitudes and influences, and about the making of their recently-released fifth album, Junk Culture.
Think back, if you will, to the summer of 1978. A time when almost all of Europe's popular music was still largely dependent on the standard guitar/bass/drums/vocals lineup for its instrumental arrangement, and when the cheapest polyphonic synthesiser would still set its purchaser back rather more than £1500.
Into such an environment step two young Liverpudlians, disillusioned with the standard 'rock band' format and all the limitations it imposes. Their line-up: a bass guitar, a half-working electronic piano and a tape recorder called Winston. In keeping with their lack of affinity for rock music's conventions, they choose for themselves an obscure and immemorable name, 'Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark,' and begin to write original material in each other's homes, only later branching out into the world of playing live.
'I know it sounds like a dreadful showbusiness cliche', says Andy McCluskey, one half of the duo. 'But we really had no intention whatsoever of becoming successful in the music business. Our music represented a complete break from what most successful bands were doing at the time, our songwriting was abstract in the extreme, and the idea that two musicians and a tape recorder could capture an audience in punk clubs around Liverpool and Manchester seemed absolutely absurd.'
Yet that was precisely what did happen.
After gaining a not inconsiderable following among the patrons of new wave clubs such as Eric's in Liverpool, OMD landed themselves a recording contract with indie label Factory Records and released their first single 'Electricity' to enormous media acclaim. Radio 1 DJ John Peel took an interest and asked McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, OMD's synth player, to record a session for him - Virgin Records liked what they heard and immediately licensed 'Electricity' to their newly-formed DinDisc subsidiary.
DinDisc offered the band an advance that allowed them to set up their own studio - The Gramophone Suite - in Liverpool, but as Andy recalls, owning their own studio had never been particularly high on OMD's list of priorities.
'We never had grandiose dreams of having our own studio complex, if that's what you mean. It was only when the finance was offered to us that we began to see the possibilities of having somewhere we could record at our leisure. You see, I've always found recording at a commercial studio to be less rewarding than working at your own place. At a commercial studio you tend to spend all your time looking at the clock and thinking "That's another £35 we've just wasted...", but when you've got your own studio you can work at your own pace, and we were very much attracted by that idea at the time.'
As things turned out, The Gramophone Suite became the recording venue for four OMD albums: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Organisation, Architecture and Morality, and Dazzle Ships, released last year.
Of these, the first two are quirky, idiosyncratic works of great charm and enthusiasm, the third represents the height of OMD's commercial success (with hit singles such as 'Souvenir' and 'Joan of Arc'), while the last, Dazzle Ships, signalled a reaction by McCluskey and Humphreys against the traditions of the pop world into which - however unwillingly - they had stumbled.
Perhaps significantly, it was the first OMD album to be almost universally panned by the critics. On the one hand, there were those who claimed the band had ducked out of their responsibilities as leading electropop creators and opted instead for the soft, comfortable world of scientific experimentation, while on the other there were those who appreciated OMD's change of artistic heart but who disliked Dazzle Ships for its more than passing resemblance to Kraftwerk's Radioactivity, itself released some seven or eight years before.
Not surprisingly, McCluskey is quick to deny both charges.
'I think it was inevitable that at some stage we would have a drastic re-think about what we were trying to do. There was bound to be some sort of reaction to the success we were having and Dazzle Ships was it. Having said that, I don't think that musically it's so different from what came before it: there are some very good songs on there that I still like a lot. What had changed was that we felt - more or less for the first time - that it was possible to put some sort of political or social message into the songs we were writing. We realised that a lot of people were listening to our music and that we might as well try and say something to them. We released 'Genetic Engineering' as a single because we wanted people to think about the implications such developments might have. Unfortunately for us, neither the single nor the album were successful, partly because they weren't musically quite as accessible as something like 'Joan of Arc'.
Yet if external musical influences were responsible for much of the change in OMD's character, technological updating also played its part. The band had used a computer instrument - the Emulator - before on Dazzle Ships, but their visit to Air coincided with their purchasing a Fairlight CMI, a different kettle of fish altogether.
Paul Humphreys takes up the story.
'We'd been interested in getting a Fairlight for a while, and eventually we got one just as we were about to start recording the album. Syco Systems flew a man out to Montserrat with the machine, and he spent about a week taking us through the instrument and showing us how to get the best out of it. From an operational point of view, it's not nearly as complicated as it might be, because it's basically got a user's manual built into it - if you get stuck at any point, you just key 'Help' and 'Return' and the Help page comes up on the screen. Something like that is of enormous value if, like us, you tend to get a little bit impatient with instruments that won't do what you want them to at the touch of a button.
'One thing ws did find was that because the Fairlight has got such an enormous library of factory samples built into it, we spent quite a while simply exploring them before we got down to the business of actually sampling our own sounds with it. Our model Fairlight was made before the most recent modifications like the new voice cards and so on, but we still found it an invaluable aid - even without its sampling capability!
'We did start sampling with the Fairlight eventually, but for some reason, probably because we're more familiar with the way it functions as an instrument, we're still tending to get better samples using the Emulator. We used that to create choral effects using samples of our own voices - the same sort of thing we tried on Dazzle Ships, but much more sophisticated.
Andy also has his own ideas regarding the Fairlight and its role in a recording situation...
'Like so many other people, we tended to use Page R a lot, sampling other synthesisers and drum machines so that they could all be controlled from one point. The bass on 'Locomotion', for instance, was sampled and sequenced all in one go on the Fairlight. In the final analysis, though, I don't think we used Fairlight sampling any more than Emulator or AMS. What I personally found more interesting were things like the CMI's Page 6, which gives you complete control over the envelope of a sound. It gives you a tremendous sense of power, knowing that you can increase the level of the first few milliseconds of a sound by about 300-fold, and surprising though it may sound, some of the effects you can generate by that sort of manipulation are quite musical and usable.'
Given the magnitude of their technological leap-forward (remember that much of OMD's early recording relied on nothing more glamorous in the keyboard department than a Korg Micro Preset monosynth) it's surprising that Junk Culture emerges as being more obviously played by a band than any previous album. Paul Humphreys describes the new LP as 'the most acoustic-sounding album so far' and he isn't bluffing. So how did they manage it? Andy McCluskey has the answer.
'I don't think we ever consciously had to fight against the technology to try to get the album to sound acoustic, because to a large extent it was instruments like the Fairlight that enabled us to create some of the acoustic colours we wanted. We did do some things to make the overall sound more dynamic, though. One example that I think worked very well was using the LinnDrum as the basis for the main percussion track, with the odd snare drum roll from Malcolm to stir things up a little bit. It certainly makes the rhythm track more exciting; there you are listening to a fairly average drum machine pattern when suddenly - bang! - in comes this acoustic drum roll at about twice the sound level.
'I'd also say that, in general, this was the easiest album to record for quite a while. For the first time we found ourselves with a whole stack of material - probably about two albums' worth - and it was really just a process of elimination that pared down what was eventually going to appear: the music that found its way onto the album is what fits in most with the overall feel of things. There was quite a bit of material - like '(The Angels Keep Turning) The Wheels of the Universe', the free single - that just wasn't right for the concept of the album as a whole.
'There was the odd occasion when we got stuck - when things weren't quite flowing properly - but we usually got over them. The only real trouble spot came just before we started mixing. It was decided to get Tony Visconti in to help out on the production side, and just before he was due to appear we took a break for about three weeks or so just to clear our minds. When we came back we didn't need him at all! He contributed a couple of brass arrangements, but that was just about it. The rest of the mixing was done by ourselves and Brian Tench, and it all went pretty smoothly.'
The final difference between Junk Culture and its immediate predecessors is a lyrical and conceptual one, for although OMD's approach to songwriting appears to have remained in the main fairly abstract, much of the new album's lyrical content is in keeping with the atmosphere created by the music - fresh, optimistic, and above all, entertaining. Andy again.
'The idea behind the album's title is quite a simple one, really. We began to appreciate that it wasn't enough to simply dismiss popular culture as being worthless, that there is some merit in almost everything; video, computer games, junk food: pop music, and so on. The lyrics reflect a sort of loss of inhibitions - the idea that you don't have to think something is artistically right in order to enjoy it.'
'I suppose you could say we had the same sort of scientific fascination that inspired Kraftwerk to record Radioactivity, but whereas that album is in more or less blind praise of things like technology and telecommunications, Dazzle Ships puts a bit of a question mark up against them, and that's a pretty fundamental difference, I think.'
But if Dazzle Ships represented a reaction, the band's new album, Junk Culture, marks an even stronger one. Musically, lyrically, and technologically, it's a fresher, more immediate statement than none of OMD's previous works could possibly have aspired to be. The reasons for such a drastic - and positive - change are many, but Paul Humphreys put the most significant ones into perspective.
'The first thing that comes to mind is that we recorded away from our own studio for the first time, which really was a big step in the right direction, and that in turn came about because we'd been living more or less out of a suitcase for the past six months, visiting new places and absorbing new musical influences.'
In fact, Junk Culture was recorded at three different studios - Air Montserrat, ICP in Brussels, and Wisselord Studios at Hilversum in Holland. The album was co-produced by OMD and Brian Tench - who's helped out on a number of previous occasions - while personnel-wise, McCluskey and Humphreys were assisted not only by Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper (both of whom have been in some way involved with OMD pretty much from the start) but also by, among several assorted (non)musicians, a Dutch brass section.
'The idea of a brass section appearing on an OMD record would have been unthinkable even a year ago', Andy admits. 'But it's a reflection of how much we've liberated ourselves from the little musical world we used to inhabit. I think it's probably true to say we'd always been pretty much wrapped up in our own little environment - a bit like being cooped up in a laboratory all the time. We were open to some different influences, but only so long as they weren't along the lines of conventional rock or pop music.
'One thing we were exposed to for the first time last year was soca — the soul-calypso music of places like Montserrat. Going along to a disco there and listening to it was a totally new experience for us, and it definitely influenced the way we approached recording Junk Culture.'
So, with a year's musical and philosophical transformation behind them, OMD are now ready to take their show on the road. Perhaps not surprisingly, this aspect of their work will not escape the wind of change, as Paul explains.
'We're going to be playing more as a band than ever before. As well as Andy, Martin, Malcolm and myself, we'll also be using two brass players, Graham and Neil Weir, who'll be doubling on guitar and keyboards respectively.
'We'll also be using the Fairlight live, which I don't foresee as being a particular problem except, perhaps, that it might take too long loading up between each song - we shall have to see. In a way we're in a strange situation, because our main motivation for getting something like the Emulator in the first place was that by sampling all our other synths into it, we could reduce the number of keyboards we needed to use on stage. But as things have turned out, we're still going to end up using something like a Jupiter 8 in addition to the Fairlight. Oddly enough, the big Roland's not an instrument we were previously all that aware of until Howard Jones - who was supporting us on a tour at the time - introduced us to it. We were amazed at the way it could produce very deep, cutting low-end sounds, which is something I've always felt Roland synths are good at, as well as sparkling string sounds. We'd been using a Prophet 5 as our main polysynth at that time but the bass end of the Jupiter was a real revelation to us.
'We're still not going to have as many synths on stage as we used to, though, because to a large extent we've eliminated the little monophonic synths - like the old Korg and the Roland SH2 - that we used to rely on for a lot of our melody lines. Still, I imagine things will get pretty hectic all the same.'
With so much to look back on - and so much to look forward to in the immediate future - neither Paul nor Andy has much idea of what may happen musically to OMD in the long-term and, strangely, it's a situation both of them have got used to fairly easily.
'Each year of our musical existence seems to follow a similar pattern', comments Paul, presumably not intending to imply that life within OMD is becoming monotonous... 'We spend a certain amount of time thinking about our next album and taking in new influences, the next few months after that putting our ideas into practice in a recording studio, a little while promoting the finished album, and a rather longer period touring around the UK and Europe, where we have quite a fallowing.
'Then we get back to thinking and planning again, and that's just the stage we haven't reached yet, which is why neither of us really know what form OMD's next musical output is going to take.
'We definitely took our blinkers off this year, but as for what next year might hold, I really couldn't say!'
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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