The Human League are still one of the world's most successful synth bands, but their new album was a long time coming, and they've stuck guitars all over it. The League's Ian Burden explains why.
The Human League were one of the first bands to prove conclusively that synthesisers could be used to make hit records, but the band's new album, Hysteria, sees them branch out into the use of more conventional instruments. Dan Goldstein spoke to the League's Ian Burden recently about the shift of emphasis and the reasons for Hysteria's late arrival.
By anybody's standards, The Human League's success story has been a spectacular one. From being one-half of a defunct Sheffield electronic band that had amassed a reasonable cult following but achieved little else, they became the UK's most successful singles artists almost overnight, with a number one album - Dare - that was written, performed, and recorded almost entirely on synthesisers.
However, once Dare and its creators had done the rounds of most of the world's major popular music markets, The Human League's output was reduced to little more than a trickle, with just two singles - 'Mirror Man' and 'Fascination' - being released in more than a year. Ian Burden - one of the songwriters brought in to add strength to the League's compositional muscle when the original band broke-up - sums up the reasons for the delay very simply.
'We had one false start, and then a series of different engineers and producers that spun the process out a lot longer than it should have been. First of all, we started recording the second album at Genetic Sound with Martin Rushent: that was how we'd done Dare, so it seemed logical to do the follow-up the same way. The only trouble was Martin didn't feel altogether confident with some of the new material we were coming up with, and eventually he resigned, though I must stress there was no animosity between us. He taught us an awful lot about recording synthesisers, how to use microcomposers and that sort of thing, for which we're obviously very grateful. In the end we managed to salvage two songs from those Genetic sessions - 'Mirror Man' and 'Fascination', though the latter was re-mixed by Chris Thomas.
'One thing we weren't altogether happy about Martin's production was the way he treated vocals. There are three singers in the group and obviously the vocals are very important to us, but what Martin is mainly interested in is the use of synthesisers and computers, and listening back to Dare now, there's not really any emphasis on the vocals at all, because Martin treated them just like so many more machines.
'What we've wanted to do for a while now is get better vocal performances from our singers. It's especially difficult with Joanne (Catherall) and Susanne (Sulley) because more often than not they're presented with their vocal parts for the first time in the studio. When we recorded Dare, as soon as one of the girls had come up with a reasonable vocal performance of say, a chorus, Martin would take that performance and spread it all over the song. He succeeded in doing that very well, but it isn't really a very satisfactory way of working, when you consider that vocals that stay at the same level when a song is building up to a climax can never really sound 100% right.
'So when it came to recording Hysteria, we decided we'd spend longer on the vocals, so that Joanne, Susanne and Philip (Oakey) could actually sing their way through a song in one performance. We'd heard some of the records Chris Thomas had produced, and felt that the vocal performances he seemed to be capable of getting out of people - as well as the way he recorded them - were some of the best things about them. I think all he did with 'Fascination' was raise the vocals in level a little and maybe use less in the way of effects on them, but it impressed us and we hired him for six weeks to record the album at Air Studios in London'.
That wasn't the end of the League's production headaches, however. After a while, it became readily apparent that domestic problems were distracting Thomas from the serious business of recording, and although his efforts were much appreciated by the band, a change of producer eventually became inevitable, and after Christmas 1983, the League left Air for for the Townhouse, where they completed Hysteria with Hugh Padgham at the faders.
'Once we started working with Hugh, it only took us another six to eight weeks to finish the album off,' remembers Ian. And in total, if you don't count weekends and breaks and so forth, we only spent about six or seven months working in the studio, though that's still longer than we originally expected it to take.
Listening to Hysteria for the first time, it's obvious that a lot of care has been taken over how the finished product sounds, though what is also rather obvious is that, following on from Dare, many of the songs don't display a great deal in the way of musical development, though not unexpectedly, Burden is quick to defend this.
'It's not surprising really, when you consider that the majority of the songs were written over two years ago, when we were touring with the Dare material. In fact, one of the songs, 'Don't You Know I Want You', was kicking around before we went on tour, and we played it at a few gigs, though the version on the album is, not surprisingly, almost entirely different.
'What's important to us is that the album is still full of good pop songs, because although all the four of us who are involved with songwriting have different individual music tastes, the one thing we all have in common is a love of pop music, and I think that's reflected in everything we've done together.'
But if there's one area where Hysteria does show a marked change from its predecessor, it's in that of instrumental arrangements. Whereas the band that recorded Dare prided itself in relying only on vocals and synthesisers, the new album contains as much guitar, bass and grand piano as it does electronic keyboards. Not for the first time, Burden has a simple explanation.
'The insistence that we use only synths was really a legacy that Philip and Adrian (Wright) had carried with them from the previous group. In a sense it was no bad thing because it meant that Jo (Callis) and I had to learn a lot about electronics and computers that we probably wouldn't have done if we hadn't joined the band, but Philip and Adrian have proved now that you can make successful pop records using just synths, so we're now at the stage where we use whatever instrument will work best. I play quite a lot of bass, and Jo's been playing almost as much guitar as he did when he was with the Rezillos!'
The revolution hasn't been confined to guitars, however. The League have also made some additions to their armoury of electronic instruments, the most notable of these being a Synclavier, purchased specifically with Hysteria in mind.
'We bought the Synclavier essentially because we'd heard so many good things about it, and we'd been interested in getting a sampling system for a while. Martin had had a Fairlight at Genetic that we'd fiddled about with from time to time, but personally I found its sound quality never really impressed me all that much: it seemed to add its own character to every sample you made on it. We got the Synclavier on the grounds that its fidelity was greater, and I think to a large extent our experiences bear that out, though that's not to say we didn't have some trouble with it, because we did - lots of it.
The main problem seems to be related to the fact that, whereas the Fairlight essentially has two computers - one for sampling and one for timing - the Synclavier has to make do with just the one. A lot of the time we were using a LinnDrum code transferred to tape to run the Synclavier's sequencer, but although it ran beautifully in conjunction with its own FM synthesised sounds, with our samples there would be occasions where it would lose track of itself, especially if the sequence was a very fast one.
'What was even more annoying about it was that we found ourselves spending hours on end trying to prove that the Synclavier could or couldn't do what we wanted it to, to the extent that we quite often forgot what we were setting out to achieve in the first place. There was one occasion - when we working on the track 'Love Me Again... (Six Times)' - that I remember quite clearly. We'd done a pretty good sample of real trumpets to play a brass part and loaded that part into the Synclavier, and it just couldn't replay it right - perhaps it was too funky for it, I don't know! Anyway, after hours of trying to get the thing to work, we eventually gave up and Jo played it manually with the tape slowed down: it ended up sounding fine.
'I think the concept behind the Synclavier is brilliant, and some of the technology it uses is quite mind-boggling, but in practice it isn't absolutely right yet. The thing is, I get the feeling that it won't be too long before we look on something like the Synclavier as being really primitive. When you think back to the sorts of things John Cage was using back in 1958, lots of little black boxes wired up together, and how far we've come since then, it makes you wonder what the ultimate instrument is going to be in, say, ten years' time.
'We've also just got a DX7 which I really like, especially its touch-sensitive keyboard which is such a relief after some of the keyboards you get on instruments these days. There really is an awful lot of it on the album, when you consider that we only got it two weeks before the end of the recording!
'We didn't actually get as far as programming any of our own sounds into it, though we did edit Yamaha's cartridge voices quite extensively. In any case, it isn't really the sort of instrument where you can program sounds from nothing. I mean, can you imagine thinking of a certain sound in your head and then trying to work out which particular algorithm would be the most suitable? The only thing you can do is find a sound that's reasonably close to what you want and then alter it, and that's what we did.
The DX was one of those instruments that just became instantly usable, and in a way it started to overshadow some of the other synths we were using like the Roland Jupiter 8 and System 100M.
'It sounds so convincing at times it can get a bit worrying. There's one song on the new album that's called 'Life On Your Own' that, has what sounds like George Benson playing guitar on it. Jo has been worried ever since that people are going to wonder why he's started playing the guitar like George Benson, when in fact the whole thing is just me and Philip playing the DX7!'
So, given that the arrival of new instruments was probably a minor contribution to the new album's late arrival, I wondered if internal disruption within the band had also played its part.
'Well, obviously when there are four of you all involved with writing songs, there are always going to be arguments going on from time to time, but really there was nothing particularly devastating this time around. To be honest, writing by committee has never really bothered us, because we don't have any set formula for composing that we always stick to. The nearest we get to that rigidity is that almost everything we do starts off as being one particular person's idea, which then gets passed around to anyone who's interested for them to work on.
'In general, though, that original idea can be more or less anything: a particular melody line or chord sequence, a really good drum machine pattern, or maybe even just a synth sound that's appealing. I think that's one of the reasons why a lot of our songs sound so different to each other - it really is quite hard to pinpoint a particular song and say that is a typical Human League record, because they're written in so many different ways.
'One constant thing we are quite aware of is the need to keep things sparse. It's not a desire to make everything sound that way, but we do feel quite strongly that it's better to have one element of a song that's really good - say, a really memorable melody - than to include something that isn't as strong and end up having to record about 40 tracks' worth of overdubs to get it to sound decent.
The same thing goes for synth sounds. I do get a bit worried if a lot of effects units and little black boxes start getting plugged in to be put on a certain sound. It makes me think that maybe the sound isn't really good enough in the first place, and if that is the case, then I'll usually try to find something better.'
So, having overcome production upheavals, writing differences and computer hiccups, the band have finally succeeded in completing their recording, and Hysteria is in the shops. Will they be going on tour to promote it? For once, Ian Burden isn't quite sure.
'There was a time when I considered the whole business of playing live rather archaic, especially for a band like ours which really came together for the first time in the studio. When we did the tour after Dare, I think it was pretty evident that we'd never played together as a band before, and I felt at the time that the whole thing was a bit of a distraction from the real business of making records.
'On the other hand, I know that Joanne and Susanne get a lot out of it - in fact I'd say it's probably the thing they enjoy most - and I've even begun to change my opinion on it. We did a video for 'The Lebanon' recently at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where we mimed to playback in front of an invited audience. It was surprisingly exciting for us, and the audience were great, even though we weren't actually playing.
'I don't want to commit myself one way or the other though, because there are a lot of things that have still got to be finalised. Anyway, after all the things that have happened in the last year and a half, I'm a little bit wary of making too many promises!'
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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