Power In The Darkness
After five years in the wilderness, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are back with a new LP and tour. Tim Goodyer talks to Andy McCluskey about the value of technology.
After a five-year hiatus and the departure of Paul Humphreys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are back with a new album, a new tour and some new kit.
FROM THE MOMENT ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES in the Dark first broke into the Top 20 (with 'Enola Gay' in 1980), you had to wonder if they were capable of doing it again. Taking advantage of the post-punk open-mindedness of the British pop audience, they took to the stage armed with a few synths, a tape recorder and a deceptively simple style of songwriting. So idiosyncratic was their sound, they could easily have been dismissed as a one-hit wonder. But they did it again - and again. First with 'Souvenir' and 'Joan of Arc' in '81, then with 'Maid of Orleans' in '82, with 'Locomotion' in '83, then 'Talking Loud and Clear' in '84... Most recently 'Sailing on the Seven Seas', taken from album number nine, Sugar Tax, has put OMD back into the charts - and teen magazines - in 1991. The sound is still unmistakably that of the band who penned 'Enola Gay', but much has changed in the intervening decade.
Taking precious time out of the few days between the close of an American tour and the opening of a tour of Britain, Andy McCluskey seems happy to talk about the new album and the events preceding its release - including the departure of "the other half" of OMD, keyboardsman Paul Humphreys.
"In thinking about it and analysing it over the last three years", he explains in his distinctive Liverpudlian accent, "what I've basically boiled it down to is that Paul Humphreys wanted to make some music that sounded like Paul Humphreys and not like OMD, because OMD was dominated by Andy McCluskey. There was all sorts of little intricacies but that, I think, is basically it.
"You know, when you're working with somebody you don't analyse how it works, you just get on and do it. Now I've had a chance to sit down and think about how we used to work. Although we wrote the songs together, and the parts were written by both of us, the basic direction of the band, the overall personality that was stamped on the band, was usually mine. Paul is a natural and intuitive musician, he writes and plays things out of the top of his head. I'm the one who did all the thinking and grafting because I don't think I'm as gifted as Paul. So I'm the one who had to think 'why don't we do a song that would sound like that?', 'why don't we write a song about this?' or 'why don't we use these instruments?'. So I did the steering and the overall arranging and production, if you like, and Paul did the natural creative thing. Ultimately he just figured that he knew how to arrange songs as well, so why did I always get to do it? So he decided to leave and do his own thing. And having heard what he's done, it does sound as if he's done the right thing."
Cribbing from the official record company biog, the pair first met at school in 1968. They formed their first band together in 1977, and spent around 13 years working together as OMD. However you look at it, the split had the makings of a very difficult time.
"It was very difficult to begin with", admits McCluskey. "I think it was very difficult for both of us to begin with. It wasn't made any easier by the fact that we had lots of contracts to sort out. Once lawyers get involved they stir all the shit up because they want to make more money out of you. So it was messy and it dragged on but now everything's sorted out.
"I look back now and during everything that happened - Paul's departure, the year in which I was depressed and didn't do anything musical - I didn't want to stop. But it's a good thing I did because I had to have a rest. I'd had ten years of non-stop music and I'd run out of energy; I had no more enthusiasm or ideas left. Then I realised that I didn't have to work with just the same people any more. It was nerve-wracking to start with because I didn't have anybody to bounce ideas off or get ideas from, but I also didn't have to put up with peoples' egos any more. I could go and work with anybody but I didn't have to use their ideas. If they gave me one I liked, I could use it, and if they didn't, I could throw them away without hurting them or upsetting them because a band member's pride wasn't in the way. I feel much more positive and enthused than I have for years.
"Paul and I were having trouble writing songs '86, '87 and '88 - that's why we released a Best of. I to buy ourselves some time. On Paul's departure I was still having trouble writing songs because I was tired and depressed, and didn't have any energy. I was starting to think 'I can't do it with him, I can't do it without him, what the hell am I going to do?'. It was meeting a couple of people in town that got me kick-started again. We wrote a couple of songs that were used on the album and they sound great and it really renewed my enthusiasm. But without meeting these guys... I'm using all these cliches, but I hope you get the idea. I really needed something to get me going again, and writing two songs with other people - using some of their ideas - helped me get started. Once I got started I got enthusiastic and I was so relieved. It was like I can still write good songs, I haven't lost it. Once I realised that, away I went."
Stuart Kershaw and Lloyd Massett were the catalysts McCluskey had been looking for. They met at Liverpool's Pink Museum studio - where some of Sugar Tax was later to be recorded - and the original arrangement was for McCluskey to produce a song for their band, Raw Unltd. According to McCluskey, the project was "a complete disaster", but the team who were to write five tracks for the ninth OMD LP were together. McCluskey went on to write a further six without assistance and a further track was drawn from a band who had heavily influenced OMD from the outset: 'Neon Lights' by Kraftwerk.
Of the meeting with Kershaw and Massett McCLuskey says: "I had a reggae song I was working on, and since they were a bass player and a drummer and I couldn't get the groove right, I asked them if they would come and give me a hand. And it just went from there."
Where it didn't go for McCluskey's new partners, however, was into the recording studio. And if there is blame to be attributed, it must lie at the feet of technology.
"Working with a computer, I had their performances recorded from the rehearsals and the songwriting. So when I actually got into the studio, it was just me and my Atari - plus whoever did the singing."
"With this album I've gone back to the rigid feel of machine-generated rhythms set against the melodies and the choirs."
The result is a selection of songs which sit well in the tradition of early OMD. The melodies are simple and addictive, the rhythm tracks laden with electronic percussion, samples and rich synth pads. While many of the tracks represent likely contenders for the forthcoming Gallup charts, more experimental material is also in evidence. In addition to the cover of 'Neon Lights', a track called 'Apollo XI' forgoes a vocal in favour of samples taken from the first moon landing. Although Paul Hardcastle's '19' remains possibly the best recognised example of the "found speech" pop song, it should be remembered that the format has also been explored by other artists - including OMD. From '86's Pacific Age album, 'Southern' made powerful use of excerpts from the speeches of Martin Luther King. It's less emotive subject matter, perhaps, but 'Apollo XI' reaffirms McCluskey's willingness to experiment.
APART FROM CHATTING TO MT, ANDY McCluskey has to remix a 12-inch single and prepare a backing tape for a TV appearance before embarking on his UK tour. But if the description of his approach to making music and his studio-based lifestyle give the impression of a musician seeking perfection through technology, think again.
"Most people would think that anybody who'd done a whole album with only one live guitar take on it would be a perfectionist, but I'm quite the opposite", he comments.
"Sonically, Sugar Tax is still not the best-recorded album in the world", he continues. "OMD will never win record production awards because of the way I work. I really don't like being in the studio. I like writing songs and I like playing them live, the bit in the middle is a means to an end. I don't waste time in the studio, I just bash things down. I try to get a good engineer who will say to me 'I think that sounds a bit shit, actually Andy, I think we should try for a better sound', because I will throw down the first thing I've got and live with it. In some respects it's good because you get a really loose and vibey feel. I write four bars, repeat them to the end of the song and put a few snare fills in to say 'this is the chorus and this is the verse'. I think it keeps the interest factor together and as long as I've got a good engineer to keep some of my primitive urges under control it gets the energy into the record. Then I get somebody to help me mix it and hope that it will sound reasonably 'hi-fi'.
"I work in sections of two, four or eight. When I've got one bit right I'll say that's the verse and then I'll copy the drums over and write a chord change - in fact I usually take the bassline and transpose it, take the chords and transpose them. I don't even play the chorus or whatever, I just transpose the verse!
"'Seven Seas' was written and programmed in less than 45 minutes - that's the way to do it! Stuart Kershaw who wrote it with me just happened to walk in the studio while I was doing it, and I said 'Listen, if I sing this in the verse, I've got two bars of blank. What am I going to do?' So he wrote the link and the chord progression for the chorus. And all the piano playing and the cheesy organ solo in the middle is completely unquantised - I just took it on the computer and that was it. It never got looked at again. And it worked."
Regardless of his views on technology, however, drawing McCluskey out about his equipment and working methods reveals that gear has been the key to the existence of OMD from the outset.
"It's funny really", he reflects, "from day one we had this tag of being a 'techno' or an 'electrical' band. We used the technology but we were always primitive, everything was played 'by hand'. If you listen to our first album, the timing slips a go-go because it wasn't sequenced or anything."
Even so, taking to the stage in 1986 with a Fairlight was hardly low-tech...
"It took me long enough to get used to the old Fairlight IIx", he recalls. "That was made redundant in '87/'88 by the table-top computers and the new music programs. It took me six months to get into the Steinberg largely because whoever writes and translates their manuals needs hanging. They are the worst manuals in the world. I hate reading manuals anyway, and to get to the last page and think 'what?'... The only way to learn a music program is to sit down with someone and have them show you how it works. So once I learned the Steinberg, I was not in a hurry to learn anything else!
"I used quite a lot of analogue stuff because it's difficult for samplers and digital synths to get the weight of analogue synths."
"Being a complete bloody Luddite, I learnt Pro24 as quickly as I could because I wanted to write songs on it. But it was always a source of dismay to me that, whenever I was in a studio with somebody else who knew how the program worked, they'd do something and I'd go 'how did you do that?'. They'd say 'oh, you just go to this page... And I'd say 'bloody hell, I've just spent 20 minutes doing it like this!'. It was in the manual if I'd persevered with it, but I wanted to write songs.
"Having seen some of the others, I personally think that Pro24 v3 has got the best graphics. When you're sat looking at the screen for eight or ten hours, or however many hours a day it is, how it looks is as important as how it works. I like the Steinberg because it's chunky and solid, and there's a lot of dark areas.
"I could never get me head round Passport's Mastertracks. I don't like Cubase - although I can use it. I know Cubase is infinitely superior in its various uses and options to what Pro24 ever was. But it looks like Mastertracks: it's all white with little black bits on. It looks tinny and 'orrible, and I won't use it. So I'll continue to use Pro24 unless Steinberg do something more interesting with the graphics on Cubase. If they could make Cubase look like Pro24..."
Never mind the software, what about the hardware?
"The rest of the system is quite limited really. There's an S1000, M1 - the Sugar Tax album is the M1. Every single pad, I think is M1. Not just M1, but program 07, 'Symphonic' and program 27 which is one of the choral patches. Those two dominate the album.
"The S1000 and the Korg M1 were the two main instruments. I used two drum machines. For a lot of the percussion and hi-hats and things I used an RX5 - if you solo any of the cymbals you can hear the loops on them. The other thing I used was the little Alesis HR16 - again because it's a piece of cake to use. I love things which are easy to program. It's also a very real-sounding machine. The only trouble with it is that you really have to work at the hi-hats and the tambourine with the EQ to get any sort of top out of them. It's funny but I was talking to somebody who uses an Alesis and he asked me what it was I'd used for the hi-hats and tambourine. I told him and he said 'Bloody hell, I thought it was, you can hear it a mile off.'
"The rest of the stuff I've used is bits and pieces. There's a little Casio CZ230S - it's a lovely little machine but you can't edit on it unless you hook up a computer to it. I wish you could edit on it, actually, because it's got some lovely sounds. The cheesy organ solo in the middle of 'Sailing on the Seven Seas' was done on that. It's also got one of those features where, if you don't send a MIDI signal through it for five minutes or something, it switches itself off. If you've got it in a chain you can find yourself thinking 'something's missing...' And you find the Casio's gone off and taken everything that was in the chain out with it. I also used a Matrix 1000, Super JX, TX81Z and a Proteus which I love. I've got a Roland D110 which I never use because it's such a pain to operate. It's a multi-function button nightmare, that machine, so it just sits there dormant in the rack. And that is it, that's what I used on the album apart from one live instrument - a guitar (Stuart Boyle) on 'Sailing on the Seven Seas'. Everything else was either played by the computer or was a vocal.
"Here's another gripe coming up: I hate multifunction buttons. Ever since the keyboard manufacturers 'went digital' and put multi-function buttons on everything, you have to go back to the manual and go 'OK, it's two up and three down, press this button, scroll that up and this down, flick to this page and scroll that up...' And the worst thing is that they call everything by different names - it's not ADSR any more, it's Breakpoint 1, 2 and 3 or T1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. It drives me mental. That's why I like the old analogue synths: one knob did one thing. You could see the ADSR, you could see the volume control, you could see the filter. So now I use factory presets because I can't be arsed to get into the machine and edit it."
I suppose it's silly to point out that the old analogue machines you used in the early '80s didn't have any of these shortcomings...
"We used analogue a long time ago and when we were looking for new sounds, obviously we went for digital sounds. Then, of course, I was faced with the problem of having loads of analogue synths that weren't MIDI compatible. It's a pain trying to find somebody who can do a MIDI conversion for you and a lot of the conversions you can find seem to be rather dodgy - having to switch on while holding buttons down and count up the keys for the MIDI channel and all the rest of it.
"I've got all kinds of old Prophets and Jupiters that I'm definitely going to get done because I'm absolutely sick of digital sounds now. I'm definitely going more and more analogue. I did actually use quite a lot of analogue bass stuff on the album because it's very difficult for samplers and digital synths to get the kind of weight you get out of analogue synths."
"I really don't like being in the studio - I like writing songs and I like playing them live, the bit in the middle is a means to an end."
COMING UP TO DATE, THERE'S THE QUESTION of preparing studio material for the road. McCluskey has stuck with his "traditional" role - that of singer and bass player - and recruited three fresh faces to help him out. The lineup of drummer Abe Juckes, and keyboardsmen Nigel Ipinson and Phil Coxon that's about to do the rounds in Britain is the same one that toured the States.
"Abe and Nigel joined early on", McCluskey recalls.
"They were in all the videos and on Top of the Pops and everything. Phil only joined three weeks before the tour. He engineered on the album. I was away in America doing the video for 'Pandora's Box' and Nigel was in the studio auditioning people for the tour. He phoned me up one day and said 'Listen Andy, I was in here today and we auditioned four more people and I'm still not sure'. Phil was in the studio and said 'If you can't find anybody, I'll do it'. So Nigel said 'there's only three weeks before the tour, what do you think?'. So he was in.
"We rehearsed everything and made all the samples and backing tapes in three weeks flat. And to our surprise and delight, we didn't fall apart on the first night. It all worked. I was amazed.
"One thing I really underestimated was how much work there was to do, though. I'd lost all the old backing tapes, so for all the old songs we wanted to play we had to get the master tapes and make new backing tapes from samples of the original recordings. And of course, I had a new band who had to learn all the new songs - it wasn't like they knew all the old songs already so we only had eight to learn. We had to learn 21 songs from scratch and I didn't realise just how long that was going to take. Thank God (a) that they were prepared to work so hard and (b) that Nigel's a trained musician. He worked it all out by ear - I just gave him a copy of The Best of and Sugar Tax and said 'Sort it!'. He would say 'What key is 'Locomotion' in?' and I'd say 'Listen to the bloody record, I haven't got a clue'."
On stage the two keyboard players have almost identical systems: Ipinson plays a Roland A80 mother keyboard MIDI'd into a rack, an S1000 with 8Meg of memory, an M1R and a D550. He also has a Roland piano module as a safety precaution in case anything else goes down. Coxon's setup substitutes a Cheetah mother keyboard for the Roland and forgoes the piano module. Juckes' drumkit, meanwhile, is half acoustic and half SDX loaded with custom samples. Most surprisingly, McCluskey is still using a four-track tape machine live - surely '90s technology would allow OMD to leave their old methods behind?
"Our very first gigs were just two of us and a four-track", McCluskey agrees. "This time I was going to go sequenced, but I didn't have the time to get all the programs and, to be honest, I didn't have the money to buy enough S1000s. We worked it out, and it would have meant several racks of S1000s which would have cost 15 or 20 grand, or something. And when I was getting ready to go on tour the album hadn't come out so I hadn't sold any records. I'd spent all me money making the album and I didn't know how successful it was going to be.
"It's a really nice, simple system", McCluskey continues. "We just have the four-track with track one as a click, track two for bass, track three is sequences and track four is any extra percussion. It's simple for us but poor old Abe has to listen to a click for 18 out of 21 songs.
"Once I'd decided we weren't going to go sequenced, I thought 'Right, we'll go digital'. And of course, nobody makes a four-track DAT machine. To get two DATs synced up was going to cost about ten grand, and something like the Akai ADAM is expensive and you can only get 20 minutes on the cassettes. There was nothing digital that would work for us that was in my price range. The two Teacs were less than two grand - we're only using one but we've got them synced together in case one goes down."
At least it's a tried and tested system.
Going back to '86's interview, Paul Humphreys claimed the duo "wanted to try out some of our earlier ideas, but with 1986 technology".
"Did he really?", responds McCluskey, "that's what I've been telling people now.
"It's weird because in the mid-'80s we were going in two separate directions at the same time. We were using a Fairlight which at the time was state of the art - although now you can hardly give the buggers away - and we were using more and more acoustic instruments. With hindsight I think the band lost its direction. The more acoustic instruments we used, the more we lost the sound of the band. I'll probably tell you something different in five years time, but as of now I'm convinced that the distinctive sound of OMD is the juxtaposition of the rhythm technology - samples, drum machines and bass sequences - and the emotional side of the lyrics, melody, choral and string pads that float across the top. It's the tension created between those two elements that is the sound of OMD. The band lost the plot when we took away one of those elements - the electronics. The more acoustic we sounded, the less there was that tension that was the sound of the band. What I tried to do with this album was go back to the simplicity of the programming, the rigid feel of machine-generated rhythms set against the melodies and the choirs. I've had enough time to live with the songs on the album now that I think it works. I think the feel is back in."