The Human League
Jo Callis explains how one of popular music's top bands works
In April 1982 we examined Martin Rushent's production work with the Human League and noted the ways in which electronics — from the relatively simple Casio VL-1 to the versatile MC-4, Fairlight and Wave computers — have begun to figure strongly in the pop charts. Now the Human League have new single releases and an album forthcoming which integrates even further the use of conventional and electronic instrumentation. Songwriter and guitarist Jo Callis explained to us what the League have been doing, how they organise their work on tours and in the studio, and what plans they have for the future.
We toured America, Australia and Japan starting last April, with very brief stops in Canada and Iceland. 'Don't You Want Me' was starting to break in the States, partly as a result of our TV and radio appearances which seemed to help as much as the live concerts. That was a very exciting time for us; our earlier US single 'Love Action' didn't really do much over there.
We got back from the tour in mid-June and started to write new material almost immediately. We'd already managed to work two new songs into the set, one of which was 'Mirror Man'. We called this one 'Can't Get To Sleep At Night' in concerts but we changed the chorus. There was also another one that isn't completely recorded yet called 'Don't You Know I Want You', and apart from those two we didn't really have anything else fully finished.
Phil Oakey plays a little synthesiser live but he's more interested in the programming side that takes place before the concert, such as the chains in the Linn drum machine. After seeing one at Martin Rushent's studio we saw the advantages of using it live, in addition to the MC4. Phil's the only one of the band familiar with programming that also.
Adrian Wright plays some synthesiser but he's mainly involved with the visual side and still provides a very extensive slide show. On the tour he used whole banks of slide projectors, about 17 machines in all, which provide back projections from a gantry behind the stage. The slides are sequenced to fit in with the songs in most cases.
We don't use backing tapes, although the Linn and TR808 are pre-programmed of course, and beyond that it's difficult to break everything down and say once and for all who plays what. On tour, we have a Roland Bass Guitar Synth for Ian Burden, who also plays some conventional bass and a Yamaha monophonic synth. I've played some keyboards with the Human League including live work, but I'm basically a guitarist and have been using a Roland Guitar Synth on the 'Mirror Man' single and on the new album. Mike Douglas, who's played with Orchestral Manoeuvres, helped us out on the tour with a Prophet 10 and later a Jupiter 8; the group now has its own Jupiter 8, and also its own Linn which we bought just after recording 'Dare'.
In the studio we also use Martin's Fairlight, a Roland 700 system, a Wave 2 and so on. If we know there's a good patch on the Jupiter 8 we'll tend to try that first, but we like to give everything a try and used the Wave and System 700 quite a lot on 'Dare'. The Fairlight has only been added recently; Phil's just got his own MC4 so he's been doing a lot of programming, and we use it in conjunction with the Jupiter 8 via an interface. Ian plays some keyboards as well as a lot of bass.
Martin's contribution, or any producer's contribution, is very important of course. For instance, after having used the Linn on Dare we found you can become aware of what it sounds like — after all it plays the recorded sounds of one particular drum kit with the basic set of chips — and short of reverb and EQ you can't do a lot to it. We wanted at least to make it different; we used the AMS delay a lot, including making short samples of riffs and repeating them.
We had one guitar synth piece which was very difficult to play as a repeated riff, partly because it was complicated and partly because the other strings tend to pick up a lot on a guitar synth. Martin managed to record it in two parts on the AMS and trigger it every time we wanted it.
The Human League also have their own studio in Sheffield which is like a little workship for demos and rehearsals. It's in a derelict building, we keep the synths and an 8-track there. Phil has a Fostex 8-track at home and Adrian makes up his own demos on a Portstudio or in the 8-track studio. At some stage we'll need to expand to 16 track — 8 track is OK until you start wanting to record time codes, for instance to trigger the AMS with a sampled snare sound to replace the Linn sound. 16 track gives you more space to develop your ideas, it allows you to slot in little pieces which can be taken out if they don't work but often turn out better than you'd ever expect.
When we're recording songs in the studio that use the active bass or the bass guitar synth, Ian might find himself developing a particular style, but that's not to say that he's limited to playing the bass or that he can't play some keyboards. I play all the guitar synth pieces but we still want to develop and use new instruments, and new ways of working.
The basis of the group is now songwriting rather than sounds; the song is the backbone. We've developed a good clean sound, but every song still seems to come together in a different way. The B-side of 'Mirror Man' was written entirely by Phil and demoed on his Fostex 8-track at home, but that's a departure because up till then most of the songs have been collaborations. On Dare the people who wrote the song tended to play most of it, but having played them all live it's a bit different now.
It's difficult, for instance, for 3 people to work on a demo of a song — 4 is impossible! On Dare it was usually done in two's, one person would have a basic idea and somebody else would develop it. 'Don't You Want Me', for instance, was like a chain reaction of ideas, ending up with Martin's ideas on the production side.
The single 'Mirror Man' is my music and Phil's words and melody. I had the music in my head and bought a Yamaha Portasound to go with the Casio VL-tone I always carry with me. The Portasound is good for checking up on a tune just before you go on stage, because we don't write anything down, it's either in our heads, on tape when we've finished an album or inside the Linn as a chain of numbers. Sometimes I write down chord names, but none of us can read or write music as such. Martin does that sometimes when he's producing, but I think the first rule of music is that there are no rules. Anything should go, and if something's good it will shine through whether it's based on classical training or not. I've seen a lot of bands who I've enjoyed although they were almost incompetent on their instruments, because they obviously had good ideas.
We're not particularly worried about improving our musical technique. The only thing that would worry me is if I went for three months without being able to write a song; it would never worry me that I couldn't play a Jimmy Page guitar solo!
When we're writing we get influences from everywhere. 'Mirror Man' is very much Tamla Motown influenced, nearly everyone in the group likes Soul, things like Chic for instance, and you get to the stage where Soul records begin to sound as if they're influenced by the Human League. A friend of mine introduced me to the guitarist of Chic in New York and I was knocked out. I was explaining to him how much they'd influenced the sound of the Human League. At the same time he was saying Chic had been listening to us to get a few ideas!
Hopefully the girls (Joanne Catherall and Sue Sulley) will get into writing before too long. At the moment they put a lot into the group in terms of spirit and chemistry, which is important in modern music; and also in terms of objectivity, for instance they can listen to an idea and say they like it or they don't like it, and know a good song when they hear it whether they could write one of their own or not. To me it's very important to have objective viewpoints, to have the opinions of people you can trust. You can lock yourself in and record for a month and at the end of it you don't really know if it's any good unless you play it to someone.
Ian's been in groups before, and I've been playing for 14 years now, since I was 17, and making a living out of it for most of that. Keyboards and synthesisers are new to me, so I'm still learning a lot. I used to play guitar with the Revillos, going back a few years now, and I often find myself thinking back to an idea I had maybe six years ago and finishing it off. If an idea's good, it stays in your head, even if it means taking years on and off involve the group but just their production on a Portastudio or in the 8-track studio. At records, one from one of Ian's old groups and one from one of mine.
On the other hand I think pressure can sometimes be a good thing, although the Human League have always tried to avoid being forced into a situation where they had to write songs when they didn't want to. It's been a year since the last record came out, so we obviously haven't been forced into anything before we're ready. By rushing something out the career of a group can only suffer; now we've got an abundance of ideas for the LP.
We don't like to make too many future plans, but at least part of the year will be spent touring to support the new LP when it's released. Usually we don't use film of live concerts for TV; Adrian did a film course and I did some TV work at art college, Phil's interested as well, and so when we do videos for Top of the Pops or if we ever do a special videotape we'd prefer to do something that's more of a marriage between music and visuals. Possibly the images wouldn't even involve the group but just their production and direction.
In the old days on Top of the Pops some people sang live, and even nowadays a few re-record their backing tracks and sing live over them. We prefer to re-record everything if necessary. The music's still developing and we want to try to get as much light and shade, as much variety as possible. There's a lot more going on in the rhythms, and using bass guitar more than keyboard bass we can get a high slap sound, a much more fluid rhythm. In addition to using the Ibanez active bass we usually take the Linn's snare sound out into the studio to give it far more ambience.
For live vocals we usually use Shure SM58's, which seem to be the standard for any rock musicians once they're on a reasonable budget. The backing vocals are usually there from the very first stages of writing a song; for instance when we were writing 'Don't You Want Me' Phil thought it would be a good idea to have the first verse from one point of view and the second verse from another, so Sue sings the second one from a girl's point of view.
When we're recording now we have to do bar counts and things as well as writing down the lyrics and the music (which Martin usually does) because we're using machines as well as live musicians. To be honest, I prefer to just dabble with machines to get the basics, and find out the details as we're using them. I find reading manuals really hard graft, but Phil on the other hand will get a new piece of equipment such as the MC4 and sit with it and the manual until he's learned it all, even if it takes him a month!
The Human League have been very successful in the UK and in Europe, Iceland and Finland, and increasingly so in the US. I've worked up through various bands from rock bottom, had some success and gone right down again. But I think that's been a valuable experience and I'd still be doing what I'm doing now even if I was getting nowhere and we were all broke. I'm happy doing this because I do it for the love of it — we all just want to be able to go on doing what we're enjoying doing.