Orchestral Manoeuvres In The 90s
Andy McCluskey | OMD
Andy McCluskey reveals his dislike for synth programming and his penchant for the classics.
After what might be called a band reshuffle in the late '80s, OMD central figure Andy McCluskey bounced back with the successful Sugar Tax LP. Nigel Humberstone took a day trip to McCluskey's native Liverpool to talk about the new OMD, technology in the '90s and follow-up album Liberator.
I first remember seeing Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark way back in 1979 at the Nashville in London when they were part of a bill alongside Joy Division (now New Order) and A Certain Ratio. Gary Numan was in the audience and subsequently offered the band a support. It was early days, when OMD's sole lighting was fluorescent tubes placed upright, but it was the time when Factory records provided the band with their first step up into the limelight with their single 'Electricity', both label and group's debut release.
Fourteen years in the music business has left Andy McCluskey as hedonistic and immediate in his approach to producing pop music as ever, but at the same time the experience of creating dozens of hit singles and 10 albums has inevitably made him wiser to the demanding occupation; 1989 witnessed the splitting up of OMD, with original band founder Paul Humphreys, along with Malcolm Holiness and Martin Cooper, going their separate ways. They have recently surfaced with a new single under the name The Listening Pool.
"I'm pleased for them," professes McCluskey, "because I think they've been really frustrated not getting something out, and I'm pleased for me because it'll allow people to hear what they're doing and understand when they compare it to what I'm doing now.
"The single itself is a good catchy pop song and is very well produced and arranged, but it's not my style — it's not as rough and ready and as 'in your face' as the way I like to do things. Subtlety has never been one of my fortés.
"I like things that just grab you, and if they're going to be sad then they should be really miserably sad. It's just a difference in attitude – I'm not a good musician so I'm not into any virtuoso performance and I'm not going to spend all day programming a hi-hat fill because I can't be bothered. Phil (Coxon) is a bit more picky than me and that's why I like to work with him because I do need someone to slow me down occasionally and he's more patient than I am. When there's something to do, like editing the vocals up ready to fly them in, which I find mundane, it would drive me mad because I'm trying to get on with the song. Or with sounds — I'll just throw down the first thing I come across, whereas Phil will say 'let's make this fit together, let's just spend a couple of hours to get this right'. So I leave him to it because I haven't got the patience and I can all too easily lose the overall picture."
OMD's latest album is called Liberator, again it's a title which draws on McCluskey's apparent interest in planes of war. Like the Enola Gay, Liberator was the name given to a World War II bomber plane, and the new album's artwork is developed from the idea of bomber girls painted on plane noses.
It's evident that McCluskey is happiest when working within the context of a band — the essence of OMD is still characteristically his own, but the other members help take off some of the strain as well as adding some extra input. For Liberator, cowriter Stuart Kershaw has now officially become a band member, augmented by Nigel Ipinson (musical director and keyboards/guitar) and Phil Coxon (producer and keyboards). Coxon has a developing talent for re-mixing which has been put to good use on OMD's single releases. McCluskey: "It's great to have someone in the band like Phil, who you can trust to do 12-inch mixes. The 'Liberator' thing (a pseudonym used to release a dance version of 'Stand Above Me') has been really well received in the clubs. I've just told Phil that I need two 12-inch mixes of the next single, 'Dream Of Me', and 'Agnus Dei' by the end of May. I'm going to be far too busy so he's going to be on his own, and it's great to be able to do that and underpay him as well!"
I arrange to meet OMD at The Ministry, Andy McCluskey's rented studio/rehearsal space in the heart of Liverpool, which he's worked in since preparing for the Sugar Tax album. This particular set of self-contained rooms (drummer and cowriter Stuart Kershaw is also based here) is considered one of the best rehearsal rooms in town and Andy had a problem getting back in after foolishly giving it up whilst he toured the last album. The infamous rehearsal rooms have been host to many of Liverpool's notable bands (Echo & The Bunnymen, Dead Or Alive and Frankie Goes to Hollywood) so I wondered what type of relationship McCluskey had with the city's musical fraternity?
"There's some that I know really well, but I had to get myself re-acquainted with the music scene in Liverpool at the end of '88 and beginning of '89, because when the band packed in, there was I on my own and I didn't like it. I really met people through this building and the two studios that I use (Amazon and the Pink Museum). Having Stuart (Kershaw) here is really useful because he pops in and does some work and helps out. It's great to have him 'on tap' all the time because he's the only one in the band who's trained and who can read and write music. So if I get stuck on something — say I need a bridge section or don't know how to continue — then he'll come in and suggest ideas, bash out some chords that would have taken me hours to work out. I'm very sort of hit and miss with things like that."
Surely those mistakes must often be a good source of inspiration?
"Well, one good thing is that I don't automatically go to a chord progression that I know works or should work. I go to things that sound right and sometimes people say 'that shouldn't work!' — which is good." Stuart Kershaw, who worked with Andy on Sugar Tax, has in fact contributed as co-writer towards five of the new album's tracks.
"Drum loops: A form of laziness I've picked up from Phil. Its just instant songwriting — grab a loop, throw it in — 'OK, the drums are sorted, let's get onto the important stuff.'"
"When I write with Stuart it's quite simple; he usually comes into the room and sits down at either the M1 or JD800 and looks for a patch or sound that we haven't used before. We're spectacularly lazy — we never edit, just use the factory presets and maybe edit the release or something." This would imply that the pair consider basic sounds as an acceptable means of putting across their musical ideas. McCluskey demurs:
"No — it's just that I'm so impatient that I can't be bothered to sit down and invent a sound. I usually work from some sort of found source, be it a sample or a sound in a keyboard, but I don't sit down and edit something with a view to creating a sound. I used to, obviously, in the old days of analogue and especially before keyboards like the Jupiter 6 which had patch memories. But to be honest I hate editing on these multi-function buttons.
"Another thing is that from manufacturer to manufacturer they all give things different terms and to me it's all nonsense — I've got no time for it. It's like with the computer (Atari). Until I started working on this album with Phil (Coxon) I was four years out of date and still using Steinberg Pro 24. Phil's a Cubase fan and he said he wasn't going to produce the album until I learnt the programme! So I had to succumb, not because I didn't like it but simply because I couldn't be bothered to take two or three days out to learn how to operate it — I just wanted to keep writing songs.
"A lot of the time it's what you're used to, because the first proper computer sequencer I used was the Fairlight; God bless it, 8-track, monophonic, 8-bit sampling — the good old days!"
The new album was recorded in Liverpool at one of McCluskey's favourite studios, the Pink Museum.
"The Pink is a very strange place — it's got what must be the oldest Neve desk (a 1976 model) that's still in professional operation, which is actually great for recording electronic instruments like synths because you can't over EQ on it, in fact you can barely EQ on it actually! But with the help of a few outboard EQs, like Medicis, you can get just what you want. The studio has a great atmosphere; it's not an architectural exercise like some of the modern studios are."
Recording the new album took a reasonably swift two months, working sensible hours and not at weekends. Again, after so long in the business, McCluskey has become a wiser man.
"I've long gone off the days when we used to go round the clock at studios. I had already done a lot of work before going into the studio so I took my ideas to the conclusion where I saw them and then Phil (Coxon) would try out some of his ideas, and I would be quite happy to leave him for a few hours then come back and maybe tweak a few things and that's it — it's either working or it isn't. It stays or it goes and we carry on."
Phil Coxon: "In cases like that, and with the demos, I was seeing things from a different angle and it was fun to have the freedom to try different things out. For instance there's a sample in 'Stand Above Me' which is actually an out-take from a 'jam' with my own group. There's a section in the song where not much was happening and the 8-track was sitting at the side of the studio, so I just pressed play and this part came out, which was in exactly the right key." McCluskey: "We worked quickly, having a chart on the wall and ticked off what we planned to do as we went along. We did 15 songs and had the whole LP nailed in about five to six weeks. Then we got lazy and complacent and slowed right down. Then of course we mixed on an SSL at Parr Street Studios (formerly Amazon).
"After all this we then got into problems with the samples, which delayed the whole project and was infuriating because, and I'll say this on tape, the publishing company really let us down. They had a list of all the samples to clear before we went into the studio and when we finished the album they hadn't even started. So we were faced after finishing it, with having to take samples out and change things around. We also decided to do some remixing, because even though I think the sound that we got was a lot better than the last LP, where I'd been basically producing it myself, we decided that we'd worked too hard on certain things. So some of the tracks were remixed in London by Greg Jackman. We were paranoid about getting anything redone but basically Greg re-engineered it all, didn't ditch any of the ideas but instead just made it sonically sound better. We finally got confident with him and would send him all the Cubase programmes and samples and were content to leave it with him for a day and then on the second day just go in and tweak a few things to our own personal taste. He did about half the album in the end."
"Editing: From manufacturer to manufacturer they all give things different terms and to me it's all nonsense — I've got no time for it."
Something that McCluskey doesn't commit to tape immediately is his vocals, which he formulates progressively as the song is being written. When a performance is called for at the demo stage this is usually the version which finds its way into the final mix.
"The vocals come from about two sources — there's a few songs which are specifically about something, where I'm actually trying to write a story about a subject I'm interested in, like 'Pandora's Box', which was about Louise Brooks. So those types come from one direction but usually the music comes first, and the song will be virtually complete when I get the idea for the vocal. And they're usually the most emotional ones because they're the ones where I'm singing what's in my head and what I'm feeling at the time. Almost all of the vocals on the album are sampled from the demos (at the Pink Museum) — they might be a bit shaky pitch-wise, but they also had a great feel because it was often the first time I'd sung it."
With the purchase of a Tascam DA88 for live work (see later), I wondered if McCluskey would in future consider recording his vocals digitally in his own studio.
"Not really — I made a point of not recording my vocals in here because one of the things I always used to find in the old days, when we used to write a lot of songs in the recording studio, was that they'd be recorded not long after the track was laid to tape. And you'd find that you had a different way of singing; more expressive and with more variety because you'd developed it.
"So as it is now, I'm in here with the computer playing the track and I'm singing to myself and you don't want to do a performance too early because you try things out and harmonies come to mind. Besides which the quality of my vocal demos is bad enough in a real recording studio, let alone if we started recording in here! At the Pink Museum they have a brilliantly designed acoustic room — then they went and placed a glass pagoda on top of the roof. So it acts as a fabulous bass trap and when you hit around 125 Hz in your voice you get this boom. We tried all sorts of baffles but couldn't get it any better so it's there to stay."
Of course little idiosyncracies like that can help add character to a piece of music...
"Yeah, it can be good, and I wonder if it affects the tuning of the way you sing? I've got a Studiomaster desk and we've had it to bits to try and get rid of this hum, even when all the channels are off. Now I'm convinced that this hum is affecting the key in which I write all of my songs. I should get a tuner out and find what pitch it's in!"
Whilst discussing McCluskey's succesful relaunch into the charts with 1991's Sugar Tax album, I wondered if any of the songs from that period had been carried over to the new album?
"Yes, there were a few left over which are on the new LP. 'Christine' was a track that I couldn't get the drum programming right on, which I've now fixed by putting in two drum loop samples — which I think is a form of laziness that I've picked up from Phil. It's just instant songwriting — grab a loop, throw it in — 'OK, the drums are sorted, let's get onto the important stuff.'"
As you can probably tell, McCluskey has got into sampling and currently works with three Akai S1000s, an instrument on which Coxon excels and has ultimately introduced to McCluskey. Countless CDs are evident in McCluskey's workspace and the method of instantly grabbing a sample has inspired many a new song, most notably 'Dream Of Me', which is based around 1974's Love Unlimited classic.
"Presets: Were spectacularly lazy — we never edit, just use the factory presets and maybe edit the release or something."
"That again was brought over from the last LP," admits McCluskey. "At the time I'd sampled 'Love's Theme', made my own song out of it and, being scrupulously honest, sent off the demos for permission from Barry White and he said no!
I couldn't get out of it because the whole thing was built around the sample, so it didn't make it on the last LP. This time I decided I'd have another go, took the sample out and started to recreate all the sounds but changing the key of things. We spent weeks re-arranging it so that he couldn't sue us, only at the end of it all for the legal department at Virgin to have a hernia and say that it was still too close to the original. So we decided to go back to Barry White with our new song and he said 'Yes, but can you put the sample back in'! Finally we got the track finished at about four in the morning the day before cutting. Barry actually wanted to sing on the track but in the end he didn't have time."
Another 'sampling' story, concerning the track 'Agnus Dei', is relayed by McCluskey.
"The main lead sample is from a piece of cathedral music by Christopher Tye. The record company were reluctant to give the rights because they thought it was profane to surround it with 'horrendous' rave music. So I had to write this long letter to them; fortunately religious choral music is what I listen to at home all the time so I knew what I was talking about. One argument was that just because it was atonal and in a 'difficult environment' was no reason to disallow it as a legitimate piece of music, cue examples by Arvo Part and Penderecki — which I think impressed them. But finally," jokes McCluskey, "all their morals fell out of the window when we offered them a large amount of money!"
"When I was putting a band together for Sugar Tax it was like saying to prospective members 'it might be for one video or six months touring.' Luckily the album really took off and everyone's confident about this one so we'll start touring at the end of August. Preparing for a tour is one of the easiest periods for me because that's when Phil and Nigel have to put all their samples and patches together. All I've got to do is stand at the front and make a dickhead of meself singing!"
Having used Teac 4-tracks to provide backing tracks for the previous tour, OMD have have this time around bought two Tascam DA88s (one to be synchronised as a back-up). Coxon: "Obviously there's too much to play live so we'll be using the digital 8-track which will be controlled at the drums by Stuart. The only reason we chose the Tascam as opposed to an ADAT, which we use in the studio for making slave reels, is the tape length. Some people think that having a backing tape makes life so much easier but it doesn't. It makes the sound better for the audience, but if you're playing live then you can adapt to any mistakes or changes. With tape — boy, you're stuck. There are a couple of tracks that we do play totally live, like 'Maid of Orleans', 'Joan of Arc' and 'Electricity'." McCluskey: "Most of the stuff on tape is sequences and nobody wants to stand there for one and a half hours playing repetitive basslines. But the thought of running computer sequencers live on tour is just horrifying to me. The only time I ever get stage fright is worrying about equipment breaking down, not whether we can play or not."
Kershaw (who couldn't make the interview due to a car crash) is also going to be using an S1000 with pad interface in preference to his earlier choice of a Simmons SDX kit. McCluskey: "The SDX is great but was just not reliable enough. Another thing that Phil has insisted on is getting hard drives for the Akais, one internal and one external rackmounted."
Despite the listening public's general assumption, McCluskey does not consider OMD as a 'technological' group.
"I find it very strange that OMD are suposed to be a technologically based band. We use computers and keyboards but I've got my own way of using the gear which is very, very primitive and I don't use the things to their fullest capacity. Half the time because I don't need to and half the time because I'm too lazy to get to know the instruments properly. I've even got a couple of items in my rack that I hardly ever switch on.
"Technology does keep marching on but a lot of it is just expanding on its already available capabilities. Just give me something with lots of different sounds, rack mounted with MIDI ports, no buttons, because editing is a pain in the arse — just an up and down button to scroll through all the sounds and one output because that's all I ever use — and charge half the price!"
OMD's early recordings represented a certain amount of experimentation with analogue synthesizers and electronics. Their career naturally led them through periods of technological advances which McCluskey embraced and utilised at the time but which he has largely left behind. The Mellotron, sequencing with the Fairlight, early SSL mixing and digital multitrack recording were all dabbled with, but now the approach is a more basic one. For Sugar Tax, the instrumentation was often as simple as a Korg M1 and Alesis HR16 drum machine.
"Well, yes, the last LP was distinctively Alesis HR16 and you could spot the hi-hats and tambourines a mile off, whereas this album is virtually all Akai (S1000) rather than drum boxes. I'm still using some old equipment, like the Jupiter 6 and 8, and have recently bought the Minimoog, which we've used for a lot of the basslines.
"My setup is quite limited and pretty much the same as I had for Sugar Tax, except that complementing the small Casio, D50 and M1 I'm using a lot more of the Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8, Moog and JD800. The JD's great but I can't be bothered to learn how to edit properly on it. I can see the ADSR but everything else looks unnecessarily complicated.
"It's not a case of 'Oh, we've got to have this because it's new,' it's whatever works for you — 99% of the time people cannot tell the difference between a digital recording and a good 24-track recording, so why bother? The album itself was cut from half-inches, because we didn't have the time to comp up the DATs, so literally spliced up the half-inches, like in the good old days!"
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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