The two man band out manoeuvring in the USA put Tony Mills in the picture
Recent years have seen OMD's sound become more orchestral, and their manoeuvres more complex... especially in front of packed stadiums across the USA...
Around 6000 miles from Kirby, near Liverpool, sit two rather successful non-musicians, contemplating the meaning of Life, the Universe, and supporting The Thompson Twins on a major US tour. Andy McCluskey speaks enthusiastically, giving the impression that the music biz still holds many strange and wonderful delights for him. Paul Humphreys doesn't speak — he's virtually lost his voice, with the result that three songs will probably have to be cut from the evening's set in the massive Spectrum Arena, Philadelphia.
Thus we find Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, better known of late as OMD (it fits on the posters better), supporting their latest Virgin album Crush with a massive US tour. How long have they been over there?
"We've been here since the end of October and gigging since the first of November, so we've done about 25 gigs so far. This part of our US tour is with The Thompson Twins, but we have been doing our own headline gigs too".
How have the singles from Crush gone down in the States?
"We've had one single out, and there's another now which has only been out a couple of weeks. So In Love was out and that was our first US Top 30 hit, and we've had Secret out for three or four weeks and at the moment it's number 81 with a bullet. But of course this isn't our first time in the States; we started coming here about 1980, and as time has gone by we've really not done a great deal of commercial trade here. What we've ended up really doing is showcase gigs, just coming over every year and playing New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal and LA full stop. We've built up quite a reasonable live following in those cities, but the rest of the States you can largely forget.
"It's only really been this year that we've broken out of doing those showcase gigs and decided to be humble and open for someone else, getting access to a larger audience and starting again from the bottom".
So what sizes of venue have you been playing?
"On our own gigs in the Summer we were doing quite large audiences like 3500, with 6000 in LA and eight or nine thousand in Toronto, which was great since that was the same day as the Live Aid show. But those were places where we'd played almost every year for the last five years, and if you get a couple of miles outside those cities you can forget it!"
However much the band bemoan the localisation of their appeal, it's certain that they've come a long way since Electricity, the DinDisc OMD album and the days of playing with cheap synths and 2-track backing tapes. Recently they've taken to using a Fairlight on stage (still not a very common sight) and to augmenting the sound of resident drummer Malcolm Holmes and saxophonist Martin Cooper with a two-man brass section.
So the stage setup has had to evolve. How's it looking for this particular tour?
"Depends on what kind of gig we're doing. When we're doing our own headline gigs we use the Fairlight and we have Emulators and so on, but with the Twins we're not using the Fairlight live and its Page R sequences have been loaded onto tape. The parts that are played by hand Paul had generally managed to squeeze onto Emulator disks".
Is that because the Fairlight is difficult to move offstage between sets?
"The Fairlight is very delicate to travel with anyway, and when your crew are not in control of the stage and the loading and unloading of the trucks, there's a great risk that it might get damaged because they're such fragile machines. But in terms of general reliability we've done quite well — E-mu II is a lot more reliable than its predecessor. But we've only had them on the road for about six months, whereas the Emulator I behaved very well for about a year and it was only on their second time around the world that they started to screw up.
"In the end we developed a rota system for the old E-mu Is with two on stage and one spare, and every time you got the two stage ones out one wouldn't work and you'd take it down and get the spare one out. Then the next day the spare wouldn't work and you'd get out yesterday's failure and it would work fine. If we didn't have two that were working we just had to kick one or drop it about four inches — they were largely connection faults which we could never trace".
So how do the Emulators and other keyboards work their way into the live set? Are they particularly prominent on the new songs from Crush?
"Although Crush is the album we're trying to sell at the moment, we've decided not to play just that album — in fact there are songs from all our LPs, and we're only doing two or three from Crush — So In Love, Secret and Women III. Every song has its own merits and difficulties though — some of the old ones are really easy on stage, some of them are difficult. Basically the songs that use sounds that are not conventional instruments immediately present problems, particularly if those sounds are featured so that they are intrinsic to the song. You can't really create some things on stage like you can in the studio...
"For instance, on the start of the title track of Crush there's a little set of samples taken from adverts on Japanese TV. We decided not to use either the Fairlight or an Emulator for those, so we run them in from tape".
By far the most unusual track on Crush is 88 Seconds In Greensboro. which combines a driving Joy Division-style bass with an untypically live sound. Are the band tackling that one on stage?
"The Emulator I behaved very well for about a year... only on their second time around the world they start to screw up"
"We were doing it on our headline gigs, but to be perfectly honest that's a difficult one because it uses a lot of guitars. Our stage sound is mostly keyboard dominated, and when we go over to guitars it's a different sort of setup and the whole balance changes. 88 Seconds has had a tendency to sound like World War3 because of all those thrashing guitars.
"On record you can mix your way out of it, but on stage there quite a lot of instruments playing around the same frequency, around 2-3 kHz, and it all gets too aggressive".
Too aggressive? This coming from the band who used to write songs about solar power, telephone boxes and picnics in the country. Mind you, OMD have always had a dark side, covering Lou Reed's Waiting For The Man quite energetically and turning out tunes about atom bombs, missiles and blasted industrial landscapes. How have they changed their live sound to cope with these heavier themes?
"We're playing with the basic four-piece band we've had for four or five years, Malcolm and Martin, and we're augmented by two brothers called Graham and Neil Weir who play trombone and trumpet. They also play anything else we hand them, they're the only trained musicians among us and it's quite useful when we run out of hands to be able to give them a guitar or a keyboard. We haven't had them playing much in the way of percussion parts though — Malcolm can play almost everything on the drum kit".
While the brasses blare, Malcolm thrashes away at the drums and Paul Humphreys emerges from behind his Fairlight, Emulator and tape deck to take the occasional vocal, the focus is still very much on singer/bassist Andy McCluskey, whose energetic bopping about does so much to confirm OMD's wish to be a dance band at least part of the time. But even McCluskey's role is changing gradually...
"I don't play much guitar on stage now — although I still play some bass, more than ever I'm just singing. I wish sometimes that I didn't have to play the bass at all — one night I walked out on stage and my Nady (transmitter) had packed in, so it was like one-two-three-four — shit, nothing's happening!"
But isn't the bass an important visual element of the band's live show?
"I don't know about that, but I must admit I do like to play the bass on stage. I think it's the easiest instrument to learn and to perform on, and you can get away with that bit more on it. Even though I dance around a lot I can still do that with the bass on — I've found a new bass which is still a good weight, so this is the first time in five years I haven't played a Fender Jazz. The new one is an Aria RSD Deluxe, and it's got a much smaller body but it's heavier and it's quite easy to carry around — it follows your body quite well.
"In fact that bass wasn't used on the album — I got it for the tour because it's got a much more comprehensive eq and pickup system than the old Fender Jazz. I don't use an amp and cab on stage, just the Nady direct into the monitor desk, so I really need a bit more variety and punch out of the bass. When you've got the bass in a nice big cab it's great because you can play around with it a lot more — oh, and I've also changed my strings recently. I've gone back to Rotosounds after all these years — I used Dean Markleys for years and they're nice strings, but they seem to sour off and go dull quite quickly. The way I play bass I really do beat the shit out of them, I sweat a lot and that gets everywhere, and that's no good for the strings".
At this point it seemed worthwhile discussing Paul's non-keyboard contributions to the band's live set. Voiceless as he was at the time of our interview, wouldn't it have been possible for him to give his vocal duties over to Andy?
"Well, we've already decided that we'll more or less have to drop Secret and Souvenir. Those are the two that Paul's the lead singer on — on Secret I do sort of double his voice because he has a softer voice than me so I sort of re-create his vocals to fill them out. But Souvenir is his voice, and it would sound a bit weird if I tried to do it".
Visually they hope to be doing a little experimenting...
"Obviously we're fairly limited on this part of the tour as the guest artist, but having done some touring with other people this year and having seen the Varilight system we'll probably be doing something with that.
"I've never seen anything quite as versatile as that system. Basically it's a computer-controlled lighting rig which has a whole load of colour options, focussing and width control with variable shutters, and the lights are movable, operated from a pre-programmed computer. The only thing about them is that you either have to have exactly the same stage size and positions on every date, or you have to reprogram all the lights each night, which means that the lighting director is sitting there for about four hours.
"I do like to play the bass on stage... I think it's the easiest instrument to learn and to perform on"
"But we'll be having our production planning meetings soon, and I think some of the things we've used before will be used again. I think we still like a large white cyclorama backdrop, and basically it's just going to be a matter of choosing the positioning on stage".
For a band who have always had their own way — choosing to have their own studio rather than a big advance in the early days, playing with other musicians when they want to and with tapes when they don't — fitting into the role of a support band must come hard to the Liverpool duo. How well did they fit in with The Thompson Twins?
"I think our two sets fit together quite well. In terms of the American audience it's worked well — both bands are new and hip and trendy over here, which is funny considering both of us, particularly OMD, have been about for ages. We're almost boring old farts by now! Actually both of us have had a bad time with singles in the UK this year and done better in the US, so there's a lot of people over here who think we're some kind of new underground band. It's weird to be a Pop group in Europe and to be street credible and underground and hip in the States — every time you get on a plane your credibility alters depending on which way you're travelling".
It seems, then, that Crush has been a turning point for OMD as far as the US market is concerned. But will they follow the same studio and production approach for their next album?
"I think we'll be writing and demoing in Amazon studios in Kirby, near Liverpool — it's close to home and it's got a great little atmosphere. We used to write at home in our own studio, but it was too much like going to the office everyday so we scrapped it.
"Amazon had an SSL mixing room and a writing room with Amek, but they've just had an SSL put in there as well so it'll be SSL all the way now. For writing and demoing that isn't all that important, although it's nice if you can get the best sound you possibly can on your demos. If you get it sounding really great you can sample parts of it or fly them in to your master recording, or just overdub on it.
"But we discovered the real pleasure of working on SSL desks just a couple of days ago. A song that we've just done for a film soundtrack was so popular that the company wanted an extended version, so we had to recreate the mix in New York. Praise the Lord for Total Recall, because it actually works! We got a mix which was almost indistinguishable from the original — the poor bloody engineer had sat down in Los Angeles and run off the Total Recall data, run off all the sounds and all the effects we'd used, and after a few minor adjustments it was coming back virtually identical to the original".
So what about the film soundtrack business? Any thoughts of writing a complete score?
"The film we've just done is by John Hughes, who made The Breakfast Club, and it's called Pretty in Pink. Hughes has been extremely successful over here in the States, and unknown to ourselves he'd always loved our music, so he asked us to do a song for the new film. The film's coming out early next year in the US, but I don't know when it's due in the UK. Just yesterday they confirmed that our song will be the the lead single from the film, so we'll be making videos to go with that and so on.
"Everybody seems to be very pleased with it, and yes, we've always been interested in doing film scores. But most of the offers we've had have been fairly chronic, and where we have had offers we're interested in we just haven't had the time. OMD has been so time-consuming in itself that very often we've said 'yes, we'd like to do something, but we've only got three or four weeks', and I'd prefer to use that time to write something for OMD rather than record some music for somebody else.
"We had a wonderful offer this year from Paul Myersberg, who did the screenplay for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. We were going to do that but they changed their schedules and we got more gigs, so that became incompatible. I think it's difficult for a band that works quite hard on the road and in studios to write film scores as well.
"But we had a lot of lengthy discussions about that one and we were quite interested in it. It was nice to have somebody talking to us very very clearly about what he would like to do — he had some very interesting ideas, but it was just the timing".
At this point we left the band preparing for the evening's gig, seemingly with a good sense of exactly where they were despite a heavy tour schedule.
"Tonight we're in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, and it's freezing bloody cold. We're in the Spectrum Arena which is quite large — most of the gigs have been in large theatres or in colosseums, basketball pavilions.
We had a sell-out at Madison Square Gardens and it was quite funny — having spent most of the year playing in colosseums, we eventually get to the Madison Square Gardens, walk in and find that it's just another bloody colosseum".
No colosseums in Kirby though, and the band seem genuinely pleased with the spread of their success to the States. Whether the influence of the US, constant exposure to FM radio and being treated as a hip underground band has affected OMD's music is another question. We'll have a chance to judge for ourselves as they trek across the UK.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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