Weird At My School: OMD speak!

KEXP's Cheryl Waters introducing OMD at Mellow Johnny's during SXSW
all photos by Jim Bennett

I geeked out hard about my adoration of UK synth-pop duo Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on the KEXP blog last year, and I was beside myself with joy when they played live for KEXP during the 2011 SXSW music conference. Well, except for the fact that I wasn’t there! Happily, OMD are touring the West Coast right now, playing Seattle tonight, September 29 at the Showbox SODO. Paul Humphreys of OMD was kind enough to hop on the phone with us for a few minutes to bring us up to speed on the band’s current activities and future plans, plus a few reminiscences.

DJ El Toro: Thank you again for playing on KEXP during SXSW. That was one of the best-received live performances we’ve hosted in the five or six years I’ve been at the station.

Paul Humphreys: That was our favorite show at SXSW. We did some pretty crazy things, but that was a really good one. That’s really nice to hear that kind of feedback. We had fun. We love playing live. Because we stopped playing live for a quite a long time, we’ve really been enjoying it again. People have been telling us they think we’re better live now than we ever used to be—probably because we can play better!

The limitations of early synthesizers and keyboards seemed to really engender creativity amongst the better synth-pop bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s. You and Andy have a lot more tools and technology at your disposal now than you did in the original days of OMD, but last year’s History of Modern sounds like a classic OMD album. How did you achieve that balance between old and new?

That’s the thing: when Andy and I decided that we’d dare to make a new record, we thought, ‘What should OMD sound like in 2010?’ It didn’t take us long to realize the first four albums were the quintessential OMD sound. After that we changed—and change is not always good. We introduced some live elements, brass sections and guitars, and changed producers, and the OMD sound really evolved—and we kind of lost control of our roots. So with this album, we decided that the first four albums really were the OMD sound, so let’s use that palette of sounds, but try to make a modern album, with all the modern technology, but only using that sort of sound palette.

I do agree that, with the modern technology, you can spend weeks just looking for a particular sound, because you’ve got so many different possibilities. You just get lost, and you forget to write the songs. We decided to put boundaries in there, to limit our sound source possibilities to a certain number of synthesizers and types of sounds. That made it easier, in a way. Because you can get lost in all the technology and forget that you need to write a decent song.

But at the same time, you had the advances, so you could lean on those, and circumnavigate the pitfalls of those early machines, like sequences that didn’t stay synchronized for very long.

Modern technology is particularly great on stage now. I used to look like Rick Wakeman in the past. I’ve never really suffered from stage fright, but I used to go on scared to death that one of my synths would blow up… because they regularly did! Between every song, I used to stick a torch in my mouth, when the lights would go down, because there were no presets on the synths. I had to set all the settings, with a torch in my mouth, and a cheat sheet in one hand, and I’d be doing the knobs with the other hand.

Well that leads us to my next question. On July 24, 1984, I saw you play at the Wax Museum in Washington DC. And somebody’s keyboard or computer did in fact “blow up” and you had to stop the show, and reboot something…

Yes! We had this machine called the Fairlight, which was a $40,000 machine. It cost us £25,000—which was $40,000—and it was the most unreliable thing ever!

Did that kind of mishap occur fairly regularly back then, or did I witness a very rare accident?

It was fairly rare. For it to be so catastrophic that we had to stop the show… that was quite rare. [Laughs] I do remember that night. Now, with all the modern technology, I don’t have to worry about that. I just have one synth, with fifty songs programmed in and all the original sounds. When we got back together, I went on eBay and bought up all the old synths and sampled all these sounds into one keyboard. So I’ve got all the original sounds at my fingertips.

“Sister Marie Says” from History of Modern bears a close sonic resemblance to your classic “Enola Gay.” Did that make you and Andy think twice about including it on the album, or try hard to make it sound different to minimize the comparisons?

You know what? That song was written in 1981 or 1982, and we thought at the time, ‘Oh, we have to shelve this, it sounds far too close to “Enola Gay.”‘ And we did. We shelved it for many years. But we never throw away a good idea, we keep them all and revisit them now and again. We pulled that one off the shelf and said, ‘It might sound a bit like “Enola Gay,” but what the hell, it sounds like OMD. We’ll make it work.’ We changed it a little bit from the original. It was much closer to “Enola Gay” than it is now!

How was the success of “If You Leave” beneficial to your career, and how was it detrimental?

It was beneficial in terms of our bank balance, definitely. And it opened a lot of doors for us in America. We could play bigger venues. We went up another level. At the time of “If You Leave,” our career was declining a little bit in Europe. We took a dip. So it was great to take off in America at that point. But we seem to be known for one song in America, and the pop side of OMD, that’s kind of the problem. There’s always been two sides to OMD, the pop side and the more dark, experimental side that the Europeans know. Because we had hits in Europe that were not so pop as “If You Leave,” more dark and weird and very instrumental, yet still very successful. So the Europeans know both sides of the band, and America doesn’t.

As a longtime fan, one of the things I liked about OMD, and something I think was almost a saving grace, was that even though you had pop hits, you never acted like pop stars. Do you think that ensured a certain position in the underground for you?

Yes, I do. We didn’t get into the music industry because we wanted to be celebrities. We’re in this era of celebrity culture now, where music is almost secondary to some artists. Becoming famous is the primary goal. But that wasn’t it for us, it was about the art. It wasn’t until the Best Of album in 1988 that we even put our faces on the cover of a record, and that was a concession, because the record company were absolutely insistent. None of our other record sleeves have our picture on them. They’re all graphic sleeves. We didn’t want to be known as famous faces; we wanted our songs to be known.

How has the creative dynamic between you and Andy changed over the years, especially since the interim when you weren’t working together?

It’s been great, actually. In some ways, we’ve gone back to our original creative dynamic. As the ’80s progressed, we started to write separately a lot more, and I think that wasn’t necessarily good. The great dynamic of me and Andy, the way we work best, is when we’re in a room together, and one of us throws out an idea, and we just bounce it around all day until we’ve got something interesting. Nowadays we’ve got a geographical problem, because I live in London and Andy lives in Liverpool. We’re about 200 miles away, so it’s difficult to work in the same room. On History of Modern, we started out working separately, and trying to send our ideas via the Internet, because we have identical systems on our computers. We can just throw the files across to each other and work on them. But the chemistry wasn’t there and it was taking to long.

Andy has young children, so in the end I went up to spend a week on then a week off, working in Andy’s studio with him. And all of the sudden, the album started to progress really quickly, because we were in the same room together and doing better things. And that was kind of the way we began. We had a studio in central Liverpool when we first started, and one of us would pick up the other on the way to work in the morning, and we’d spend the whole day together, throwing ideas around. We’ve kind of gone back to those days.

What are the plans for the future? Now that you’ve re-established yourselves with a fantastic comeback record, do you know have to make the Difficult Second Album all over again?

[Laughs] Funny you should say that, because Andy and I have been talking about that, too. It is rather like our second album, now, but it isn’t, because it’s our twelfth or something like that. We already have a plan. The good thing about being in OMD now is that we don’t have to be in OMD any more. We’re not doing this for money, we’re doing it for the love of it. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve made quite a lot of money, so we’re doing it for the love and passion of it, which is how we began. That’s how began, and then things changed. In that sense, we’ve gone back to our roots again. We’re really excited about the new album, we’ve already got five songs for it. We’ve even got the title of the album, which has leaked out on the Internet, so I’ll tell it to you: English Electric. We’re writing songs for that at the moment, and I think it will be out in 2013.

DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column-slash-rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter!

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