As with most beloved ’80s bands, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — better referred to as OMD — means different things to different people. For some, those doe-eyed besuited romantics soundtracked Molly Ringwald’s high school angst with “If You Leave,” one of many cinematic anthems in the John Hughes canon.
For others, they were the Kraftwerk-loving experimental futurists who blended pop sensibilities with modernist electronic ambition — and then promptly lost the plot after the bold, high-concept Dazzle Ships (now regarded as one of the band’s finest works) was a critical and commercial flop.
OMD’s core duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, after all their pop success, fell prey to “musical differences” and split. The Humphreys-less OMD of the ’90s faded from view with the advent of Britpop, and McCluskey dabbled in pop Svengalism, molding Liverpudlian girl groups like Atomic Kitten and the Genie Queen.
Since 2007, bolstered by renewed interest in synthpop, McCluskey and Humphreys have been performing together again with the “classic” lineup (backed by Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper). After three solid years of gigging and songwriting, OMD released their comeback, History of Modern, last fall.
With a third single, “History of Modern (Part I),” released February 28 and a North American tour on the horizon, Prefix called a jovial McCluskey to discuss the past, present, and what happens to old modernists when the future is now.
History of Modern is quite the prescient album title. So, why now?
Ah, why now? [Laughs] It all started back in 2007 when we started to get requests to play live and do TV, and Paul [Humphreys] and I were even being asked to produce records for new artists because we’re “back in fashion.” Since we had rather grudgingly stopped playing when it seemed like our music had gone out of fashion…we were really excited that we might be afforded the opportunity to actually come back and do it again.
We didn’t really want to stop in the first place. We toured Europe and the UK, and that was very well-received. In fact, our early albums now seem to have — every description of them seems to be prefaced with “the iconic,” “the seminal,” “the influential album.” And these albums, of course, were ripped apart when we first released them! Now people seem to treat them with a great deal of courtesy and respect. [Laughs]
It’s one thing to play the old favorites live and people will come and hear the songs they know they’re going to love, but it’s a really dangerous and stupid thing for a band of our age to even consider making a new record. We were aware of this, and we have friends and acquaintances who are in bands of our age — who will remain nameless — who have made new records and, frankly, they shouldn’t have been allowed back in the studio because they were making records for the wrong reasons. It was important for us that, primarily, we actually had something we wanted to say — both lyrically and musically — and we have songs that we thought were worth listening to! You know, if we suddenly became cool again [laughs]…the last thing we wanted to do was fuck it all up by making a crap album.
That happens more often than not with your peers.
“Grandfathers of Electro-Pop Return With Shit Album,” not a headline we wanted to see. So we took our time about making sure we had something to say. It’s a dilemma for a band like us, you know. Most other bands, if they want to make a comeback album, they just have to sound like themselves. But we had this abject dilemma: we used to be the future! What do old modernists do in the postmodern era? Discuss. You know, it was almost like an essay.
This album, first of all, had to carry the title History of Modern…to show that we knew the dilemma that had faced us. Secondly, interestingly enough, the very sound we had created on our first few albums was, 30 years later, deemed to be important and influential and current. What we wanted to do was make sure we spoke again in a voice that we’d invented for ourselves all that time ago, because we changed our sounds in the mid- and late-eighties — and quite frankly, we lost the plot a bit. So we were conscious that we wanted to go back to what we did at our best. But — and this is the big but — we didn’t want to just make some sort of sad, retro nostalgic album. Paul and I had both been making records, just not as OMD…and it was important that we took our own sound that made it, hopefully, relevant for now.
Long answer to a short question, but all of these things were swarming in our heads when we decided we were gonna dare to do this stupid and dangerous thing.
You’re talking about relevance and making “the sound of the future” 30 years ago. How does it feel to see a sort of synth, post-punk resurgence? I know you guys did a cover of the XX, but they’re certainly not the only ones looking back.
I have to say that I’m happy about it! You know, it was quite strange, having spent a long time trying to..sate off what we saw to be the sort of hoary rock ‘n’ roll clichés of long hair and flared trousers and guitar solos and just shit convential rock songwriting, that all of a sudden in the ’90s you got Britpop and grunge coming along celebrating the return to rock ‘n’ roll basics! We were like, “Hold on a minute…you’re saying that this is the future and we’re the past?!” It’s a headfuck, I have to be honest with you.
Every generation rejects its immediate predeccessor, so in the ’90s, the ’80s were rejected. I understand that. But as the new millennium dawned, there were a whole bunch of kids who basically looked [back] and said “Ugh. Rock ‘n’ roll clichés, let’s reject it — hang on a minute, somebody already did! Let’s re-embrace this idea!” [Laughs]
…Everybody has their influences and we certainly did when we started, but I think it’s important that you take your influences and make something that is your own statement. That’s why a band like the Killers, or the XX — or a huge artist that we all love in the band is Robyn, who makes her own statement using very raw slabs of electronic music — that stuff is really exciting. But in terms of how it affects us, you can’t deny that…you’re out in the cold and suddenly a few years later, everybody goes “Why did we put them out in the cold? They were great!” It’s a good feeling.
The first few OMD albums were heralded for this sense of experimentalism. With the music industry as it is now, do you see that sort of ambition in any new bands?
I see it in some. You mentioned the XX, and I think that they do have an incredibly distinctive sound. People sometimes question me, like, “Do they really take influence from you guys?” And, well, maybe not from our shiny shiny pop, but our much darker and more melancholy album tracks and B-sides…I can hear where they’re coming from. We have these two sides to us as well. Our record company used to go nuts, like, “Are you guys going to be Stockhausen or Abba today?” We say, “Well, we’re both actually. It all makes sense to us.”
I tell you what, I’m glad I’m not 19 now. Trying to get a break in this decaying, shriveling music industry we inhabit now is really hard, and to be offered the opportunity to do your own thing by someone who’s purely into it for the arts, I think it’s very hard to find that now. I guess that’s why, like the old days, some of the best acts are…doing it themselves, they don’t expect to shift big numbers. Word of mouth just kind of spreads it, whether through YouTube or Myspace or some other sort of electronic media. There’s still a place for interesting music, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the weight it used to, because the modern generation of kids hasn’t just got music as a way of establishing their own relationship with their own developing identity of themselves.
I guess the benefit of being a young band while the music industry is dwindling is that you don’t have this expectation of millions of units, so you go into it head first either way.
That’s the way we started. Paul Humphreys and I started when he was 15 and I was 16, making weird noises with whatever we could get our hands on in the back room of his mother’s house. Even our best friends thought that what we were doing was utter shit. We had zero expectations, and we stayed in that back room for three years; it wasn’t until 1978 that we dared to ask our local club, Eric’s in Liverpool, to let us get up and play because they had a really good open-door policy for local artists.
It was really through that that we went to the guys at Factory Records, who were the first people who said to us, “This is the future of pop music!” We were offended, we were like, “No, it’s experimental, don’t fucking call it pop.” [Laughs] Shows what we knew! Nobody was more surprised than we were when the songs we’d written as teenagers were suddenly selling millions, but that’s the best way to make music. If you want to make music just because you want to be a star, I think you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons.
Talking so much about influence — I watched Synth Britannia recently, so as an aside: Wolfgang Flür of Kraftwerk told a story about a young OMD going backstage and saying how Kraftwerk showed them the future. You’ve made no secret of their huge influence, so is that story remotely true? Or is it just very nicely embellished legend?
It’s…remotely true. [Laughs] I was at the gig in 1975, I’d just turned 16. It was the height of guitars and rock and long hair and flared denim trousers and these four guys came out in suits and ties, playing electronic tea trays and doing the future. I remember, it was September the 11th of 1975 at Liverpool Empire, I was sat in seat Q36…I also remember that I was 16, they were rebuilding the underground in Liverpool and I had to get a bus home and didn’t go backstage and meet them. The first time I met them was actually when they came to see us in Germany in 1981 and I was crapping myself onstage, like God has come to see us. So it’s a lovely story, but only very, very slightly had an element of truth to it.
It’s a good one for the books.
It was. And Kraftwerk were absolutely influential. I’d heard “Autobahn” on the radio, and I went to see them, and it was the first day of the rest of my life. I just didn’t meet them that day. I would’ve been too frightened, I wasn’t going to go knock on the door and go “Hi!” But it did change my life completely.
Back to History of Modern, a couple of the songs on the album have existed in multiple unreleased forms in the past — “Sister Marie Says,” for example. What was the impetus to revisit those?
We’ve always been recyclers, we’ll always hold onto an idea and cherish it and remember it if we thought it was a good idea but we hadn’t got the whole song finished. So “Sister Marie” had a melody from ’81, which at the time we thought was far too similar to “Enola Gay.” We were like, “No no no, we can’t do that.” And then the lyric was written in ’93 but we couldn’t get a format that worked, so it wasn’t until last year when we looked at it again and said, well, maybe we could use those elements but put them together in a new way.
There are a few tracks like that which have sort of been lying dormant for a while, waiting for us to find the right way to put them on a record, and it was always like that. We would go back on tracks on our fourth and fifth albums that we’d written when we were 17 but hadn’t quite got around to doing them the way we wanted. But the bulk of the album has been written in the last three years.
You guys are touring North America in March, so how does it feel to be coming back after all this time? How do you think the American audience will react to it?
Well, if it was the first tour we’d done I’d be really nervous. I think there’s still an element of nerves, but we’ve toured now in Europe for over three years and it’s been really great. We’re not just a bunch of sad old men who are doing this for our pensions, we’re sad old men who are doing this because we love it. [Laughs]
It’s been wonderfully received, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like in America but I imagine it probably won’t be too different from Europe, where we’ve got a mixture of people who remember us from the very early days, a few people who…grew up with the hits on the radio, and also a new generation of people who have got into electronic music recently, have done their research…people who’ve discovered us in their twenties who are into this music and are happily trying to do what we did 30 years ago. It’ll be weird, we’re playing a right mixture of venues, but it’s been satisfying that several key cities sold out in 24 hours. New York we’ve moved to a bigger venue…we’re doing two nights in LA, that’s reassuring. There are a couple of venues that really feel like going back to the bottom of the ladder because we’re playing in clubs we played in 1980 and ’81!
It’ll be good. You know, we don’t mess around with our songs. We wrote them in a certain way, we play them exactly that way. We don’t do acoustic versions or medleys and mess around with people’s fond memories. We play them as we wrote them and they are instantly recognizable.
I’m looking forward to that in New York.
Yeah, it’s got moved to Terminal 5, hasn’t it? I hope that’s going to be okay. It’s a really simple back-to-basics tour, and unfortunately because we’re all on buses and traveling long distances and playing some fairly small places, this is pure, pure and simple: “Hi, it’s us. It’s you. It’s our songs. We don’t have our projectors and our screens and our lights, it’s straightforward. This is what you get, this is what you see.”
You know what? I have a sneaking suspicion it might actually be a great tour.