Paul Humphreys from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD)
During the Brussels Summer Festival (BSF), our reporter Phil Blackmarquis had the opportunity to talk with Paul Humphreys from OMD just before the band's concert. Paul Humphreys created OMD together with Andy McCluskey near Liverpool in 1978. They were one of the pioneering bands in the synth-pop music genre. After a hiatus of 10 years, they reunited in 2006 and are still producing new, very interesting music.
Reflections of Darkness [RoD]: My first question is very classical, it's about the name of the band. I understand it was a title for a song?
Paul Humphreys [PH]: It was the title for a song we never wrote in the end. We were in a band called The Id. Andy and I decided that we'd stop that band and continue just the two of us. Therefore we had to rename ourselves. We got a call from Eric's Club and they said: “Do you want to come and support Joy Division?”. We said “Yeah, we'd love to”. He said “What are you called?” We said “We don't know really. Can we get back to you?” He said “You've got two hours before we print the posters”. So we ran back to Andy's house. We used to keep all the song titles on his wall and we were just looking down the song titles when we saw “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark”. We wanted a name that sets us apart from the rest, that would distinguish us from bands...
RoD: ...from the punk bands?
PH: Yes, because we were playing a punk club, so we needed to distinguish ourselves. So, we thought it doesn't matter, we will only do one gig anyway. We thought Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark was fine.
RoD: And then there's the famous story of your first single, ‘Electricity’. I read a lot about this, especially the fact that you refused the Martin Hannett recording?
PH: We accepted Martin Hannett's version of ‘Almost’, which was the B-side. But the ‘Electricity’ version he did was a bit too ambient. We wanted a more tight, driving electro thing. We'd already done a version in our own little studio, like a demo and we preferred that to Martin's version, even though we were massive fans of Martin. But it wasn't our vision of the song, it was more Martin's vision of the song.
RoD: So , you recorded your version with Paul Collister...
PH: Yes, Paul Collister, who became by default our manager.
RoD: So, this was the first single, FAC6, (on Factory Records), but the Dindisk release, who produced it?
PH: It was ourselves again, but a different version. After we signed to Dindisc, Andy and I took all the money that they gave us and bought studio equipment. So, we built a studio thinking: they will drop us after the first album. We didn't think there was a market for OMD at the time so we thought: at least if they drop us, we will have the studio. So, we did a new version of ‘Electricity’ there.
RoD: So, Martin Hannett's version has sort of disappeared?
PH: I think we released it somewhere.
RoD: I've seen a Martin Hannett's mix in one of the reissues of the first album, but the only difference for me was the absence of synth in the intro and a few small differences, but it sounded pretty much like the official version.
PH: I don't know. The thing is we were so focused on how we wanted to sound. I haven't heard it for so long but perhaps it's not so different. But at the time, it seemed like a huge difference. Andy and I had a clear idea of how it should sound. That's why we have always struggled with producers. We know what we want. We have even worked with Toni Visconti on the Junk Culture album. He's produced some of the most amazing albums with David Bowie, etc. But he just wasn't right for us. He talked about us in his book: he wrote “I worked with OMD: they rely too much on technology!”. But we're an electro band: of course we rely on technology! (laughs)
RoD: In the beginning, you said it yourself, it was clear that the influence of KRAFTWERK was important. When you listen to ‘Electricity’, you also hear the influence of NEU!, especially in the hypnotic, nearly postpunk rhythm section, don't you think?
PH: Yes, the first things we did were basically 'punk and synths' really. We love punk, the Sex Pistols etc. We used to hang out at Eric's Club in Liverpool and it was a punk club. But we didn't want to play punk music, we had more German influences, we wanted to be an electro band.
RoD: But you understand what I mean with the NEU! influence? I mean the robotic, hypnotic aspect.
PH: Yeah! Well, essentially, when we started, we listened to five bands: Kraftwerk, Neu!, LA Düsseldorf, Can and David Bowie. And then, we got introduced to early Roxy Music and Brian Eno. But when Brian left Roxy, we followed what Brian did. Through Brian Eno, we got our love for melancholia, I think.
RoD: Precisely: I think his role was very important in the birth of new-wave, esp. the dark feeling, the “Weltschmerz”, the “Spleen”, that you find on the Bowie albums from the Berlin period.
PH: Absolutely, that was all heavily Eno-influenced.
RoD: There are a few bands that can be credited for having created synth-pop and new-wave: you belong to them. Do you think there was some sort of synchronicity with The Human League and Gary Numan, all of you doing approximately the same think at the same time?
PH: Yes, because there was no Internet, we had no idea of the existence of these other bands. There were a lot of record stores importing German music. And I think we just all discovered this music at the same time. And so, we were all getting influenced but without the knowledge of everyone else. There was no one more shocked than us when Gary Numan all of a sudden went to number one with ‘Are Friends Electric’! We were saying: “Where does he come from?” Then we realized there were all these other bands that were influenced by the same music as us, all at the same time.
RoD: Let's not forget John Foxx' Ultravox. I think ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’, from 1977, is probably the first 100% electronic new-wave song.
PH: Yeah, I think it probably was. I like John Foxx. We toured with him in 2013: it was fantastic to hang out with him. He's a lovely guy as well.
RoD: He's a gentleman. You want to call him ”Sir”.
PH: Exactly. He's got that typical British style. I love him.
RoD: And what about the synths? I read that you were manufacturing your own synths at the beginning.
PH: We had no money at that time.
RoD: Do you still have those synths?
PH: I wish I did.
RoD: Can you indicate sounds from the early albums that come from these synths?
PH: There are probably some noises on the first album. I made a very Kraftwerkian drum machine, that's the one you hear on ‘Almost’ and on several other tracks. But then it blew up and I never fixed it. And I really wish I hadn't thrown it away.
RoD: And is it true that you got rid of your old gear and that, when you reunited (in 2006), you had to buy old synths again?
PH: Yes, and there was a classic moment when we needed a Korg Micro-Preset because I wanted to sample all the sounds for the concerts and what happened is that we looked for one on eBay and Andy and I didn't realized because of the pseudonyms that we were actually bidding against each other! (laughs) We could have bought it so much cheaper!
RoD: Howard Jones told me the same thing: he had to resample everything. It wouldn't make sense to go on the road with all these synths.
PH: They're not reliable. They don't stay in tune. You must get duplicates of everything.
RoD: Don't you have problems with the tonality of samplers? I mean, the sampled note is ok but when you play the sample a few notes lower or higher, the sound changes...
PH: I just sampled every note... (laughs) You need a lot of memory, of course, but the modern synths can do that.
RoD: It's the Roland Fantom?
PH: Yes, we use the Roland Fantom...
RoD: I saw that you re-released ‘Julia's Song’ this year? Which version is it?
PH: It was a version we did some time in the mid-80s, with a brass section.
RoD: I think it was in 2006 that you reunited?
RoD: How does it feel to be in this situation? To start doing music again after such a long time? Is it like being awarded a “second life”?
PH: It really is. I mean, when we did it, we thought “How many people are still interested in OMD now?” The band had been dormant for 10 years. Then we thought “Let's just put nine shows on sale and play 'Architecture & Morality' from beginning to end”. Some songs had never been played live and it was one sort of iconic album. The nine shows sold out in just a few hours. So, we ended up doing 49 shows. All of a sudden we were back doing OMD again. But then, we thought: “We don't want to be a retro-band, a pastiche of ourselves. We should only keep going if we have something to say.” So, we went back to the studio and we realized we were really enjoying writing together again. And we had an idea of how to take the band forward. That led to ‘English Electric’, which we're very proud of.
RoD: ‘History of Modern’ is also good...
PH: ‘History of Modern’ includes some great songs but there is a certain unity to ‘English Electric’. And now we're going further with that.
RoD: Are you preparing some new stuff?
PH: We've already got five songs for the next record, which is gonna come out next year.
RoD: You're also releasing a live DVD of your show at the Museum of Liverpool.
PH: Yes, they had a real dazzle ship in the dock in Liverpool and someone at the City Council said: “Didn't OMD have a record called 'Dazzle Ships'?” The idea was that we were going to do a little installation in the boat but it just kept growing to become an exhibition in the Museum. And it ended up with two big concerts in the beautiful space of the Museum. We filmed it and the DVD is coming out in September via a Pledgemusic campaign.
RoD: Thank you very much!
PH: My pleasure...
Thank you to BSF (www.bsf.be) for the accreditation.