They’ve sold countless millions of records, thrilled packed houses all over the world, yet Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark still find themselves plotting and scheming as they did a few decades ago: Even in 2011, OMD are strictly underground.
“I just got out of a basement rehearsal room,” said the undeniably genial Andy McCluskey, lead singer and bass guitarist of OMD. “That’s what it is, and it doesn’t change, does it? It doesn’t matter how many synthesizers or computers you’ve got, we’re all mod cons. Rehearsal rooms are still stinking places.”
McCluskey and his compatriots – Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper – are gearing up for their first tour of North America in 20 years, a trek that will go coast to coast during the month of March, including a stop at SXSW on the 17th as part of a Bright Antenna/Independent Label Group showcase at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop.
Though OMD reformed a few years ago, they’ve primarily toured in Europe, where they remain more widely known than in the States. Their biggest hit on these shores (“If You Leave” from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack) barely registered in the United Kingdom, an odd curiosity McCluskey said is indicative of how the electro-pop icons are viewed through different lenses from country to country.
History of Modern
US: 28 Sep 2010
UK: 20 Sep 2010
“’If You Leave’ is by a mile our best known song in America, and to a lot of Americans we’re a one-hit wonder, which is a bit depressing,” he said. “But ‘If You Leave’ didn’t even get in the Top 50 in the UK; we were already starting to slide somewhat out of fashion in the UK by then.”
The Atlantic Ocean isn’t the only barrier separating hits and misses in the vast OMD canon, either.
“We have a song from the ‘90s called ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas,’” McCluskey said. “Massive hit in Germany, massive hit in the UK, absolutely fuck all in Belgium, Holland or France. So do we put it in the set when we play somewhere or not? I don’t know.”
Crafting a set list based upon regional preferences is daunting enough, but there are also diehard fans who’ve waited an eternity for an OMD show: What to do about them?
“You’ve got to throw a few bones to the real hardcore, and we are going to play one song from the first album that we haven’t played in around 25 years,” McCluskey said. “But as it will be 20 years since we’ve played in the States, we might err on the side of caution. But I think that’s understandable.”
Additionally, the band will be showcasing material from their new album, the enthusiastically received History of Modern.
“On the tour we’re going to be doing six new pieces,” McCluskey said. “We’re not going to do the whole album, because we’d be asking for trouble. We’ve got a nice balance, and the new songs fit right in.”
A new album wasn’t even on the band’s radar when they casually reconnected a few years ago.
“As the new millennium rolled along, we started to get people calling us asking if we’d do TV shows, or were we interested in gigs, and as the whole electro thing started to grow, we started to hear, ‘Could you produce this band?’” McCluskey recalled. “So we got asked to do a TV show in Germany in 2005, so I just phoned up Paul and said, ‘The band is finished, it’s all over, but do you just fancy for a laugh, for old time’s sake going to do a TV show together,’ and he said yeah.”
In Germany, even before the cameras began rolling, they knew the spark was still there.
“We all sat together having a beer in a hotel bar, and it became evident very quickly that we all remembered how we used to interact with jokes and one-liners,” McCluskey laughed. “And it was there and then where we said, ‘We’ve been asked to do gigs, does anybody fancy doing gigs?’ ‘Let’s have a go. Let’s put a few on sale and see if there’s any interest.’ We put nine gigs on sale, and they all sold out. So in 2007, we ended up doing 40 concerts.”
OMD didn’t take their reunion lightly, especially when they realized just how much work they had to do to keep their reputation afloat.
“There were huge amounts of rust,” McCluskey said. “When I was younger, I used to want to be an archaeologist. I don’t know if you’ve seen these programs on Discovery Channel where they have marine archaeologists who find what they think might be a cannon, but it’s totally encrusted ; they drag it out and just start hitting it with hammers and chisels, and finally they chip away all the rust, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s a cannon under here still!” That was like us rehearsing. ‘There’s something under there, keep chipping! I remember what we used to be!’”
There was also the humbling realization that the time spent away from the band meant they had to re-learn things that used to come almost naturally.
“We were so nervous about it, we started a year early to rehearse,” McCluskey said. “As a band we hadn’t played together for 16, 17 years. That’s a long time. We had forgotten who we used to be, and so it was a long process, and quite amusing, really. Imagine four middle-aged guys sitting in a smelly basement, literally having to listen to our old CD’s going, ‘Oh, it’s in G! Okay, G to D!’ You know, it felt a bit like being a cover band. Plus, I hadn’t sung live into a microphone for 13 years. It was a long process, but somewhere deep down inside of ourselves we did finally remember who we used to be.”
And who OMD used to be was a band that made terrific records. Why not do it again?
“It was a big step to reform the band to start playing live again, but at least we were playing songs everybody knew and everybody was happy to come along and hear all their favorite hit singles,” McCluskey. “Frankly, it’s a very dangerous and bloody stupid thing to dare to make a new album when you’re 50. The reality is that most people make shit albums when they get together again, and everybody’s like, ‘Please don’t play the new songs – I’ll go to the bar!’”