This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the 101 concert, a bill featuring Depeche Mode, OMD, and Thomas Dolby, which in selling out the mammoth Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA stunned the music world. For those fortunate to attend, the 101 concert represented one of those rare moments in pop culture when tens of thousands of electronic, snythpop and dark wave music fans collectively realize, on a summer night in Southern California that they’re part of a growing community. Fast forward to 2013, and OMD is reaching out, touching faith with a new generation of fans at Coachella.
“It was total insanity,” OMD co-founder Paul Humphreys tells us. “It was our first time doing Coachella, and we’ve wanted to do it for so long. When we finally did get the slot, it was just the worst possible timing for us. We were supposed to be doing three weeks of promotion for the album in Europe, so we had to bring the album release much earlier than we thought, and it wasn’t quite finished. So I spent many late nights, working through the night, finishing mixing [new album] English Electric. But it was definitely worth it. Coachella was such a great experience. The first weekend was mad because a sandstorm blew in just as we went on stage. Between every song I was getting my towel out to wipe down my keyboard. ”
Dealing with the elements and the spontaneity of the moment comes with the territory for artists who have been active for over 30 years notes Paul. Such as the night when OMD were minutes away from a high profile show at Stubbs at SXSW in 2011, marking the band’s return to North America after a 20 year absence when tragedy struck as a camera boom collapsed, taking out scores of fans (a few yards away from the author) and nearly forcing cancellation of the show.
When the band returned to the stage, they were forced to scramble, excising many songs from their set. “Were you there? Goodness! It was so terrible, and also they wouldn’t move the curfew which I guess is understandable. We didn’t actually feel like going on stage at all, having seen so many people carried away on stretchers. But we felt like we kind of owed it to the people who had come and paid money, so it was a bit of an awkward situation. I didn’t see the crane fall, but when I looked out and could see all these people on the ground and blood and everything. We kept in touch with all the people that got injured and we sent them things, but one guy got quite a serious head injury, it’s been long-lasting for him.”
What really seems to distinguish OMD from many of its peers in its ‘80s, is the band’s determination not to simply revisit the past, even as the band was rereleasing remastered versions of its classic albums. “That’s the thing about OMD, we’re more interested in looking forward rather than back. We started to think about coming back in 2005 and started preparing. We did our first tour in 2007. After a couple years of gigging we thought, ‘Well, is this it? Are we just going to be playing a lot of older material? Are we going to be sort of a tribute band to ourselves? Or do we have something left to say in the voice of OMD?’ We had to ask ourselves that question. And we went back into the studio, not announcing that we were going back into the studio in case the well was dry and we didn’t have any ideas.” The band released History of Modern in 2010, the band’s 11th studio album and the first first together with OMD’s original lineup of Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper since the band’s split in 1989.
“Andy and I had to get used to writing together again. We hadn’t written together for 15 years, so we kind of had to get used to that relationship again. And as we were putting History of Modern together we thought ‘I think we’ve got something going here.’ History of Modern was sort of getting the OMD engine back running again, just enough to stick some oil into the old car and getting it into first gear.” The album was well-received. But something was missing.
“With History of Modern, we thought we’d be all hyper modern and send files down the internet to each other. We had made duplicate systems in our studio so that we could open up the files and keep everything in the virtual world. It kind of worked but it was nowhere near the same as sitting in a room. The first four albums we wrote, we had our own studio in Liverpool, the Gramophone Suite. We used to alternate picking each other up in the morning and would commute in, and spend all the day. One of us would throw an idea in the room, and you’d bat it around. You really can’t replace that interaction. Andy and I have a geographic problem. In the early days we both lived in Liverpool, but I now live in London. It’s kind of obvious, but two people sitting in the same room is much better than two people sitting in rooms 200 miles apart. So we decided to fix that on this album.”
English Electric represents a bold departure for a band that after four critically acclaimed and pioneering albums became a pop culture sensation in the U.S., inextricably linked to the ‘80s due to a string of hits, most prominently the appearance of OMD’s “If You Leave” during the climactic scene in John Hughes’ iconic movie for a generation, Pretty in Pink. English Electric has drawn some comparisons to Dazzle Ships, the band’s 1983 album that with its bold strokes and innovative soundscapes was viewed as experimental, but underappreciated at its time. While Paul doesn’t see English Electric as a conscious coda to Dazzle Ships, he does acknowledge a return to OMD’s earlier sound.
“Going into this album, we decided that we needed to in some ways abandon everything we had learned afterDazzle Ships. The first four albums, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were kind of making it up as we go along, we didn’t really know how to write songs. So we just did things in our own way, and some of the arrangements were completely mad. We didn’t mind experimenting. But I think after Dazzle Ships, we got a bit more conventional in terms of how we wrote songs.
“We were less experimental and less daring,” he continues, “there were many reasons for that. But we had kind of learned our songwriting trade, and we just went down a slightly more conventional path. I think in hindsight looking back, our first four albums were our most interesting because we were a lot freer with them, and we wanted to sort of return to those feelings of those first four albums.
“I think we got quite conventional with the arrangements as OMD got older and more mature: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-a-end. And that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for us. If you look at English Electric now, there’s barely a song chorus or most of the choruses are keyboard melodies which was kind of our signature for OMD.”
English Electric is informed by changes in the band’s approach to recording. “Each month I’d go up for a week or so, and we’d establish what the song was. We would sit in a room and throw ideas around and sketch out what we were doing together. At that point I could go back down to London and I could program all the music better and sort it all out, and Andy could sit and write the words properly by himself, but the main spark of all the songs really was mostly in the same room. I think that really has had an effect. I think English Electric had a much clearer focus.”
“Nearly the whole album was written in the last two years. The only exception was ‘Kissing the Machine’ which was an original song that Andy did with Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk about 20 years ago. Andy and I had forgotten about it, be we just sort of rediscovered it, and the theme of the song just fit perfectly. I thought ‘There’s something really good about it, but I kind of need to redo it. So I got Andy to re-sing it, and I did a completely new version. The original version is on YouTube somewhere, but if you listen to both versions, you’ll realize it’s two completely different animals. Theme wise it fit perfectly with the whole concept—I don’t like to use the word ‘concept’ because it sounds a bit prog rocky—but the album had a kind of concept, and I thought the song fit into that concept.”
Judging by tracks such as “The Future Will Be Silent”, “Our System”, “Decimal”, “Dresden” and “Atomic Ranch”, that concept would seem to conjure up some familiar images associated with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the flying car in “Radio Gaga”, Mr. Roboto.
“We started with the title of the album, English Electric, because we thought it fit OMD so well, and not just because we’re an English Electric band. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was a British company called English Electric. Basically what they did was make things for the future: very advanced diesel locomotives, the first supercomputer actually—a massive thing very advanced fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force. What OMD did when we started out was try to make music for the future. So the future is a theme really for the whole record, the idea of ‘what does the future sound like now?’ We included that in one of the lyrics just for a bit of fun but that was our mantra for the album.”
“I’m not sure if we answered the question. It was an interesting question to ask because we thought electronic music was the future. We thought we were supposed to be the future, and we took the future we thought. And then we hit the ‘90s, and it was all Britpop, Oasis, grunge and Nirvana. And all of a sudden the future is now referencing the ‘60s and the ‘70s. And it really confused us. It was like ‘Well hold on a minute, what is the future?’ “
English Electric lays out a distinctive sound that would seemingly find a comfortable home in 1981, with the band’s own pioneering work or the likes of peers such as Kraftwerk and New Order. Aside from taking a retrospective look at how we once romanticized the future, now that the future is here, the band draws upon the past, both real and imagined, to convey imagery and explore themes such as the romanticizing of the past.
“‘Metroland’, a single in the UK and Europe, is a song about how the Metropolitan Railway Line expanded out into the countryside. When they launched this in the ‘20s, they tried to get people to use this line that they had just built, so they tried to get everyone out into the countryside and commute into London instead of living in Central London.”
Adding to the intrigue of dipping back into the past to get an understanding of how we once viewed the future, is the band’s ability to capture a lo-fi, electronic and industrial sound that would inspire waves of modern day electro and post-punk bands, not to mention entire sub-genres. Was the band consciously channeling the lo-fi production values of the past?
“No, not really. We wanted the sound to be a bit more cleaner than that, pristine and simple. The interesting thing is, the kids making electronic music now are all buying up all those early instruments that we used on eBay. All those instruments that we used in the late 70s and early 80s, we don’t want them anymore! And we’re selling it to them on eBay! We’re happy with all the modern instruments. We were conscious of going to back our roots in one sense in terms of the simplicity of what we were doing, being more electronic and more experimental. But also we tried to make it sound, by using modern production techniques, like it was made today with all those ideas that we had years ago. ”
Pop Culture Appeal in America
OMD is in a rare position of contending with dual legacies, as musical innovators that like fellow pioneers Kraftwerk and New Order influenced countless artists and sub-genres, and pop culture icons. “I think it’s interesting when you compare what happened with the band in America compared to Europe, because Europe took to us very early, in 1979 and 1980 with the first few albums. Perhaps America wasn’t quite ready for us, we might have been a bit too left field. But we also had a problem due to the fact that Virgin Records in the UK, who signed us to through world, did a package deal with Epic Records in America where they gave Epic like six of their bands I don’t Epic could at all understand what OMD were. They looked at us and went ‘Uh ... this is kind of this weird English electro band. Let’s uh ... what does the contract say, we have to release 5000 units into the shelf?’
“And they just kind of chucked them out with absolutely no promotion, and they just didn’t know what they had. So it was very frustrating for us, because A&M records was sitting there wanting us, but Epic wouldn’t work us but also wouldn’t release us from our contract. It was years of agony trying to move over to A&M. When we went to A&M and did the Crush album, ‘So In Love’ got into the Top 20. We then released ‘Secret’, but had to pull it from the shelves because we already got signed to be part of Pretty in Pink at that point. They changed the schedule for the release of ‘If You Leave’, and they wanted it to be the lead single from the album. So we pulled ‘Secret’ from the shelves and let ‘If You Leave’ go out there, and then our lives completely changed in America because it was such a monstrous hit.”
Despite reuniting in 2007, the band didn’t return to North America until 2011. On their current tour this summer, OMD is playing a number of smaller clubs in the U.S. “I’d much rather play a club than another stadium to be perfectly honest, they’re much more fun to do. We relaunched Eric’s club recently in Liverpool, the club where we, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, and all of those great Liverpool bands got started. The club has been dormant since the late 80s and Andy and I played the launch night, it was so much fun. The downside of clubs is you can’t do a big production. But I love the intimacy.”