Technology Is the Servant of the Human Beings: The OMD Interview
At the turn of the postmodern era, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was on top of the world. They were the cutting edge of pop music, whether they hate to admit it or not.
When teenagers Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys began toying around with sonic gadgetry in the dining room of Paul’s mom’s house in Cheshire, circa 1978, they also toyed around with the idea of changing the world -- more or less as a joke… Right?
“But then OMD did sell millions of records!” Andy laughs, then he gets serious. “It really blew up our mental framework to go, ‘We haven't changed the world. How did we think we were going to change it? Ok, let's get even more fucking radical! Let's get even more political, even more fractured, even more chopped-up and dystopian!’”
At the turn of the postmodern era, Western music culture was at the junction of New Wave, post-punk and synthpop -- and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was on top of the world. Between 1980 and 1983, they set the course for a chart-topping, four-album streak, projecting a technological future both beautiful and bleak. Truly, no group before or since has a made a better case for why we should diametrically fear and love the impending total automation of our world. And of all the things they made, their records are records of a time and space.
The whole way through, these art school kids drew from art history, so their music became the sonic distillation of Modernism, really. 20th-century time capsules made up of little units of pop -- the aural equivalent of Francis Picabia’s mechanomorphs.
And OMD worked hard, like Brian Eno, or Kraftwerk -- but with darker humor and a human face, seamlessly fusing the world of John Cage-ian tinker with New Romantic balladry. They were the cutting edge of pop music, even though they hate to admit it (out loud). When a record exec grumbled at them to just be either Stockhausen or ABBA, they retorted, probably under their breath: “Why can’t we be both?” Yes, why not?
Indeed, their reach has influenced acts like Radiohead, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and every single one of your favorite forward-thinking electronic/pop groups after 1985. But a false sense of cultural security, paired with one of music history’s most shameful record deals -- a cash grab from the wide-eyed Virgin -- fried OMD’s circuitry. Their fourth album, the masterpiece, Dazzle Ships, “nearly killed our career”, grossly underselling expectations. Critics and fans were divided by its barebones aesthetic -- its canvas stretcher-bar, cut-and-paste digitalia. And so were Paul and Andy, by the way.
Years of creative and financial tension built up, and in 1989, Paul called it quits after a series of -- and the band probably wouldn’t try to correct the record when I say -- shite records. The product no longer justified the process, which had become stressful and anti-creative. Though a revolving cast of characters kept Andy at the center, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, as the world knew it, was no more. And in ’96, OMD faded into a decade of radio silence.
But one decade after that, to everyone’s surprise -- notwithstanding the band’s -- the original OMD returned, answering a pie in the sky call from a German TV program. …But with no intention of making new music, or even touring. Ok, maybe a dozen gigs or so. …Ok four dozen.
So nearly four decades after their formation, and one decade after their re-formation, OMD is putting out a new record -- their third of the third millennium. It’s called The Punishment of Luxury, titled after an 1891 painting by Giovanni Sergentini. Naturally, the album’s about the excess of consumerism, and vice versa. But while it chastises us listeners for succumbing to this ugly way of life, really, Paul says, it’s a “conversation with ourselves”.
The duo had a playful fraternity about them, possibly shared only by lifelong friends. They played off each other brilliantly and often finishing the other’s sentences. And it makes sense because, four decades later, they’re doing it all over again: touring the globe’s major metropoles -- just for press this time around. I guess that’s when you know you’ve really made it.
Speaking with Paul and Andy was a such pleasure. Andy was more forthright -- usually speaking first, leaning forward in his seat. He’s the one with all the art references. Paul was more soft-spoken, more humble. He sat back in his seat. You can tell he’s the more technical one, the one who really gets into the composition of it all. When I asked them what it was like to be OMD once more, he smiled real big: “We’re like kids again.”
The Punishment of Luxury came out September 1 on White Noise Records.
So I’m struggling to strike a balance between questions about your ’80s work and your new album.
P: Have you heard the new album by the way?
Well I’ve gotten to hear the singles a good bit, but to be honest, I’ve only heard the whole album once through.
P: Did you like it?
A: First impressions then! [laughing]
I liked it! Something that interests me is that, when you first started making records, you sounded very much “of your time”. Of course, you referenced the past and you had this historical angle, but you sounded very modern. Whereas today, you incorporate new sounds… but you sound very much of the ’80s.
P: It’s probably our natural signature, isn’t it? We have a kind of order to the way OMD works.
A: If we make a record, it’s important it’s the best it can be, and therefore we will take our time. We will invest the best ideas. The reality is that a lot of people our age love being in the music industry -- it’s all they’ve ever known for their adult lives. They love touring; they like making records. But the one thing they very often don’t like is actually putting the hard work in -- of sitting down, hour after hour, day after day, honing their ideas and trying to make something that really works.
I don’t mean to say that your new record doesn’t sound “new”, you know?
A: Yes some of the rhythm tracks and the programming on this album are very contemporary. It doesn’t sound like the way we would’ve put things together in the old days. But as Paul said, when we write together, there’s going to be a key signature because we want things that resonate with us. So there’s a sound palette, there are melodies, there’s a way I sing that are always going to be signatures which we can’t get away from. And, quite frankly, we don’t want to anyway. It works for us, and it works for people who like what we do. So there’s a balancing act between trying to push the envelope and experiment but also recognizing that we are going to sound like ourselves. As much as we like to experiment, we also like to keep things sounding musical. It’s quite easy just to throw together a bunch of random noises and go, “Hey that’s new. Listen to this.” But it’s like, “Do you wanna hear it a second time?” “No, because there’s no musicality to it.
So when you got back together in 2006, what was the plan?
P: We were just enjoying being back in OMD. It was fun to play those old songs and go on tour and hang out together. But then it was a frightening thing to start making new music. But we dared with History of Modern, and it got quite good critical recognition. It was an indication of where we could go.
A: We consciously challenge ourselves to find new things we want to write about: new inspiration, new sounds, new ways of putting things together.
So now we’re living in the technological future you once sang about. Have you achieved some of the things, musically, you’d hoped would be possible?
A: One of the things that we’ve been desperately trying to do for several years now is to incorporate glitch music into our palette -- things that would normally be rejected: crackles, pops and bangs. But it’s really hard to appropriate that and…
P: ...make something musical out of it.
A: The track “As We Open, So We Close” is constructed out of some pretty harsh noises that then build into something tuneful and then fall apart again.
I wanted to ask about your use of sampling because you guys were on the cutting edge of that in a lot of ways. Does your new record not include samples, or are they just harder to identify?
P: I think they’re harder to identify. We’re sampling all the time -- not necessarily other people’s things, but concrete sounds…. When we started, we were sampling in analog. Before the digital samplers came about, we used to have a couple of tape machines, and we just put any sound on there you could find: shortwave radios, bleeps, plops, bangs. Then you’d have to line them up on the machine and hit the play button at the right time to have the machine record. And pitching them was terrible! You had to use the Varispeed to get them in the right key. It was a bit hit and miss! [laughing]
I guess technology has been kinder to you in more recently recent history… and maybe audiences have too.
A: There’s that song “La Mitrailleuse”, which is put together out of machine gun sounds and artillery sounds and vocoders… We’re trying to utilize things that wouldn’t normally be considered to be appropriate building blocks for music.
It kind of echoes a trend we’re seeing today, of more spacious production and smaller units of music—and of incorporating more non-musical sounds into the mix.
A: Still, I think there are fewer places to go that haven’t already been down the trodden path.
P: We find it harder and harder to find things we haven’t done previously.
A: Especially when you’ve been doing it almost 40 years and 13 albums.
P: With every album, it’s important for us always to keep moving. It would have been very easy with our third album, Architecture and Morality, to have kept repeating that same formula because it was a successful formula. And we did a quite radical album… We kept moving rather than just get[ting] stuck in the sort of familiar sounds and surroundings…. If you put together a good tune that that functions, people go, “I recognize that as having a musical quality,” but then it’s a lyric about something different, and you express it with a melody and with words that haven’t been used before. And if you do it with your own personality, you are stamping something different on it. But of course we’ve expressed our personality for 40 years, so no matter how hard we try, people are going to go, “Yeah, that sounds like OMD.”
I’d like to talk about the name of your new album, The Punishment of Luxury, and its title track, which begins: "The punishment of luxury / it’s in the air for all to see / and it’s ugly now / and it’s getting worse every day." You know, I was having a great day until I started listening to the lyrics of this album.
P: Sorry about that! laughing
A: But it’s not a sort of catastrophic we can’t change!. “The punishment of luxury” is actually quite specific. It’s about the fact that, while people in the Western world, for the most part, are materially better off than ever before -- mentally, they seem to be more unhappy. I dislike the phrase “first world problem”, but up until recently, most people were so busy just trying to put food on the table for their kids, a roof over their family’s head, and hope that there wasn’t going to be a war or pestilence or some massive catastrophe that was going to wipe them out. They were hanging on with their fingernails on a daily basis… [leaning in]
We’re not doing that anymore now, but maybe now we’ve got more time to worry about it? Or we’ve all been brainwashed by what’s replaced the imagined order of religion in the last few thousand years. Now it’s this sense the marketing guys have got hold of you and have been bombarding you for decades -- if you don't own this, if you don’t you don’t buy this -- because of such a massive overcapacity of manufacturing. Basically, they have built a mental environment for people whereby, if you don't have their product, then you are less worthy of love or self-respect. And it’s kind of scary. That’s what “the punishment of luxury” is really about.
Can you talk about the title track, and its significance from an artsy band that loves to talk about art?
A: [For “The Punishment of Luxury”], we’ve appropriated the title a painting. There’s a song [on the album] called “Art Eats Art” that recognizes we live in the postmodern era where most popular culture -- not just music, but film, fashion, literature, architecture -- is all referencing itself. It’s eating its own culture, eating its own history. It’s a postmodern cultural era, everything is referencing everything. When we first started in the ’70s, if you stood where you were at and looked around a 360° landscape, you could go, “OK, rock is there, punk is here, reggae is over there, electronic… there’s been some of that but not a lot. And there’s disco. But there were still big, wide spaces where you could go, “Well nobody's over there” -- between rock and electronic or between, you know, choirs and drum machines.
You could find spaces that nobody was inhabiting. But now, everybody’s trying to find their own niche, and they’re all inhabited to a large degree. You can find sort of unusual combinations or re-combinations. But it’s increasingly hard to find a totally new area. There’s no new technology. There was the electric guitar, then bigger PA systems, then cheap synthesizers came along, and we could finally afford synthesizers, and then computers came in and sampling.
But what about all the software?
A: Really, for the last 20, 30 years, there hasn’t been an awful lot of brand new technology. The computer technology has honed itself, but there’s nothing brand new that’s suddenly, like, a totally new sound…
Ok, so how does it feel to be the new OMD?
A: We have to say, the last few years have been great because we're doing it back on our own terms now.
P: We're like kids again.
A: Being Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark again is pretty cool, actually. People are saying nice things about us. The last thing we wanted to do was blow that by doing a shit album that was just some empty pastiche of our former selves.
So you don’t want to be remembered as a Kraftwerk spinoff band?
P: [laughing] We could do a lot worse.
A: You know, one of the things that influenced us hugely, consciously and unconsciously, was the Radioactivity album by Kraftwerk. With concrete music, you’d go, “Here is the sound of a transmitter, here is the sound of a Geiger counter.” And that was just ingrained in us from the age of 16, that this is music too. So we thought it was entirely reasonable to do it. We’d also been selling millions of records as a pop group, in inverted commas. So a lot of younger hardcore fans loved the fact that we challenged them, that it was a tune you could sing to and dance to, but also appeal to them intellectually.
Like “Genetic Engineering”?
A: You know, we had a top-20 with “Genetic Engineering” using toy typewriters, toy pianos, Speak & Spell, almost sort of Frankenstein-ishly sewing together things that shouldn’t be.
[we start singing the robotic intro chant from “Genetic Engineering”]: Efficient, logical, effective, and practical / Using all resources to the best of our ability / Changing, designing, adapting our mentalities /Improving our abilities for a better way of life. [laughs]
So who are those voices?
A: [laughs] That’s us: myself, Paul, Martin [Cooper], Paul wife -- all just speaking like we’re being sampled. But we wrote those words down and spoke them individually, and put them together like a collage. We threw in a twist because we, the human beings, were saying the utopian, wonderful dream words. But the machine was doing the dark stuff: mother, baby, butcher, engineer…
P: …hospital, scissors, preacher. The Texas Instrument Speak & Spell™ was actually pointing out the dark side. [laughs]
That sort of text-to-speech tool has become pretty common in modern music, that sort of uncanny valley.
A: Yeah, it’s human, but disturbingly not.
So a lot of your early music deals with this bleak, technological future. I have to ask, do you ever just want to shout, “I told you so?”
P: That’s a good question. [laughs]
A: We grew up during that post-Second World War technological, utopian vision where people in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s thought that technology and science and medicine were going to make for a wonderful, brave new world. And I think the reality has dawned on us that, whilst it’s improved many things, there are bigger machines to get crushed in the wheels of now.
A: We've always had an ambivalence. A lot a lot of our music, musically but also intellectually, has this contrast of technology and humanity. And in many ways, it’s the strange, melancholic contrast of those two elements and the place where they join which is the sound of OMD. We’ve used the machinery to highlight the humanity and vice versa. It gives it a more emotional edge because you’re putting two things together to act as a foil to each other.
P: We love that very early Kraftwerk. It was very much mechanical and machine-driven. It did have a humanity, but over the years, Ralf Hütter sort of removed all humanity out of Kraftwerk -- intentionally. And I can see why he did it. But for us, it’s important to have that humanity.
Right, the music does in many ways celebrate this new technology.
A: Now correct me if I’m wrong I can’t recall that we’ve ever done a purely, 100% positive celebration of technology for its own sake…
P: We haven’t!
A: …probably because we very conscious that we didn’t want to be considered Kraftwerk-ian copyists. Technology is there to be the servant of the human beings.
P: And can be abused terribly.
A: It made sense right up until just recently that the people in control—the kings, the leaders, the dictators, the businessmen—to the degree that they were useful, kept the workers healthy and fed because they needed the small cogs in the big machinery of industry or warfare. You needed the support system with the imagined order beneath you, and you needed all those worker ants. But the reality is, now you don’t need these worker ants because, as the algorithms get more and more complicated and efficient, the machinery can replace billions of people. ...The problem is, you’re still going to need those people to have some kind of money to buy the things the machines are making. [laughing] There’s a trade-off here.
You hear the Elon Musks of the world making these eerie predictions of… There’s this big question mark of “what are we gonna do when the machines replace us?”
A: You’re going to increasingly have a certain wealthy elite who have access to the best medicine, the genetic manipulation, so say, “We can afford to live hundreds of years, but the rest of you can’t afford it, and we don’t need you anymore, thanks!
P: God help us if the Trump family turn selves into living gods. [laughing]
Would you say these are ideas you want people to think of when they think of OMD?
P: It’s kind of a conversation with ourselves, really. But we wanted to share it… which is why we make records. [laughs].
A: It’s conversational in the sense that, like, “We have noticed this. Discuss!” …And the paradox is not wasted on us. Here we are talking to you about, “You don’t have to buy the new one… but buy our new album!” At least with creative pursuits, it’s not just a replacement for the one you already got. Hopefully it has something new to offer you.
I mean, if you’re going to be a consumer of ideas, you have to be a consumer of the platform for those ideas. So do you think it is a duty to be political in your art?
P: I don’t think it’s a duty. We just write songs about what we’re interested in, things that are important to us.
A: It’s totally self-indulgent, really. We are pulling ideas out, externalizing them so that we can then analyze our own thoughts and feelings…
P: …which is a way to work out what’s going on in your head, really…
A: …and if they resonate with people, great.
Let’s talk briefly about your song “Isotype”. First, what is an “Isotype”?”
A: Isotypes were an early-20th century attempt to present the dignified international system of typographic education. It was an opportunity to try to reduce information to visual symbols in a didactic way that’s all Bauhaus-y. I’m a big fan of Constructivist painting, Cubism, Futurism, so all that stuff resonates. [Originally, the song] was going to be just a two-minute text-to-speech thing with a bit of sequencing, but then he comes along and goes, “This is great—can I put a melody on it?”, which he did. He put a soaring, beautiful melody on it. Then I’m like, “Shit, this now needs to be a proper song. What the hell am I gonna sing about?” So again, I twisted it to be slightly more ambivalent. What’s the modern Isotype? Is it emojis? And how do I feel about that? Are we distilling it now to the point where we’re it’s actually less information and we’re not communicating? Can you put a Shakespearean play into emojis, into Isotype? So I entertained this notion and actually quote Shakespeare in the song: “solemn shades of endless night” is from Richard III. [laughing]
So you have a dim view on emojis?
A: They tend to become personalized hieroglyphics because, you know, if I send somebody a picture of a robot and a rocket, they know what I’m talking about because we’ve used them before. But if I send them to somebody else, they’ll go, “What? Huh?” In some respects, they become quite personal, intimate little hieroglyphic references. But they can become exclusive and other people cannot actually reference them.
I wanted to ask about “The View from Here”. Why do you end the album on that song?
A: It just felt appropriate. We often end an album with a slowed down, emotional song. In a sense, it’s self-reflection—we’ve talked about all these things, “the punishment of luxury”, and this and that. Now how do I feel about that—what’s the view like from here? It’s always easier to tell other people what they should be doing.
At this point, the touring manager enters into our quiet corner of the Empire Hotel and reminds them they have to hop on a plane to LA.
You said you hadn’t spoken much to each other much during your hiatus. Were you on good terms during that period?
P: We were never on really bad terms…
A: The first couple of years were difficult. Towards the end of the ’80s, we were tired, fed up with each other, we worked our socks off.
P: We had no money.
A: As Paul said, we stopped. We started earning more money by not playing music, but rather just collecting our royalties from songwriting and things on the radio. But also, we weren’t forced into being OMD anymore. Paul was doing his own stuff with Claudia Brücken Propaganda, I was doing my own stuff.
When you played that show in Germany, did you have in mind you might be making records later?
A: Absolutely not.
P: We thought it was kind of dangerous just to put nine shows on sale. What if no buys any tickets? What if no one’s interested in OMD anymore? But those shows sold out really quick, and all of a sudden, nine shows turned into 49 quite quickly, and we were doing it again. And really enjoying it as well... which is the most important thing. Because we don’t need to do OMD. We want to do OMD.
Are there modern groups or styles you take cues from? Who are you listening to?
A: I still hear a lot of music, and only a tiny percentage of it really resonates with me, so not a lot. But there are things. We’re both big fans of the German artist Uwe Schmidt who makes really great glitch records under the name of Atom™… He’s curating his legacy now, which is understandable. It’s a great legacy.
P: We’re not going to curate ours yet. We’re still making it. [laughing]