Paul Humphries and Andy McCluskey formed Orchestral
Manouevres in the Dark (OMD) in 1978 while teenagers, inspired in equal
measure by German synth pioneers Kraftwerk and the U.K. punk uprising.
As the two set about writing just enough songs to play one gig at
Liverpool venue Eric’s Club, they unwittingly helped draft the blueprint
for the modern bedroom electronic musician.
As the ’80s arrived, OMD released a string of hits. Their 1986 single “If You Leave” (featured in the John Hughes film Pretty in Pink)
broke OMD into the American pop mainstream. However, after supporting
Depeche Mode at their landmark concert at the Rose Bowl in California,
OMD split, citing musical differences and industry pressures. While
McCluskey recorded as OMD during the ’90s, the original lineup wouldn’t
record or perform together again until 2006. We caught up with Humphries
just as the band finished a run of U.S. dates—culminating at the
Coachella festival—about OMD’s new studio album English Electric, and about their gear and songwriting approach then and now.
You reformed just a few years ago. Did you think you’d get back to this level so fast?
You know, we were supposed to start by touring the U.K.,
but then we landed Coachella and had to change all our plans. You can’t
turn down Coachella, can you? It’s just typical OMD. We never have a
plan. We’ve only ever had one plan, which was to play one gig in 1978,
and the rest of the time we just see what comes before us and go, “Yeah,
we’ll do that.”
Left: Paul Humphries. Right: Andy McCluskey. Photo by Tom Oxley, courtesy of Big Hassle Media.
Was there less pressure now since you already had the reunion record, 2010’s History of Modern, under your belt?
Yes, we had a bit more freedom with English Electric.
When we got back together, we spent a couple of years touring our back
catalog. Then we said to each other, “Are we just going to be a tribute
band to ourselves or do we still have things to say in the voice of
OMD?” So, we dared to make History of Modern, and it was quite a
bit of pressure because we needed it to be a good record and well
received. It was kind of like getting the old car out of the garage that
hadn’t been driven in 15 years, putting some oil in, and getting it
into first and second gear. I think English Electric is us back in fourth gear driving really fast.
Did you go about making this record differently?
With History of Modern, we thought we’d be
hyper-modern and send files through the Internet to each other. Andy’s
got a studio in Liverpool and I’ve got one in London, 200 miles apart.
You can’t exactly commute that every day. The Internet did work, but it
absolutely can’t replace two people in the same room batting around
ideas. That’s how we did our first four albums, and why they were so
coherent. So this time, I went to Liverpool for one week per month and
we’d sketch out everything. Then, I could take the files with me to
London and work on the keyboards and the rhythms, and Andy could work on
lyrics and vocals by himself.
English Electric ties in more closely with OMD’s early albums, whereas later records like Crush and The Pacific Age had a more “American” sound.
Those are our most popular albums in America—I don’t want
to trash them because there are some great things on those—but they
somehow weren’t as coherent as some of our earlier stuff. When we
started out, on the first four albums, we didn’t really know what we
were doing. The more we learned, the more conventional we became. So we
wanted to go back.
How did you go about recapturing that feeling?
For a lot of our choruses, we didn’t write vocals for them—we wrote keyboard melodies. On English Electric,
there are hardly any vocal choruses. They’re nearly all keyboard melody
choruses. We were freer and more experimental, and I think because History of Modern was so well received, we felt that we had license to push ourselves a bit further.
Did you use primarily hardware synths on the album, or plug-ins?
What’s interesting is that all the new electro bands—all
the young kids—they’re buying up all the old analog synths that we used
in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And we’re selling it to them! We’re
totally happy with all the modern plug-ins. The old stuff was always
What was a big gear nightmare in that regard?
Using a Mellotron live. We did a show somewhere in the
middle of France—I can’t remember the town. Because everyone in town was
cooking—electric cooking—the voltage in the town had gone down so much I
couldn’t get the Mellotron in tune. We had to wait until the whole town
had finished cooking before the Mellotron tapes could get up to speed.
How mad is that?
Onstage, though, some hardware becomes necessary. What do you use to translate the songs for live performance?
We use a lot of Roland stuff. I only use a Fantom-X8 live, and so does Martin [Cooper, OMD’s second keyboardist].
It’s such an amazing synth, and really underrated. I got all my old
synths out and sampled in the exact sounds note by note. I spent so long
doing them but now the sounds are fantastically reliable. Some of the
old synths didn’t have presets, so you’d hold a flashlight in your mouth
and keep a chart to set it up. Now, I just hit “next” on my Fantom-X8
and it’s already pre-programmed, with effects. The filters are quite
excellent on the X8 as well, so I can do quite a lot of filtering live.
I’m very happy with it.
What were you using onstage in the Dazzle Ships era?
Let’s see, that must have been the Emulator days. We had a
couple of those. I still had all my organs and Mellotron onstage,
probably a [Korg] Micro-Preset, as well, for all the older stuff. It was
a bit too Rick Wakeman for me, really. For the tour after, I was using
the Fairlight and that one really wasn’t built for the road.
You have a huge body of electronic work. How do you
feel about Americans knowing you mainly for the big radio hit “If You
You shouldn’t believe all the things you’ve read about “If
You Leave.” Andy and I are really proud of that song and it’s served us
really well. It re-launched us in America in a big way. I think that
was the only time we’d written a song with me at the piano and Andy
writing words. We only had one day to write it and if it didn’t work, we
had no more time left so we wouldn’t have been in Pretty in Pink.
Andy and I spent a solid 24 hours with no sleep at the piano writing
the song. We quickly made a demo and sent it over in a taxi at about
nine in the morning—which is when we went to bed. About two hours later,
we got a call from John Hughes saying, “Fantastic. It works. Go record
it.” We had one more day to record it and that was it.
The live set showcases what a great singles band OMD is. Do you still connect to all those songs?
There’s nothing in the set that we don’t want to
play. It’s like when Andy and I went to see Kraftwerk recently. They
played at the Tate Modern in London and they were playing a different
album every night, and then all the hits after. It was fantastic. We saw
Autobahn and Radioactivity. When I go see Kraftwerk, I
want to hear “Neon Lights.” I want to hear all their big songs as well
as the weirder stuff from the albums. Andy and I were transported back
to 1975 in my mum’s back room listening to them. Songs are like time
capsules, aren’t they? They capture moments of your life. They’re hooks
on which you hang memories of experiences you’ve had. That’s the power
of music and we want to give that same experience to our fans. That’s
why we’re very nerdy about making sure all the keyboard sounds are
exactly like the records. That’s an important part of being a band.
Both live and on the new record, you’ve added more experimental pieces. How did you produce these tracks?
A lot of our songs start out as experiments. “If You
Leave” was probably the only example where we sat down and scratched out
some chords and a melody. Usually, we’ll find a sound, experiment with musique concrète,
or play with samples or an interesting rhythm. Often, some of those
experiments will fall by the wayside and a more traditional song comes
out of it. So, we decided to leave some of the experiments that didn’t quite turn into songs in their raw stages—as pieces in their own right.
Do you build the tracks up in Pro Tools?
Yeah, everything is in Pro Tools. I tried Logic, but I
never got on with it. I didn’t like the way the audio side worked.
People have said that in Pro Tools, the MIDI side isn’t very good, but I
tell you, the MIDI side does everything that I need it to do. Quite
often, if I’m in the analog world, I don’t need to MIDI it. I like to
play things live. I’ll use Pro Tools as a tape machine.
Pro Tools is a little more reliable than tape machines. . . .
Exactly. We were “sampling” in 1978, but the only way to
sample was to record it on a half-inch tape machine, work out the start
point, and hit play, which I became an expert at. We used to have a
whole load of ReVox B77s in our studio, and all these spools everywhere
to make the tape loops go round and round. If only we’d had Pro Tools!
When you’re onstage, it stands out just how many parts you’re playing in real time.
Yeah, we’re playing everything apart from the drum
machine. We’re a bit old school because we started playing live before
there were sequencers. We got into that feeling of actual performance
and playing live. It would be really boring for me to just sit there and
fiddle a bit with knobs and stuff. I like the challenge of playing a
complicated song. On the Fantom, the challenge is remembering where
everything is zoned and playing it all at once.
Did you start out with any kind of musical training?
Punk in the mid-’70s said to a lot of people that you
don’t have to have musical training. You just need an attitude and an
idea and you can get up and do it. In the early days, we were like
two-fingered synth players. We had no training whatsoever. We just
learned as we went and, after 30 years, we’ve had to become really good
players, just by default.
What might be next for OMD?
We never have a plan. What’s interesting with English Electric
is that Andy and I sweated blood over that record. We just kept working
until we got it exactly how we wanted it. During that process, we kind
of exhausted ourselves. We looked at each other at one point and said,
“We can’t do this again.” But then on this tour, we’re already talking
about new possibilities, so we’ll see what happens.
Everything is on our terms now. There’s no record company
pressure. That’s what happened in the ’80s. That’s why things fell
apart. Now we don’t have to do anything. We’re like kids again
with OMD. We started out just doing whatever the hell we felt like
doing. All of a sudden, we fell into the music industry. Fortunately,
we’ve made enough money that we don’t need to be topping up our
pensions. As long as we keep loving what we’re doing, we’ll keep going.