OMD on Old Gear, New Gear, and Playing Parts Live

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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.”

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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 breaking down.

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 Leave”?

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?

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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.