Paul Humphreys + Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: The Future, the Past and Forever After

Music Interviews

Photos courtesy of OMD

“I don’t think we ever saw him as a rival,” Paul Humphreys, keyboardist, occasional singer and co-founder of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, says of Howard Jones. “There were quite a lot of us. There was Howard, there was Depeche [Mode], there was Human League, there was Erasure and we were all competing in the electro sort of genre if you like, but it never really felt like a competition. In fact, we’ve always loved what these other bands have done. I think it was the same for all of those other bands as well. There was nothing negative about it. It spurred us to want to do better than the other bands, but in a nice way.”

The question has come up because I recently read an article by Bob Stanley, Saint Etienne’s co-founder and pop music historian, in The Guardian about OMD’s commercial suicide (aka 1983’s Dazzle Ships) that suggested that Howard Jones’ success—a debut album called Human’s Lib that spawned numerous hits and shifted a mountain’s worth of vinyl—had something to do with Jones being “considerably more pliable and predictable than OMD.”

Seeing as Jones and OMD are in the middle of a cross-country tour of America with the Barenaked Ladies, it seemed a brief return to the mindset of 1983 was in order. Not to mention only a handful of weeks ago, OMD found themselves playing Dazzle Ships in its entirety at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“We love Howard,” Humphreys says, “and it’s great to be on the road with Howard because I hadn’t seen him for ages, and it was great to catch up. He toured with us a few times in the U.K. in the ’80s.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark performing at Royal Albert Hall.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark performing at Royal Albert Hall.

No tabloid headlines today.

The Last Summer on Earth 2016

Since 2012, Barenaked Ladies have spent their summers, save 2014, on The Last Summer on Earth tour (apparently, they have Westeros summers), where the band rolls its way across America with a pair of their favorite bands. Past tours have featured the likes of Blues Traveler, Cracker, Guster, Ben Folds, Violent Femmes and Colin Hay of Men at Work. Most of those bands make sense, although last year’s Femmes and Hay pairing might have foreshadowed the unexpected combination of this year’s openers Howard Jones and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

The unusual nature of the lineup isn’t lost on Humphreys. “With the Barenaked Ladies, it’s a different genre, really, to us and Howard. Somehow it kind of fits together. It’s like a traveling festival where there is something in it for everyone. We had to think long and hard about doing it. We thought, ‘Would this really work?’ But it is really working. Howard is joining them during their set. We have Kevin from the Barenaked Ladies playing with us on a song. It’s all joined up really. So it all seems to strangely work—far better than I ever imagined it would work, to be honest with you.”

Still, the fact that the shows seem to be working doesn’t exactly explain why OMD was tempted in the first place.

Humphreys explains that since reforming the band with Andy McCluskey a decade ago, OMD have been able to play sold-out tours in decently sized venues up and down the East and West Coasts and a handful of cities like Chicago, Salt Lake and Detroit. They haven’t played Middle America since the ’80s.

“This gives us the opportunity to play to a broader audience,” says Humphreys. “People who come to see the Barenaked Ladies may not have come to an OMD show before.”

History of Modern (Audiences)

As for who is turning out to their shows, Humphreys reveals that in Europe, their core audience has a much older demographic made up of people who became fans primarily in the ’80s. In America, they’ve noticed that the crowds tend to be a far more balanced mix of older and younger fans. “It’s hard to analyze exactly why that is,” says Humphreys. “I think Pretty in Pink, the movie, has transcended generations. It has cult status. A lot of young people have discovered the film and love the music in it.” Humphreys suggests that the younger fans might also be a product of newer acts listing OMD as an influence.

Talking Loud and Clear

Talking to Humphreys is easy. This is the second time I’ve interviewed him, and whereas I remember our first conversation to be fairly insightful, it was focused primarily on what was then their big comeback album, History of Modern. Five years removed, our conversation takes on more of a retrospective tone. I point Humphreys in a direction, occasionally guiding him through the memories. 

Dazzle Ships (Part I)

I steer him back towards Dazzle Ships.

“With Dazzle Ships, we fell off a commercial cliff in 1983 because it was a bit too different from what people were expecting,” says Humphreys. “People were expecting Architecture and Morality No. 2, and we decided that we had done our Architecture and Morality and we’d discovered a whole new load of technology and felt like we should be a bit more political. So we did the album. At the time, it wasn’t very well-received. We got terrible reviews when we released it, but when we re-released it in Europe, several years ago now, it was called our ‘fractured masterpiece’ and had five-star reviews. Perhaps we were just a little ahead of our time when we did it.”

Dazzle Ships (Part II)

Few bands come back from commercial suicide. Even fewer bands later find themselves in the position where their great commercial folly is celebrated as an overlooked masterpiece. 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, where camouflaged dazzle ships were primarily used, OMD were invited to do an installation in a boat painted in dazzle colors in the Liverpool docks. Realizing that the National Museums Liverpool were struggling for funds, the band decided to play the whole of Dazzle Ship in the museum. Two shows sold out in 90 seconds.

“Basically, we are proud of our catalog,” says Humphreys. “We’re not hiding from out catalog or dissing it or going, ‘We’re only going play new stuff’ and keep moving forward that way. We like to keep moving forward, but we are also proud of our history. We want to embrace the good things about OMD’s past and provide shows where people can actually hear those songs as well, because they want to hear them live.”

The Romance of the Telescope

For as exciting as it would have been to see Dazzle Ships performed in its entirety, I don’t know if the band could get away playing a gig stateside without including “If You Leave” or “Dreaming.”

“The interesting thing about OMD is that the hits we had in Europe were not hits in America, and the hits we had in America weren’t hits in Europe,” says Humphreys. “So we can play a completely different show in America than the shows we do in Europe.”

Humphreys suggests that the lack of success in America was partly due to their label, CBS, who were far more interested in selling Michael Jackson records.

“We were this kind of weird electro band from England that they didn’t quite understand or know how to market,” he says, “so we were stuck on that label for the first four or five albums. It wasn’t until Crush that we actually were able to pry ourselves out of that deal and sign with A&M, who understood what OMD was about and then our career just started to take off.”

The Lights Are Going Out

By the end of the ’80s, the band had run out of steam. OMD were taking off in America, but their mandated regimen of delivering a new album every year, on top of touring for seven or eight months, was taking its toll. There was no time for holidays. The moment they were off tour, they settled into a recording studio. 

“It was like the first 10 things that came into our head became our album,” says Humphreys. “Instead of sitting back and developing our sound, we became the songwriting machines we had to be. We kind of ran out of things to say because we hadn’t had the chance to take a step back and think about where we wanted to take OMD. We became everything that we didn’t want to be, really. We were on this treadmill and had lost control of our own destiny.”

“I wanted to have a couple of years off—so did Andy, actually—but then the record label said, ‘No, you’ve got a contract. If you’re not going to write together, one of you has to take over OMD,” says Humphreys. “So I let Andy do a couple of albums himself.”

McCluskey carried on, but he was increasingly disillusioned with the industry. As kids, Humphreys and McCluskey naively thought that electronic music was the future. Turns out that music in the ’90s looked to the past and was influenced by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and punk music. Bands like Nirvana and Oasis pushed electronic music into the background. 

“So we stopped, and we had children and families,” says Humphreys. “Fortunately, even though he had a shit deal, we managed to still make some money. We didn’t actually need to work. That was a good thing.”

If You Want It

Universal was released in 1996. It was the first album since 1986’s The Pacific Age to feature contributions by Humphreys. Then the silence set in. Humphreys briefly took up the OMD mantle for a tour, but it wasn’t until 2006 that Humphreys and McCluskey brought the band back together.

Humphreys suggests that the landscape had changed. We were entering a postmodern era where all styles of music, as long as it was performed well, was viable. Audiences were looking back at the ’80s and the electronic movement and discovering that there was a large body of work that deserved to be revisited.

“The phone just started going well for us. We kept saying, ‘No, no, no. I don’t think people want to see OMD anymore.’ We kept getting offered shows, and then all of a sudden, we had so many calls that we decided to bite the bullet and put nine shows on sale as a comeback with the original lineup,” says Humphreys. “Those nine shows sold out so quickly that they turned into 59 shows, and all of a sudden, we were doing OMD again.”

“Now we’re completely in control of our destiny because basically we don’t need to be doing this. We could actually retire. But we’re doing it because we have a newfound love for our band and each other …”

The Future, the Past and Forever After

“When we first got back together and restarted the band again in 2006, we started out just playing concerts, but we quickly realized that we didn’t want to be a retro band—almost a tribute to ourselves in a way. We thought that if we are going to continue OMD, we have to keep moving forward musically because that’s why we started the band. We felt like we had plenty to say and we still believe that we’ve got plenty to say.”

New Babies: New Toys

The first fruit of the newly revitalized OMD was the warmly received History of Modern in 2010, but it was 2013’s English Electric that really saw the Humphreys and McCluskey writing partnership in full force. With English Electric, the group stripped down their sound and made it more electronic. Humphreys reveals that the next record, which they hope to have finished by Christmas, will be even more electronic.

“We are tapping into our more experimental roots, but there will be very commercial-sounding thing on there,” says Humphreys.

Humphreys says that the new album will be “very electronic” because of all the amazing new technology that has steadily become available. He warns that sometimes, too much choice can be a bad thing.

“Without getting very boring and technical, there are so many synthesizers out there that sound great, but you can get bogged down in the technology and forget to write a song,” says Humphreys. “We call it the ‘tyranny of choice,’ because you have so many possibilities now to make music. We had to be creative with what we had with a minimum amount of sound choices, which meant we concentrated on the songs. Whereas now, you have so many sound possibilities that you can get lost in the choices of sounds, rather than trying to make a song.”

“The best thing we’ve discovered recently, particularly with English Electric: We decided to set a sound palette, like a painter would set his colors, and make an album out of that palette. I think there was a certain cohesion we had with English Electric, which was very good because it was set by the sound palette, so it sounded like a cohesive bunch of songs that were kind of interlinked.”

I suggest that sense of cohesion applied to History of Modern as well. Something that had been from OMD’s albums since 1985’s Crush.

“We lost a lot of that, really, because there were too many pressures on us: The pressure of having to deliver an album when we were so burnt out—we had no ideas.”

OMD were trying to break America, and as a result, they were put with producers who were trying to make their sound more “palpable” to the American market. The band found themselves in the creative trap they always said they would avoid.

“Now we’re completely in control of our destiny because basically, we don’t need to be doing this,” says Humphreys. “We could actually retire. But we’re doing it because we have a newfound love for our band and each other. We get on better as a band now than we ever did. We’ve come full circle. We’re loving that artistic freedom.”

The Liverpool Twins

“We have plans through till—well, it will be our 40th anniversary of the band in 2018, so we have plans to take the band through to there,” says Humphreys. “Then we’ll see if we decide 40 years is enough or if we’ve still got something to say we’ll keep going.”

Having just celebrated my own 40th anniversary, I can’t help but marvel at Humphreys and McCluskey and how they are not only still making music; they’re also making music that is as vital and relevant as are the singles that made them famous.

Humphreys pauses to reflect, laughs and explains that the band was only ever going to do one concert. Even when they signed their first contract, a seven-album deal with Dindisc, they thought their music wouldn’t sell and that they’d be dropped by the label long before their deal was up. So, rather than saving their advance money, they built a recording studio. Even if the band didn’t continue, they’d at least have a business to show for their effort.

“We were always budgeting for failure early on until we started having hit after hit after hit in Europe, and we thought, ‘Well, maybe we’re here to stay for a little bit,’” says Humphreys. “I never imagined 40 years.”

I forewarn Humphreys that I plan on doing a lot of singing and dancing during their set. Although, I could never hope to dance like McCluskey.

“Andy thinks his dancing is so bad that he wonders how he gets away with it.”

Barenaked Ladies, OMD and Howard Jones play the Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series Wednesday, July 13, 2016.