Name: The Human League
Members: Philip Oakey, Joanne Catherall, Susan Ann Sulley
Occupation: Songwriters, producers, performers
Recent release: This interview was originally conducted for German magazine Beat around The Human League's 2011 Credo, their last studio album to date.
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How important was founding your own studio in 1989?
Philip Oakey: It was important. I don't know if it was good, though, because it pinned us down to one place.
By then, we had recorded at Air Studios, Red Bus in London, Genetic near Redding, Town House and then obviously Foremonts in Mineapolis, which is quite broadening to the horizons. And suddenly, we had a studio to save money more than anything – it paid for itself easily within an album and a half – but we walked down the same street we still walk down to go to work now.
Susan Ann Sulley: We use it as a rehearsal space, too, which has been useful over the past years when doing a lot of live work.
So the idea had nothing to do with the fact that you were not a classicaly trained musican or producer and wanted to improve your skills?
Philip Oakey: No, it really was for purely financial reasons. I'd say I started finding my own voice just by working with synths in 1978. One Christmas everyone else went away and I stayed in the studio with an original System 100 and a sequencer and that really was what I wanted to do.
And as soon as I get into a real studio, it mainly irritates me. I don't like mixing desks, they annoy me. I like making horrible sounds at the beginning. I don't mind making the lyrics and the singing tunes, but as soon as it's lines and lines of things, it's the sort of detail I should never have been involved with in the first place. It's better I leave that to someone else.
So studio work as such is not fun to you?
Philip Oakey: It's getting to be sort of fun again because of Ableton and that's about it.
I always liked hardware sequencers. I really like MC4s, something about them amuses me – that they're only done for music. But they're relatively simple, you know you've got four channels, you enter them as numbers and that's great.
The part where I start getting really annoyed is the part where people will worry whether the hihat is loud enough in bar ninety. Cause I don't care.
Too much detail?
Philip Oakey: Yeah. We've got a tendency to go into 48 tracks and wonder: Oh, what's that triangle doing? Whereas today, a DJ will go: There's a really good beat for two bars, I'll have that – click, click and they loop it up and then it's done. And then the next idea can come.
More than composers, we're ideas people. And the worst thing we can do is loose an idea.
That's the breakthrough in Ableton: I worked mainly with Rob, our drummer on this album, and if we can come up with ten albums in order, we can bang 'em down.
So production, for you, is fun, when you can follow your intuition.
Philip Oakey: Yeah, and now we don't even make particularly great sounds on the synths. We get the sounds somewhere near and we're going to rely either on external effects or plugins to distort, put a chorus on.
That may have been part of your success: To focus on the fundamentals of a song.
Philip Oakey: I believe in simplicity, absolutely. But then again, our producers did. I bumped into Dean [Honer of I, Monster] in the park and we gave him three tracks and the first thing he said was: They need a bit of simplifying.
I got a bit rockers. Although I ended up working with the drummer, I ended up producing drums, because I started programming after the tour when we'd done Dare. No one else was going to program the Lynn Drum, so I did it.
Even that, I think, was a bad thing, because until then I didn't even know what a Mid-8 was. I just did whatever I felt was coming next. And because we were programming on an ML-1, there wasn't much memory. So obviously we had to copy. We had to know what the chorus was, so we could get it to play the chorus a few times, rather than programming the whole song. And as a consequence, I structure songs too hard now.
I care about that too much.
So the job of a producer for The Human League is to focus on the core of your ideas?
Philip Oakey: I suppose it is. It's a big job. We've worked with a lot of producers. When we worked with Martin Rushent, he did every detail. He was a drummer himself, but he was programming an ML-1, going into the intricacies of little hihats.
And immediately, we started working with Chris Thomas, one of the great producers of our times, he produced The Sex Pistols, The Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles' White Album, The Pretenders. And with him, I didn't even know what he was doing in the studio. Lots of the time, in the control room, he was just sitting there, going [imitating a philosopher's pose], looking a bit annoyed and telling the engineer what to do. He didn't do much, but the records that he's on sound fantastic.
What's interesting is that he's deaf on one ear as well. Some great people, like Brian Wilson are, too. I wonder if that brings some focus on things. I'm loosing my hearing as well. Will that make me more brilliant? If only (laughs).
Which of those producers made you realise those ideas most clearly?
Philip Oakey: The really great ones were happy to share their knowledge. Ian Stanley was one of them and very important in us getting back to synths and away from the notion that you had to have samplers. He brought his CS-80, EMU-Modular and he said: You have to use these, this is your area.
Susan Ann Sulley: Jam & Lewis tought us an awful lot while we were there. When you'd finished a track, you'd have all these little bits of percussion, all lined up around the studio and, in one take, Jimmy Jam and Terry banged things and hit something else and it was what we called “the fairy dust”. They were so great in doing that and you weren't allowed to do it again – one take and that's it. You'd wonder: How did they do that? Although it was an odd album to make, they were very inspirational.
Philip Oakey: Well, Jimmy actually had a set of sayings for what he was doing, which he'd written down. He would say: What a song needs is, it needs a pretty tune. It needs some heroic chords. You gotta get the bass line moving. And he had a definition in English of what you needed to do. I so wish I'd written that down.
A different culture.
Philip Oakey: Absolutely. People look down on America, but it's a very musical place. In an average appartment block of flates, you're going to have three great saxophonists. You're going to walk into a bar and the bar band are going to be better than people at the top of the charts in England.
Jam & Lewis couldn't understand why we wouldn't have any principles about what we were doing. They just thought you should make it as saleable as possible. And if that meant bringing in a great singer which they happened to know from church, when you weren't there because your high notes weren't good enough, that's great.
How important is being contemporary to you?
Philip Oakey: I always wanted to be part of the scene that is going on now. But we could only ever do it with synthesizers, so sometimes we didn't fit. We could only really do the new album because of what some other people have been doing for three to four years now, that there was an opportunity there that we could use.
A really important one for me was Simion Mobile Disco. Their ADSR record, I love it. I think it's brilliant. I also think it's what the Human League could have done before the girls joined, if we'd known how to record or if we'd have computer recording.
And as it turned out, I asked them to produce us, but they wouldn't do it, but they're playing live synths, recording them in Pro Tools and manipulating afterwards.
There may have been a moment when you were cutting edge, when you started taking electronic music, which was then still experimental, into pop?
Philip Oakey: We weren't the first to do that, though. We were very aware of what was going on. And although we listened to Kraftwerk - I still listen to them and probably still think they're the best electronic group there will ever be – but we were very aware of Georgio Moroder.
The day I joined the Human League. Martin Ware walked into my flat and he had Trans Europe Express and “I Feel Love”. And I would say that the influence of what Georgio did, was the map.
What, in general, do you feel, is important for a good production?
Philip Oakey: Boldness. Don't look at the details. Go and look from the other end of the room. As our first manager said: The trick of a first mix is to be bold. And it's so easy to get everything perfect and everything level and it's bland.
Joanne Catherall: What we realised from going to work with Martin was that to have a single that is going to play at the radio, you do need to have your vocals a little bit louder. So when it comes on on the radio, that bit cuts through, cause it's the main melody line.
Philip Oakey: With Chris Thomas, he talked about mixing Dark Side of the Moon and I asked him, whether mixing that beautiful and terribly complex album must have been hard. And he said: Oh no, what happened was at any time you knew what the important thing was. You went from section to section and you featured the important thing. And it was easy, because it's the way it was written.
And that's something Jam & Lewis must have been very good at, cultural differences notwithstanding.
Philip Oakey: They were astonishing. They were as hard as nails on the instrumentalists. I remember at the time, Jim was learning to play the guitar, but he wrote a little funky riff for the record, he could barely play it. And they would stand over him and go: Jim, you can not WISH that chord, you have to PLAY that chord. But then, on vocals, I took a month to sing “Human.”
Susan Ann Sulley: We spent four months in Mineapolis. Three months of that was doing vocals. They sent the musicians home.
Joanne Catherall: They didn't push us hard. You'd cough and they'd send you home.
Philip Oakey: (laughs) They'd say, let's go to the restaurant.
Susan Ann Sulley: I got fat (laughs).