Interview: Phil Oakey, The Human League
Along with fellow Sheffield acts ABC and Heaven 17, you’ll be participating in the forthcoming Steel City Tour. How did the idea for the tour come about?
It might have been my idea, but people have thought that I’ve claimed ideas which weren’t mine before! I just remarked at a meeting with our manager that one day we would have to do a tour with all the Sheffield people. He seemed to go off with that and get it somewhere, which seemed like a nice idea.
Did anyone need much persuading to join the line-up?
I think people always need loads of persuading. There’s all sorts of different things going on. Everyone wants to be on a stage, and then everyone’s thinking: ooh, can we afford it, or can we afford not to do it, and will it put our status up or down, and all of that. So I should think there’s been loads and loads of behind the scenes stuff.
We [the Human League] are more resigned to working live. We’ve done it for years and years and years now. At the end of the year, we’re going to go out and do a live tour, because after thirty years, we’ve realised that it’s our job.
The Human League Christmas tour has become an annual tradition, hasn’t it?
Well, we’ve been doing it for a really long time; I think it must be ten years or so. And it’s always great to have a little wrinkle. The worst ones to do are the ones where it’s just us on our own – because when we have to do an hour and a half, we just run out of hits. We have to have one or two songs where we’re begging the indulgence. But luckily on this one, our set will be a little bit shorter and we can have a bit of a storm through the hits.
The most immediately startling thing about this line-up is that you’re touring with Heaven 17, as two of them [Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware] were founder members of the Human League. Is this the first time that you’ve appeared at the same event?
It isn’t. We have done various little things. We all went through a period of doing PA appearances in the early 2000s, and a thing called Here And Now that we did with Tony Denton, and we got together on a couple of those.
Really, the Human League is Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh’s. I came along and joined, then they branched off and I continued it on. But I actually like the lads very much. At the time when I joined, I think they would have had Glenn [Gregory, Heaven 17’s vocalist] as the singer, but he happened to be working in London at the time. But then he was massively hospitable to us. When we toured in those days, we had no money at all, so if we were anywhere near Glenn, he’d say: come and stay at our flat, I’ll feed you up and make sure you’re all right.
You split from Martyn and Ian at the end of 1980. It must have seemed like there were huge musical differences between you then, but perhaps those differences dissolve away over the years?
I don’t even know if it was musical differences. I was more inclined towards commerciality, maybe because I was brought up with three older brothers, and I’d grown up with pop music, and I loved pop music. The Heaven 17 guys were maybe a little bit deeper and more philosophical than me. I’ve always said that my favourite band is probably Slade. I really wanted to be in a pop band with our photos on the front cover, and maybe they had a more long term artistic sort of thing.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, all three of the bands on this tour were associated with an emerging Sheffield music scene, which was mostly centred on electronic music. Did it feel like a proper scene at the time?
It really was a scene. I didn’t know the people until after I joined the band, and then I found that all these things were going on all over the place. Ian Burden, who eventually joined us, was in a band called Graph, and I became a very big Cabaret Voltaire fan. For a couple of years, I didn’t miss a show that they did.
So there were rivalries, but then again there was really good stuff going on. I would have loved Richard Kirk to bring Cabaret Voltaire on this tour. I don’t know whether anyone sussed that out, but I’m still a big fan and I see Richard around in Sheffield.
We all knew Martin [Fry, of ABC], because he was running a fanzine at the time. We knew Martin before he was in ABC, when we played shows with [his previous band] Vice Versa.
Do you have any theories as to why that scene, which consisted of people working in broadly similar areas of music, suddenly sprung up at that time?
I’ve often wondered about it myself. Sheffield was a very European kind of city, strangely. We had two art colleges, and we had a council that really tried to pour money into supporting the arts. All the guys in the Human League apart from me were in a theatre group called Meat Whistle, which was council funded. That was where they got their ideas together, and maybe that was why they thought it should be a little bit more theatrical, electronic, and maybe a bit more cabaret, than just going and doing the rock band thing. Which Def Leppard were doing down the road anyway, with massive success.
That’s interesting. So there was council money, and there were links to the arts. In Nottingham, we have slightly more inhabitants than Sheffield, but we have a dramatically less prominent music scene.
Things seem to go in waves, though. The odd thing is that music often does really well when people haven’t got any money. You’ve got nothing to lose. I think if someone had given me a good job somewhere, and a company car and all that, I wouldn’t have been out until two or three o’clock in the morning fighting with my friends to try and get one tune and not another tune, and scraping by, and living in vans and so on. Sometimes it’s bad for people when they’re doing really well.
That tradition of electronic music from Sheffield has continued over the past thirty years: from Warp Records through to acts like Moloko, and then with the whole Gatecrasher era. Do you feel in any sense like one of the founding fathers of that tradition, and are you acknowledged as such?
I tend to think of myself more as an observer. I always seem to join in on someone else’s thing, which has been very interesting. I ought to write a book about it one day: the way that I’ve often been standing at the back of the room, while someone important is doing something good. I think the League is more or less in that tradition.
The Gatecrasher era gave us the chance to say that something good was established with electronics: something that was an alternative to rock. I loved Gatecrasher, actually.
I wish I’d been. I never got the chance. We’ve got a Gatecrasher in Nottingham now, but it’s obviously not the same thing.
That scene got so big that it couldn’t continue, could it? But Gatecrasher is certainly the best nightclub I’ve ever been to. It was incredible.
Some remixes of The Things That Dreams Are Made Of came out at the start of the year, which did quite well in the clubs. Did you have any involvement in that?
Only in that we said yes. I really enjoy all that stuff. I’m feeling slightly miffed at the moment that people tend to ask me to be the voice on something, or the front of something, as I’m killing myself trying to write some new stuff at the moment. But I do really like to hear the remixes going on, and getting some new ideas going.
So people ask you to be featured vocalist on their tracks, like you did with The All Seeing I? [Phil supplied guest vocals on their 1999 hit, 1st Man In Space.]
It was better with The All Seeing I, because I knew the lads anyway and so that made a bit of sense. Quite a few people ask me, and it seems that what they really want me to do for some reason is to be in the video – which is odd, because I don’t look particularly good or anything. But they think that maybe that would get it in the paper, or something!
So I’m fighting shy of that at the moment, and trying to do a new electro-glam-disco album. We’ve got a load of new material. We’ve gone in quite an interesting direction, and we’re just trying to wonder how to put it out. The business not being what it is at the moment, we might end up putting it out ourselves.
I was wondering about that. I believe you’re currently unsigned, but maybe in this day and age it doesn’t matter, because you can bung it out yourselves.
It’s a real big help if you are signed. I know that’s the model that has died now, but I’ll tell you, it’s absolutely brilliant to walk into a room, and have someone say: what would you like? And you say: oh, can we have £200,000 and then we’ll start making an album? And by the way, we need £200,000 to live on while we’re making it. And the guy says yes. That is a really good feeling, and I miss it! (Laughs)
If you were to distribute your own music, you’d need your own official website. You must be one of very few bands left that don’t have an official site, and I don’t quite get why not.
It’s because I never wanted to be the guy that drove the Rolls Royce into the swimming pool after Keith Moon. If I could have done it first, I would love to have done it. But we’ve always tried to go down a different stream to everyone else. And I think, in a way, we didn’t make the most fuss of that in the papers. Because if everyone’s doing rock, we’re going to do electronics, or if everyone’s off doing white soul, we go over to Minneapolis and do Prince-y sounding stuff, and then people are surprised.
I just didn’t want to do [a website], because 10,000 other bands do it. So there’s got to be some other way. Right now, if I had a million in the bank, I would say: I’ll do it on 12-inch vinyl. My friend Dean who was in The All Seeing I had a couple of record labels where he put everything out on 7-inch vinyl. And it was really lovely, and it was dead arty, even if it didn’t get to quite as many people.
Vinyl is the format that refuses to die. They’ve even re-introduced it into some American supermarkets, which you wouldn’t have expected.
I love it, but maybe not for the sound. I love it because it’s physical. I think we miss the fact that you used to have to make that decision. You’d play one side of an LP, and then you had to get up out of your chair, go over, take the arm off, turn it over and say: I want to listen to the second side.
Absolutely – you’re committing to the act of listening, rather than randomly flicking shuffle on your iTunes. When you started up, and especially when you first started having hits, you and a lot of your contemporaries would talk about “subverting” pop, or of taking control of pop and redefining it. How much of that was just talking it up? Did you just want to be pop stars anyway?
It’s really hard to tell, because you change. As soon as you have a few hits, you immediately become a very different person – and to be straight, we always had a plan to have hits. When Martyn Ware asked me to join the band, he brought round a copy of I Feel Love by Donna Summer. It wasn’t that we wanted to be obscure European musique concrète people. We really loved pop music, and we wanted to be a bit like KC and the Sunshine Band as well.
I got that right from the start. The first thing I ever heard was an early cover of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ on a Peel session. That was a completely radical idea at the time, because “electronic music” meant alienated urban robots or whatever. So perhaps you were the original New Romantics?
I thought we were the first people who were called the New Romantics. I thought Rick Sky [tabloid showbiz journalist] said it in an interview with The Star about us, but now some other people are claiming it. Spandau Ballet’s manager is claiming it now, isn’t he?
There’s also a lyric in an early Duran song. [“Like some new romantic looking for the TV sound”, from Planet Earth.]
God, I didn’t know that. Duran were always a little bit rocky for me. I was really into Japan and John Foxx, but as soon as they put guitars on it, then I’m only a punter because I don’t understand it. They’re twanging these things and these notes are coming out – but I can’t see on a screen what they are, so I get confused.
I shared your sense of purism when Duran came along. I’d already heard it from Japan, basically. But I always sensed with the Human League that there was some kind of grand plan behind the scenes: right down to the design of the record sleeves, and the period when you colour coded your singles, Was there a grand plan, or was it all smoke and mirrors and you were just winging it as you went along?
There was a grand plan, and most of it just didn’t work. Every time you thought you were going to have a huge record, no one bought it. And every time you slipped one out quietly, thinking: oh my God, why are we putting this out, we had the big hit.
We were nicking ideas left right and centre from people, all over the place. A lot of our plan was basically George Clinton. The colour coding was referring to George Clinton: we’ll have a Parliament, and a Funkadelic, and a Brides of Funkenstein. It will all be different things, and we’ll roll it all together, and maybe at some stage all the people who like all the different things will buy all of them.
I’ve got one more question. With you and Heaven 17 on the same tour, has the door been left open for an onstage reunion? Maybe a jam on Empire State Human, or something like that?
I would be really surprised if that happened. For a start, I think the question is: who’s going to be doing Being Boiled? I would be surprised, because we’ve all got pretty solid stage set-ups that we would be terrified to deviate from. I guess it would be more likely that we get together in the studio at some stage.
And if you did that on stage, you’d have Martin Fry standing in the wings, thinking: well that’s all very well, but where does this leave me?
Yeah, and he’s probably the best singer who’s going to be there.
He played Nottingham on the Here and Now tour, earlier in the year. Of the seven acts on the package, ABC were unquestionably the best act of the night.
Well, he is such a good singer. He was fantastic on the records, and he’s much better live. It’s frightening.
So the futurists of old have become kind of the nostalgia acts of today – but it seems to me that you’re all very reconciled, and very happy with that aspect of your work.
I guess so. I mean, we’re all approaching retirement; we haven’t got any fight left. I’ve just gone out and got a new dog, so I’m worn out from trying to walk him!