Interview with OMD frontman Andy McCluskey

By | September 16th, 2011 | 2 Comments
Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey

Pictured: OMD's Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey. Not pictured: Winston.

To casual pop fans in the United States, there’s no question that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark — OMD for short — is best known for its 1985 synth power ballad “If You Leave”. Full of New Romantic vocal melodrama and crescendoing keyboard, it was the song that famously launched Molly Ringwald towards James Spader’s arms at the end of Pretty in Pink (see video below).

But it would be a mistake to tuck OMD away in the nostalgia files. What many Americans may not realize is their now seminal position in the history of electronic music. Though “If You Leave” and other chart hits like “Enola Gay” stand out for their earworm melodies, the band’s beginnings around its native northwestern England were truly avant-garde.

OMD’s earliest shows, for instance, consisted of founding members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys performing backed only by a four-track named Winston. Other early releases were based heavily on the latest electronic tools of the time, from home-made synthesizers to circuit-bent gadgets to collaged tape. The songs themselves were built based on a graphic notation system McCluskey and Humphreys invented. The symbolic series of slashes, dots, and lines would be stylized by iconic graphic artist Peter Saville (of Factory Records/Joy Division fame) on the cover of their first single, “Electricity”.

These days, the pop world seems to have finally caught up with OMD. The visual, modular style of songwriting is now the de facto method of choice in current production programs like Logic and Ableton, and heartfelt, soulful singing coupled with chillier, danceable electronics was long ago folded into the mainstream.

More than 30 years after the group’s inception, OMD is experiencing a rise in its stock. Not only are their original fans still turning out in droves — the band’s North American tour earlier this year sold briskly — but younger gear heads are coming to pay homage to the masters.

The current tour features the band’s “classic” lineup, with McCluskey on bass and vocals, Humphreys on synth and vocals, Martin Cooper on synth, and Malcolm Holmes on drums. Expect an even greater variety of fans at tonight’s show at Grand Central, the kickoff date for the band’s new tour, and OMD’s first gig in Miami, ever. Ever. With a massive catalog to get through — including a newish studio album, History of Modern, released late last year — fans can expect a grab-bag of hits with a fewer deep cuts thrown in for good measure.

I caught up with bassist/singer/founder McCluskey by phone shortly after he arrived in town. Shaking off jet lag, he talked about the “neo-post-modern musically atomized society”, OMD’s distinction as “the grandfathers of English electronic synthpop”, and his stint as a “songwriting whore for hire”.

You did a tour of North America earlier this year before doing the festival circuit this summer. What made you decide to come back, especially to South Florida, since it appears you’ve never played here before?

Andy McCluskey: We played in I think 1985 supporting the Thompson Twins, and that was the only time we’ve ever played in Florida. So this is very exciting for us. Obviously the potential audience has not a clue what to expect. But the North American tour in March of this year was so successful that we had our agent and various promoters basically begging for us to come back. We were really excited, obviously there was a whole load of places that we hadn’t gotten to on the first tour, so we thought it would be an opportunity to come and play. We’re really excited to be in town.

How did you manage to never make it here in the ’80s or ’90s? Was it the geographical isolation?

AM: I think that’s the dilemma. I also think, to be perfectly honest, that the real strong core of people who liked us tended to be kind of up in the northeast and over in the west coast, with a few cities in the central part of the States. Since we seldom even came down to the Southeast, Miami was just not going to get played, unfortunately. So I do apologize to people who are possibly going to have their first opportunity to ever hear us now. Interestingly, we did play Atlanta in March, and I met several people who had driven all the way up from Florida!

I know this tour is with the so-called “classic” lineup. You used the name until about ’96, but then there were some other “OMD” shows played in the mid-’00s of which you were not a part. So how did you get the core group of guys back together?

AM: Quite simply, we decided we wanted to do it. Enough time had passed, and musical tastes had changed, and then changed again. Now that we’re living in this neo-post-modern musically atomized society, there seem to be a lot of people recognizing what we did and using nice words like “iconic” and “seminal” and “influential”, and people wanted to see us again. We were getting asked to play concerts, so I spoke to all the guys and they said they’d like to try it.

So we played our first concert together again in 2007 for the first time in about 18 years. It’s just been going so well. The thing is we grew up together. We were all playing in bands since we were 16 or 17, in the suburbs of Liverpool. So we spent all of our early adult life together, and it’s great to all be doing it again, but doing it on our terms. We don’t have a record company or a manager insisting that we’ve got to keep going and grinding us down. We’re doing it because we want to do it, and we’re loving it.

Your last record, then, how did you choose to release it without one major label? What was the arrangement?

AM: We did a series of licensing deals with labels who wanted to release it across the world. That’s been great, because it’s gone to people who really wanted it, rather than going to one global label that might really want to release something in England, but not necessarily throughout the rest of the world. We made it ourselves, and then we just took it to companies. Over here in the States, we’re with an independent label out of the Bay Area called Bright Antenna who have been great. It’s been a very positive experience.

Do you think that’s a model other younger acts might try?

AM: I think it would be a little harder for younger acts to try. Obviously we’re in a position where we have a catalog and people will listen to our new material just out of curiosity, if for no other reason. I think the music industry is still struggling to adjust itself to new media and the new issues that it faces, and I don’t think it’s come up with an answer yet.

There are still some massive acts that sell lots of records and make both themselves and the label a lot of money. And then there are people like ourselves who have a fan base and can do it ourselves, and sell a certain number — though I have to say, the album sold four times more than we anticipated, which was a nice thing.

The middle, between selling like 100,000 and a million, it’s almost like a no man’s land, because to do it well, you’ve got to have promotion and radio pluggers and marketing, and it costs money to make videos and do promo, etc. But you don’t get the money back to pay for that. So there’s almost like a top and a bottom that function in two completely different ways, but in the middle it’s a no man’s land, and it’s bizarre.

It seems like you now enjoy a much more broad fan base just because of the passage of time. At what point in time did you realize that people were starting to use those words like “seminal” and appreciate your contributions to electronic music?

AM: I think actually it began slowly, right at the beginning of the new millennium. We started to get people saying, “Oh, electronic music is back in, could you produce an act or write a song for so-and-so?” Then we got, “Would you do a TV show or play live?” So we finally did do a TV show in 2005, and that was the first time we’d been together in ages. We just loved it so much, that’s when we decided to tentatively put our toes back in the water.

Music used to be really tribal, “I wear my hair like this, I listen to this music, I wear these clothes.” But it’s not really tribal any more, it’s atomized. And there are entirely new generations. We particularly saw it when we came back to America in March. Yes, there are the 40- and 50-year-olds who may have seen us the first time around. But there were several other younger generations who had come to see, I guess, “the grandfathers of English electronic synthpop” who had checked us out on YouTube or iTunes, or were into new young bands who had credited us with influencing them. So yeah, you’re right, it’s a broader audience now than it ever was before.

You mentioned that people had asked you to produce or write for other artists. Do you have anything like that coming up? Are there any younger artists you’d like to work with in that capacity?

AM: I haven’t got anything planned at the moment. When I stopped OMD in the mid-’90s, I went into writing for other people, and I must admit I hated it. It was horrible being a songwriting whore for hire and having people in record companies telling me, “It needs to be faster, it needs a key change, can you change these words?” I’d much rather be in control of my own music, thank you very much. However, if somebody I really liked and admired came along and wanted to do something with me or the whole band, then I’d certainly think about it.

Unrelated to what we’ve been talking about, I’ve read that the cover of your single “Electricity” was designed by Peter Saville based on your musical notation system. Is that true, and are you still using that system?

AM: Yes, it’s true. Paul and myself can’t read traditional musical manuscripts, stave music. Particularly when it came to actually trying to write out or explain our rhythm and beat patterns, we developed a shorthand, almost like Braille, of writing where the beats would be, and then blocking in the chords. So that first record, on Factory Records, the front cover did have that way of writing our own music in this strange, blocked format.

We don’t do it any more because, quite frankly, the way we write things on computers in this very graphic, linear style, is not dissimilar to the way we created for ourselves 35 or 36 years ago. But we still can’t read or write proper music!

With the advances in technology, what is your setup like onstage, and what can fans in Miami expect from the show?

AM: We have taken all of the old synthesizers and sounds from the multi-track tapes, and spent months and months and months loading them into the main mother keyboards that we use onstage. Martin and Paul just have one big keyboard each that has everything loaded into it, and they just scroll through from song to song.

They’ve got all the sounds, but they don’t need to look like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson any more with keyboards all around. If we had to have every single synthesizer with us onstage for ever specific sound in a particular song, we’d look like a secondhand keyboard store! So we’ve got a drum kit that’s hybrid half electric, half acoustic; Paul and Martin just play one keyboard each; and I have my trusty bass guitar.

When we play, we are aware that people, particularly in America, won’t know all of our early catalog, so we strike a balance. Basically, we play all the hits, and then for the diehards, there will be some of the weird stuff thrown in. We’re very proud of all our songs so we don’t mess around with them. They sound pretty much like they do on the record, just slightly faster and with more energy.

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Headline: OMD
Where: Grand Central
Cost: $25 (presale), $35 door
Event Page: HERE

See the Miami Music Guide for more listings.

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2 Comments on “Interview with OMD frontman Andy McCluskey”

  1. 1 Victor said at 6:21 pm on September 16th, 2011:

    As always I enjoy Ariell’s articals and interviews. Very insightful stuff! Thank you! Just one thing… Was it Andrew McCarthy’s arms or James Sapader’s arms that Molly Ringwald ran to at the end of Pretty in Pink? I vaguely remember because I was jealous.

  2. 2 Post-Punk Monk said at 3:10 pm on September 17th, 2011:

    How well I remember the anguish of being an OMD fan 30 years ago! I lived in Orlando and it just didn’t happen. The only time I ever saw them was opening for the Thompson Twins in 1986 at Lakeland. A 50 minute set after years of buying every record. I trekked from Asheville to Atlanta for the spring tour this year and it was a very gratifying show. OMD manage to cook on stage very capably. Andy is a fantastic frontman who does it right. It’s great that they are defining their terms this time around and can succeed and enjoy themselves to boot. The new album was their best sing 1983 – quite an achievement.


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