O.M.D.: "Dazzle Ships" for the 21st Century  

by Evan Milton

Three decades ago, O.M.D. co-helmed the '80s synth-pop revolution with songs like 'Enola Gay' and 'Seven Seas'. After a light-hearted seven gig reunion sold out in 24-hours, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are back - and having more fun than ever before.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus "Good Weekend" of 2012/ 06/08
"I'm really looking forward to being in South Africa," says Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (O.M.D.) co-founder Paul Humphreys with a willingness to chat that belies his multi-million-selling pop icon status. "Andy (McCluskey, childhood friend and the other founding member of one of the '80s defining bands) was there in the '90s - playing at Sun City, I think - but I wasn't part of that. Now, the whole band is really excited to be coming there." It's refreshing to hear enthusiasm such as this from the man who wrote and sang hits like "(Forever) Live and Die", "Promise" and "Souvenir" and now talks about the playlists he peeps at on his twenty-something daughter's MP3-players.
Humphreys was born in 1960, and he and McCluskey formed O.M.D. in 1978 in North West England. After individual stints in teenage progressive rock bands, the pair found a shared interest in the emerging electronic and synthesised sounds of bands like Kraftwerk and La Dusseldorf, and Humphreys used his hobbyist knowledge of electronics to build some of the band's early instruments. Initial response was positive, with New Wave clubs accommodating their then-unusual electronic sounds - O.M.D. has joked since that theirs was a "synth-punk" endeavour, with an interest in performing their songs and making the music take precedence over any learned skills. The band went on to enjoy widespread chart and critical success in the United Kingdom - and South Africa - with many of their hits still regarded as defining of the synth pop era. Humphreys departed the band in 1989, citing disinterest in their ongoing touring schedule and attempts to break into the American market. In 2007, after a 2005 reunion for a German television show, the original O.M.D line-up reformed, with Humphreys and McCluskey rejoined by Mel Holmes and Martin Cooper. 2010 saw the release of a new album, "History of Modern", to good reception, and the band are currently completing another work, to be titled "English Electric".
"When we started, we used to look at all the guitar bands and be bored and say, 'That is the music of the past - what will the music of the future sound like?' and we thought it would be electronic. Of course, it was in its infancy, but we thought electronic music would rise up and slay the rock 'n roll dinosaur," he says with a laugh. "Then, when bands like Oasis came out, we thought, 'What, the future is rock music from the '60s - how did that happen?' Now, electronic music is back in vogue. We still have that conversation, but now it's over cups of coffee, but we still have the drive that you need to give you focus. We have that mantra when we go into the studio to work on 'English Electric' - 'what will the future sound like?' and then we head off on a path, always trying to move forward."
With these new works under the belt - and Humphrey's ongoing writing and performing with Holmes and Cooper as The Listening Pool, and with his partner, ex-Propaganda front-woman Claudia Brücken as OneTwo, as well as McCluskey's ongoing solo with O.M.D. and other projects - can South African audiences look forward to a slate of new songs? One can almost hear Humphreys shifting in his seat. "Weeellll," he says, "We might sneak one or two in. We start rehearsals on that next week, and we'll see how it goes. But there are songs as O.M.D. that you can't get away from playing. People expect them and I don't understand bands who come out with reworkings and different versions. We're very proud of our back catalogue and, when we play the songs, we want people to hear the original compositions. Songs are like little time capsules and people want to be transported. They don't want to hear you scatting around the tune and being clever - 'Just play the tune like we know it, for God's sake!' That's how we like to do it." 
After Humphrey's left O.M.D. at the end of the'80s, McCluskey continued it, with various releases, tours and collaborators. Happily, the group went its separate ways relatively amicably and, even more happily, an audit of sales and royalties saw them owed a not-insignificant amount by their record company. 
"Working together is going really well," says Humphreys. "I hate to hear about bands on the road who have to go out in separate limousines. Why bother then? It has to be fun. Fortunately, we don't have to do O.M.D. for the money, so it has to be pleasurable. I think you reach an age where you can only work with people that you get along with. O.M.D. now is great fun. Andy and I have known one another since we were seven: we were in the same primary school and we've been friends for almost our entire lives. He's like my brother and we get along now much better than we ever used to. The band is older and wiser and there are no issues between us. We're flying as a band. Perhaps we shouldn't be, at this age, but we are…."
Humphreys quips about the danger of "older bands trying to be new" but says that, after the late 2000s reunion and demand for the band that saw the planned seven shows grow to 49, they realised that they still had something to say. "We couldn't believe the demand for the band but, after playing, we saw there were still songwriting ideas," he says. "'History of Modernity' was us getting back into writing as O.M.D. What's great is that we've both carried on writing, me for Listening Pool and Claudia's projects and OneTwo, and Andy with his projects. We weren't starting from scratch again. For 'Electric English', the sound should still be electronic - we're too old to start new instruments now! - but it would be hard to describe what we're doing: it has to be heard. We pushed the boundaries with 'Dazzle Ships' (O.M.D.'s 1983 follow-up to the massively popular "Architecture & Morality", featuring explorations into understanding the Cold War, and utilising musique concrete sound collages and shortwave radio samples). The new album is 'Dazzle Ships' for the 21st Century."
O.M.D. play the Grand Arena on Thursday 2 August (Grand West, Goodwood, 8pm; tickets R212 to R365) and Emperor's Palace on Saturday and Sunday 4 and 5 August (Johannesburg; 8pm and 6pm respectively; tickets R150 to R290). Tickets from Computicket.com, 0861 9158000 or Shoprite/Checkers. More on OMD.uk.com.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus "Good Weekend" of 2012/ 06/08 

Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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