Wednesday, March 2, 2011

OMD Return to the USA

Originally published by PopMatters on February 24, 2011

They’ve sold countless millions of records, thrilled packed houses all over the world, yet Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark still find themselves plotting and scheming as they did a few decades ago: Even in 2011, OMD are strictly underground.

“I just got out of a basement rehearsal room,” said the undeniably genial Andy McCluskey, lead singer and bass guitarist of OMD. “That’s what it is, and it doesn’t change, does it? It doesn’t matter how many synthesizers or computers you’ve got, we’re all mod cons. Rehearsal rooms are still stinking places.”

McCluskey and his compatriots – Paul Humphreys, Malcolm Holmes and Martin Cooper – are gearing up for their first tour of North America in 20 years, a trek that will go coast to coast during the month of March, including a stop at SXSW on the 17th as part of a Bright Antenna/Independent Label Group showcase at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop. 

Though OMD reformed a few years ago, they’ve primarily toured in Europe, where they remain more widely known than in the States. Their biggest hit on these shores (“If You Leave” from thePretty in Pink soundtrack) barely registered in the United Kingdom, an odd curiosity McCluskey said is indicative of how the electro-pop icons are viewed through different lenses from country to country.

“’If You Leave’ is by a mile our best known song in America, and to a lot of Americans we’re a one-hit wonder, which is a bit depressing,” he said. “But ‘If You Leave’ didn’t even get in the Top 50 in the UK; we were already starting to slide somewhat out of fashion in the UK by then.”

The Atlantic Ocean isn’t the only barrier separating hits and misses in the vast OMD canon, either.

“We have a song from the ‘90s called ‘Sailing on the Seven Seas,’” McCluskey said. “Massive hit in Germany, massive hit in the UK, absolutely fuck all in Belgium, Holland or France. So do we put it in the set when we play somewhere or not? I don’t know.”

Crafting a set list based upon regional preferences is daunting enough, but there are also diehard fans who’ve waited an eternity for an OMD show: What to do about them?

“You’ve got to throw a few bones to the real hardcore, and we are going to play one song from the first album that we haven’t played in around 25 years,” McCluskey said. “But as it will be 20 years since we’ve played in the States, we might err on the side of caution. But I think that’s understandable.”

Additionally, the band will be showcasing material from their new album, the enthusiastically received History of Modern.

“On the tour we’re going to be doing six new pieces,” McCluskey said. “We’re not going to do the whole album, because we’d be asking for trouble. We’ve got a nice balance, and the new songs fit right in.”

A new album wasn’t even on the band’s radar when they casually reconnected a few years ago. 

“As the new millennium rolled along, we started to get people calling us asking if we’d do TV shows, or were we interested in gigs, and as the whole electro thing started to grow, we started to hear, ‘Could you produce this band?’” McCluskey recalled. “So we got asked to do a TV show in Germany in 2005, so I just phoned up Paul and said, ‘The band is finished, it’s all over, but do you just fancy for a laugh, for old time’s sake going to do a TV show together,’ and he said yeah.”

In Germany, even before the cameras began rolling, they knew the spark was still there. 

“We all sat together having a beer in a hotel bar, and it became evident very quickly that we all remembered how we used to interact with jokes and one-liners,” McCluskey laughed. “And it was there and then where we said, ‘We’ve been asked to do gigs, does anybody fancy doing gigs?’ ‘Let’s have a go. Let’s put a few on sale and see if there’s any interest.’ We put nine gigs on sale, and they all sold out. So in 2007, we ended up doing 40 concerts.”

OMD didn’t take their reunion lightly, especially when they realized just how much work they had to do to keep their reputation afloat.

“There were huge amounts of rust,” McCluskey said. “When I was younger, I used to want to be an archaeologist. I don’t know if you’ve seen these programs on Discovery Channel where they have marine archaeologists who find what they think might be a cannon, but it’s totally encrusted ; they drag it out and just start hitting it with hammers and chisels, and finally they chip away all the rust, and they say, ‘Oh, yeah! There’s a cannon under here still!” That was like us rehearsing. ‘There’s something under there, keep chipping! I remember what we used to be!’”

There was also the humbling realization that the time spent away from the band meant they had to re-learn things that used to come almost naturally.

“We were so nervous about it, we started a year early to rehearse,” McCluskey said. “As a band we hadn’t played together for 16, 17 years. That’s a long time. We had forgotten who we used to be, and so it was a long process, and quite amusing, really. Imagine four middle-aged guys sitting in a smelly basement, literally having to listen to our old CD’s going, ‘Oh, it’s in G! Okay, G to D!’ You know, it felt a bit like being a cover band. Plus, I hadn’t sung live into a microphone for 13 years. It was a long process, but somewhere deep down inside of ourselves we did finally remember who we used to be.”

And who OMD used to be was a band that made terrific records. Why not do it again?

“It was a big step to reform the band to start playing live again, but at least we were playing songs everybody knew and everybody was happy to come along and hear all their favorite hit singles,” McCluskey. “Frankly, it’s a very dangerous and bloody stupid thing to dare to make a new album when you’re 50. The reality is that most people make shit albums when they get together again, and everybody’s like, ‘Please don’t play the new songs – I’ll go to the bar!’”

Fortunately, History of Modern is a strong collection of electro-pop songs that trace a direct line to the band’s original touchstones. It’s something McCluskey said they made a concerted effort to do.

“When we decided to do the dangerous and stupid thing by making another record, we consciously analyzed our history,” McCluskey recalled. “We were trying to be the future 30 years ago, so what do 50-year old modernists do in the post-modern era? We asked ourselves a lot of questions about the relevance and the style, and we decided that the first four albums, which were not really that big in America, were the ones where we had our own distinctive, unique sound that appears to be the sound that is cherished and remembered and is now considered iconic. And we also believe that. As the ‘80s wore on, we had a catastrophic commercial disaster with our fourth album, Dazzle Ships. It dies a horrible death commercially and was ripped by the press. But now, 27 years after it was released, it’s considered to be our lost masterpiece.”

The key, of course, was to make sure it didn’t come off as phony. 

“The trick was to try to not just be a nostalgia trip, a pastiche of ourselves,” McCluskey said. “To use production techniques to use a sound and style where we got the same kind of musical colors but sound relevant in the present. That was the tightrope we were trying to walk, and it appears that it was received by people that we did get the balance right. It’s a blessed relief, quite frankly. It is well received, and I guess we were fortunate we had plenty of time to work on it so that we were able to have more objectivity on the quality o the songs than perhaps we used to get in the days when it was album/tour/album/tour. It’s been great.”

Which brings us back to the balance between the classics and the new material, the obscure nuggets and the solid gold hits.

“We’re going to be playing the opening track on the new album, ‘New Babies, New Toys,’ and the guys have been just taking the piss out of me all week,” McCluskey said. “‘Oh my God, the set starts with McCluskey playing lead bass through a fuzz pedal? Oh, Christ…’ It sounds great. We can’t wait to get out on the road with this new stuff, but it’ll be a balance. I think you have an obligation to give the people what they want to hear, especially when they haven’t for so many years. I’ve never really understood people who go, ‘Oh, I’m bored of our hits.’ Fuck, no. I’m proud of our hits, and I’m delighted people still want to hear them.”

That generosity is a part of what OMD is all about, apparently. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were certainly generous all those years ago when they allowed for the shortening of their grand moniker, even if they didn’t necessarily have semi-literate music journalists in mind when they did so. But they’ve also been generous about their legacy.

“It tailed off once we were no longer on television or on the front cover of magazines, as you slide into obscurity,” McCluskey said. “But in the last few years it’s started to happen again. In particular, my kids who only had some sort of strange dark inkling that apparently dad used to be in some band that used to sell records, but that was a million years ago. It’s cause for great mirth if I’m out with the kids and someone says, ‘Oh, Andy, I saw you play, and your songs mean the world to me,’ and my kids are sniggering in the background while I’m saying ‘Thank you very much.’”

McCluskey said he’s incredibly grateful for moments like those.

“We had this strange deluded notion when we were young that we were somehow going to change the world by doing our own type of futuristic music,” he said. “Then the depression sets in when you realize that you’re selling millions of records, but oops, you haven’t changed the world. It’s lovely to have been in a band, it’s lovely to have sold millions of records and it’s lovely to do the tours and have the opportunity to travel the world which I never would have if it hadn’t been for OMD, but when somebody actually comes up to you and tells you that something you did, even if it just lasted four minutes, actually touched them, actually made an impact on their life, it’s an incredible feeling. That, more than anything else, is incredibly fulfilling.”

Some of those who’ve been touched by the music of OMD include artists who’ve shown the influence in their own music.

“They don’t phone me up and tell me that we’ve been influencing them, but you pick up certain things,” McCluskey said. “There’s been quite a few like James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem and MGMT and even Mark Ronson recently. People name-checking us; there’s obviously been something in the air recently.”

For anyone wary of seeing a band with clear, crisp electronic sounds in a live setting should also take heed: OMD aren’t fooling around.

“We actually started OMD as a live band,” McCluskey recalled. “Paul and I invented Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark to play a live gig at Eric’s Club in Liverpool. We were never a studio band who had to struggle to bring it live: We always kicked ass on stage. It’s often been a bit frustrating for us where people who haven’t seen us before think, ‘Oh, they’re going to stand there behind their synthesizers twiddling knobs and pretending to be robots and it’ll be deadly dull.’ No, we kick ass, and hopefully without resorting to too many rock & roll clichés.”

It was true back then, and it’s true now, said McCluskey.

“I’m sure you have probably gone to a gig where there was a band that you used to like that hasn’t played in a long time,” he said. “You go and see them more in hope than in confidence, and the first few numbers you either stand there going, ‘Oh, shit, I wish I hadn’t come, this is blowing my fond memories,’ or you see what’s happened with us, where you can see people in the audience where it registers: ‘I wonder if they’ll sound any good…Oh, they do…Oh, good!’ We love touring now. We’re a little better, a little more confident and quite frankly, the equipment is a lot better than it used to be.”