Across The Universe
OMD’s ‘English Electric’ is genuinely a stunning return to form.
Utilising their KRAFTWERK, NEU! and ENO influenced avant pop template, the original creative nucleus of Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey have married their classic sound to glitch techniques, modern computer voice generators and sympathetic contemporary production for a wonderfully cohesive work.
The long standing influence of Düsseldorf’s Fab Four – Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl – is more apparent on ‘English Electric’ than on any other previous OMD album. From first single ‘Metroland’ to ‘Kissing The Machine’, a sonic collaboration with Herr Bartos which also features PROPAGANDA’s Claudia Brücken, OMD’s Germanic circle is now complete.
Interestingly, some OMD fans weaned on ‘If You Leave’ and ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’ appear to have been confused about OMD recording an electronic album with references to KRAFTWERK. But right from the off with ‘Electricity’ (which was effectively the song ‘Radio-Activity’ speeded up), Kling Klang has been the seed of OMD’s genesis. McCluskey recently included ‘Radio-Activity’ AND ‘Trans Europe Express’ among his baker’s dozen of favourite albums for The Quietus so this should not have come as any great surprise!
‘English Electric’ could well be the best OMD album since 1983’s ‘Dazzle Ships’. The sparkling but bittersweet synthpop of ‘Helen Of Troy’, the Edward Hopper referencing realism of ‘Night Café’ and the lovely Paul Humphreys vocalled ‘Stay With Me’ are all prime jewels in the OMD crown. Meanwhile THE TORNADOS meet LA DÜSSELDORF blitz of ‘Dresden’ will have live audiences up on their feet despite its macabre lyrical context. Although closely related, ‘Dresden’ is however not actually about the bombing in the Second World War in the same way ‘Enola Gay’ was about Hiroshima. Instead, it uses the city as an unsubtle metaphor about relationship breakdown, an emotive topic that connects with the album’s theme of unfulfilled utopian dreams.
There are also unconventional chorus-less songs like the magnificent ‘Our System’ which sees drummer Mal Holmes turn into PHIL COLLINS for the song’s explosive climax. But the biggest surprise is ‘The Future Will Be Silent’, a squelch laden commentary about audio pollution… despite its dubstep drops, the end result remains somehow distinctly OMD!
OMD also embark on an extensive world tour and the various support acts in each territory showcase the best of established and new talent in a thoroughly reinvigorated electronic music scene. Special guests in the UK are JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS who need no introduction; the former ULTRAVOX front man’s partnership with vintage synth collector extraordinaire BENGE also features on stage, the multi-talented HANNAH PEEL whose ‘Organ Song’ was sampled for the OMD track ‘Bondage Of Fate’ from the previous OMD album ‘History Of Modern’. She also covered ‘Electricity’ for her debut EP ‘Rebox’.
Meanwhile, the Belgian and Dutch dates will be supported by METROLAND, a duo with Kling Klang burned into their circuitry and whose debut album ‘Mind The Gap’ is an affectionate technological journey inspired by the London Underground network; their electronic restyling of IGGY POP’s ‘The Passenger’ has to be heard to be believed while their appropriate remix of ‘Metroland’ is a big favourite on TEC’s internet radio show Rusty Egan Presents The Electricity Club.
The striking VILE ELECTRODES will be the opening act for the German tour and The Electricity Club is particularly proud as Da Viles headlined the inaugural TEC001 live event. They were also chosen by Andy McCluskey as a direct result of him perusing this very site.
Andy McCluskey spoke to The Electricity Club about OMD’s new opus…
It was the logical step forward. ‘History Of Modern’ was a collection of songs in various OMD styles. But we got loads of sh*t for just making a good album with ‘History Of Modern’. If U2 or SIMPLE MINDS just make an album that sounds like them, everyone will applaud them for getting back to basics. *laughs*
You’re making a statement of intent by launching the album with one of the experimental tracks ‘Decimal’ AND releasing ‘Metroland’, the longest track on the album as a single?
‘Metroland’ is a beautiful song with a simple but beautiful lyric, even if I say so myself… we’re very happy with it. So the beginning of this campaign is yes, making a statement of intent and flagging that we believe in what we’ve done on this album. The people who will buy the album will buy it hopefully because they’ve heard ‘History Of Modern’ and hopefully because they are OMD fans; they will buy it in the first two weeks. Then, hopefully, the people who liked ‘Sister Marie Says’ and bought ‘History Of Modern’ because they heard it on Radio2 will then go and buy the album when they hear the next two singles… this is the theory! *laughs*
‘Dazzle Ships’ was made in a period of adversity and insecurity… with ‘English Electric’ we are sort of in that situation with the economic uncertainty and the spectre of terrorism. What similarities can you identify spiritually with the two albums?
That’s an interesting thought isn’t it… does it find itself in similar economic and political landscape? In some respects, yes it does. But I don’t think that bad as the economies are, I don’t think most people in the Western democracies probably feel quite as fearful as they did in the early 80s of atomic destruction. So the landscape isn’t exactly the same… y’know you’ve asked me a question I don’t know the answer to, well done!
There are similarities and there may be similarities in the way it is being conceived because of the environment, but I would have to admit they are unconscious. I do want to stress we have not tried to recreate ‘Dazzle Ships’! It was a little frustrating for people to be talking about ‘Decimal’ being just ‘Time Zones’ for 2013… no it’s not! It’s completely different. It’s like saying because it’s got a speaking voice in it, it sounds like ‘Time Zones’… that’s like saying The Clash were like The Beatles! It just doesn’t hold water!
What techniques have you used to conceive these shorter, collage pieces?
For ‘Atomic Ranch’, Paul turned me on to these Vox Machina plug-ins. It’s quite nice to hear the three voices offset against each other… and one of them which most people seem to think of as the wife, is she going off-message or is she going on-message at the end? I don’t know… she changes. ‘Please Remain Seated’ is a combination, there’s a second half with a programmed voice and my words but the first half is an airport recording in Chinese. When you hear them in the context of the album, the linking pieces actually set up the next piece of music very beautifully.
Is the internet today’s short wave radio?
In practical terms, the internet has influenced ‘English Electric’ because it’s a source of information in the same way that German imports were when we were teenagers and the short wave radio was; when you’re interested and alert, you soak up anything you can get. I discovered the sound of Voyager going through the magnetosphere of Jupiter on YouTube and I downloaded vocal machine programmes and samples from the internet. I used to have ring binder folders to do my homework in because OMD, we are geeks and we research our songs. My laptop became my ring binder with a load of stuff that we downloaded from the internet; information that we didn’t even get round to using like The Doomsday Clock… watch out for that one!!
Your 1993 co-write with Karl Bartos ‘Kissing The Machine’ has been reworked by Paul Humphreys for inclusion on ‘English Electric’ and Claudia Brücken is featuring too?
The original version was wonderful although not as many people have ever heard it as it was merited as I was very proud of it and I think Karl as well. I did want more people to hear ‘Kissing The Machine’ but the sound of it and lyrically concept of it fitted with the kind of dystopian vibe of the whole ‘English Electric’ album.
Paul has completely thrown everything else away and reworked the track from scratch. And yes, it sounds quite like KRAFTWERK! When Paul gets the bit between his teeth and he has a really great direction, he fires some wonderful stuff up!
It’s interesting because Paul had the idea of asking Claudia to do the vocal in the middle eight and I said “let’s do that”. So we did it in the middle but I suggested we start it with the “I want you to want me – I need you to need me…” bit through a vocoder and went “y’know, could you ask Claudia to do it in German as well?” Oh! German in the middle, it’s so good on the music, it just sounds fantastic! It’s very exciting to be able to have Claudia Brücken on an OMD tune!
How did the collaboration with MARSHEAUX producers FOTONOVELA, ‘Helen Of Troy’ come about? Most people in the UK and US won’t have heard of them…
George Geranios and Nick Bitzenis of FOTONOVELA were our label bosses in Greece via their Undo Records and they sent me this track… the demo had Nick going “Helen Of Troy – Helen Of Troy” so I took his vocal off as you do [*laughs*], chopped it all up and rearranged it… it’s gorgeous! I have used some of Nick’s backing vocals. It was the third one completed on the album, I love it to bits! And ‘Helen Of Troy’ is much more of a metaphor than either of the ‘Joan Of Arcs’ were.
Several of OMD’s best songs have been inspired by the ethics of conflict and war…’Enola Gay’, ‘Bunker Soldiers’, ‘Silent Running’; does ‘Dresden’ fall in that category?
‘Dresden’ is a whopping great, unsubtle metaphor… it was interesting that we found ourselves in Dresden, it was quite incredible but the song had already been written before I went. It’s not about the bombing of Dresden in the same way as ‘Enola Gay’ was about the aeroplane that dropped the atom bomb.
‘Idea 3’ has been turned into ‘Stay With Me’, is there’s an ‘Idea4’?
We’ve always got bits and pieces left over. I think they will get used. ‘Ideas 1-3’ were all melodies written by Paul, it was just a question as to whether they would get turned into songs. ‘Idea 1’ became a B-side. ‘Idea 2’ became ‘History Of Modern (Part II)’ and ‘Idea 3’ has finally became ‘Stay With Me’ and that’s another great melody.
The B-side of ‘Metroland’ is ‘The Great White Silence’. In the collector’s tin, there is a 7 inch vinyl; one side has got ‘Our System’ which by general consensus is everyone’s favourite song on the album while on the back of it is a song called ‘Frontline’ which is only available on that 7 inch vinyl.
‘Frontline’ was influenced and inspired by The Arab Spring and the vast majority of the drum track is entirely made out of machine gun, cannon and artillery fire. The song’s working title was ‘Artillery’. There’s one more track called ‘No Man’s Land’ on iTunes and there’s also a couple of totally instrumental abstract pieces that don’t even have actual titles that may be further B-sides down the line.
You just signed a worldwide deal with BMG…
We’ve signed to BMG for publishing and global rights on this album only. It’s a new model, they’re a rights company, not a record company. They don’t have a great big building with 500 staff that is a massive overhead, they have a small office with a handful of people. Each deal they do is a bespoke deal for each artist in each territory, employing freelance people to work the project for its lifespan; that’s all it costs them. This is one of the new models in the music industry to see if there is a functioning new model! *laughs*
How does ‘English Electric’ compare with ‘History Of Modern’?
‘History Of Modern’ is what it was because of the circumstances it found itself in. There’s a feeling abroad that ‘English Electric’ is quite powerful and well conceived. That’s nice. There will be people who will have a whinge about it but I don’t think the people who like songs will be in any way disappointed. ‘English Electric’ has been a hard album to make… really hard! Much harder than ‘History Of Modern’, it’s been torn out in several different ways for several different reasons. By the time it was completed, both of us were emotionally and physically exhausted. We’re starting to get our energy back and we are getting feedback which is incredibly positive. Many people who have heard the album are very excited about it. It’s been an interesting journey these last couple of years writing this album. It’s been very exciting.
Where do you stand on modern vocal processing technology? I find it surprising some people who adore Kraftwerkian vocoders go “UGH! Autotune!”?
People draw lines in sound in weird and arbitrary places don’t they? *laughs*
I would say anything is fine. I’m a little bit bored of pop vocals with Autotune as an effect but modern production is so clean that you can hear all the separation between the instruments and the voices so clearly that unless you are the most incredible singer, actually most people are Autotuned! It’s just a case of how much they’re Autotuned… have you just pulled it into tune or is it patently obvious and sliding? I have no problem with anything being used, all I’m interested in is does it work for me, what do I get out of it? If I get something out of it, then everything is fine!
How are you finding new electronic acts these days?
I enjoy your website and I’ve discovered some very interesting bands actually…
Oh, who have you found recently?
I can’t say… cos one of them is going to support us in Germany!
Is it CHVRCHES?
No! But a young British electronic band is supporting us in Germany. Obviously JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS are supporting us in the UK and how could we say no to JOHN FOXX! *laughs*
We were just asking around as to who might be available that would be complimentary and somebody said JOHN FOXX and we were like “NO WAY? Would he tour with us?”; he said “yes” and we said “yes please”! *laughs*
Well, you get to see HANNAH PEEL again!!
EXACTLY!! I emailed her as soon as I found out and said “Hello, are you on the tour?” and she said “Too right!”… so yeah! *laughs*
I’m looking forward to hearing who the young British electronic act is!
Yes, and we have a Belgian two-piece supporting us in Brussels and Utrecht…
Yes, METROLAND are supporting us!
Have you checked out ANALOG ANGEL? Their track ‘We Won’t Walk Away’ sounds just like OMD!
I’ll have to check ANALOG ANGEL out, the last few weeks have just been f**king mental!
They’re a trio of weegies, I said your dad played for Celtic and it turned out they were Rangers fans! *laughs*
Ha! Ha! Y’know, it turns out I don’t think my dad played for Celtic! I think he was pulling a Walter Mitty on me! He played football and he was something to do with Celtic because he knew people at the ground when I was a kid and he used to take me up there. I’ve walked on the pitch and been in the trophy room… turns out he never played for the first team as far as I could find out!! Funny old world eh?
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to ANDY McCLUSKEY
Special thanks to Toby Harris at 100%
OMD’s 2013 UK tour with special guests JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS includes:
Margate Winter Gardens (28th April), Birmingham Symphony Hall (29th April), Nottingham Royal Centre (1st May), Ipswich Regent Theatre (2nd May), London Roundhouse (3rd May), Bristol Colston Hall (5th May), Oxford New Theatre (6th May), Sheffield City Hall (8th May), Leeds Academy (9th May), Manchester Academy (10th May), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (12th May), Gateshead Sage (13th May), Liverpool Empire (14th May)
The Benelux shows featuring special guests METROLAND include:
Utrecht Tivoli (Friday 17th May) and Brussels Ancienne Belgique (Monday 20th May)
The German tour with special guests VILE ELECTRODES includes:
Hamburg Docks (21st May), Bielefeld Ringlokschuppen (22nd May), Berlin Tempodrom (24th May), Leipzig Haus Auensee (25th May), Köln E-Werk (27th May)
Please visit the official OMD website www.omd.uk.com for further details on all shows on the ‘English Electric’ tour including the rest of Europe and North America
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
21st April 2013, updated 24th March 2015