Philip Oakey of The Human League: Here Comes The Mirror Man
by Keith Valcourt
When Philip Oakey formed the Human League in 1977 with his Sheffield, England art school mates Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, the art collective/theater group/band were dedicated to the idea of creating detached electronic music using only synthesizers. It wasn’t long though before a difference of opinion on the band’s musical direction led to Ware and Marsh’s departure to start Heaven 17 in 1980. The reconfiguration found Oakey taking the group toward a more pop sound and adding a pair of female singers Susan Ann Sully and Joanne Catharell, creating the Human League’s new trademark stylish image and smooth electronic sound. The next year the band recorded their breakthrough album “Dare” which produced the biggest hit of their career led by the undeniably catchy “Don’t You Want Me?” and vaulted Oakey toward becoming a pioneer in music; helping to invent the genre commonly know by those of us who grew up in the 1980s as “Synth pop.” Over the next two decades the band produced six more studio albums and a slew of memorable tunes including “Mirror Man,” “Human,” “Fascination,” “Tell Me When.,” “Heart Like A Wheel” and “The Lebanon.”
The Human League continues to tour and release new material today. Their latest “Credo” is a brilliant return to some of the sparse electronic danceable weirdness they released before “Dare” made them a household name. We caught up with Philip Oakey in Los Angeles during a stop on the 2011 world tour, hours before Human League rocked the legendary Hollywood Bowl with fellow 1980’s survivors Berlin, The Fixx and The B-52’s. We chatted about synths, sci-fi and Swiffer ads. Then we danced.
Rocker: A lot of bands that hit in the 1980s seem content to tour as nostalgia acts while the Human League is always putting out new records. How important is it for you to keep making new music?
Philip: I don’t think it’s important, it’s just what we do. It’s what we always did. My only interest artistically was to do new things. I wasn’t ever that bothered about doing shows and things. We wanted to make something; which in our case turned out to be singles and albums.
Rocker: When recording a new CD, what is the creative process like between you (Human League members), Susan (Ann Sulley) and Joanne (Catherall)
Philip: They hardly have anything to do with it really. They’ve never had a writing credit on an album. We made a decision quite early on: I told them that they ought to do lyrics or something and they declined. What we always think about is in Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are the ones that don’t write.
Rocker: As the creative center of the band is there a lot of pressure on you?
Philip: I’ve never done it on my own. I’ve always had collaborators. This time around, because I’m not super-confident with drums, I worked with our drummer Rob who has been with the band for five years. He turned out to be a multi-instrumentalist who had been in the school choir and everything so he did a lot of it. A lot of the work also was done by our producers, although not as much as was done in what I think of now as “The Golden Days.” I used to go into the studio, set my throne up, have a cup of coffee, read the newspaper and say, “Make a record.”
Rocker: With all the advances in technology is it now easier to make records?
Philip: Not for me. I didn’t think that I would be in my fifty-fourth year annoying my girlfriend because I’m staying up till two in the morning editing vocals. I used to be able to pay someone else to do it, now you seem to do a hundred things for the money instead of one thing to make the money. You do it yourself or it doesn’t get done.
Rocker: The first single “Night People” off your new CD “Credo” to me, has a very Pre-”Dare” Human League sound to it. Was the intention to make a record that sounded like your earlier work?
Philip: We tried to connect it to all the old stuff. We had been through a period where not only was the business falling apart but guitar bands came back really, really big in Britain. Oasis, Blur, The Killers, Interpol,.. they all became very big acts. Guitars were the thing and that didn’t really leave much room for a keyboard-based band. Then suddenly, recently it sort of lurched in a very European direction with the stuff Red One was doing with Lady Gaga. With David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas. Then it was quite handy for us to go and get the old sythns out again.
Rocker: You’re back at the Hollywood Bowl again tonight, a legendary venue you played before. When you tour does the venue matter or is it just the audience?
Philip: I’m always looking for anything positive.
One of the few things I can’t get over is if I’m there with an audience and they want to be the trendiest audience ever. We can sort of make ourselves look trendy because people talk about us now – Daft Punk like us, and all that sort of stuff, so we can do that – but it still annoys me when an audience is too cool for you, or thinks they are. Part of the evolution of the group was to be open-minded. We grew up loving glam. We were supposed to like prog, and I do love prog rock. But when glam came along… we were open to anything. If it’s good it’s just good. I hate when an audience isn’t open.
Rocker: Are there any songs you play live that you wish you didn’t have to play?
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