Electro pioneers OMD and self-proclaimed “control freaks” have always opted to keep everything in-house when it comes to writing and recording. With new album The Punishment Of Luxury out on September 1, Daniel Gumble caught up with co-founder Paul Humphreys for a chat about warring with other producers and the lost art of engineering...
I’m the technical one,” OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark) co-founder, keyboards whizz and co- songwriter Paul Humphreys chuckles as he settles in for his chat with PSNEurope. “This is why you got me and not Andy [McCluskey, frontman and fellow co-founder].”
And for the purposes of this interview, Humphreys is indeed the appropriate half of the band’s two-pronged creative engine. Since forming in the late ‘70s in England’s North West, OMD have produced some of the most iconic electro-driven rock and pop ever to emerge from UK shores. Hit singles such as Enola Gay and Electricity helped define the synth boom of the 1980s, while seminal albums like Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships are long-established electro staples.
And, though the band’s keen ear for an incisive melody and a ubiquitous presence on the live circuit have no doubt been central to their success over the past four decades, equally crucial to the mix has been Humphreys’ forward-thinking approach to production and engineering. Barring the occasional ill-fated pairing with a producer from outside the tightly wound OMD unit - more of which later - Humphreys’ close attention to sound and texture has often helped elevate a cracking pop song into something transcendent and otherworldly.
According to Humphreys, this has much to do with his and McCluskey’s DIY work ethic.
“We’ve always been very self-sufficient with our recording,” he says. “When we started OMD – because we thought we’d be dropped after the first album - we spent all of our first advance on equipment and built a studio (The Gramophone Suite) in the centre
of Liverpool. And it was a really good studio – we did our first four albums there – so we got used to being independent and engineering and producing ourselves. Plus, Andy and I are control freaks. And we’re still that way. I have a studio in London where I live, and Andy has one in his house in Liverpool.
He continues: “We work in Pro Tools and we have almost identical systems with the same plugins and everything. We basically start the song – I go up to Liverpool and we throw ideas around and record into Andy’s Pro Tools system, then I bring them down to London and hone up the music, he does the same with the vocals, then we get back to Liverpool, hone it up again, and then I bring it to London where I do a basic mix of the tracks.”
The self-sufficiency Humphreys speaks of has served them well throughout much of their career, particularly in the case of new album The Punishment Of Luxury. Imbued with a contemporary sound, the record maintains all the hallmarks of a classic OMD release. At least partially responsible for TPOL’s fresh sound is Humphreys’ refusal to reminisce on the good ole days of analogue synths and ‘old school’ production techniques – an ethos that has always underpinned the OMD approach.
“We didn’t want to do a retrospective sounding OMD album,” he states. “We’ve always tried to keep going forward. Architecture & Morality was one of our biggest albums, but it was a strange album for its time. Then we did Dazzle Ships, and samplers had just come out. Prior to that our sampler was a B77 tape machine, so we were experimenting a lot with the technology. But we took it a bit too far with that album. Although
it’s probably our fans’ favourite, it was a commercial disaster. But we’ve always tried to keep pushing forward. We’re not one of these bands that still uses all the synths we used in the ‘80s, we’ve gone right into the virtual synth world, because there are so many great ones out there.”
Not only does Humphreys believe that the digital revolution has been beneficial for musicians and producers, he insists that there is a degree of “snobbery” when it comes to analogue vs digital.
“There’s a lot of bollocks spoken about it,” he laughs. “I’ve done many tests, and I come from an electronics background - I’m an electronics engineer. I built a lot of our early stuff when we started out because we couldn’t afford anything, and I don’t miss analogue. I love what you can do with digital. The new converters are so warm, like the Apollo 16 from Universal Audio, just sounds fantastic. I get really annoyed with some of these plugins that put the hiss and hum on for that analogue sound. I’m like, Fuck that, get rid of it! I used to spend all my time trying to get that off! Why do you want to put it on?!”
Humphreys also claims that OMD’s deviation from analogue gear has provided endless benefits in the songwriting process.
“To be able to do the level of editing you can do in Pro Tools is fantastic,” he adds. “Quite often, when we wrote a song, we would do it in sections because we could never quite work out the arrangements. So we’d either have to hack up the multi-track tape, which was always a scary moment, or we would never hear the final version of the song. We’d just mix it in bits, so we never really heard the song until it was finished.
There's a lot of bollocks spoken about analogue gear. I love what you can do with digital...I built a lot of our early stuff when we first started out and I don't miss it.
“However, digital tools can get in the way of the songwriting process. So we put together a palette of things. We’ll have five kick drums, 10 snare drums and choose the synths that will make the type of sounds we want, and then we’ll just use those.”
As an electronics engineer who cut his teeth with hands-on experience in studios, Humphreys also feels that the art of engineering is slowly being eroded away.
“It is in some ways a dying art,” he sighs. “We engineer and produce all our own stuff, but I learned from some of the greatest engineers in studios over the years. I learned a lot from Tom Lord-Alge, we spent a lot of time working together and he was an amazing engineer. I used to look over his shoulder and drive him mad, asking, Why are you doing that? What are you doing that for? But I learned, and he had learned from being a tape op and learning the trade through the studio system. Now, there are graduates from all these audio schools but there are barely any jobs to go to because there’s not really an infrastructure of studios any more, so everyone has to go into their bedroom and learn techniques from YouTube tutorials. And that’s not the same. I live in London and it seemed like there used to be a studio on every street. But they’ve all been either turned into luxury apartments or left as empty shells. It really is a shame, because people can’t learn in that same way. Things like how to properly mic a drum kit, that’s an art. You can’t learn to do that in your bedroom.”
Unsurprisingly, having fine-tuned their skills in the studio through years of making their records with minimal outside interference, Humphreys and McCluskey have seldom gelled with other producers.
“We’ve always got frustrated with producers,” he says. “We have used them in the past, but we end up in battles with them because me and Andy always know what we want to do. We used Stephen Hague a little bit in
the ‘80s, but that was because he’d done stuff like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys and all that. But he was an American producer and there was huge pressure on us to break America. We were told by the label we need to sound a certain way and had to work with an American producer. I like Stephen, he’s a very talented producer, but we did have huge battles over how we sounded. Andy and I have a complete vision and we don’t like to pollute it and have it watered down.”
For the foreseeable future, it appears unlikely that OMD will be coerced into following any other path than their own. With TPOL, it looks as though the band have produced a piece of work that is true to their philosophy of looking forward and doing things on their own terms. As we prepare to part ways, Humphreys reflects upon the band’s refusal to stray from their creative vision, for better or worse.
“Largely we have always ignored pressure put on us by record labels,” he concludes. “Some genius at Virgin once said, You just have to make Architecture & Morality 2 and you’ll be the next Genesis. We were like, We don’t want to be the next Genesis! So we made Dazzle Ships and fell off a commercial cliff! It was probably the wrong thing to say to us!”