wed 24/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Musicians The Human League | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Musicians The Human League

theartsdesk Q&A: Pop Musicians The Human League

An exclusive interview with the electro-pop legends on the eve of their first album in a decade

The Human League (from left, Joanne Catherall, Philip Oakey, Susan Sulley) putting the fizz and glam into electropop for over three decades

The Human League are one of the brightest lights in the history of electro-pop

They have had many incarnations over the years but since late 1980 the core of the group has been frontman Philip Oakey (b 1955) and singers Joanne Catherall (b 1962) and Susan Sulley (b 1963).

The Human League bloomed out of Sheffield’s electronic underground in the mid-Seventies, releasing the seminal electro-pop single “Being Boiled” in 1978. They signed to Virgin but success was not quick in coming and by 1980, with two albums under their belt, they split. Synthesizer wizards Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh went onto form Heaven 17 but singer Oakey retained the band name.

In one of pop's true fairytales, Oakey, with a tour imminent, recruited teenage schoolgirls Catherall and Sulley to the band when he saw them dancing at a nightclub in Sheffield. With this trio fronting a new line-up, The Human League put together Dare, one of Eighties pop's biggest albums with its breakout hit "Don't You Want Me". Following such a gigantic success was difficult but the band sustained a long career, racking up multiple hits for two decades, including their second US Number One "Human" in 1986, where they surprised many fans by collaborating with American R&B producers Jam and Lewis.

Since the millennium The Human League have produced a wonderful but underheard album, Secrets, in 2001 and developed a sterling reputation as a live act. In a sudden recent burst of activity they return this year with a new album Credo and a world tour. theartsdesk met Oakey, Catherall and Sulley in the glass-walled offices of a London PR company. Their ease with one another is like that of a contented family, all genial supportive northern banter. They emanate good nature and no pop star attitude whatsoever.

hTHOMAS H GREEN: There's a song called "Egomaniac" on the new album - is it based around anyone in particular?

PHILIP OAKEY: I'm just trying to find words that don't sound too bad against the music. The lyrics always come last. We don't really do songs, when I think about it, we make noises, make instrumentals that have to turn into a song. I have things noted down, pages and pages of ideas for possible future use. With "Egomaniac" I was listening to "Maniac" by Michael Sembello and thinking that this was an interesting area people don't usually write songs about. Very clearly in mind for that song, there's a picture by William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, which portrays a horrible creature. I think it's the question of whether it's good to be an egomaniac or not.

With your songs there's never a strong sense of the real, that they're based on your own experience. Take "Sky" from the new album: it sounds as if you're making it all up.

PO: It's "Ghost Riders in the Sky" [by Johnny Cash] meets "They Call the Wind Maria" [from the musical Paint Your Wagon]. I really got sick of how big vampires had got and I was going on about it in song. You can't turn around without seeing a vampire these days. Then I found all my songs were getting to be vampire-ish. Luckily most of the vampire songs didn't end up on the album.

Perhaps there could be a Human League "Vampire EP" at some point in the future

PO: I think we could have done at least half an album that was just vampire songs.

Why did you call the new album Credo?

JOANNE CATHERALL: It's Latin for "I believe" and what we're trying to say to people is that we really believe in this, we're not messing anymore. It's not a joke, it's been our lives for 31 years.

Watch the video for "Never Let Me Go" from new album Credo

When was the last time you weren't sure you had enough money to pay the rent?

SUSAN SULLEY: We did go through a lot of periods like that but when Secrets didn't go so well our manager, who comes from a live background, said, "You've got to go out there and you've got to get good." He worked tirelessly to get us shows so from there on the bank balance has been quite healthy, but there were certainly times in the Nineties. I can remember at one point selling a load of CDs to pay the electricity bill. We went through a period when we had no money. We had bad management at the time.

PO: I think we had no management at the time.

SS: At that point bands only made money from selling records, from advances. We suddenly found we'd been dropped. It was the 1990s, all everyone was interested in was Blur and guitar bands. There were times when we struggled a bit but somehow we never got made bankrupt.

Who were you litigating against?

JC: Magazines, managers, ex-members of the group.

human_league2SS: It's what happens, isn't it? Looking back, maybe it wasn't the right thing to do, maybe we should just have let it go but at the time it was all we had and it was important to us. We weren't going to let anyone use our name in a bad way.

Personally I associate the Nineties with electronic music rather than guitars.

SS: That was later; the early Nineties were terrible, it was all grunge. We all come from a sort of dressing-up glam background, then suddenly Nirvana were the biggest thing. I'm not saying I dislike Nirvana. It's not my sort of music but I can appreciate what they did. Suddenly Kurt Cobain's on TV looking like he hasn't had a wash in three months wearing jeans and a T-shirt, playing guitar. I'm thinking, I don't get this, which meant that in the wider musical landscape they didn't get us.

I read Philip once say that in the wake of the 1986 album Crash the group was tentatively making its way back to electronic music. The album after that, 1990's Romantic? was certainly tentative...

PO: We were in a terrible mess. The record label had given up on us. The people who liked us at the label had gone so now people had come along who wanted to do their pet projects - and who can blame them? - but we're off sitting in Sheffield.

William Orbit decided that when he worked on the album we couldn't be there. I guess that's something people do nowadays but we weren't ready for it

SS: We had to do that album, we needed the money, we needed the advance. We had to do it but we weren't in a good place.

JC: I think if we'd had support and had someone saying, "All right, come down [to London]," and got Chris Thomas or a great producer to work with us, but they didn't. We were just left in the studio in Sheffield floundering about.

SS: No one came to see us for two years.

PO: No one came from A&R. Our manager at that stage asked about it and they said, "The Human League are so big they don't need A&R." I thought, great, we're sitting here feeling very, very lonely, not knowing what to do at all.

human_league_90sWhen you listen to Romantic? now, are you pleased by it?

PO: I remember all the bad things about it, the fact we had the music taken off us and [producer] William Orbit decided that when he worked on the album we couldn't be there. I guess that's something people do nowadays but we weren't ready for it.

JC: We turned up at his door and he wouldn't let us in which was a bit strange.

PO: He remixed six of the tracks but he only really did it because he'd signed to Virgin. It was a back-door deal because they could get him cheap and maybe have his name hyped up a bit by having it associated with a group they still thought had a name. It was just horrible.

JC: We still play "Heart Like a Wheel". It got to 12 in the charts, quite a hit [some confusion here - it reached 29 in the UK charts]. They paid for Andy Morahan to do the video so they put up money to support the single, but because it does have bad associations for us we tend to leave it out of the set. But then, as our Nic [Burke, instrumentalist] said the other day when we were in rehearsals to go to South America, "Ooh, we must do 'Heart Like a Wheel' because the last time we went there they absolutely loved it." Various places round the world we do have to play that song.

Watch the video of "Heart Like a Wheel"

PO: We did always have the advantage of playing the big game. After Dare we were playing the big game that people rarely play now. Probably only 20 acts play the big game now.

You mean being a global pop concern.

SS: Yeah, we were international. Like Joanne said, we're going to South America, to the US for a month, we've been fortunate. In the last five years we've toured Australia twice.

And when you go to these places I heard that, unlike so many bands, you take the opportunity to have a look around.

SS: It's more enjoyable now because years ago, when we first got big and went to these places, we couldn't do anything. We always said it was because of all the fans at the hotel but it wasn't, it was primarily because when we got there the record company for that territory had got a few days worth of work for us to do so all we did was sit in a hotel. The first time I went to Sydney I don't think I saw the Opera House. I sat in that hotel doing promo for four days because we were so big then. Now, because we're not famous anymore and we're anonymous, we get to places and we all go out, have a mooch around. Rob [Barton, percussionist] does the cultural thing, goes to museums.

All the fall-outs in our band over the years have been about songwriting

PO: I've been to a museum.

SS: [Laughing hard] Ooh, one in the last 10 years. And that was with Rob.

PO: I went to Notre Dame the other night.

JC: I made Susan go to the Dealey Plaza.

SS: She did and I didn't want to go, I wanted to go shopping.

Are you surprised at the degree of excavation into The Human League's early career that there's been in recent years on TV and in the media?

human_league_80sJC: I think it's because we do have a long career and that's quite unusual in this business, especially for pop artists. A lot of people find it difficult being in a band for more than five years because they have arguments which are usually about songwriting. One of the reasons we've stayed together is the way our songwriting is split. Susan and I don't do any and Philip does it with other people. I know from experience that all the fall-outs in our band over the years have been about songwriting; that's why it's ended up with the three of us. When one of your greatest successes is near the beginning of your career people are always going to talk about that. We recently did a bit of promotion in Europe where we touched on it but they were more interested in recent stuff. We have a slight problem in the UK in that people love that stuff so much they don't want us to do anything new.

PO: It's because we didn't do anything else. We established ourselves as a group then that's all we've done, whereas other people fall off the motorbikes, marry supermodels, go into rehab, come out of rehab, become an actor.

Depeche Mode have the same issues about British recognition. I interviewed Martin Gore once and he was very frustrated that, despite a globe-conquering career in the Nineties, his band are always known in the UK for "Just Can't Get Enough".

We don't have outside backing singers, we do all the singing. Even if it's not as good as it might be, it's us, and that's important

PO: I'm surprised he'd say that. I'd have guessed that "Personal Jesus" was a big enough hit. Perhaps Martin Gore's more conscious about that stuff because he didn't write it.

JC: Possibly part of it is that the fans who tend to talk to you are the fans from when you first made it big. They're the same sort of age as us and they first heard us as they were just getting into music so we're always going to have a special place in their hearts.

Is it true that making
Crash with R&B super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in Minneapolis you got on very well as people but had clashes over musical direction?

PO: They just brought that American producer thing where the producer is boss, full stop, which is presumably why a lot of people started producing themselves over there. The most specific thing was we said, "We don't have outside backing singers, we do all the singing. Even if it's not as good as it might be, it's us, and that's important."

JC: They sent us to LA for a week, they knew what they were doing. They said, "Have a break, you're working so hard. Go to Los Angeles, have a week at the Hiatt on Sunset," and we were all excited. When we came back they'd put this [session singer] woman all over the place and I sort of lost it with them.

Watch the video for "Human"

SS: It's just that we are what we are - we never claimed to be great singers. I remember going on the aeroplane to Minneapolis and thinking, Jesus Christ, these people have worked with some of the best singers in the world. I certainly know my capabilities when it comes to singing and they aren't up there.

JC: But what we also know is that this is what people like about us. If they want someone who sings like Mariah Carey, they're going to buy a Mariah Carey album. If they want someone slightly quirky and not sounding like anyone else, they can buy Human League records.

Human_League_crashPO: Because pop's not about excellent singing. A lot of my favourite singers can't really sing. KC out of KC & the Sunshine Band, he can't really sing and it sounds better.

JC: My favourite ever singer is Leonard Cohen.

SS: He's got a personality voice. It's not a voice that's going to pass the auditions on The X Factor but you wouldn't mistake him for anyone else on the radio.

PO: And that's the important thing.

We went to Terry's house for Easter Sunday lunch and Prince turned up. Right, that's Prince - are we supposed to be acting normal?

SS: The thing about working with Jimmy and Terry is that they taught us a lot. It was very educational and they were very nice guys but there were bits they just didn't get. They didn't get that we didn't want other singers. "We just put her on to bring it all together." "Well, we don't want her on to bring it all together, take her off." "But it won't sound quite as good." "We don't care, it's got to be us or it's sort of cheating." We went back to Sheffield and built a studio because of them, because they proved you could. They just got an old photographic studio in Minneapolis and hung two speakers off the wall with chains which is the one thing you're not supposed to do. And they taught us that there are some things worth taking time on. We were there four months. We spent a month doing the music. The other boys in the band at that time came over, and then they just sent them home: "We don't need you anymore." We spent three months doing vocals. We didn't work every day. Some days you'd go in and open your mouth and Jimmy Jam would say, "No, I can tell it's not feeling right today, go back to the hotel." Or, "Ooh, it's sunny, let's all go and have a barbecue." So we didn't work solidly.

PO: It was really interesting to be away from the touristic parts of the States, to just be in a town of working people.

JC: We live in a northern town in England so it was nice going to a northern town in America and finding that the people were really friendly. When we got off the plane and walked out of the airport, everything on your face froze, the inside of your nose, your eyeballs. There were six-foot snowdrifts everywhere. What they said is, "If your car breaks down you need to be able to knock on someone's door, otherwise you're just going to die." So they have to be really friendly.

SS: Random people would turn up at the studio. We went to Terry's house for Easter Sunday lunch and Prince turned up. Right, that's Prince - are we supposed to be acting normal? We'd be in the studio and Alexander O'Neal would appear.

JC: But Janet [Jackson, who Jam and Lewis worked with] never turned up.

You won a Brit Award in 1982.

SS: Technically we got two because at that stage there was the Rock and Pop Awards and the BPI Awards which combined a couple of years later to become the Brits. We got one of each but we've no idea where either of them are.

I heard you had a few too many drinks...

SS: That's the story of my life.

...and you lost them.

SS: Joanne lost them. I had nothing to do with it. She left them, as I recall.

JC: I think I left one for the taxi driver and one got left under the table. I'm surprised nobody's come forward to say they've got them, unless it was someone who hates us and burnt them.

human_league_1981_2The Crazy Daisy was a club in Sheffield where Philip spotted Susan and Joanne dancing and asked them to join The Human League
in late 1980. What was the music like there?

SS: Gary Numan. David Bowie.

PO: Japan, Roxy.

SS: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

JC: Before we started going it was very much a punk club, then they tried to turn to the New Romantic, electronic but you'd still get some of the left-over punk contingent going in and huge fights could break out, people throwing things about. You had to be prepared, at any moment someone might shout, "FIGHT!" and you got under the big wooden tables.

PO: It was L-shaped. You couldn't see the whole of the club and just suddenly a fight would surge across.

SS: It was a very small cellar club which you went down stairs into. My solicitor is now on top of it which is really funny. It was a dirty, dingy dive really.

A proper club, then.

All: Yeah.

I bet JLS have never had anything thrown at them in their lives and would be terrified. It was normal then

When the girls first joined the band there was opposition among the Human League fan base. Weren't there negative reactions from the audience at your debut gig in Doncaster?

SS: The clubs were called Rotters, one in Liverpool and one in Doncaster, but those shows were fine. It was the rest of the tour round army bases in Germany where we encountered the real problem. They loved the old Human League, the all-male set-up, [the albums] Travelogue, Reproduction - miserabilists.

JC: It happened so quickly that there was no publicity that we were on the tour so people were expecting Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, as well as Phil and Adrian [Wright], and they got me, Susan and [keyboard player] Ian Burden. Then again, I'm not sure German army bases at that time wouldn't have bottled the original band.

Was it down to sexism?

JC: Not really. We're sat here in an office with Take That and JLS posters on the walls. I bet JLS have never had anything thrown at them in their lives and would be terrified. It was normal then. I went to see the Banshees at the Hammersmith Palais and I saw Siouxsie Sioux hit somebody in the front row with a mike stand because he was spitting at her. She just got her mike stand and whacked his head. I don't know what happened to him but this was the sort of thing that happened then. It was pretty tough at that time.

PO: Before you joined we did that tour with Iggy Pop round Germany and his drummer was knocked out by a full can of lager. Things were always flying through the air in those days. It was just what you did, or what punks did. They'd stopped spitting, more or less, by the time you joined, hadn't they?

JC: I got one right in the mouth. That was something I never wanted to happen to me.

SS: I thought the most disturbing thing was when they all started doing the pogo dancing. You could see the audience move in such a way that you thought, "There's going to be a fight any minute," and sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn't. It's like going to football matches now, everyone's well behaved. In the Seventies everyone was fighting.

JC: I'm not sure they were in Sheffield. It's been fairly calm over the years when lots of rioting was going on not very far away in Birmingham. We did a show in the early days in Coventry and the whole of our bus was stripped in the time we were on stage, down to the aerial and the windscreen wipers, all gone. There was just the skeleton of a bus left.

human_league_1981SS: Everyone in music is so much friendlier these days. They all play on each other's records, they're all big buddies and everyone's nicey nice.

Joanne and Susan, was that first tour off-putting?

SS: No, it was really, really fun. Remember, we were school girls. I'd only been to Majorca a couple of times and Joanne had been on a couple of school holidays abroad.

JC: And we'd just been to Romania with my uncle.

SS: It was a great experience to travel to places we never thought we'd go to, I remember going to Cologne and seeing the cathedral for the first time.

JC: [Iron Curtain-era] Berlin was the one - driving there in our little mini-bus for hours and hours with Kraftwerk, Funkadelic and Donna Summer on the cassette player. Phil used to manually rewind the tapes while we listened to the next one. We were only 17 and 18, we never thought we'd be driving up to Checkpoint Charlie.

SS: As for the negative reactions, we were used to that. We were in the sixth form room at school dressed as Roxy Music girls while everyone else had jeans and leather jackets with Whitesnake on the back, and played heavy rock on the tape recorder. We'd try and put on Gary Numan or Japan - "Get that off!"

What about when you came back to school after the tour?

SS: Then they had the advantage of our pictures being on the front of Sounds and the NME so they could put them on the dartboard and throw darts at them. The first time we were on Top of the Pops, we were taken out of school and our headmistress said in assembly, "We want everyone to watch Top of the Pops tonight because two of our sixth-form pupils, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley, are going to be on there," and there was a huge "Boooo!" from the rest of the sixth form.

PO: We went into the pub, the Old Harrow, when we'd just had our first hit but hadn't worked out how it would affect our lives. We walked in and they booed. People don't like people they know doing well.

JC: We've become accepted now in Sheffield and are part of the landscape but, bearing in mind we were clubbers, after "Love Action" the three of us didn't go into a [Sheffield] club for three years because of an occasion when we were in Penny's [Nightclub] and an large ashtray went smack into the wall beside my head. Someone had thrown it at me. OK, this is actually not worth it. I can't come to a club I've been coming to for two years.

All the people that founded the first Human League were very Clockwork Orange-y

I do have to ask what you two were doing in Ceaucescu's Romania.

JC: My uncle and his fiancée were going on holiday to Romania but they split up so he asked Susan and me if we'd like to go. So we did, three of us in a room. It was really odd and deprived. You could get anything for a cigarette. One day as we were walking down the road someone bought my uncle's jeans off him, so he actually walked back to the hotel in his underpants.

SS: In Bucharest we went to this department store where you couldn't actually go up to the counter, it was all cordoned off. I opened my bag and I had perfume, deodorant and so on and these people bought it all because they couldn't get this stuff. Back then we tentatively smoked and we had our rooms cleaned every day, fresh sheets and towels, the best spot on the sunbeds, just by giving them a pack of fags. It wasn't nice really. All the lights went out at 11pm.

human_league_earlyYou mentioned the Iggy Pop tour you went on with the original vesion of the group (pictured right). You covered his song "Nightclubbing".

PO: That was on that tour. He liked our version.

Was Iggy still in his completely-off-the-rails stage?

PO: He was sorting himself out, more or less, but the people around him... You'd say, "Where's so-and-so?" "In hospital." That was quite normal, that a couple of people would be missing for breakfast because they'd overdosed the night before.

That must have been a bit shocking

PO: It was all right. They were tough times. There were skinheads in Sheffield when I was 15-16. You'd turn a corner and there'd be five or six big guys who were ready to have a fight - "Hey, look, he's got long hair on one side!" You'd have to go straight through the middle and make them part. Walk away and you had a problem.

SS: Look them in the eye and make out you're not frightened, that's what you have to do.

During those years, Philip, you went around with a saxophone, although you never learnt to play it. What was that all about?

PO: Because I liked music. I specifically got the sax because of Meatloaf.

SS: I thought you'd have said Roxy because of Andy McKay.

PO: No, Meatloaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He suddenly slings a saxophone on his back and gets on his bike. I used to be a biker so I rode around Sheffield with a sax slung over my shoulder.

You liked the idea of it but not enough to actually play it.

PO: Yeah, all our gang were pretty arty. All the people that founded the first Human League were very Clockwork Orange-y. Ian Marsh, if you asked him the time he used to pull out a big alarm clock that he had on a string down his jumper. I used to wear baked-beans tins as bracelets.

You were a hospital porter for a while before The Human League. I did that one summer in my teens - all that death and mortality gave me a somewhat existential perspective. Did it affect you that way?

PO: Yeah, there's some things you see. I have burnt recognisable parts of human bodies. Dealing with corpses at all is a weird thing, and I was at a children's hospital so they were young corpses. If you were there and hadn't done it before you'd faint, but if someone says, "Someone died in that bed, you've got to deal with this, you've got to get them out quickly so that other patients don't get upset," you just get on with it. They used to say, "We've got one for Rose Cottage." That was the code. I don't think it made me existential, though, I'm just normal, mean, selfish... egomaniac.

When The Human League Mk 1 split, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware went on to form Heaven 17 with Glenn Gregory, who was already a bit of a Sheffield character. Did you used to see him about town?

PO: Glenn's contact with it all grew out of the theatre group. Sheffield Council set up a theatre group called Meat Whistle where I occasionally went and stood at the back because I was quite shy. They were doing little productions of Marat Sade and things. Ian Reddington, who ended up on Coronation Street and EastEnders, he was part of it. They [the original Human League] grew out of that; they were very outgoing scary people.

human_league_2001JC: Susan and I were 10 years younger than that crowd so we never really mixed. There was some crossover, like with Adi [Newton] from Clock DVA because his age was somewhere in between.

PO: Adi was in the group before it became The Human League [when they were called The Future]. That's why I'm in The Human League - because they fell out with Adi over money.

JC: And because he's a nutter.

SS: We went to see Clock DVA a couple of times and I can truthfully say now that I never understood it at all. We used to go and watch them and go, "Yeah, great," while thinking, I've got to pretend to understand this because everyone else does.

PO: There was a big movement of people in Sheffield who'd been very impressed with Cabaret Voltaire. Cabaret Voltaire were absolutely great but then other bands would spring up doing the same thing. Vice Versa, who later turned into ABC, were originally a copy of the Cabs.

SS: Those sort of groups didn't have the songs whereas, if all else failed, with the Cabs you knew that "Nag Nag Nag" would be coming on at some point.

When The Human League signed to Virgin in 1979 the first single, "I Don't Depend On You", was under a different band name, The Men. This seems an odd move when launching your career.

PO: I haven't a clue why we did such a thing. We were out of prog, really, via young electronica, but I remember Martyn brought in the Michael Zager Band's "Let's All Chant" and said, "This is disco, we should be doing this." So we put the song together but we thought for it to really be disco it should have proper drums and bass and therefore it couldn't be the [purely electronic] Human League. Maybe it could be seen as a precursor to Heaven 17.

JC: Why they brought us in is Martyn used to sing high backing vocals and Philip originally wanted one girl but he saw us together and thought we'd be able to look after each other.

Watch The Human League play "Love Action" on kids' TV show The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

What was it like working at producer Martin Rushent's Genetic Studio during the making of Dare?

JC: At first we'd only go down for the afternoon on the train because we were still at school. We did "Sound of the Crowd" at Martin's then we did "Love Action" and "Hard Times" in Sheffield. We were in the run-up to our A levels, then we all ended up living in rooms above a little pub in Mansfield for four months.

PO: Martin didn't think it was going to work but he took it seriously. With "Sound of the Crowd" we wanted him to use the original tracks we had and improve them but he said, "No, I'm doing it from scratch." We did it in two days. He continued with us because we started having hits. He saw it might be about to happen but I think he had higher hopes for Pete Shelley [of The Buzzcocks] at that stage.

Watch the video for "Don't You Want Me"

Is it true that Virgin A&R Simon Draper pushed you to release "Don't You Want Me" against your better judgment?

PO: Very likely.

SS: We'd already had three singles from Dare - "Sound of the Crowd", "Love Action" and "Open Your Heart". We genuinely thought people would be bored of us and wouldn't buy another single. Also "Don't You Want Me" was our Des O'Connor record, not really representative of the rest of the album.

PO: It was the radio. They took the album to these clever people working in radio stations round the country. They all came back and said, "You've got to put that out as a single."

JC: So we reluctantly made a video.

Lemmy of Motorhead says that he's released 20 albums but all most people remember is "Ace of Spades". Do you have similar problems with "Don't You Want Me"?

PO: It's good to have a standard. We never thought we'd be in a band so we take anything positive as a winner. We put a record together and managed not to screw it up. Thank God we've got something that kept us going.

SS: It's been good for us. I don't see it as an albatross. It was Number One in America, as was "Human" which gives us that global reach. We've never sold as many of anything else as that single, though.

Did you find it daunting trying to follow the massive success of Dare?

JC: We went to Air Studios in Oxford Street, costing bucketloads of money, staying in fancy hotels.

PO: What was critical was Martin Rushent left the scene. We'd managed to get over "Don't You Want Me" with two pretty good singles, "Mirror Man" and "Fascination", and then Martin suddenly became too difficult to work with. When he was gone you suddenly realised how much he'd been doing, that he did the drums, for instance, and we're a dance band so that's vital. It took us years to find the right people after that.

Watch the video for "Fascination"

SS: When we started to make Dare we hadn't got anything to lose. When Simon Draper said, "You've got to put guitars on this record," we said, "Nah, not going to do that," because we could, because it didn't matter. By that stage we owed Virgin so much money we had nothing to lose so we made the record we wanted. Suddenly we got a bit of success, a bit of money, started to buy a house, a car, and then think, oh, right, now we need to make some more money, and you start listening to the wrong people, start listening to the record company.

JC: That's not what they signed us for in the first place. They signed us to be who we are.

PO: You start getting advice from people who've previously held you in contempt.

SS: Even weirder, you start listening to it.

The resulting album, Hysteria, is not bad, though.

PO: It arrived too late and if we had left off a couple of the weaker tracks and put on the singles "Mirror Man" and "Fascination" instead, it could have been a fantastic album.

Have you ever played "The Lebanon" in the Lebanon?

SS: No, we've never been to the Lebanon.

What was it like working with the seminal Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra on the YMO Versus The Human League EP back in 1993?

PO: We never met them. It was all done by sending stuff between studios. I did meet a fake one once. I got on a bus with Richard Kirk [of Cabaret Voltaire]  and he introduced me to someone he said was Yukihiro Takahashi, drummer with Yellow Magic Orchestra. However, it turned out later he was an impostor, going round various European capitals pretending to be a Japanese drummer.

The Human League needs to be linear and direct. It wasn't brutal enough. We have to be brutal

The Chrysalis sub-label Papillon, to which you were signed, folded in 2001 just as your album Secrets should have been coming out. Did you have any inkling that was going to happen?

JC: Absolutely none. It was one of the biggest shocks I ever had in my life. The thing is we'd done lots of press, it had fantastic reviews, maybe it was our comeuppance as we thought it was the album to put us back.

PO: We did the wrong album. We concentrated slightly on the wrong areas. It had too much trebly high-mid, not enough bass, was a little bit complicated, too close to Bjork, too close to Depeche Mode. It wasn't quite right.

I disagree, it arrived just as electro-clash made that patent Human League sound hip again.

PO: It was slightly too sophisticated. The Human League needs to be linear and direct. It wasn't brutal enough. We have to be brutal. And the lyrics are too humorous.

How did the 2008 Steel City Tour, featuring a line-up of Sheffield electropop acts, come about?

SS: We'd been asked to do those Rewind and Here & Now [Eighties nostalgia package] things. We'd done one and decided we weren't going to do more. Philip said, "I would understand a bill that had us, Soft Cell and Gary Numan," but Gary Numan wouldn't do it. Suddenly that got changed to ABC and Heaven 17.

Was that when you buried that hatchet with Martyn Ware over the way The Human League Mk 1 had split?

PO: They [Heaven 17] put themselves out to take part in a documentary about us. Ian had come back to Sheffield and was trying to build a studio. When "Tell Me When" came out he brought us a bottle of champagne.

Watch the video for "Tell Me When"

SS: That stayed in our fridge for ages and was only opened the night Tony Blair got in. God, it should have stayed unopened, that was a waste of champagne, wasn't it.

PO: It was never serious between me and Martyn anyway. We all used to be bitchy about each other to each other's faces. It was an opportunity to get some gags out, to be a bit nasty.

Legend has it you chased Martyn Ware down a Sheffield street hurling full milk bottles from people's doorsteps at him.

PO: No, that was when we were friends. We had this strange thing going on where we'd con each other's parents and steal stuff from each other's houses, which is really odd as neither of us is very criminal.

What do you make of modern electronic pop such as La Roux or Lady Gaga?

PO: I like La Roux. I had lunch with Martyn Ware three weeks ago and he knows them pretty well. He says they mix their songs on a laptop. They sound so strange because they're not intended to be played on big speakers.

SS: I like La Roux because she doesn't fit in. She's not Cheryl Cole. All women in pop music now look like The Saturdays. To be truthful, if one of them walked in now, I wouldn't know who they were, they all merge into each other, whereas she stands out and she has a very distinctive voice. I like Lady Gaga as well but she'll wear thin eventually.

From everything you've said, it sounds as if The Human League are in good shape.

PO: We're pretty self-indulgent but our manager Simon [Watson] brought us down to earth. He said, "You've got to do things that make money." He's good on budgets and things and that's how we've survived, even grown as Simon had a plan to grow us. He said, "If we go to these countries and do little shows, next time we'll do bigger shows," and it's all working.

amazon_logoFind The Human League's Credo on Amazon
amazon_logoFind The Human League on Amazon

We don't really do songs, when I think about it, we make noises, make instrumentals that have to turn into a song

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What an absolutely AMAZING interview, thanks!

One of the best Human League interviews I have ever read. Terrific stuff and thank you :)

Great interview - thanks very much.

really great interview,concise and informative. Dare was a very influential album and I played it over and over when it was first released. Looking forward with excitement to hearing Credo. Thank you again!

fantastic interview brill long may the league grace us with their presence got everthing they have ever done

Great interview. I saw them at The Royal Albert Hall on Monday and they were superb!!

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