Photo by Spiro Politis
Needless to say, they’re best known for their 1981 failed-relationship anthem “Don’t You Want Me” (a UK Xmas #1!) but The Human League was instrumental, with their admixture of Bowie, Moroder, Motown, leftist politics, and what was, at the time, cutting edge technology, in the transition from the disco to the synthpop era. Their sobriquet was always a touch ironic but also, as expressed in their hit single “Human”, heartfelt. Now coalesced around leader Philip Oakey and co-singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, Human League’s first album in a decade, Credo (Wall of Sound), allows them to Berlin, where they will be performing at Huxley’s Neue Welt on Saturday, April 23.
What does a group named Human League think about humans?
PHILIP OAKEY: I believe that everyone is the same. There are 6 billion people on the planet and everyone is exactly the same, exactly as important as each one of us. But we are nothing compared to nature. We are absolutely insignificant! JOANNE CATHERALL: I think the human race will be gone much sooner than nature. Nature will always win in the end.
Perhaps cloning will save us.
JC: I know nothing about cloning except Dolly the sheep. But having another Joanne is a slightly frightening idea. I think the world has got enough with one!
And yet your new single is called “Egomaniac”.
PO: It’s about how the world is changed by big personalities – which is something I did not believe in when I was young. I thought that everyone sort of joined together to save Britain, which would generally go a bit more liberal. But then people like Margaret Thatcher turned up, who had a much more right-wing agenda and could transform a whole country. She totally changed the way Britain was; then Tony Blair did it, almost the way Fidel Castro changed Cuba. When Castro is gone, Cuba will not be the same country. It is interesting, the relationship between people in power and the others. We are very much of the common people.
How about how England has musically changed since your beginnings? There’s a huge discrepancy between [Factory Records founder] Tony Wilson and Simon Cowell.
PO: That’s interesting, as we had our first tour dates at Tony Wilson’s club even before Susan and Joanne joined the band. It was an interesting – and very different – time. That was a very rough Britain. And a tough area of Manchester. One of the guys in the group actually got attacked! But music used to be more independent, with a little bit of a commercial thing for Saturday night. Now there is a lot of commercial Saturday night karaoke music, and very little independent stuff.
And the difference between the American and English music industries?
PO: In America, the producer is king. But in England... we got into this because of punk. We were always very, very independent. And we have lost some of that power along the way. At first, we took our own photographs and refused any photographers. We put the aim of music above everything else. One of our idols, Pink Floyd, did not release singles, and if you sat next to them in the pub, you did not know who they were. They were doing the music for the music.
And Johnny Rotten wore a t-shirt stating, “I Hate Pink Floyd”
PO: It was John Lydon [aka Rotten] who said we were “just a bunch of hippies.” But we are from working class families. We had to earn a living. It turned out that it was in an industry that became our whole life and living – being a musician.
Does that mean you’ve done some things in the business you’re not proud of?
SUSAN ANN SULLEY: We’ve done a few of those. For money. You do things like that for money. But hey, that’s how life is. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do sometimes... PO: We are opinionated. We like to say that is or is not the way to do something. We are artists. That’s what artists do. But in Britain, you have to be nice to the right people.
“Don’t You Want Me” is about a similar struggle, but in relationship terms.
PO: That’s a song about power. About people trying to manipulate other people, and whether they can get away with it. In the course of the song you realize you cannot force people into doing what they don’t want to.
Is calling your new album Credo a refutation of sorts, then?
PO: We started out using synthesizers and vocals. Along the way we got a bit lost and stopped doing that to the extent that we should. Now that we are artistically free, we believe we should make a record with old synthesizers and vocals.
But you also use new technology, such as Auto-Tune and computer generated sounds, à la Lady Gaga.
PO: It does sound like that, but it’s our basic sounds that we stuck with. If it is all done on a computer, it’s too nice, and we have to sound a little bit ‘wrong’. But we like the new technology, and there is no point in competing with other people working in the same field and not using all the same tricks that they do.
Which is why you looked to contemporaries such as Kraftwerk during your biggest years.
PO: Kraftwerk are always going to be important to electronic groups. But if you asked what the basis of what we did was, I would say it was [Euro-disco producer] Giorgio Moroder [with whom Oakey released an album and hit single in 1985] and the work he did in Munich: hip music coming out of Southern Germany. We are more like Donna Summer [whom Moroder produced] than Kraftwerk, who are probably a much better group than us, and will last longer. But we are just a pop group! [laughs roguishly]
There are a lot of references to nightlife on your new record, including your single “Night People”.
PO: I love going out, meeting people in bars and nightclubs. Life is hard: it’s good to go out and not worry about that. We had a great nightclub in Sheffield called Gay Crusher, the greatest nightclub I’ve ever been to. This song is dedicated to the people that went there. I have made friends there that I’ve never met sober, and I see that as a glamorous, almost magical part of life.
Do your artistic instincts sometimes fail you? SS: “All I Ever Wanted” [from 2001’s Secrets] did not go Top 40. I really like that song and it became something like a classic, but it only went to 48th place. PO: I had a flop! With Giorgio Moroder. After [the 1984 hit single] “Together in Electric Dreams”, we brought up “Good-Bye Bad Times” and I thought, “We’ve got a number one here!” And no one bought it! JC: It was a great song!
HUMAN LEAGUE, Sat, Apr 23, 21:00 | Huxley’s Neue Welt, Hasenheide 107-113, Neukölln, U-Bhf Hermannplatz, www.trinityconcerts.de/huxleys