League-ally beyond: Phil’s new thrills

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PHIL Oakey is weighing up his packing options as we settle down for a chat.

“We’ve never done Peru before,” he says, stirring his coffee, “apparently you need oxygen tanks or something.”

The Human League: Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley

The Human League: Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley

Having evidently survived said South American début, the distinctive singer and the rest of the band followed that with Barcelona’s revered Sonar festival. Next month they headline Flashback, a one-day festival in Clumber Park, and North Yorkshire’s Magic Loungeabout late July on a tour that takes them all over the world in 2011.

“We’ve been going to do some places that wanted to forget about us,” admits Phil, who also counts a return to the Hollywood Bowl on the League diary. “It’s all very busy.”

A large part of the reason for that is new album Credo. Released with virtually no promotion in the spring, it seems to have stoked the appetite of League fans far and wide, something Phil, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley are happy to feed.

“My hopes for this record were way bigger abroad. The UK thinks it knows exactly what we are and doesn’t really want to add to it whereas there’s places like America where they never liked the group, they liked some of our songs.”

The League have always been a band that liked to defy convention, right from electronic roots that flew in the face of post-punk through to the decision to do virtually no press for their first album in 10 years.

“It’s an experiment – I wanted this to work or not work by word of mouth,” says Phil.

“But there’s people somewhere have put money into this and don’t like that idea. I would have done no promo and seen whether people found out about it or not.

“The fights we have had to stop us sitting on a sofa on morning TV you would not believe. But we’re not making that kind of music.

“I want to play the long-term commercial game.

“If you guarantee me a million quid I will do anything, but I’m not daft enough not to be able to stand back.

“I don’t think what I have to say is worth any more than what anyone has to say. We get sucked into it because it’s great having respect, but I’ve always admired people who somehow stay away from promo. I hate the royal family but if there’s anyone in the world who knows how to do publicity it’s the Queen. Genius – no interviews.”

Having alerted the world to a much-stalled sequel to Secrets last autumn when they released Night People – a track “absolutely designed for clubs, it should not be played on the radio” – the band gave more clues at a sold-out O2 Academy show.

Although recognisable as the act that brought you Don’t You Want Me and Tell Me When, the album doesn’t so much redefine the band as play largely to their strengths while indulging Phil’s passion for club music.

Impetus for Credo also came from his seeking to give those who kept citing the League as an influence – from Client to La Roux – something fresh to think about.

“People kept asking me to sing on records that I hadn’t written on. I thought ‘That’s not really what I am, I’m not even that good a singer’. My job is to part write and get things recorded, but people wanted me to go along to be a voice on their record.

“We’re not an ’80s flash in the pan, we’re just people that make records with technology and we have to prove it is an ongoing thing.”

One of those who heard that missive was Mark Jones, boss of the Wall Of Sound label.

“When we started writing I was going to release 12 inches and find out what was happening,” says Phil, who acknowledges the music business has changed since Secrets.

“It’s mainly people banging on the windows of the shopping centre trying to do what they used to do and they can’t understand it’s not happening any more. So you do it yourself. I just wanted to make the best bits of music that we could, put them out and slowly build into something else.

“But we got 14 or 15 tunes together and Mark, an old mate who always wanted to sign us, heard them and said ‘Let’s do a League album’.”

Even with that backing and their own Sheffield studio to work in it was 18 months before Credo’s often frantic blend of classic League styling and ideas honed from Phil’s nocturnal interests emerged. “Part of why it took a long time is we had to find a way of working that didn’t make me want to give up as soon as I started, as boring a thing as finding the right computer programme.

“I don’t really like the technical stuff – it’s just a pain to me. I love making horrible big noises with a synth and stringing them together and writing some lyrics when I have to.”

One of the key ingredients for Credo came in the production and mixing by two other innovative Sheffield music men. Possible liaisons with the likes of Simian Mobile Disco exhausted, Phil was walking his dog when he bumped into Dean Honer who, together with Jarrod Gosling, comprises city duo I Monster.

“They are brilliant, but they are not like us, not a synth band, so it never quite occurred to me. Then it was obvious, after they did three tracks, but it wasn’t until then.”

Now much of Credo sounds like it was built for belting out from a stage, yet even with burgeoning demand on the League as a live band, such motivation wasn’t pondered.

“Because of the technical stuff with computers this is the hardest stuff to take live. It’s killing us getting acceptable versions.

“We use synths that do things by accident and that inspires us. So I don’t think of having to play it live while writing.

“We just had to tear all the gear down because the system got very complicated and we had two generations of computers decide not to agree with each other.

“There were two or three days where I was waking at five in the morning worried for what was going to happen that night.

“But touring pays for everything now. People are much more prepared to give you money to play than to buy records.

“It used to be a loss leader but now it keeps the business ticking over – and it is a business.

“I counted the number of people on the last tour and it was 27 – caterers, four drivers... I love the fact we give employment to a few people.”

On August 20, the League will be doing that again when they join fellow Sheffield innovators Heaven 17, Toyah Willcox, Level 42 and Nik Kershaw at the Clumber Park nostalgia knees up, following their July 30 Broughton Hall slot.

“It’s hard to be unique,” concedes Phil. “I think really hard about this.

“We’re doing this as a band with a 30-year history.

“We were in the right place at the right time and it’s adolescence – you have a couple of years when things will stick with you for the rest of your life, when things are your own.

“That said, we work hard to make it work and we have the advantage that we’ve been playing the big game for a long time.

“Somehow, as of Don’t You Want Me, we were international in a way most groups find it so hard to be now.”