Still in a League of their own

Ongoing thing: The Human League are in their 35th year.
Ongoing thing: The Human League are in their 35th year.
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THEY may have sold more than 20 million records, but according to Phil Oakey, the Human League is still an ‘experiment.’

Now in their 35th year, Sheffield’s pioneers of electronica play at City Hall as part of an aptly-entitled tour, XXXV, which follows the release of their latest album, Credo.

But while the band will always be best known for the 1981 Christmas single, Don’t You Want Me Baby, they are – as Oakey’s keen to assert – very much a contemporary, actively creative outfit, putting out as many tracks as its much younger admirers, which include the critically-acclaimed La Roux and Little Boots.

“We’re still in the experiment,” says Oakey. “I sort of think that we’re around the time of the first LP and in a strange loop. Everyone thinks we’re doing the follow-up to huge hits and we’re not, we’re our way working towards something and see what happens.

“The difference between the times is I have to work until two in the morning and then a bit of money is going to trickle through, compared to those days when we would walk into an office and sit down and say ‘do you want to put a record out by us?’. They’d say how much will it cost to record it? £200,000 and they’d say okay, and it’ll cost £200,000 to live while we’re doing it. That was a great position to be in, the classic of advances in the record label.”

But those days have gone.

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

“It keeps the business ticking over – it used to be a loss leader – 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.”

But Human League isn’t the only act embracing the live circuit as the principal money spinner.

“Everyone’s doing it and it was started by Madonna. She’s not signed by a record label, she’s signed by a touring company.”

And while fans will be yearning to hear the 80s hits such as Don’t You Want Me and Being Boiled, Oakey’s keen to assert that The Human League are not mere 1980s ephemera.

“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.

“I just wanted to make the best bits of music that we could, put them out and slowly build into something else,” says Oakey.

“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 the continued access to their own Sheffield studio it was 18 months before Credo’s often frantic blend of classic League styling and ideas honed of Phil’s nocturnal interests emerged.

“We had actually stopped and we’ve started again, learned the techniques. 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. “That is as boring a thing as finding the right computer programme. I don’t really like the technical, it’s just a pain in the neck 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.

Oakey 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.”

Much of Credo sounds like it was built for belting out from a stage, yet performing the material live was no mean task.

“Because of the technical stuff with computers now this is the hardest stuff to take live.”

“We just had to tear all the gear down because the system got very complicated and the computers were controlling everything. We had two generations of computers that decided not to agree with each other and it was a real hassle. 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 – for Oakey at least – the sleepless nights are worth it.

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

And while Oakey’s vocal chords helped form the soundtrack of the 1980s, he doesn’t believe he can sing.

But it doesn’t matter.

“Pop music is as far away from opera as it can be. It’s way closer to a conversation and if you can communicate with people at a distance, that’s what it’s about. Some of the greatest records ever are by people who cannot sing,” he says.

Human League play at City Hall on Tuesday, December 4.