Andy McCluskey talks consumerism, history, and the band’s new album
For almost 40 years, Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark have been delivering off-center electronic music that consumes the masses. Over the years, the duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys has seen numerous ups and downs, but they have continued to push forward even in the darkest of times. Their new album, The Punishment of Luxury, finds them once reaching new heights via a different sonic palette.
Its the conversation that keeps the band coming back, referring to the role of the artist as, “Essentially it’s a conversation with yourself that you then make public and see if it resonates with other people.” And luckily for us, it’s a discussion they want to keep having.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Andy to discuss the band’s new release, find out about their most grounding moments, and find out what keeps them going almost 40 years down the line.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album, “The Punishment of Luxury.” Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Andy McCluskey: It’s very positive actually. We are very happy with what we created. We took our time to make sure that it was a good collection of ideas and well-executed musically. We’re happy that we pushed our envelope a little. We’re not just sitting back. We hope we’re not just trotting out some bad pastiche of our former selves. And the feedback we’ve got so far is very positive and reaffirming, so we’re in a very good place.
CF: It has been four years since English Electric, and there were rumors that you almost broke up after that last album. Why did you decide to come back?
AM: We found ourselves in an interesting place actually, four years ago. We’d forgotten just what a selfish mistress the business side of the music industry is. We were kind of victims of our own success. It was a very well-received album. We were asked to so a lot of gigs and we decided to do them, and we were terribly busy and we hadn’t been that busy in a long time. We’d forgotten that you don’t have time for friends or family when you’re busy, busy, busy for months on end, so that was a bit of a strain.
Then, of course, right towards the end of the touring, with only five concerts left to go, our drummer had a cardiac arrest on stage in Toronto, and that really made us stop and take stock of things. For 12 months we made a conscious decision to absolutely do nothing because we didn’t want to put any pressure on Malcolm until we found out if he was okay, and how he felt. In the meantime it was good to stop and think and feel. Whilst we understand that with less we’d still be able to play concerts and make music, we want to strike a balance.
We’re in a very fortunate position now where actually by taking our time we’re able to maximize the quality of life we have with the people that we love. But also, the win win is actually you get a chance to fill up your well of inspiration and have good ideas. So actually, by taking four years to make this album, it’s been a double win. It’s been really positive.
CF: The album shares a name with a painting by Giovanni Segantini. How did you come across the work and how did it influence the record?
AM: I’ve known that painting since I was a teenager. It hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I adore the painting, but I have to admit the subject matter is a little strange. It’s actually a painting of ‘bad mothers’ floating in purgatory, painted by a late Victorian Italian misogynist in a very beautiful style. So we have appropriated the title, but we are certainly not echoing the sentiment that women should remain only in the bedroom and the kitchen and nowhere else, and never have ideas above their station, so I add that very painfully and firmly. We have appropriated the title only.
We’ve taken it to mean something different, basically we see that at the moment in most modern Western economies, people are, for the most part, materially better off, but are less happy. They seem to have replaced the imagined order of religion or royal decree with this new brainwashed order of commercialism, where basically our worst insecurities, anxieties, and fears have been preyed upon by marketing men who have brainwashed us into thinking we are unworthy of love or self respect if we don’t own this new product. We don’t have the latest car. We don’t drink the right thing. We aren’t wearing the right trainers. We don’t have the most up-to-date whatever they are trying to sell us. We don’t have enough likes on Facebook. People are actually quite mentally tormented even though they are materially better off. That is the punishment of luxury as we see it.
CF: On title track there is stark juxtaposition between the sweetness of the synths and the melancholy of the lyrics. Can you take us through your songwriting process and tell us how you converge these two very different things?
AM: I think, to be honest, it’s in the subconscious and natural DNA of Andrew McCluskey and Paul Humphreys. When we write together, we strive for something musically that is a bit challenging. We like to try and use a different palette, different sounds, different things we haven’t explored before because we want to challenge ourselves. The whole reason about being Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was about doing something different, and if we are going to continue to make records now, almost 40 years later, we are sticking to the plan. It becomes harder when you have explored a lot of things in your own way to find new things, but we try to do that.
The music almost invariably comes first, and then we look to marry that with the intellectual and lyrical content, which is often prepared side by side, simultaneously, but it’s never the lyrics first then the music fits the lyrics. It’s an idea for a lyrics, or the subject, topic of a song, but then we work on the music, and then we hope we sort of weld them together.
We have always written melody. We have always tried to walk a tightrope of musical experiments, but with acceptable musicality. It’s our conversation with ourselves. That’s what we are trying to achieve ourselves. All people who write songs are having a conversation with themselves, you then hope when you make it public it resonates with other people, and they go, “Oh I get what he is saying. That works for me. That’s talking to me. I understand that conversation,” and that continues to be what we try to do.
There are 12 different tracks on this album that were all conjured into being in different ways, but essentially it starts with us challenging ourselves to do something musically that we haven’t done before and then to express our feelings through lyrics as well.
CF: Is there a moment you can tell us about from the studio that sort of sums up “The Punishment of Luxury” recording experience?
AM: The way we write is now in the box. It stays in the Pro Tools in the computer. Paul and I both have Mac systems, which are largely compatible. What we try to is come up with an idea and then Paul comes up – Paul lives in London, I live in Liverpool – and we’ll spend the week together just matching ideas, listening to things he’s got, things I’ve got, and then bouncing off each other. He’ll play me something and I’ll go, “Yeah that’s great. Can you give me that? I’ll put that in my computer.” Or I’ll write something, and he’ll go, “That’s great I really like that.” And we find the chemistry works best when we have a kernel of an idea, which then the other person can contribute to. Together we work on it with the chemistry between us to the point where we don’t know who has done what anymore. It’s kind of an organic free flow between the two of us.
Then he’ll go away and I’ll do a bit more on what we’ve done. He’ll come up with some other ideas, and then he’ll come back up. It’s usually put together on my computer, but Paul is much better objectively and technically when it comes to mixing, so then it all goes down into his computer for the final mix. Except for a few found sound recordings, and the actual vocals, every single other sound is generated in the computer. This offends a lot of synthesizer purists who think we should still be using all the original analogue synths from the 70s and 80s, but we don’t want to midi them and we certainly don’t want to be bothered to carry the heavy fuckers around anymore. So it’s all plugins and samples.
CF: The album takes on large world issues such as consumerism and the mistakes we’ve made. That being said, how do you view the role of the artist in today’s complex world?
AM: Essentially the role of the artist has never changed over the years. You have a desire to express a feeling and thought in your medium, whether it being painting or music or film or architecture, whatever it is you choose, you are having a conversation with yourself. You are pulling your thoughts and feelings out of your conscious and unconscious mind and exploring them, and trying to put them in a craftsman-like and interesting way, into a context in which you hope you can listen to again and learn from and listen to again, but also the people consuming it, or listening to it, or absorbing it, it will also resonate with and go, “I get that. That feels right with me.” The thing is, once you’ve created it, you have no control over how it is absorbed by other people. Some people just like the tune and don’t listen to the words. Other people like to dance to and don’t listen to the tune. Other people get all sorts of different things from it. You have to abdicate your sense of control once you present it it publicly. Essentially it’s a conversation with yourself that you then make public and see if it resonates with other people. That’s the bottom line.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
AM: I think it is the feedback from the people who listen to the music. As a business it is a strange affair, and we have seen massive success and huge commercial failure over 40 years. We started out as a hobby. We had no intention or desire of being a pop group, or being in the music industry. We were making experiments in the backroom of Paul’s mom’s house on a Saturday afternoon, when she was at work when we were 16 years old, and even our best friends thought what we were doing was pretty weird and frankly s***.
We were just on our own journey and nobody was more surprised than us when we dared to do a gig, call ourselves a stupid name because we were only going to do one gig, and then somebody went, “Hey do you want to do another gig?” And then somebody went, “Hey do you want to make a record?” And then somebody gave us a seven album deal. And then we started to sell millions of records. It was like, “Okay we are doing what we want to do. This is on our terms. We didn’t intend to be a successful band, but we have become so. That’s cool.” Then, of course, we got swallowed by the industry and we fell into being on the treadmill and turning out albums and touring and touring and touring and unfortunately the record deal we signed paid us so poorly that at the end of the 80s we’d sold 20 million singles and 10 millions albums, and we owed the record company one million pounds. That was a fairly grounding moment [laughs].
The most touching and beautiful moments are, as musicians we do not wield hammer blows against things we get angry about. We do not come up with a medicine that saves a million lives. We do not stop a war. We do not feed a famine ridden country. However, we express ourselves in our own way, and occasionally when somebody comes up to you and is kind enough to put the energy into saying, “May I say to you that I love a piece of music you made because it got me through a nervous breakdown when I was 15,” or, “it got me through the death of my father,” or, “when my twin brother had his funeral because he died in a car crash, and we played your song, I’ll always remember that. I remember how much I love him and I miss him, and that song will always remind me of my lost brother.” I’ve had those moments and I’ve had many more, and when somebody says that to you, you didn’t change the world, but you touched somebody for a few minutes and they remembered it and cherish it. It doesn’t get any better than that.