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The Weekly interview: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Paul Humphreys

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Andy McCluskey, left, and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Annie Zaleski

Barenaked Ladies’ 2016 Last Summer on Earth tour features a pair of dynamic openers: synth-pop pioneers Howard Jones and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Affable OMD co-founder Paul Humphreys checked in from the road and revealed why this particular tour has such good vibes. For good measure, he also shared news about a new OMD album, and told the story of how the indelible hit “If You Leave”—which turns 30 years old this year—came about.

This tour is really bringing OMD to a lot of places you guys haven’t been to in almost 30 years. That’s the reason why we decided to do this tour. Because we can do our own headline tour on the East and West Coast—that’s what we do every few years. We wanted to revisit markets that we haven’t been to in 30 years, basically. We thought we’d reintroduce ourselves into these areas, and maybe impress promoters so they book us next time for a headline tour.

As I understand it, the guys in Barenaked Ladies have been fans of you guys for a while. Is that how the invite to the tour came about? That’s how it happened, yeah. We got a call through our agent, and they asked us if we’d fancy going on tour with them. And we pretty much said yes right away. I like the guys. It’s a different kind of genre, us and Howard Jones, but it all works, really. In some ways, it’s a bit like a festival kind of an event, where you have lots of different bands and genres.

Have you guys and Howard Jones done shows together before? We have. We did four or five dates around the U.K. trying out new material for a new record before we recorded it, and Howard supported us on those, ’cause he was just starting out then. This must’ve been ’84? We played the Hacienda Club in Manchester, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s kind of a legendary venue now.

You guys have so much in common, too—his recent Engage record is so good, and you guys put out 2013’s English Electric LP, which is great. You guys are both still innovating within the electronic music genre. As OMD, we both feel that it’s important not to turn into a tribute band to yourselves, just playing your old stuff. Obviously there’s a high demand to hear all the hits we’ve had. And on this tour particularly, we—and Howard—have been having to play our hits, because the sets are so short. Generally, though, we do want to keep moving forward as artists, because it’s really important. With OMD, we still feel like we have something to say. It’s going to be our 40th anniversary in 2018.

Wow. I know, right? I can’t believe it. For a band that was only going to ever do one concert in Liverpool, Andy [McCluskey] and I just look at each other sometimes and go, “How the heck did this happen?” (Laughs.)

We still have lots of ideas and things to try—musically, we feel like we’ve still got places to go and things to say. The beginning of the year, we started to make a new album. We’ve got five songs for the next album already done. After this tour, we’ve got some festivals in Europe to do, and then we’re going to take a little break, and the end of August, beginning of September, we’re going to stay in the studio until Christmas and see if we can finish the album. We’re still working hard. Keeps us out of trouble, you know? (Laughs.)

Are there any inspirations that are coming out so far on these new ideas? We really are very proud of English Electric, and we think we did something really interesting there. There’s no demand on us now to write a hit single, because define a hit single. What does a hit single mean these days? For bands who have been going this long, it’s not such a pressure anymore. We have complete artistic freedom. We don’t have a record company. We do have a record company when we release an album, but we finish an album first, and then we go to the record labels and say, “Do you want to release this or not?” Last time we had BMG release English Electric; we’ll see what happens with this one.

I’m not saying we’re going to do an album that’s not commercial, but there’s no commercial pressures. We have freedom again like we had when we first started out as a band. The pressures really got to us in the late ’80s, and we started to make records that we weren’t very proud of, to be honest. We’ve come full circle, and we’re completely in control of our destiny now. We just do whatever we want to do. It’s a great freedom to have as an artist.

With this new album, we’re taking the ideas of English Electric and trying to take them a bit further. We’ve tapped into our more experimental roots as well. You can probably tell on English Electric, we’ve gone back to some more experimental ideas, trying to push the boundaries a little bit rather than writing 10 pop songs.

And what a luxury—to be almost 40 years in a band and to be in that position and to have that freedom. We’re lucky that we don’t actually have to be doing OMD. It’s not like we’re doing OMD because we can’t live without the income from it. We don’t have that kind of financial pressure, of having to keep releasing records or keep touring just to top off our pension or, you know, to survive. We’re incredibly lucky that we’re not in that position. We’re doing it for the love of it.

And the great thing about being in OMD is we’re all great friends. There’s no big egos, and we all have a laugh together. We’re like brothers. I mean [saxophonist/keyboardist] Martin [Cooper], Andy and myself, we go back to school days. Andy and I have known each other since we’re 7 years old; Martin I’ve known since he was 11. And up until 2013, we had Malcolm Holmes on drums, and I’ve known him since he was 12. Unfortunately, he had a cardiac arrest at the show in 2013 in Toronto, and thankfully he’s still alive—he’s still technically in the band, but he’s not allowed to drum anymore live. So we have Stuart Kershaw, who played in the band briefly in the ’90s, as our live drummer.

We all have this history together, so it’s fun going on the road. I hate to hear stories of bands that don’t get along, and they all show up in their separate limos and they only meet when they’re onstage. And then they go off to their own hotels and limousines. It should actually be a fun thing—you should be enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing with each other.

Pretty in Pink turns 30 this year, and the movie contains your hit “If You Leave.” I’ve read that song had a really interesting genesis—that you had to write it very fast. Is that correct?

The story of “If You Leave” was nuts, really. We got the script from John Hughes, and he said, “Okay, write a song for this bit.” So we did, and we spent two months agonizing over it. We wrote this song, and we were just about to go on tour with the Thompson Twins—actually, in America—and we had our two-inch tape ready to finish in LA, to mix. We had two days before the tour started. And we get off the plane in LA, and we have a message from John Hughes: “Please contact us immediately.”

We spoke to John, and he said, “Listen, guys, I hate to tell you this, but I’ve changed the whole end of the film, I’ve reshot it. And your song doesn’t work. Have you got another one we can have?” And we said, “John, we’re going on tour for two months, and we’ve only got two days!” And he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll book you into one of the best studios in LA.” Our equipment was being shipped to San Francisco, so we didn’t have any instruments either. And he said “Don’t worry, I’ll hire you stuff. Just go into the studio and see what you come up with.”

A&M Records had hinged their whole campaign on us being in this film, and all of a sudden we didn’t have a song (laughs). So Andy and I basically sat in this studio for 24 hours straight—I was on piano and Andy was scribbling words—and we were working out tunes together. And we wrote “If You Leave” in 24 hours. We did a quick demo of it, stuck the cassette in a cab, sent it to John and went to bed.

Two hours later, the phone goes, and it’s John Hughes saying, “Love the song, get back in the studio and record it” (laughs). The next day, we recorded it completely. We had to do this whole thing—write it and record it—in two days. And that was “If You Leave.” I have no idea how we did it. I barely even remember writing it, to be honest. It was such a high-pressure situation. But I was so thankful for it, because “If You Leave” was better than the song we did that didn’t end up in the film.

When you’re young, there’s that little bit of pressure—you just run on adrenaline and do it. Totally. We were so on adrenaline for two days. It turned out to be one of our biggest hits and one of our biggest earners ever in terms of songs. The good thing about Pretty in Pink as well, it seems to have gotten into a cult status now. A lot of the younger generation has seen it. At our American shows, we notice that a lot of younger people are coming to see us because they’ve discovered that film, they liked the song, they want to come and see us play it live, and that song has introduced them to our whole catalog of OMD albums. The film has helped to bring a whole younger generation. We really noticed this on our headline tour in 2013. There were so many younger people in the audience, we couldn’t believe it. In Europe we play to largely an older audience who had grown up with us. But not in America.

Do you have any memorable memories from playing in Las Vegas? We’ve played Las Vegas lots of times. We’ve played it with Depeche Mode, with Thompson Twins. We’ve played it ourselves. Las Vegas is a crazy-fun place. The first time I went there, I went, “Wow, what is this place?” It’s like I had landed on another planet or something. We’ve got great memories of playing there, and I’m really looking forward to getting back there. We’ve also got a day off there; I’m looking forward to that as well. As long as I don’t lose too much money. I do tend to love slot machines, actually. I’ll have my girlfriend look after the money, I think. She’ll put me on a budget.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark opening for Barenaked Ladies with Howard Jones. July 22, 7:30 p.m., $38-$75. Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, 800-745-3000.

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