Andy McClusky of OMD on Dazzle Ships, the influence of '70s Krautrock and Peter Saville
Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark (due at the Bluebird Theater on Tuesday, March 22) is perhaps best known for its song "If You Leave," featured in Pretty in Pink, the classic 1986 John Hughes movie. But the band first made waves in its native England with its first two albums, a self-titled album and Organisation, which contained the hit single (and landmark of electronic pop music) "Enola Gay." A surprisingly visceral performance of that song was seen by audiences far and wide in the 1981 documentary, Urgh! A Music War.
The group's third album, Architecture & Morality, was hailed as a masterpiece of experimental electronic pop, and that release went on to sell three million copies. The follow-up, Dazzle Ships, was a dark, evocative affair that made brilliant use of samples and noises in a way that didn't seem to make sense to many critics and fans at the time of its release. (When the album was reissued in 2008, it was recognized as at least as great as its predecessor, if not a notch better, because of its willingness to push the art form a step further.)
The band continued well into the '90s. But after releasing the 1996 album, Universal, the outfit went on a ten-year hiatus. In 2010, OMD released what could be considered the true follow-up to Dazzle Ships in History of Modern -- the group's most fully realized record in twenty-seven years.
We had a chance to speak with the affable and thoughful Andy McClusky about becoming a bass player, the influence of '70s Krautrock, Dazzle Ships, then and now, as well as why the artwork of longtime Factory Records artist Peter Saville suited OMD's most recent release.
Westword: Why did you retain bass and drums as a studio and live band rather than go completely electronic in your early days and through to today?
Andy McClusky: Good question. When I first got into music, I wanted to play, and I settled on bass guitar, simply because I couldn't afford a drum kit, and I wanted to be a drummer. Six-string guitar was too damn hard. So I saved up all my money on my sixteenth birthday -- I got everyone to give me cash -- and I went down to the local second-hand store and bought a bass. So from the age of sixteen, I owned a bass.
And almost immediately afterward, I discovered Kraftwerk. And myself and my school friend, Paul Humphries, we got inspired by Kraftwerk, but we couldn't afford any of the fancy electronic gear that those guys had. So we used to just kind make weird noises around at his mother's house on anything we could get our hands on, including my bass and bits of dismantled radios, and Paul started making things.
We always had that bass, because I had a bass. We weren't consciously trying to avoid it. Maybe because bass guitar didn't seem to be quite so rock and roll, so much as a drum kit or a lead guitar. As soon as we started playing live, we played for eighteen months with just the two of us and a tape recorder, and we put the drums onto the tape.
The drums kind of happened by default. Our drummer, a friend of ours, joined the band when we expanded to a four-piece; he's still in the band now, Malcolm Holmes. We toured in February 1980 with an electronic drum kit that we made ourselves, and it broke every frickin' night. About the third or fourth gig, Malcolm said, "If I can't have some of my real kit, I'm going home, because I'm not embarrassing myself with this damn thing that breaks down every night."
It was just circumstances, really. I think that, perhaps, all these unconscious things lead us to accidentally, actually, creating a sound of our own. I think the sound of OMD is the combination of electronics and sort of a human element. It's that juxtaposition between the hard and the cold and the warm. That kind of melancholy we have is actually the tension between the organic and the electronic.
The very first bass I had was a thing called a Wilson Rapier bass. It was made by a company called Watkins, who is a British guitar manufacturer. It was the only one I could afford. It was the cheapest one in the shop, and it was left-handed. And I'm right handed. So I learned to play upside down. I'm the only bass player I know who still -- to this day, now that I'm 51 -- plays a right-handed bass but with my strings upside down, because I learned to play upside down.
But actually, I think that gave me quite a distinctive sound. The way I play, I'm sure, is informed by the way the strings are laid out. Unfortunately, the first time we ever played in London that bass of mine got stolen, so I had to move on to buying right-handed basses and having them strung upside down. I now play a Fender Jazz but the strings are still upside down.
You spoke at length in that The Arts Desk interview how Kraftewerk was a big influence on OMD, in what way would you say that Neu! influenced your music, and did you get to see them as you did Kraftwerk early on?
I think the initial influence was Kraftwerk. I heard "Autobahn" on the radio pretty much the summer I turned sixteen and the summer I got my bass. I went to see those guys play in Liverpool. It was 1975, September the 11th. It was at the Liverpool Empire Theater, and I sat in seat Q36. It's indelibly burned into my mind because it was the first day of the rest of my life. These guys came out at the height of '70s rock music, and they were wearing suits and ties and playing weird electronic instruments and making a sound like I'd never heard before. And that was it -- I was hooked.
But when you get hooked, you try to find all of their back catalogue. And then you try to find anything else that was German, and we came across Neu! Of course some of the guys from Neu! used to play with the Kraftwerk guys because they were from Dusseldorf. I guess it goes back to the first conversation we were having. There's an element which is very organic and it's very melancholy, and that is very much part of our mentality and our sound.