It's a tribute to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark that the sound they helped create, the shimmering synth pop that was so innovative when the band started three decades ago, is now de rigueur in music. OMD is out with a new album called History of Modern; it's their first in fourteen years and their first in over twenty with the 1980s "If You Leave" lineup. It comes at an appropriate time, given the popularity of synth pop and the band's influence on groups like The xx and LCD Soundsytem. And the public has responded: OMD were conservative when booking venues on this tour, but now they are having to book second shows in some cities and move shows to bigger venues in others.
When it came to making History of Modern, Andy McCluskey, the band's singer and co-songwriter with Paul Humphreys, told me, "We analyzed our history and realized that we had created our own musical voice with the first four albums, and we wanted to go back to expressing ourselves in the language we invented ourselves. We had to strike that balance between something that was OMD but also not some nostalgia trip."
From my interview with McCluskey, two things stick out about his creative process. One, the most important part of the songwriting process is the first line; coming up with it is McCluskey's "magic moment . . . the biggest buzz in your life if you are a songwriter." And two, he is an active participant in the inspiration process. According to McCluskey, if you wait for the muse, it will never come. Instead, he goes to galleries and art museums. He listens to music, he collects things, he takes notes, he researches. McCluskey is always looking for ways to be inspired. And as you'll read, some of the band's best songs arose from this active process.
OMD is on tour in the US now. Read my interview with McCluskey after the video for their new song "Sister Marie Says," which was actually written in 1981.
I started off wanting to be an artist. I was always drawing when I was a kid, and I started drawing in oils when I was about fourteen. Then I moved from painting to sculptures. I went through a pre-degree art course and had a place in Leeds to do a degree in art. I wasn't sure that I was going to commit to it, so I took a year off to think, and that was the year that Paul and I started OMD.
Any idea why so many songwriters are also visual artists?
I suppose when you are young, your parents are always putting coloring books in front of you. You pick up a pencil and draw, and if people give you good feedback, you are encouraged to continue. It's a lot easier for kids to express themselves in a visual medium than playing an instrument.
As a visual artist, do you start your songwriting process with an image?
I tend to think of the music in visual blocks. We taught ourselves as musicians from scratch. And we created patterns, really blocks, of our repeating sections: the drum pattern, the bass pattern, the chordal pattern. Of course, nowadays, when you work on computers or Pro Tools, it's a lovely visual. You're weaving a pattern from left to right with all these different colored blocks. So you are rearranging it very visually. You see the progression, so it's even easier now to imagine it visually.
What comes first in your songwriting process?
Over the years, I usually have had two piles of creative thought. I'm always thinking about things I want to write about, so I have one pile of subject matter and occasional lyrical ideas. When I get fascinated by something and am motivated to write a song about it, I get hooked. I start researching and collecting information. It's like preparing a thesis. I collect lyrics, ideas, phrases from books. I used to have a folder filled with ideas for song titles, song lyrics, subjects.
Then separately was the music: working on ideas, rhythms, sounds. At some point you hope you start singing something and go, "Ah ha!" because the lyrical idea has come out of the music. Or you go, "Ah. This might be the bed track for a song I wanted to write about," like Enola Gay or Joan of Arc. So I have one pile of lyrics, and then I wait for a piece of music to be invented to go with it.
With most songwriters, the lyrics come from the music. They often don't have lyrics on hand.
I have that pile of lyrical ideas, but it's only when I get a piece of music that it inspires me to think a lyrical idea might fit. The music has to come first because it's the landscape. You have to create the right ambiance before you start imagining the characters in it. The vocal idea is the focal point; it's the characters in the landscape. But until you've got that landscape, it's impossible to know what those characters will look like.
It sounds like you mix and match lyrics.
Sometimes, though there are times when I get a piece of music and just start singing. It wasn't something I was intending to write about. The opening line of a song is the key to unlocking a song. I'll just be singing something and will suddenly know that it works.
But it's the music, the mood, that generates the idea of the lyrics. I can't imagine someone like Elton John, who constructed music around the lyrics Bernie Taupin gave him. To me, that's just building a pyramid from the top down. I think you start with something interesting at the bottom and work it up to the focal point.
How important is it that the mood of the lyrics matches the mood of the music?
Sometimes the juxtaposition of two elements that shouldn't go together is interesting. Some of our catchiest, poppiest songs, like "Enola Gay," are actually very politicized. It's a cheerful pop song about dropping and atom bomb. Sometimes having that contrast or tension is fantastic.
How active are you in the inspiration process?
If you sit around waiting for the muse, it never comes. I have a studio, and I come in and go to work. You have to sit down and say that you are going to do something today. If you don't, I don't see how you are suddenly going to get your eureka moment.
Outside the studio, I'm fascinated by history, by art, by politics. I've always been fascinated by war and religion. I go to art galleries and museums. I pick things up, I collect books and postcards, I make notes. I'm always filling my head up. I'm constantly switched on and collecting information that I can use for a song. You've got to make yourself do it. You can't just wait for the moment, because it ain't gonna happen.
Most songwriters I talk to are loathe to call it what they do work. Have you always been this way?
Paul and I started when we were teenagers writing songs in the back of his mother's house, and we were inspired by German bands. We tried to get our hands on any piece of cheap equipment we could, since we didn't have any money. It was a hobby, but when we were offered money to build our own studio and make records, we were like kids in a toy shop. So you can call it work, art, inspiration, whatever, but you must put yourself in a position to think of something. It comes down to writing the music first. You can write the lyrics, but until you've got some music that inspires you and sounds great, how are you going to get started?
How much do you revise lyrics?
The opening line of a song is the key to every song. That opening line usually remains the opening line from the second I've thought of it. Getting the rest of the song, getting the words into a verse and following a pattern of that first line is the blood, sweat, and inspiration, when you have to grind it out with the computer on loop, trying out words and phrases. Sometimes it can all pour out in a day. Other times, it can take weeks or months, just fine tuning. If you're setting your benchmark high and you know you have a weak point, you have to keep reworking until you get it right.
Why is that first line so important? Is it important to catch the listener, or is it important to the writer so that the song's original intent is maintained?
That's the magic moment, the eureka moment. And it doesn't happen when you are sitting at home. It happens when you are listening to the music and get a flash of inspiration. I've just written lyrics to a piece of music that I wrote two and a half years ago. I love the music but couldn't get a fucking lyric to it. Last month I went into the studio, booted the song up, and sang the first line. Bang, that was it. Got the melody, got the lyric, knew what I wanted the song to be about. I'm still fine tuning it; the second verse is still not completed.
But it's that moment that all creative people are waiting for. That good spark, that fire, where you go, "Whoa! That's a good one!" Every artist dreams about it. It's the most exciting moment in your life. It beats the fame, the money, the groupies, everything except your children being born. It's the best moment. That rush, the sudden bang, "Oh, I've got an idea, and it's GOOD! Great! Brilliant! I don't know how I did it, but I'm glad did it." It's the biggest buzz in your life if you are a songwriter.
Is that first line the hardest line to write? It sounds like after that, the lyrical process gets easier.
I wouldn't say it's easy. You have to grind it out. If you're excited by the opening line and melody, then the hard work starts and you have to drag out of yourself the rest of the stuff that's as good as that spark you just had that took five seconds. But you're so excited, so you should have the energy to keep working.
Does one type of art inspire you the best?
Reading other people's words seldom inspires me. I don't read poetry or song lyrics. I've only read about six novels in my life. I'm inspired by other people's music or something I've seen in a museum or an art gallery. Very often I get a spark from something I love, but I tend to mold it into a metaphor.
When I was in America in the early part of this year, I did what I always do when I go: I bought this magazine called Atomic Ranch. It's about American houses from 1945 to 1970. The classic sort of positive new Utopian lifestyle, with modern furniture and open plan living. I found out that there was a book of the same name. I love it. It's a metaphor for optimism that everyone had in the 50s and 60s, when the war was over and life would be better, and science and technology would lead us to this Utopian lifestyle where life would be wonderful.
So I'm now writing a song called "Atomic Ranch," and the opening line is "I want a house and car and a robot wife/I want two kids and a yard and a perfect life." But the final line is "The future came down like an avalanche/And it fucked the world and my atomic ranch." I've always been inspired by architecture and interesting buildings. This book and magazine I've used the idea as a metaphor for a Utopia that never arrived.
What's interesting is that other works of art inspire you to create, whereas many people are content to admire art for its beauty as an end in itself. Do you have a place where you can always get some inspiration?
Really any place. It's quite bizarre. When we went to France in 1980, someone called it the "Joan of Arc Tour" since we visited so many historical places. And this little candle went off in the back of my head. I went home, started reading about Joan of Arc, and wrote a bunch of songs about her. Then another time I was in Los Angeles. Our A&R guy was in a meeting, so I drove down from A&M records to the La Brea Tar Pits. Before I became a musician, I wanted to be an archaeologist or a fossil collector. I didn't think I could write any songs about sloths or woolly mammoths, but I saw a plaque there that said the park was dedicated by the "native daughters of the golden west. " And I said, "THAT is a fucking song title!" Laughs. So we wrote the song. I don't know who the hell they were, but it conjured images of pioneering American women.
Generally inspiration comes from art galleries and museums. Of course, our earliest inspiration came from Kraftwerk, who wrote wonderful catchy beautiful songs about things like radioactivity and electronics and robots. We consciously tried not to write songs with cliches lyrics about love. There was a patch in the 80s when we were squeezed for time, and I look back on some of my lyrics and are embarrassed by them.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
There's been different ways. The best way to get through writer's block is to wait for the dam to break. You keep chipping away; you don't walk away and put your feet up. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. The great thing about computers is that you can save ideas on your hard drive, then go back and look through them if you have a dry spell. That new perspective can really change things.
My biggest thing is always filling my head with possibilities and keeping the well full. When we started, we made four albums very quickly. This is going to sound big headed, but they were brilliant. We had been collecting ideas since we were 16, so we were full of ideas. Then the record company wanted album after album and tour after tour, and we hadn't allowed ourselves sufficient time to fill the well back up with ideas. So the most important thing is keeping the well full. And when it's full, you can always go fishing and pull something out that's inspiring.
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