OMD – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – have been written off more times than they care to remember. Deemed not cool enough by some of their peers, the group were split between two poles – overtly pop, and explicitly experimental – while somehow encompassing both. When Clash is patched through to the band’s Andy McCluskey, he’s only a few hours from the release of their new album ‘Bauhaus Staircase’. Dubbed on these very digital pages as the best album the group have released in the 21st century, he’s sanguine about music industry chicanery, yet also excited to share something new with fans.
“Frankly… it’s terrifying!” he laughs. “Especially when you spend so many years making an album.”
“Effectively it’s you’re having a conversation with yourself,” he observes. “You’re extracting your feelings and thoughts to objectify them outside of yourself and you hope that you can sculpt it into something that is a perfect recreation of what you’re trying to say. And then you’re egotistical enough to want to share it with other people.”
Yet the new album is arguably the culmination of a 15-year run of excellent work from the group. Led by lynchpins Andy McCluskey and Paul Hujmphreys, OMD embarked on a second chapter in 2006, and never once looked back. “We don’t make plans,” he shrugs. “We don’t have a masterplan. It’s been a 45-year accidental career anyway… we were only gonna do one gig as a dare!”
With a run of albums that pleased fans and scratched their own creative itch, OMD could be forgiven to think that they’ve hit a winning groove. 2017’s ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ went down a storm, before slightly changes to the band became apparent. Paul relocated to France with his young daughter, while Andy had commitments of his own – suddenly communication became a little more difficult, and that’s before the pandemic strolled into view.
“This album only exists because of COVID,” he points out. “I was in my studio room, on my own, writing music. I’d send it to Paul and just beg him – beg him – to add to them. Eventually, we had enough for a record. Will we make another one? No idea. None at all.”
For an album effectively build remotely, ‘Bauhaus Staircase’ shows the resolute unity of purpose that fuels OMD. There’s an old phrase about the group – they could be Stockhausen, or they could be ABBA, and on this album… they’re both. ““That’s actually from our record label in the 80s,” he laughs. “They sat us down, and said: can you tell if you want to be Stockhausen or ABBA? And we went, can’t we be both?”
“We actually don’t have any rules as to how we make music; we start off quite often with an experiment, just with a mad idea. And then it works its way up. That’s our sound, it’s this balance between the machines and the humanity, the experiment and the melody.”
One of the benefits of being written off so many times is that the group operate to their own whims and passions. Profoundly intelligent synth-pop that dares to be accessible, ‘Bauhaus Staircase’ simply couldn’t be made by any other band. “We’ve always made records to satisfy ourselves,” Andy puts it. “Quite frankly, when we’re being completely ourselves and not giving a damn, is when we create our best music.”
“Do what you want to do,” he notes. “That’s been our raison d’etre from day one.”
Constructed in ad hoc sessions over the pandemic, ‘Bauhaus Staircase’ is so much more than a ‘lockdown album’. Pushing themselves further and further, the intricacies are many, while the differences can often be incredibly subtle. Take using David Watts on additional mixing – someone more often utilised in the rock realm, he adds a physicality to the in-depth programming.
“What I like about the way Dave mixes is that he is the antithesis of Paul. I mean, he roughs things up beautifully. We’ll put things through valve amplifiers and valve effects units and it gets grittier and dirtier… and I kinda like that.”
The band have been able to utilise the lessons of their outside experiences to find renewal. After all, when trends shifted in the 90s – and synth-pop became something akin to an insult – OMD placed themselves on hiatus. “I think what we didn’t realise in the 90s was that we were entering the post-modern phase,” he explains. “There was nowhere new to go anyway, and because every band rejects its immediate predecessors, people rejected synth-pop. It was like: I’m going to do something different. What am I gonna do? I’m gonna sound like the Beatles,” Andy says, laughing at the irony of it all.
“Now, by the time you got into the new Millennium, everybody’s aware that essentially all popular culture – not just music, all popular culture – is eating its own history.”
A wilful disregard for the rules has always been a key aspect of OMD’s identity. Take their 1983 album ‘Dazzle Ships’ – heady, complex, and sometimes obtuse, it pivoted away from their golden pop run towards the esoteric. In the 21stcentury, though, it was reappraised, and is now generally regarded as one of their finest, most lasting works. “At the time it was seen as quite weird and fractured,” he reflects. “Now doesn’t seem weird at all… and it didn’t seem weird to us. We grew up listening to Kraftwerk, Neu!, and bands like that. The Kraftwerk album that we love the most was actually ‘Radioactivity’ which has little bits of found sound and musique concrete.”
“So to us, interspersing these esoteric sound snippets with songs and recordings of Communist radio stations and propaganda seemed to be entirely reasonable. Our career up to that point was just us doing what the hell we wanted,” he continues. “It makes sense to us now, but that’s because times have changed. But… oh, god – I mean, we lost 90% of our audience on that album. Virgin – painfully – had a joke that it had shipped gold and returned platinum.”
It’s this same defiance that fans detect in the band’s new album. Moving past the norm, challenging themselves at every turn, it’s complex yet also deeply melodic, the work of musicians with a passionately stubborn streak. “It’s quite simple,” Andy notes. “We wouldn’t release an album if we didn’t think it was good enough. It’s as simple as that. We don’t need to put out an album because we need a new logo on the tour t-shirt or something. If we think we’ve got enough to say, then we will do it. And if we don’t, then you’re not going to hear from us. Simple as that.”
‘Bauhaus Staircase’ is out now. For all OMD tour dates visit their official site.
Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Ed Miles