What is art these days if it’s not self-referential? Sequels, prequels, reboots abound. New art is old art come new. New is old is new. Some works achieve a level of success with winks and nods in feedback loop until what’s left is a mass fueled by the sentiment of “that’s so meta.”
“We are now in the postmodern era of popular culture,” says Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), which recently released an excellent new synthy album, The Punishment of Luxury. “Not just music, but art, film, fashion: It’s all self-referential, consuming its own history. Anything is easily accepted and consumed.”
Depending on how it’s executed, this can yield some profound results. For example, David Lynch and Mark Frost managed to keep Twin Peaks: The Return from being too detrimental in its meta-ness by challenging the structure and style of the original series to create something new — although being a sequel it had to maintain some essence of its former self.
On The Punishment of Luxury, OMD don’t necessarily proffer a “Part 8,” but they do tap into the spirit of their hit “Enola Gay” to unfurl some resplendent synthpop that’s true to their classic sound. Over the course of this and their past few albums, including English Electric and History of Modern, McCluskey and primary bandmate Paul Humphreys have been achieving a fine balance of the old and the new, while writing some of their best songs along the way.
In this Q&A, conducted by Aaron Vehling and Andrew B. White, McCluskey elaborates on our postmodern world, the OMD sound, and what it means for humankind to, as a whole, become unhappier even as prosperity rises. It’s been edited for clarity and house style.
Vehlinggo: The influence of 1980s synth bands like yourselves is so pervasive now — whether we’re talking indie-pop, mainstream pop or synthwave (and sometimes even R&B). Even if a modern act is inherently modern in their songwriting, there’s always a tinge of the ‘80s, it seems. What do you think of all of this? Why have these sounds become so popular again these past several years?
Andy McCluskey: The use of synthesizers began as an attempt to explore new sound textures and alternatives to the cliches of Anglo-American rock ‘n’ roll in the mid/late ‘70s. The ‘90s saw a backlash against electronic pop which had, like all other movements, eventually become bloated and overtaken by copyists after ten years.
Most pop music now is almost exclusively created using computer programs, so it is easy to introduce synthesizer sounds as they are often readily available as soft plug-ins within the music computer systems. Any music that includes a clarity of analogue-sounding synthesizer will by default recall the sounds of the ‘80s.
Music artists and producers recognize that it is very difficult to find new sound colors when restricted to the traditional drums/bass/guitar setup. Even the studio processing used on “rock” bands generates an “unreal” extra sound palette that reflects the new sounds of drums and processing originally pioneered in the ‘80s.
Your previous two albums, English Electric and History Of Modern were essentially a return to the “classic” OMD sound, albeit with the aid of modern technology. Often, artists who re-form after a hiatus veer away from their original sound in an effort to fit in with the operative contemporary scene. Do you find that being true to the “OMD sound” allows you to produce music you are comfortable with and is not hamstrung by following trends?
AM: Our ethos was always to experiment with the way we created our music. However, we are not fans of experiment for it’s own sake. We prefer to push our discoveries into musicality.
Kraftwerk taught us that you can combine intellectual content with melody. Unconsciously, we also added emotion. We continue to do this. All of our pieces begin with us exploring a new sound texture, but as we hone them they are invariably subject to the natural “DNA” that Paul and I bring to our creations. This is unavoidable and, frankly, desirable.
“…we have no desire to churn out empty pastiches of ourselves just to create an album so we have a new logo to brand a tour!”
We make music that resonates with our own senses. We then hope that listeners will also find something that they can connect with in what are really our own personal musical conversations with ourselves.
The “classic” OMD sound is of experiment, melody, lyrical content, and emotion. We are still finding ways to remain true to our ethos. The hard part is to find new inspiration, as we have no desire to churn out empty pastiches of ourselves just to create an album so we have a new logo to brand a tour!
We listen to new music and look for the few people who challenge the musical norms and we ask if we can adapt this to our music.
Press materials for The Punishment of Luxury indicate you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. Can you elaborate on what that means? And why the Giovanni Segantini piece as a title inspiration?
We travel a musical road of searching for something new to discuss and new sounds to include and explore. This is why we are using more glitch and rough electro programming, but we still add melody and humanity.
“… most people in modern economies have more than enough materially, but seem less happy than ever before.”
The Segantini painting gave us the title, though the meaning has been changed. His painting is essentially misogynist “Bad Mothers” in purgatory. We see the phrase as reflecting that most people in modern economies have more than enough materially, but seem less happy than ever before.
Human history has seen us spend most of our waking hours feeding ourselves and finding shelter, hoping for avoidance of plague, famine, and war. Now we have time for our anxious minds to be lead by insidious marketing into believing we are unworthy of love or self-respect if we don’t possess the latest item that they need to sell to us. This is the Punishment of Luxury.
It is inevitable that established artists with a large catalogue of hits will be known more for those songs (and fans will expect them at live shows). However, on the strength of the recent OMD material, along with the new album, what is your approach to structuring sets for your new tour? Does it depend on the city or nation?
AM: Certainly, we have different songs that have been hits in different countries and this can influence the choice of songs in the live set. We believe in the quality of our new songs and we want to play some of them, but we are aware that most who come to a concert look forward to hearing their favorite songs and these are often the hits. It’s a balancing act!
You have pretty much consistently worked with art director Peter Saville — in the past anyway — on your album covers and it would seem his graphic design is integral to the way OMD is perceived. What makes Mr. Saville so important to the aesthetic of OMD (other than the fact that he’s a genius)?
AM: We were really fortunate to release our first single on Factory Records and Peter had just joined the label as artistic director pretty much straight out of his art degree.
I had taken a gap year before going to do my own fine art degree and that was the year the band started. I had designed a sleeve idea, but Peter’s was so obviously more classy. Amazingly, he then took a job at the very label we next signed to, Dindisc Records, a subsidiary of Virgin.
We were so lucky that by pure chance we had our radical new electronic pop music sheathed in the beautiful simple creative ideas of Peter Saville. It was a perfect marriage. Peter and I could speak the same language as we had a shared interest in art, art history, and also industrial landscape aesthetic.
[Although] he was involved in the sleeve work of the previous two new albums, Punishment of Luxury is the first that he has not been involved in. (Editor’s Note: The art is by John Petch and the dot-art Gallery.) I know he is amused by the track “Art Eats Art,” as we have so often discussed the postmodern world of all popular art.
Listen to the album via Spotify above or via the other usual channels. Buy the vinyl via OMD. The album was released by White Noise Records.
Learn more about OMD, which is currently on tour. See dates below:
Mon 23rd DUBLIN, Vicar street
Tue 24th BELFAST, Mandella Hall
Sun 29th LIVERPOOL, Empire
Mon 30th BRISTOL, Colston Hall
Wed 1st SOUTHEND, Cliffs Pavilion
Thur 2nd IPSWICH, Regent
Fri 3rd CAMBRIDGE, Corn Exchange
Sun 5th LEICESTER, De Montfort Hall
Mon 6th NOTTINGHAM, Royal Concert Hall
Tue 7th SHEFFIELD, City Hall
Thur 9th READING, Hexagon
Fri 10th SOUTHAMPTON, Guildhall
Sat 11th GUILDFORD, G Live
Mon 13th LONDON, Roundhouse
Wed 15th BEXHILL, De La Warr Pavilion
Fri 17th MANCHESTER, Academy
Sat 18th YORK, Barbican
Sun 19th GLASGOW, Royal Concert Hall
Tue 21st BIRMINGHAM, Symphony Hall
Wed 22nd GATESHEAD, Sage 1
Sat 25th ERFURT, Traum Hits Festival
Sun 26th HAMBURG, Grosse Freoheit
Tue 28th BERLIN, Huxleys
Wed 29th LEIPZIG, Taus Auenesse
Thur 30th MUNICH, Tonhalle
Sat 2nd OFFENBACH, Stadhalle
Sun 3rd DUSSELDORF, Mitsubishi Electric Hall
Tue 5th TILBURG, 013
Wed 6th ANTWERP, De Roma
Fri 8th LAUSANNE, Les Docks