Interview date: September 7, 2023

What Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark is doing in their fifth decade of existence is nothing short of astounding. They are on a creative run the likes of which even the best bands rarely have once, never mind a second time when the core band members are in their 60s, and the band’s new album Bauhaus Staircase may be the best of the bunch.

It also might be their last album, the way OMD bassist and lead singer Andy McCluskey describes it. Popdose caught up with McCluskey to discuss the new album, the band’s future and, strangely, Wisconsin, which yielded the best dad story ever.

I’m assuming you are at home?

Yeah, it’s across the river from Liverpool. I live in a little village called Frankby. There’s more horses than people, actually. But it’s good. I’m actually in my programming room.

Congrats on the new record. I love it.

Thank you very much. Have you heard the whole album?

I have, many times.

Oh, good.

I recently read Trevor Horn’s autobiography [“Adventures in Modern Recording”], and I discovered the expression ‘imperial phase.’ I feel like you are in your second imperial phase. These last four records are as good or better than anything in your catalog.

Wow, I will take that all day long, sir, thank you very much. When we reformed, it was just to play some gigs, because it had been so long and people were interested in us playing live. But after two years, we were asking ourselves, “Is this it, now? Are we a tribute act to ourselves? Just play the old stuff for eternity?” And we decided that we’d be stupid and dangerous enough to try and do something new. But it was always important to us that if we were going to release new material, that it was going to be good. As Paul [Humphreys, McCluskey’s bandmate] likes to say, “We’re not putting an album out so we have a new logo for the tour t-shirt.” And you do sometimes feel, when you listen to band’s albums, “Oh, you’re just doing that ‘cause you want to tour, and you need a new poster or something.”

So, thank you. We wouldn’t release something if we didn’t think it was good. I mean, it’s now almost 45 years since the band started. Being in Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark is quite cool now. It’s a really nice place to be. People say nice things about us, so the last thing we want to do is fuck up that by doing a shit album, you know? [Laughs]

With regard to the song “Anthropocene,” I hear references to two different songs. The main track makes me think of “Radioactivity” by Kraftwerk, but I feel like you worked in a nod to the Erasure song “Chorus” as well.

Oh, my God, OK. I’ve been endeavoring to write a song called “Anthropocene” for several years, and I had two pieces of music, and I had the text-to-speak words on them. And I’m like, “It’s not working, but it’s a good idea, it’ll work one day.” And then out of the blue, Paul sent me that piece of music. It wasn’t fully [formed], I added bits to it, but he had a string refrain that wasn’t quite a melody, which I turned into the main melody.

Listen, Kraftwerk, we wear our references on our sleeve, we will always nod to Kraftwerk that they influenced us. I don’t know if Paul was specifically trying to reference Kraftwerk when he wrote the music, but for me, I put my text-to-speak on that piece of music, and I played it to my son, and I said, “Do you think this is better than my other version?” And he said, “Do you really need to ask me that?” [Laughs] So it was obviously working. And then when I formulated the melody, it was like, “Oh, shit, now I’m going to have to sing on this, aren’t I? This is going to be a proper piece of music.” And trying to think of something to sing was very, very hard, but yeah, I think it’s a statement track on the album.

Most of the tracks on your recent albums have had a minimalist cool to them, but between “Slow Train” and “G.E.M.,” this album is a little bouncier than the previous ones.

You never sit down with the intention of going in a particular direction – it’s just how the songs come to you. “G.E.M” was definitely one of those. I got some new plug-ins, some soft synths, just like when we were kids, it was like, you got a new sound and it’s like, “Oooh, that sounds like a song, that’s great, I’m going to remember that sound.” And then literally, I just started playing with the sequencers in this patch, and it just started going [hums the melody to the song] and off it went. It’s a song about somebody I really adore, and I promised that I’d never say who it was, because she said, “Then people would know you think I was savagely imperfect.” But it really swings, that one, it bounces along.

And “Slow Train,” oh my gosh, I had that several years ago. I had the music but I couldn’t get the lyric. I had the melody, but…we should try to get you a copy of the demo version of that song. It’s just me doing scat vocals, skibby dibby doo jazz vocals. And I met this girl in town called Katrina Kanape, she was at my old studio looking to do some work there, and I had gone to collect the mail. And I got to talking with her, and she said, “I can’t afford this place, I just realized.” And I said, “Well, what are you looking to do?” “I just want to record some of my demos.” And I said, “I’ve got a studio in my house, you can just come on over and record.”

She asked if I had any new tracks that I was working on, and I played her that, and the mic was still on, and she said, “I’ve got an idea! Can I sing on it?” Ninety-nine times out of 100 you go, “Oh, shit, yeah, you can sing on it,” and I’ll delete it later. And then she went [hums the main melody of the song] and I said, “Do that again, I’m having that twice.” And that unleashed the track, but I had to go back into the scat vocal and think, “What could I have said here that phonetically fits?” So yeah, those two songs were total chance. They bounce, and I like the vibe on them. They have lots of energy.

Are you familiar with the Duran Duran track “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”?

No, I am not.

It was on their album All You Need is Now, which is, wow, 12 years old at this point.

I’m going to write this down.

The reason I bring it up is because it’s a later-period, mid-tempo thing that is already in [Duran] fans’ top five lists of their best tracks of all time, and I feel like “Veruschka” is going to be your version of that.

Oh, OK. I’m gonna have to listen to this. But I mean, if at the stage in your career, when you’ve been around for as long as we have, or Duran Duran, when you can still do something that fights its way into anybody’s top whatever of your catalog, then you must still be doing something right. Paul used to come up here – Paul lives in France, it’s hard to get a hold of him nowadays – but when he used to live in London, he’d come up here and get his computer out, and say, “What do you think of this, what do you think of that?” And they were usually just bits and pieces. “Anthropocene” was a fully-fledged rhythm track with everything rocking. “Veruschka” was like, “Well, this was something I wrote for [Propaganda singer] Claudia Brucken,” when he was in the Onetwo band with her, “but it didn’t really work out. Do you like these chords?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll have them!”

I used to joke that when Paul comes up on the train, it’s like having bad Santa writing, “I haven’t got any real toys, but I’ve got some broken bits. Can you make something out of that?” He just gave me the chords, and I wrote the chorus four or five years ago, before Covid, and I could not for the life of me get the verse. His working title was “Veruschka,” I don’t know where he got it from. And I just Googled ‘Veruschka,’ and up it came, this German model in a film noir type of thing. “Oh, all I have to do is paint verbal pictures of film noir scenes!” And off I went. I’m glad you like that one, because we’re actually making a video for that one. We want to show the slower side [of the album]. But yeah, it’s a gorgeous song that came out of some chords that Paul had.

On a personal level, I appreciate the timing of you writing a song called “Bauhaus Staircase,” considering that nearly 100 years after the painting that you’re referencing (“Bauhaus Stairway,” 1932) was first made, we still have a Nazi problem.

You can read into all sorts of things with this current state of the world and 100 years ago. I’m using “Bauhaus Staircase” as an analogy for the strength of art and creativity to inspire and feed the soul, but also to reflect and criticize what’s going on in the world. You can do things that jar people and stir people’s feelings one way or another, and obviously “Bauhaus Staircase” is an Oskar Schlemmer painting, that’s where I took the title from. I’m a fan of all things mid-20th century art, anyway. The Bauhaus was applied art. It wasn’t even esoteric art for art’s sake. It was applied art, and yet the Nazis shut it down.

I’m a trustee at the national museums in Liverpool. I became one just after the economic crash in 2008-2009, and I saw government money being held back from the arts, because their attitude is like, “Times are hard. What’s non-essential that we can cut? Art and culture! Let’s cut the funding to that.”


Exactly, that was my reaction to that. When times are hard, you need food in your tummy, but you need your soul feeding as well. That’s when you need art and passion. And finally, sitting in this room during Covid with fuck all else to do, that’s when I decided it was time to write “Bauhaus Staircase,” about how art could inspire people even in the most difficult times.

The press release [promoting the album] was a little terrifying to read, in that you openly admitted that you’re not sure if there’s going to be another OMD record. You’re just going to keep making them as long as you feel you have something to say, which is an absolutely healthy thing for a musician to do. But from a fan’s standpoint, it’s terrifying, because…is this the last one?

Paul and I are in our mid-60s now. Paul now lives in France, he has a new family. He became a new dad again at the age of 61. Paul has always had passions outside of the band. I think I’m a bit of an old-fashioned one-trick pony, just music music music. My kids are all grown up now, and I’m not married anymore. I didn’t think we were going to make another album. It’s only because of Covid that this album exists. I joke about it, but there was nothing else to do. You weren’t even allowed out unless you were going to the shops to get some food. So, instead of enjoying the rewards of my 40 years in the music industry, smelling the roses and going on holiday and doing nice things, I came into this room, because there was nothing else to do. And I’ve happily discovered the creative power of total bloody boredom. It was like when I was a kid in the ‘70s and the TV only had three stations, and my dad was out gambling away the family money at the greyhound races, [and] my mom, when she finally finished working, would sit down and put on “Starsky and Hutch” or “Kojak” or something, and I’d go, “Right, I’m out of here, then! I’m going to my bedroom!” And there’s nothing to do up there but paint or write music [Laughs]. That’s what Covid felt like.

I don’t know if it’s the last [OMD] album. It feels like it is. I don’t really feel like we’ll find the energy again to mine my soul enough to put out [another] album. And Paul has definitely made it clear to me that he wants to spend more time with his daughter. I think what’s resonating with Paul is that his daughter is now two, and he was two when his father died. I think that’s making him feel like, “I want to see my daughter grow up.”

If this is the swan song, it’s a hell of a way to walk away.

We put everything we had into it. It feels like everything we’ve got left. It’s just hard, you know? It’s really, really hard to sit in this room and dig into my head and my heart to find things that are good enough. As I joked earlier, we don’t want to ruin our place in musical history by doing a crap album after all the good things we’ve done. If something happens, and I find the energy, something I want to write about, something I feel passionate about, and I can get good melodies…I’ll tell you what: writing lyrics, and getting a good vocal melody for them, is so hard these days. But we’re not going to release something if we don’t think it’s really good.

In light of what you just said about Paul living in France, and having a two-year-old daughter, you guys have been road dogs over here the last few years. I just moved to Wisconsin – where my wife saw you open for the Thompson Twins – but I lived in Ohio prior to that, and I saw you twice in the span of a couple of years playing with Barenaked Ladies and the B-52’s. It felt like you were on the road constantly. I take it, from what you’re telling me now, is that that is going to change dramatically.

We plan to tour the States next year but, for example, we’re going to tour Europe starting at the end of January, and then we’re rolling into the UK, we have about 44 dates, Europe and UK combined. And then at the end of March, I would have rolled into the States, but Paul wants to come off the road for the summer, because the last two summers, we’ve been doing festivals, and he doesn’t want to keep going away at weekends when he could be with his daughter. So, we’re not going to be road dogs with Paul in the band – we’re going to have to strike a balance. We’ll come to the States in the fall, but we’re going to have the summer off next year. To be honest, I’m probably going to enjoy it. Doing festivals every weekend of the summer is like, “Where did my summer go? Oh, I know, I was in airports going to festivals!” [Laughs]

And you’ve also been an opening act for a lot of these tours. Do you have ambitions to do a headliner tour in the States, or is it easier to latch on to those tours because it gets you into more cities?

The answer is yes to both of those questions. I would love to do a summer tour headlining in the outdoor sheds, that would be great. We’ve never been big enough in the States to headline a tour like that. We thought that by tagging along as part of the package, with Barenaked Ladies and the B-52’s, we would be growing our audience, and we have. Twelve years ago, when we finally got back to the States after a long break, for example, in LA, we played the Fonda Theatre that holds 1,100 [people]. The last time we headlined in LA, we played the Greek, and sold out 6,000. So, we’re doing the right thing, but the band is like a secret band. Those who’ve seen us live come see us again because they go, “Oh shit, they’re great, I had no idea.” But if people haven’t seen us, they go, “I don’t know, are they any good? They play synths, are they a bit boring?” We have to convert people.

I feel like technology has only recently caught up to your musical ambitions, and I want to give a specific example: [butchering the accent] “La Mitrailleuse.” 

[In a much better accent] “La Mitrailleuse.” It’s French.

It is very French. The way you sequenced the machine guns, I felt like it was the kind of thing that you’ve wanted to do for a very long time, but technology only recently gave you the ability to do certain things.

You’re totally right. I can remember, when we did Dazzle Ships, we did a song called “Time Zones,” and we got people from all around the world to send us tape recordings of speaking clocks at exactly the same time, but of course it was saying a different time. And trying to synchronize up seven or eight quarter-inch tapes to get them all to run together [Laughs] was “Ahhhhhh!” If we could have sampled it, and put it in the computer and just slid them around…yeah, the computer now, ProTools, the things you can do…we could not have even dreamed of 40 years ago. The downside is, you can get carried away. You can get so deep into what Paul and I call the tyranny of choice. You have too many options now. You can end up with, “Oh, shit, we can have this, and we can have this, and we can have that, and we can have all of them!” You have to get more ruthless with yourself.

I want to talk about your vocals in particular, especially on the track “Don’t Go,” because your voice is remarkably well preserved. Do you have a specific regimen to keep your voice in shape? That vocal track sounds like it could have been recorded for the Crush sessions.

Thank you. I don’t [have a regimen]. I keep myself pretty fit, but when I’m not on the road, I don’t sing, and then it takes me a week or two to get my vocals warmed up again and ready to sing. At the moment, at the age of 64, every song in our live set is still in the original key. I see some live bands now and it’s down several semi-tones. I guess I’m just lucky. You see people of certain ages, and some people have lost their voices at 60 and other people can sing brilliantly at 90. Who knows if it’s genetic or whatever, but fingers crossed, so far so good. Thank you.

I was trying to schedule an interview with you when The Punishment of Luxury came out. My kids were 10 and 8 at the time, and I was going to have them perform “Atomic Ranch” for you.

Wow! That would have been quite an amazing thing to see! And now they’re much older and they’re like, “Dad, fuck off, we ain’t doing that.” [Laughs]

You are exactly right. I love those interlude-type tracks. “Atomic Ranch,” “The Future Will Be Silent,” and “Evolution of Species” from the new album.

We’ve always done things that were just us pushing our own boundary. I mean, when we started, I just had an upside-down bass guitar, and Paul didn’t even have a keyboard. He was just cannibalizing his auntie’s radios for the circuit boards, and making things that made weird noises. And going back to Kraftwerk, Radioactivity. The Radioactivity album has songs, and it has musique concréte, little vignettes. And to us, it’s like, “Well, that’s how you make a record.” It’s always felt comfortable to us, and the record company back in the ‘80s used to say to us, “Can you guys decide whether you’re [German composer Karlhein] Stockhausen or ABBA?” And we’re like, “Can’t we be both?”

And sometimes those things turn into songs. “Isotype” was meant to be a vignette, with text-to-speak, and then when Paul put the melody on it, I was like, “Oh damn, that could be a song, now I’m going to have to sing on it.” It was the same thing with “Anthropocene.” “What the hell do I sing about an isotype? How do I get a lyric out of that?” But “Evolution of Species,” I could not think of anything to sing. It was better to just have the text-to-speak, and all the different languages.

Actually, that song’s old! That song is, like, 10 years old. We’ve been trying to make that work for a decade. We played down in Santiago a few years ago, and we met Uwe Schmidt, who’s Señor Coconut or ATOM™, depending on which hat he’s wearing. We love his glitchy music as ATOM™, and we asked if he would do some work with us sometime, and he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So, we gave him that track, and he reworked it so it worked better sonically. He made it more modern for us, and he did the same on [closing track] “Healing,” he made that sound more contemporary as well. We’ve pulled in a few people on this album, it’s not just me and Paul. But I think the album is better for it.

You mentioned your studio earlier. Tell me about the process of OMD recording an album. Do you make the whole thing yourself and then look for a distributor, do you get any money from anyone outside up front to pay for the recording…how does that process work for the two of you?

Yes, it’s totally different now. When we were 19 years old, and Dindisc Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, offered us a deal, we were like, “Yeah, wow, where do we sign?” But they were in complete control of us, and the royalties were getting shocking. It’s one of the reasons the band split up at the end of the ‘80s: we owed the record company a million pounds. All the records we had sold, and we had no money.

It’s totally different now. We make the record ourselves, we decide when it’s ready. Nobody’s saying, “You need the record out by Christmas.” When it’s ready, it’s ready. I have this room, Paul has a studio in France. Paul’s studio is acoustically adapted, that’s why we mix there. Paul’s got a great mixing room. But we both have almost identical ProTools systems, so that I can send him a file, or I can take a file, and we can go backwards and forwards to each other’s studios, plug it in, and all of the synths are still there, because we’ve all got the same plugins. [Chuckles] We have to make sure we’re all on the same page here. The demo now slowly evolves into the finished song. You just keep working on it until it becomes the final song.

And then we go to Paul’s and we mix, which I like, because in the old days, we would demo something in our studio, and then we’d go to another studio with a producer, and record it all again from scratch. And I would go [sounding a bit like Neil from “The Young Ones”], “But it doesn’t sound like the demo, it’s lost the feel, boo hoo.” It’s a lot easier now that the demo eventually evolves into the actual finished recording. Although, we finished mixing at the end of June, and I’m still adjusting to the mixes. I still find myself going, “Damn, I wish I had turned that up and I had turned that down.” I believed the songs were good, when you said you liked the album, I went okay, well, maybe the mix is all right, too. [Laughs] It’s OK.

The mix is great. You guys are like the Postal Service, the side project of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. Are you familiar?

[Shakes his head]

Ben had this side project with a guy who lived in, I think, San Diego (Note: Gibbard’s partner Jimmy Tamborello was born in Santa Barbara], and they would mail {CDs] back and forth to each other. This was 20 years ago.

The thing is, ideally, we don’t want to do this by the internet, because ideally, we sit in a room together, either in Paul’s room or my room, and we bounce off each other, because there’s a great chemistry and an instant spark and, particularly if we’re doing melodies, sometimes we don’t even know who wrote the melody, because Paul will play a phrase, and I’ll go, “I like that bit, but not the second one. Can you go, ‘Da da daaaaaaa’? And the beat you just did then, can you put that into the third section?” It’s a great buzz to bounce off each other, but because of Covid, we were isolated this time, and obviously Paul lives in France now, rather than London. I could get on the train, or he could get on the train for two hours from London to Liverpool, but France is a little bit more complicated. But it’s worked out. We promised we wouldn’t do it remotely ever again, because we didn’t think it was as good as being in the room together, but it’s worked out OK on this album.

Again, if this turns out to be the swan song for the band, I will miss you, but I understand. It’s a heck of a way to walk away. Drop the mic.

{Chuckles] Thank you for that. If it is the last one, we didn’t want to go out with a dud. We believed it was a good collection of songs. I think we will tour. I don’t know what Paul’s plans are, and I’m not going to press him. If Paul wants to stop touring, and I want to continue, I don’t know. We’ll have to see how that might work out. Maybe he can just dial it in from his studio, you know, he can sit at home in his studio, and we’ll put a video of him on the screen. I’m just joking, but I don’t know what we’re going to do. I will always be creative, but I might do something different. Whether I’ll call it OMD, I don’t know. I’ve got a mad idea for doing an album of requiems and slow songs that have no lyrics.

Vince Clarke just did that! I got a press release the other day.

Oh, I just heard he had a new album out! I’m going to have to go and check that, then. Vince doesn’t sing, so it’s just an instrumental album, is it?

I just got the first track yesterday, and it was all cello. It was dark. It was cool, though. Totally different than anything he’s ever done.

Oh, I’m excited now. I’m going to go and check that out. The other thing is, we love playing live, and as long as people want to see us and we’re still able to do it, we want to get out there and still have fun and kick ass. I don’t want to stop touring, but I don’t know if I have the energy to wring another album out of myself. Watch this space. We’ll see.

Best of luck with the record. It was a pleasure talking to you.

I am clearly giving Andy the chance to walk away, as he has been more than generous with his time, but something amazing happens; we stopped talking about music and started talking about life, and it netted the best music story of the interview.

Why have you moved to Wisconsin, then?

This is where my wife grew up. She wants to be closer to her mom.

Ah, I’ve been through all that with my folks.

I don’t know when you were last here, but Madison is a great town.

The funny thing is that my ex-mother-in-law was from Madison, Wisconsin.


Yeah, I was married to an American girl. The funniest thing is, my son [James], when he was a teenager, was the biggest Nirvana fan, EVER. And I got to take him to see Garbage, with [Nevermind producer] Butch Vig playing for them.


Yeah, exactly. I was scoring big Dad points already, and I got him backstage, and he met Butch Vig, who signed his Nevermind album for him. And then Butch Vig turns round to James and goes, “You know, I saw your dad play” – was it Merlyn’s? [Note: He’s correct. Merlyn’s was a legendary alt-rock club in the heart of State Street on the University of Wisconsin campus, where Vig attended college] – “I saw your dad play at Merlyn’s in Wisconsin, when I was in uni[versity]. What a cool gig that was. Your dad’s band kick ass.” I’m like, “Butch! That’s a million Dad points you just gave me!” [Laughs]

That’s fantastic.

Because it doesn’t matter what you do, your kids think you’re chit! “Mom and Dad are crap. Everyone else is more interesting.”

Butch Vig talking you up, that’s amazing. You’ve been very generous with your time, and I appreciate that.

I don’t suppose we’re going to be playing in Madison again, but I hope you can see us when come out with the Bauhaus Staircase tour.

Well, Chicago’s only three hours away, and I lived there for 10 years.

I forget that three hours in America is just like going around the corner. [Laughs]

If you’re playing on a weekend, we will absolutely make that happen.

OK, great. Well, I have really enjoyed talking with you. Good luck with decorating the house and settling in.

I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure, take care.

All right, thank you sir, bye bye.

About the Author

David Medsker

David Medsker used to be "with it." But then they changed what "it" was. Now what he's "with" isn't "it," and what's "it" seems weird and scary to him. He is available for children's parties.

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