After-dark inquiry: The Human League's Susan Ann Sulley
The seminal synthpop combo is back!
Tue Sep 20 2011
Photograph: Spiros Politis
Seminal synth-pop combo the Human League recently released Credo, a work that harks back to the glory days of 1981's classic Dare. TONY caught up with the band's Susan Ann Sulley on the eve of Friday, September 23's gig at Best Buy Theater.
The Human League hasn't released any new music for a decade. What was the impetus for doing so now?
You know, [2001's] Secrets didn't really do so well, so we basically decided to put the emphasis on touring and performing live, and getting really good at that. But people kept asking Philip [Oakey] to sing on their records; he did something with the Pet Shop Boys and he did something with Little Boots, among others. But he kept saying, "I don't class myself as a singer—I class myself as a songwriter. I want to write to new stuff." So he went into the studio—we have a studio here in Sheffield—with our drummer, and they put together a few tracks. We thought it was going to be a Philip solo album; there had never been any mention of doing a Human League album. And then Philip suddenly said, "Well, it's gonna have to be a Human League album; I can just hear you and Joanne [Catherall] all over these songs." And the guy from the Wall of Sound label, Mark Jones, said, "I want to be involved in what you guys are doing. I want to sign you!" So that's how it all came about.
It sounds like its almost an accidental album.
Even our producers [Dean Honer and Jarrod Gosling of Sheffield, England, duo I Monster] were accidental! Philip was walking his dog and bumped into Dean, and Dean asked him what he was up to. Philip said he was working on some tracks, and Dean said, "Give them to us! We'll mix a few of them if you like; we won't charge you or anything." So they mixed a few tracks and we gave them a listen. And we were like, "Oh, my God—they sound fantastic!" Nothing was planned; it all just fell into place.
Considering Credo is your first new album in ten years, it's amazing how it sounds like classic Human League.
Well, what would you expect? We are the Human League! We're never going to sound like U2. It always surprises me when people say that. If you were interviewing U2, would you say to them, "Ooh, this sounds like a U2 record!" Even when we were produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis [on 1986's Crash], it was still our album. You can very much identify it. Sure, we tried to do something a little bit different, but it's still a Human League album.
You must have been saddened by the recent passing of Martin Rushent, who produced Dare.
Very much so. He changed the course of our lives. Had it not been for Martin, I wouldn't be talking to you now; our lives would have gone on a very, very different path. He changed everything about the Human League through that album.
And changed the musical world as a whole, too.
Absolutely. What Martin was doing was very much of its time, but he really changed everything.
I'm old enough to remember when Dare came out, and even though it's probably hard for people to imagine now, at the time it seemed so different than anything else that was out there.
You know, I hadn't really listened to Dare for a really long time. But a couple of years ago, we decided to perform the whole album, so we had to go back and listen to it a lot. And I realized how amazing it was that Dare did so well—it's really not very conventional, especially considering when it came out.
The album was almost startling in its seeming simplicity.
I can remember coming to Los Angeles to record the TV show Solid Gold, and we wouldn't allow them to have their dancers on with us. That wasn't our thing at all; it was way too...I don't know, showbiz. And I can remember leaving the set with the guy from the record company shouting at us, going, "You'll never, ever work in this country again!" Two weeks later, "Don't You Want Me" was No. 1.
Was it true that Philip didn't even want "Don't You Want Me" to be released as a single?
None of us did! Do you have a vinyl copy of Dare?
Yes, I still have my original copy.
Well, on the vinyl, it's the last song on the side, and if you listen to it, you'll hear that there's quite a long gap between "Don't You Want Me" and the song before it. And we did that on purpose. We felt that "Don't You Want Me" was not very representative of the rest of the album. But we also knew that the record company thought it was fantastic, and even though we didn't want it as a single, they said, "Sorry, we're overruling you." And I'm quite glad they did!
I'm sure you perform that song every time that you play, right?
We'd be stupid not to!
Do you ever get tired of it?
Believe it or not, not really. All of us are very realistic, realistic enough to know that the song is what sent us global. We're not foolish enough to bite the hand that feeds us, you know? I don't think there's ever been a point where any of us said, "I don't want to sing that song again." We've never tried to rearrange it; it is what it is. We just do it. And you know what? I'm really proud of that song. It was No. 1 in nearly every country in the world.
When the Human League performs, it's all live, right? No backing tracks or anything?
That's right—what you see is what you get. And sometimes we're a bit off-key! We do make mistakes. We recently played a show in Ibiza, and it was so hot that one of the synths overheated. And we had to stand around waiting for it to cool down for like five minutes—which, when you're standing onstage in front of a crowd, is the longest time! One of Joanne's big bugbears is when people say "They're obviously not doing it live. It's all on tape." But why mime? What's the point? You might as well have people stay home and listen on their iPod. If you want perfection from the Human League, that's the only way you're going to get it!
It's the little mistakes that can give a live performance its charm.
That's always been my theory! And I can't understand why people want to hear it exactly as it would be on the record.
Is that often-told story—that Philip spotted you and Joanne in a disco on the eve of a Human League tour and asked you to join out of the blue—actually true?
Absolutely. Well, he never really asked us to join the group. He just asked us to go on that tour with them. They were contracted to do a tour, or else they were going to lose an awful lot of money. And Martin Ware—who had been in the previous version of the Human League—had a very high voice, and used to do all the backing vocals. So Philip actually was looking for just one girl, but then he saw Joanne and I together, realized we were friends, and thought we could look after each other. I mean, we were just kids at the time! But we got on really well, and when Philip started working on Dare, he asked us if we wanted to pop over to the studio and do a few vocals. And it happened, just like that!
Do you ever wonder what direction your life would have taken if it hadn't happened?
There's no point, really, is there? There are times that I've not liked being in the Human League, but I certainly don't have any regrets about it. It's given me a fantastic life, and I've traveled all over the world. I'm coming to America next week, then four weeks later I'm coming home for a week, then I go to Asia for two and a half weeks, then I come home for five days, and then I go to Australia. How could I have ever done all that otherwise? I'm really privileged—a very lucky person.