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The Human League PDF Print E-mail
Written by Martyn McFadden   
29 10 2010
ImageAs far as band biographies go, they don't come much more turbulent than that of the Human League. Originally formed in Sheffield, in 1977, by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, later joined by Phillip Oakey, they combined a love of pop with avant-garde electronic music acts such as German group Kraftwerk. In 1979 The Human League became one of the first signings to Virgin Records, and their reputation as one of the most exciting, fresh bands around quickly gained momentum, David Bowie even commented that he "had seen the future of pop music" after a Human League show. They released two albums, Reproduction and Travelogue, to widespread critical acclaim but little commercial success. This lack of success led and perceived lack of faith by Virgin set about severe internal conflict within the band.

Ware and Oakey clashed regularly, with the former insisting the band maintain their pure electronic sound and the latter wanting to emulate more successful pop groups. The constant falling outs led to Ware leaving the band alongside Ian Craig Marsh. Eventually it was agreed that Oakey would continue with The Human League name while Ware and Marsh would form a completely new band, Heaven 17. Oakey joined up with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, whom he had spotted dancing in a nightclub in Sheffield, and set about putting together The Human League mk. 2

Since 1978, The Human League have released nine studio albums and twenty-six singles. They have had four albums and eight singles in the UK Top Ten, one of which was #1 (two in the US) and they have played over 350 live concerts. The band have sold more than 20 million records worldwide. Today, Oakey, Sulley and Catherall continue together as the Human League. With a new album, Credo, and a UK tour coming up, we caught up with Susan Ann Sulley to chat about the past, present and future...

How's the new album coming together?

It's finished! I don't know why the record label hasn't told anyone yet but it's finished! It's finished now.

Ah, so are you happy with it?

Yeah, exceptionally so! Really, really happy with it.

Is it much of a departure from what you've been doing, sound wise?

Well, I mean it's always going to sound like the Human League because it's got our three voices, but I'd like to think it's very modern, it fits in with what's going on in today's music. It's different but it's still fun based because we are the Human League, you know, it still follows the normal structure of song sort of thing, but yeah, I'm really pleased with it, it's very modern.

Excellent. Are all three of you singing on each song together, or is there some where it's individually?


It's just a mixture like it always is. We don't dish it out, it doesn't really work like that for us, we all just go into the studio and we all find what works.

How do you feel about the current renaissance in 80s synth pop? There's a lot of bands coming out with a similar sound to what you did nearly 30 years ago

Oh, I think it's inevitable that when kids are younger they listen to what their parents listen to and what's on the radio and when they start making music themselves, it gets influenced, it's inevitable. After The Beatles, people like Oasis emerge and they just go back to what The Beatles did and stuff. It's just influences that you have throughout your life and fortunately the synthesiser has become way more accepted now, it's not a battle like it used to be, you know, not having guitars on your record. It's nice when people say "oh you influenced us" and stuff.

It's just like fashion really, everything eventually comes back around

Absolutely, I certainly won't be wearing any batwing jumpers or anything like that, that I wore in those days. I'm too old for that now!

I quite liked some of your dresses

That was a long time ago. I wear what suits me now, not what's fashionable!

Fair enough! How does it feel when you first heard this "new" music on the radio? I was listening to you back in the day and sometimes I'll be listening to a song and It'll make me laugh because it's so similar to what was happening then. When it all started coming back, was it a surprise?

I think you can sort of feel it coming through, I think it was coming through before it was obvious it was. It was coming through in things like dance music and stuff like that. It was so obvious that it was going to come to the forefront again because, exactly like you say, it's what fashion does, and it's even what movies do. I mean now, we're just going over all the films and shows that I watched when I was younger. We've had The A Team this year, Philip (Oakey), Joanne and I were only yesterday talking about the new Miami Vice. That's what people do.

I noticed that Heaven 17 are also touring at the minute. Has there ever been any contact between Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and yourselves over the last few years?

Well we did a British tour with Heaven 17 and ABC the year before last. Ian Craig Marsh isn't in Heaven 17 anymore, he doesn't have anything to do with them now, it's just Martin and Glenn, but we toured with them a couple of years ago.

How was that?

Yeah, it was fine. They're just another group really. It was an idea our manager had and we just did a short tour of the UK and it went really well. We've never fallen out with anyone or anything, but I don't think we'd ever do that again, I think we did once and you can only do things like that sort of once really.

I suppose you all have a similar fan base, so it would've been good for them to see you all together


Maybe, I like to think we were a bit more successful though, we had two number ones in America!

I just think that people who bought the first two Human League albums then followed both bands

Well, maybe. I think Heaven 17 went off in a very different direction to Human League. Phillip, and as the group turned out then, Joanne and myself and things, we kept what the philosophy of what the Human League was, whereas Martin and Ian went off in a more slightly soulful direction. It wasn't really electronic, more moving away from what the original Human League was about, but then I suppose that's why they left; they wanted to do something different.

Of course, everyone was successful, especially yourselves. There was another member of the band, Philip Adrian Wright, is he still involved in any way?


No, no. He hasn't been involved for many, many years. He just did the live show when we went on tour and he did write quite a few tracks on ‘Dare' and ‘Hysteria' but we stopped working with him after ‘Crash.'

Back in the mid 80s is was pretty un-cool for bands to keep going on forever. Did you think you'd have a career almost as long as someone in a normal job, or are you surprised that you're still going into the studio so many years later?

I'm not surprised, no. We always went into this... it was never about being famous, or being fashionable, we did this because we believed in the music and we loved and we just wanted to make music and play and that's what we did. I don't think that just because you get older that stops, why should that stop, there's no reason for it stop unless you become really disillusioned with it. I'm sure there are points in our career, between Joanne, Phillip and myself that we've all contemplated giving it up for whatever reason, but we've never thought of it together and underneath it all, we've always believed in the group and we have never really stopped working. We tour all the time, I mean this last album, although Phillip has been working on writing it for about two years, it really only took us six to eight months to get it all finished, apart from last Christmas, when we didn't tour, we tour all across the country, we tour all over the world, we go to American every three or four years and do a month's worth of touring there. We've been to Australia in the last couple years; we're already booked to go to South America in April. We still do a lot of work, and it's all we really know how to do.

I can imagine. I've been to see loads of bands recently, like these new generation of bands who are influenced by this person, or these who are really fresh, but some of the best bands I've been to see recently are The Specials, Echo & The Bunnymen, bands that have been around all those years, and I think that a lot of the time, they've got a lot more to offer than a band that have only done a couple of albums. They've got this massive back catalogue to draw on and so many years experience, in terms of touring and sound.

I really do believe that people do it because they love it and even groups that have split up and got back together, I do believe that the majority of them don't all do it for the money, but they do it for the love of it. They remember why they started out and what they did it for. I think, we've all done things for money, and I wouldn't say they aren't things that we've done in the past that we had to because we've not had enough money. Ultimately we still do it because we love it.

Do you ever look at tours and think "I've never been to that part of the world, can we organise a tour there instead" or do you just do what comes up?

We sort of do what comes up, but we always say, well we've only been to Japan twice and we all really liked it and we all really want to go back, so we're always saying to our manger "can't you sort something out so we can go to Japan for a couple of weeks" but it never comes off, it's all down to cost and other things. We were never big Japan, a lot of groups say "oh we were big in Japan" but we never were, we were quite rubbish in Japan! But there are places that we've never been to like Russia, and I'd love to go there, but it used to be politically awkward, but now the finances can be a problem there, some bands haven't been paid. So there are places you don't go to for logistical reasons but we go most of the time we go where we are asked to go. If someone wants us to play, and they're prepared to pay the money, and more importantly that they want to see us, then invariably we'll go.

What kind of music are you listening to yourself at the moment?

I listen to the radio. I have the radio on from getting up in the morning, to in fact when we (me and my boyfriend) go to bed we don't put the TV on, in general we put the radio because we like the medium of radio, you know. So I listen to anything and everything really. I listen to whatever's going on at the moment, but sometimes I could be laying in bed listening to a bit of jazz because it might be on the radio, you know. I listen to anything; I love different genres of music.

Have you got another band that you've got on really well with and thought you'd like to have them support you? Has the Human League got a sort of best friend in the music industry?

No, not really. I mean, when you're on tour with people, invariably we'd be headlining, so when they're playing, we're at the hotel getting ready. Sometimes you can be on tour with people and you never see them, we toured with John Foxx a couple of years ago, he supported us, and I think in the whole of the six weeks on tour I only saw him once because of how tight things work out, but we live in Sheffield so we tend not to have popstar mates, we know the Pet Shop Boys, and we see them or if we're somewhere they'll come to see us and things, but we've always lived in Sheffield so our friends are not friends that are usually in the music industry.

Talking of Sheffield, in the last few years it's done really well, with bands like Arctic Monkeys, have you followed the progress of the other Sheffield bands coming through? Is that something that interests you?

No, I'd be lying if I said I did. I like the Arctics, I like what they did, I'm not so sure about that last album, I think they've gone in a strange, weird direction. I like the first album, but I'd be lying to you if I said I followed them. I'm too busy with my life, with the Human League than what other people are doing. Sheffield is really a city I live in; I don't really take that much interest in what else going on around. I'm too busy!

I can imagine you are! That's it, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you! Goodbye!
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