Martyn Ware interviewed about Heaven 17, early Human League, and musical technology
By Bob Gourley | Published on August 2, 2014
As a pioneer of modern electronic music and a respected producer, Martyn Ware continues to push forward without abandoning his synth-pop legacy. His current professional focus is the company Illustrious, a partnership with Vince Clarke, which creates 3D soundscapes for public spaces and installations (the two have also released several CDs together as “The Clarke and Ware Experiment”.) Ware also remains active with Heaven 17, the band he started with Ian Craig Marsh after the two split from the original Human League in 1980. Though Marsh is no longer involved, Ware and vocalist Glenn Gregory continue to perform regularly and are at work on their first new material since 2005’s “Before After.” In the following Skype interview, Ware talked about the early Human League years, the current status of Heaven 17, musical technology, and more.
You’ve been touring a lot lately with Heaven 17, but the group didn’t play live at all in the early years. Why did it take so long for Heaven 17 to start performing?
“Well, with the early Human League, we toured a lot. I mean, we did two tours with Siouxsie and the Banshees, we toured with Iggy Pop and Pere Ubu, and we did our own headline tours. We toured and toured and toured for those two and a half years of the early Human League. We were supported by Virgin on this, as you had to pay to get on tours in those days, and saw that all of this was coming off our royalty statements.
“It was just about the time that MTV started, so we thought…well, wouldn’t it be a better idea for us to be a bit more enigmatic and maybe devote whatever money we were going to spend touring to creating this new medium…video?’ As it could service many territories simultaneously. That’s what we decided to do.
“So the thing was that we quite liked the enigmatic, kind of Steely Dan approach, where these guys are serious musicians and spend all their time in the studio creating stuff. Combined with that was the idea of the British Electric Foundation production company, which is how we were signed to Virgin and meant to be kind of like a mini-Motown. It was a very enticing prospect, and it felt very modern. So that’s why we went down that route.”
When you did start doing shows, was it difficult adapting the material for live performance?
“It was very interesting, because when we performed with the early Human League, we used to use backing tracks, on tape. It was actually impossible for us to have that number of synth players on stage. It would look like some kind of weird Emerson, Lake and Palmer thing. So we were quite familiar with that kind of process. When it came time to do our first set of gigs, we were supporting Erasure on a huge arena tour. We had to jump from not doing it at all to playing for giant audiences. We had to quickly assess what would appeal to them.
“It’s not just a matter of taking what you’ve already done, playing the backing tracks, adding a few synths and singing vocals over the top. You quickly have to learn what works with the audience and what doesn’t. And [from all throughout our career] we’ve got a wide range of musical palettes, some of which still we can’t perform adequately live. For instance, on ‘How Men Are’ we used The Phoenix Horns from Earth, Wind and Fire. While we absolutely adore tracks like ‘This is Mine’ and ‘Sunset Now,’ we don’t feel very comfortable performing those live with sampled horns. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like a cheap version. The one thing that we always are very keen to protect is the authenticity of the sound. We don’t want cheesy sampled horns or synthetic horns. So we’ve never been able to perform tracks that heavily feature real brass, unless we get a brass section, which is too expensive. There are certain parts of the process that we’re trying to get around. We really have tried, but we have to feel comfortable with the quality. And also, we like to keep things fresh for ourselves, so our live set is constantly evolving in terms of arrangements. In fact, we’re just writing a new Heaven 17 album now and we’re also constantly trying out new cover versions.”
So you’re working on a new album? When can we expect it?
“Probably about 2025 the way things are going at the moment! We really want to get on with it, but it’s incredibly difficult for me and Glenn, because we both have our own careers and lives outside of Heaven 17. Things were different back in the day, and people will say, ‘why can’t they just knock out an album?’ There are three key factors here: time, money, and the will. Let’s look at those three separately. Time: back in the day when we were doing Heaven 17 albums, we used to work in the studio twelve hours a day, six days a week with nothing to distract us at all. Literally, that was our life. Money: when we were signed to Virgin, we were supported. In the first instance, it was relatively low wages, because we didn’t need much. But as soon as we got into ‘Luxury Gap’ we had basically a blank check and the best studios in London to record stuff at. We would write in the studio. That’s how we used to do it. The exact opposite is true now; we have to do it all in our own studios, there are no advances, we don’t even have a record label. And there are the distractions of things like families. It’s no small thing, we have responsibilities now so we have to earn a living. The idea of sitting in a studio for three months with no distractions is incredibly enticing, but unfortunately during that period we would not be earning any money. With my particular other company, Illustrious, my 3D sound company, that has to keep being serviced continually in terms of attention and time. So things like this, it may seem prosaic, but it’s just a bit of an insight into why it’s more difficult making albums now.”
Does being able to work remotely help?
“I’ve worked remotely a lot of the past ten or fifteen years, with people like Vince Clarke. It’s not so much of a problem now. But I just find it incredibly dull, sitting in a studio on my own, working. It’s just not something that really appeals to me. And I think the magic that happens with writing in Heaven 17 historically has always been about the three of us, or the two of us now, being in the same place, at the same time, arguing every single lyric, bouncing off of each other in terms of creativity. It’s an entirely different process than if you literally say ‘I’ll knock out a backing track and you add some lyrics to it.’ Funnily enough, that is how Vince and Andy work as Erasure; they’ve done that ever since I’ve known them and it works well for them. It’s just courses for horses. The real core of everything worthwhile that we’ve ever done as Heaven 17 has always been us in the studio, at the same time, sharing ideas. I think it’s the only way that we’re going to get a worthwhile Heaven 17 album, however difficult it is for us to do it. We have to go through that process to get the good stuff.”
Have you been performing new material live?
“Not yet, but we are doing a national tour of the UK in late October/early November, with Blancmange. We will be previewing some new tracks on that. We’ve already kind of finished two; we’ve not mixed them yet, but they are arrangement-wise pretty much finished. We’ll definitely be doing those two on the tour and we’ll also be selling some kind of preview vinyl in anticipation of us hopefully finishing the album to release late spring 2015.”
How do you tend to divide up your time between Heaven 17 and other projects?
“At the start of the year, I rented for the first time in 25 years an offsite studio, which I share with another songwriter. I have access to that three times a week, which is about all I can do anyway because of my other commitments. So the idea, when we started in January, was that we were going to sit in the same studio, write stuff, do stuff, if possible two to three days a week. But it’s turned out to be incredibly difficult because of our different commitments to various things, and gigs. We’ve been doing loads and loads of gigs. So it’s proven to be difficult to just get on a roll going into the studio. We had been hoping to have an EP finished by October, but now we’re looking at having two tracks that are fully finished. This is how difficult it is! Having said that…it makes it sound like my life is terrible, but it’s great. I have such an enormous diversity of things that I’m involved with. Much more diverse than ever before in my life. So I am very happy from that perspective.”
When making new music, are you consciously thinking about balancing what people expect from Heaven 17 with the desire to do something new?
“We are very conscious that we are the brand guardians of our sound. It sounds very pretentious, but it’s true. If we went off on a tangent and started making a Chilean nose flute album, I don’t think it would be particularly satisfying for us or our fans. Having said that, we don’t want to make it too much of an aping of our past sound, either. I think it’s very hard for us not to sound like Heaven 17 when you’ve got a voice like Glenn’s. His voice is unique, frankly. Ironically, when we made our last studio album, ‘Before After’ in 2001, we were very aware that in terms of public acceptance of unique voices or voices that were particularly indicative of the 80s, it was at the bottom end of the bell curve then. So it sounds ridiculous now, but we were trying different techniques to try to mask the uniqueness of Glenn’s voice and try to make it more generically modern. Now the curve has reached near the peak, I think, where it is such a rarity to have a unique voice. There is a genuine hunger for real songwriting in this genre. And it’s not just Glenn’s voice, I sing too and our kind of vocal harmonies and stacked vocal sound are an integral part of what Heaven 17 has done. That is a major part of the DNA of what we’re doing. Also, there is funkiness, bass, some funk guitar, relatively simple and analog electronics. We’re using a Roland System 100, for instance, and the Korg 700 that we used on ‘Being Boiled’. And kind of more drum machine-sounding drum patterns. Actually, it’s a lot of stuff that is very similar to what people are trying to achieve now with contemporary bands. But if you look at how they sound, compared to what we have to offer, most of them haven’t really mastered the art of vocal arrangement, which I personally think is a very appealing thing. It’s always been an appealing thing with Heaven 17.”
Thinking back to studio and musical technology when you started, are there any changes that you’d say had particularly strong impacts on how you work?
“Oh my god, it’s completely alien. Working with Logic for instance, which is what we’ve always used [since it came out]…it is so quick. You can quickly prototype ideas, which rapidly become something unique. You’ve got to be careful and fight against laziness all the time, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of just always using the same presets, the same instruments. So we always try to keep it fresh. We’re always buying new instruments and messing around, even the new kind of toys like the Korg Volca. These new instruments have kind of emerged from the circuit bending scene, which is quite interesting. So we are very much trying to keep it as interesting and technologically fresh as possible. I was approached by a company called ROLI, who makes a kind of soft keyboard called Seaboard. It’s an amazing thing. They’re still in production but I want to start using that as well. I’m sponsored by Arturia so I get all of their latest things. I’m not a gear fetishist at all. I get a lot of questions like ‘how many of your original synths have you got around?’ It’s like I loved them at the time, but we’ve moved on. There are a couple that I’ve kept that I love. In fact, I’ve just brought out a sample library of the original System 100 on Spitfire–I think that’s exceptional. And the Korg 700 is on there as well. So it’s a mix and match of old stuff and brand new stuff. We need new technology, myself and Glenn, new software, synths, to try and spark new ideas, essentially. This is definitely not a nostalgia trip.”
It what ways might your early sound have been shaped by the limitations at the time?
“Everything was a limitation then. With the early Human League stuff, we literally only had the Roland System 100, a Korg 700, the two-track tape recorder which we used to bounce from track to track on–that’s how we made ‘Being Boiled’–and a microphone, an sm58. That was it, literally. That’s all we had. There was no mixing desk even. And then it advanced a little bit when we got money from the record company and we got a mixing desk, an 8 track one-inch tape recorder, and a Jupiter 4. We honestly thought we were at the top of the tree at that point. The limitations of all that … you can’t imagine a world without MIDI, can you? Everything apart from the hardware sequenced rhythms had to be played manually. I personally quite liked that. I’ve even considered maybe doing a few tracks going back to that methodology, because the limitations are definitely a creative influence. When we were talking about how we were going to approach this new album … we always try to have a manifesto in our minds of what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to do it; at one point I wanted to do it with just one drum machine, maybe three soft synths, a couple of analog synths, and a microphone – just to see what would happen with that limitation. But you very quickly realize that we’ve all become junkies for the speed and efficiency of digital audio workstations. We’ve all got a methodology now where we can work on multiple tracks and you just load up the track you were working on previously and it’s there, as it was. That’s not the case with the original limitations, where you’d have to replug in everything. It was a time consuming business, but of course we had time in those days. And time is money, to put it bluntly. In the old days I could subsist on virtually no money, so it didn’t matter how much time we spent in the studio. Now, it’s slightly different, you could say. The limitations are a creative influence.”
With the current state of musical technology, are there any things that you still see as limitations?
“Yeah. I’d like to have a proper software-implemented modular version of the Roland System 100. I’ve been asking Arturia whether they can do it. I don’t know why they haven’t. Obviously, you’ve got the Moog Modular and things like that. Maybe it’s a licensing thing, I don’t know. Even the System 100M would do, because it’s the idea of being able to slot in different modules and have multiples and just slot them together. In other words, design your own virtual modular system. That would be something I’d like very much. Apart from that, I think we’re looking at the world of controllers. I’d mentioned the Seaboard, which is amazing. To play with it is amazing. I sound like a salesman…I want one, that’s why! I’ve tried to get one out of them, but I think they are having production delays at the moment. Basically, each key has multiple sensors on it and is independently bendable, slidable, pressure-able; the level of expression you can get out of it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Are you in touch with Ian Craig Marsh at all?
“I’m afraid we’re not, really. He’s gone off-grid. We heard rumors that he was living in Brighton, but I’m not really sure what’s happening. All we can say is that my and Glenn’s telephone numbers haven’t changed in the last twenty years. “
Does his absence have an effect on the new material?
“He was less in the musical side of things, although his opinion was always a molding aspect. But I think where I miss him–and I think Glenn might agree with me–is he had the most lateral, ironic lyrical brain, and was responsible for a lot of the very deeply ironic stuff from the early Human League. It was always all three of us writing all the lyrics together, but I remember some of the crazier ideas came from Ian. So I don’t think that makes us boring, by the way, but he’s just got that kind of really lateral, crazy brain from a lyrical perspective. I’m making it sound like this album is going to be shit, but it’s not! We are aware that we’re missing something in that respect without Ian, so we’re trying to compensate.”
I know you got the name Heaven 17 from “A Clockwork Orange” but what specifically made you choose it?
“‘A Clockwork Orange’ was a very influential film on all of us, and we were very big Stanley Kubrick fans, not just ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ Also, I was a huge Anthony Burgess fan, so I read everything I could lay my hands on of his. I actually knew about the name The Heaven 17 from the book before the film came out. I always had this love of the imaginary future, so the idea that a novel author could be talking about a chart in the future with all these weird names–Goggly Gogol, Johnny Zhivago, The Sparks, and various others–was a very enticing prospect. I think that Bowie invented a few kind of imaginary singers in his lyrics. He was a big influence, obviously. But the name ‘The Heaven 17,’ I just thought was a piece of genius. It conjures up ideas in your mind. Is it a gospel group? That’s what it sounds most like. Or is it just something trying to semantically imply youth…there is something very ‘Smash Hits’ about it. The word ‘seventeen’ alone–it’s what you’re selling to kids, this notion of youth. It’s the most indicative word of the power of youth. So ‘seventeen’, and then ‘heaven.’ Who doesn’t like heaven, right? There is an onomatopoeia beauty to the word. If you put seventeen into numerals, it looks very futuristic. And then there’s one more very important thing, which is that the book was written right around 1960, and it was stated in the text that it was about a time roughly twenty years in the future. So therefore, Heaven 17 is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you’re in a band, you write down ideas for song titles or album titles or occasionally band names…we had several potential band names for Heaven 17. There was Monolith, a connection to ‘2001,’ The Word Masters, which I was very fond off because it sounds nothing like a band, and there were a couple of others. So Heaven 17 was in the idea sphere, floating around.”
Since video was very important to Heaven 17 early on, I’m wondering what your opinion is on the current state of music video?
“I’m not really sure anymore whether videos are particularly relevant. Maybe in America. Nobody that I know or I talk to watches videos anymore. I have a sixteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old and am in constant contact with their friends–I don’t think anybody is interested in videos. I mean yes, they listen to music on youtube, but whether it is a photo of the band or a video, I don’t think they care, to be brutally honest. In the UK at least, if there was an appetite for it, why don’t the terrestrial stations have any pop video shows on TV? There’s no demand for it. What’s more to the point is the way that the new audience consumes music is a different thing entirely now. My daughter has just started her professional DJ career, but while she was developing her musical knowledge I witnessed as an outsider how they share music now. They very rarely play more than thirty seconds or a minute of anything. I’m going ‘What are you doing? You haven’t even got to the middle eight yet and you’re taking it off?’ That doesn’t lend itself to any kind of storytelling, really, in terms of video. Coming back to what we do, I’m not bothered whether we make videos or not. I’d rather make art installations or kind of visual accompaniments. We did a tour of “Penthouse and Pavement” and we got a load of our graphic designer friends to create visual accompaniment for the tour. None of them had a storyline.”
When you perform, what type of balance do you see in terms of long-time fans vs those who more recently discovered Heaven 17?
“It varies. We do a lot of festivals which are kind of for families, rather than hardcore music fans. We do other festivals as well, and one-off gigs, but there’s a big scene in Britain for kind of family festivals designed for slightly older people. We do loads and loads of those. A lot of people bring their children along, who become fans of the music via their parents. Not like the old days, back when I was growing up; the last thing I wanted to listen to was my parents’ music! It’s not quite like that anymore, because of the kind of temporal agnosticism of the way the music is presented via ipods and computers. A lot of time, they don’t even know when stuff was made. They just go ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ So I don’t think that is quite as relevant anymore. The other thing is, and I can only speak for Britain, there are many, many 80s clubs around the country. I’d say ninety-five percent of the people who go to those 80s clubs are in their twenties. They’re not designed for people our age, they are designed for young club goers. So there is a new audience for 80s music in Britain. It’s a very agile market; it’s a crowded island, ideas spread quickly, the media is dominant. I’d say for our dedicated headline tours, it’s seventy-five percent our original audience age group, and then the rest of it is a mixture of generations.”
Could you describe your 3D audio company a bit?
“Well, for the last fourteen years, I’ve had a company called The Illustrious Company with Vince Clarke. We’re doing 3D soundscape work for all sorts of applications. We do commercial work, public art installation, galleries, museums, product launches, and lots of collaborations with other technology as well–people like projection mappers, lighting designers, and interaction designers. That’s kind of paid the bills, really, for the last decade or so. The projects that we’re doing are getting bigger and bigger.”
Do you have any plans to perform in America?
“We’ve had plans for the past seven years, probably on a yearly basis. But we just can’t make it work from a financial perspective. We’ve had entire tours blocked out provisionally. Every time, when it comes down to the actual figures and we analyze it, we’re just not going to make a penny. So we can’t do it. It’s a real tragedy. We really, really want to do it, but we can’t do it for nothing. And the main problem is that we don’t want to just come across and use other musicians. Heaven 17 is not just me and Glenn in front of a bunch of session musicians. It’s got to be the real thing, or else we’re going to do more damage than good to our reputation. That means visas, flights, traveling, etc. for everyone. It’s just so expensive, even more so now because the exchange rate is terrible for us in terms of earning money in dollars and converting to pounds.”
What is your current live line-up like? How many people do you perform with?
“It varies. We have done it as an eight piece as the biggest; currently for economic reasons, we’re doing it with five. We’ll probably be doing six for the tour we’re doing in the autumn. The five person version is myself and Glenn, Berenice Scott, who runs the programming and keyboards, and backing vocalists Billie Godfrey and Kelly Barnesour. When we add other people, it’s generally guitar and bass, and then if it goes up to eight, we have electronic drums. We would like to do a big band all the time, but it’s just not practical in terms of the fees that we can get.”
You released a new BEF “Music of Quality & Distinction” album last year, featuring a variety of different vocalists. How do these collaborations come about? Do you write tracks with specific singers in mind, or write the songs first and then find a vocalist?
“The way it works, because it is the only practical way, is we make the backing tracks first, getting ideas for songs, and narrowing it down to the ones that feel right. And then we find appropriate vocalists. As a record producer and hopefully respected musician for over 40 years, you do accumulate a few friends. All the people who did the album with me, none of us have earned a penny out of it. It’s all been for the love of the music, literally no money made out of it at all. In fact it cost me money! “
What else is in the future for you?
“I seem to be entering a phase in my life where I’m doing more physical exploration and traveling. I’m making it happen, really, because I’m no spring chicken anymore and I want to make sure that if I’m going to travel the world and experience different musical cultures I do it while I can. For instance, later this year, I’m going to Zimbabwe with some friends to collaborate with local musicians. I was in Brazil last year doing something similar. I’m getting more interested in world music, really, and just making a difference, if possible. For this project in Zimbabwe, we’ve been shipping out studio equipment that we don’t use anymore and musical instruments to this very poor community to help them set up a studio.”
For more info on Illustrious, visit : http://illustriouscompany.co.uk/
For more info on Heaven 17, visit: http://www.heaven17.com/
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