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Interview with The Human League

by Emma Garwood


Interview with The Human League

It’s amazing, when you listen to ‘Being Boiled’, The Human League’s first single, it sounds completely relevant. You could wrap it up in some Django Django wrapping paper, and we’d be none the wiser. Almost 35 years have passed since its release though, and The Human League have moved way beyond that incarnation, adding paramount members Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley to founder Phil Oakey. They live beyond the wake of their seminal album, ‘Dare’ and are still touring today. We caught up with Joanne ahead of their Norwich date…

Are you having a good morning so far? I think my voice is getting worn out! 

Ah, the dreaded interviews! We’re chatting with you ahead of your tour, which takes in Norwich on the last date. I always thought that was a skill in itself, reserving some energy for the later dates… Erm, it’s not actually; I think because we love doing the live shows and because it’s coming up to Christmas, everyone’s in a real party mood, and that’s quite infectious to you on stage, because if the audience is up for a good time, that really revs you up as well. 

You’ve been hitting it hard, touring relentlessly really since the industry changed. You’re a mum, Joanne, aren’t you? Do you get to retain any sort of normality of family life? Yeah, I mean we were out a hell of a lot last year because we had the album out, but this year we actually made the decision to just do enough to sort of keep things ticking over, so that we can pay ourselves a wage. So it’s been quite a normal year this year and it’s a decision we had to take because we had such a crazy year last year. My son’s 15 now and he loves coming to the shows; if we’re ever away places in the school holidays, he comes with us and it was quite easy when he was a baby because he came everywhere with us back then. The in-between years were a bit tricky, but between my husband and my mum, he was always well looked after.

I used to think the best job you could have would be as a backing dancer – although you were much more than that, can you remember your feelings at the time when Philip approached you in the Crazy Daisy? Was it just a regular night out before that? It was, it was; it was just a regular Wednesday… although I think it was a Wednesday – there’s me old brain going! We had certain clubs that we went to on certain nights and Wednesday was the Crazy Daisy. It was always a bit of a mad place and Philip didn’t actually talk to me that night, he talked to Susan because I was dancing! I remember, of course, going home on the late night bus and being really excited and saying, ‘ooh, it was lovely of him to want to ask that, but our parents are never going to go for it.’ They were quite strict and you had nothing like X Factor in those days, like now, I don’t know if anyone would think that was out of the norm for someone to ask something like that, because people actually seek that sort of stuff. But in 1980, it was a case of, ‘someone in a BAND wants you to go on tour with them! And are we going to let you go?’

I read a funny quote, which said the school agreed because they thought the tour might be educational for you girls! I imagine it was an education of a different kind for you though, wasn’t it? Yes! There was lots of drinking in this education! I don’t think we saw anything cultural on that tour, although that was the expectation from the school that we would go and look round art galleries in different countries! We were like, ‘yes, we will, we will, yes!’

But you just learnt about your liver capacities instead? Yes, that and how long you could stay up without any sleep and still function!

A friend of mine, Neil Mason, wrote an article recently about the making of ‘Dare’ and he spoke to Carrie Mallard, who was Martin Rushent’s PA, wasn’t she? She said she used to pick you girls up in her Hillman Imp, “all Northern accents”, she said and you were wonderfully excited about the whole thing. Do you remember those trips down to the studio? Yes, well certainly at the beginning of the recording for ‘Dare’, Susan and I were still in school, so we just used to hop on the train down to Reading to do bits, you know, Carrie would pick us up, we’d do bits, then we had to get a train back. We couldn’t have days and days off school, but they were quite flexible with odd days. So yeah, there was quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing going on to Reading in those early days.

From the same article, there’s a really nice quote from Jo Callis, who said you girls weren’t appreciated enough for the spirit and input you provided. And you certainly did mark a change in The Human League’s commercial success… Yeah, that wasn’t just Susan and myself though; Jo came on board at that time, Ian Burden came on board, and obviously one of the most important people was Martin Rushent. You know, you can have great songs, but if you don’t have a good producer – we didn’t have anyone within the band who could produce – and if you don’t have a great producer, it can’t get finished off to the loveliness that Martin did it. We had the songs there, but he finished them off and made them commercial.

I don’t think you can underestimate the power that you had though, and also the power in making the songs sing-along; when girls sing to girls’ melody lines, you attach yourself to the song more easily if you can sing and dance along. Well I think so as well, and I think because we weren’t too way out there, other girls could relate to us. We are down to earth, we are Northern, so people could read articles where we’d said things and think, ‘oh, I know what she’s going on about there.’ People could dress like we did and I think it was quite important that we weren’t just seen as – what tended to happen at the time was that girls were doing singing, but they were very much in the background. Groups at that time were male-dominated; you had female singers, but they tended to be solo singers within a group. Obviously you had your exceptions like Abba and Blondie, but it wasn’t completely the norm and I think we helped that sort of change. We were right up front doing backing vocals and dancing, but as a proper part of the group.

When you read back about the time that ‘Dare’ was being made, I read a quote from Simon Draper who said that because of the recession in the 80s, the record label were cutting back and they were thinking of dropping The Human League. We’re in a parallel situation now, 30 years on where record labels aren’t taking chances, but other people are – do you see much of that? Yes, and I think obviously with the advances in technology, you can do something in your bedroom and then put it on YouTube. There was nothing like that when we started out; you actually had to cut a record and then go round and hand it to DJs, whereas people can at least get stuff out there on their own. It is so difficult, I feel so sorry for bands starting out now, that they don’t have the opportunities to get a good deal with a record company because even if they do get deals, they’re not necessarily good ones. We had quite a long-term deal, and it had good things within it, such as us keeping artistic control. I think now that would be really hard to get because people, such as your X Factor-type things, they see a formula and they just want to fit you into that box. If we’d have gone on a show like that as a band, we would have been laughed because none of us are great singers, nobody can really play an instrument that well, and they’d just go, ‘what is this shambles?!’

Haha, possibly, but at the same time, the re-emergence of our love for electro is astounding really and when you brought out ‘Credo’ last year, it sounded completely relevant still because we’ve fallen back in love with synthesisers. Well yeah, and it’s quite bizarre because I think a lot of people, when ‘Dare’ was a hit, all thought it would be a one-hit wonder because synthesisers were not looked upon as a proper instrument! If you didn’t have a band that had someone playing a guitar and a drum kit in it, you weren’t a proper band! We made no qualms about the fact that we wanted to do pop music, but we wanted to do it in our way; we didn’t have anyone who could play guitar until Jo came along, and he could, and then we didn’t let him play his guitar! But then as he will say, he came out with something like ‘Mirror Man’ through doing it in a more difficult way than he would have if he’d have just been doing it on his guitar. It made it different and I think it made it unique.

You were pioneers of the genre back in the day, and it took a while to catch on, coming out of that post-punk era, but now we have genres like dubstep that are doing the same thing. I was interested to read that Darkstar have covered ‘You Remind Me of Gold’, which is moving it forward again, isn’t it? Yes, it is; I haven’t actually heard that though, I mean, I’d heard they’d covered it, but I’ve not heard their version. That’s actually really flattering to us that they’ve picked a track that’s not an obvious track, you know, we’ve had lots of people cover ‘Don’t You Want Me’, and none of them have been a hit because I don’t think anyone, apart from us, can do that song. It’s quite weird. So it’s nice when you hear that someone is actually in to your catalogue and has picked something quite odd. It’s the sort of thing we would do if we were doing a cover version; we wouldn’t pick someone’s hit to do. It’ll never be as good, will it? If it was a hit, it’s their song.

It’s an icon of a song though isn’t it, and they’re not just built on the music, but the image, the time, and the chemistry – they all just click together. Yes, exactly.

When you were writing ‘Credo’, did you find you were at a creative phase? Do you still have ideas brimming over? Well I don’t actually write the songs; the majority of ‘Credo’ was written by Philip and our drummer, Robert Barton and I think because of the nature of travelling around and doing live shows, you’ve always got some inspiration from somewhere. You’re not just seeing the same place; we’re not just seeing Sheffield every day! We’re like in Hong Kong, and then Tokyo, and all that sort of goes in and helps with song writing.

It was interesting, I interviewed James Rushent, Martin Rushent’s son for a Does It Offend You Yeah interview, and he said there are lost tracks from the ‘Dare’ recordings and also the idea of a completely reimagined version of the album. Would you revisit the work, or do you think it’s important to keep moving forward? Erm, I think that something that people love so much, which they do, that album, I wouldn’t want to rework that album. It has its place in history and it stands proud. I’m more than happy to leave it like that, and then we try to do it justice when we play songs from it live.

Well we’re so looking forward to hearing them when you come to Norwich, and we’ve got Gary Numan coming in the same month, so it’s going to be awesome. Now lastly, you can tell me to do one when I mention your birthday last month – - [LAUGHS] Yes…

It was a round number, shall we say… It was, it was 50!

Not many would have fitted a 30-year music career into 50 years – how did you celebrate and how did you feel about it? Well I had a great time and I don’t mind being 50. The birthday I really minded was 30, and felt like I was really getting old, but then I realised, ‘no, I’m not!’ It’s easier within this job to stay quite childlike – and when I say childlike, I don’t mean stupid – but you stay with a young outlook, so I’m happy enough for people to know I’m 50! Me and nine other of my girlfriends went over to Manchester and stayed in a hotel and went out trolling round the bars, much as we did when we were 17! I was supposed to have a party the weekend after, and then had to cancel it because I got such a bad case of Sinusitis that I couldn’t breath, so the party got cancelled but that’s going to be rescheduled for when we finish the tour. I think a big party will be in order when we come back.

Emma Garwood

The Human League come to the UEA on the 11th December. For tickets, go to Read the uncut version of the interview on

InterviewThe Human LeagueUeaDecember 2012Joanne Catherall