A Talk with Susan Ann Sulley of The Human League

Interview by Alexander Laurence of Portable Infinite

The Human League are an important electronic band from Sheffield, England. They started in 1977, during the height of the Punk movement. They achieved worldwide success with their album Dare (1981). In their 35 year history they have released nine albums and 29 singles. This makes them one of the most successful and influential British bands ever. Since 1987, the band has been a trio of members Philip Oakey (photo left), Susan Ann Sulley (right), and Joanne Catherall (middle). They recently played at the Hollywood Bowl with The B-52s, The Fixx, and Berlin. I got to speak to Susan from the band, and talk about so many questions that I had over the years.

AL: You are playing the Hollywood Bowl this week on September 2nd, 2011. You played there a few years ago. Are you looking forward to that big show?
Susan: Yeah, we did. I can’t remember how long it’s been. We have been lucky to have this international career. We had a few number one hits in America. We are all looking forward to coming back.

AL: Where else have you travel to this year?
Susan: You want me to tell you? We have been to Hong Kong, Manila, Toyko, and Australia. We have been to South America this year. This has been a tough year for us. I am going to The Maldives on holiday in February.

AL: You like this jet set life?
Susan: People want to see us. They pay money to come to see us. We like to go around and play. We get to travel the world. We love going places.

AL: Did it work against the band that you were from Sheffield? Were things more London-centric back then?
Susan: No. I think at the time you didn’t have to be from London. There is always a big music scene from London. One of the biggest bands from that time were Duran Duran and they were from Birmingham. It was a different time. Young people in the UK were rebelling against the government and trying to find an outlet for their creative juices. People were making music everywhere. OMD was from Liverpool. People wanted to be creative and form bands, because there was nothing else to do.

AL: What about people in the street in Sheffield? When you were walking around town, and Philip Oakey had that asymmetrical haircut, did people bother you?
Susan: We were ordinary. People around us were way more outrageous. People didn’t take notice of us. You are way more creative when you haven’t a job and are looking for an outlet for your creativity. My best friend is called Trevor and he was the most outrageous person in Sheffield. He would walk around with a corset and stocking. Nobody took any notice of myself or Joanne, because we were ordinary.

AL: Do other Sheffield musicians like Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, or Arctic Monkeys come up to you and say “Human League was a big influence on me. You guys made all this possible.”
Susan: The only person who would do something like that is Richard Hawley. He is the only one who stayed in Sheffield. Everyone else moved away. The only person you would bump into at the pub or the supermarket is Richard. Not anyone else. Arctic Monkeys don’t live here anymore. Jarvis has lived in Paris for about five years.

AL: Did Jarvis Cocker move away because people would bother him?
Susan: Sheffield isn’t like that. It’s not like living in New York, London, or Los Angeles. You can be pretty anonymous. I have seen some pretty crazy things in Sheffield that have never been reported in the press. Nobody can be bothered. You can live in Sheffield without being bothered. Jarvis comes to Sheffield all the time. His sister is the best friend of Joanne. They see Jarvis all the time.

AL: My idea of punk was that it was supposed to be anti-rock and roll. Many of the punk bands didn’t get rid of the tools of rock and roll (guitar, bass, drums). Bands like Suicide and The Human League were possibly “more punk” because they got rid of the guitars and created this new music with synthesizers. What do you think of that notion?
Susan: We would all consider ourselves part of the punk ethic. We didn’t think punk was about safety pins and spiky hair. We saw punk as an opportunity for people who weren’t classically trained musicians. You could just go out there and do it. The people who originally started The Human League were Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. They both had great paying jobs and they were bored. Instead of buying cars, they bought synthesizers. They didn’t have to be musicians. They could just make weird sounds with their synths all night. None of us could play guitar, but all of us could play a synthesizer. We could come up with some tunes.

AL: In the early days of The Human League, you guys played with many punk bands. What was that like?
Susan: That was before I was in the band. I joined in 1980. They had toured with Iggy Pop, The Rezillos, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Philip told me some stories about those early tours. There was a lot of spitting and animosity. If you look at the album credits of Dare, you can see that we thank Siouxsie and the Banshees. Philip said that if it wasn’t for the Banshees, we wouldn’t have gone out on the road and continued to tour.

AL: The Human League and John Foxx are some of the first bands who played shows with just synthesizers. What did you think of when Gary Numan first came out?
Susan: Gary Numan took everyone to the post really. I was watching him on Top of the Pops. I called up Joanne and said “Oh my God! Did you see this?” I love Gary Numan. I could never slag him off. It was a good time in music.

AL: People were really resistant to electronic music. Then Gary Numan broke through first and had a hit. It took the Human League almost five years to have some success.
Susan: All we ever wanted to do was to make pop music. I know some people don’t think pop music is serious, but that’s all we wanted to do. I think there is room for us and Gary Numan and everyone.

AL: Do you still play “Being Boiled?”
Susan: Of course we do. We are not a band who doesn’t play the old hits. We don’t always play “Being Boiled.” Sometimes we are playing these festivals and we play a shorter set. Me and Joanne are not on stage when we play “Being Boiled” but we still do it.

AL: You have a new album Credo. It’s the first new album in ten years. How do you go about writing songs?
Susan: We were all bored with how things went on the last album. Philip wanted to write some new music. He went into the studio with our drummer Rob. They came up with some tunes. The head of the label got involved. Dean and Jarrod from I Monster got involved. We were thinking about doing a few singles. We didn’t think about doing a full album. But things came around.

AL: Did you ever take a break to have families?
Susan: No. We never took a break. We only slowed down in the 1990s because nobody wanted to hear synthesizers. It was all about Grunge and Nirvana and Britpop and Oasis and Blur. We never took a break because neither Philip nor I have a family. Joanne has a son. We have done The Human League almost my whole life. We are not just a band from the 1980s. We are far busier now than we ever were.

AL: How did the song “Night People” come together?
Susan: Philip loves music and going to nightclubs. He loves the spectacle. The biggest club in England a few years ago was in Sheffield at The Republic. It was called Gatecrasher One. It burned down. It was massive and the biggest club in the UK. Philip loved going. That song is about the people who went to Gatecrasher.

AL: There is a show called The Mighty Boosh. Vince Noir says “The Human League invented music. Before them it was tuning up….” What do you think of that?
Susan: I am not in love with The Mighty Boosh. But Philip, and the other boys in the band, think it’s fantastic. Philip went on the show once. Whether we were the start of music? I don’t think that we were. We were lucky and in the right place at the right time. Others came before us like Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer.

AL: The Mighty Boosh is a show that appeals to only males?
Susan: Well, me and Joanne don’t like it. I like CSI Miami but what do I know? Yes. I suppose that it’s for the lads.

AL: I read today that the song “Don’t You Want Me?” has been played on American radiom over 20 million times. That is great for you that one song can take you around the world. But The Human League is a band with many great songs: The Sound of The Crowd, Love Action, Mirror Man, Fascination, The Lebanon, and more….
Susan: We do. Thank you for noting that. We are not ashamed of “Don’t You Want Me?” We are proud of it. It has enabled us to go around the world a few times. It makes me smile when I am on stage and the audience goes “Ooh! Didn’t know they did that song?” People can think of us as having one song, but we are more than that. If people come to see us live, they can work that out.

AL: In the early days of MTV, The Human League were on all the time because you had all these great videos.
Susan: Absolutely. MTV was very important for us. We were very popular in the early 1980s. We couldn’t get to every territory. Having videos was great so people could see us, and what we looked like. It’s sad that MTV only plays Jersey Shore now. MTV should have more music.

AL: Do you like any new bands?
Susan: We all have different tastes in music. I like pop music. I listen to Rhianna and Katy Perry. We just went to Ibiza and I got to see Kool and the Gang. I am going to get some new 1970s disco ringtones for my iPhone.

AL: When people come to see you now, what should they expect?
Susan: It’s not taped and it’s not mimed. We sing live and have a band. We do some costume changes. We do songs from the early days, the middle days, and the recent days.

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Author | Alexander Laurence

Alexander Laurence has published his first book of short stories, called FIVE FINGERS MAKE A FIST (Pollinator Press/REsearch 2008), and has finished writing a new novel that will be published soon. His writing has also been featured in recent issues of Zoo Magazine. He's done interviews with Billy Idol, Ray Liotta, Saoirse Ronan, and Anna Friel in the past two years. Please visit his site The Portable-Infinite for more.

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