The Human League: Don't you want them? Maybe

Sheffield synth-pop trio the Human League haven't always had it easy, but they've never given up. Simon Price met them as they prepare to stage their big comeback... again
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The Independent Culture

'Do you think I can talk my way out of this one?" This is Phil talking. I've just mischievously quoted the League leader Oakey back at himself – he once said that "old music is only any good for ripping off" – and, egged on by the cheers of his sidekicks Joanne Catherall and Susan Anne Gayle (née Sulley), he's trying to reconcile this with the fact that, to most people, the Human League are old music.

"What I was saying was, you have to keep looking forward, and old music is just for referring to – I'm not going to do this, am I?"

Such is the paradox of Being the Human League in 2001. Back with a new album, Secrets, and keen to be perceived as part of the present; and yet, more than ever, gaining respect and recognition for their glorious past. 'Twas not always thus.

"Oh, we had a terrible time in the early 1990s," recalls Susan, over some spinach dumplings in a chic Sheffield restaurant. "No one was interested in us, no one said that we'd ever done anything good, and it's only now that people are acknowledging that we are an influence."

Recent bands owing an overt debt to the League's pioneering synthpop include Les Rhythmes Digitales ("I think they may be the best live band around at the moment" – Phil), Zoot Woman ("People keep mentioning them, but to me they're more like Duran Duran" – Susan), Daft Punk ("I love that album" – Phil) and Laptop ("Who?" – All). Even Craig David's got in on the act, with his rather ropey cover of "Human".

HL Studios in Sheffield is a treasure trove for the sad, anally retentive synthpop trainspotter (hands up, guilty as charged). As David Beevers, the League's technical assistant and unsung fourth member, gives me the guided tour – wood-panelled Korgs with "THE HUMAN LEAGUE" Letrasetted on the back in the classic Travelogue font, the guitar synth used on "(Keep Feeling) Fascination", a store-room of master-tape reels labelled "Being Boiled", "Crow and a Baby" and "Empire State Human" – I think of Jacques Lu Cont et al, and imagine how much they'd kill to be here.

Phil accepts this with grace. "I think maybe we've gone off using the phrase 'ripped off', anyway. We've always ripped off other people, so it's a continuous process." Susan, too, is flattered. "It's one of the reasons you go into music, to touch people in some way, and when you meet other artists – people who do the same job – who say 'We were really influenced by the Human League', it's really nice."

The last time the Human League went public, it was for an unashamedly retro Eighties revival tour, bashing out the hits to sold-out arenas with the re-formed Culture Club. How does this fit in with their wish to remain relevant?

"We did it for one reason," says Phil, making the international thumb-and-forefinger sign for money. "We were broke," confirms Susan. "We had no money, we'd been dropped by our record label, we were in danger of losing our studio. We didn't want to do it, we fought against it." Phil insists he is not over-dramatising when he says "If we hadn't done that tour, we'd be signing on the dole now."

The League's place in history has been further cemented by the recent run of nostalgia TV shows. Phil's been seen on BBC2's I Love 1981, but says he was duped into doing it: he was originally asked to discuss 1971 (someone else's past) but ended up discussing 1981 (his own). "But if they did an 'I Love the 1990s' one," says Susan, "I'd like to think we'd be in that, too."

A trifle optimistic, perhaps (although "Tell Me When", their 1995 hit, is worthy of posterity). But the fact that the Human League are still around at all after almost a quarter of a century is miraculous. The complications of inter-band relationships have proven fatal for many other groups: Abba, Fleetwood Mac and the Mamas and the Papas to name but three. Somehow it didn't kill off the Human League (Susan and Joanne were both Phil's partner at different times, although Susan is now married and Joanne has a baby son). "We've always tried really hard to keep our work lives and private lives separate," Susan explains. "You know, ultimately, we all really believe in the group, and we're not going to let anything like that get in the way. Keeping a band going for over 20 years is enough of a battle against external things, so we're not going to let internal things get to us."

This sort of longevity, so the rules state, is the preserve of rock bands, not pop groups. "I think people think pop is throwaway," Susan agrees. "And we do make pop records, but not twee pop. We're in a world where you're either Radiohead or you're Hear'Say. We're neither. And people find that very difficult to accept."

As chance would have it, on the day I meet them, the League are preparing for a performance at the Mardi Gras, sandwiched somewhere between Lolly and Hear'Say themselves. "Have you been in Morgan recently?" asks Joanne. "They have a range of Hear'Say clothes!" Did that ever happen to the League? Were there Jo'n'Sue clothes in Top Shop? "Our outfits were from Top Shop!" laughs Joanne. "In fact, they still are!"

One side-effect of this is that every time they come back with a new record, they have to start from scratch. "People do come up to me in the street," Joanne, ever the quiet one, pipes up at last, "and say, 'Ooh, are you still together, then?' Most people think that we've split up and we've got back together, and we do that every time. Because we're not in the media all the time, the records have to sell themselves."

The record in question is, as you'd expect, mature, witty electronic pop, with hints of the classic League sound ("because we used the same gear, we never throw anything away!"), and one significant difference from past releases: "There isn't a ballad on this album. It's either miserable or kickin', one or the other!"

Does it matter, after all this, whether it's a hit? Of course it does. "It's obvious that there are two paths for us," says Phil. "If we wanted to, we could forget about a new record, play the arenas again, and make a lot of money. That would be very, very easy to do. But we've chosen the harder way."

"Sometimes it's been a struggle," Susan sighs, "and sometimes it hasn't –" Phil cuts her off in mid-flow. "When has it not been a struggle, then?"

'Secrets' is released by Papillon on 30 July

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