OMD’s Andy McCluskey talks Bauhaus Staircase, ‘criminal’ record deals and the future

On October 27, OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) release their 13th album Bauhaus Staircase. Headliner joins singer and bassist Andy McCluskey to find out about how the brand embraced new ways of working for the very first time, the trials and tribulations they have endured down the years, and why this could well be the band’s farewell record…

For a band that formed and played their first gig as a dare, OMD aren’t doing too badly. Forty-five years into their career, they have just released their 13th studio album – a typically sonically expansive affair called Bauhaus Staircase – and have announced their biggest headline show in London to date, as they take on The O2 arena on March 24, 2024. Since their return to making music together over a decade ago, their recent output has garnered rave reviews, with their previous album, 2017’s The Punishment of Luxury, helping introduce the band to new, younger audiences while expanding upon, rather than straying from, the blueprint that has made OMD one of the most influential bands of their generation.

“It’s amazing to us that we’re still doing it,” McCluskey says with genuine incredulity as we chat via Zoom. “OMD only got together to do one gig. It was a dare. It happened by accident!”

Joining us from “a lovely hotel in central London”, McCluskey is an endearing figure. He’s frequently funny with an affable, down to earth manner that feels immediately familiar. The icy mystique that tends to cloak OMD and their 1980s electro pop contemporaries, such as Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and their beloved Kraftwerk, evaporates in conversation.

“Paul [Humphreys] and I have known each other since we were seven,” he continues, picking up the story of how OMD came into being. “His friends had a band, and they knew I had a bass that I got for my 16th birthday. So, he’d seen me with my new bass and he came round with his mates as they needed a bass player. But because we lived so close we ended up becoming musical buddies, and I would take my German imports round to his house. He’d made himself a stereo because he was a whizz at electronics. That’s where the symbiotic relationship started – he had the stereo, I had the records. And then we just had this mad idea of trying to make music.

“I had my upside-down bass guitar, because the only one I could afford was a left-handed one and I’m right-handed, and I still play upside down to this day. And Paul started cannibalising his auntie’s radios for circuits to make things. But even when we got a cheap Vox organ and electric piano the music we were making was still pretty weird and ambient, and our mates who were into Genesis and the Eagles and Pink Floyd, thought we were shit! But in the summer of ’78 we discovered that there were other people interested in electronic music. We heard the Human League and The Normal and we just knocked on the door at [Liverpool venue] Eric’s and asked if we could play. He said, ‘yes, what are you called?’ We didn’t have a name because we thought he’d tell us to bugger off!

I feel like a poker player with three Aces and two Kings about to go, boom, I win! Andy McCluskey

So where did the name come from?

“We looked on my wall where I used to write down all sorts of random ideas, and we wanted a name that told people we weren’t punk or rock or disco. ‘Err… Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark? That’s a bloody weird name, that’ll do’! So we put together a reel-to-reel tape of backing tracks and played what was intended to be our first and only gig. And Eric was like, we have some friends who run a sister club in Manchester called The Factory, do you want to play there? We said yes and that’s where we bumped into Tony Wilson. We gave him a cassette and said, ‘can we get on the tele’? He told us he was starting a label, and did we want to put a record out, so off we went [laughs]. Jammy bastards!”

If a second gig and a deal with the legendary Factory Records felt like a hefty stroke of good fortune, the success they would go on to achieve over the coming decades would’ve seemed an outright impossibility at the time. Albums like their self-titled debut (1980), Architecture & Morality (1981), and Dazzle Ships (1983) have become bona fide classics of their genre and marked OMD as outliers in their field, while combined single and album sales in excess of 40 million and counting made them one of the most popular acts of the era.

Describing the band’s first record deal with Factory, famously home to the likes of Joy Division, New Order and A Certain Ratio, among others, McCluskey says that OMD were the only act signed to the label that adhered to its modus operandi.

“For a short period, it was like a little family,” says McCluskey of the Factory roster. “You saw each other every week when we did a little Factory night in London or Leeds or Sheffield. We did quite a few gigs with them. But we were the only band on Factory that followed the intended blueprint, which was to develop a local artist, get them to a level where they want to sign to a major, sell them, and then reinvest in developing artists. They did that with us, made a record then essentially sold us to Virgin. Tony Wilson said to us, ‘you should be on Top of the Pops, you’re the future of pop’. We told him to fuck off and that we were experimental, not pop [laughs]! All the others stayed on Factory and never left.

“We were outsiders,” he continues. “We were doing something different in the same way Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen were. For about two years the music industry detonated and decentralized, with all the A&R people having to leave London to come to all these post punk clubs up and down the country. All the best bands from ’78 to ’80 were from provincial towns and cities outside of London. And there was a certain camaraderie because we were all in the same boat. But if you played at Eric’s it was terrifying because everyone there was in a band. Nobody would come anywhere near the stage and you could see them whispering to each other, ‘they’re alright but they’re shite compared to us’! So, there was an element of competition. It got more competitive when people started signing to majors.”

Despite the acclaim and recognition that ensued, it would take several decades before McCluskey and Humphreys would even come close to securing a deal that offered something they could consider as fair financial remuneration. As the band left the ‘80s, the record making process had become less and less about art and increasingly about  balancing the books. It wasn’t, McCluskey assures, a happy time.

“Paul likes to joke that we only started making money when the band stopped because they stopped charging us for things,” he chuckles. “The deal we signed was basically criminal; the royalties were shocking. We got to the end of the ‘80s and we owed the label £1 million unrecouped, and it wasn’t because we’d been buying castles and yachts, it was just that touring costs money. That’s a big difference for us now. Touring used to cost money whereas now it makes us money.

“We have renegotiated about six times, and we finally get half decent royalties now. Back then, everything we wanted to do, the company would pay for and then take it out of our royalties. We were never in it to make money, but you can’t run a band if you don’t have any. We’d get home from touring the world and our manager would say, you’re skint, you need a record, yesterday! The last two albums we made in the ‘80s weren’t good enough because we didn’t have time. The first 10 things we wrote were the album, good, bad, or ugly. That is not something we’d allow ourselves to feel anymore. We knew that Bauhaus Staircase was a good collection of songs because we’d been working on them for years.”

Will there be another OMD album? Right now, I’m saying no. Andy McCluskey

Bauhaus Staircase certainly sounds like a band not only at the peak of its powers, but one that is very much enjoying itself. Those signature OMD electronic soundscapes shimmer and sparkle, while McCluskey’s voice, full of vim and purpose, sounds like it hasn’t aged a day since 1980.

Surprisingly, for a record that feels so quintessentially OMD, Bauhaus Staircase marked the first time in their career that they had to adopt a different working method to their tried and tested process.

“For a long time we’ve lived quite a distance apart but we’ve always found the best way to create was to get into the same room and let the sparks fly between us,” McCluskey explains. “But during lockdown he was in the south of France – there could be worse places to be locked down! – and I was on Merseyside. It worked out OK. I had a few things Paul had given me already, a couple of chord sequences that I worked up into songs. Those were Veruschka and Healing.

“We’ve worked together for a long time and have ways of writing that are just our style. Even if we wanted to change that we probably couldn’t, so whatever we do just sounds like an OMD record. We learnt to play our instruments and write songs when we were kids. We wrote Electricity when we were 16. We developed our own way of doing it because no one showed us how to do it. That probably gives us a specific sound.”

When McCluskey and Humphreys take to the stage at The O2 in London March 24 next year, it will mark their biggest headline show in the capital so far. Have they been conscious of a rise in interest around the band from new audiences?

“Yes, definitely,” he says firmly. “When we came back in 2007 to play live there was a majority of the audience who had been with us from day one. It’s noticeable now that the age demographic is much broader. 

"One of the effects is that we are in a postmodern era, where nothing is in fashion so there is nothing out of fashion, which is fortunate for us [laughs], and if you are perceived as being iconic within a genre and you can still deliver… that’s the most important thing. People trust us to play live. We have played a lot of concerts and people know they can trust us live.”

He also points to the fact that, where some artists can come to resent having to play certain hits or fan favourites from decades back every night, OMD still relish the opportunity to reel out the big hitters.

“I never understand that,” he says of artist who omit such hits from their setlist with a shake of the head. “Never understand it. If you are blessed to have had hits then you should respect the song, you should respect the audience and their memory of the song. You should play it the way they remember it with energy and passion. Playing a hit single is not like going to the fucking dentist. Some of our hits have really distinctive intros and I love it when we are about to play the intro to Enola Gay, because I feel like a poker player who’s sitting there with three Aces and two Kings and I’m just about to go, ‘Boom, I win’! [laughs]. It’s a great feeling!

Perhaps existing on steadier terrain than ever before, OMD certainly appear to be having the time of their lives. Rarely do bands make it this far with their relationships not only fully intact, but in the best of health, while still making music that’s simultaneously pleasing the hardcore fans and attracting new ones. So what does this mean for the future of OMD?

“It’s easier, it’s more fun, it’s more relaxed now,” he says thoughtfully before pausing. “We take nothing for granted. To be honest, this album probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Covid, because we had nothing else to do. I couldn’t go and see my friends or my kids, it was like being stuck sat home in the ’70s when my mum was watching something on the tele that I didn’t want to watch, and I’d just go to my room and make or listen to music or paint. There’s a lot to be said for the creative power of total fricking boredom.

“So, I just sat in my programming room and started mining my head to see if there was anything I could work on. But it gets harder and harder as you get older to really squeeze your head and your heart and your soul for the good stuff. When you’ve written maybe 200 pieces of music everything you do you go, ‘that sounds like this’, or ‘those chords are the same as that, oh, I don’t know what to sing about’. The hardest part for me is the lyrics and the top line. Trying to find something that I’m excited enough about to really put the energy into. So will there be another OMD album? Right now, I’m saying no, because I don’t think I can do it again. But who knows?”

On current form, it seems inconceivable that McCluskey and Humphreys would want to call time on OMD. But if Bauhaus Staircase does indeed prove to be their swan song, it’s one hell of a way to bow out.