Synthpop and new-wave pioneer The Human League is probably more highly regarded today than when the group was making hit records in the 1980s. If you don’t believe us, turn on the radio and listen to the band’s influence in the sounds of artists ranging from Madonna and Robbie Williams to Moby and Lady Gaga.
The band formed in 1977 by singer, songwriter and producer Philip Oakley, but it wasn’t until he recruited then-unknown teenaged singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall that the group took off on a career that saw a succession of hit singles and albums throughout the ’80s. Both Sulley and Catherall, along with Oakley, would form the core of the group from then on.
Thirty years later, The Human League continues to tour globally to the delight of its loyal fan base. The trio took time to record a new album, “Credo,” their first new effort in a decade.
Sulley talked to PGN about the group’s enduring success, its impact on pop music and the current international tour.
PGN: Why was there a 10-year gap between The Human League’s last studio album and the one that came out this year? SAS: We tour a lot. We did a lot of live work and that took us all over the world. This is the third time in 10 years that we’ve been to America. We just decided to do a lot of touring. The last album didn’t do so well. Then Philip said that he wanted three years to do some writing and that’s how the new album came about.
PGN: Does the band tour more on its own or are you packaged with other groups from the ’80s? SAS: We do both. We do a lot of festivals in the U.K. and a lot in Europe. We do a lot of our own shows. This year so far on our own, we’ve done a tour of Europe and South America. After this tour of America, we go to South Asia and then we go to Australia. So we do a mixture of both.
PGN: Do you ever perform on bills with newer artists? SAS: It depends on what festival it is. There is a big festival in the U.K. called “V” that we’ve done a couple of times and, the last time we did it, Lady Gaga was on the bill and Katy Perry. But then we’ve done a couple of festivals over the summer that were 1980s-based. We don’t mind doing either but we prefer to do the more current things than the ’80s thing. We try not to look back. We try to keep focused on today and not to harken back to the past if you can help it.
PGN: Both yourself and Joanne were brought into the group by Philip Oakley after it had already been established. How long was it before you felt like you were part owner of the group? SAS: The group has always been pretty equal. Within the group, I have never felt any less a person than anybody else in the group. Within the industry, Joanne and I had to fight a little because it was very much a white-male domain and they didn’t really take lightly to young girls from Sheffield. I’m sure that people had battles on their hands as well other than Joanne and I. I’ve always felt a part of the group. I’ve never felt like a secondary member. The group is not like that.
PGN: Where there any influences in particular that inspired the new record? SAS: I can’t comment on that because Philip and [Human League drummer Robert Barton] were the ones that wrote it. I know that Philip likes going out and nightclub, which is what “Night People” is about. I think he takes a lot of his influences from nightclubs. But it’s not for me to say. I didn’t write it.
PGN: Do you think that The Human League gets the credit it deserves for its influence on popular music? SAS: Had you asked any of us that question maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we’d have categorically said no. I think the fact that we’ve been around ... I’ve been in the group 31 years now. I don’t really care what people think anymore. We’re obviously doing something that people like because they’re still coming to see us. We sold out the Hollywood Bowl and that’s the second time that we’ve done that. That’s in a country that is very far away from our own, so we’ve got to be doing something right. We just make music. That’s what we do. We’re not really interested in anything else. If people like it, fabulous. If not, it’s not the end of the world to us. We just love what we’re doing.
PGN: Do you see a lot of younger fans come to see the band perform? SAS: There are a lot of young people that are coming to the shows. If we’re playing a festival, the audiences tend to be a lot younger. We played a show last night in Sacramento and they were a little bit older, but there were some young people there as well. It’s a cross section, really.
PGN: What would you say was the highlight of the band’s career? SAS: Playing at the Hollywood Bowl and selling it out is pretty tremendous for a load of bozos from Sheffield. It’s one of the most iconic places in the world. We were sound-checking and taking pictures, and you can see the Hollywood sign and stuff. It’s pretty tremendous that we’ve managed to do things like that after 31 years. This is not the start of our career. I don’t know if this is the middle or the end, but to do something like that is tremendous.
PGN: Is it true that The Human League plays all live with no pre-recorded tracks? SAS: It’s very true. We play live. That’s what we do. We were in Ibiza a couple months ago and it was so hot that all our equipment went down because it couldn’t take the heat. We had to wait until it cooled down. We’re doing it today. We have to stop at Target today to get some fans to cool the equipment down. What’s the point of playing live if it’s not live? We’ve never seen the point.
PGN: But that is sort of against the grain when it comes to synthpop groups. Most of them usually perform to varying degrees of backing tapes. SAS: Well, we don’t. Other groups do. Some people write reviews saying it’s obvious that it’s all on tape. And we’re thinking, when? We make so many mistakes. If you come and see us you can tell it’s live. We make mistakes, we’re not perfect. The equipment is not perfect. It breaks down. We do bum notes vocally and instrumentally. That’s what life is about. If you want perfection, listen to the CD or the MP3. Don’t come to a show.
PGN: Have you as an individual ever had the desire to perform or record on your own outside of the group? SAS: No. Never.
PGN: Really? SAS: I like the people that I work with. I work with great people. I can’t even call them my friends anymore. They’re more like my family. And I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m a very lucky girl. I’ve a great life. I’ve got a great boyfriend and great home. And no, I don’t want to do anything with anyone else, thank you very much. I’m happy where I am.