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Interview: Heaven 17

Heaven 17 begin a ten-date UK tour this week with a sold-out show at Northampton’s Roadmender, performing their celebrated and acclaimed 1983 album The Luxury Gap. To mark the occasion Noel…

Heaven 17 begin a ten-date UK tour this week with a sold-out show at Northampton’s Roadmender, performing their celebrated and acclaimed 1983 album The Luxury Gap. To mark the occasion Noel Draper spoke to founder Martyn Ware about his past and present.

How did you and Glenn first meet?
We met at an arts workshop that was created by the Labour council in Sheffield called Meatwhistle, and it was an opportunity to meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds who were interested in being creative. I was introduced to this by an old friend called Paul Bower, who was responsible for sending our original demo of ‘Being Boiled’ to Fast Records. We were both trainee managers at the Co-Op, and through Meatwhistle I met Glenn. We were kindred spirits from the off. I found out later that the Co-Op job, that I had left 6 months previously, Glenn had taken. How weird was that?

Is it true that Glenn was supposed to be the original singer for The Human League?
Yes. It was bad timing really. Just before we were forming The Human League he had decided to go to London to seek his fame and fortune as a photographer/musician. He was the natural choice as he was full of charisma but as he wasn’t around, and we couldn’t ask him to come back up to Sheffield as he had only just settled in, we asked my best mate from school, Philip Oakey, I heard he could sing a bit, he looked great and to be honest he always looked and acted like a rock star so that’s how we formed.

How do you get on with The Human League/Philip Oakey now, considering you had quite a well publicised split ?
We see each other once or twice a year now, It’s always nice to see them. We live in London now and he lives in Sheffield, he’s quite a private person, but it’s nice to see him when we do meet up.

Where did the name Heaven 17 come from?
From the film A Clockwork Orange. When Alex walks into the record store on the wall is a chart with ‘The Heaven Seventeen’ on it. It’s actually mentioned in the book as well, which was written in 1960 and, according to Anthony Burgess, about a time around 20 years in the future which was the time we formed Heaven 17. Kind of a poetic self-fulfilling prophecy.

Did you want an unusual name?
I just loved that name. In the charts on that wall were names like ‘The Sparks’, ‘Johnny Zhivago’ and ‘Goggly Gogol’, all sorts of weird names, and that was favourite film at the time, it probably still is my favourite film actually, and I just really liked the name. Not the ‘Heaven Seventeen’ but ‘Heaven’ and then the numbers, ’17’. To me it sounded like a really obvious pop group name, cheesy, but the content had a bit more edge to it. I quite liked that dichotomy.

What made you decide to use synths and not guitars?
I was always obsessed with electronic music from an early age. I was always fascinated with anything that sounded futuristic. My sisters are a lot older than me, and had a big record collection, and I was always keeping a look out for things like the theremin in ‘Good Vibrations’ or ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ and anything that sounded like the future. It might have been because we were used to hearing industrial sounds in Sheffield growing up.

Why did you make the decision not to tour in the 1980s?
It was a conscious decision on our part. We had toured extensively with The Human League, and it cost us a lot of money, not directly but through the record company and we were living on advances from them. It just seemed that we were getting further and further in debt, so when we started Heaven 17 we decided to just make videos. It was near the start of MTV, so we could service every territory individually and spend good money on expensive videos. We didn’t tour live until 1995 but we did do TV shows and live television, stuff like that, but not proper live concerts.

What is the favourite song you have written?
‘Let Me Go’. It’s the best song we have written. Both myself and Glenn agree. It’s something about the melodic structure of the song, the vocal harmonies, the melody, the funkiness of it, it’s also got a haunting chord to it. I honestly believe that the greatest songs that have the most emotional impact are the ones that sit on the edge between major to minor. Is it a happy song, is it a sad song, you are never quite sure. It gives it poignancy. You can take that song and play it on guitar, piano or acapella and it still sounds fantastic and I don’t think you can say that about any of our other songs.

You are probably best known for the song ‘Temptation’. Does this annoy you, considering your other output?
No. There have been several “Greatest Songs of the 80’s” compilations and we always seem to crop up in there with ‘Temptation’ which I find incredibly flattering. We always try to make a song timeless. Being able to use a big orchestra means you quite can’t pin it down when it was made, and you could probably re-release that song with a few tweaks and it would be a hit.

Who were your musical influences growing up?
Too many to mention but definitely Bowie, Roxy Music, Georgio Moroder and then all the German experimental pop bands like Can, Amon Duul, a lot of prog rock, loved King Crimson, ELP, all sorts of amazing stuff.

Who excites you today musically?
There’s quite a lot of exciting hip-hop I like and there’s a few bands that I’m quite fond of, like Everything Everything. I also like Frank Ocean and D’Angelo.

Do you think that with a lot of today’s music being drip-fed cheese pop that you have to go and find good music yourself?
Yes, although I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I am completely anti-Spotify but I use it all the time: it’s a great thing for research, and I know that makes me a hypocrite. I like finding new music and music is just as good if not better these days. The trouble is, when we were growing up you only had a few channels of TV or radio and so everyone was listening or watching similar sort of things. Out of a class of 30 you knew that probably 23 of them saw Top of the Pops the night before, for instance, but now everyone listens to their own stuff. It’s very hard to create a common purpose, like the punk movement, as it’s hard to get a critical mass these days, which is what the whole of popular music was based on, right up until the early 1990s. You built up a head of steam, released a record and then were catapulted into the charts. That model doesn’t work any more. Britain has always been historically very good at creating new scenes quickly because it’s a densely populated small island where ideas spread quickly, but that has been dissipated by the new technologies. 90% of the people that you and I love musically are struggling to make a living in the music industry now.

Who have been your favourite people to work with?
Firstly the Phoenix Horns who are the Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section. We used them on the ‘Luxury Gap’ and ‘How Men Are’ and they were just phenomenal, the best horn section I have, and will ever, work with. Secondly Tina Turner, she was the ultimate professional, her performance on ‘Let’s Stay Together’ was all first take. Then Terence Trent Darby, he was just an incredibly talented guy at the peak of his powers.

Are you still in contact with Ian Craig Marsh and is he still never working again with Heaven 17?
Ian is doing his own thing, and that’s it. He’s not spoken to us for years, we still have the same phone numbers, email etc., but we’ve haven’t heard anything from him. We still care about him, we know he’s OK, he’s just doing what he does.

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