From 1977 to the present day, Martyn Ware has made some of the most ambitious and forward-facing music possible. His latest project finds him remixing seminal proto-punks Doctors of Madness alongside juggling academia and other projects. Banjo caught up with him to find out what it’s like becoming an elder statesman of electronic music.
Martyn Ware is not the kind of person who seems content to sit still and do nothing. Over the years he has founded Human League, BEF and Heaven 17 and taken subversive electronic music mainstream over their total of sixteen albums. He has been in the producer’s chair for Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Marc Almond and Mavis Staples.
If all this isn’t enough, he teamed up with Vince Clarke to record a further two albums and explore three-dimensional sound technology, describing himself as a ‘sonic muralist’, member of BAFTA, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and visiting Professor at Queen Mary University of London.
The latest project to bear his name is a remix of Doctors of Madness track Walk of Shame, which will be released on March 26.
Not bad for someone who started out as an “electro-punk.”
In fact, quite apart from the above, Ware is a pioneer, being responsible for some of electronic music’s early classics, all created with very little equipment, as part of punk’s call to arms in the late 70s. While most people affected by this picked up a guitar, Ware saved up his hard-earned wages to buy a synthesiser, saying “the Korg-700 changed my life.”
Rock music of the prog and Kraut variety also played their part in influencing the young Martyn Ware. It is perhaps this that has led him to his latest project, remixing Walk of Shame from the newly reactivated Doctors of Madness.
In the midst of all this, Martyn found time to talk to Louder Than War to chat about friendships, technology and keeping an eye on the future.
Our conversations gets off to a late start as a session with his students overran, a fact that tells us plenty about the commitment he displays to teaching above an interest in self-promotion. When we speak, he instantly comes across as an articulate and expressive kind of person, with his passion for music, life and politics shining brightly throughout.
For some reason, maybe connected to Martyn now being something of an elder statesman of electronic music, I feel the need to establish my credentials with him and so tell him that the first time I saw him play live was with the Human League, back in 1978 when they played a matinee show at Liverpool’s Eric’s.
“That was quite an interesting gig.” He tells us. “We did it three times I think, but if it was the first one, OMD saw us there and immediately nicked the idea of using a tape recorder on stage.”
I suppose that’s the peril of being a pioneer.”
“They deny it, but… no, I’m making it up.”
Staying on that thread, I wonder if Martyn felt like a pioneer in those days?
“Yes, definitely. A hundred per cent yes. I’m not going to hide my light under a bushel, we thought we were the shit. We were taking a lot of risks, to be fair, so we deserved some kudos for that. And I do believe that that has led to a longer tail to my career. Unfortunately, pioneers don’t necessarily reap the rewards they deserve. I don’t just mean me, it’s the same throughout. Often they kick the door open and everybody else piles through, which is kind of what happened in the early 80s. But we soon reconfigured to Heaven 17 and we did fine.”
The popularity of Heaven 17 hasn’t wavered at all. I saw you were last time you played Liverpool at the Academy and I have never seen an audience reaction like that there before.
“It’s quite something actually. I think there’s something about Liverpool being a socialist city and I think and that helps, that we are willing to stick up for Socialists around the country who feel kind of underrepresented in the arts. And we don’t give a fuck.
But I get some amazing troll action on Twitter. Anybody who’s socialist nowadays gets accused of being an anti-Semite, I’ve had all that, literally thousands pile on. But I don’t care, they can do what they want, it doesn’t make any difference.”
You must have become used to that over the years.
“Generally it’s not a problem, if we’re talking the narrative of the establishment in all its various shapes and forms, they’re quite happy to have the odd outlier, because it makes them appear to be reasonable.
The problem is not that, the problem is the suppression of alternative viewpoints that’s happening in the last few years. That didn’t use to be the case – even though people might not agree with We Don’t Need That Fascist Groove Thang, they used to hide their light under a bushel because they knew it wasn’t socially acceptable. Now everybody is much more emboldened, it’s a problem.”
Is this the punk in you? In fact, were you inspired by punk at all?
“Yes. But firstly we always had a kind of experimental attitude towards what we did, because we’re not musically trained, so we kind of experimental by default almost. We never wanted to be punk, but our audience when we first started performing live with the Human League was a punk audience. We were on tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop, in fact, we did two tours with Siouxsie and the Banshees, and their constituency at that time were like skinheads really, a lot of them. And then that changed and punk became more established and it became more of a mainstream thing.
Also at that time we grew up with doing our own fanzine, for instance, a similar kind of background to Vice Versa turning into ABC, because Vice Versa started out as really fanzine produces and editors, and then they became a band. So everything that we did was more like integrated art things. For instance, we insisted when we signed with Virgin that we had the right to sign off, if not create, our own singles and albums and posters and publicity in general and the way that we will present it to our fans.
And we were very influenced by people like Devo for instance, everything being an integrated art project. And punk gave us the bravery to say ‘We can’t be any worse than The Drones or Slaughter and the Dogs, it’s impossible.’ So it gave us the bravery to have a go.”
It’s such a strange idea to think that you and The Drones or Slaughter and the Dogs might have had almost the same starting point.
“I think a lot of electronic acts from that period did. Like Daniel Miller and The Normal and Fad Gadget and that came from the same seed, they used synthesisers, that’s all.”
That’s something that fascinates me though, if some people were inspired to be the UK Subs, what was it that inspired you to lean towards the future like that?
“I’ve always loved electronica, always loved the future. I’ve got two older sisters, one’s 20 years older and one’s 10 years older, and they had a big record collection, and it was a lot of Motown, soul, pop, but also they had things like that film soundtracks, which were a big influence on us. And as soon as I started buying records, I used to just get anything that had a synthesiser. I think the turning point was probably Roxy Music’s first album, to be honest. And Eno. I think that that was the blue touch paper that lit it all for us.
And Eno’s ambient work, everybody forgets this was all done pre-punk. No Pussyfooting was a big influence as well, even though he [Robert Fripp] is not a synthesiser player, there was a lot of futuristic sounds going on on a King Crimson record. And things like prog rock from that period, Van de Graaf Generator playing a VCS 3, a lot of futuristic-sounding stuff.”
And Van de Graaf Generator are also one of the bands that played Eric’s.
“Is that right? You know who else is a massive Van de Graaf Generator fan? John Lydon. We became really good friends in the 80s and it turns out he’s a big Heaven 17 fan as well, he loves Let Me Go, it’s one of his favourite songs. He’s turned into an arsehole now, which is a pity. He’ll do anything for attention.
But it was a very eclectic time, the late 70s. People were not so genre-based. Everybody thinks punk came along and everybody wanted to sound like the Sex Pistols but no, it was an algorithm that led to all kinds of weird and wonderful genetic modifications of the attitude of punk.
The Human League were punk, we were electro-punk, that was our intention. And then it all got rinsed out when we made our first album. Of course, we couldn’t argue with it because we didn’t know what we were doing at that time.
Reproduction came out, which is a lovely album, but all the guts had been ripped out of it. So we said to the record company for Travelogue we’re gonna do it in our own studio. We’ll mix it in a big studio but we’re not going to have it all rinsed out again. So Travelogue is more of representation, particularly when it was remastered in the 2000s, of that kind of punk sound that we wanted to capture in the studio.”
And that’s when you started getting into the charts, when you were true to your own vision of what you wanted to be like.
“Yeah really. But we weren’t getting there quick enough for the record company, so they destabilised the situation behind the scenes, they thought this kind of daring approach is never going to make money for them, they’re never going to make their money back so they basically, behind the scenes, broke the band up and they got 2 bands for the price of one.
Being on the end of that was a very unpleasant experience, because Phil was my oldest friend from school, so it wasn’t just a musical thing, there wasn’t a musical disagreement. It came as a massive shock, it was really Machiavellian stuff and actually our manager at the time, Bob Last, who I still love, by the way, he was Malcolm McLaren’s protégé.”
Did it take long for you and Phil to get your relationship back on track after that?
“We kind of kissed and made up about twenty years later I suppose.”
That’s a long time.
“Yeah, but I was in London and he was in Sheffield, so it’s not really surprising. We only really started bumping into each other on various 80’s bills then we ended up doing a tour together. But he’s gone off the radar again now, I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve asked him whether he’ll be on my podcast, but I don’t get a response from him or his management. People are strange aren’t they.”
Was it a case of success being the best form of revenge for Heaven 17?
“Oh yes, we were massively pissed off, and energised to channel that negative energy into positive creative energy.”
Which has been the happiest Martyn Ware, which phase has been the happiest for you?
“I’ve had lots of happy times. I suppose it’s hard to beat the first time you’re really successful, that’s such an exciting time and everything seems possible. I suppose the first time you’re on Top Of The Pops – we thought we were going to have a number one with Temptation, but we got beat by 1% on the final day by Candy Girl by fucking New Edition. It seemed like it was going to go on forever, but that’s just naivety, it’s never going to go on forever, there are so many factors that have to be in alignment.
But I’ve had lots of happy times. In the last 20 years I’ve formed Illustrious, my soundscape company, with Vince Clarke, I’ve created brand new works where the world premiere was on the stage of the Royal Opera House, having roses thrown at me like the great composers, doing giant soundscapes on the Millennium Bridge for 40 million people, every phase of what I’ve done. And of course, producing Tina and Terence Trent Derby and stuff like that and having number ones in America. I can’t complain.
Everybody has fallow times and good times. When I was working with Tina, she didn’t have a record label initially, they thought she was over. In fact, James Brown went through that for quite a long time – until he came back with Living in America, he didn’t have a record label for five years. People forget these things, stars rise and fall, empires fall.
I’m thrilled to still have a career forty years on.”
Or multiple careers even.
“You have to have multiple plates spinning to actually make a living.”
And does any of this make you feel like you’ve joined the establishment?
“Have I joined the establishment? I think not. [Laughs] I’m all for art in any form, I’m not particularly wed to luxury. I’m just as happy working for a small Gallery somewhere as I am doing giant sound art installations around the world.”
How would you describe your relationship with technology now? You were obviously an early adopter, would you still say that’s you?
“Yeah I’m not a fetishist about technology, to me it’s just a tool and an inspiration. Of course, there’s a gazillion different virtual synths you can get on your digital audio workstation, but I’m still in love with my original synths, which I’m looking at currently in the studio. My JP-400, my Korg 700.”
I remember there was a huge cheer when you played Being Boiled on the original synth when you played live.
“You know what, I’d never taken that synth on tour, and now I can’t NOT take it on tour. They’re a delicate piece of equipment, they’re 40, 50 years old. I’m a delicate piece of equipment [laughs]. But they sound completely different to contemporary synths, it’s not just a geek thing, they’re built from different components, it’s like a Rolls Royce versus a fucking Skoda frankly.”
When it comes to Doctors of Madness, there seems to be little connection between Human League/Heaven 17 and Richard Strange’s mob. But there is a lineage from them to Martyn’s love of Roxy Music and punk. Described as “The missing link between David Bowie and The Sex Pistols”, Doctors of Madness were much loved by those in the know.
Moving on to the Doctors Of Madness and your new remix. I presume you were a fan back in the day.
“They were one of my go-to bands in the early 70s. I’m not just saying this for the purpose of this interview, literally at the same time Roxy Music were playing the Students Union in Sheffield, Doctors Of Madness were flourishing and I was just as much in love with Doctors Of Madness as I was with Roxy Music at that time. I thought Doctors Of Madness’ first album is a really fantastic alien-sounding piece of work. I love his voice, I love their stage presence and their theatricality and I’ve got extremely fond memories.
I got back in touch with Richard quite a while back actually, through Sarah Jane Morris and now we’re teaching together in Tileyard Education London up when he said ‘I’ve got a new album coming out’ I said ‘well if you want me to do a remix I’ll do it as a kind of homage to you.’ And I did it and lo behold I think it sounds pretty good.”
How do you approach doing this for someone you really admired growing up or, perhaps even stranger, for a friend?
“I’ve done so much of this stuff, what you do is you look at the look all the different constituent parts of the track and you pick out the bits that you think are the most attractive to you. I’m not a big fan of just remixing something for the sake of it, this is more like a reimagining of it. I’ve tried to keep the vocals intact and to me sounds quite edgily kind of 70s/80s, kind of retro-futuristic, that’s the way I’d put it.”
So what’s next for Martin Ware?
“I have launched my new podcast series, Electronically Yours with Martyn Ware, which is doing really well, lots of famous people on there. I’ve got some amazing people coming up, this week I’m doing Gary Numan and Daniel Miller, for instance, that’s the level of guests we’re looking at, loads of people, so check it out it’s really good.
I’ve just finished my autobiography which is going to come out in spring ’22. Musically I’ve not been terribly inspired during lockdown I have to say, so I’ll just put that on the back burner for now, but as soon as things start looking a bit more optimistic we’ll see what happens.”
You haven’t been inspired to do one of these inward gazing lockdown albums then?
“That’s exactly why I have not done anything because, I believe you are what you eat and at the moment I’m just eating shit. I don’t want to do a miserable album, I don’t think the world needs any of that at the moment. I think if you look at the kind of proliferation of artistic output after the Second World war for instance, there was a lot of optimistic movies, films, stage plays. People were bored with being miserable, it’s like ‘shall we make a film about the lockdown?’, can you imagine anything worse? We’ve lived it, we don’t need to watch it.
I want to be able to write music that inspires people, I don’t want any more misery thanks.”
Could you tell me what you’ve been listening to recently?
“Mostly my students work, actually. I’ve been listening to Roisin Murphy’s last album, which I think is fantastic, I absolutely love it. I’ll be interviewing her soon, I’ve never had a chance to talk to her, I’ve never met her, I just reached out and she’s up for it. She comes from Sheffield, not originally, but we have a connection there.
I’m also listening to a gigantic amount of eclectic stuff, mostly just sitting in my studio listening to extremely beautiful music on incredibly expensive equipment, very loud, including classical music, opera, experimental music. One of the benefits of lockdown is I’ve got the studio all to myself, no interruptions and then I can just immerse myself in a different world of beauty.”
Do you find that your student’s music inspires you in turn?
“Yeah, at its best it does. There’s a wide range of things, the biggest problem with contemporary students is a lot of them don’t really look back far enough. They’ve been taught previously, a lot of them, that to be successful you have to sound like Diplo or something, or Tiesto, but really the reason why they’re successful in any shape or form is because they sent their inspiration from previous people.
The more singer/songwritery ones think it’s quite edgy to go back as far as Adele. I’m constantly trying encourage them to look a bit deeper really. Once we’re done that they start creating really interesting work because obviously they’ve got all that contemporary tools now, but we need to put it in service of something that’s a bit more rigorous.”
And this sounds like another example of you with an eye on the future.
Interview by Banjo