Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory

As co-founder of both The Human League and Heaven 17, it’s hard to dispute Martyn Ware’s pioneering role in the rise of synthpop in the early ’80s — and this year sees Ware and bandmate Glenn Gregory marking that legacy with a commemoration of Heaven 17’s landmark debut, Penthouse and Pavement.

Slicing Up Eyeballs got a chance to talk to Ware last week about the making of that 1981 album, which brought together synth-heavy pop and left-leaning political and social themes (“We deliberately built it to have many layers,” Ware explains) and spawned five singles, including the banned-by-the-BBC “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang.”

Ware also spoke about the recent discovery of Penthouse and Pavement’s original eight-track demos (to be included in a new 3CD box-set reissue due this fall) and Heaven 17’s 30th anniversary U.K. tour this November (full dates here) — a multimedia affair that will spotlight the debut album as well as the music of the B.E.F., the concurrent side project Ware formed with now-departed Heaven 17 member Ian Craig Marsh.

Finally, Ware talked about the past and present of synthpop, and the renewed appreciation of that early ’80s sound he had such a hand in — plus the future of Heaven 17 itself, which is mulling a tour celebrating its 1983 sophomore album, The Luxury Gap, next year, as well as possible new music under the Heaven 17 and B.E.F. banners.

Read our full Q&A with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware after the jump…

Heaven 17, 'Penthouse and Pavement'

SLICING UP EYEBALLS: So I understand you’ve just returned from the States – you were lecturing at Harvard?

MARTYN WARE: Yeah, that’s right. It was cool; I talked to a bunch of architects about interactive architecture and the role of sound in the future of immersive architecture. …  I’d lectured there a couple of years ago, and this time it went really, really well. I think the architectural world is waking up to the idea that buildings are more than just bricks and mortar and glass and concrete, and that architects should pay more attention to all the senses. It’s not just sound – it’s smells, ambiance. The interesting philosophical point is if they approach the design from the outset with that in mind, it has a significant impact.

EYEBALLS: How’d you get involved in this field?

WARE: I’ve got a company called Sonic ID, which is kind of a sound-branding company. Basically, a friend of mine, Noel Franus, who is a partner in the company, is friends with a guy named Gregory Beck who is an architect who teaches at Harvard , and he asked me to take part in this. With sound branding, I kind of straddle the artistic world and the commercial world in an interesting way. People like myself act as a kind of conduit for ideas between these two worlds.

EYEBALLS: You could say the same about Heaven 17’s music, too – that it straddles those two worlds.

WARE: Probably to our own detriment (laughing). We’re very eclectic. The way we assemble stuff, we tend to care less about marketing and more about just being interesting.

EYEBALLS: Looking back at “Penthouse and Pavement,” clearly that was pop music, but there was also much more to it than that.

WARE: Yeah, we deliberately built it to have many layers, and also to have a kind of longevity. I remember distinctly we discussed at the time, “Let’s try to make an album people will still want to play in 10 years’ time.” We had no idea, of course – we couldn’t even conceptualize – the idea of 30 years in the future. It’s extremely flattering that people are still listening to it and in some cases are inspired by it.

EYEBALLS: What was the genesis of this year’s 30th anniversary tour of the album?

WARE: Well, once we missed the 25th, it seemed a pity not to celebrate 30. Any band with that kind of longevity deserves some kind of credit – if they’re still working, that is. We’ve now been playing live properly since ’98. We didn’t perform live for 17 years – not properly, anyway. We did TV shows and PAs (back in the ‘80s). We’ve now done some support on big arena tours and then we did some ‘80s shows. But since ’98, we’ve become quite experienced and pretty good at what we do, I think. And there’s something about Heaven 17 that sounds a bit timeless when we play live. People that don’t know us come to our shows, the younger generation often goes away thinking we’re a contemporary act, which is weird.

EYEBALLS: But that must be nice to hear, I’d imagine.

WARE: Yes, it’s great. We make a positive effort to include younger players in our band and stuff anyway. We’re at a point where we think we’re pretty good live and, you know, we’re ready to take on the world, really.

EYEBALLS: What was the reaction when you started doing the “Penthouse and Pavement” shows in March?

WARE: We didn’t know what the reception was going to be, to be honest. Our first indication was when we did a warm-up gig in a placed called Leamington, just an hour outside of London – a very sedate, small town. It was in a lovely old theater that holds about 500. We didn’t even look to see how many tickets we’d sold. We wanted to do it outside of a public place, more or less, but then the place sold out and the audience went insane in this tiny little town of 50,000 or something, well, compared to Sheffield, anyway. Then we did the big pilot show in Sheffield at the Steelworks, and that was a big success and we filmed that for transmission. The BBC picked up on it, BBC2, actually, which was a huge deal. We did a making-of Penthouse and Pavement as well, and that was on BBC as well. So there was a huge kind of wave of goodwill. People realized they really loved that album. People came out of the woodwork saying how much they love it, and that just give us a lot of confidence. So consequently we did some festivals and country house gigs all over the summer, and then we’re doing the big tour, of course, in November. It’s been a joy – there’s no doubt about it. It’s paying the bills. It’s exciting to do and we’re enjoying it.

EYEBALLS: For these shows, you’ve incorporated a lot of multimedia elements, as well as some of the old B.E.F. material, right?

WARE: Basically we’re touring with a big video screen behind us. For the last 10 years, through my soundscape design, I’ve come into contact with a lot of fantastic visual designers and artists, and I had this idea to ask them to create some content for these screens. I said, “Look, there’s no money in it – we’re already looking money, we’re breaking even more or less – but if you want to get your work out, we’ll give you loads of credit and you’ll get reported on in design journals.” And amazingly, everybody said yes. … We wanted to create the entire experience for people, from the minute they enter the venue, it’s part art installation and part gig, and the two kind of blend into one another. So the first 40 minutes, or close to an hour, are the B.E.F. instrumentals with visual accompaniment, and it’s really like a big kind of mesmeric art installation. And then it turns into the show. We come into the stage and the screens are still behind us. It’s a good experience – the whole night, a lot of work went into it. … We basically wanted people to try and interpret the lyrics in a graphical manner on the screen. They’re quite low-res screens, the pixels are quite wide apart, so it lends itself to abstraction.

EYEBALLS: Was it fun to see what these artists came up with?

WARE: It was amazing. It was completely beyond our expectations and it’s become a vital part of that show, so we’re eternally grateful to these people.

EYEBALLS: Were you pleased to be able to resurrect the early B.E.F. material?

WARE: Yes. The thing with the B.E.F. stuff is it was happening at the same time as the writing of Penthouse and Pavement, so it’s completely, authentically recreating the creative atmosphere of the time. They’re so completely interwoven, they’re almost one thing, anyway. It lends a certain territorial and artistic depth to the whole thing, which is indicative of the kind of eclecticism we were interested in at the time. When we were discussing this tour, we looked at what distinguishes what we did then and what we do now from other bands, and this is one of the things – that we were doing quite a lot of things at the same time. So even during the show we’ll bring out guest artists to sing the B.E.F. songs form Music of Quality and Distinction Vol. 1. So it’s kind of “An Evening with B.E.F.” as much as a Heaven 17 gig.

EYEBALLS: More of a full taste of what you were doing 30 years ago.

WARE: Yeah, it’s a broader kind of thing. That bands I’ve been involved with, we’ve always been interested in a little bit more of an artistic kind of interpretation of where we were at a particular time. So a lot of that can be appreciated as pop music or whatever, but there was something different going on underneath. Heaven 17 was always like a puzzle. It sounds pretentious, but that’s the way it was.

EYEBALLS: I read on your blog recently that you’ve discovered some of the original “Penthouse and Pavement” eight-track recordings.

WARE: Yeah, I’ve literally been mixing them today. It’s just mind-bending. I was listening to the original vocal of “Fascist Groove Thang” and you can clearly hear the buses going past outside the building from 30 years ago – they were a different kind of bus in those days, different engines. I’m going, “It’s too weird.” (We’ve found) original demos of “The Height of the Fighting” and “Soul Warfare” and “Play to Win” and “Penthouse and Pavement” that I didn’t know existed anymore.

EYEBALLS: Where’d you find them?

WARE: In those days, we had a one-inch tape machine, an Ampex, which was quite an unusual format, but it was all we could afford at the time. It was very, very good quality. It sounded great. But as soon as we moved into recording Penthouse and Pavement in a professional studio, we decided to move onto a proper kind of two-inch, 16-track tape machine. So these one-inch tapes got stored at Virgin, because we’d just signed with them at that point. However, they disappeared – nobody knew where they were, since 1980, until three months ago. We’re in the process of looking for rarities for a super luxury box set edition of Penthouse and Pavement to go with the tour later this year, with all sorts of stuff like lyrics and a poster and all of that stuff. And then (someone at EMI Music) was like, look, here’s the actual tapes.

EYEBALLS: Quite a find.

WARE: Yeah, but that wasn’t the end of it. We didn’t know whether anybody in the world had a one-inch tape machine. It just transpired that Virgin is now owned by EMI and EMI owns Abbey Road and Abbey Road has got the only one-inch tape machine in existence, I think. And so these boxes that we found had no notes on them, no track sheets, nothing. We had no idea what was on these tapes. Basically, we went into … professional studios in London to re-record the whole album, to start from scratch. So these early versions of the first side of Penthouse and Pavement predated us being introduced to the LinnDrum, so it’s got the kind of Human League rhythm sounds, but with some funk. It’s kind of a weird hybrid. … It’s really good and interesting. It’s got completely different takes of John Wilson’s bass playing and rhythm guitar. It’s just brilliant. It sounds excellent and kind of real groovy. So that’s going to be released this fall, the rarities. It’s going to come out in November.

EYEBALLS: How many CDs will it be?

WARE: Well, until we found this, it was just going to be two CDs. There was going to be a rarities CD, and now there will (also) be a 60-minute CD of this stuff that just emerged..

EYEBALLS: You’re planning to release all of the material?

WARE: Yeah, yeah. We’ll release this box set and the possibly the rarities will be separately released next year, I suppose.

EYEBALLS: Sounds fascinating to hear.

WARE: Yeah, I’m just as thrilled as anybody. It’s just brilliant. It’s like time travel. It’s like a time capsule. It’s like reliving your mental state 30 years ago. I can identify what we were doing, I think, to the month – but then wipe it from your memory, and then find it again in 30 years. It’s a science fiction novel, honestly.

EYEBALLS: Given the themes of the album and the political context of the times 30 years ago, how do you feel it resonates today?

WARE: Just about everything we sang about then is relevant now. We just got a new conservative government in Britain, which is very depressing. There’s not as much nuclear paranoia, I suppose, but I suppose we’d be singing about the destruction of Earth and global warming now. People misinterpreted a lot of it as being kind of yuppie aspirational, and that was just not really it. It was more of a parody of that, as was the cover of the album. We were trying to debunk the whole “artist as troubadour” myth. We saw what we were doing as not didactic, but kind of a more buried stealth opinion.

EYEBALLS: Still seems hard to believe “Fascist Groove Thang” was actually banned.

WARE: Yeah. But it’s still the most popular song we do in Germany. By a lot. Seriously.

EYEBALLS: What do you feel the legacy is not just of “Penthouse and Pavement” or Heaven 17, but the whole early ‘80s synthpop sound? Seems like there’s a lot of interest in that lately, with, say “Synth Britannia” or some of the music that’s echoing that today.

WARE: The synths really were the engine that was  driving that. When we started the Human League, the synths we were using were the first kind of diffusion-range synths made for the domestic market. … The early Roland synths were very reasonably priced, together with the Korg synths. It was just within reach of people that, like us, were very poor. To get a big modular synth system, you had to be Kraftwerk, for Christ’s sake. They were wealthy – people forget this. We weren’t. We were working class kids, so we came form a different place entirely. So that fact compounded with a futurist kind of thing made it much more like a homespun kind of sound. … We were pioneers, I suppose, but everybody was becoming interested in these sounds, and it became a normal part of pop music. OMD, for instance, who we’re friends with, always have been – their stuff was less about daring sounds and more about the fact that it was just electronic. They were using the synths in a way that was not experimental, it was more like the synths were just taking the roles of traditional instruments in pop music. Whereas we didn’t really approach it that way. Eventually it just became the default setting, didn’t it. Everybody was using synths for a while, and then it got kind of boring for a bit.

EYEBALLS: What do you think of current synthpop?

WARE: After synths went out of fashion, like all things do, dance music took over for a while and then ironed out all of the creases and made it very boring. And now songwriting’s back and people seem to be more interested in songwriting, but using the sounds from that period, or sounds that are similar to that period. I don’t think the rise of virtual synths has really has really helped. It’s much easier for people to access sounds on their own setup on virtual synths than learning how to use samples of real instruments and make them sound realistic. That’s why everything sounds kind of ‘80s now. All pop artists are using that sound right now – but what they tend to forget is a lot of stuff from that period were really good songs as well. It’s not just a matter of using the appropriate sounds. You’ve still got to write a song that’s got hooks in it.

EYEBALLS: So what’s next for Heaven 17? New material? New album?

WARE: It’s an ongoing continuum, really. We’re currently discussing recreating the whole of Luxury Gap for the next tour, which would be towards the end of next year. And we’ll do some new Heaven 17 material. I don’t think it’ll be a full album. It’ll probably be an EP or something. And I want to do a new B.E.F. album, and we’ve got some very exciting plans for some festival work that, unfortunately, I can’t tell you about at the moment. It’s very delicate.

EYEBALLS: Any chance the “Penthouse and Pavement” tour will come to the U.S.?

WARE: We’d love to. I’m desperate to do it. Only problem is finding promoters who can afford to pay for us to come over and make it economically feasible. We wouldn’t be confident in booking venues with more than about 1,500 seats, and that’s difficult with a six-piece band. … I’d love to do it. I know for a fact we’d do well in New York, but you can’t do that amount of work for one gig. If any of your readers are promoters who want to bring us over, we’d be very happy to talk to them.

EYEBALLS: I know there are people who’d love to see this show, but whether it’s enough to make it viable, I have no idea.

WARE: All we can do is put the word out. We’re desperate to do it.

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