Interview with Martyn Ware of Heaven 17

Heaven 17 have been working on a new album for several years. However, with current members Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory also involved with other projects, finding the time to complete it has been a challenge. Recently, they gave listeners a taste of what’s to come by putting out a new limited-availability digital release, “Not for Public Broadcast.” It contains a single previously sold at live shows, as well as ‘work in progress’ versions of more new tracks, giving listeners an insight into Heaven 17’s creative process.

The group was founded in 1980 when Ware and Ian Craig Marsh broke away from the original Human League. With Gregory on vocals, Heaven 17 went on to have many hits in the 80s, including “Temptation,” “Let Me Go” and “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry.” Releases became more sporadic after 1988’s “Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho,” but in recent years Heaven 17 have been very active as a live band.

Having run an extensive interview with Ware back in 2014, we thought it was time to check in with him for an update. Over Skype, he discussed the new recordings, upcoming live shows, and chances of a reunion with the Human League.

You recently put out “work in progress” versions of some new songs. How did that come about?

“It’s quite an interesting thing. I’ve been sponsored by Bowers and Wilkins since I started Illustrious, my soundscape company, in 2000. They’d started Society of Sound a while back and had talked about wanting to put something by Heaven 17 out. It’s a subscription service, and there isn’t a lot of money in it, really. They give you a small amount of money and then it’s just another of their monthly releases. They release high definition music. But then I told them that I had a conceptual idea, which Glenn also liked, which was releasing the album as kind of a halfway stage work in progress to expose the process of how we make an album. They liked that idea a lot, so that’s what we did. It’s only available for a month as a download. After that, it’s unavailable again so people will have to wait until the album is released properly, when we get around to finishing it.”

Two of the songs had already been released as a single sold on tour, but what was the state of the new music?

“There were 2 new tracks that we were planning on releasing as the next single and 3 tracks that were halfway through being developed, some of which had no lyrics. That’s really the state of where we are with the album. There are some other tracks we’ve started, but we thought that the amount of content that we’d put out on this release was enough for now. We did have an original idea for the complete album, which was to call the whole thing ‘Not for Public Broadcast’ as a bit of a concept art piece, not allowing it to be broadcast on the radio or any digital formats at all and only selling it as a physical project via our website just as an experiment. I’m not sure if that’s what we’re going to do now, because we’ve kind of fulfilled that kind of creative idea with this release. We’ll see. The problem is that in today’s market, there isn’t much in the way of sales anyway, to be honest. I hate to be the bearer of bad news. I’m not particularly upset about it, because we do very well with our live work and lots of other things. So, you’ve got to diversify and do lots of different things.”

What are your general thoughts on this type of subscription model?

“Well, we’ve been thinking about it for a while now. I like the idea. In the old model, you’d spend forever making an album and then wait for the right marketing window, which could be 3 to 18 months away, to release it and build up a mythical demand. It worked in the past, but I’m not sure it works anymore. People don’t release singles anymore; now it’s more like featured tracks. Someone like Ed Sheeran can release 10 different tracks simultaneously and they occupy 10 of the 20 places in the top 20. It doesn’t make sense anymore, any of this stuff, to me. There is still an entity called the ‘album’ which is sold, but people tend to not listen in that format anymore, except if they’re buying vinyl, of course. They tend to do things differently. I don’t know what a single is anymore. I don’t see the relevance of a single’s chart anymore. In the UK, anyway.”

When do you think the full album will be ready?

“Good question. I can’t commit to anything, because when I do, people moan at us. So, I’m not going to commit to anything. We both want to get on with it, but Glenn’s in the process of writing a huge amount of music for TV at the moment. Also, he’s doing the Holy Holy tour and I’ve got a lot of other commitments at the moment. Shortly, I’m about to become principal of a new education entity called Tileyard Education. I’m going to be headmaster of a master’s course. Hey, you’ve got to pay the bills, right? So, we would love to finish the album as soon as possible, but it’s a matter of finding the time when we’re both available.”

How would you say the new material has been evolving since you started working on it?

“I think it’s likely to evolve in a more esoteric manner. We’re still doing traditional pop music structures, but I tend to think that we’re more interested now in different forms. I’d say were heading in more of a Scott Walker-ish direction, though maybe not as extreme as that but more impressionistic…it’s hard to describe. What’s the impetus? We’re never going to be Drake or Beyoncé. In reality, we’re never going to have a giant international hit again. So, we may as well do what we feel in our artistic hearts. “

Could you talk about your upcoming tour with Blancmange?

“We’re doing a load of dates, but that tour is in November and December. We toured with them two or three years ago and had a great time. There’s a good synergy between the two bands, I think. We’re both from similar working-class backgrounds in the North of England. We have a similar love of electronic pop music. Fundamentally, we’re going to create some new versions of familiar songs. We’re also going to be playing some of the new material, and it’s also, by coincidence, the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Human League in November of this year. So, I think we might do a section of the show dedicated to that, but we’re not sure yet.”

You seem to do a lot of the hits live, but do you ever go back and re-introduce older material that you particularly like?

“We’re constantly looking at that sort of thing. It’s difficult, though, because on the one hand, we have a big back catalog of popular songs, and if you don’t do any of those songs, you get slaughtered. So that’s kind of like 2/3 of the set gone already. Unless we did a 2-hour show, which I have no intention of doing because I’d get bored. Not performing—I mean, I personally don’t like seeing long rock shows, like an hour and 40 is about my limit. So yes, we’re always looking to introduce 2 or 3 more back catalog songs. But we want to play the new songs as well, so where do we fit all this in? Every year, we add to our repertoire, some new and old songs. We will be doing that with the tour in November.”

You mentioned the 40th anniversary of the first Human League album. Have you ever considered working together again?

“Yes, we had at one point when we first kissed and made up, over 10 years ago now. There were some vague noises that it might be nice to do something together again. But that all seems to have gone by the wayside now, I’m afraid. Since then, we’ve suggested that it would be great to go and perform the first 2 Human League albums, just as a kind of historical thing. We get told by The Human League management, who presumably represent the views of the band…I think that last communication we had about it was ‘over my dead body.’ Since that less-than-enthusiastic reception of the idea, despite a lot of desire for it to happen from the fan base on both the Human League and Heaven 17 sides, and us, it’s proved to be…well, The Human League now rarely perform any of the first 2 albums apart from ‘Being Boiled.’ So that says something, really. We perform a lot more of the first 2 albums than they do.”

I really liked the 1996 album “Bigger Than America.” There was a gap of many years before and after that release.  At the time, did you see it as a one-off reunion or did you intend to follow it up sooner?

“’Bigger than America’ was our last attempt at having a big international hit album with proper financial support. I’m very proud of that album, by the way. I think it stands the test of time. I remember thinking at the time that we wanted to make an album that was our last chance to use all the original synths. We used a lot of Jupiter 8 and Jupiter 4—all the original synths and the original Linn Drums as well. That’s why the album sounded so great. So, we wanted to do a kind of tribute to the sound of what we originally did. We originally signed to a label that was owned by the Snap producers. It was an imprint of Warner Bros in Europe. They loved the album and did pay us good money to make it. It was looking great marketing-wise. But just before we were starting to promote the album, they sold their company. Then our album reverted to Warner, in Europe, who had no interest in it and basically were just fulfilling their contractual obligations to promote it. So, it turned into a nightmare, even though the album was great. It never got promoted properly, which is really sad.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“We still love Heaven 17, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s the most fun of any of the creative enterprises that we do. We’re just so thrilled that people still enjoy it and in increasing numbers come out to see us. I saw the numbers of ticket sales for the new tour and several of the venues are nearing being sold out. It’s amazing, this far ahead. So, I would recommend people getting their tickets soon if they want to come and see us. We are also playing our first ever proper live set in America in September. It’s in Long Beach, California. We are looking into possibilities for more American shows. Tours have been mooted in the past, but it’s never made any economic sense; however, with the pound being so weak at the moment, it might tip the balance.”