Releasing their first album since 2001, Credo, Human League are back. Frontman Phil Oakey explains why it took so long to release new material and why he's glad the Sheffield electro pioneers had their success in the Eighties rather than the Noughties.

By Andy Welch.

'You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you.'

As first lines to songs go, they don't come a lot more recognisable.

Add into that Phil Oakey's unmistakeable baritone and synth backing, and you have a key part of any 1980s playlist.

"It's very kind of people to say I have a distinctive sound," says Human League frontman Oakey, "But I just think my voice sounds like a low, gruff rumble!"

Of course he's being characteristically modest, but low gruff rumbles don't sell almost 1.5 million copies.

Don't You Want Me is the 25th best-selling single in UK chart history, and can be found on Dare, the band's hugely successful, genre-defining 1981 album.

Fast forward 30 years and Human League - now just a three-piece consisting of Oakey and the singers he met in a Sheffield club in 1980, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall - find themselves in a very different position.

Credo, their current album, is their first in a decade and sees Oakey getting back to what he always wanted to do: write songs.

"I don't consider myself a singer, never have done," he says. "The thing I am most proud of is that I had a hand in writing those big hits - Don't You Want Me, Together In Electric Dreams (his solo hit with producer Giorgio Moroder), Tell Me When, things like that.

"After our 2001 album didn't do very well, we were a bit shocked."

That's perhaps an understatement.

Secrets didn't make the Top 40 when it was released, and dropped out of the charts completely a week later.

For a band that had sold more than 20 million records and been consistently in the charts since the early 1980s, it was a disaster.

"Luckily we have a manager who is very down to earth and just said, 'Look, things are changing, you can make money going on tour now'.

"When we toured in the Eighties, it used to cost us money, whereas now that's how you earn it. During the last 10 years, we've really majored in that. We worked hard, rehearsed a lot and concentrated on making sure everyone that came along to our shows enjoyed themselves."

It's a fine way to make a living, but after seven years, Oakey was itching to record new material.

"I thought, 'But I'm a songwriter, I want to write songs'.

"I saw a South Bank Show on Herbie Hancock - and I accept that Herbie Hancock is 100 times the musician I could ever dream of being - but it irked me that no one was interested in us like that anymore, that we were in danger of becoming a footnote of the 1980s.

"I thought we were worthy of being taken seriously as songwriters, that we'd done enough to be considered in that way, so that was that - I started writing songs again."

Oakey came up against something of a stumbling block at this point. By his own admission, he was something of a Luddite, unfamiliar with modern recording techniques and, crucial for an electro outfit, the technology involved.

Electric guitars have barely changed since the 1950s, but 30 years is a long time in synthesizers. The analogue equipment so beloved of Human League, and so fundamental to their sound, had long since fallen by the wayside in favour of computer-based programmes.

"I love synths," he enthuses. "Flashing lights, rotary dials and faders, that's my thing. When everyone started playing music on laptops I lost interest completely, and could never get on with the programmes you needed.

"Thanks to different producers and friends, though, I found one I liked and dived in. It took me about a year to feel fully comfortable, but I had to do it."

This was almost three years ago now, so once that was out of the way, it was just a matter of writing the songs for Credo.

"It was hard work - I've never worked as hard as I did last year," he begins. "But by the end of the album, we'd be recording vocals in one room, I'd be editing in another and talking to producers who were finishing bits off. It was very productive.

"There weren't the arguments we used to have, and I was writing with our drummer. I think a lot of people are scared, because they think of me as the bloke who wrote all these hits, but our drummer Rob wasn't bothered. If I wrote some bad lyrics or did something he didn't like, he'd tell me it had to be better."

Credo took longer to record than anticipated, but that was partly down to Oakey being in demand as a guest vocalist: "I'd be in the middle of writing and bands would ring up saying they liked my voice and ask me to sing on their record.

"It's very flattering, but I think what they probably mean is that they've asked Simon Le Bon and Gary Numan and neither of them will do it."

Oakey's musical rejuvenation has also led him to become a fan of Black Eyed Peas and Rihanna, who he believes share Human League's love of marrying cutting edge production with songwriting, and he also admits to being obsessed with hard dance music over the past few years.

It's not what you might expect a 55-year-old man to be listening to, but it does make sense if you follow the lineage.

"I just want to hear new things," he counters. "I did love Britpop, but I could never understand why youngsters didn't just go and buy Beatles and Stones records. My generation had I Feel Love by Donna Summer, which didn't sound like anything we'd ever heard before.

"I think that's why there was such an electronic revival a few years back - people like La Roux and Little Boots reacting to all the guitar music that was around and making something electronic.

"I was a fan of both, and I could definitely hear the Human League influence in their music. That's the ultimate compliment."

Extra time - Human League :: Phil Oakey was born in Hinckley, Leicestershire, on October 2, 1955.

:: He co-founded Human League in Sheffield in 1978 with Philip Adrian Wright, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware. The latter pair walked out in 1981 to go and form fellow electronic band Heaven 17.

:: Oakey met Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, then just 17 and 18 respectively, in a Sheffield club and asked them to join Human League. Neither girl had any musical experience, but joined regardless. Oakey had to visit the girls' parents to ask permission for their daughters to go on tour.

:: When the subject of retirement is mentioned, Oakey says he, along with Sulley and Catherall will "carry on for as long as they are filling concerts and people want to see them".

:: Human League's new album Credo is out now