Martyn Ware interview: The Heaven 17 synth pioneer on Sheffield, music and architecture

Martyn Ware.
Martyn Ware.
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The early music of Sheffield band The Human League arguably brought architecture to pop - songs constructed around austere synthesiser motifs that evoked a vision of the future in much the same way as the city's forward-thinking modernist buildings.

So it comes as little surprise to learn Martyn Ware - the group's former keyboard mastermind who appeared on their first two albums, Reproduction and Travelogue, before leaving to form another classic act, Heaven 17 - is a fan of structural design.

The Broomhall flats, where Martyn Ware lived, in 1978.

The Broomhall flats, where Martyn Ware lived, in 1978.

"I'm very interested in architecture and urban planning and the future of cities," he says. "I could easily do an hour's talk."

This is just as well - Ware is speaking this weekend at the inaugural Sheffield Modern festival, a three-day event designed to put our built environment under the spotlight. There will be tours of places like the Crucible theatre and the Park Hill estate, a star example of postwar Brutalism that is midway through a huge revamp, as well as Modernists In Conversation, a day of talks which features Ware on the bill.

"It fits quite well with my interests," he reasons, and it is true that music isn't the only string to Ware's bow. In 2000 - alongside Vince Clarke of Erasure, Yazoo and Depeche Mode - he launched Illustrious, an arts company that creates large-scale installations with 3D sound. This other job as a 'sonic muralist' has involved delivering projects across Britain and Europe, with some commissions as far afield as Miami and Mexico.

"I do a lot of work with architects," says Ware. "I prefer modernist stuff, really - a lot of stuff that emerged in the wake of Art Deco. There's a place in London called the Isokon Flats in Hampstead which is amazing, one of the first futurist apartment blocks. And there's one in Brighton I stayed in recently that was amazing and you think 'God, they had a real vision then'. A lot of it went on to inform the design of council housing, post-war. And I grew up in council housing. And everybody, the middle classes, used to say in a very patronising way: 'Well, they were dreadful for the poor people, living in there'. I loved it, I thought they were great compared to the two-up, two-down houses with outside toilets and no bathrooms we used to have. Believe me, they were super luxury." 

The Human League's early line-up at Derwent Dam: Phil Oakey, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Adrian Wright.

The Human League's early line-up at Derwent Dam: Phil Oakey, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Adrian Wright.

Ware was born in Upperthorpe and went to King Edward VII school in Broomhill; his father was a steelworker and his mum worked on a factory line. When their home was demolished the family moved to Burngreave then, when Ware was 11, they went to the Broomhall flats, a complex knocked down in the 1980s.

"I can't be as generic as to say 'I love all Brutalism', because I don't," he says of the architectural term that comes from the French béton-brut, meaning 'raw concrete', the movement's signature material.   

"There are certain elements I wasn't so fond of. Anybody who's done as much travelling as me would probably feel the same. Having spent quite a bit of time in Eastern Europe and Moscow, believe me there's nothing romantic about Brutalist architecture there. It's just ugly. But there are some fantastic buildings."  

Park Hill, he says, was a 'great social experiment', although clearing hundreds of council tenants to make way for the refurbishment didn't sit well with Ware, a staunch Labour supporter.

Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory at Sheffield City Hall. Picture: Becki Tovey

Heaven 17's Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory at Sheffield City Hall. Picture: Becki Tovey

"I was never that fond of the design, although it looks great as a model now. The redevelopment I wasn't so massively happy about - I'm all for keeping places intact, but I'm not really in agreement with the reduction of the amount of council housing. We need more, so anything that reduces council housing is not good."

Ware was heavily influenced by the sound of Sheffield, too - he likens the noise of the steelworks' drop forges to 'the heartbeat of the city'. "The place where we rehearsed was an ex-little mester’s shop. Fundamentally I was constantly surrounded by the sounds of industry, which I thought was completely normal."   

Cheap practice spaces were crucial in allowing the first Human League line-up to develop, he thinks. "We had lots of places where people could rehearse for virtually nothing in the centre of Sheffield, because a lot of people had moved out. It was very much about having your own place - imagine being a teenager, and you and your mates have got a place which is yours. It frees the imagination."

He met most of his key collaborators - Phil Oakey, the Human League's vocalist, and his later partners in Heaven 17, Glenn Gregory and Ian Craig Marsh - at Meatwhistle, a council-funded arts enterprise held at the Holly Building behind the City Hall.

Heaven 17 in the 1980s - Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory, Ian Craig Marsh

Heaven 17 in the 1980s - Martyn Ware, Glenn Gregory, Ian Craig Marsh

"It started off as a drama-based thing in collaboration with the Crucible but quickly turned into a test bed for imagining you were in a pop group, for instance, and playing for your mates. This stood us in good stead. The main two people were Chris and Veronica Wilkinson, who were actors - they saw the potential for young people being creative. It was an amazing, life-changing thing and to this day I keep saying to anyone who will listen to me, what we need is Meatwhistle Two, essentially. It didn’t actually cost that much money."

The venture was, he points out, 'completely cross-demographic'. "It brought people together from different financial and ethnic backgrounds. That has informed not just my music, but my principles throughout my life."

Ware, 62, now lives in Primrose Hill with his wife, Landsley, and their children Elena and Gabriel. He is a visiting professor at Queen Mary University of London, a member of BAFTA and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, as well as the principal of Tileyard Education, which offers training programmes in music, film-making and more.

A Wednesdayite, he returns to Sheffield regularly; just three weeks ago he was back, talking about synths at the Sensoria Festival. He feels the place is 'amazingly creative still'. "I think there's a degree of bolshiness, for want of a better word. People don't theorise too much, they just do it. That's what I've always loved about my home town. It's a place of pride in craft and production, of all kinds."

And, in December, Heaven 17 are appearing at the O2 Academy on a 35th anniversary tour of their album The Luxury Gap, which contained the hits Temptation and Come Live With Me.

"It's ridiculous, isn't it," jokes Ware, when reminded the LP came out in 1983. "This is the amazing thing - for the first time are probably going to sell out the entire tour, in decent-sized venues. Year on year we're getting more people who want to see us. I would never have predicted this 35 years ago, and it's very flattering. We get a lot of repeat business." 

Heaven 17 - a duo of Ware and singer Gregory following Marsh's departure - often pop up at the Rewind Festival, a celebration of 1980s music staged in Berkshire, Cheshire and Perthshire, Scotland. Ware also had a hand in other 80s hits, such as Tina Turner's cover of Al Green's Let's Stay Together, through his British Electric Foundation offshoot.

"There just seems to be an unending loyalty towards that period," he reflects.

In June it was 40 years since the first Human League gig at the Psalter Lane art college, and the release of their first single, the influential, minimal 'Being Boiled', but the occasion came and went without any real fanfare.

"Here's the thing," says Ware. "Myself and Glenn have been trying to persuade Phil for at least seven or eight years, and the Human League's management, that it would be great to do a one-off gig in a big venue, together with visual accompaniment, just to put it to bed, because the first two Human League albums have never been performed since back in the day. And I think people would really like that and it would be very successful. And they just won't have it so... yeah. That's sad, I think."

Heaven 17 always perform Being Boiled as part of their set, he says, while his old band focus on their later, chart-topping LP Dare and its aftermath. "To be honest, Heaven 17 perform more original Human League songs than the Human League do. So make of that what you will. I'm very proud of those first two albums and I'm not sure the current Human League are, judging by their actions anyway. Watch this space."

The Sheffield Modern architecture weekender, organised by the Sheffield Modernist Society and Our Favourite Places, runs from Friday to Sunday, October 26 to 28. Visit http://modernist-society.org/events for details.

‘There’s less optimism around’

Martyn Ware believes the late 1970s and early 1980s was a 'golden age'.

"I think it's generally accepted now," he says. "The idea seems to be growing as we get further on."

Punk, he says, was 'the blue touchpaper' in Britain but disco, German experimental music, film soundtracks, science fiction and even the moon landings all had an effect on Ware, who bought a Korg 700 keyboard with his first wages as a computer operator, his job before the Human League.

"It's just not the same now, is it," he says. "It's a different, less future-facing world. There's less optimism around, shall we say, and that's putting it mildly. I'm very proud of the fact young people are now really getting 'woke' to the idea they need to shape their own future. And they are making it happen."