He co-wrote #1 hits we’re still singing today; “Don’t You Want Me”, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, “Mirror Man” – and now he’s remixing tracks for The Cabonauts (debuting later this year). We caught up with the seminal Jo Callis at his home in Scotland…(and yes, it reads like a Smash Hits interview on purpose!!)
Jo Callis, how the hell are you?
I’m good thanks, apart from a sore back today, doubtless caused by leaning over my Mac powerbook till the early hours of the morning remixing tunes for those pesky Cabonauts!
What’s an average day in bonny Scotland like for you these days?
Usually wet and overcast. I’ve been working from home a lot recently, so there can be the ever present danger of “cabin fever”, with no government health and safety initiatives in place to protect one from ones self. But still, there’s always the pub, Glasgow or the highlands never too far away for a bit of distraction. Actually, forget all that – it would sound much more rock and roll if I were to say; “In my life, there’s no such thing as an average day”!
So what was the main reason you wanted to do some remixing for The Cabonauts – what attracted you to the project?
Being asked to do so in the first place was a promising omen, and I liked the opportunity to be involved in a quality project with an “independent” approach, where the artistic control and purity of vision is crucially important and not to be compromised, and with the impressive list of names involved. Who could refuse?
Hayden also gave me his assurance that if I did just this one thing for him, then Manchester United would win both The Premiership, The Champions League and the FA Cup this season, for he had seen this in a premonition, and surely it would come to pass.
Why did The Rezillos recently disband?
The Rezillos haven’t disbanded, I just left. I guess I’d run my course with it and perhaps my original expectations were a little high, with most of the other members also having careers in other professions, activity was just too sporadic for me and it was beginning to feel too much like a hobby, which didn’t really suit me. My replacement though, one Jim Brady, is a very capable and splendid fellow and also a good mate. Jim had been doing live stage production for us anyway, so he knows everybody in the band and he should slot in quite nicely. Jim also performs and records with his own electro duo “The Nanobots”.
Let’s talk about your past. How did you write with Philip?
I wrote with Phil in a variety of ways, as is often the case with collaborative songwriting. Quite often I would have a complete backing track which Phil would put words and melody to, on other occasions we would each have “parts” of songs which would gel together, and sometimes things would materialise as the the result of a bit of a “jam” (a synthesiser jam of course). Songs would then evolve and develop, usually in the studio during the recording process, or as in the case of “Mirror Man”, performed live on tour as a new song. It was called “I can’t get to sleep at night” originally, but had a lyric re-write for the record. I think I suggested that the songs new title might be “Here Comes The Ice Cream Van”, which Phil improved on a little! I would suggest more “sensible” titles or odd lines now and again, such as “The Lebanon”, and on “Fascination” I think I furnished Phil with the entire third verse as he was running a bit dry at the time, but I could mostly leave the words to Phil, he’s an excellent lyricist when he puts his mind to it, and he is the geezer who has to sing the buggers at the end of the day.
Why did you leave Ver League after ’84?
After “Dare” producer Martin Rushent’s departure – and during the recording of the difficult follow up album “Hysteria” – I think I was just getting so frustrated that everything was taking so long, and the decision making process wasn’t as bold and fearless as before. Direction seemed to be getting a little lost and things were starting to go a bit pear shaped. I tried so hard to keep the relationship with Martin together, to no avail at the time, but I did manage to help resurrect most of “the team” temporarily for the 1990 “Gulf War” single; Heart Like A Wheel, which was a respectable hit on both sides of the Atlantic. With hindsight, I think that if we’d had Hysteria out within a year or eighteen months of Dare, it would have made a world of difference. I had assumed that my decision to leave the group would have been documented by a press statement of some sort from the band to the music press at least, and that I would be requested to do some “spill the beans” type interviews, and perhaps a few work offers might come my way now that it was common knowledge that I was a free agent again. But alas, nothing? Nobody seemed to be acknowledging my deparure. I soon learned that you very much have to blow your own trumpet in this world! Perhaps I should have stuck around, who knows?
Did you write songs for Octopus and Romantic that didn’t make the albums? If so, will they ever show up anywhere?
Well, I’ve just been trawling through my archive of hundreds of vintage “compact cassette tapes” (remember them?) from the olden days, to jog my memory, and I’ve discovered there were more unfinished tunes than I’d initially remembered, mostly in the shape of fairly complete “demo” backing tracks with perhaps a title, or at least a working title. A couple of ‘em could have had possibilities as well, with a bit more work. Most interesting of all “League” outake type stuff though, I think, was an instrumental backing track from the “Dare” album era, which I’d done, which Phil christened “Beauty”, and had the beginnings of a chorus. The backing track alone appeared on Youtube with a homespun bleak cityscape type montage video and was titled something like; “Sheffield Steel City”. I just spent the past hour or so trying to find it, but it doesn’t appear to be online any longer, which is a shame. It was only ever an “inhouse” demo tape and I’ve no idea how it leaked out, but it was a nice job. So I would guess that Youtube and such the like are the places where these sort of things are likely to show up, if at all.
How come you weren’t involved with Secrets?
Good question! In keeping with the albums title, it was certainly “well kept”. I think I’d just been a bit out of touch with the Sheffield Brigade at the time, we were all probably pretty preoccupied with our various projects. Shamefully in fact, I only became aware of “Secrets” fairly recently, and I still haven’t even heard it! I’ve heard tell that it’s meant to be the best League album since Dare though, so I guess I’d best give it a listen afore too long.
I would have to agree. So going further back in time; how familiar with Ver League were you prior to you joining up?
Both “Ver League” and “Ver Rezillos” had a common manager in one Bob Last. Well I say common, but he was quite well brung up actually, so we were all pretty familiar with each other – in a platonic sense of course. In fact the first time I met “Ver League” they were opening for The Rezillos at a gig in London. From then on we would usually catch up when either they were playing in Edinburgh where we lived, or if I were playing in Sheffield where they were usually found. Sometimes we’d all be in London at the same time and hang out. I was interested in what Ver League were doing and listened to “Reproduction” and “Travelogue” quite a lot. After The Rezillos split I had a band called SHAKE with a couple of the other former Rezillos (plus Troy Tate who went on to join Teardrop Explodes around about the same time as I joined Ver League) and we’d rehearsed a “guitar” cover version of “Path Of Least Resistance” from Reproduction.
Tell us about the offer you got to join Ver League. Who made it, what was said, what drove you to take it?
Apparently, Bob Last, who was manager of both The League and myself at the time, had been talking to Phil about me, and had said, uh, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.’ You understand? A wiseguy”. It was kind of an offer I couldn’t refuse, even though I knew I could never be “made” because I came from Rotherham. It didn’t even matter that my mother had relations in Sheffield. You’ve got to be one hundred percent Sheffield, so they can trace all your relatives back to t’ steel works. See, it’s the highest honour they can give you. Anyway, I’d been fancying a change from playing in purely “guitar bands”, and doing something a little different, so like, I made sure I got right in there.
You were part of the biggest band in the world for a year or so. What was it like?
Which song(s) have you written that you’re most proud of? Both in Ver League and out of it.
Oh gosh, it’s so difficult to be objective on this one, but as far as goes “League” songs I find things like “Seconds” and “Hard Times” really satisfying, I’m also quite proud of “Fascination” and “The Lebanon” which were fairly guitar driven but hopefully without compromising the Leagues fundamentally electronic sound too much, more just pushing at its envelope – after all, once you’ve plugged a solid bodied electric guitar with magnetic pick ups into all manner of amplification and sound treatment devices, it surely don’t get much more electronic than that, do it? With The Rezillos I was pleased with how I felt the music and the lyrics worked together on things like “Flying Saucer Attack”, (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures and “Cold Wars” – like little movies. Several of my favourite own songs though sit on demo cassettes and CD’s and have never really seen the light of day at all. But I guess that’s what the internet is there for nowadays.
Did you ever get sick of hearing any of your songs?
I can get quite sick of hearing “Don’t You Want Me Baby”, but I do have to acknowledge that it does probably pay the best part of my rent, so it’s a problem I don’t mind having. But with “Don’t You Want Me” getting played so frequently (I got another ASCAP airplay award for it last year, 25 odd years after the initial event) It’s always pleasing to hear other less frequently played songs.
Tell us about your writing process.
My creative process is a bit like the TV show “Scrapheap Challenge”, where teams compete to build some kind of machine or other out of parts scavenged from a large junkyard. Well my head is a bit like that, I’m constantly sifting through the junk, rubbish and nonsense in there trying to find the little useable gems. And I’m constantly adding stuff to that junk pile!
Where did the idea of including guitar on Hysteria come from? Was it a band decision, Hugh Padgham (producer), or pressure from Virgin Records to use more “traditional” instruments?
Ah, the history of trying to “sneak” a guitar part into a “League” tune, this was an exercise in patience a perseverance. The first use of a guitar in “Ver League”, to the best of my knowledge anyway, was in “Don’t You Want Me” where producer Martin Rushent plugged up my guitar into a Roland System 700 modular synth (which took up nearly half the back wall of the studio) in such a fashion that I was able to rhythmically trigger a programmed synth line by strumming the guitar. From there, things progressed to us getting an early Roland guitar synthesiser system, complete with left handed guitar controller (as I’m cack handed), which featured subtly on Mirror Man and then was featured on (Keep Feeling) Fascination. by the time we got round to recording Hysteria the idea of a guitar was not quite as anathema to the proceedings, and surprisingly, as I recall, it was Phils suggestion to use heavily effected guitar on the songs “I’m Coming Back and “The Lebanon”. Eventually I got to totally rock out in histrionic solo heaven on the John Carpenter inspired B side to The Lebanon; “13″. I think Hugh Padgham possibly encouraged that a little.
As a guitarist who had been playing synth in Ver League, how did you feel about a move towards guitar on Hysteria; liberated/ validated – or maybe that it was a misstep?
I always felt that The League should remain fundamentally synth driven but just push the envelope every now and again and be a bit surprising, as the technology progressed, there were becoming more and more ways to control or play a synthesiser than simply by a piano type keyboard, most of us guy’s in the band were also rock fans, so a little of that had to come out now and again I think. The analogue synthesiser though, along with a good tune, is at the very heart and core of “Ver League”.
Looking back on the Hysteria recording sessions, and the aborted recordings between Hysteria and Crash, can you describe the internal politics and pressure of the band during those times?
Gosh, I was very, very drunk at the time, but I think we just buckled a bit with the pressure of what the expectations were for a follow up to Dare. For better or worse, Dare had contributed quite significantly to changes in popular music. The League and some of our ilk, changed the rules a bit and opened the door for the machine programmed production team pop of the late 80′s to date, along with the battalions of backroom boys and synth duos churning out their techno anthems. I think the ripples were even felt as far as the US house fraternity. Dare was quite something to follow really, it had exceeded all expectations of what was then a left field arty cult synth band. I think we felt that we were expected to do that all over again, and change a few more rules into the bargain, when simply a well recorded album of good tunes delivered on time would have really done the job.
“Louise” has been covered by the likes of Robbie Williams and Tony Christie. What did you think of their covers? And what are your thoughts on the song itself, especially now it’s grown such legs.
I was a bit disappointed with Robbies’ version of Louise, I thought it might have been a more original, independant take on the song rather than a carbon copy of the original, even down to every note in the synth solo, which I played “live” in real time, and fairly spontaneously. I made it up by pillaging bits of Rolling Stones guitar solos. Both Phil and myself always thought that Louise was a song worth revisiting and doing justice too one day, as the version on Hysteria was a little “sketchy”. I was unaware of a Tony Christie cover. Wow! I must check it out. I like Tony Christie; I play “Avenues And Alleyways” when I’m DJ’ing sometimes.
What’s your take on “Hysteria” now, after almost 25 years?
I think the relatively unexpected success of Dare made the group feel that the follow up (Hysteria) had to be as good as Dare or even better. with the benifit of hindsight I think this led to a lot of “self imposed” pressure and worry about the quality of the material, thereupon, deliberation and frustration began to set in, which made the going difficult. I think Hysteria was a bit patchy, the good bits were good, i.e. The Lebanon, which I was particularly pleased with, whereas some of the other tracks sounded unfinished and a little bland, a bit like demo recordings. I think we went through three producers and three different studios over about two years trying to get the beggar done, and because it was taking so long to do, everyone was expecting a masterpiece. So compared to Dare, Hysteria was a bit of a “flop”, but it still went top three in the album charts and yielded three UK top twenty singles, which by current standards still ain’t too bad, is it? The most fun I think, was recording the instrumental track “13″, which was to be the B side to, The Lebanon, the first single from the album. We seemed to be able “let go” a bit that night, and just have some fun. And I think the track worked out all the better for it. Oh, yeah – and Phil “accidentally” broke the kneck on my 70′s vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar, the big shit! But he did get it fixed for me, and it was good as new.
Do you have any good tour stories involving Mike Douglas – a fleeting member of Ver League – and did you ever hear from him again?
Ah yes, the mysterious Mike Douglas, Mike was pretty much left in my charge, he was a hyperactive young scally from Liverpool and I don’t think the others quite knew how to interact with him, being a sort of “hired hand” for the duration of touring Dare. I’m afraid I led Mike down the dark path of indulgent hedonism and created a monster I could no longer control. He was like a duck to water! Believe me, Mike had a great time during his brief tour of duty with The League. I’ve never heard from him again, but I had heard that he was living in Oz.
If it’s not too personal, have the hits you’ve had with Ver League set you up well?
Well, between you and I and the internet, not too badly at all. I treat my song catalogues like a small business, I’ve tried to make sure I’m accounted to by all concerned and done at least reasonable deals and agreements with publishers, plus just generally keeping all the notifications, license requests, bookwork and so on up to date, as well as being a little pro-active and helpful from time to time to the publishing companies who administer the catalogues. Having been brought up in the post war austerity of working class Britain, I’ve never been a particularly extravagant person, I tend to live very much within my means, so given those factors, yep, I’m dooin’ okay, and I’ve been able to continue working full time as a writer and musician pretty much since the day I went pro! Crikey! I don’t ‘alf go on, don’t I.
Bloody glad you do because you’re very funny and enlightening, all at the same time! So how do you rate Ver League next to contemporaries like Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, The Associates, OMD, New Order, et al? And which groups did you rate?
Oh, very poorly in my opinion, I could never quite understand why my particular favourite synthy band – the utter masters and progenitors of synth pop – the mighty “Chickory Tip” never achieved the full attention they deserved. There are in fact a couple of interesting connections between “Chickory Tip” and “Ver League”; Chris Thomas, co-producer of League album “Hysteria” (along with Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, Pretenders records et al.), actually programmed the synth patches on “The Tips” biggest hit “Son Of My Father” and Giorgio Moroder co-wrote that song and probably had a hand in producing it. Moroder as we know did the Electric Dreams album with our Phil. You want pop trivia, I got it. You don’t want pop trivia? Well, er, …I still got it.
How did other members of Ver League feel about Philip recording an album with Giorgio Moroder?
I’m not aware that anyone felt put out. I think I saw it as an indication of how well we were starting to do that Giorgio Moroder, who had been a significant influence on the group, wanted to record with Phil and that the title track was for a major Hollywood movie of the time. Over the years the song “Together In Electric Dreams” has more or less come to be thought of as a Human League number, it does fit well into the overall repertoire. I actually like “Goodbye Bad Times” more from that album.
How was it going from post punk music to synth-driven pop in the 80s?
It was a bit like going from the “Gents” toilet into the “Ladies”, but without as many guitars, yet with adequate facilities for the application of cosmetics. oh, and much less sweat.
Hah!!! Nice one. What was the inspiration for “Never Again”?
I’m afraid to say I can’t remember, Phil wrote the words though, so you may have to ask him. And I think it was the last song we wrote together. Draw from it what you will!
What music are you listening to today?
I’ve really been “digging” an Aussie band called “Empire Of The Sun” lately, and “The Black Eyed Peas” single “I Got A Feeling” is rockin’ me boat, and has also been a wee bitty inspirational to my first “Cabonauts” remix. Also “MGMT” and I don’t even mind the odd bit of “Lady Ga Ga”, along of course with a liberal dosing of “oldies”, some dancey housey stuff like “Daft Punk” and noisy Rock and Roll hooligan music as always. But nowadays it seems like the big synth riff driven type thing has been re invented and is back with a vengeance – it’s a pity about all that “auto tune” overkill though. I believe auto tune was invented by Kanye West in 1996, when he was commissioned by The Royal Society to design and build a new talking wheelhair for professor Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge, England. Hawking was apparently delighted with the resultant new chair and promptly set about making some minor improvements to the onboard speech sythesiser unit, which he in turn utilised when orchestrating the career relaunch of the pop singer “Cher” on her Grammy Award winning 1998 single “Believe”. Unfortunately, due to a lapse in security at Whitehall later that year, the plans for the “Advanced Speech Synthesis” or “A.S.S.” technology, as it was known, was stolen and ultimately fell into the hands of “Akon”.
Any plans to write or record again with Phil? Wanna get him and the girls to perform on some Cabonauts tracks?
Wouldn’t that be great! I’m sure if Phil knew that Nichelle Nichols was involved, he’d jump at it. We, in “The League”, were (and still are) huge fans of the original Star Trek series.
We should make sure this happens!
Well mention it to him!! You can also ask him about his new deal he just signed with Wall of Sound. What’s your take on this new digital world we’re living in? Where record companies are becoming increasingly more obsolete?
Yeah good. F**k ‘em. All power to the “little people” and their bigger and better ideas.
Although the record companies do have their benefits, but it’s a pity they aren’t a bit more creatively motivated like many of the independents.