Some things get better with age, and you could argue that the UK’s Heaven 17 are one of them. Birthed in 1980, Heaven 17 took shape after both Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh parted ways with Human League to join up with Glenn Gregory to start something new. Blazing their own path, the band released their debut album Penthouse and Pavement in 1981, followed up with The Luxury Gap in 1983, and compiled a bunch of European chart-topping hits along the way – “Let Me Go” and “Temptation” leading the way.
Now over forty years later Heaven 17 remain as active as ever performing live, and most recently, partook in their first ever USA tour. An exciting time for the band, Martyn Ware recently took the time to talk about the history of Heaven 17, deciding to make Heaven 17 a touring band back in the ’90s, finally coming to America, plans for the future, plus a bunch more.
Cryptic Rock – You have a very interesting musical story to tell. You have been involved in music over four decades working in production, writing, and of course, performance. Amidst it all you are an original co-founder of The Human League before going on to form Heaven 17 thereafter. Briefly tell us, how would you describe your compelling journey?
Martyn Ware – That’s a question and a half isn’t it! Everybody has successes and failures. Anyone who is in the music industry deserves a medal frankly, because it’s tough. To keep moving, keep creating, and keep appearing to people on a commercial basis as a producer, and in my case, reinvent myself as an audio creator… it can be a long and sometimes difficult journey. Mainly it is a testament to the power of persistence and not getting discouraged by failure as well. Everybody who works forty years in this business has had their fair share of disappointments.
Cryptic Rock – One can imagine, but you persevered through it all. Working in music is not a career path many take because of how difficult it is. Would you say that your perseverance is purely for the love of music?
Martyn Ware – First of all you have to trust your own judgement and own intuition about what is going to be artistic, fulfilling, enjoyable, but also potentially lucrative. I live in an interesting space between commerce and art at this point. That is in everything I do – production, my company Illustrious, 3D surround sound stuff, and writing/performing with Heaven 17.
Everything is done because we enjoy doing it in Heaven 17; we get pleasure out of entertaining people and giving people stuff to enjoy over the years. But really, you have to keep your eyes on the prize. I’ve got a family and mortgage like everyone else… you have to pay the bills. That is a motivating factor, but honestly, if we didn’t enjoy doing it, we would find something else to do.
I think if you come see Heaven 17 live that there is no shadow of a doubt we enjoy performing for people and enjoy interacting with our audience. We think we put on a pretty good show too. I’m very proud of our recording career as well. I think we’ve put out some records that have stood the test of time; more so than some of the stuff from that period. Overall, I have very few regrets over the years. Every period has had its successes, challenges, its joys and pains, etc. We are very happy at this moment in time.
Cryptic Rock – That is great to hear. Heaven 17 had a great deal of success during the 80’s in Europe predominantly. That being said, you had not visited the North American region in forty years. When it was announced you would be touring the USA in the Fall of 2022, it was very exciting for dedicated followers. So, what inspired yourself and Glenn Gregory to tour the USA now?
Martyn Ware – Looking at the background, we didn’t tour anywhere from the inception of Heaven; from 1981 to around 1996. It was my friend Vince Clarke from Erasure who said, “Would you consider being a supporter for Erasure on a big arena tour?” I went to Glenn and said, “This is our decision to make,” and I asked him, “What do you think Glenn? We’ve never done it… it might be one last roll of the dice.”
That was twenty-five years ago, and now it’s our main source of income. We’ve built up our audience over the last twenty-five or more years; we’re selling more tickets to more shows all over Europe, the UK, and now in America, than we’ve ever sold in our whole life. If we weren’t any good that idea would have died on the vine, but it hasn’t.
We’re very happy to be touring. We love our band as it currently is. Ian Craig Marsh is no longer performing with us, but we have three beautiful, talented women performing with us; and that also brings down the average age of the band significantly, so that is great too. They are very talented people and I’m just very grateful that we are still able to do it. I’m sixty-six, Glenn thinks he is still about forty, but he’s sixty-four. There are no guarantees at this age… anything can happen, so you just have to get out there and do it as long as you can.
I know the shows that we do are full of energy, humanity, warmth, empathy, and excitement hopefully. In fact, a lot of young people who turn up at the shows are sons and daughters of the people who bought the records originally. The younger people have become fans of ’80s music and maybe they have their own bands that are influenced by ’80s music. It’s a kind of virtuous circle at the moment.
We are overwhelmed with the moment of love and support we had when we visited the US; that is not bullshit either. We knew we’d be well-received by some loyal fans, but then there were also people who come up to us after the shows who say, “I didn’t know who you were, but my friend got some tickets and said you should come and see it.” I have every optimism that the next tour that we do in the US will double the number of dates and the number of people who come and see us.
Cryptic Rock – It is exciting to hear there will be another USA tour! The run you recently completed in the USA was a fifteen-date tour which was extremely successful. The opening night, on September 16th, was in Pawling, New York at Daryl’s House and it was fantastic. You mentioned your female vocalists, and they truly do sound amazing. How did you begin to work with them?
Martyn Ware – Right from the start when we recorded Penthouse and Pavement in 1981, we decided we wanted to have this interesting balance between the traditionally masculine perception of Electronic music (which is kind of cold) and female vocals. So, when we started playing live in the late ’90s we had another two backing vocalists named Billie Godfrey and Angie Brown; both are lead singers in their own right. Our philosophy from there on was to give the female singers as much freedom as possible to perform. We wanted them to help come up with arrangements and we were never worried about being upstaged by the girls; we wanted it to be equal characters on the stage.
Over time Billie went to live in France and Angie got her own career. Our current two singers (Rachel Meadows and Kelly Barnes) were brought in by Billie. We told them they got the job because it was quite clear they were exceptionally talented and they could cover the range that’s needed. Not only that, but Kelly and Rachel are both amazing human beings with positive energy; everything we do with Heaven 17 is about positive energy. We’re not shoegazing and we’re not too self-regarding. We’re very proud of the work that we do, the music we create, and the way we perform it, but we’re not going to say, “Hey, we’re the greatest band on earth;” it is for you to decide how good we are. We are very pleased with how things have turned out.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and the live show is fantastic, it is highly recommended for people to check out Heaven 17 in Europe, or in the future when you return to the USA. Did you find the overall crowd energy level at the US shows was high?
Martyn Ware – Yes. It’s just a joy. We have been playing these songs for twenty-five years, but they are forty years old, and still sound kind of fresh. We didn’t want the songs to be of the period when we wrote them, we were thinking ahead, but we couldn’t imagine that people would still be enjoying them and coming to see them performed live forty years young. It’s incredible.
Cryptic Rock – It shows that good music is timeless. Heaven 17 has not released a studio album in some time. Have you thought about writing and recording a new studio album?
Martyn Ware – This is really a question that should be directed to Glenn. He spends a lot of his time at his home studio writing music for TV and film. He is doing really well; he’s done quite a few big TV series, a couple of films, but that’s his main income and he’s busy all the time.
We started writing another album about five years ago and we’ve got over half of it done. We always said if we were going to do another album, we wanted it to be of the highest quality that we could muster. Nobody is willing to pay a big budget anymore, and it requires time; time is the commodity that we have a problem with at the moment. (Laughs) Secondly, we didn’t want to do it as a remote collaboration. We wanted to do it in the studio together, writing together, and vibing off each other. The stuff that we’ve already created sounds great though. Basically, it’s a time issue though. It’s difficult and complicated, but we want to do it.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully it will happen soon. Perhaps after the success of the North American tour a new fire will be lit to finish the album.
Martyn Ware – That is a possibility and a good point. I’m not even sure it is about inspiration though. It’s kind of whimsical, and thinking, it’s the right time now. It was like when we finished with Heaven 17, when I went to produce Terence Trent D’Arby, Erasure and lots of other people, Glenn’s final words to the press was, “It’s not over yet.” Low and behold, it wasn’t over. It’s so ephemeral the way we organize our affairs; it is the opposite of cynic. It’s all about having that inspiration, so hopefully you are right.
Cryptic Rock – We will see what happens. You mentioned how you have dedicated fans coming to the shows, but also younger fans. It feels like in the past five to ten years there has been an elevated interest in ’80s culture and the New Wave genre. What do you think the younger generations romanticism is with the era?
Martyn Ware – In the broader sense of the word I think it was a romantic era. I think the Post Punk/Alternative/New Wave period, say from ’82-’86, was such a time of optimism by the record companies. They were signing lots of bands and then around the mid-’80s it was all kind of slowly commandeered by the marketing people and the vibe went a little. Then the kind of Dance thing happened, which is fine. However, I think that became too powerful and it kind of rinsed out a lot of the originality and songwriting skills.
In a nutshell, I think, that period of late ’70s to mid-’80s was the last kind of the golden age of originality and songwriting; traditional Rock Pop songwriting. I genuinely believe that and I’ve thought of that for a long time. The conditions were overall in alignment. There was plenty of money from the record companies from reselling stuff on CD. They had to get rid of the money, otherwise they would pay taxes on it, so thereafter, they signed a lot of bands. It used to be a high-risk business with high reward. It has been rationalized and now they are trying to make it a low-risk, low to medium reward business.
That is really what all the streaming thing is about. I do a lot of lobbying on behalf of artist rights for various groups in Britain, but I don’t want to get into all that because it’s a very dull conversation. It is really important though because it is stifling developments in new talent.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed completely. That is a very in-depth conversation to have. Streaming does kill music in many ways. The physical format of music adds so much to the art and the appreciation from consumers.
Martyn Ware – Yes, it’s a very simple human trait. I think, if you don’t apportion value to something, if you give it away for free essentially… of course you’re not going to value it as much. And the opposite is true, if you spend a coupon in a store and you get a couple of dollars off something, you think you’ve won, but the opposite is usually true.
I lobbied on behalf of artists against all this ten years ago and it was pointless; it was like King Canoe trying to stop the waves. The people came from Spotify and said, “The market is going to grow so much and everyone is going to get so rich.” I said, “Really? Is that why you gave shares in Spotify to the major record companies and put a non-disclosure agreement in place so you couldn’t have a test case so that artists couldn’t get paid properly?” They had no answer, it is just a scam fundamentally.
I teach music and production now. The students I have ask me these questions all the time and I feel really sorry for them. I tell them, “You have to regard participating in the music business as your reward being the enjoyment you get from being creative.” If you earn money out of it, you’re a lucky person. So, you also have to build a portfolio career and look at all the ways you can earn money from the music industry. Those are my two big things I tell young people, because I feel very sorry for them.
Cryptic Rock – It is unfortunate for the artists, but also unfortunate for art. It is stifling art as well.
Martyn Ware – I completely agree. There are some good things happening though. I’m not a big fan of watching live events on the internet, it’s not the same. However, it means that people who otherwise wouldn’t get to see the Opera or a Rock show can, so that’s good.
I’m currently working with one of the world’s biggest immersive theater companies to help them create realistic immersive, sound worlds to go with the theatrical aspects and projections. If you think about things like the Star Trek Holodeck, it is now becoming more technically possible. I think all these worlds of cinema, theater, and installation are starting to converge and becoming more and more convincing experiences. I think that is the future.