Interview with Synthpop Legend Glenn Gregory of “Heaven 17”

Heaven 17

Heaven 17 are a British synthpop band originating from Sheffield in the early 1980s. The trio was comprises Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh(formerly) on keyboards plus the vocal stylings of Glenn Gregory. The band is probably best known for their work in the 1980s, but in the run up to their 30th anniversary, the band has announced several live dates in which they would perform their 1981 debut album Penthouse and Pavement live in its entirety for the first time! This naturally has caused a resurgence in interest for the synthpop pioneers. This includes broadcast of a documentary about the band and coverage by the mainstream media.

Between getting ready for his new tour and performing with “Heaven 17” influenced, La Roux, Glenn Gregory was nice enough to sit down for and answer a few questions for The Retroist.

Q. Of course before forming the B.E.F. and then breaking through with Heaven 17 Martyn and Ian were in a little known Sheffield band called the the Human league and the question on everyone lips has to be: Do you still own the Korg 770S and does it feature in your new live setup or have you left the more traditional (if you can call synths traditional) analogue and moved to a more digital set up?

A. Yes, the Korg does still live with Martyn, they have had a happy loving relationship for over 30 years now. They went through a slight rocky period when they didn’t talk much during the 90’s but they have since gotten over that and re-found the love. I fully expect them to carry this love through to their dotage.

Actually we did use this synth quite extensively whilst re-working and re-programming the tracks for the Penthouse and Pavement live show that we are getting ready to tour in the UK. However due to it’s age and slight fragility (oscillators are a bit creaky these days) we do not take it out on tour.

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Q. From what I can gather B.E.F. was supposed to be the front line of attack for your creative synth-pop stylings but it was Heaven 17 that made the break through, why do you think this was?

A. When all that time ago Martyn told me that the Human League were going to split up and then asked me to form another band with him and Ian, it was always the idea that BEF were going to be the production/label that would oversee what ever it was that they came up with.

The thing was, what we came up with was Heaven 17 and it very quickly became apparent that we all loved this band and it was going to work and both Martyn and Ian could not just step away and let it go.

I think even before anyone had heard what we had produced we all knew that it was going to be something that we would all see through together.

The time of the split was such a charged and exciting period, both sides wanted to prove that they could be more successful than the other it was all out creative warfare! To compound that fact both bands were recording in the same studio… it was disgusting, dirty, run down, soon to be demolished place in the centre of Sheffield but it belonged to both Phil Martyn and Ian so we all decided that we would work shifts! So over two-week periods we would work from 10 o’clock at night until 10 o’clock in the morning then pack away our bits and the Human League would come in and work the next shift… after the 2-week period we swapped over.

It was crazy but made for a totally explosive environment to write and create and I think really added to the success of both albums. It also set the bond and Heaven 17 was to become a full time band for all 3 members.

Heaven-17 - Photo copyright of Tracey Welch

Photo by Tracey Welch

Q. Lets move on to performing live. Now with Heaven 17 you began your sonic musings in the 80’s but did not start playing live until the late 90’s was this mostly to do with the technical side or did you perhaps feel that electronica was something that needed to be teased out months in advance, editing, adding, re-recording before it was ready for the ears of the masses?

A. I suppose there were three reasons that we didn’t play live at the start of Heaven 17. The first being that Martyn and Ian had toured extensively with The Human League and they didn’t want to follow that same path with Heaven 17. Secondly the equipment we were using didn’t really lend itself to touring and thirdly MTV had just launched and the new future for forward thinking bands seemed to lay that way. Why tour when you could reach many more people by making a film of your performance or better still make a film about your song? For better or for worse we went down this route.

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Q. Continuing the theme of live performance what has been the driving force for Heaven 17 to dust off the keyboards, microphones and dapper suits now?

A. I suppose it was Vince Clark that’s to blame really. Martyn had just produced Erasure’s ‘I say I say I say’ album and Vice asked him if Heaven 17 would come and support them on their stadium tour of the UK. I suppose the stars must have been in a favorable position because all three of us agreed to do it, which was amazing really because we had been asked many times before to play live over our career and always we had declined. Whatever the reason, we loved it, we had a great time and we were actually really good at it.

It was the start of something good. I’d also like to say that the band line up we have now with Joel Farland on electronic drums, Julian Crampton on bass, Asa Bennett on guitar and Billie Godfrey on backing vocals. The current line-up is the best Heaven 17 has ever sounded!

Q. After seeing your excellent performance at Maida Vale with La Roux it got me thinking about the future of Heaven 17 and whether or not you have been back to the studio to write some new material. Is this something you have discussed or acted upon?

A. We have been talking about a new record, there are even a few tunes knocking around but we are as yet undecided about it. We really need someone to be interested enough to say, “Ok we really want this new H17 album here is some money go away and do it.” If we were going to do it we would want to do it properly and that is going to take time and money… so we’ll see.

Q. Speaking of La Roux, obviously (as many pop artists have been), her sound has defiantly been influenced by the early Sheffield synth scene that you created. Are there plans for Heaven 17 and La Roux to get in the studio together (personally this is something I would really like to see… hear)?

A. I really Like and rate La Roux, I think Elly is a star. She is so hypnotic and intense to watch she’s amazing. Both her and Ben are very talented and know where they want to be and have a plan to get there…

We got on very well when we worked together it was great fun and seemed to fit together perfectly. I’m sure that there will be more collaborations between our two great electronic families.

Q. With the shows that you have been doing recently. Have you been surprised at the reception you have gotten, is it what you expected?

A. We just toured the 30th Anniversary Penthouse And Pavement show in Germany and to be honest, I was surprised by the reaction. It was fantastic. I knew the show was good from our point of view. We were proud that we had put together such a good audio and film experience. Until you let other people see what you have created you just don’t ever really know. Thankfully the audiences loved it as much as we did. At some of the gigs the audiences would not let us leave the stage. I think it was Frankfurt where we ran out of tracks to play. I performed a couple of acoustic encores, while the rest of the band worked out what else we could do. The show overran by 40 minutes that night.

Q. After the BBC sessions, a much younger audience will have been subjected to your sound, how will you be approaching your younger fan base, some of which will have not have heard of you before?

A. I love the fact that they have been ‘subjected’ to our sound. We shall subject them to our music then take over their lives…HAHAHAHAAH (manic laugh).

There has been a lot of interest in us from a younger audience since the La Roux session. To be honest though I think people listen and buy music in a different way now and it doesn’t seem so relevant when a track was recorded. If you buy a song from iTunes for instance it has no ‘sell by date’. It’s not like you have to go and get a faded dog eared copy of an album from under the bed and say “listen to this.” It’s all presented the same way and I think that is good. Younger people seem totally open to listening and buying music because they like it and don’t give a fuck who made it and when.

Q. As the excellent DEVO has proved, it is still possible for the pioneers to still sound and feel current. How does Heaven 17 plan on remaining viable in today’s music scene?

A. I suppose by doing just that… be pioneers be future facing embrace what is new (we always have) but be true to your own ideas. Lead, but never follow!

Q. Being a music creator myself I know that there is a wealth of help out there from other musicians but what tips were you given back when you were fledgling artists that really helped you find your goal and what information would you like to impart to all the kids out there in their bedrooms trying to make it?

A. Be different.

Heaven-17 - Photo copyright of Tracey Welch

Photo by Tracey Welch

Thanks to Mr. Gregory for taking time to sit down with us and don’t miss Heaven 17’s “30th Anniversary Penthouse And Pavement Tour.” In the UK call the Ticket Hotline at 08700 603 777, or visit www.seetickets.com. They will be perfoming at the following venues: Edinburgh HMV Picture House (Nov 22), Glasgow O2 ABC (Nov 23), Manchester Ritz (Nov 25), Birmingham HMV Institute (Nov 26), London HMV Forum (Nov 28), Oxford O2 Academy (Nov 29), Brighton Corn Exchange (Nov 30), Bristol O2 Academy (Dec 1). Of course for more info visit www.heaven17.com

1980s Band Heaven 17 to Host a Special Hour of Online Radio All Next Week on Absolute 80s

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1980s music fans are in for a real treat. Heaven 17 will host the Absolute 80s Happy Hour radio show between 7:00 – 8am EST (perfect for getting ready for work) from Monday, May 31st to Friday June 4th. Original band members Martyn Ware (keyboards) and Glenn Gregory (vocals) will select some of their favorite songs by other artists from that era. Plus I am sure a few Heaven 17 hits will also be thrown in for good measure including Penthouse And Pavement, Temptation and hopefully Let Me Go.

Absolute 80s is listed in the iTunes radio directory under 1980s and can be found online at Absolute 80s. Enjoy some real Synthpop stars playing musicians playing some great music.

For more information about their UK tour to support the Penthouse and Pavement album click on the banner below:
H17