The Human League's Susan Ann Sully on Sheffield band's return to Belfast
The Human League evolved into one of the seminal 80s electro pop bands, recording some of the most influential songs of the decade. Ahead of their return for a headline show in Belfast tonight, group member Susan Ann Sully tells Gail Bell the secret to her long career and how being different – in reverse – helped her stand out from the crowd
What are your favourite memories of performing in Northern Ireland and what do you like most about coming to Belfast?
We all love Belfast and we've been there quite a few times. I remember the very first time we visited and it was a very different city to what it is today. We were actually there the day they brought down all the barriers; I remember we were promoting Tell Me When, so it must have been some time in 1995. The guy from the record company who was driving us around said that if we had arrived a day earlier, we wouldn't be able to go where we were going that day, so we were there in a significant time in the city's history. What I like most about Belfast today is the shopping – you have a really nice Zara in the city centre and I'll be in there at some point on this trip.
What sort of set will you have at the gig at Custom House Square?
We'll do more of a festival set because that is what is required when we do these things in summer. People aren't coming to just a Human League show, so we always try to give them what they want. We do lots of festivals, not just in the UK, but all over – we were in Dublin about two weeks ago and we have quite a few shows outside of Britain, including dates in Belgium and Spain.
What is the secret of longevity for a pop group from the 80s?
Well, the music has stood the test of time – otherwise I don't think we'd still be working. This weekend is the first I've had off in about two months and after this weekend I don't get another until September. Success, longevity... it's all down to the songs, to the music, and it was never really about us. Maybe, for a tiny amount of time at the beginning, it was a little bit about us, just because we looked a bit different...
How do you categorise that 'difference', particularly at a time when everybody set out to look 'different'?
Ah, that is the interesting thing, because when Phil [Oakey] picked Joanne [Catherall] and I out from the crowd that night in a nightclub in Sheffield and asked us to go on tour with him – we were still at school – it was specifically because we didn't stand out. Well, we stood out in a reverse type of way because, as Phil has said in many interviews since, he thought we looked very classical and as though we would fit in anywhere. You have to remember, we are talking about a time when nightclubs were full of very outrageous people – one of our friends used to dress like Andy Pandy; it was a really wild time.
But your dancing must have stood out?
There are many people who would dispute whether what Joanne and I ever did was 'dancing'. We occasionally watch back footage and we have both come to the conclusion that all we really do is walk backwards and forwards and wave our arms in the air. That's our version of dancing and we've been doing it for 30 years now. We never tried to be avant-garde or whatever. If you listen to some of the tracks, they are a bit weird, only because we didn't really know what we were doing. We made an album with no guitars on it and that is why some of the songs sounded weird because it was all done on synthesiser.
Your monster hit and Christmas number one Don't You Want Me? changed things for the group – did success change you all personally?
We never had another number one in the UK, but we did in America with the song, Human. Hit songs did change our lives, but at the time, it didn't necessarily feel that it changed them for the good. When you start getting followed around and people start making crank phone calls, well, that was the 'down' side to success.
I remember one time being Sydney, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and being stuck in my hotel room. I'm very grateful that social media wasn't around in those days or it would probably have been a whole lot worse. The Human League have a Facebook page, Twitter account and an Instagram account which I never look at – and I am not on any of those platforms at all.
My private life is private and I would get upset if people said not very nice things about me. I genuinely don't know how people do it. I think, as a group, people liked us because we were always ourselves: if you saw us on TV and then you came to our local nightclub and saw us, we would be exactly the same people.
You are 56 now and living with partner Martin and cat, Holly, in Sheffield – does touring get more difficult as you get older?
I don't think it gets more difficult; it gets better and I can't explain why. I think we enjoy it more and there seems to be a lot less pressure on us. We just go out there and do the show. We're not celebrities or anything like that, so there's no pressure. I go to the gym a lot and the job keeps us energetic – when you're on stage and see an audience enjoy themselves, it fires you up to give a good performance.
Do you ever wonder what you might be doing today if you and Joanne hadn't gone dancing in the Crazy Daisy club that night in 1980?
I would probably have gone to university, I don't know, really – everyone's got a Sliding Door moment where they wonder if they had not been in a particular place at a particular time, how life would have panned out. Would they have met their partner? Would they have done this or that? I occasionally think about that, but I have been incredibly lucky, even though there have been a lot more downs than ups along the way.
The reason I feel like that is because I just love being on stage and I love performing – it's my thing. I'm a bit loud and a bit show-offy and I always want to wear something that people are going to look at.
What do you do when you're not performing with Human League?
I listen to the radio, all day, every day. I love listening to all sorts of music, but my favourite song of the moment is Crown by Stormzy. He's a great rapper and his words are sensational, but no-one ever says what a beautiful singing voice he has. Martin knows every time it's playing because the radio is turned up really, really loud. Loud is me; it's the way I like it.
The Human League and Guests play Belfast's Custom House Square on Friday, August 9. Tickets £27.50 from Ticketmaster