Los Angeles? I like living in Sheffield - Human League's Susan Ann Sulley talks ahead of gig at Wolverhampton Racecourse
She’s never worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar, but The Human League’s Susan Ann Sulley was certainly ‘shook up’ and ‘turned around’ when she was spotted by Phillip Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub at the age of 17.
When she was first signed up to be part of the band, Susan and fellow female vocalist Joanne Catherall thought it was just a bit of fun to get out of school for a few weeks.
Nearly 40 years later, and the women are still in the band, with tours to Dubai, New Zealand and Australia on the horizon.
The Human League hasn’t stopped putting out albums either, having released an anthology of their work in October last year titled Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group.
“When Joanne and I were recruited to join Phil on tour, it was a bit of an odd thing. We weren’t particularly worried, I don’t know, we were a bit blasé,” says Susan.
“We didn’t see it as a fame thing. We were never asked to join the group – we just thought we would go on tour and get a few weeks off school.
“As it transpired, we ended up sticking around.
“I genuinely think we thought – even when we’d started to record songs – that it would just be a bit of a laugh for a year. Then we’d come back to Earth and go to university.
“I’m 54 now and I’m still doing it, which does feel a bit odd – but amazing.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky.”
Having performed many times in the Midlands, the band will return to the city for a gig at Wolverhampton Racecourse next Saturday, September 9.
And Susan is certainly no stranger to the city, having been friends with a woman from the area for more than 20 years, as well as playing the Civic Hall every few years.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Wolverhampton. We come to Wolverhampton roughly every two years and always play the Civic,” adds the 54-year-old.
“I’ve got a very good friend called Alison who lives there that I met around 23 years ago, so I know her very well. And I know Wolverhampton’s Beatties store inside and out.
“I’ve had some great times in Wolverhampton. I’ve got a lot of affection for the place.
“I’ve spent more New Year’s Eves there than I care to remember. It’s just a nice, friendly place.
“It’s not great for restaurants, though. Or hotels.
“The gigs have always been great there though. And they’ve always sold out – in fact, they’re always the first to sell out.
“It’ll be interesting to see the Civic Hall when it’s been refurbished.”
When asked what fans could expect from the racecourse show, Susan says it’ll be similar to sets they perform at festivals, rather than a gig for the real diehard fans.
“If we go on tour under the guise of The Human League, we tend to play for longer and we play songs which the hardcore fans will know,” says Susan.
“But when we’re playing somewhere like Wolverhampton Racecourse, it’s more like when we play festivals – we give the audience our greatest hits. That’s what they want.”
Since joining the band as a teen, Susan has met many famous faces, including Lady Gaga when the band played V Festival in 2009, who was in the dressing room next to theirs.
“Lady Gaga was lovely, nothing like people have said,” says Susan.
“It was around the time of Poker Face. We were playing V Festival and the organisers put all the artists together in PortaKabins. Jo and I were at a hotel getting ready when our manager called and said to come over.
“We said ‘why?’. He said ‘I’m sat next to Lady Gaga and she’s in her pants sunbathing’. “‘She’s in the dressing room next to you’.
“So we went along a little earlier and met her. She was really down to earth.
“She was sat there in her pants and bra and rollers, having her make up done. She was really, really nice. She was saying how much she loved our group.
“The lads were a bit afraid of talking to her.
“Later on, we did our thing and when we came back she suddenly looked like Lady Gaga in a metal outfit.
“She was great, but most people are.
“However, I’ve met an awful lot of people over the years. Only a few were awful and I would never name them. They didn’t last very long anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
When asked what the band’s secret to success is – and why they are still able to sell out shows so successfully – Susan says: “It has to be the songs. It can’t really be anything else. We don’t look like we did years ago.
“People just like the songs and when we play them it brings such joy to their faces.
“We did a show in Scotland last year and when we sang Don’t You Want Me, it was amazing.
“There were little kids there who knew all the words and were singing along.
“We also work really well as a team. We’re like a bit of a gang.
“You’d think people wouldn’t want an old lead singer and two women way past their prime, but people aren’t so ageist any more.
“I read this morning that Mick Jagger has been doing work with grime artist Skepta – and Mick’s 74. And no one’s knocking him for doing it.
“A couple of years ago, I saw Debbie Harry at V Festival.
“What people are most interested in is the music.”
Despite the band’s successes, Susan still lives in her hometown Sheffield. She says she is happy there.
“I’m still in Sheffield because it’s just home. There’s never been a conversation where any of us said we wanted to move.
“This is where Jo and I were born. Phil ended up here because his dad moved that way to run the Post Office.
“I’ve never been rich enough to live in Los Angeles, though I’d like to just for the sunshine.
“Sheffield is where all my friends are. There’s nowhere else I’d like to be.”
And although Susan loves her work, she says it’s also nice not to always be recognised, as it means she can do as she pleases.
“It’s amazing because we have families, but we’re still able to do this amazing job and live ordinary lives,” says Susan.
“When we’re on tour we can even go out and explore, because no one takes any notice of us. We’re very, very lucky.”
On the other hand, however, she says it is a delight when members of the public tell her they like the group’s music – more so, she says, than when the band has had praise from famous people.
“I was in Holland and Barrett not long ago, and the guy behind the till said we changed his life when he was a kid. I wanted to cry. It’s just so lovely,” says Susan.
“I said no one ever recognises me. He said, ‘you’re an icon’.
“And there I was, stood holding a Primark bag.
“I get just as much of a thrill when a member of the public says they think we’re good as anyone famous.”
Looking ahead to the Wolverhampton Racecourse show, Susan adds: “I really hope people will come to the show. And I hope it doesn’t rain.
“It’s always a great show in Wolverhampton and this won’t be any different.”
l For tickets to the racecourse gig call 01902 390000 or visit www.wolverhampton-racecourse.co.uk