Interview with Neil Arthur of Blancmange
The name Blancmange, in musical terms, is one that started back in 1980 with the release of their experimental EP Irene And Mavis. For many, their 1982 hit Living On The Ceiling marked a track that has left an indelible impression on their musical upbringing. The debut album, the critically acclaimed Happy Families, has proved to be a benchmark in synth pop prompting Moby to describe the act as “probably the most underrated electronic act of all time”.
In the run up to a new tour and the release of Wanderlust, the tenth Blancmange album, Paul Scott-Bates chatted to Neil Arthur at his studio in the South West as he grabbed a coffee and talked about The Beatles, Blackburn Rovers and walking the Pennine Way.
How are preparations going for the new album and tour?
I was woken up this morning by the Kincaid remix of the new single Distant Storm being played on Radio 6 which was nice. Anyway, I was just speaking to my manager this morning on that and how we’re going to do things. I’m taking Liam Hutton, the drummer with Boxed In, on tour to play electronic percussion and drums which could be interesting. I’ve been doing a collaboration with him which you should hear something of in the not too distant future. Oogoo (keyboards) and Adam Fuest (sound engineer) will be joining us again.
Talking of collaborations, I heard a rumour that you’d been working with Vince Clarke doing a cover of Stuck in the Middle?
Yeah, I’m not at liberty to discuss the songs. The way we’re going Stuck In The Middle would be quite dark! Yes, there’s truth in the rumour. Benge is involved too so I’m very excited about that. Vince and I go back to the days when neither of us had a record deal.
Since you returned as Blancmange in 2011 with Blanc Burn you’ve been involved in nine albums in seven years, are you finding writing easier nowadays?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and I think that quite often I wouldn’t know when to let go which may have something to go with lack of confidence. But my management and also my partner, Helen have taught me when to let go. I’ve learnt that less is best and to trust your instinct and that combined with technology, has made a big difference. Whereas years ago Stephen (Luscombe, the other half of the 80s incarnation) and I would have an idea on a cassette machine and then take it to the studio, now those demos can be developed and original parts incorporated into the finished article. I really like that. In a way I’m trying to go with the instinct bit from the beginning and learning to let go. Also I’ve got the drive – time is of the essence! – and I’m keen to get things done. I’m happiest when I’m doing that and I feel an urge to be creative. I’m really lucky to collaborate with some of the people I do – Benge and Bernholz, Vince for instance, it’s great.
The new album, Wanderlust is possibly one of your best albums with maybe hints of Happy Families, Believe You Me, Blanc Burn and maybe even Fader and Near Future (collaborations with Benge and Bernholz). Are you attempting to reinvent or is it just the way it’s developed.
That means a lot, thank you. I don’t take those comments lightly. Obviously there is me and Benge involved in Wanderlust. David Rhodes ended up playing on one track and I played guitar on the others, but those personalities rub off on the recording I suppose. I’m not looking to repeat anything creatively. When I’ve written the songs and I’m happy with the lyrics and structure, I ask Benge to get involved and he tears it apart! It’s funny, when I was doing the album I envisaged it being very dancey but that’s not proved to be the case throughout. But I’ve ended up with songs slightly more structured than there were on say Commuter 23. You really don’t know how they’re going to come out until they’re done. The whole process is one of learning even to the point where I’m questioning everything, you learn as you go sometimes, like an artist has to go on the journey to find out where he’s going as the painting develops. So often I am finding out even after it’s finished!
So, you’ve a certain amount of fluidity with tracks taking on a life of their own?
Absolutely, yeah, and of course you never know when you collaborate, you really are surprised what collaboratively you come up with, which is a fantastic feeling. We’re always reacting against each other which is such an exciting process to be involved in.
Wanderlust is quite diverse – the usual dark, characteristic Blancmange bass sounds with the humour of your lyrics. Tracks like In Your Room and Not A Priority which are really catchy and could have good radio coverage and Talking To Machines which reminded me of John Lennon. Are there any specific influences and how much have the likes of Benge and Bernholz developed the Blancmange sound?
Benge is helping develop the sound without a doubt. With Benge and his knowledge of analogue synths there is obviously something that will come through to the Blancmange sound. I think we work well together. In terms of other influences, on Talking To Machines you’ve hit the nail on the head as I’m a huge Beatles fan but what I really like is the Plastic Ono Band and the rawness of it, and I really wanted to go for something like that. Also, on I Smashed Your Phone a big influence was LCD Soundsystem. I also ended up listening to Ticket To Ride by the Beatles and Ringo’s drumming which is a reference point on the track. How we got to it was right round the bloody houses! I wrote In Your Room a number of years ago and it never felt right to include on any of the second phase Blancmange albums. Benge and I liked the minimalism of it, so we went with that. Stuff like White Circle, Black Hole is another one and it referenced something from when I used to live in Darwen. So many of my songs start there which is quite unbelievable. I left when I was 18 which is why I now sound like a Cockney!
You mentioned Stephen earlier, how is he getting on? (Stephen suffered an abdominal aneurysm in 2011 and was forced to leave the band)
He’s not been very well actually and that’s even on top of the long-term situation he is in. He’s unfortunately been ill for a number of years and his condition has to be monitored. Recently he hasn’t been well again. I spoke to him last week, in fact we speak all the time. He’s a very very dear friend and we’re always in contact whether it be serious or ridiculous stuff. Hopefully he’s on the right road to managing his condition.
You recently celebrated your 60th Birthday, what would a twenty-four year old Neil Arthur have thought about you in 2018 still making albums.
Probably not much!
I found some old Smash Hits clippings recently which asks you what you’ll be doing when your 64, something like recording the 34th version of Sad Day….
Well there you go, probably not far wrong there! Go on what else?
Well, you said you’d be finishing walking the Pennine Way. Have you started yet?
I’ve done a part of the Pennine Way many many times but not the full length. I still love walking and I still cycle and play football, though not very well.
You could play for (Blackburn) Rovers.
Oh, I went to see them last week and maybe I shouldn’t have gone! The thing is, football, in my case Rovers, is a through and through thing – through thick and thin – but at the moment I think they’re doing very well apart from the odd blip. They’re back on the up, it’s brilliant, I’m really pleased. The answer to the question though is, No.
When Faithless released their final album, The Dance (2010), there was a version of Feel Me containing you voice. Did you re-record it or was it a sample?
They got in touch with me to ask if we minded them doing a version of the song. Of course we were flattered. They ended up using the original vocal with their own groove. They’ve done it live with a guest singer. I did offer my services, but they clearly wanted a youngster! (laughs).
Was it that that sparked a Blancmange comeback or were you already on with Blanc Burn by then?
No, we were doing it anyway. I think Stephen and I had already started some tracks, I was just messing around. We did a track called Come On Now which we put up on MySpace and it came along from there really. I had a studio in Brixton at the time, called Bon Marche, and Stephen came over and listened to the stuff and said ‘yeah, come on, let’s do it’.
We had a fantastic time putting Blanc Burn together but Stephen’s condition deteriorated and he wasn’t able to take part in gigs or anything beyond. I send him all my albums and he’s very supportive and, we talk about the old catalogue as it’s been bought by the French label, Because. They’ve just released the digital version of The Blanc Tapes so we’ve been in negotiation and there are plans to do things with them next year. It means it’s being looked after by a very good record company once again.
When Blancmange split in the mid-80s did you drift away into film soundtrack scores?
Well, I’ve never been offered huge features although our music has been used in soundtracks like Flight Of The Navigator but, I had the opportunity to start doing music for documentaries. And I didn’t really want to be anywhere near what was perceived as ‘dull limelight’, that I didn’t particulate enjoy it. There’s no therapy for the comedown! At that point, you were only as good as your last single. For example the records companies from both sides of the Atlantic were convinced that Lose Your Love from the Believe You Me album would be a hit so they put a lot of money into a video, a massive amount, and it got banned on its first viewing (for allegedly inciting violence of the home). There was always the pressure to come up with a new single, it was just expected. We signed to London Records as Decca was in its death throws and were basically allowed to be a development act up to a point. We had four singles out from our first album (including a double AA side), before we had a hit with Living on the Ceiling, so that was definitely development time. Then later when we had Believe You Me out and a lot of money had been invested, when the video isn’t able to do its job and gets banned and we had a couple of hoo-ha’s with a certain DJ who will remain nameless (resulting in less airplay) and we thought ‘Hang on, what are we doing this for? This is a long way from Irene And Mavis! So, doing the film music was a bit like going back to Irene And Mavis. I had a blank canvas for the film scores and it felt like experimenting again. I could be in the background and that was great.
The tour hits the UK on November, how special is it to play in Darwen?
There’s nothing like it. I believe they had a new P.A. so it’s gonna be even better!
It’s great venue.
Aaah, it is. It’s so special to me. I’ve got to try and keep really calm when I’m there because there’s so much going on emotionally inside, that I really have to focus about what we’re on stage doing, what we have to do. There’s so much emotion running through me, it means a lot to me and the audience, we’re always one. I’m a very very lucky man to get to do it.
The Wanderlust album is released on 19 October via Blanc Check Records and can be pre-ordered here.
Wanderlust Tour details can be found here.
All words by Paul Scott-Bates. More of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. Paul’s website is hiapop Blog and you can follow him on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.