Ahead of their date at Liverpool Arts Club, Getintothis’ Banjo chats to Blancmange’s Neil Arthur about technology, splitting up and smiling through adversity.
Blancmange were perhaps unlikely stars of synthpop.
Lacking the stylised coldness of Eurythmics the dourness of Pet Shop Boys, and the deadpan of Yazoo, it was left to them to be synthpop’s light-hearted Northerners. They were also its dark horse.
My first exposure to their charms was at the Futurama 4 festival at Deeside Leisure Centre. New Order headlined the Saturday and, I think due to the nature of their equipment at the time, actually came on before the next act down the bill, which was Blancmange.
I remember thinking that poor Blancmange had drawn the short straw here and the as soon as the headliners had finished the crowd would walk away. What actually happened was that Blancmange had a huge army of fans and played to one of the biggest crowds of the weekend. Clearly, something was happening here.
Chart success soon followed, with Living on the Ceiling, complete with appearances of Top of the Pops and The Tube.
Their singles were odd, catchy gems and Blancmange into the charts.
Debut album Happy Families is rightly regarded as a classic of the time, full of synthpop gems and dancefloor friendly 80s classics.
Second album Believe You Me followed suit and Blancmange became one of the 80s preeminent bands.
But soon it was over for Blancmange, not due to any fallout between the two members, but rather a feeling that they had done everything they had set out to do.
Neil Arthur and Steven Luscombe kept in touch, asking each others opinion of their latest projects, chatting, being friends. And then, 25 years later, came news of a surprise reunion. Shows were announced and I again came across Blancmange at a festival, this time Bestival. Their set was a mix of new material and greatest hits, with their back catalogue given an update for the modern age.
Problems with Steven Luscombe’s health unfortunately meant he had to withdraw from the band, leaving Neil Arthur to carry on with his blessing.
Further excellent albums followed, adding to Blancmange’s idiosyncratic canon of electronica. Arthur also released further albums under different names, collaborating with other musicians.
There has long been a sense of humour to Blancmange’s songs, or at least a knowing smile. This has been continued with the like of I Smashed Your Phone and ??? from the last couple of albums. This is not to say that they haven’t have covered serious subjects, just that there seems to be a permanent twinkle in tier eye that shines through even the darkest topics.
With latest album Wanderlust available and a date at Liverpool’s Arts Club this Saturday May 4, Getintothis took the chance to ask Neil Arthur a few questions.
In conversation he comes across as a friendly, down to earth Northerner, still very much in love with creating music. Our conversation is peppered with laughter, often self-deprecating, his sense of humour as intact now as when we saw him smiling on our TV screens all those years ago.
Firstly, what led you to reform blancmange after 25 years?
“Well, I hadn’t wanted to do it before then, Stephen and I, well obviously Steve’s no longer, well since Blanc Burn, has not unfortunately been involved for health reasons, but Stephen and I kept in touch after we stopped in ’87 was it?
And we’d just not really wanted to work together again, we were quite happy doing our other things and Stephen’s very much like myself although he did some music for theatre and I was quite happy doing my film music and TV documentary stuff in the background.
I did continue writing and I had this deal with Chrysalis in the early ‘90s and I released an album in the ‘90s but it just didn’t, well I don’t really know I just didn’t want to do it, ( laughs) and then as I said I’d carried on writing songs and Stephen and I got chatting at somebody’s birthday do and I said ‘look I’ve written these songs, why don’t you come up to my studio in Brixton.
And he came round and had a listen to them and liked what I’d done and he said ok, next time we have an opportunity lets go into a friends studio in west London where I do my film music with Dinesh and I said why don’t we get Dinesh to play a bit on a few of them so I went in there and started mixing them, some in there and some in Wales.
And lo and behold we had an album’s worth of stuff which at that point we hadn’t taken to anybody, meaning we hadn’t taken it to a record company, and suddenly that’s when it dawned on us this is how much the world had changed, we’ve managed to almost go back to square one like with Irene and Mavis and the EP we did, albeit with different equipment, we weren’t using Tupperware anymore!
Then we were trying to make things sound like synths, now we were using real synths. We’d got this album together and so we contacted my old manager and he said I really like this so I’m going to introduce you to somebody, and it ended up that it was decided that they would take the album on and distribute it for us.
We had total control, it wasn’t like we suddenly had a bad relationship with London Records in the ‘80s, they were a fantastic label but it was a slightly different control, there was no A&R and nobody suggesting you might want to do this mix or that mix , that was it, Blanc Burn was ready, we had the art work ready.
And I thought, Oh! This is good fun! But the sheen was taken off it because unfortunately Stephen’s health wasn’t good and continues to be his primary concern really and it became quite obvious when we were making the album that Stephen wouldn’t be able to be involved in the promoting of it and subsequently he isn’t able to go to the studio record and write.
But he gave me a kick up the arse and told me to get on with it ( laughs) which I do and I thoroughly do enjoy doing Blancmange , as well as the other projects that I’m lucky enough to be involved in like Near Future and Fader and various others with other names in the not too distant future.”
Any hints you can give us?
“Ok, well, there could be another Fader album in the next few months hopefully in the early autumn,
And I’ve been working on another Near Future album, oh and I don’t know if you’ve heard but I’ve been doing some work with Vince Clarke over the last few years and we’re old mates and known each other a long time, so there’s something afoot there! I can’t say anymore! (laughs) I don’t know what’s going to happen to it but we’ll see.
But yes, We’ve been doing some work together and Benji is involved in that so we’ll see, and I’ve been working on another project with a classic musician and its really exciting for me and hopefully people will really enjoy it. The fruits of our labour.
One of the things I’ve done recently is that I have the brilliant opportunity to work with my son, and I’m very very proud of that. Joe goes under the name of Kincaid and he’s been doing his music for a number of years now and he goes out DJing , all over the place and all over the world really.
He’s done remixes for Blancmange, many of them and he played one to me and then I said I had an idea and we ended up with a song which he put out under his own name, and we called it Big Fat Head. I wrote the lyrics and sang on it, so that was probably my proudest moment to date musically I think, to get to work with my son.”
It’s good that he hasn’t rebelled against you and gone down the Easy Listening route or something.
“Well I tried to ward him off art school and painting or music, but he ended up going to art college and then becoming a musician. [laughs]”
All these different acts that you’re involved with, do you consciously make some of them less commercial or more experimental than others or does it depend on who you’re working with at the time?
“Well the dominant factor is who I’m working with. I don’t really think about singles, I Just think about writing songs, it doesn’t matter who I’m working with or what I’m working on. For example, with Fader, Benj starts the music. So he sends me a musical idea and my role primarily is to come up with some melody ideas for lyrics and then I may jiggle the arrangement about, possibly suggest a two-note melody line. [Laughs] And then we get together to mix it.
With Blancmange, Benj and I worked together on Unfurnished Rooms and the current album Wanderlust, I write the songs. I get an idea together, put my lyrics and what have you on it and then I send it to Benj and he will start working on it and then I join him.
Benj has got an amazing studio and he’s a brilliant drummer as well as a producer, and he’ll say ‘well why don’t we put real drums on it?’ or he’ll think of a better bass part for it and then we’ll start mixing it.
So one starts with me, the other starts with Benji.
But the reaction is always going to be different, so it goes backwards and forwards a few times. With Near Future we send information to back and forth to each other quite a few times, and then we’ll get together and thrash out something that starts to resemble an album.
But the fundamental thing is who you’re working with.
Also I’ve worked a lot on film and TV. The discipline of answering a brief came into that, and thinking ‘how would I approach it if it didn’t have my gob on it?’”
I was speaking to Glenn Gregory recently and he does a lot of soundtrack work as well. Do you think it’s the fact that you both sort of work with keyboard soundscapes that led you to soundtrack work?
“Well I’m glad it did but I don’t know that that’s the answer. I write on guitar initially. I work a lot with keyboards, but if you saw me playing a keyboard you’d wonder why I bother, because I’m by no stretch of the imagination a keyboard player! [laughs]
But I think given the right opportunity you can experiment. The weird thing is, I’ll have electronic equipment around me and some of the briefs are to make it sound like real instruments. They’re working on a limited budget and they can’t afford an orchestra so they want you to make it sound like an orchestra!
Whereas now, some of the incidental music on the better documentaries and films that are made is amazing.”
It sounds like a very modern way of working, sending files across the Internet and only getting together at the end of that process.
“Well compared to tape loops where we used to wrap them round a chair leg it is. [laughs]
Do you miss those days?
“Erm.. nope. [laughs] No, I’m glad of the experience but I don’t miss it”.
How would you describe your relationship with technology?
“Well we went through a phase, probably in the 90s, when the possibilities of digital recording were becoming accessible to the masses. The big breakthrough was when we were able to get MIDI and audio to lock at the same time. I used to spend hours on the phone, it was almost like self-help groups with friends who were in a similar situation. It was like you were a tech develop, or a beta tester without knowing it.
And I’m glad I’m not doing that anymore. I have learned to turn it on and not fiddle with it. Now I just write, I don’t spend ages updating things, I try to keep it as simple as I possibly can.
But you only get out what you put in. There’s nothing in the machines that can make your idea any better. If your idea is no good, the machine isn’t going to cover it up. So I’m more interested in the idea than in the technology really.”
I think that’s right, it’s the human element that must come first, it’s the creativity that has to drive the machines.
“Yeah. There’s some fantastic equipment around at the moment, there really is, it makes life a lot easier. Sat around playing with tape loops and trying to get them to talk to each other for hours on end can dull the creativity.”
One of the things that comes across with Blancmange is that where other synth acts came across as a bit dour, you always seemed to have a sense of humour about things and you were always smiling on stage.
“That’s because we always thought we were going to get found out. [laughs] Some of our stuff is quite dark really, stuff like Blind Vision and our first single God’s Kitchen. But when we were on Top of the Pops I thought it was hysterical that we were even asked to appear. We just kept thinking ‘when are we going to get rumbled?’ just don’t take yourselves too seriously. I mean, I’m very serious about what I do, but in those situations…
People who come and see us will see a darker side. It does get a bit intense at times, but I suppose it’s a reflection of what your experiences are. It’s not all smiles, but sometimes you smile in adversity.”
Blancmange were massively popular. Your last gig was at the Royal Albert Hall.
“It was, but I’ll qualify that by saying it was part of an event, it wasn’t just our gig. We were just part of an event, a Greenpeace concert.
I came offstage and, nothing to do with Greenpeace, I’m totally in support of that but what I felt on stage I didn’t enjoy, what we’d become. So I said ‘I’m not doing this anymore’ and Stephen agreed with me, which was nice, and I suppose it saved a friendship. If we’d have carried on much longer, we’d probably have ended up destroying each other, we were like chalk and cheese anyway. [laughs]
We’d probably become a victim of the machine by then, and I was very pleased to walk away from it before there was too much more damage done.
I was glad to say goodbye to that aspect of it, but not goodbye to creating music.”
So how is it these days, are you enjoying it more second time around?
“Oh yes. A lot has happened in the last 26 years that has made this not just passable but absolutely enjoyable. I’m probably more…. resigned to who I am these days. The one thing that I’m certain of is that I’m not certain. And that’s quite nice.”
And that seems like the perfect place to leave this conversation. Neil Arthur has come a long way and it is good to know that he is happy and contented with life. It is often said that there is a wisdom that comes with age and experience and it is heart warming to know that this applies to the people we grew up with and who soundtracked our angst. We all deserve to find this and Neil Arthur is, as usual, one step ahead of us.
It is also often said that the pioneers get the arrows while the followers get the gold. Neil Arthur has definitely been a pioneer in the field of creating electronic music, But he has also, in many ways, got the gold.
Blancmange play Liverpool Arts Club this Saturday, May 4.