Based in Gloucestershire since leaving London a dozen years ago, Blancmange mastermind Neil Arthur continues to divide his time between the Cotswolds and old haunts in the capital.
“I really enjoy it, including walks when I finish work or early morning with my dog, who can never get enough exercise. My eldest’s in London, but the rest of the family’s here and I’ve good friends around. It’s in striking distance of London, and I get there quite a lot, seeing mates. But I love the countryside, as I did when I was up in Lancashire.”
This is where I add a bit of history. Most of you reading this will know the score, but synth-pop pioneers Blancmange formed in 1979 and were soon down to a pivotal core of two – Neil (vocals, guitar, electronics) and Londoner Stephen Luscombe (keyboards, synths). Seven hits followed, including top-20 singles Living on the Ceiling, Blind Vision, Waves and Don’t Tell Me, releasing albums Happy Families (1982), Mange Tout (1985) and Believe You Me (1986).
That looked like being the end of it, both drifting off into other projects. But the fans’ clamour (wasn’t he an Austrian ski legend?) remained, with plenty of love for the band, and they reformed 25 years later, releasing LP Blanc Burn in 2011. And while Stephen – suffering with his health in recent years – then left, Neil has continued under the band name ever since, releasing four more albums since 2015, including Unfurnished Rooms, set for release on September 29th.
Neil has fewer excuses to drop by his old base in Darwen these days, but can’t resist occasional visits to the Lancashire town he left at 19, and plays the Library Theatre (Wednesday, October 25th, 0844 847 1664) on his latest album tour.
“When I do get up there and we play Darwen, there are always a load of mates, and we always look forward to that. I try and get a walk on the moors too. Mum and Dad have a bench up there in their memory. I have a ‘nosey’ around, look back down over Darwen. It’s bizarre – it never leaves you, and I’m very, very proud of where I come from. Sometimes people say, ‘Where are you from up north? Are you from Yorkshire?’ I’m very much not from Yorkshire! I’m very much from Lancashire! And there’ll be songs on this album where that accent will come out … I’m sure.”
That accent’s undeniable, and it’s there to hear as early as the brooding, atmospheric title track that ushers in the new LP, those East Lancastrian tones in evidence as he conducts a ‘search’ of unfurnished rooms and unfinished works, more of which I’ll address in a separate review on this site very soon. But let’s just say for now that Blancmange fans should be extremely impressed, as suggested by the early online feedback to tracks Anna Dine, Share It Out and What’s the Time.
There’s a taste of the North West on track two as well, Neil’s narrative about a ‘chemical spillage on a trading estate in Altrincham’ on We Are The Chemicals giving us an air of mystery and threat, that Cheshire happening seemingly not an isolated incident, something similar occurring ‘in a garden shed 80 miles due south as the crow does fly’ and ‘in the boot of a hire car.’ Sparse and atmospheric with a rich vocal, slowly building, it’s an early highlight on an album of many more.
“If I was to try and explain the meaning of the songs it would be like taking the last page out of a book. It’s better people make up their own minds, leave a certain amount of ambiguity. I’m always intrigued by what people think though!”
At that point I decide not to quiz him any deeper on the lyrical content, instead beginning my own advanced aural journey through Unfurnished Rooms a couple of days later. And I won’t be giving away too much by saying that I see clear lineage between Blancmange’s back-catalogue and the new material, and also between their early ’80s heyday and a more modern vibe, despite this being very much a different album to what’s come before, as is Neil’s wont.
While we’re on the subject of explanations, when Neil mentioned a reticence to explain any of his songs, that’s not to say he’s averse to extensive liner notes, as is evident by his hands-on involvement with this year’s other Blancmange release, The Blanc Tapes. It’s a major project in box-set form, grouping together digitalised versions of the bands early years’ demos right through to their last recordings first time around, an exhaustive three-CD media books in a slipcase, comprising the first three LPs, 12″ mixes, non album B-sides, previously unreleased demos and rehearsals from Neil’s private collection, along with previously unreleased BBC Radio 1 sessions and live concerts recorded by the Beeb, plus photos and lyrics. What say, Neil?
“This tour is about the new album, but also for the last couple of years I’ve been working on this huge boxset project with the record company, the BBC and my manager, going through a mass of archives I had of demo tapes and rehearsals I kept.”
And it’s not called The Blanc Tapes for nothing – we’re talking cassettes in many instances, aren’t we?
“Exactly. It’s every single thing we recorded, and every piece of music on there came off a tape. now digitalised. When I was going through demos I was running them past Stephen, who’s not well these days, and for whom the most important thing is he looks after his health. But I’ve kept him informed all the way along. We talk a lot. He agreed to do three interviews as part of all this, and I think that did him the world of good. But generally he just said, ‘Get on with it!’ to me.”
You’re not usually one to revisit past works, but I get the impression that you enjoyed the experience.
“Some of it was quite emotive. I hadn’t listened to much of it since it was recorded. I’m a musician – I don’t want to listen to my own music!”
“It took a lot of persuasion, but I decided if we were going to do this it would have to be done properly. I really wanted to get locked into it. And I think the record company and the graphic designer were absolutely amazing.
“Putting the boxset together was hard work without a doubt, but the liner notes were relatively straight-forward, having run them all past Stephen, who told me what he thought. What was difficult at times was listening to all those cassettes. That’s all we could record on in the beginning – all those demos on quarter-inch tape, reel to reel. And the first time I listened back it wasn’t the music that got me – it was the air just before the first sound. As soon as I heard it, I knew where it was. Whoa – that’s a proper big memory, that!
“There’s a really early demo of Waves, where I think we were trying to get the synth going, because Stephen was doing the organ bit …”
Winding it up?
“Yeah, practically! Steam-powered! We borrowed a Wasp synthesiser. The mic. was open and I coughed. Normally you‘d edit that out, but I decided to leave that on. There’s also chatting at the end of one track. And we hoped those sort of touches would draw people in. You see the journey we took – this experimental band who then started forming slightly more structured songs, and then the more polished end results that came out. It was a relatively short period – taking us from around ’78 to ’86 – and It’s a long time ago now, but there’s still a hardcore of fans who enjoy all that, and they’re absolutely wonderful.”
I love that recent publicity shot of you and Stephen sat in a launderette, sharing an old joke no doubt.
“Yeah, that was taken when we did something for Classic Pop. We did an interview the day before at Stephen’s flat. He didn’t really want to do another photo session, and wasn’t up to walking too far. I asked, ‘Is there a launderette near here?’ We always had this joke when we did Irene & Mavis (1980), featuring these two old dears who did avant-garde music, having met in a launderette. This launderette was just around the corner, so we did that instead!”
Now and again, I tell Neil, I’ll revisit the old songs, and while travelling back from my Cornish holidays recently, Don’t Tell Me came on one of my compilations, myself and my better half proceeding to embarrass our teenage daughters with our in-car dancing. I felt sure they secretly loved it though.
“My daughter’s a similar age and her and her mates, when they have parties, will put on Living on the Ceiling and another track and really enjoy it – which is lovely! And I’m flattered by that.”
Of course, your daughter appeared on some of Blancmange’s recordings, I recall.
“Yes, with some backing vocals on Semi-Detached and when we re-recorded some of the Happy Families Too album, doing a re-imagining of that.”
How about your lad, Joe? Is he still causing a stir in his particular musical field?
“Yeah, he’s got a few releases out at the moment on different labels and compilations. He’s now working under the name Kincaid rather than Applebottom, getting very good reaction for a joint venture (with Sinal), Longhaul Flight Bathroom Romance Scene, and sonically it’s very exciting! Yep, I’m very proud of him.”
I’ve since checked out a recent Pirate Studios live set recorded in London, and concur. In fact, there are inherent international influences that bring to mind some of the innovations Blancmange sprang upon the mainstream market all those years ago. Well worth checking out (and you can start here via the Kincaid – UK Facebook page).
Talking of collaborations, while Stephen is sitting things out these days Neil has another sonic partner he’s working wonders with, involving occasional trips to a studio in Cornwall run by a musician and producer best known in the industry simply as Benge, revered in electronica circles for several of his own projects, not least with further Lancashire synth innovator John Foxx and his band The Maths.
In his current abode, Neil tells me he ‘has a small workroom’ rather than a studio, as before, adding, ‘I tend to mix in another studio so have the bare minimum – basically just a laptop computer, then take it to that next stage in the studio’. And that’s where the trips to East Cornwall follow.
“Yes, I did the new Blancmange LP with Benge down there, and he added some amazing touches. Some of the analogue sounds are absolutely sensational. They’re unique, some of the synths we used. It’s been an absolute delight, Benge and I got to know each other doing the Fader project.”
The latter album, followed an introduction through the pair’s shared management, Neil aware of Benge’s work with fellow Lancastrian, John Foxx, plus Gazelle Twin and Wrangler.
“We only met once before starting working together, but we certainly got to know each other, and sometimes music speaks louder than words, finding common ground and bonding on that.”
At that point we talk briefly about Benge’s new manor, and I mention how past writewyattuk interviewee Will Young is also a regular visitor to the Bodmin area. And his deadpan response?
“I didn’t see him whilst I was down. I had my head down. I didn’t even see King Arthur, and I’m an Arthur myself! I’ve been to Cornwall many times, but hadn’t been to Tintagel since I was very young, and it was absolutely peeing it down. I was the only person there. I had the whole place to myself. It was brilliant.”
So how does your super-sonic relationship with Benge work?
“With the Fader album, he was living in LA at that time with a view to moving there. He got a studio together and started writing all these instrumentals. At some point my manager told him he thought I’d like these, and when he did I absolutely locked in. It was meant to be. I had a load of lyrics and loads of it just seemed to fit. In a relatively short period of time we had an album’s worth, just sending files back and forth, working in our separate studios then got together for the mixing – the nuts and bolts of it.”
The resultant album, First Light, came out in June, and pretty soon the pair were working again on the final sessions for what would become the latest Blancmange album. While all the songs on Unfurnished Rooms were written by Neil, his co-producer added percussion and layers of analogue synth, the pair then mixing the record in the latter’s Memetune studios. Does Neil instinctively know the difference between what becomes a Blancmange song and those that become Fader tracks?
“Yeah, the origins of all the Fader pieces came from Benge, him sending more developed or embryonic versions of instrumentals, with me adding the odd melody line, a vocal, and so on. With Blancmange I start it, writing songs and lyrics, and this time exchanging files. And his knowledge of those analogue instrumentation is far beyond mine. I’d write, and even if it was written on guitar I’d transfer that pretty soon to that electronic world I’m used to.
“There won’t be a guitar on a Fader album. That’s always going to be analog sound, but on a Blancmange album you could have anything, including the kitchen sink, or as we did back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when we were using Indian instrumentation, Tupperware, guitar, synthesizer or synthesized drums, and what-have-you.”
Seeing as I hadn’t had a chance to listen to the new album when we spoke, I asked Neil to explain where he felt Unfurnished Rooms fitted among the Blancmange canon.
“Well … whereas Nil by Mouth was instrumental – as I thought it was about time we had a break from my gob! – and Semi-Detached had an instrumental on it too, then the last album Commuter 23 included several instrumentals, this is all structured songs with lyrics. That’s the way I decided I wanted to do it.
“There are 11 songs on the CD, and on the vinyl there are 10, but purely to ensure the quality of the cut wasn’t compromised, with the other track given away by those ordering the vinyl as a download. To answer your question though, we’re talking structured songs with lyrics and storylines.”
If he sounds a little vague there, I can understand that after my first few listens to the album. But that’s no bad thing, believe you me (sorry, I couldn’t resist adding those last three words). At the time though, I tried to ask a bit more. Prior to talking to Neil, I put on The Western from Blanc Burn, inspiring me to go right through that fine album again. Does that surmising put this latest album more in line with Blanc Burn?
“Yeah, although it doesn’t sound anything like that album. I’m not trying to do anything I’ve done before. That’s the only way I’d carry on. I’d have gone back to working in graphics otherwise, or tried to get another job.”
Last time we heard from you, it was on the back of the instrumental Nil by Mouth and partly-voiced Commuter 23. Was there a block, lyrically, at that stage, or were the notebooks still filling, with you just waiting on the right moment?
“The idea of the instrumental album really came from the fact that I’d spent more or less 20-odd years doing film music, giving me another insight into music production and writing. So I decided I’d explore that angle and have a break from the vocal approach.”
Who’ll be joining you on the road this time around? Is guitarist David Rhodes – on board in at least some capacity since the very first album 35 years ago – with you again?
“Absolutely. He’ll be playing guitar and doing vocals, while Oogoo Maia will be playing synthesisers and vocoder (I think that’s what he said, anyway), and Adam Fuest will be mixing and sorting out visuals, controlling sequencers, and God know’s what else!”
Will Blancmange super-fan John Grant – who appears on the new album’s epic finale Don’t Get Me Wrong – be making an appearance too?
“My goodness, wouldn’t that be lovely? I was so pleased when I heard he really liked our music. I asked him to take part via my manager. I had a song I said I’d really like him to play on. Not only did he play on it but he also ended up singing on it as well. And I couldn’t quite believe it!”
Blancmange also have dates with Heaven 17 later this year, and have already played with The Human League in 2017. Has Neil got to know Martyn Ware and Phil Oakey over the years?
“I was speaking to Phil last Sunday morning. We did a festival together, and last year did a handful of dates around bigger arenas as guests of theirs. I didn’t know him back in the day. I knew the girls, and Stephen was particularly friendly with them, but I knew Martyn quite well, as he helped us do one of our first demos. We go back a long way and he was a massive help to us, and we toured with them the other year. Him and Glenn (Gregory) and the rest of the team are just fantastic. So we’ll enjoy the Unfurnished Rooms tour and all those dates, without a doubt, promoting the album, and once we’ve done those we’ll be enjoying ourselves on tour with Heaven 17 as well, doing old and new songs.”
In the meantime, it’s now been 35 years since Happy Families. That must seem a lifetime away. As we’ve discussed, you’re not generally one to dwell on past successes, but I get the impression you’d left it just long enough to appreciate it all with hindsight through The Blanc Tapes project. And I’m guessing you ended up feeling very proud of that back-catalogue.
“Without sounding conceited, yeah I am actually! And I’d do it all again. I’d probably do it all exactly the same … and stop it at the same time as well. Fortunately we were able to return to it, and then I’ve been able to carry on from there … and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
With that Neil was away on another call, but not before I’d mentioned how I was looking forward to getting along and seeing him live.
“It would be lovely to see you there. Please make yourself know … either by throwing a rotten tomato or saying hello in a conventional way!”
To revisit or catch up with the March 2016 writewyattuk interview/feature with Neil Arthur, head here.
Blancmange’s Unfurnished Rooms UK tour dates: October 5th – Brighton Concorde 2; October 6th – London 229; October 19th – Southend Chinnery’s; October 20th – Southampton 1865; October 25th – Darwen Library; October 26th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; October 27th – Edinburgh La Belle Angele; October 28th – Glasgow Audio; November 2nd – Bristol The Fleece; November 4th – Nottingham Rescue Rooms. For full tour information, details of how to order the new LP and early years’ boxset, and all the latest from the band, head to their official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.
You can also catch Blancmange supporting Heaven 17 on The Tour of Synthetic Delights around the UK, taking in: November 10th – Sheffield Foundry (Students’ Union); November 11th – Liverpool Hangar 34; November 17th – Hull Welly; November 18th – Manchester Academy 2; November 24th – Coventry Copper Rooms; November 25th – Norwich Waterfront. For more information check out the Heaven 17 website, or try the band’s own Facebook and Twitter pages.