High-ranking pop chart success may be behind the sole survivor of 1980s hit-makers Blancmange, but there’s still plenty of deserved acclaim, adulation and appreciation afforded this Gloucestershire-based Lancastrian’s stunning body of work. And new LP, Wanderlust, continues that creative discourse, 36 years after debut album, Happy Families.
If there’s an over-riding theme to his new record, a set of 10 songs composed by Neil and arranged, co-produced and mixed with Ben Edwards, aka Benge (Wrangler/Creep Show) at the latter’s Memetune Studios in Cornwall, it involves the title’s subject matter – that strong desire to travel, be that a personal or political journey. And believe you me (as we say in Blancmange circles), he’d much rather you interpret its meaning than himself.
But before we get to all that, how’s his adopted Gloucestershire today?
“It’s absolutely beautiful. I had a fantastic walk this morning, way out, walking the dog with the missus. I’m back in work now, in the studio. I’ve just cycled up a very steep hill, doing a few errands.”
As many of my conversations go these days, we soon got on to dogs, Neil telling me a Blancmange-related not-so-shaggy dog tale involving his Parson Russell Terrier, Audrey, a ‘feisty lady to say the least’.
“At another studio I had, I was working on one of the Blancmange albums, had done the main vocal and was adding backing vocals, layering them up, with headphones on, then I was listening back and hearing this weird noise. I isolated every track, working out what I’d picked up on there, going through the guitars, synths and then vocal tracks, and on every chorus the bloody dog’s joining in!
“I put about four tracks down, and she joined in … Audrey the dog, singing along. She still does. When we sing happy birthday to friends and relatives, she joins in. She’s got a better voice than me.”
Did you leave her on the recording?
“No! It was too good. It was embarrassing. She was more in tune than I was. I had to sack her. I didn’t even know she was in the studio. They follow you around, and she snuck in there.”
While clearly loving life on the edge of the West Country, Neil headed further toward Land’s End to record again with Benge, as on last autumn’s wondrous Unfurnished Rooms and with the pair’s side-project Fader before that. What’s more, Wanderlust is his second album this year, after a collaboration with electronic solo artist Jez Bernholz on Near Future’s debut album Ideal Home in May. It’s also the fifth Blancmange LP since Neil’s musical partner Stephen Luscombe was forced by illness to stop touring and recording in 2011.
And the results certainly suggest that Neil and Benge had fun playing in the studio in Cornwall.
“Yeah, in all the darkness … It’s great, and I really enjoy working with Benge.”
Reading an Attack magazine interview with him, he said his studio there is kind of the complete opposite of the one he had before in East London.
“Yeah, and for me the opportunity to work with him is amazing. We get on really well. He’s an absolute expert on synths, engineering and mixing, and we understand each other and don’t step on each other’s toes but push each other to get the best out of one another and surprise each other. You don’t know what’s going to happen sometimes.”
Does David Rhodes, your touring guitarist, come in later?
“He only played on one track on this album, on ‘Leaves’.”
Well, there’s a beautiful big sound on that track. It’s a real builder.
“Yes, I wanted something quite dramatic for the choruses, and Benge got out not only electronic drums, but we ended up using real stuff as well, as a kind of overlay, and one of my reference points was a band called This Heat.
“I wanted something dramatic to empathise the simplicity of the vocal line and let it breathe a bit in the verses. That was one of the first tracks we recorded. And I ended up doing the other guitar – if you can call it guitar – as I’d written it. Benge said, ‘Let’s keep it. It works’. I’ve always written on guitar, but in terms of being a guitarist … maybe not. I’m nowhere near the standard Mr. Rhodes gets up to.”
That’s typical Neil – first denigrating himself as a singer, then as a guitarist too. Maybe it’s his Lancashire roots, not wanting to appear to be acting above his station. And talking of Lancashire, it appears that he couldn’t resist another return to his native Darwen and the Library Theatre on his forthcoming tour, on the back of a great night at the same venue around the same time last year.
“Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to it, and I’m hoping I might get a wander up on the moors. Last time we had technical issues and I had interviews, and by the time we got through a soundcheck it was too dark … although I did venture forth to a local pub!”
This time he has a gap in the itinerary before his November 7th date there, heading straight on to Edinburgh, Glasgow, then Newcastle before another short break. In fact, he’s nudged his East Lancs show two weeks closer to the end of the year. It’s as if he wants to be snowed in for a couple of days, embracing a Northern winter.
“If that’s the case, I’ll definitely get myself up on the moors. I’ll have to dig out my Mum and Dad’s seat (up there) to sit on it amid a snowdrift.”
He’s also tagged on six more dates next April and May, including further North-West dates in Liverpool and Manchester.
“Yes, taking in some of the areas we won’t be able to get to this time around, also including Birmingham, London, Sheffield, and a gig in Southend, a lovely one to do.”
I mention his Sheffield date, seeing as my eldest daughter is now there for university, Neil mentioning the ‘fantastic countryside surrounding it’, leading to me telling him that – like Rome – it’s a city surrounded by seven hills, something even mentioned in George Orwell’s classic 1937 sociological study of Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier.
“Ah, is it! Blimey, so we’ll be going to the Rome of the North and the Athens of the North (Edinburgh)! Yeah, there are a lot of dates, but it’ll be good fun.”
Seeing as we were talking about weather patterns back there, the LP’s lead single, ‘Distant Storm’, suggests to me a band maybe 30 years younger than the birth certificates suggest. Think Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ given a Giorgio Moroder treatment. Come to think of it, throughout Wanderlust, Blancmange again prove that futuristic ’80s dance music remains relevant. In fact, good dance – from Fats Domino, Ray Charles and James Brown through – fails to age as long as you avoid recording fads and throwaway techniques that date songs, as ‘Distant Storm’ proves.
“Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy my work. It’s always been the case really, regardless of some of them ending up being hits in terms of pop music. Fortunately, we have an audience who are appreciative, and I hope it comes across. I try and be as honest as I can. I’m not trying to be anybody else.”
On the subject of that single, it’s not a wholly conventional Neil Arthur vocal, but mention of a car park (his East Lancashire tones coming through again) and ‘forensic detail’ prove to be a giveaway, Perhaps we have another incident, like on the last LP’s ‘We Are the Chemicals’, involving ‘a trading estate in Altrincham’.
“Ah, well, it might not be a million miles away. I’ve even name-checked Cheadle Hulme later! (on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’)”
The same goes for those shuddering bass-synth touches, which could neatly segue into old favourite, ‘Feel Me’ (not as if I’m looking to order his live set-list this time around).
“Yeah, there’s a bit of a groove on ‘Distant Storm’. When I started writing, before I went out to Benge, I got this idea in my head that the album was going to have quite a lot of dance tracks on it. I wrote a number of songs in that vein, and we ended up with a pool of material, then decided on which we’d work on. I wanted Benge to have a big input, and he chose the songs he wanted to work on.
“That effectively shaped what you hear – the 10 songs, although initially there were 17, which will all eventually arrive, some of which are already finished but ended up not being put on the album. ’Distant Storm’ was one of the very dance-y tracks, whereas others didn’t end up going on as we ended up taking a slightly different course.
“But with that, we ended up having a remix done by Kincaid, and that’s going down well, being played by DJs. Of course, the other thing about Kincaid is that he also happens to be my son, so it’s really nice to be working on a collaboration with my lad.”
Incidentally, Blancmange have reached new audiences of late via last year’s remix of ‘What’s the Time?’ (for Disco Halal) and a new collaboration with Kincaid, ‘Fat Head’, both tracks played by the likes of Ame (Innervisions Label) and Solomun. And talking of those dance music effects, we’re talking dreamy vocoder over moody Moogs on ‘Distant Storm’. I’ve always been suspicious of auto-tune type phasing, since Cher’s ‘Believe’ probably, something that winds me up about a lot of modern pop, but Neil’s quick to let me know that’s a whole different approach to his own.
“We’ve used vocoder on quite a few tracks before, and there’s quite a bit on this album. It just gives you a break from me really!”
If there’s a theme to this album, your press release suggests it’s where ‘wistfulness turns to anger; dislocation morphs into a powerful desire to be somewhere else, with a sense of someone fighting for forward motion, dreams, family and the joys of life while seeing … the pretence of a normal world being erased’. Is this Neil getting to grips with an uncaring, crumbling Government, this whole Brexit farce, and so on (not as if I’m leading him)?
“There’s certainly a lot of that, without a doubt. I wouldn’t even call this a Government. They’re careerists. They don’t give a shit about us. So yeah, there’s a lot of that, and I just absorb stuff going on around that you can maybe make stories from, make observations, including stuff I wish wasn’t happening.
“We should be concerned, without a doubt. I’m not standing on a bloody soapbox though. These are just songs – poetry with music over the top of it. And there’s other stuff on the album that has more to do with slightly more personal things, with an overview of a lack of empathy in the world.
“I was determined to get Rees-Mogg into one song, get the words in there and slowly unravel this thing. Instead of giving all the answers – which I’m still searching for – you leave a certain amount of ambiguity and people can make out of it what they want.
“But there are other songs, a lot about being a parent. You just talked about your daughter going to university, which is fantastic, but it also means she’s not at home, and you’ve got to let go. We’re not in a dissimilar position, and everybody goes through this in families. It’s the same the first day your child goes to school, or their first sleepover later, the first stages of letting go.
“You cannot control, and they have an absolute need to be a long way away from you in terms of the way a relationship changes. They must be their own person. And with the last track on the album, ‘Wanderlust’, that word’s the closest we can get to it, but another German word, ‘fernweh’, carries far more weight – about this absolute need to be away.”
That answers another question regarding that title track. The lady on the sample’s not saying, ‘Tenby wanderlust’ then? I felt for a moment it might be about escaping to South West Wales. It’s a lovely area after all.
“No, it’s not my place … well, it is. Each person has their own place they need to go. I used to go to Worm’s Head, not too far from there. Very beautiful. But I’m writing about my children and their need to be away, and I’m also in a situation where I’m observing it as myself – amid all the mayhem around me, with my own need to get away.
“But again, I’ll reiterate, I’m not on some bloody soapbox, and I don’t have any answers! It just seems that people in control are making a right pig’s ear of it, and this whole Brexit thing drives me absolute bonkers.”
It finally strikes me that the subject of ‘Leaves’ might be more political than I first envisaged, but Neil would rather we made our own interpretations of what that’s about. That said, he’s still on one.
“We’ve gone down a route where people are screaming because they don’t like something, But what’s coming our way is going to be a damned sight worse. I’d rather be at the table, talking, than locked out and no longer be able to.
“These are our neighbours! We’re all immigrants! We’ve got to come from somewhere. And after all the horror, all the difficulties, all the pain everybody’s been through in Ireland, for these people to talk so flippantly about it … it’s ignorance.”
Taking the album track by track beyond ‘Distant Storm’, there’s another nod to Blancmange’s pop past on the second number, ‘In Your Room’, to me the best Depeche Mode single I’ve heard in some years, somewhere between their own pop roots and later, darker material. A hit, in old money.
“Ha! Their dark minimal ways, yeah? Well, there’s no intention. I wrote that a number of years ago, and never found the right time to release it until now. Simply, (it’s about) when you’re with somebody and at one with them and at ease with them, the room is enough, not wanting to deal with what’s out there at that moment – out there, it’s all too much.”
I could say the same about track three, ‘I Smashed Your Phone’, which to carry on my earlier theme, could have been Ultravox’s finest ever single. Yet thematically it could be an alternative take on Gruff Rhys’ recent duet with Lily Cole on the gorgeous ‘Selfies in the Sunset’, a track I suggested Neil checked out after our conversation.
“The idea of that … well, you can’t even have a conversation these days without someone having a look at their bloody phone, like they’re umbilically attached to it … myself included at times. Also, it’s just that generational thing – the world changes and we like to think we understand it, but we don’t. You never know. I’m learning all the bloody time. The one thing I’m certain about is that I don’t know.”
And seeing out side one, you seem like you’re having a lot of fun in the studio with Benge on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’ and ‘Talking to Machines’.
“We had a fantastic time with those synths! We got a VCS3 out on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’. And on ‘Talking to Machines’ I put down drums, but because of the kind of stuff Benge has access to, we can go down so many different routes, so there’s loads of analogue drums and weird basses going on. And before that, on ‘I Smashed your Phone’ we referenced Ringo Starr’s drums on ‘Ticket to Ride’.
“For ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, I got this idea for a story about social climbing at any cost, and the emptiness at its core to get where you want to be. I wanted this groove, having this reference in my head to ‘Love is the Drug’, doing it from memory rather than listening to that song.”
Ah, now the gravel drive in the title makes sense.
“That’s why it came up, although it never appears in the lyric. With ‘Talking to Machines’, I love The Beatles but what I really liked as well was the Plastic Ono Band, so there’s a reference to that at times, in the type of production we went for.”
Neil’s wordplay and imagery hits another high on ‘Gravel Drive Syndrome’, not least that image of how, addressing his social climber, ‘Your record still stands for the longest scream of anyone falling off anything, anytime, anywhere’. And musically that track strikes me as a theme tune to a timeslip movie set in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. There’s also a bit of Bowie in there for me, as is the case with ‘Talking to Machines’ and later, ‘TV Debate’. For me, all three could be out-takes from Blackstar. I put this to Neil, but he’s not going there.
“Blimey. I don’t think so. That’s very much a different world. He was an absolute genius.”
We briefly talk some more about Blackstar, Neil mentioning how its heart-searing final track, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, references an earlier Bowie track, my interviewee going back to his online collection while I hang on the line, attempting to place it, despite the fact that his next caller is now due.
I soon hear Blackstar playing in the background, Neil crooning along, mentioning ‘the Midnight Cowboy mouth organ thing going on’, determined as he tells me, ‘I’m not going to let this go now. You’re going to have to bear with me. I will find it!’ He finally gets there, deciding on ‘Soul Love’ from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, adding an emphatic, ‘Isn’t that fantastic, referencing one of your own songs! Unbelievable.
“As RCA put it for the launch of Heroes, ‘There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.’ And that’s exactly how we saw it. He was out there on his own, and such a massive influence on all of us. And there would always be changes with Bowie! You didn’t have to stay the same – keep re-inventing and experimenting.”
Back to Wanderlust, and I meant to mention how the stabbing synth on ‘Talking to Machines’ reminds me of Soft Cell’s 12″ ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Where Did Your Love Go?’ mash-up, a dance tune within escaping. I was already way over my allotted time though, so moved on to mention our mutual friend Hannah Peel, who also worked with Benge in her days working with influential electronic pioneer John Foxx‘s band The Maths. She’s had another interesting year, I ventured, not least through her more recent work – along with her partner in The Magnetic North, Erland Cooper – with Paul Weller on True Meanings, her star continuing its rise.
And there’s certainly a pleasing vocal blend with Neil and Ms Peel on the chorus of side two opener, ‘Not a Priority’, a song about ‘people who are apparently not seen by others, who have a sense that you don’t count or are seen as not important.’ Again, there’s Blancmange’s balancing act between melancholy and hope for renewed self-belief, Hannah adding Star Trek-like ethereal chanting as well as harmonies. Or perhaps, with Neil painting a picture of ‘The sky at night glitching in the system’, it’s not so much Hannah as her alter-ego, the eponymous heroine of Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia.
“Oh! That was an absolute privilege. We asked Hannah if she’d sing on that song, and her contribution is huge. I’m very grateful, and she’s a really lovely person and an incredibly talented songwriter and musician.”
Next off, there’s the afore-mentioned Bowie-esque ‘TV Debate’, guitars finally breaking through on an often under-stated yet powerful number, featuring a series of channel-surfing images about contemporary politics and vacuous celebrity shows. And again the imagery is truly evocative. Then, beyond the beautiful build of ‘Leaves’, carrying on apace with where we left off on track seven – the end/leave line seemingly in sight – there’s ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, another track that really hit me from the first play, one I’m convinced I’ll be playing a lot more these coming weeks. A huge hit in any other decade, with a great hook, multi-layered yet truly accessible. And dare I mention it’s almost Vangelis-esque in parts? Somehow I’ll find my way home … from up there. With that in mind, not least after bringing in John Grant on the last LP, how about Neil enticing fellow East Lancastrian Jon Anderson out for an alternative version?
“Ha! We’ll have to have a chat!”
Then, finally, there’s that electronically yet emotionally-charged finale, the spoken words and Neil’s poetic discourse evoking that longing to be elsewhere, craving new experiences, living for the moment. There’s sadness in what change can bring, but elation too at letting go and moving on. And musically, a nod to Kraftwerk, maybe?
“Not knowingly, but you know I like Kraftwerk. Probably more Neu if there’s a reference. Certainly German! But sometimes you don’t know in terms of referencing. It could be noises I’d heard in my sleep, which is where ‘Distant Storm’ came from. That’s something I heard in the night. It was actually my partner breathing. I couldn’t quite work out what it was. I was in that kind of in-between state.
“And ‘White Circle, Black Hole’, which is a bit like ‘I’ve Seen the Word’ in many respects, is actually about a repetitive nightmare I had when I was a child, but I try and sing it in a really nice way.”
So – with songs about the cycle of life, that craving to make sense of the modern world, and that continuing search for meaning – is this all aural therapy for you?
“Yeah, I suppose so, getting it out of my system!”
Malcolm Wyatt previously spoke to Neil Arthur for a March 2016 interview, with a link here, and in September 2017, with a link here. You can also check out a live review of Blancmange at Darwen’s Library Theatre from October 2017 here and the WriteWyattUK take on last year’s Unfurnished Rooms here.
Wanderlust is out on October 19th on Blanc Check Records (BCR012), while Blancmange’s November tour calls at: Norwich Arts Centre (1st); Nottingham Rescue Rooms (2nd); Cardiff Acapela (3rd); Bristol The Fleece (4th); Darwen Library Theatre (7th); Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms (8th); Glasgow Oran Mor (9th); Newcastle The Cluny (10th); Brighton The Old Market (15th); Southampton Brook (16th); Dover Booking Hall (17th); Wolverhampton Robin 2 (22nd); Gloucester Guild Hall (23rd); Northampton Roadmender (24th); Leeds The Wardrobe (29th); Derby Flowerpot (30th). for more details, head to www.blancmange.co.uk You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.