I guess you’ve heard he’s seen the word: talking Blancmange’s 40-year recording odyssey with Neil Arthur

Before I picked up the phone to call Neil Arthur, I had another listen to latest Blancmange single, ‘Reduced Voltage’, ahead of the release of the new album, Private View, which followed yesterday (Friday, September 30th).

And as I put it to the East Lancashire born and bred frontman and sole ever-present of this influential electronica outfit, I don’t know if it’s just in my head because I knew Blancmange featured at her recent Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre, but I hear Grace Jones covering that track.

“Wow, that would be brilliant, wouldn’t it! Flipping ‘eck. I’d love to hear Grace Jones doing that. And I might get to sit on her knee again.”

Now there’s a story, one involving Neil and former bandmate/Blancmange co-founder Stephen Luscombe, ending up in Grace’s dressing room while supporting her over two shows at Drury Lane Theatre in 1981, taking her to a club night in Charing Cross that second night, learning some handy stage craft along the way, a tale Neil recently retold on Twitter. Anyway, how was the aptly-named Meltdown for Blancmange?

“It was the hottest day so far of the year. In June. It was stifling. But the gig itself, we were lucky enough to support a good friend, John Grant.”

That will be the acclaimed Michigan singer, songwriter and musician, a Blancmange fan boy, the latest single accompanied by a remix from this long-time co-conspirator, who recently enthused, “I have loved Blancmange for close to four decades, so it’s such an honour to be asked to remix a track off the new record. It was a blast.”

Meanwhile, Neil’s back to his Meltdown tale.

“We supported John, the three of us on stage, but it was so hot in the dressing room, you really couldn’t go in it. It’s a beautiful building, but there was no air con working, and the fan in our room wasn’t working. So we stayed anywhere we could find in the shade, trying to keep cool. We did a soundcheck and the lads, Liam {Hutton} and Finlay {Shakespeare}, doing the electronics, they had shorts on. We have a secret ritual before we go on stage. I won’t go into it. We make a bit of noise, and something goes on. But they turned up looking like they’re about to go on the beach, and I’m there with my bloody suit on …”

At this point, Neil lost his train of thought, amid a wail of sirens far removed from something you’d expect at his adopted rural base in Gloucestershire. And with good reason, for he was taking my call while signing CDs and vinyl in the boardroom at London Recordings in the capital, a label with which the band goes back many moons.

“Anyway, there’s me with a suit on, and I looked around to see them in their shorts, like they joined A Certain Ratio or something … who I love, by the way, me with a blasted suit on during the hottest evening. It was a great gig though, and we were absolutely honoured to be asked to go and do it.”

Neil certainly remains prolific, some 41 years after that first Grace Jones engagement, when him and Stephen were working across London from each other, the big time not so far off. Now 64 (not the album, although a quick check revealed Blancmange’s wondrous ‘Don’t Tell Me’ did show up on Now That’s What I Call Music 3 in 1984), I make it 15 new Blancmange records he’s released in just over a decade, since the band returned.

“Yep … keeping myself in trouble. Ha!”

I get the impression you’re not one to dwell on the past or stick to the heritage ‘80s act circuit. You clearly still have that drive to keep making new music … and quality new music at that, as your latter-day releases prove.

“Well, obviously, everybody reminisces, and there’s a lot of reminiscing going on with this album. But what I’m doing, I’m kind of looking back to look forward, really. I’m looking at the stuff that’s passed, I’m looking at the things that are passing, and there’s quite a lot of stuff going on.

“There’s a lot to reflect on, much further back, and then I’m projecting forward. There’s a song on this record called ‘Everything is Connected’. And it is, even the little bits. The title track also deals with all that, reminiscing and dealing with how you feel about what’s past, and what is to come … because we’re going there, whether we like it or not.”

He explained that further elsewhere, how he uses the past as a trigger to create new ideas and build fresh momentum, not as somewhere to linger. 

“A lot of people are frightened of the future and are quite happy to have a repeat of something that was done before. But it’s just not for me. Looking forward you’ve got a hell of a world to try and navigate through at the moment. We’re all moving forward – so we’ve got to try and find some answers.”

At time of going to press your scribe had yet to hear the full album, but if the three advance singles were a pointer as to what we can expect – and I’ve no doubt that’s the case – we’re in for another treat. The aforementioned ‘Reduced Voltage’ is electro-sonic perfection, pitched somewhere between Eno and Vangelis, so evocative and so Blancmange, 2022 style. Then there’s the Sign of the Times that is ‘Some Times These’, carrying the air of a lesser-known early ’70s hit rediscovered on a misplaced Top of the Pops archive reel. There’s the spirit of Roxy Music and Heroes-era Bowie in there, and a monster riff hiding just beneath the surface, and so much more. As for reflective album closer, ‘Take Me’, imagine a New Order take on Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, freshly reinterpreted, not so much pastiche as an old friend you can’t quite place.

The release of the new LP will be followed by an extensive UK tour, running through to December 10’s London Assembly Hall appearance, with an impressive array of special guests – namely Sheffield-born Cabaret Voltaire co-founder Stephen Mallinder, Oblong, Rodney Cromwell, and Alice Hubble – at various dates. And it’s a mighty tour schedule he has have lined up, his biggest for a while, I’m thinking.

“I think it’s the longest tour I’ve ever done – 28 dates, with a warm-up at Rough Trade East in London, launching the album, then starting in Coventry. And we’re going all over the place.”

There are some interesting venues involved. I guess the Subscription Rooms in Stroud will be the nearest to a home fixture these days.

“Yeah, and there’s Bristol.”

The latter is at The Fleece, The Blue Aeroplanes’ venue. And the band are on my old patch too, playing the Boileroom at Guildford.

“Yes, Blancmange haven’t played in Guildford since the ‘80s. I’ll be looking forward to that.”

And on his old North-West patch, there’s Kanteena, Lancaster (November 11th, ‘I’m looking forward to that. I haven’t played there before, I think it’s a new venue.’), Gorilla, Manchester (November 18th) and Hangar 34, Liverpool (November 19th). Will he get a chance to climb those moors around his old haunts in Darwen?

“I’m not sure I will this time. But I normally end up going to Townsend {Records} to do our merch, with some brilliant people there, and there may well be some more signing to do up there. The last time I managed that, after I finished, I went down to Ewood Park to have a think and look at my beloved Blackburn Rovers … and reminisce.”

You’ve not switched allegiance to near-neighbours Forest Green Rovers then?

“I’ve been to see them. I went to see them play Coventry a couple of seasons ago, and that was absolutely brilliant. The ball went out a few times, and it actually went into a field where they had sheep. It’s a brilliant ground.”

At this point we get on to Neil’s own sporting prowess, playing in an FA over-50s seven-a-side league. He’s also started playing in an over-60s league.

“I’m very lucky. I’m reasonably fit, I’m not a good footballer, but I’m keen and I’ve played a long time. And I get to play with men who have played professionally at that level. It’s like with music, keep your mind open and you’ll learn. Even in football, you can still learn at 64. Sometimes, Dale Vince plays {chairman of Forest Green Rovers FC, and the green energy industrialist behind Ecotricity}, although at the moment he’s crocked. But I love it. It’s brilliant, with a really nice camaraderie. And the ethos is that if you foul somebody, you help that up.”

Not in a Norman Hunter style?

“Nah, when we go down, we go down in instalments these days!”

And how’s his beloved Parson Russell terrier, Audrey?

“If you go on Blancmange’s Instagram page, you’ll see how well Audrey’s doing. She should be 17 in October. She’s amazing. I absolutely adore that dog. As {does} anybody that’s met her. She is incredible.”

I think that compares to 119 human years. And if you head to that Instagram account you’ll see Audrey bounding across a field to a soundtrack of Jackie Lee’s theme song for The White Horses. Marvellous. Anyway, regarding those support acts on this tour, they’re clearly acts he admires, hand-picked for the occasion, although he informs me Jez Bernholz is no longer involved.

“Yeah, Jez and I worked together on the Near Future project, but unfortunately he isn’t going to do that date in Coventry {late update: nor is Neil and co., that show cancelled – check with the band regarding the new date}. But Rodney Cromwell is, and he’s doing some of the other dates. He’s brilliant, his music is absolutely amazing. And Alice Hubble is coming along too, wat a gang we’re going to have! And Mal, anybody who knows his music knows they’re in for a real treat, he’s incredible. And of course, there’s Benge with his project, along with Sid, Helen and Dave, coming along as Oblong. That’ll be terrific. What a gang that is … never mind Blancmange, come along and see that lot!”

I did a double take when I first saw that bill, not least as I thought it included country star Rodney Crowell. But then I realised there was an ‘m’ in there.

“Ha!”

So who’s in your band? Is David Rhodes (who has also featured down the years with Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Scott Walker, and returned as Neil’s guitarist on the new LP, having previously performed with the band on 1982’s debut Happy Families, as well as several other Blancmange albums) out on the road with you?

“No, David recorded with us in the studio, but live we’ve got Chris Pemberton and Liam Hutton. Chris is playing keyboards. He’s played with, amongst others, John Grant and James Blunt. He’s coming out, doing the crazy synths, and Liam will be on electronic drums again. He’s played with us many times. And me in the middle somewhere, making some strange vocal noises, hopefully some in tune … with approximately the right words.”

Ah, ever modest. And clearly you still work well with Benge (producer Ben Edwards, who has also featured with John Foxx and the Maths, and works with Neil on their Fader studio project).

“Yeah, we love working together. It’s a privilege to work with Benge. He’s a very open and creative person, with amazing knowledge on all appliances and synthesisers, and brilliant to work with. We have a hell of a laugh working. Obviously, there’s light and dark with Blancmange in terms of the emotions and the sounds and subject matter. Having said that, we have a right good time putting all this together, and it’s the same with Fader, but the other way around. With Blancmange, it always starts with me. I write and then send the stuff to Benge, while with Fader he comes up with the ideas, sends them to me.”

And this album, like the most recent ones, was made down at his studio in Cornwall?

“It was. I wrote it at my man cave and sent the ideas down to Benge, and he kind of undoes it and says, ‘Right, we’ll change that for real analog synth, and blah blah blah,’ with a bit of backwards and forwards like that. Then I go down there, and we carry on working on the synth and drum parts and stuff like that, and maybe I’ll do some backing vocals, then we’ll work together and mix it down there.”

And how’s Kincaid (Neil’s son’s artist name) going?

“Our Joe? Yeah, he’s done a couple of remixes for this album. I mentioned John Grant, but Joe’s done a couple as well, which have gone down really well. And he’s doing his own music, with recent releases on Well Street {Records}, a great label.”

So you’re keeping him young, yeah?

“Ha! Well, we’ve been writing material for what hopefully will turn out to be a Kincaid featuring Blancmange album, having had one of the proudest musical moments of my life standing on stage with Joe when we supported Creep Show at the first night in Liverpool {Arts Club, October 2019}, that was an immense moment.

“And talking about proud moments, the cover of this album is inspired by a painting my daughter, Eleanor, did. She’s at art college in London and did a series of paintings of the backs of people looking out. You saw the back of them and what they were looking at, but you then start thinking about what they’re thinking of, and it seemed like a good image to manipulate … which I did.”

Back on the subject of his current impressive rate of artistic output, Neil recently said, “I don’t know whether I’m on a roll, but I feel something in me has been released. I used to hold back and didn’t trust myself. While I’m still full of self-doubt, I’m now quite comfortable with it. This is it. We’ve only got one time around the block, so make the most of it.”

And across the new LP, we get Neil’s trademark deft marriage of futuristic electronica, his deep vocal hooks, and songs veering from buoyant and joyful to dark and brooding. Private View is a record that manages to capture an artist potently in the moment when it comes to creating new work, while drawing on 40 years’ worth of knowledge, experience and built-in intuition. 

“I’m really lucky to be able to make the music completely on my own terms. Within myself there are no limits, there’s a massive palette inside and I will try anything.”

There have been further health issues of late for Neil’s former bandmate, Blancmange co-founder and comrade-in-arms, Stephen Luscombe, who stepped aside in 2011 after the release of comeback album, Blanc Burn, as fans will know all too well via social media. Has Neil managed to see him lately?

“Normally we text and exchange email and chat on the phone, sometimes getting to see each other, but recently Stephen has sadly been very seriously ill. I love him dearly, I’m just hoping he gets better very soon.”

That clearly goes for us all. And finally, it’s now 40 years since Happy Families. When he thinks of that album now, is there a particular memory that jumps out at him on hearing certain songs?

“Well, I’ve got fantastic memories of it and I’m very proud of that piece of work that Stephen and I did together, with an amazing producer called Mike Howlett. If that had been the only album we ever did, it was a heck of an experience. And to see that it’s 40 years ago is something that’s quite difficult to comprehend.

“Also, this new album comes out almost 40 years to the day of that. And to come round to be a full circle, I’m sitting in the boardroom at London Records, signing this album … it’s quite strange.”

Not least because most labels from that day have long since disappeared.

“Well, I’m glad they’ve had faith in this project, and to go along with this. The support for this album is wonderful, and I’m a lucky man.”

And with that, we say our goodbyes and I leave him to sign on, so to speak, getting those new LPs ready for your listening pleasure.

For the WriteWyattUK verdict on Blancmange at Darwen Library Theatre in late 2018, head here. And for this site’s last interview with Neil Arthur, head from Autumn 2018, head here, at the foot of which you can find more past Blancmange encounters.

Private View UK tour: October – 1st, Rough Trade East, London; 7th, The Junction, Cambridge – w/ Oblong; 8th, Subscription Rooms, Stroud – w/ Oblong; 13th – Arts Centre, Colchester – w/ Oblong; 14th – University Y Plas, Cardiff – w/ Oblong; 15th – Cheese and Grain, Frome – w/ Oblong; 20th – Sub 89, Reading – w/ Oblong; 21st  – The Level, Nottingham – w/ Oblong; 22nd  – Glassbox Theatre, Gillingham – w/ Oblong; 27th – The Fleece, Bristol – w/ Alice Hubble; 28th – The Boileroom, Guildford – w/ Alice Hubble; 29th – Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne – w/ Alice Hubble. November – 4th – Exeter Theatre, Exeter – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 5th – The Brook, Southampton – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 10th – The Mill, Birmingham – w/ Alice Hubble; 11th – Kanteena, Lancaster – w/ Alice Hubble; 12th – The Forum Theatre, Barrow-in-Furness – w/ Alice Hubble; 17th – Corn Hall, Diss – w/ Rodney Cromwell; 18th – Gorilla, Manchester – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 19th – Hangar 34, Liverpool – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 24th – The Wardrobe, Leeds – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 25th – The Leadmill, Sheffield – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 26th – The Riverside, Newcastle – w/ Stephen Mallinder. December – 1st – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 2nd – The Liquid Room, Edinburgh – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 3rd – Queen Margaret Union, Glasgow – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 9th – Concorde 2, Brighton – w/ Stephen Mallinder; 10th – Islington Assembly Hall, London – w/ Stephen Mallinder.

Blancmange’s new LP, Private View, is out on vinyl, CD and digitally on September 30th via London Records 2022, with a pre-order link at https://blancmange.lnk.to/privateview. And you can watch the Harvey Wise-produced video for ‘Reduced Voltage’ at https://youtu.be/l3vittpvjp8

For more information, check out the band website and follow Blancmange via InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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