Interview: Neil Arthur of Blancmange

Synth pop pioneers Blancmange return with album number five – “Semi Detached.” Vocalist Neil Arthur jumped on the blower recently to talk about recording without his ailing partner Stephen Luscombe, performing live again, and his unshakeable love for Neu! Read on or check out the episode
JoE: You guys were always outliers in a way when it came to the synth pop crowd, weren’t you? You did things like “Vishnu” and other experimental stuff along with the tracks that became hits. Have you thought of Blancmange as a band that was outside that crowd?

Neil Arthur: I don’t really think of it as a band, really. It’s a name to hang ideas on. Doing “Vishnu” all those years ago or an Abba track when they weren’t considered to be popular at all, is just the way we go. It’s not a conscious effort. It’s just whatever we’re interested in (at the time).

JoE: Not a lot of synth bands got to do Peel Sessions in the early 80’s but somehow you guys did.

N.A.: Yeah, we did. John Peel was very supportive of us. He came to see us play and had us on his show. In fact way way back, he played the “Irene & Mavis” EP.

JoE: I wanted to ask you about that record, because I don’t think it was released over here in the States. That has an almost industrial feel to it, kind of like Cabaret Voltaire. Were they an influence at all on tracks like “Just Another Spectre?”

N.A: It wasn’t like a conscious thing. We weren’t trying to sound like anybody, really. The thing is that we both come from an art school and experimental music background and we both consider ourselves to be non-musicians. We were just making noises with homemade amplifiers and bits of Tupperware that we found in the kitchen and recorded and slowed them down. That particular song wound up being called “Just Another Spectre” because in our minds it sounded like a Phil Spector type melody at times (laughs)! When those tracks came out, Stephen was doing…not singing, but kind of talking, and I was concentrating on the electronics and guitar. And then we moved onto a different phase where I wound up becoming the lead singer, which was weird. But we were going to see bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA and Pere Ubu, Red Krayola, Subterranean Modern from the west coast in America, Young Marble Giants, Joy Divison. They were all huge influences on us. And little bits of it probably stick in your head when you’re doing your things. But we don’t really have a formula, so it would be difficult to analyze it having done it. It just gets done.

JoE: Do you guys remember how you got on the Some Bizarre compilation?

N.A.: Yeah…going back to the “Irene & Mavis” EP, which Veronica at Minimal Wave has just done a re-release of on Minimal Wave…there were a thousand copies of that. And Rough Trade off the Portabello Road took 25 of them. Stevo (Pearce) found one and on the back of it was a contact address for where Stephen was still living. So he contacted us and came to see us and we took it from there. He told us what he was up to…putting this sampler together of punk electronic music. There was a collection of musicians that he mentioned like Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and The The that were going to be on it and we went on it with that track “Sad Day.” It was recorded right after we’d done the “Irene & Mavis” EP. It was a four-track recording we had.

JoE: If we fast forward to more recent times though, can you tell us what it was like restarting the project and getting the “Blanc Burn” album together in 2011?

N.A.: What Stephen and I had been doing in the interim 26 years was music for film and TV. We hadn’t been working together, but our paths crossed many times. We hadn’t stepped away from music…we’d just stepped into another area of it and that continues now. I had a studio down in Brixton, in South London and I had put some ideas together for the possibility of a Blancmange album. I invited Stephen to come over and have a listen and he liked what he heard. So we continued that process and “Blanc Burn” is the result of that. We took the finished album to our old manager and said ‘This is the album and this is the artwork” and they put it out and licensed it for us. And it went from there. I said to Stephen when we did interviews at the time that it was like we’d just walked out of the room for a while…26 years…and then we walked back in and carried on. Technology had changed, and we’d had the opportunity to change with it. I do lots of programming.

JoE: So do you work a lot with computer-based instruments?

N.A.: I’m not a geek, but we’ve gone from working with tape loops and Tupperware and slowed down cassettes to working with sequencers that have CV Gate outs etc for triggering. We took delivery years ago of a BBC B Computer and we went from that sequencer, which was a step sequencer, to the Atari 1040. So I’ve been using Notator, straight through to Emagic, to when the time it was taken over by Apple. So when Apple put out Logic I moved over to a Mac reluctantly and I sort of followed the development of that very closely. Where I didn’t follow along closely was with synthesizers. I’ve got some of the old synths still and I still use those, and I’ve got the newer Jupiter 8 and I love it. But I’ve got a (Roland MKS-80) Super Jupiter, which is very old and I love that as well. And I also use VSTs.

JoE: Can you talk a little bit about the Blanc Burn track “Don’t Forget Your Teeth?”

N.A.: We had this groove that was based around this very rudimentary rhythm unit and we echoed that rhythm with different samples and found sounds. And then over the years I had a collection of noises from here and there…and Stephen did too…and I just spliced them in. I wrote some words about the break of a relationship about an older couple and how they argued, and what you end up saying and what you end up doing. And one of the things was ‘Don’t forget your teeth!” It’s quite dark I suppose…some dark humour, but I quite like that. I won’t say much more but I like the ambiguity of lyrics when I listen to other people’s music, and I don’t want it explained to me.

JoE: Moving to the new record, can you talk about whether or not it was tricky to work without Stephen?

N.A.: I knew Stephen wasn’t going to be able to participate, but like I said, we’d both continued writing music separately all throughout that period (apart), so in terms of actually sitting down and writing…it’s never easy…but I knew when I was putting those songs together that he wouldn’t be in the studio. That was a time when he possibly could have come into the production or the mixing, but because of his illness that just wasn’t the case. So with his blessing, I just got on with the job in hand. Blancmange has always been a fluid unit. People like Dave Rhodes have come and gone. I think he’s on every song bar two of them on the new album. And (Pandit) Dinesh will also feature on some tracks and who knows, in years to come Stephen may be back. But at the moment, the main concern is his health. But in terms of me writing I didn’t try to imagine what he would have wanted, I just sort of did what I wanted.

JoE: I was glad to see that you covered Can’s “I Want More,” which is a track that I’ve always thought deserved more attention than it’s gotten.

N.A.: I did a demo of that with Malcolm Ross who used to be in Josef K and Orange Juice. We had a project in the 80’s and around that time we did a cover of “I Want More” in…maybe ’87? So it’s been with me all that time. Obviously I had liked Can before that, and at one stage for our second album “Mange Tout” we were in discussions to have one of the members of Can produce it. But we ended up working with the wonderful John Luongo and had a great time with that.

JoE: I think my favorite track on the new record at the moment is “Deep In The Mine.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

N.A.: That started life on acoustic guitar and then it got transferred to electronics and I start fiddling with synthesizers. That’s what used to happen in the 80’s. I wrote lyrics but Stephen and I did the music between us. It’s pretty rudimentary playing but it’s enough to get the idea down. I have another project that I work on at times called AWP1. That’s two guitars with myself and Brian Warner. Not Marilyn Manson Brian Warner…another one (laughs). That song came while I was working on that project. Then I changed it and fiddled around with it until surfaced on “Semi Detached” as quite a dense electronic song. Lyrically, it’s up to the listener to make their minds up about what the song’s about but I think it’s pretty clear.

JoE: Now I’m pretty sure I got to see your first performance ever in America in New York City, but any chance you’ll be coming to the States to tour?

N.A.: We’re only doing two special dates at an art gallery in London. It would be wonderful to do a similar thing in America at a similar small intimate venue. I don’t want to do the routine tour. We’ve been asked quite recently about doing a tour but the idea of doing something quite unusual and on our terms is more fitting. So, if possible…that would be wonderful.

JoE: I’m wondering if you might want to give us a track by another artist that we could play on the air. Maybe something from your record collection that you don’t think gets enough attention…

N.A.: “Seeland” by Neu! which is on Neu! 75. It’s one of the most beautiful instrumentals that I can think of at this moment. It’s a default for me. I’m a big admirer of Neu! and what they achieved with music was pretty close to perfection at times. It was pretty much an example of them at their best.