Interview: Neil Arthur from synth pop pioneers Blancmange

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Descibed by Moby as the most under-rated electronic band of all time, Blancmange recently released a new album of 10 songs written and recorded by Neil Arthur and co-produced by Benge. It’s been a creative period for both of them, releasing their debut album as a new electronic duo – Fader’s First Light.

For the new Blancmange album, all the songs were written by Arthur while Benge added percussion and layers of analogue synth, with the pair then mixing the record together in the latter’s Memetune studios in Cornwall.
Unfurnished Rooms opens with the echoing, playful title track.

Arthur plays the scratchy, almost Cardigans-esque indie guitars on the first song and it’s also his strummed riff that forms the basis for We Are The Chemicals. An air of mystery and threat hangs over the track. Wiping The Chair re-works a familiar Blancmange theme about friends meeting again after a long absence.

The English synthpop band formed in 1979 and enjoyed some chart success in the early 1980s with songs such as Living on the Ceiling and Waves while they released the albums Happy Families (1982), Mange Tout (1985) and Believe You Me (1986). The duo split in 1986 but reformed in 2011 and released the album Blanc Burn (2011). Luscombe left following the release and since then Arthur has continued to perform under the Blancmange name. He has released a further 3 studio albums and a number of compilations, including a re-recording of the debut album, Happy Families Too.

Blancmange embark on a UK tour today and are at Stereo in Glasgow on 28th August. Glasgowist called Neil Arthur for a chat.

Just to start, what kind of albums or songs really resonated you when you first started getting interested in music?

Well, two things here. The first record I had was I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones in 1965. Now it was seven years later, early teens when I really got into T. Rex. So that was really my thing, and then it would have been Bowie. And then the first album I actually bought was, and I’ve still got it, was Roxy Music. Their first album. In fact, I was listening to it the other day. Playing that album for the first time, that was a bit of a life changing moment.

That’s where the journey with music really began. And then I kind of got sidetracked very, very quickly actually. A mate of mine, a year or two older than me, he said “Have you heard Brian Eno’s first album?” So that would probably be the second album I bought. I’ve still got that as well. Here Come the Warm Jets.

There’s echoes of Synpop from the early 80s in a lot of music that’s being created now. I’m wondering if you think that has helped lead people towards your new releases and back catalogue, that people are still discovering your music for the first time?

Discovering it for the first time nearly 40 years later, yeah [laughs]. People have pointed that out to me, and I’ve spoken to people, the younger generation about this. There seems to be an adult. There’s more interest in electronic music.

When I was half the age I am now, electronic music was more of a specialist thing, particularly before you ended up in a situation that we were fortunate enough to have a bit of a run at, which was, I suppose, what you’d call synth pop, that kind of thing.

I never really felt we fitted into any particular box, although many people feel more comfortable if you can compartmentalise things. It’s just some music that we made, that we were using synths, because we didn’t want to use guitars, and for us it seemed a natural progression from all the experimentation we’d done initially.

We weren’t trained musicians as such, we were just finding an easy way to express ourselves. Anyway, going back to your question, I think it help that there is such an interest in electronic music nowadays, and also that access to music is far easier than it used to be.

And also, things are cyclical, so this will have its turn and then they’ll move onto something else, we’ll all move onto something else. I mean, some of us stick. I’m still using electronics, have been doing for years and years.

So, have you been consistent in the type of equipment you have used through your career?

Actually, if the truth be known, I start most of my song on an acoustic guitar. I use anything. Whatever it takes really. I would spend as long trying to make a guitar sound like a synth, and then I would make a synth sound like a guitar.

I am interested in electronics so they tend to feature very heavily. There’s guitar on this new record.

The live tour that you’re taking out, how much of the performance is going to be based around the new album and how much is delving into your back catalogue?

Neil: Well, it’s a tour to obviously promote Unfurnished Rooms, so we’ll be doing songs from the new album. It’ll be a mixture between that and stuff from Happy Families, like Feel Me and Living on the Ceiling.

Waves might get an airing as well. Things off Mange Tout, the second Blancmange album. So Blind Vision, maybe Day Before You Came, for example.

I wonder if there’s any song from the new album that you’re particularly looking forward to performing live? That you think it’ll have a good reaction live?

Bloody hell, I hope they all do [laughs]. You’re never sure are you? You do your best.. Well, I think I’m really looking forward to doing Old Friends because of the dynamic shift in the song, particularly when it gets to the melodic chorus. So, that’s going to be quite interesting doing that one live.

When you do go out on the road, Neil, do you find the audience composed of people who have come along the whole journey with you? Or are you starting to see a different, younger crowd

Particularly on the last tour, we really noticed a shift. When we are out, we’re getting much more of a cross section in the audience, a younger audience mixed with what I’d call our loyal hardcore fans that have been there from the beginning.

It’s great, I enjoy that. I normally have a good chat with people afterwards. You get some great stories and I get quite a lot of ammunition for lyrics.

In the old days, when we were doing stuff in the 80s, you barely got to see anybody because you were whisked off doing this and that. It’s full on, you’ve got to enjoy it.

The funny thing is, it was only the other day that somebody mentioned to me, we’ve done six or seven albums this time around, whereas, we only did three the first time. Anyway, there you go.

Yeah. I’m wondering, coming at it after the break. Do you really feel the difference now that electronic music has become so mainstream? I mean, it dominates pop culture in many ways, but when you were coming at things from a different angle first time around?

It’s quite different. It’s turned 180 degrees, hasn’t it? At the start, I’ve always liked it but it was slightly out to one side. It was the conventional drums, base, guitar, maybe keyboard, vocals, they were always seen as the norm. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because I love loads of bands that play in exactly that manner.

The electronic aspect of music, I think technology has allowed so much more. It’s because of the development in technology, it’s come to the fore more.

What about, are there any particular venues that you have a really strong connection with?

Well, when I play my hometown, that is quite a nerve wracking experience from my point of view, I mean, I live on my nerves I suppose. That’s got to be special, but without sounding corny, the larger or smaller venues that we’ve played in Glasgow have been some of the best audiences I’ve ever played to. They’re just absolutely fantastic. I love coming to Scotland, I’ve got Scottish relatives so I get to see them as well. It’s a good excuse for a catch up.

You need the audience to be with you. One without the other is not going to work. You’re there and you’ve got to lock in, everybody’s got to try and lock together and go on the journey.

Blancmange UK Tour

October 5th Brighton Concorde 2;

6th London 229;

19th Southend Chinnery’s;

20th Southampton 1865;

25th Darwen Library;

26th Newcastle Boiler Shop;

27th Edinburgh La Belle Angele;

28th Glasgow Audio;

November 2nd Bristol The Fleece;

4th Nottingham Rescue Rooms.

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