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Blancmange - Interview

  by Dave Goodwin

published: 27 / 5 / 2020

Blancmange - Interview


Dave Goodwin speaks to Neil Arthur from seminal electronic group Blancmange about their 80's-influenced new and twelfth album, 'Mindset'.

Needing no introduction really, Blancmange are an English synth-pop band formed in Harrow in 1979. Composed of Neil Arthur (vocals) and Stephen Luscombe (keyboards) they were making lovely synth vibes as a duo for the most part. Kicking out some serious vibes in the early 1980s, they released four singles that entered the UK Top 20 charts: 'Living on the Ceiling', 'Waves', 'Blind Vision' and "Don't Tell Me". They also released three albums during that decade: 'Happy Families'(1982), 'Mange Tout'(1984) and 'Believe You Me' (1985). Breaking up in 1986 but reforming in 2011, they released their fourth album 'Blanc Burn'. Luscombe, however, left following the release, and since then Arthur has continued to perform under the Blancmange name on his own. He has released six further studio albums and a number of compilations, including a re-recording of the band's debut album, titled 'Happy Families Too'. Of late he has been collaborating with other artists like Jez Bernholz, and their debut LP 'Ideal Home' is the gloriously minimal result. On another collaboration he has been working with Ben Edwards, otherwise known as Benge, a musician and producer based in London. It is with Benge that Neil has been working on Blancmange’s new release 'Mindset', an album full of funky Eighties vibes, even if he didn’t realise it at first. I was very fortunate to talk to Neil, who was in reflective mood with everything that has happened over the last few months but still in exceptionally good spirits. It went a little like this: PB: Neil, my first question is I suppose a topical one owing to the current climate and lockdown. I was just wondering how it affects someone like yourself with writing and recording and does it make a difference to how you go about things? NA: In terms of recording I can't go recording in my own studio as it's too small. Jez Benholz and I have been working on the second Near Future album. We have been working remotely, which is fine as we can exchange files. I can't go and visit him and I can't go and visit Benge either for the same reason. We are just recording a new Fader album which is difficult, so I can't just go down there into the studio and record it together. It's restrictive, but it's not stopping me exchanging files or trying to get on as best I can. In a way it's a welcome distraction to these terrifying unprecedented times. These are times of great creativity. It’s a chance to reflect, and I’ve sort of started reflecting on some of the other things that are going on at the moment in a really curious time. I have managed to turn a lot of it to my advantage in that I am trying to be creative in a different way. It's certainly a bad time trying to cope in moments of adversity. This is certainly a very testing historical time and hopefully we all get through this. Unfortunately, this is something that we've all been touched by, and this has all been too close for comfort, too close. I’ve seriously been taken by the seriousness and the horror and the large level of sadness it leaves us in. How are you doing with it? PB: It's seriously been testing, making sure loved ones are safe and making sure that I am safe too. This is a part-time thing, like a hobby for me, an escape. Music is a big passion of mine, as is photography and stuff like that, but I do have a main job and the sad part of it is that the company I contract to is shut down because the big manufacturers who we all rely on have also shut down. But it looks like they might be starting again soon so there is light at the end of the tunnel. I hope so, because to be honest we have started to struggle a bit. NA: No, I'm with you on that, because I do this work for a living. The other side of what we do is the May tour dates, which have been cancelled. We’re now looking out to see whether we can do September and October instead. I suppose anything could happen from now and we’re pretty much in the lap of the gods, as they say. We are being fed misinformation by a very very strange government, do you see how I’m being very diplomatic? We are a bloody island! There is nothing better to contain a virus than here but…..I don’t know. Look at New Zealand. A very different place and I realise that, it's all the same principle though, isn’t it? PB: Right, at the start of this they said that they weren’t going to track and trace, etc, and just let the virus run its course to encourage immunity, and now they’ve backtracked and are trying to introduce something that they should have done at the start. Strange times. NA: They are very strange times, mate. But then when you’ve been fed misinformation by careerists who are governed by self-interest obviously it's difficult to get a level view on things, isn’t it? The world is going to be so different on the other side to this. How are we going to feel about going to a venue or to the football? But the reality of all that is all these people find escape in these moments, you know? There might be the jobs to go to find the pennies that we need to do that in the first place. But in adversity, thinking outside the box, there’s got to be some hope. We’ve got to hope. PB: I was just thinking before the interview that I’ve seen Blancmange two or three times at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham, which has to be my favourite venue in this country apart from KOKO. It’s a small, intimate place and how are we going to cope with that if live music is to carry on? NA: Well there is only three of us so we might be OK. I'll be on one side, Benge on the other and someone at the back! But you’re right, its going to take some thinking about. PB: The new album is some of the best stuff I’ve heard from Blancmange in a long time, and I’m not saying the other stuff hasn’t been any good because everything you do seems to be good but this seems like it’s a harp back to the earlier days. NA: Thanks for saying you like it, and the fact that you’ve listened to it for a start. It wasn’t intended like that but, for example on 'Antisocial Media', if you look at the beginning, there is definitely a bit of what I call the early Human League Part One. I went to the Human League's first gig in London and was absolutely blown away by it. And without a doubt the beginning of that song I wasn't thinking I want this album to sound like that late Seventies, early Eighties sound. Every time Benge and I started that track in the studio we would smile because we can always hear that "Listen to the voice of Buddha". I was going to start the track by saying "OK let's do it"! I love 'Travelogue' as an album. The first time I recorded it when I was working with Benge and we were putting the songs together, I did it at my place and sent him the file, and once he had got over the shock of hearing what I had sent him he was OK with it. He's got the most amazing knowledge and collection in terms of equipment. It was a case of using those instruments to the fullest really, and of course that might be part and parcel of why you feel that it sounds like that sound. PB: I know you have worked with Benge before but it seems to me like on this album you have both sussed out what works and what doesn't work with each other. Do you have differences with it or is it all plain sailing? NA: We have a great time working together. We don't kind of go in the studio with the idea that we must have an idea. What's good is that we go into the studio with something equivalent to a blank canvas. If you don’t do that you end up on tablets and all sorts. I'm on tablets already, so that would just push me over the edge! Some of this album is quite serious and some of it's a bit dark. In fact if you think about it, some of the earlier Blancmange work is quite dark. It's just that when you have chart success people tend to see things in a different light, if you'll excuse the pun. We really want to make sure that we are having a good time doing it. And in terms of looking into the songs you've got to believe it personally. Like if I go on stage, if I don't believe it what hope have I got? In terms of us getting on with it and disagreements, no, we have discussions about different sounds and sometimes there might be a structural change that we need to discuss but there is never conflict. It's always going on like a creative partnership. There are six strings on my guitar and I have two strings on it. I have an A and an E and sometimes a D string. I get what I have recorded and take it down to Benge's and we start by exchanging and changing where necessary and that's how we work through it. PB: Sure, but this must take quite awhile to get the process to an end result? NA: I can't tell you how long the writing took. Take the second song on the album, 'Warm Reception'. It's named after a painting my partner did. She's a painter. It was written, or at least started, when I was on the 'Unfurnished Rooms' tour. We were up in Newcastle and I was just waiting to go on that tour and I started writing it then. But it wasn't finished until September last year and that's when I must have gone down to Benge's. We get together and work very quickly, because we don't go in with separate ideas but a blank canvas. We know what we want to do and get on with it. PB: 'Warm Reception' is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In the background you can hear like a gust of wind going from high to low, if that makes sense. How have you got that sound? NA: I think that was done on an Electronic Music Studio (EMS). I think it was a VCS3? So that would have been done down at Benge's, on one of his pieces of equipment. Do you know what, something you asked me earlier about the Eighties vibe? I'm beginning to think that I really have given reference to the late Seventies and Eighties on this album. I was listening to 'Back to Nature' by Fad Gadget. That was a reference from that for the building up of that noise; that's where that’s coming from! I’m beginning to think you have a point, mate! PB: This album especially proves that you tend to draw your themes for writing from your observations of everyday life. I am just curious as to the process of writing and how you get that certain idea from your mind to paper. Do you use notebooks or anything like that? NA: Good question. In my bag that I carry around with me I've got notebooks. You know how your computer will link to your phone and all that stuff? Well, I've got it right in front of me now as we speak and the notes that I write. If I get an idea which happened while I’m out, when I get home I simply sling the idea into the recorder on the phone. If it's a lyrical idea that I feel that I need to write down I have notes also on my phone linked to my computer at home. PB: That's what I do mostly. When I’m reviewing for Pennyblack I do pretty much the same as you and listen while I'm on the go. As it happens, I was in the middle of a field walking the dogs when I was listening to 'Mindset'. I found myself dancing around the field to it and there was a bloke walking past with his dog at the same time. I must have looked a bit of a sight dancing around the field in my wellies. (Neil cracks up laughing.) In all seriousness though, I love cooking, and this album at the moment is the one thing that keeps me sane. I enjoy doing a bit of cooking and 'Mindset' is always on the player in the kitchen so I can have a groove at the same time. NA: I sent the file of that to Benge and he said ‘Well, it's slightly out’ but there’s something we can do. I didn't really want it to be like that but I wanted a sort of Michael Rother feel to it. I just love the things Neu! were doing, and the sounds that Can were doing were just unbelievable. I love all that music, so Benge just set about that. He played it on his electronic stuff and it sounded brilliant. Thank you very much Benge! PB: Going back to 'Diagram', you have a serious Grace Jones vibe with a Beloved beat to it. Was that intentional? NA: You've hit the nail right on the head there. 'Diagram' was born because I always look people in the eyes and it came out as a stream-of-consciousness from that. It just took me on this journey and that's why it is that long. I look people in the eyes because I want them to tell me the truth. Anyway, before we got a record deal I was fortunate enough to support Grace Jones on her tour. I ended up sitting on her knee! So I wanted a deadpan delivery on that track. It reminded me actually of something that Steve and I used to do. When we wanted a vibe we would do this thing where it was a bit like 'Come Dancing' and we would pretend we were dancing around the handbags. That was nearly the title of the 'Mange Tout' album, you know? If you look at the album it has a subtitle called 'Dancing Around the Handbags'! I wanted to call it that but somebody persuaded me against it! PB: Neil, it's been great talking to you and hopefully I will see you soon at the Rescue Rooms. NA: Absolutely, Rescue Rooms is a wonderful little place that sounds brilliant and hopefully I won't be seeing you with a mask on. PB: Just one more thing before I go and I know this applies to many folk other than me. I was brought up in the Eighties and I love the synth stuff; Northern soul is a bit of a passion, but the Eighties and as you said earlier the late Seventies is the very kind of music that I grew up with and shaped me. I’m not sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing judging by the way I've shaped up in life, but it has been the likes of you and the band that has helped me be where I am now, so I want to say a big thank you. NA:Such kind words Dave, thank you very much indeed. Keep safe. PB: Thank you.

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