Blancmange’s Neil Arthur: “Not for one minute would I want to hold onto or harness something that holds me in this retro-nostalgic world”
Moby has described Blancmange as the single most unappreciated electronic band of all time. And you don’t disagree with Moby on such things, do you?
They had a massive hit with ‘Living On The Ceiling’ back in 1982, and after takin the best part of two decades off, the synth-pop aficianados returned in 2011, since releasing six albums in the space of a few years. They’re in Sheffield on March 22nd, so we asked Mark Perkins – a fellow survivor from the days of parachute pants, shoulder pads and perms – to have a chat with main man Neil Arthur.
I’ve been listening to the new album, Unfurnished Rooms, and really enjoying it. How different is it making albums today than it was back in the 80s?
Technology has moved on a massive amount. When we made our first music we were very much in an analogue world, using tape loops and making music with anything we could lay our hands on and recording it all on tape. Now it’s a world of difference, with the ability to store and shape sounds digitally. I do still use quite a lot of analogue equipment in my recording though, so it has to be converted at some point.
You recently brought out Blanc Tapes, which was a retrospective boxed set of unreleased music from that era. How did it feel going through all the old tapes after all those years had passed?
It was quite a journey. Sometimes it was like opening a can of worms. From the listener’s point of view, obviously the music was the interesting thing, but for me it was more about hearing the sounds and noises of the studio we were in. If it was a tape of a live rehearsal, the noise of the amp and the ambience of the studio we were in really took me back there.
And you brought this out in response to the new interest in the band after you and Stephen Luscombe had reunited as Blancmange.
Yes, Stephen and I got back together in 2011, and the music we made together became the Blanc Burn album – our first in over 25 years. After we’d played some gigs, I was offered a tour but they wanted me to play our first album, Happy Families, as it was now regarded as a ‘classic album’, which is a term I take with a pinch of salt. I said I wasn’t prepared to go out there and just play an album that Stephen and I had written decades ago. I really wasn’t interested unless I could offer the fans something new to go along with it. Someone then suggested doing a re-imagined/re-recorded version, and that did interest me. I got together with a couple of other musicians, as Steven had become ill, and couldn’t really be in the band at that point, and we recorded what became Happy Families Too. That way I could offer the fans who came to the gigs something new to take home. I wanted it to be an interpretation of what we’d done a number of years ago, using today’s technology.
You also released an album of instrumentals, Nil By Mouth in 2015. How did that come about?
There was a 26-year gap between Blancmange’s third and fourth albums. In that time I’d been working in film and TV, and made music for commercials. I’d accumulated quite a back catalogue which had never been used, so I thought it’d be good to develop it. My manager heard some tracks and encouraged me to release them as a Blancmange album. It was a break from having my vocals on them and it was something different. There might even be another one. Watch this space.
Mark E Smith was a Blancmange fan in the early days, I believe…
Yes, he was very encouraging, and it’s been such a terrible loss now that he’s gone. I was still at college and we’d borrowed some money to make a record. I saw Mark E Smith at a gig in London, and I was bold enough to go up to him and give him our very first EP. He actually wrote back to me, said he liked it and encouraged me and Stephen to send it to John Peel. We couldn’t believe it when he played it on his show! Peel was an early supporter of Blancmange, and we recorded some sessions. They wouldn’t have happened without him, so Mark E Smith – thank you very much.
The new albums sound somehow different. It’s still unmistakably Blancmange, but with a new edge to it.
I suppose it’s inevitable it will have the old Blancmange sound, as it’s still me singing and writing the songs, although back then of course, Stephen wrote with me. Not for one minute would I want to hold onto or harness something that holds me in this retro-nostalgic world. It’s inevitable that it’s going to change; it will be different but still have an essence of something that you can reference back.
Blancmange play Sheffield’s O2 Academy on March 22nd