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Of the many reformations that have taken place amongst 80’s acts in recent years, there have been few as musically rich or as productive as that of electronic act, Blancmange.
The group, which was formed in 1979 by Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe, released three albums, ‘Happy Families’ (London Records, 1982), ‘Mange Tout’ (London Records, 1984) and ‘Believe You Me’ (London Records, 1985), and had seven Top 40 singles including ‘Living on the Ceiling’, ‘Waves’, ‘Blind Vision’ and ABBA cover ‘The Day Before You Came’, before splitting up amicably in 1987.
Both Arthur and Luscombe concentrated on film and TV soundtrack work and playing with various other experimental projects, before reforming Blancmange in 2010 and releasing their fourth album, ‘Blanc Burn’ (Proper Records) the following year.
Shortly after the release of ‘Blanc Burn’, Luscombe, who suffers from heart difficulties, was forced to retire, leaving Arthur to carry on with Blancmange on his own. He has since then released records at an abundant rate.
There has since Luscombe’s departure been ‘Happy Families Too’ (Cherry Red, 2014), a reworking and reimagining of Blancmange’s first album; ‘Semi-Detached’ (Cherry Red, 2015), another album of new material, and ‘Nil by Mouth’ (Blank Check, 2015), an entirely instrumental record.
Now Blancmange has released their seventh studio album, once more on Blanc Check, of new material, ‘Commuter 23’. Arthur’s music has since Luscombe’s departure become more minimal, and ‘Commuter 23’ is Blancmange’s most sparse-sounding album to date.
A raw, urgent album, it reflects with a nerve-strewn energy on the chaos and intensity of twenty-first life. Partially lyrical and partially instrumental, its tracks include the eerie, stark Krautrock of opening number ‘Red Shift (Blame Thrower)’; the bleak but anthemic pop of ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had A Job’) and ambient, slow-burning closer ‘Time Day-Night’, which with choral synthesises backing vocals, promises something better for the future.
In our third interview with him, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Neil Arthur about the new record.
PB; There was a gap of almost twenty-four years between Blancmange’s initial split in 1987 and ‘Blanc Burn’ in 2011. How easy has it been to get back into that routine of album then tour after such a long absence from it?
NA: I think that the twenty-four year break gave me a chance to recharge my batteries without me realising it at the time. While I have always been involved in music, getting the music together for Blancmange again has been an absolute pleasure, and we have now made more records this time than first time round. I don’t know whether there has been more live dates or not than there was first time, but I have enjoyed doing them. It seems so long ago since we did it the first time that it is very fresh to me. There is still a novelty aspect to it. I feel quite humbled by it all. Bloody hell, these people are coming to see us. It is older audiences but they are very enthusiastic. We are selling out smaller venues, and so it is all moving in the right direction.
PB: Two thirds of your current live set consists of material that has come out in the last two or three years. Do you still enjoy playing the old songs like ‘Living on the Ceiling’ and ‘Waves’ now?
NA: I am absolutely fine about it. What makes it worthwhile though is that everything that I am doing is for the future. I am more interested in what happens next rather than just repeating the past. There are all these songs that Stephen and I put together all these years ago and I stand by those. I am very happy playing them and enjoy doing so, but in context with the new stuff. I am always wanting to know what is next and always asking that question. I think that if you don’t ask that question then you are in the wrong job.
PB: You have not done any 80’s nostalgia package tours or the Re: Wind Festival very often since you started up Blancmange again, have you?
NA: We have actually done a few Re: Winds. We did one up in Perth a couple of years ago, but we came on and we played both old and new songs which rather shocked people (Laughs). I am not going to do it any other way though. It is important for me that I keep moving forward. Otherwise there is no point in doing it.
PB: You seem to have been going through a remarkably creative period with, if one includes ‘Happy Families Too’, four albums in two years. How much of this has been material that you have been sitting on for a while and how much of it is entirely new material?
NA: Obviously ‘Happy Families’ was a reimagining. It was already done, but the interesting thing for me was unpicking it all and reimagining it as a new album. As for the other stuff, some of the ideas are as fresh and as new as they absolutely could be, but there are some tracks that have been around for a while. I played them to my manager and he said, “Let’s finish it. Have a look at this one. It fits with this.” And, so, with a bit of coating I have allowed some of them out. Most of it is new though and – I would say - quite raw. I am in a bit of a rush. I am not entirely sure why. There is a lot more to come.
PB: You have got no idea then at all why there has been this sudden increase in productivity?
NA: I think that one of the reasons is with the help of my manager I have set up my own label. There are some limitations still. We can’t put too much out as there are finances to consider, but I can release records when I want and if we do a deal with somebody it is a licensing deal. It also doesn’t involve waiting for a record company to make decisions which can take ages and so it has made things a lot faster.
PB: You are writing fewer songs and more instrumentals, and most of the lyrics that you do use are pared down. Does lyric writing interest you less as you get older or are you simply trying to do less with more?
NA: It is very much the latter. I write a lot of lyrics. I probably write every day. It is a similar thing with the music in recent times. It is so easy to put something on top of another thing and then something on that, and the reason that often happens is that you are not sure about the first idea. What I have been trying to do in Blancmange’s music in recent times is find a way in which a melody line or a spring line doesn’t need anything on top of it and for it to work on its own without the need to add another sound or texts. It is a similar thing with the words. I will write something and then I will go through it and cut out all the crap. Some people might think I am leaving it in (Laughs), but I don’t give a fuck really (Laughs).
The other reason for this is that I am dyslexic. It took me a long time to realise that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t spell. I am a lot more confident about my writing. I am not a very confident person, but it is amazing what a bit of confidence can do for you. As long as I understand it, there are so many tools these days that can help you edit it. It was my partner Helen who a long time ago pointed out to me that it really doesn’t matter. There are many writers who can`t spell, and I had gone through life naively when I was a youngster thinking that anyone who wrote a book must be able to spell perfectly.
PB: Many people have said that ‘Commuter 23’ is a return to the early sound of Blancmange in which you used to write lots of instrumentals and soundtracks for art school films, but if one takes into account your lengthy film and TV soundtrack career this is something that you have always done in one form or another. Would you agree?
NA: Yes. I was lucky enough when Blancmange stopped to carry on working in music and a lot of that stuff didn’t need my lyrics. It has not been a conscious effort to go back to something pre-1982 in Blancmange. For me it was all the process of moving forward. The simplification and the stripping down of the music has, however, possibly made it appear to be referencing some of that earlier period. It is a pleasure though not singing sometimes (Laughs).
PB: What was the idea behind ‘Nil by Mouth’?
NA: There have quite often been instrumentals on our records, such as ‘Sad Day’ on ‘Happy Families’ and ‘John’ on ‘Believe You Me’, and there is one too, ‘MKS Lover’. on ‘Semi-Detached’, which came out just before that. I thought it might be time to give my voice a complete rest and I really liked the idea of the title of ‘Nil by Mouth’, and my manager listened to some of the tracks for it and we both thought that it might be an idea to release some of it. I really enjoyed the process. It was a real release and a relief not singing.
I knew that ‘Commuter 23’ would be a balance of lyrics and instrumentals because I had already started writing it, but I didn’t ever want it to be fully vocals on every track. I have been writing some new material though and at the moment it has all lyrics on it.
PB: Was ‘Red Shift (Blame Thrower)’ from ‘Commuter 23’ targeted at anyone in particular?
NA: No, not any particular individual, but several (Laughs). I was listening to the radio one day. I love the radio and somebody said the word ‘Blamethrower’. It stuck with me and I started putting the lyrics together and I just thought that nobody politically seems to want to take responsibility. They are all too ready to point the finger, but there is a lack of empathy for anyone but themselves.
PB: ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had a Job)’ describes the nightmare and the monotony of being stuck in a dead end job, yet at the same time it seems to find it appealing. Was that your intention with that track?
NA: Yes. When we play it live it doesn’t take much to get everyone singing it. People have fun with it, but at the same time they do empathise with it. There are times when people just to have to do a job, any job. I am very lucky to be able to make money out of music, but some people don’t get the chance to do any kind of job, let alone the one that they want to. The title alone of ‘Last Night (I Dreamt I Had a Job)’ is a hell of a fucking statement.
PB: Time Day Night’ seems more optimistic than much of the rest of the album. Was it important for you to end on some note of hope?
NA: I think there is a lot of hope on the album. I think that ‘Elemental Change’, for example, is quite optimistic. The way it is sequenced it needed a bit of a breather at the end. After some of the lyrics in particular, it just needed a bit of a release.
PB: What are your plans for the future?
NA: I am going to come back and decorate the front room. I have got a shower tray to refit with a mate of mine as well, and I have already written a few tracks for the next album. I have also got some film music to work on.
In between that I will be playing in the Over 50s World Cup in Portugal. I love my football. I am no good at it, but I have played it for a long time and I am very keen. The team I am playing for is called Albion because we are old and we formed a long time before England came to be. It is made up of Scottish, English and Irish people, and we play other nations from around the world. We call it the World Cup, but there are other British teams. It will take place in late May and June. Then it will be back to the DIY and music (Laughs).
PB: Thank you.
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Cherry Red Records
In our third interview with him Neil Arthur from electronic act Blancmange speaks to John Clarkson about 'Commuter 23', his band's new album
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