Music Interviews

Blancmange interview: “It’s worth nothing without the idea”



As the electronic pop pioneers’ career retrospective Everything Is Connected is released into the world, mainstay Neil Arthur discusses new songs, memories of the ’80s, and the durability of music

Blancmange's Neil Arthur

Blancmange’s Neil Arthur (Photo: Helen Kincaid)

“I’ve got to learn the lyrics, before we go on tour!” Neil Arthur is fleshing out the practical preparations as he looks to take his beloved Blancmange back out on the road. The round-UK odyssey will be in celebration of 45 years’ worth of creativity, in which the band have been at the forefront of British electronic pop music.

Arthur’s concession is made in the knowledge that the band have written some unconventional lyrics in their time – which can indeed be found sprinkled through biggest hits Living On The Ceiling, Blind Vision and Don’t Tell Me, among many others. “They can be a bit trying,” says the ever-genial songwriter about his word-based inventions. “At the time I thought they were perfectly normal, but when you come back to them you think, ‘Who the hell wrote that?!'” It is a phenomenon he experiences on occasion, writing lyrics in a particular mood but revisiting them in another frame of mind. “I know where they came from, but it’s like – make sure the door’s locked, you know? Get the words out!”

Our meeting is in anticipation of a new career retrospective for Blancmange, Everything Is Connected. Spanning each of those 45 years, it is a double album containing the biggest hits but also Arthur’s personal choices, painstakingly arranged, along with two new tracks. Arthur began the band with Stephen Luscombe at Harrow School of Art in 1979 and has recently hit a rich vein of songwriting productivity that has also seen him start Fader with synthesizer legend Benge, and spearhead the relatively new trio The Remainder, who will support the celebratory UK tour. The anniversary shenanigans continue with the blessing of Luscombe, who left in 2012 due to ill health. While not likely to rejoin the band, he retains a keen interest in its development.

The collection is much more revealing than the average ‘best of’, revealing Blancmange as hitmakers but also as reliable, pinpoint commentators on recent social history in England. “That’s a nice thing to say,” says Arthur warmly. But was it hard to put together, to distil nearly half a century into 38 tracks? “Yeah, it was. It took more than a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. Before Christmas we thought we had got past the finishing line, and then I had finished an extra song. There are two, and we decided they would go on as well. We looked at the balance of it, and at one point realised that Lorraine’s My Nurse was on there, but Vishnu wasn’t – and we’ve got to have that on. So we dropped Lorraine’s My Nurse, then realised that God’s Kitchen has gotta go on there. So we put that on there, and dropped a song called Blanc Burn. The ordering is chronological, about from Just Another Spectre tagged on at the end of the first disc, because it seemed like a nice place to have it. Then on the second disc there’s Empty Streets, from the Commercial Break album, with a lot of guitar licks and some very interesting bleeps from Benge. It’s a nice way to remind you that it could almost have been a track from Irene And Mavis. We’re still trying to experiment.”

One of the ‘new’ songs is in fact a composition Arthur began in 1979, with the band L360. “Although Stephen did play with L360 a couple of times, he said we were too serious. We carried on for a while but petered out, and we had some good fun doing it, but with this song I don’t think I had enough experience to know how to finish it, and I don’t think either of my bandmates Roger or Tony did either. It got left, but I’d written lyrics and had this groove – a verse and a bit of a chorus. Last year I thought I could do it, and this year I went down to Benge’s and we did finish it. 45 years later, something gels and it seemed to make sense where it hadn’t done before.”

He even managed to track down the old L360 and Blancmange members. “Laurence Stevens, who’s credited on the song Concentration Baby, from Irene And Mavis, played drums for L360 – but the core of the band was Tony, myself and Roger. I didn’t manage to contact Roger, but Tony liked it. I wanted to give both him and Roger a percentage, as it wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

To use an all-too predictable football analogy, Blancmange is a game of two halves. “We’ve gone to extra time,” exclaims Arthur, who is ahead of me on the cliches, “but we definitely don’t want to go to penalties. It’s been a much longer second half, though. We started in 1979 and stopped by 1986 – and this time from 2011 to now. It’s a few more years.” Has it been more rewarding second time round? “Different,” he says. “I feel like I’m off the leash – not that I didn’t enjoy the first time. I’m a lot older, obviously – and feel like I have a broader palette. I feel like it could keep expanding.”

Blancmange are proof of the surviving qualities of music of their ilk from the early 1980s. Has synth pop been blessed with more staying power than we suspected? “It’s been a lot more durable than I expected,” says Arthur. “You never know how long anything is going to be of interest, but things go in and out of fashion. There was a period of time in the 1990s when it definitely wasn’t in fashion, we needed to be a traditional band. But here we are, there’s a lot of pop music using computers, and a lot of people are interested in synths from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the analogue sound and the transition into digital. I think because a lot of people now use those sequences to write on, in a computer, the relationship that and the electronic sounds is like a marriage. I’m not saying you can’t record traditional drums, bass, guitar and vocals, but it’s nice that people are still interested in this sound. After punk, everybody was looking for another way to express themselves. Punk didn’t bring any new instrumentation into play, but it released that thought that you had to be an accomplished musician to play. The idea of DIY culture, from fanzines to music and art, the way you dressed, you did what you wanted.”

Blancmange - Everything Is Connected

Blancmange – Everything Is Connected

Blancmange looked to plough their own furrow. “We tried to find a way, other than the conventional, to express ourselves. For quite a long time, we dreamed of having a synthesizer, and we used to try and make what we had sound like a synthesizer or towards that, particularly on Irene and Mavis. There were only two of us, we didn’t want anybody else in the band. It was already enough trouble making a decision, so to get somebody else would not have worked. It was always going to be two people.”

He expresses deep satisfaction with the current set up. “I’m really lucky to work with the people I work with today. Working with Benge is just unbelievable. We get on really well and have a good laugh, but his knowledge of synthesizers is just incredible. I’m a lucky man. I also get to collaborate with Jez Bernholz (of Gazelle Twin) on Near Future, another thing I’m involved with, and working with (Erasure‘s) Vince Clarke, too. I’m not sure what will happen, but it’s been good fun putting it together. Then there is The Remainder.”

This is the band Arthur cohabits with drummer Liam Hutton – who also plays with Blancmange – and Finlay Shakespeare. “Finlay is such a wonderful person to be around and has such an incredible knowledge of synthesizers. He makes the future sound. Liam and I have been working on songs for a number of years, and got Finlay involved – and that became The Remainder. The album (2023’s Evensong) was just such a pleasure to work on. It’s a joy to work hard and get something like that at the end of it!”

There is a strong connection between the music of today – the bands of today, even – and those of the early to mid-1980s when the UK, as Arthur notes, “was completely messed up. I certainly write about what’s going on in my music – I did then and I do now. They’re only songs, though. Some lyrics are less disguised than others, but I’m certainly not happy with what’s going on out there – and I don’t think anybody should be. In terms of ammunition for lyrics, there is a plethora. I’m not nostalgic at all, but I’m always quite surprised because my memory of the ’80s is of some pretty nasty times – and I certainly wasn’t a fan of Thatcher. There are lots of problems.”

We turn to the live tour of the UK, on which Arthur has now embarked – with sets that reflect the compilation. “I was talking to Steve, my manager about this the other day. It’ll be an hour and a half… but of course I’ve got to do a set with The Remainder beforehand. That will be a lot of work. The Remainder stuff will be quite straightforward, and it will be the first time we’ve played live. Blancmange have played live a lot, of course, and it would be daft not to play some of the hits – but it’ll be nice to fit them in with I Smashed Your Phone, Anodyne, Not A Priority and Distant Storm, and a couple of more obscure ones. A lot of people really like Waves, but it’s not my favourite song. It’s my fault for starting to write it, and then taking it to Stephen. I’ve got over it, and I can safely say it will be in the set. A couple of times I’ve been reluctant to sing it, but I’ll do it this time.” He talks with Luscombe regularly, and although Blancmange remains ostensibly a solo concern there is a strong sense of involvement from afar.

Returning to lyrical observations, Arthur has a continued ability to bring domestic observations to life, lacing what others might see as mundane with poetic meaning. “That’s what I like to do, sing about the things you might not notice. You might just walk past it first time. We can be like that with people, taking people and friends for granted, and that crops up quite a lot in my lyrics, from Starfucker through to Not A Priority. It’s about mixing that with domesticity and all our experiences, you know – there’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

Is he typically at the keyboard when the writing process begins? “No. I can be if I’m working on the groove side of things, or bassline sequences. Quite often my ideas start on the guitar, or I’ll get an idea when I’m as far away from an instrument as I could possibly be. That’s the usual thing. The other day, something came into my head. We broke down in a national park around about 10 at night. The bike had given up the ghost as it had been a long day – we’d ridden from the coast and the battery was dead. The grub screw was loose. It just goes on like that, and I write it down – and then correct it. The metering of that gives me an idea, and I’ll go in the studio and see if it goes somewhere. It’ll probably get scrapped, but one idea in around 20 will see it to the studio if I’m lucky. I’ve got a notebook in my rucksack, and I do drawings and write some ideas down. You might say something now, and it’ll get picked up.”

Is location important, such as Arthur’s home county of Lancashire? “Weirdly, I’m surprised how much I use it, because I left there when I was 18 or 19, and yet it’s so often there, even on the Wish song. There is so much influenced by visual memories, and certain things that people say. Even on The Remainder, there are quite a few songs that reference it, and I don’t quite know quite why. Maybe you can take the boy out Lancashire but not Lancashire out of the boy. I feel very proud of my Lancastrian roots, maybe that’s what it is. I was back up there not too long ago and I went to look at my old house in Darwen. Parts of the town are unrecognisable, and my street is the same colour, but a lot of places are cloned now, aren’t they – it’s actually difficult to tell where you are. It’s surrounded by moors though, which is lovely.”

Talk moves to accents in songs. Arthur is not aware of his Lancastrian burr being particularly evident in the vocals. However, performances of old are coming back to him. “I saw something posted because they’re promoting the compilation, and they posted a Top Of The Pops performance, and I cringed. I was such a poser. Stop it! I couldn’t even get to the bit where I sang.” Was he riding the crest of a wave? “Well it was Waves, so it was the second crest. It was when it was in the Top 20. It’s funny really because it’s such a popular song when we play live. I wonder whether we should have maybe done a faster song, on reflection… but actually I don’t really care.”

Arthur continues to write – with a new album “more than half done. I’ve ideas for a couple of Blancmange albums coming into shape, maybe for 2025.” How does he embrace new technology, compared to writing songs previously? “I definitely use it. When we started, we used tape loops and then cassettes, so you’d record from one to another – then four track and the opportunity to go into the studio. All the time that was going on, you were really struggling to sync any of this with so-called current technology – early rhythm units or sequencers, linking through to whatever synth you were using. That was easier with MIDI, and then computers got more powerful. You could ‘MIDI’ things into a computer and step record, running things on MIDI or a clock. Now we can record god knows how many tracks of audio, with VSTs coming out of your arse!”

So what’s been the secret to his long career of success? “I would say embracing the technology is one thing, but make sure you’ve got an idea that’s worth pursuing, and limit yourself with what you put in. It’s worth nothing without the idea. Unlike my conversation, where I rabbit on, I will be the same with lyrics and edit them down as much as I possibly can. Less is best, simplifying things all the time. Look at Kraftwerk, they were masters of it – everything in the right place.”

• Blancmange’s career-spanning album Everything Is Connected: The Best Of Blancmange 1979-2024 is out now through London Records. Tour dates and further information can be found at blancmange.co.uk


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