JUST DESSERTS – Blancmange Frontman Neil Arthur On Striving For Simplicity In His Songwriting
Though frontman Neil Arthur is disarmingly modest about their achievements, Blancmange were one of the most successful bands to emerge from the experimental electronic music scene of the early ’80s.
Blending pop melodies with dark lyrics and avant-garde programming and recording techniques, they went on to rack up seven Top 40 hits.
Don’t Tell Me and Living On The Ceiling both reached the Top Ten and their first two albums Happy Families and the punning Mange Tout went gold in the UK.
They went their separate ways in 1986, but Arthur reunited with songwriting partner Stephen Luscombe for a comeback album Blanc Burn in 2011.
Illness forced Luscombe to retire from recording soon after, but Arthur has never looked back, releasing three new Blancmange studio albums – Semi Detached, the instrumental Nil By Mouth and Commuter 23 – in two years between 2015 and 2016.
Now he’s back with a fourth, Unfurnished Rooms, which like its predecessors is released on his own label Blanc Check Records.
As he heads out to tour the album, Arthur tells Matt Catchpole, about the joy or writing songs on his own terms and collaborating with producer/percussionist Ben Edwards alias Benge.
Unassuming and friendly, Neil Arthur is not a man given to taking himself too seriously.
Much of our conversation which was spent listening to him cackling down the phone line, laughing at some crack he’d made at his own expense.
Where he does get serious, however, is when he talks about the work, describing at length the rigorous editing process he goes through to pare a song down to its simplest possible essence.
Something which might sound easy in theory, but in practice is rather more difficult to achieve.
Arthur talks about the songs on new album Unfurnished Rooms as though they were children about to be packed off to boarding school, explaining how he’s had to “learn to let them go and stand up for themselves”.
Outlining his songwriting process, he explains he keeps notebooks, jotting down ideas for lyrics, overheard conversations, even stories inspired by people he’s met at gigs.
“Sometimes it seems to come out in a stream of consciousness,” he says of his lyric writing. “There’s always some give and take in moving something from a piece of poetry or prose into the structure of a song. What I tend to do is take out, I have too much and I strip it down.”
Taking the song Old Friends from the new LP as an example, he thoughtfully explains his approach.
“I couldn’t sleep and I was standing watching the sun at daybreak, so I wrote exactly what I was looking at. I had the chords in my head, so I got this thing ‘Roof tiles dry after a heavy night of rain‘. That gives me a rhythm path, so I’ve already got the kind of structure and I know what I want to get to.
“I’ve got the idea of the chorus building and building to a kind of epic and I know I’m going to say Old Friends before that chorus part comes. Then I heard on social media about some outrage over an incident with a whippet and I just thought I’ve gotta have that! So I wove that into the other parts of the lyrics that were already written. It’s almost like cutting bits up and assembling a story sometimes.”
Like many songwriters, Arthur is reluctant to give away too much about the meaning of his work, preferring to let listeners decipher it for themselves.
“If you explain everything, it’s like picking up a book and finding that the first page is actually the last page – there’s nothing to discover,” he says. “So the ambiguity is intentional.”
Working with Benge, he says, was “a logical progression” after the pair got on well together during the making of the album First Light, which they recorded under the name Fader.
Arthur speaks admiringly of the “Aladdin’s Cave” of vintage synths and electronic equipment that Benge has assembled at Memetune studios in Cornwall
He explains that Benge helped to replace the VST (virtual studio technology) instruments on the album with genuine analogue versions enhancing the warmth of the sound, before adding his own layers of percussion.
Benge’s contacts also led to a meeting with John Grant, a massive Blancmange fan, who also plays on the album.
“John had mentioned that he liked a bit of Blancmange,” laughs Arthur. “He ended up asking me a few questions to which I struggled to find the answers. I think he knew a bit more about us than I did!
“He agreed to play piano on two songs, but not only that, when he went into the studio he did some backing vocals as well, which was absolutely brilliant, because he’s got a fantastic voice. It was an absolute pleasure to have him contribute.”
Time and again thoughout the interview, Arthur returns to the idea of stripping a song both sonically and lyrically down to its simplest structure.
It was something he and Luscombe discussed when they first met and formed the band in the late 1970s.
“We started talking about tape loops – we used to go and see a lot of experimental groups like This Heat and Pere Ubu. I became a huge fan – still am – of The Young Marble Giants – it was very simple in a way, but simple is very difficult to achieve.”
Amazingly for a group so well known as a synth duo, Arthur said Blancmange never actually owned their own synths until their second LP.
“There are no synthesisers on our first EP Irene and Mavis – we didn’t own any. We just spent ages trying to make guitars, kitchen utensils and Woolworths’ organs sound like they were sythesisers.”
Even for their first album, the pair had to “beg, steal and borrow” equipment to get the sound they wanted.
Like many bands of the era, Blancmange got their first break through the support of John Peel, but the impetus to send in a tape to Peel’s show came from an unlikely source, Mark E Smith of The Fall.
“”I met Mark E Smith down at the Nashville Club in London – I’ve no idea who was playing – I took one of our EPs down and gave him my address and we wrote to each other a few times.
“Mark particularly liked the Dave Clark Five cover we’d done on that EP called Concentration Baby. He encouraged us to send it off to John Peel and he went and played it.
“A few years later when we’d actually got a deal, he got us on to do a session. John Peel, via Mark E Smith, was instrumental in helping us on our way. John was really encouraging.”
Blancmange came through with a crop of other synthesiser bands, including Yazoo, Soft Cell and The Human League, but Arthur says he never felt in competition with those acts.
“I’m more competitive on the football pitch than I am with music,” he jokes. “So no, I’ve never felt in any competition with anyone – its all music isn’t it?
“We were good mates with Depeche Mode and I’m still in touch with Vince and I knew Alison [Moyet] as well. We used Blackwing Studio [Mute Records, Vince Clarke‘s Reset Records] to record the early versions of Don’t Tell Me and possibly The Day Before You Came.”
In many ways the band were a victim of their own success, Arthur citing constant record company demands for the next hit as well as the pressure of being in the public eye, as the main reasons why they decided to call it quits.
“We had become swallowed up by the machine – the industry – if we’d carried on much longer the band would have imploded and the friendship would have been destroyed. And neither of us wanted that.” Arthur explains.
He remembers walking off after a major show at the Albert Hall and telling Luscombe he did not want to continue. To his surprise, Luscombe was of exactly the same mind.
“We just said: ‘No that’s it’ and we stopped.” he says. “And it really saved a friendship and it meant that people didn’t have to listen to as much Blancmange,” he chuckles.
The pair both moved into soundtrack work and Arthur says he was happy to retreat into the background.
“I was much more comfortable, because – even at our level, which was by no means at the top of the pile – you’d go shopping and people would follow you around the aisles.
“Just as you were picking up the toilet rolls someone would say: ‘Where’s Stephen?’. We didn’t live together! – it wasn’t like The Monkees or The Beatles,” he says, collapsing into giggles.
When they returned in 2011, Arthur says the duo had no real expectations as to how they’d be received.
“We weren’t deluded into thinking we’d pick up somewhere where we left off. We were just going to make a record on our terms. It was about getting it out of our system and taking it from there.”
Playing live though, was a very different proposition and Arthur admits to quaking in his boots at the prospect.
“I was really nervous,” he admits “The first gig after 20-odd years! Fortunately for us the Glasgow audience has been very very kind to Blancmange and they took us to their hearts, so that was really nice.”
It was also the first Blancmange tour Arthur had undertaken without Stephen, something he’s had to get used to in recent years.
“When we did the 2011 tour it was strange not to have him there, but I was working with mates that I’d known for a long time,” he explains.
“David Rhodes [guitars] has played with us since the first London Records recording, so having him next to me taking the mickey is fun and Adam Fuest, who does the sound and visuals, I first worked with in the ’80s. And Oogoo Maia has been playing and doing visuals since 2011. So we’ve been together a long time and we have a laugh together.”
Luscombe came out of his enforced retirement to help promote this year’s release of the Blanc Tapes – a nine CD boxset of expanded versions of the band’s first three albums – but Arthur says Blancmange is now “a very different beast” from the original ’80s incarnation.
“Back then it was a completely different world in terms of how record companies work, now we’re doing it totally on our own terms.
“With my manager I’ve set up my own little label. Now I don’t have to think about whether I’m writing a pop song or not, I just write songs.”
The DIY approach is reminiscent of the early punk era when artists would bypass record companies to put out records on their own labels.
“it’s very much like that,” says Arthur, “It’s like how we did Irene and Mavis.”
While respectful of the band’s back catalogue, Arthur says his prime interest is in making new music.
“There’s a need for me to drive and move forward. I’m very happy and proud – and let’s keep this in perspective it is only Blancmange – but the legacy, if that’s what people want to call it, I’m very proud of.
“But I do not want to live in that retro period, It just doesn’t interest me. I want to keep going forward – creatively it’s the best way for me.”
That said, Arthur promises a mix of old and new on the current tour, including some surprises, which seldom get an airing.
“We’ve rehearsed Running Thin [from Happy Families],” he says. “So that could be in the set. It’s quite a dark song, but that’s the whole thing with Blancmange – you have to go through the dark door with us sometimes.”
By way of conclusion, Arthur returns to his central theme about the search for simplicity.
“In your life you’re trying to figure out things and you’re trying to simplify things that are actually quite complex – to actually get to that point is very difficult. That’s the journey I’m on.
“Now with technology you can keep on adding and layering and god knows what, so I’m glad I’m learning to let go of the songs. To let them stand up for themselves. It’s going to be interesting taking them out live.”
- Unfurnished Rooms is out now on Blanc Check Records
- For more details on the LP and tour dates visit the Blancmange website