Neil Arthur, Blancmange Superstar, Talks With Essentially Pop

Blancmange, the hugely successful British electronic band have a new album and a tour to go with it. Kicking off in Scotland on May 1st and working their way across the U.K. to finish in October. To go with the tour they have a new album ‘ Mindset’ which releases on May 22nd. Blancmange music has been used in so much recent music by La Roux, LCD Sound System and Hot Chip. So influential is the band and their music that electronic superstar Moby described the, as “the most underrated electronic band of all time”, high praise indeed. Since Stephen Luscombe was forced by illness to stop touring or recording after 2011’s ‘Blanc Burn’, the band’s evolution has continued with Neil Arthur at the helm and Essentially Pop were lucky enough to chat with him this week about the new album, the tour and even ABBA, who’s ‘Day Before You Came’ they superbly covered. It’s an honour to get a glimpse at what motivates one of our own electronic superstars.

EP: It’s 40 years since Blancmange formed and yet the music seems to still gain plaudits. Very recently Moby described you as “the single most unappreciated electronic band of all time”. Do you feel unappreciated?

NA: (laughing) No, no I don’t. I’m lucky and grateful to meet people through the music. I’m very pleased that people come along, listen to us, see us and obviously buy the music . I’m also flattered that someone like Moby would say something like that, of course. Wether we are under appreciated I don’t know. It’s great that Moby listens to us, but honestly, I’m very pleased that some people listen to us.

EP: It’s interesting that of all the music eras the eighties still seem to inspire new artists and feature in new music. Blancmange music features in lots of stuff at the moment. How do you account for the longevity of the eighties music in general, and for your music in particular?

NA: Well I think there’s an interest in electronic music because of the way that technology has developed, so not just eighties music as there was a lot of electronic music going on in the nineties, going on in the seventies, and of course in the sixties. I think that some of the synths we used are very sought after these days because of the sounds they make , and maybe some of the techniques and the recordings that were done in the eighties. Everything is cyclical isn’t it, things get referenced and hopefully not just repeated exactly as they were. The ideas are taken by artists and musicians that take them on to another place , recycle them and add elements to them. There’s a lot of referencing historically in all different walks of life.

EP: You mentioned then the advance of technology. That’s probably affected electronic music more than most. Do the advances in technology make life easier for you, do they inspire your creativity or do you hark back to simpler times?

NA: That’s a big question that one. Technology can help us. For example, years ago, moving on from when Blancmange first started, initially we were using tape decks trying really desperately the whole time to get anything sequenced. So the first really big breakthrough that came in all those years ago was when MIDI came in for us and we were able to synchronise various instruments, synthesisers and the electric guitar together. Of course now you can work out of a laptop and some of the sequencing programs I use, like Ableton and Logic, it’s amazing what you can do with those using the basic instruments let alone all the gear you can plug in and then subsequently plugging in your own synthesisers. It’s mind boggling but in total answer to your question none of that is any use unless you’ve got an idea. You can work at something on a kazoo and record it into a phone; if it’s a good idea it’s going to stand the test isn’t it. It doesn’t matter how much equipment you have or how many layers you put on it if it’s not a good idea, no technology is going to make it any better.

EP: Talking of good ideas and things that stand the test of time, ‘Happy Families’ is now lauded as a classic recording. Do you struggle to make new fans see the band for what they do now and not as something looking back to the eighties? How do you continue to grow musically, looking forwards rather than backwards?

NA: I don’t have any problems looking forwards at all and if people want to join us on the journey, and thankfully they do, then that’s where we’re going. I’m not one for nostalgia, many people know that. I’m very proud of what Blancmange did. We did three albums and were with a big record company and we were fortunate enough to have a lot of success with their help, but I have released many albums since 2011, getting on for 10 or 11 albums, 9 of them Blancmange albums, and I’m more interested in what’s going to happen tomorrow, creatively as well, I am much more for that. I will reiterate I am really, really proud of what we did and I understand that when we play live, for example, we have to mix it up. I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of it, I really like mixing the new with the not so new, with stuff from more recent albums like ‘Wanderlust’ or ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ for example, but also mixing that with, and thank you very much for calling it what you did, I wouldn’t have said that…mixing it with things from ‘Happy Families’ and, believe you me, the audience that we play to seem to, infact I know they do, absolutely embrace all of it without a doubt but I wouldn’t do it unless I could do new stuff as well. I really wouldn’t.

EP: You mentioned how many albums you’ve released. Since reforming you’ve been prolific. Has writing become easier or are you just finding that you are full of new creative ideas?

NA: Well, in a way I’m off the leash because I’m not writing singles. There are singles on all of the albums we’ve done, they happen to be on there, but that wasn’t what I’ve set out to do whereas in the eighties the emphasis, maybe not so much on the first album, which we were lucky enough to have plenty of singles on, but with the other albums it was, and it wasn’t just us, most record companies would expect artists to be producing 2 or 3 singles and then you’d have an album and the other tracks would be supportive of it. We never saw it like that but that was the game we were in and we had to accept it was part of what we had to do. Even if we were saying to the record company our next single is going to be an ABBA song. ABBA, for example, at the time, weren’t seen in the light that people see them today, they didn’t shine as bright as maybe they do today. We used to love them, genuinely love them, but there were many people who were not that keen on ABBA. So when the record company asked and we said: “well we’ve got a single but it’s an ABBA song”, they were like “aaaah right ok”. We tried to have as much fun as we could when we were making our singles back in the day so in answer to your question about creativity. I can just write when I want and fortunately, and I’m really lucky in that sense, I spend most of my time doing what I want to do. There are very few jobs where you get to do that. I’m a very, very lucky man.

EP: You spent time working in film and tv as well and even released an instrumental album. Is that something you’d like to do more of?

NA: I would, but at the moment I’m concentrating on the Blancmange project so with ‘Mindset’, the album due for release when we tour in May, and then hopefully beyond that, I’ve got quite a commitment and I’m also working on a few other projects. The last album came out in the Autumn and I’ve got another instrumental album out at the moment, ‘Nil by Mouth II’, and I’m working on a project with Vince Clark and another one with Liam Hutton so there’s quite a few other things going on at the moment but yes, there may be some more film work as well.

EP: You mentioned the tour; you have an extensive UK tour coming up. There seems to be a festival size gap in proceedings between May and September. Can fans hope to see you at any of the Summer’s big events?

NA: Funnily enough I’ve just been speaking to my manager today about two festivals but I’m not in a position to say where at the moment but that time is also put aside for more of the recordings I’ve mentioned actually . As you said we do some dates in May and then there is that gap and then, my goodness, we’ve got a lot of dates in September and October.

EP: So, with the new album out in May, what can fans expect?

NA: Yes, it’s coming out on May 22nd. I’ve been working with Benge again, Benge Edwards, so there’s lots of unusual analogue synth sounds on there. Phonically and pace wise it’s definitely more upbeat than ‘Wanderlust ‘ in terms of its sound and tempo. With the songs, I continue in my observations of what I see around me: truths, half truths, looking for answers to things…always searching. For example, there’s a song called ‘Antisocial Media’, then there’s ‘ Diagram’, I’m asking some to lay out their plans for me, show me transparency, show me the truth.

There are other ones dealing with aspects of virtual reality, so I’m telling a story where some of it’s real, some of it’s not. Can you tell me which bit is and which bit isn’t. It’s a reflection of what goes on around us really, we digest information which we see but we kind of suck up information all the time, it’s always around us. Some of it’s misinformation, some of it might be the truth but some of it isn’t so I’m looking at that type of thing. Some of it’s dealing with very, very personal things, stories I’ve been told and things I’m aware of and I’m looking into things very closely at times.

One of the songs is called ‘When’, it’s slower paced, it’s the last track on the album actually. The chorus goes something like, “when is anything about what it’s about”, when somebody offloads all their baggage on to you and you’re really feeling emotion coming at you, you’re receiving that but you’re thinking is this really what they’re talking about or is there something that’s really affected them and they’re just offloading this on to me and there’s some subtext that I’m not quite grasping. So that’s what I’m looking at.

They’re only songs, I just put the observations into songs. There’s some poetry in there and some musical rhythm and melodies and what have you (laughs)…

EP: It sounds fantastic, thought provoking…I can’t wait. We live in a strange world now with so much social media around us. Nowadays when you go to a gig it seems people are more interested in filming the band and looking at you through a mobile phone than they are in simply listening and absorbing the depth of the creativity in front of them…

NA: I’ve written about that as well. It is quite interesting isn’t it. I understand that people want to capture a memory in a medium. “I was there and this is what I did”, but if you’re looking at something through a tiny little screen, sometimes you can’t absorb all the other things that are going on around you. It’s interesting how we can end up being wedded to the technology and machines almost like I was there and this is what I’m doing, for example on social media, but it’s very easy to put a post up and everything looks rosy but if you scratch away at the zeroes and ones and get through the digital information of what lies at the surface and peel that away. What’s really going on, what’s really happening?

EP: I love to hear your insight, can’t wait for the new album. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat Neil, I’ve been a fan for many years and could chat for hours but I’m sure you’re very busy. I wish you all the very best for the tour and the album and I’ll look forward to coming to see you at the Forum in Kent. You’ll be exhausted by the end of the year but I bet you can’t wait…

NA: I love the gigs. I absolutely love them all. I’m going out with some really great musicians again, with Oogoo Maia on his synthesisers, and Liam Hutton on electronic percussion, who I mentioned earlier regarding the project I’m doing with him…it’s going to be really good fun and if the audiences are anything like the ones that we have been lucky enough to have come to our shows in the past we’ll all have a great time.

EP: Which part of it do you enjoy the most Neil – the touring with the approbation of the fans or do you prefer the writing and creation…if you had to choose?

NA: If I’m honest I’d write, I’d definitely write. The only thing I don’t like about touring is being away from home and I don’t like the travelling but the gigs are great, and I’m really looking forward to them.

EP: Thank you so much for your time Neil!

The new album ‘Mindset’ will be released through Blank Check Records on May 22nd and details of the release and the tour can be found on Blancmange’s  official website.

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