New Blancmange album ‘Semi Detached’
‘Semi Detached’ has a bold start - an eight minute track ‘The Fall’ referencing the London tube map, The Fall (the band), Heaven and Hell, suicide, ghostly (inner) reflection and rain-soaked romantic imagery. It immediately takes the release beyond a standard pop offering. Was it a very conscious move to set the album apart?
Somebody told me ‘did you make it 8 minutes 8 seconds so it was named after the TR-808?’ But I didn’t know, didn’t realise at first. But in answer briefly to your own question, it was a conscious thing, sort of.
Neil made the album without his usual musical partner in Blancmange, Stephen Luscombe, who has health problems. It sounds like the situation is still hard to get used to. Neil keeps saying ‘we’ and then checking himself. He is due to visit Stephen the day after we meet.
I always think of Blancmange as being not just me, even though this time it is. Even though I’ve worked with David Rhodes who worked on the first album, and Adam Fuest I’ve been working with for decades, mixing.
Neil Arthur, Blancmange by Hana Knizova
Different styles of sound
There is a big mix of styles on the bitter-sweet album, and yet it is still very coherent.
The tools and styles that we would use, they’re just anything that happens to fit. Sometimes it doesn’t fit and that’s the quite nice thing about it I think is that you kind of go ‘well I’ll just use that’. We’re not conventional in the sense, ‘I’m starting to write a song so I’ve got to have a drum track, there’s got to be a bass’. Some of the tracks don’t even have hi hats, snares on. If it’s not needed, don’t put them on.
Yet a track like the Can cover ‘I Want More’ is awash with Latin style percussion.
When it came to percussion I would just go ‘oh I’ve got this kind of thing in my head’ and I would say ‘right let’s get a bongo out, or a bongo sample’ and I’d start playing it and see what happened. And with the Can track there was quite a bit of percussion on that. The particular loop that we, that I, ended up putting together and Adam and I mixed in seemed to be there on the demo that I was doing when I referred it back, so we thought it would stay.
The art of noise
There’s a huge sense of adventure about Neil, who embraces new technology, field recordings, and mixes up vintage sounds to create all kinds of aural excitement.
One of the interesting things about technology is that you get this opportunity now with your thumbnail sketch, it could be done on this Zoom, you could be walking down the street and hear something and it was the interplay between birdsong and a pneumatic drill - ‘I like that’.
There was a great noise as I got off the tube today. A lorry crashed into something and it was just rattling this framework, and it was a brilliant noise. All those things, you just go, ‘oh put those together into some type of loop’. There are no barriers for me, and there never were, right back to ‘Irene And Mavis’, because we’re non-musicians we just used anything that would get the end result.
I learnt that from art really, going to art college, you just said ‘well, you don’t actually have to be the master of this, but, as long as the end result is you get an answer, it comes together somehow, it doesn’t matter if it’s held together with sticky tape as long as the sticky tape’s on the back. You know’.
Neil Arthur, Blancmange by Hana Knizova
Punk as a trigger
It sounds like a punk approach.
Well that’s where we come from, you know, it’s where I come from, that was a release for everybody of my generation I think, who suddenly felt that you didn’t have to be able to play proficiently, you didn’t have to wear a cloak, you didn’t have to wear spandex trousers, you know, all those things.
You could if you wanted to, but you didn’t have to come out of your bedroom. You, anybody, could make music. We would use anything to make a sound and I would still do that. So, a bongo loop offset against whatever it might be is fine with me if it gets the end result. There’s no formula it’s just anything goes really.
MPG-80 Programmer, Blancmange
The ‘no formula’ approach applies to the whole songwriting process including lyrics.
I think if there had of been a formula then undoubtedly we would have written another ‘Living On The Ceiling’, ‘Blind Vision’. We don’t work like that. I don’t really mull over the lyrics, I mull them over in my head but I wouldn’t sit down and fight over pages and reams of notes. It tends to process in there and in general just comes out, I just write it down. I say ‘just’ - I write it down and then I probably leave it for a while and then you come back to it and you see it almost like as a different person and you’re going to go ‘ha, you don’t mean that’. I get rid of a load of ‘thus’ and ‘thereins’ and whatever, complicated words don’t need to be in there either so strip it down.
Other times the lyrics might be suggested by some type of obvious metre of the rhythm.
Writing on guitar
It may come as a surprise that an artist so well known for his electronic music, often starts on guitar.
I tend to write songs on a guitar. I’m not a great guitar player at all, I’ve got two guitars, an acoustic guitar and a little electric and I tend to sit there with an old acoustic guitar and work out the ideas. And then take it into the laptop and analogue synth work.
In fact I won’t go in the studio unless I’ve got an idea, so I don’t faff around. I don’t go in there waiting for an idea, ever. I learnt that, it’s pointless, you know. It’s better to go for a walk, or a run, or go and play a game of football, go and walk down the street and see what somebody else has to say.
Stories behind the songs
The songs contain stories, some tender some vengeful. What can he say about these tales of betrayal and disgust? Lines like ‘I’m not sorry I hurt you’ and ‘spew out your bile… a poison swansong, oh no acid tongue’ are pretty brutal.
They’re stories, some are real, some are fictional, some are a mixture of the two and it’s better out than in. Get it out of your system. You know, as I’ve got older the one thing I’m absolutely aware of and really sure of is that I’m sure of nothing. And that’s the complete opposite to when I was half my age, when I probably thought I knew almost everything.
It’s quite a nice thing, because you learn. You’re really open to learning. You get these things down, you write them, you think well actually why not say it? You mentioned a few lines in a song, that song, was written on an acoustic guitar and the chorus used to say more or less the opposite to that. And then I looked at myself and I thought, wait, what are you saying that for? Because you don’t mean that. And I actually thought, well it actually sounds more interesting as well. It’s actually more interesting to hear it because it’s not what you expect.
And then lyrically on ‘The Fall’ there are some lines that I’ve deliberately left out because you can imagine what I’m going to say and I don’t need to say it, what’s the point?
Ideas and space
Neil creates many different kinds of music, but is adamant that ideas and also space are always vital.
It’s great that people can make music in a bedroom, wonderful. But, unless you’ve got an idea to put in it, I find what happens is, that people put something down and because they’re not confident in what they’ve put down, they put something else over the top of it, and then something else on the top of that. So they end up with all these dress effects, that start sounding like an engineering project,
Keep it really simple and have confidence. I do music for films and documentaries, and sometimes ads. There was a phase where, with documentaries, you used to be able to say, right, we’ve got eight pieces of music in this one, more or less an hour, documentary. And it’s carrying a very weighty topic, so we’re just going to let the music breathe.
Then the battle started, more and more broadcasters, you had cable networks, satellite networks, all competing for people’s attention. To get that attention they thought music would keep people on board, so they started doing what I called, music for carpets, wall to wall music but no quality.
So what I used to say when I had my meetings was that really, you’re employing me to say where it shouldn’t go. If you trust me, you should be asking me where it shouldn’t go.
Taking that further, the space between the notes is just as important as the noise that’s made intentionally. I love the bit in between.
Neil Arthur, Blancmange
With one live show in London already sold out, and a second date added, how will he put things together?
Well there’s a question. Three people on stage unless Dinesh stage bombs or whatever they call it, which is quite likely from Dinesh (a long term collaborator) but myself, Oogoo Maia who played keyboards with us last time on keyboards, synths and actually probably some percussion, and David on guitar, and they might all do a bit of vocalising and a few synth parts. Then we’ve got visuals. Adam is going to mix from out front this time, so there’s four of us, he really is a band member, it’s a bit like Eno used to do with Roxy Music until I think Bryan Ferry got fed up with it, him processing his voice too much. So there we go.
Two more new albums
The new album ‘Semi Detached’ is just out, but Neil revealed there are two more albums on their way!
I’ve been recording and I’ve finished an album of instrumentals. Working title, Nil By Mouth, Neil with the E crossed out, and that will come out this year. Then we’ve got another one for the autumn, ‘I Wish I Was You’, which is a working title. I’m trying to get those in a position where we are be able to perform live. God I’ve just realised, when we do that Red Gallery, I’ve said I’m going to do some tracks off ‘Irene and Mavis’!
Has it been a long time since he played those live?
I’ve never played them live. That will be a first.
So the shows are shaping up to be something pretty special, and Neil is buoyant about being able to make all this new music.
I’m lucky to do it after all those years. I thought I’d be an illustrator or a graphic designer, something like that. Mum and Dad gave me the opportunity to go to college, something they never got and I ended up doing bloody music all these years. Bloody Hell Fire - bloody music!
Neil talks about synths, guitars and production here.
- Semi Detached is available on Cherry Red Records in four formats – CD, Ltd Edition Deluxe Double CD, Vinyl LP and digital download.