Monday, May 9, 2011
From Blind Vision to Blanc Burn - An Interview with Blancmange's Neil Arthur
After it seemed that every 80s act who could take the stage again has done so, two of the era's most elusive legends have emerged from the woodwork. Blancmange - the British synthpop duo comprised of Stephen Luscombe and Neil Arthur - have re-appeared on the radar with their first disc in 25 years, Blanc Burn.
Don't call it a comeback, however, for Blancmange never gave themselves a chance to diminish, to become boring or irrelevant. After a remarkable run of singles and three albums - beginning with their stunning LP debut, 1982's Happy Families — Luscombe and Arthur called it quits in 1987. Several reasons are cited for their vanishing act, but one has to imagine Blancmange also saw the handwriting on the wall for the era that they helped make so exciting.
Luscombe and Arthur have kept themselves quite busy since; each has fistfuls of recording projects under the belt. In addition, Arthur has composed several scores for British television. However, the general public hasn't really tracked these musicians' evolutions over the past 25 years, so Blanc Burn will be a bit of a surprise to anyone expecting Blancmange to pick up where they left off. Aurally, the duo's new offerings could be shelf mates with those who might be influenced by Blancmange — perhaps MGMT, or A Silent Film — rather than a regurgitation of their past. Make no mistake, though, Blanc Burn is an Arthur/Luscombe production; Arthur's lyrical signature of edginess alternating and/or co-existing with a sense of playfulness — wrapped in eclectic, addictive musical structures — has survived to the 21st century. The duo still have the beat, the groove, the punch; one could dub them "Blancmange 2.0."
Blanc Burn also brings the band's old friend Pandit Dinesh back into the fold. Dinesh memorably flavored "Living On The Ceiling" and other Blancmange tracks, work that helped established him as pop's most in-demand tabla player and Eastern percussionist.
Questions naturally abound when given the out-of-the-blue opportunity to chat with "frontman" Neil Arthur, possessor of one of the 1980s' most distinct voices. However, the first order of business was to ascertain the condition of Arthur's old partner, whose sudden illness unfortunately precluded him from participating in Blancmange's first tour in a quarter-century.
SS: I must start off by asking how Stephen is doing.
Arthur: He's got an aneurysm on his spine, so he's waiting for news from a specialist about an operation to deal with that. He's in good spirits. Unfortunately, Stephen couldn't come on the tour with us, but thankfully we were able to get the album together. We communicate most days, particularly during the tour - he wanted to know how things were going. Inevitably, Stephen couldn't keep himself away, and probably against doctor's orders he came out for the last show. It was wonderful to see him, and hopefully when he's got himself sorted out and feeling much better, he'll be able to go on the next tour.
SS: After all these years, what sparked another collaboration between you two?
Arthur: We've always remained in touch, been good mates. We got talkin' a few years ago, and I said that I've got some ideas, some sketches of songs... we agreed to come back to my studio. We put some ideas down, and in a very short space of time, we realized that we had quite a body of work put together. Lo and behold, it turned into an album last year. I took it to Proper on the recommendation of my old manager; I was looking for a licensing deal, as we had a completed album, Blanc Burn.
Neither Steven or I wouldn't have thought of it as our fourth record, it was just a body of songs that became an album. We didn't have a master plan, no more than we had one 30 years ago!
SS: You mentioned your eight-date mini-tour... you must have had to brace yourself for a wave of nostalgia, to interact with the fans again.
Arthur: That was humbling, actually. Recording an album's one thing, and going out and playing new and old (material) is quite another. There was a lot of preparation for that. Our first date was in Glasgow... I'm always nervous going on stage - I'd know something was wrong if I wasn't nervous, and I was pretty terrified. As soon as I went on stage - Dinesh and Graham (Henderson) were already there - I could hear the first beats of "Vishnu," our intro, as it was for us long ago. As soon as I walked on stage, I thought, "Ahh, blimey. Everybody's with us!" It was such a fantastic feeling! There was such warmth from the audience... they 'made' every show - we made the music, but the audience 'made' for a fantastic show.
Afterwards, I sat down and chatted with whomever wanted to chat, signed things. And people told me their stories... that was enlightening. You know, time has passed, I'm 52 and have my own family now... it was wonderful listening to and sharing experiences with the audience.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself (during the tour), and I know Dinesh did, and Graham - who played keyboards and operated the technical aspects of things - he had a great time, too. We had visuals using some of the old films, and new images... that was running, as well. We had a great time, and hope to do more of it.
SS: A full tour would be really cool... though I imagine you wouldn't play the States.
Arthur: Well, why not?
SS: A lot of British acts don't make their way over here, for some reason or another. Money's a factor, I'd imagine. I think you'd have a good audience here, though.
Arthur: We'd really like to take this further... we've gotten a lot of correspondence lately, particularly from America, asking us when we're coming back to play! Obviously, economics do come into it. Getting a licensing deal in America would make sense first, before we do it. I don't see any reason why not; I'd love to come over.
SS: When did you first cross the pond?
Arthur: June of '83. We played in New York, and also recorded "Blind Vision" at Sigma (Sound Studios)... it was quite an experience, really. We subsequently returned and played more dates, and we recorded the majority of Mange Tout in New York. We stayed at the Mayflower, initially; then, for six months we rented a place in the Chelsea. Now, that was an experience (laughs).
SS: The first time I heard Blanc Burn, I honestly didn't quite know what to think. It was sort of like running into an old classmate you remember fondly, but haven't seen in 25 years; takes a while to adjust. But it's catchy as hell, and with every listen I warmed up to it more. It's a great record. Now that Blanc Burn's been in the can awhile, what's your favorite song on it?
Arthur: Since we've finished the tour, I've listened to everything but our album! I've been busy working on a number of things. But I really enjoyed playing "I'm Having A Coffee." A song about pent-up frustration, really, when you'd rather be having a... very intense relationship (laughs). Getting a great response to a new song from the audience, that was fantastic.
SS: I think my favorite so far is "Don't Let These Days."
Arthur: Oh, that's a song I wrote that's really about a bullying incident. Just offering a bit of help, really... bullies are really the weakest of the weak. Bullying is such a dreadful thing.
I'm glad you're enjoying the record, by the way. I like the idea of someone listening to it and picking up new things every time. That's encouraging.
SS: I'll give you another tiny bit of encouragement. My wife was dealing with breast cancer for most of last year; it was one of those years where you seized upon every little moment of happiness that came along. Last summer I ordered a "Best Of" CD, as I needed a couple of Blancmange tracks for a compilation I was making, and you're not on iTunes...
By the way, why aren't you on iTunes?
Arthur: It's a mystery to me; I've tried to sort it out with Warner Music. I've got my solicitors talking to them... the new album will be iTunes, but I'd like the original albums offered, too... not a "greatest hits" package - though that would be fine, as well — but fans want the original, complete albums. We're working on it.
But please, continue with your story.
SS: Oh, sorry. Well, I was playing "Lose Your Love" one day, and I heard this peep from across the hall. My wife asked, "Who is this? I know this." And we wound up spontaneously bursting into song — "No, no, no, no, no, no, I don't want you to go.... " several times over that weekend. We still do, once in a while. I guess you'd have to be there; we're a bit eccentric and silly, but that's a great chorus to sing, especially at the top of your lungs.
Arthur: Ah, fantastic... what a great story, I love it. By the way, we had great fun making the video for that, many years ago. We flew over to New York to film it. The video got banned by ITV and the BBC for 'inciting violence in the home'...
Arthur: Because we were smashin' up things. It was ridiculous.
SS: That was one of the few videos you filmed indoors. You guys seemed to be everywhere - where was the video for "Don't Tell Me" shot?
Arthur: Valencia... we went to 'The Fire' (Las Fallas), a festival they have in early spring, and filmed while that was going on.
SS: What prompted all these all these exotic locations? Were you and Stephen really into traveling, or were you trying to compete with Duran Duran - they'd shoot something in Antigua, and you'd go to Cairo?
Arthur: (Chuckling) Or just down the coast of England... we' d just go out and hire a local film crew. Just a few of us would go out, not a big production... we'd ride camels and horses, whatever. We weren't particularly well-traveled... I'd been to a few places, but this was a real-opener, making the videos.
SS: You did look like you were having the times of your lives... as if you were on vacation, with a movie camera.
Arthur: It was always like that, having a lot of fun. Even that "studio" one for 'Lose Your Love' was like that... we hired an old, abandoned terminal in Manhattan - each room was a different scenario. And then we went upstate and pulled a house down for the finale! An old house was going to be demolished - and we filmed it being pulled down. There was supposed to be another scene with us outside the house in daylight, but we were stopped by law enforcement for speeding, got delayed (laughs).
SS: Was there a time when you put Blancmange in perspective, and put it all behind you, on a shelf? A time when you said, "That was great, but never again?"
Arthur: Hmm... I did get on with other things, other music projects, and I've enjoyed that. I don't think I ever really stopped long enough to think about Blancmange. I've always enjoyed that fact that I had the opportunity to do it, and to work with Steven - that was good fun. Having said that, I've never really regretted stopping it, either, at the time we did. I think if we had carried on working together, Stephen and I, we probably wouldn't have remained friends. We weren't really enjoying it, right at the end, so I'm glad we quit when we did. In stopping, it protected our friendship.
There is a lot of water under the bridge... coming back to it all now, we did not, in any way, set out with some formula to re-create something we did long ago; because Stephen and I are doing it, it's called 'Blancmange.' We wrote songs of today; we just thought, "Let's just play some music and see what happens."
21st Century Blanc Remixes, Part One - containing remixes of "Radio Therapy," "The Western" and "Living On the Ceiling" was released on May 2 via download at major outlets.