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  • Jack Starr

BLANCMANGE INTERVIEW – SYNTH LEGEND NEIL ARTHUR ON NEW ALBUM, & HAPPY FAMILIES TURNING 40


Blancmange briefly came-and-went in the early ’80s, leaving behind three classic synthpop albums before fading away. Frontman Neil Arthur revived the group over the last decade, recording a plethora of new albums adeptly marrying his classic electro-pop with elements of rock and electronica.


With their 1982 breakthrough record Happy Families turning 40, and their new album Private View opening to rave reviews, Blancmange are once again returning to the stage – and for the Sheffield Leadmill show, they are bringing a very special guest.


Hey Neil, how are you doing?


I'm good thanks, Jack. I’m sitting in the boardroom at London Records signing CDs and vinyl, and I really could do with a potato stamp with my signature on it!


First question – not to make you feel really old, but we are just coming up to the 40th anniversary of your debut album, Happy Families. Looking back on it, how do you think that record holds up? Has it stood the test of time?


The only times I get to hear aspects of it, of course, are when we play it live. I'll be in rehearsals next week and some of the songs off that album are definitely in the set for this tour. As for how it stands up – it’s really for other people to comment on that, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it seems to have stood the test of time. But it's quite difficult to comprehend. I can remember so many aspects of recording it […] it's very difficult to get your head around it when it’s been 40 years. But here we are again – I’m sitting in the boardroom at London Records and this album, Private View, is coming out 40 years after the release of Happy Families – bar one day.


Electronic music has changed so radically over the years – back then, a synthesizer would have cost as much as a house did, whereas today, anyone can make and record synth music on their laptop or their phone. How has the recording process changed for you over the years?

Well, when we first started, we actually didn't own any synthesizers ourselves, we borrowed them. And prior to that, we beg, stole and borrowed them. A few times, we even made the instruments that we had. I made a guitar when I was at school and I made the amplifier for it. And those things were used on the very first EP that we made. Stephen [Luscombe] had a pretty cheap keyboard. It wasn't exactly a Winfield Chord sound, it wasn't from Woolworths, but it was a cheap keyboard. And we tried to make them sound different to what was conventional. So we plugged lots of things into them – effects pedals, and whatever we borrowed. And then, by the time we came to do the album, our producer Mike Howlett had some synthesizers and we hired them when we went into the studio.


Technology was moving along with a pace. So with the stuff that we had –we got an 808 or something like that, and just use it for the day so we’d get as many drum parts down as we could. Then what you do is sync up to 24-track. I've never used a 24-track tape before and there were lots of technical issues. There were quite a few hours, sometimes days spent trying to get everything to sync up together – you don't have to worry about that today.


Although we still use massive analogue synthesizers, when we record it we'll record them into a digital environment and syncing things is a lot easier because we have MIDI and stuff like that. When we recorded the first album, MIDI was in its infancy and a lot of the instruments we used didn't have MIDI. We were using things like CV/Gate, it was a different story.


Technology might have moved along but it doesn't matter what technology you've got, it's the ideas you put into the technology and how you use it.


So, Blancmange – how did you settle on that name? Your earliest artwork and image had that whole cutesy 1950s aesthetic, and that was pretty incongruous with the music. What exactly inspired that?


We were originally called The Blancmange. We very nearly called ourselves A Pint of Curry and even toyed with names like Bleak Industrial Cooling Towers and Dark Satanic Mills. We weren't really bothered about the name, we were interested in the names of other bands but we thought if we spend too long thinking about the name we'll be exhausted and the band will split before we even get a song done. So we just forgot about the name and just said just call it that, it doesn't matter – so ‘Blancmange’ ended up sticking. We dropped the ‘the’ and stuck with Blancmange.


For the art, we wanted to have something that you wouldn't normally have on a cover. For example, Happy Families. We had the Louis Wain influence imagery of that cover. I'm not a cat fan. Stephen loves cats - I don't like cats, I like dogs! (Laughs) But anyway, we went with the cats because we thought it was quite funny. We like the idea of just saying, what the hell was that on there for? That's where I went with it. And then with the so-called ‘Blancmange Ladies’, they were something from our manager, he'd been to an antique fair somewhere in London – I can't remember where it was – and he came back with this poster, and he said, what do you think of that? And we went, ‘Oh, my God. Yeah, we really like that. Let's get that. Let's get that to the cover.’ So it was as random as that and we just thought, yeah, let's go with these images and see how far we can go with those, because nobody else was using stuff like that. You recognize that Blancmange image straight away.


So, Blancmange had three great records in the ‘80s, split up in ‘86, you had a solo record in ‘94, but you didn't start recording again until 2011. And then since then, you've been dead busy! So in all of that time, what did you get up to, and what really spurred your need to get back into the studio?


Well, when Stephen and I stopped doing Blancmange, one of the reasons was to keep our friendship, really, because it was getting a bit tense and we worked really hard with Blancmange in terms of working in the industry. So it was time to, we felt, to save the friendship, we stopped doing it. Maybe we should have taken some advice and stayed at it a bit longer. But anyway, I was fortunate enough to get offered a little bit of film music and I really enjoyed the idea of doing music, but not being photographed or filmed, or being asked questions! I really enjoy working in the back room doing the music. I think from that I learned to work at pace and to make decisions quickly. Like everybody, I had to earn a living. That was my way of trying to earn a living. And I enjoyed doing it, that's what I did. What I'm saying is, you turn your hand to anything. So I ended up painting and decorating for friends, for friends’ mums, just earning a living. I had a young family, so I had to work – like everybody else does.


So, in 2010, I said to Stephen, I had a few ideas, if he wanted to have a chat. We really liked the ideas that I put down and we decided we'd make an album and we'd make it and finish it, including the artwork, and present it to somebody, see whether they want to help us put it out. At that point, hadn’t occurred to us that we could set up our own label – which is what I went on to do. So, with the help of an old friend, we got a manager to properly put the record out for us, license it for a period of time and we thought, let's go on tour!


But it was clear – Stephen has health issues, and unfortunately still does. Very serious health issues which I'm not going to go into. And it was clear that Stephen wouldn't be able to continue recording, and, particularly, never be able to tour. So he gave me a kick up the proverbial and I went out, toured it and then carried on doing the instrumental albums and taking us to where we are now and again. I think I've probably learned the discipline of decision-making from my experience of working under a bit of pressure doing music for film and TV.


The new album is coming out on London Records, like you say, and that was your old label back in the day – how has that experience been going back?


Well, I'm honoured actually, to be honest, to be on a label with such a great name and for them to have the belief in this project now. They obviously like the album enough to back it, manufacture and promote it. The man who owns London Records was responsible for signing many acts, amongst them Daft Punk! I was amazed actually, because he put our very first gig on when we were just signed to London Records, and we were invited to go and do a gig in France and we played in a place called Les Bains Douches in Paris – a Roman bath, tiny venue. He also did our sound for us all those years ago, and then he put our second gig on when he was a student at Leon University and we went over there and played and he did the sound for us again. So things come round, and here we are, once again. He bought the catalogue and started London Records again.



You’re playing here in Sheffield on the 25th of November. Do you have any fond memories of playing in Sheffield over the years?


I've played in Sheffield a number of times. The first time we played there was at the Limit Club, and then I played there with Heaven 17. I played there with the Human League, we played with Depeche Mode. We've played small and large venues – the last one we played was the Leadmill, which we're going back to and I'm glad that it's still open – I hope it remains open and they support it, it's an institution. What I'm also really pleased about is on this tour, it's not Blancmange just the ones that are coming along, we've got fantastic support. When we play Sheffield we're lucky enough and privileged to have Stephen Mallinder. He's a good friend.


Yeah, Stephen Mallinder, he was another big pioneer who took a lot of unconventional influences like you did – a lot of heavy funk and eastern music. Did you know each other from back in the day?


No, we didn't. I did used to go and see Cabaret Voltaire. I did some art work when I was at college, which I shared with Mal. I did a series of silkscreen and photo etching from a gig of theirs. I took photos and sketches at a gig that they did years ago, at the YMCA in London. I was a big fan of his music, of their music.


Are you aware that once he may have probably – unintentionally – pinched one of your songs?


(Laughs) Tell me what he did. Which song?


In 1989, he went to Chicago to collaborate with Wax Trax Records, and they did a song called ‘No Name, No Slogan’, under the name Acid Horse. And it sounds a lot like ‘Blind Vision’.


(Laughs) Yeah, I know it. Coincidence, I reckon.


How are you feeling about the new album? You've been really busy over the last decade - I've lost count of the amount of albums that you've done since the revival. Do you think this one stands above the rest?


Oh, my. It's not for me to say! It's a bit of a nerve-racking time. What are people going to make of it? I'm a human. It’s a bunch of songs that you put everything into. We’ll see people think of it. We wouldn't have released it have we not been ready to let it go.


You've had some cracking music videos back in the day - have you got any plans to go back to doing more videos like that?


I think there are two really good videos to support two of the new songs. ‘Reduced Voltage’ – if you haven't seen that, go and have a look at the video for it. I think it's absolutely great – not talking about the music, I’m talking about the visuals. I think the way they complement the sound and the mood of the music is wonderful. And there's another video for ‘Some Times These’, which was the first single that came off this new album that Harvey [Wise] also made. And I'm very proud of it. I know Harvey should be very proud of it as well. It's a great video, because I didn't have to be in either of them. That’s wonderful for me!


Are there any new artists working today that you particularly fond of?


Well, I've got a few of my other supporting acts – Oblong and Alice Hubble. Absolutely wonderful. One of the albums I'm listening to a lot at the moment is Low Altitude from Manchester – absolutely love their album, Waves. Brilliant.


What's your favourite song you've ever done and why?


I should say… ‘Sad Day’, from Happy Families. The original version of ‘Sad Day’ with Stephen. It was written on a Sunday. Me and my partner had had an argument, and that’s how I dealt with it, in terms of the emotional thought. And Stephen and I have these ideas between us. We managed to get that idea down and I think it really summed up both of us, because she when subsequently heard the song, both of us are feeling sad. So if you look on the runout of the first album, on the back of it, it says ‘Sad Day for Helen’. So I dedicated the song to her – my way of saying sorry, really.


Sorry, hold on, I’ve got it. I’ve got my copy of the album right here.


(Laughs) You've probably never seen that before, have you?


I haven't, no! I can see on mine it says ‘Double Brandy’.


It says ‘Double Brandy’ on one side, and on the other side it says ‘Sad Day for Helen’. ‘Double Brandy’ was the way we used to find each other at parties; it was a saying that we all had. We’d go to a party and just shout that… (Pauses.) I’ve never told anybody that before.


Really? I guess we've got the exclusive then!


(Laughs) Not much of an exclusive!


Blancmange and Stephen Mallinder will play at the Leadmill on the 25th of November.


Their new album, Private View, is available on streaming services, as well as on vinyl, CD and cassette, from www.blancmange.co.uk.

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