In Conversation: Blancmange

“I enjoy being busy,” says Blancmange’s Neil Arthur. On the day we spoke he’d written some new music, signed a huge batch of vinyl and CD copies of the new Blancmange album, Mindset, some gardening and some DIY jobs around his house. “I’m not very good at doing nowt,” he admits, in his lyrical Lancastrian accent.

Mindset is Blancmange’s twelfth album. That needs to be seen in the context of a prolific streak that has seen nine Blancmange albums appear since the group became active again in 2011, alongside two albums with Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards as Fader, another pairing with Gazelle Twin collaborator Jez Bernholz as Near Future and a mini-LP with Kincaid (his son, Joe). Stephen Luscombe, with whom Neil formed the band in 1979, was forced to leave the group after 2011’s Blanc Burn owing to ill health, leaving Blancmange as Neil’s solo project.

“I’m probably happiest when I’m being creative,” offers Neil by way of explanation, and it shows. None of these projects are wistful, nostalgic retreads of songs like ‘Blind Vision’ or ‘Living On The Ceiling’ with which Blancmange found initial success at the start of the 1980s. These are records that exist firmly in the here and now, that reflect back the current world we live in yet which are threaded through with personal reflections – on relationships, on situations, on life in general. Mindset finds Neil ruminating on everything from the playground recollections of his Lancashire youth, to calls for transparency and honesty, and onward to the darkest sides of social media. It is an album loaded with observation and dark humour – in other words, classic Blancmange.

Neil Arthur’s prolific streak has delivered more music into the hands of fans than Blancmange delivered across the whole of the 1980s. After he and Stephen went their separate ways after the release of Believe You Me in 1985, there followed a long stretch of very little music from Neil up until 2011, that silence being interrupted only by a solo album, Suitcase, in 1994. While his recent, comparatively frantic current release schedule might seem strange in the context of that silence, it helps to understand where he was spending his time in the years after Blancmange separated.

“I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to do film and TV music,” he explains. “You’ve got to work really quick when you do that stuff. You’ve got to be prepared to make decisions, and lots of mistakes as well. I think one of the disciplines that came from doing so much music, particularly for TV, was that the turnaround was sometimes so quick: if you were doing a pitch for a commercial or whatever, you’d go, ‘I’ve got to come up with this idea right now.’ There’s no point in pussyfooting around and getting all bloody precious about it – you’ve just got to get it down.” Right now, Neil is also working on another Near Future album, another project with Kincaid and is building up a collection of tracks with Erasure’s Vince Clarke (“He comes up with lots of ideas, he’s good to bounce stuff off and he’s fun to be around,” offers Vince.)

Neil also talks about feeling like he’s been “let off the leash” creatively. Supported by a loyal fanbase, he has been able to pivot the Blancmange sound in multiple varied directions, repositioning his vocal and distinctive outlook on the world alongside some of the most inventive use of adventurous electronics in the pop genre. Mindset is the third Blancmange album to have been crafted with Benge, and the record bears the hallmarks of the vast array of vintage analogue equipment to be found in his Memetune studio in Cornwall.

Given that there are two groups that see Neil collaborating with Benge – Blancmange and Fader – it begs the question as to what makes a Blancmange album, and what makes a Fader record.

“With Fader, Benge starts the ball rolling, and I think that’s crucial,” explains Neil. “He comes up with some instrumental ideas, some of which are more developed than others. They’re like thumbnail sketches – very simple some of them – but then some of them are more complex. That’s where it starts and then I add my twopenn’orth. On last year’s Fader album, In Shadow, Benge had done 95%, if not more, of the instrumentation, and I stuck to vocals, and then we mixed it and produced it together.” With Blancmange, the process is almost effectively reversed. “Blancmange is just me, and so it starts with me,” says Neil. “I write a load of songs, and then I offer them to Benge. We get together at his studio, we work on the structures, we change the sounds, add a few parts, and I add the lyrics.”

While both groups will eventually see both Benge and Neil meet somewhere in the middle, the different starting points gives Blancmange and Fader albums entirely distinct personalities. “The logic would tell you that,” agrees Neil. “For example, with Fader, I have the opportunity, on first hearing, to react to something that I have no idea what I’m going to get, and Benge has the same thing when I come up with ideas for a Blancmange record. Then we bounce ideas as we get closer to the point of it being finished. We get closer and closer to us both manipulating sounds on a synthesiser or whatever it might be, but the two projects have come from very different places, initially. They’ve come from different brains.”

If you take a look at the studio photographs on Benge’s Memetune website, what immediately strikes you is the sheer amount of kit available to bring to a project. I wonder whether that can be a problem, given there’s so much to choose from and potentially be distracted by, almost as if that might stifle the energy that comes with being prolific. “Well yeah, there’s a lot of lights flashing on and off and stuff like that,” laughs Neil. “When Benge and I work together, we’re pretty good at keeping it focussed on what is needed, and we don’t get too distracted. Of course, there are moments where you’re working on any project where you end up going slightly sideways, but we’re pretty functional when we work together. We’re very focussed on what’s needed.

“We have a hell of a laugh when we’re doing it as well,” he adds. “We have a lot of fun, even if a lot of the music’s quite dark. We spend a lot of time together in the studio laughing. You’ve got to, you know? Sometimes you can’t help it with electronic sounds – you’re sitting there gurning when you’re doing a filter sweep. It can be a real laugh.”

Anyone who’s taken a listen to a Blancmange record will recognise a particular strain of  humour, and Mindset – for all its explorations of heavy subject matter – is certainly faithful to Neil’s ability to use wordplay to lighten the mood.

Perhaps the best example of this on Mindset is the track ‘Anti-Social Media’, a song that takes a sideways look at the trolling and the sinister sides of apps that were designed to bring people together, not force prejudices and divisions. “Thankfully nothing in this song is related to anything I’ve experienced personally,” says Neil, with some relief. “But, from an observational standpoint of what’s going on, I’ve taken loads of stuff in. It’s quite easy for people to let go of some opinion – they just send something off, just like that. Press the button and it’s gone. But the receiver can pick up on it in so many different ways, if there’s any subtlety at all in the message, and can quite often be very, very upset. It’s been in the news all too frequently, and there’s been some horrific, sad and tragic cases. Even so, I had a lot of fun with the lyrics – things like the line ‘chastise me and baptise me’, or the idea that you can criticise me but please just wait until the end of the song. I’m having a bit of a laugh at the idiots who think it’s alright to behave like that and hide. They’re cowards, aren’t they? Bastards. It’s something I wanted to write about, and it seemed to fit with the groove I’d got going.”

Speaking of grooves, taken as a whole Mindset moves forward with a relentless momentum, the rhythms and sounds nodding squarely in the direction of clubbier electronic music. “I wanted it to move along with a pace,” he says. “Dark as some of the lyrics might be with twisted black humour, I still wanted them to be supported by something that kept the pace going, and Benge and I didn’t want too much getting in the way of that if we could help it. It definitely leans toward a faster pace, so you’d be able to, you know, move a leg to it if you wanted to.”

‘Insomniacs Tonight’ plays with that sense of momentum using a framework of sounds and beats that belong in minimal techno, beginning very sparsely before firming up into something more anxious, evoking the feeling of a sleepless night. “I don’t sleep very well,” confesses Neil. “It’s a very different world in the middle of the night. That song starts very simply, but once it gets going, it’s like a train of thought.”

Another standout track on Mindset is ‘This Is Bliss’, an exercise in keeping things defiantly simple, staying resolutely sparse and unadorned throughout. “One of the things that I’ve tried to do lyrically, and musically, as I’ve got older is that if something doesn’t need to be there, you don’t have to have it,” Neil explains. “Benge and I agree on this – there’s no point putting another part on top of something if the one that’s there doesn’t need supporting. With ‘This Is Bliss’, there wasn’t a lot in it when I took it to Benge, and we kept it that way – we just improved some of the sounds, and replaced the original rhythms with analogue drums.

“The idea of keeping things minimal is something I’ve striven for for bloody ages,” reflects Neil. “Less is best, but sometimes it’s difficult to hold your ground on it. Maybe on this one we were getting closer to that. We tried to leave as much space as possible.”

This starts to tap into the influences that have informed Neil Arthur’s approach to music, many of which are reverentially to be found on display across the breadth of Mindset. “One of the biggest influences on early Blancmange, from my point of view, was The Young Marble Giants. Although they never used synthesisers, they’re the epitome, for me, of minimalism, and they’re still one of my favourite bands. It’s perfectly executed, lyrically, structurally, and in their instrumentation. You simply didn’t need anything else. I saw them live so many times, and that’s definitely stayed with me.”

Elsewhere on the record you can hear the trace echoes of Neu!’s distinctive pulse on the album’s title track, fused with a small dose of the Velvet Underground. You also hear deferential – but never plagiaristic – nods in the direction of Roxy Music, Sparks and LCD Soundsystem, all within the same song. To wear those influences so vividly on your sleeve without ever sounding anything other than like Blancmange is quite the achievement. Elsewhere on the record, ‘Diagram’s direct call for truth and honesty finds Neil crossing the intimidating style of Grace Jones with the lysergic energy of vintage Cabaret Voltaire, whose Stephen Mallinder is one of Benge’s bandmates in Wrangler. Sticking with Sheffield, Neil plays me the snarling intro to ‘Anti-Social Media’ and intones Phil Oakey’s spoken word intro to The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ over the top, accompanied by a dry and charismatic chuckle.

The album is also characteristically personal, though Neil is at pains to maintain some comfortable ambiguity. ‘Not Really (Virtual Reality)?’ transports us back to the Lancashire town of Darwen, his home town, the lyrics reflecting the moors of his childhood and the phrase he and his pals would use whenever someone was thought to be bending the truth – ’et wady’. There are also songs dealing with family and domestic issues, while ‘Warm Reception’ finds a detached Neil running through quotidian thoughts and ministrations, inspired by a painting bearing the same name by his wife. Not for nothing does he describe lyric writing as “like having a contact mic on the inside of my brain”.

The album concludes with the poignant ‘When’. “The chorus on that song really sums it up – ‘When is anything / About what it’s about?’ It happens to people all the time: someone can be on the receiving end of an emotive outburst that leaves a feeling of being distraught and empty. But then it becomes obvious that, in actual fact, you’ve received all this stuff because basically it’s the other person’s baggage, and you’re now having to carry that around yourself. What you may have had in mind when there was some kind of argument hasn’t been discussed at all. It’s like in a Woody Allen film when he puts the subtext underneath the dialogue – it’s nothing to do with what it’s really about.”

It’s a beautiful spring lockdown evening, and Neil, a keen cyclist, wants to get out on his bike near his Cotswolds home before it gets dark. There’s just enough time for one more honest reflection before he heads off. “I’m really bloody fortunate because we’ve got a very loyal fanbase,” he muses. “They want to listen to the new stuff, but obviously like the old songs. I’m very happy to play the old stuff – I thoroughly enjoy it, and I’m incredibly proud of the music Stephen and I did all those years ago.

“I completely understand that, when I go out on stage, it wouldn’t be a Blancmange show without those songs. That’s absolutely fine by me. I’ve got to say, though, I’m much more interested in the future,” he concludes before heading off, no doubt working on even more songs as he pedals his way through the countryside.

Mindset by Blancmange is released June 5 2020 by Blanc Check. Buy signed copies of Mindset at Blancmange’s website.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

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