Blancmange might have had their pop success in the 80s but the band’s Neil Arthur is producing more music in the 2020s than ever before, and the latest album, Commercial Break, might well be his best work yet. And that’s just the start of it. There are dozens of other projects in the pipeline, and even one with another 80s synth pop legend, a certain Vince Clarke. And did we mention ABBA?
Blancmange’s story might have begun with a bang – actually quite a few of them – back in the 1980s, but it’s one that has flourished and seen most of its action over the last decade. The band, originally made up of Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe, had many a Top 40 hit throughout the 80s, mixing synths, off-the-wall lyrics and the odd Eastern influence across singles like Living On The Ceiling, Don’t Tell Me and Blind Vision.
A series of bizarre events – you really couldn’t make some of them up – helped the band’s demise and they took a long break throughout the 90s and early 2000s, eventually reforming for their fourth album, Blanc Burn in 2011.
After Luscombe left through ill health, Arthur ploughed onwards, releasing a series of Blancmange albums (not to mention other collaborations – too many to mention!) exploring darker themes, instrumentals and often co-produced with the super analogue synth collector and producer-guru Benge.
We are speaking to Arthur the day after another 80s act announced ‘a bit of a comeback’, a smallish band from Sweden by the name of ABBA. Indeed their reunion is looming large over our conversation for several reasons.
Not only does it give this particular interview a much lighter, contrasting tone compared to the last time we spoke to Arthur – literally a day before the first COVID lockdown back in March 2020 – to the point that, yes, it does rather feel like Agnetha, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny and Anni-Frid are leading us out of the pandemic, but Neil is also a self-confessed ABBA superfan.
But not just any ABBA superfan. Legend has it that Blancmange scored a bigger hit back in 1984 with their version of ABBA’s The Day Before You Came than The Swedish legends mustered with their original version. “I’ve no idea if that’s true, but that’s what my greengrocer told me,” Arthur laughs. What’s not in doubt is that ABBA were so impressed with Blancmange’s version that they sent the band a letter telling them, (which they then promptly went and lost).
“I was brought up with ABBA,” Neil says as we inevitably turn to this most high-profile of comebacks. “When we did The Day Before You Came they were not cool at all and not seen in the light that they are seen today, but to us they were always at the top.”
And we’re not done with ABBA just yet. There’s also the fact that Arthur possibly played a part in another 80s synth icon covering ABBA. You might remember Erasure recording the infamous ABBA-esque EP?
“A load of us including Vince [Clarke] went to Tenerife together back in 1982. We brought a Walkman with us and my contribution was ABBA: The Singles.
"It was passed around and was on heavy rotation. We then had a discussion there when Stephen [Luscombe] and I said ‘we’re going to do a cover of an ABBA song’, and Vince said he would too. He was leaving Depeche Mode at the time and onto a new venture so we got our cover recorded before he did his!”
So, we have to ask, what does Neil make of the new ABBA material?
“I listened to both the new songs yesterday and when those vocals come in, it was amazing. And it’s ABBA. [Shouts!] IT’S ABBA!!!!”
Taking a break
After being sidetracked by ABBA, it’s time to take a break – a Commercial Break you could say, as that’s the name of the new Blancmange album, and a cracker it is too. Intense and melodic with as much electronics as there is treated guitar, it’s a unified work and Arthur’s most solid release under this incarnation of Blancmange.
A real triumph then, yet one born – as so much music is these days – from the negativity of the pandemic. Light from dark, then…
“I think there is a theme to the album without a doubt,” Arthur agrees, talking about its uniform sound and feel. “Going on from what happened after our last [day before lockdown] chat, it was a very different world we entered into because of the pandemic.
"The Blancmange tour I had planned was rearranged five times and from an artist point of view there was a lot of uncertainty. We’ve all had to deal with a frightening situation and I felt that the best thing for me to do to try and keep a lid on my emotions was to try and reflect on what was happening, what I observed.
“In the first few months we had amazing weather, the streets were really quiet, with no cars around. None of us even knew what was going to happen the next day, let alone the next few months and the news was terrifying for some people.
"I’d heard many creative people were finding it hard to write but I found comfort in expression. I could observe things in my own idiosyncratic way and I could experiment. I know it’s not heavy experimentation but I’d leave doors open when I was recording, so you can hear noise in the background on the album, some deliberate and others just by chance as I left mics open.
“I started collecting sounds, while going out for walks and cycling,” Neil continues. “I was noticing the bits in between things, stuff I hadn’t noticed before. It was like ‘what’s in the crack? There’s a whole world in the crack’.
"So I was noticing the detail I hadn’t afforded myself before because I hadn’t ever stopped for long enough to. So, for example, there are bird noises on one of the tracks. I slowed them down to see what they would be like.
"Or when I was walking once, I heard a water pump; all stuff like that. I did think the album would never be toured as it is a reflection of an individual in another time that we were all in; terrifying and sad for some people but I wanted to find something positive and creative. Kind of ‘what’s coming next?’ I didn’t want to keep reflecting back.”
“That being said, I will contradict myself [when we go out on tour]. We are looking forward to playing live, but there’s a nervousness to it. We all want to celebrate that we haven’t done it for so long.
"So we’ll do a couple from Commercial Break if we can. It’s a bit different from Living On The Ceiling! It ain’t Don’t Tell Me though! [laughs]. The tour was supposed to be for [last year’s album] Mindset, so we’ll do stuff from that too and of course all the old stuff.”
Not taking a break
Arthur’s Mk2 Blancmange are in double figures for album releases – well over twice the original band’s output – striking at almost one release a year. Neil is also ensconced in many other projects, so how on earth does he maintain the pace, let alone the quality of this level of output?
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really fantastic artists,” he replies, “like Benge – with Fader and there’s another album done – and Jez Bernholz [Near Future], Finlay Shakespeare, [percussionist with Blancmange] Liam Hutton, [keyboardist] Oogoo Maia and Vince [Clarke]. I suppose it’s what I am.
"And in the old days the access to writing was you needed a four-track to write a demo on, like a cassette machine. Now I just put loads of stuff in here [points to phone]. I’m out on the bike or with the family and I have an idea and I just sing it in there! I do find it difficult to relax.
"I cycle and love my football so my escape sometimes is channelled into music and as you know, the technology makes it easy to put the idea down. I’m off the leash basically and having a go.”
And talking of technology, let’s move onto the current Blancmange studio.
“I write on two DAWs for Blancmange and Fader, before Benge gets involved, both Ableton and Logic,” Neil explains, before detailing his (long) DAW history. “I started way back with a BBC Micro computer and used UMI [early sequencer] on that, like Vince did.
"Then I got an Atari and used Notator and then Emagic bought out Logic so I stayed with that. Then a number of years ago I started using Ableton, just to learn something else, and all the last album was done on Ableton and a lot of instrumental projects have been done with a cross between Ableton and the Akai MPC X.
“I have a range of Roland Boutique synths, which are basically plugins with knobs,” he continues, moving over to his studio hardware. “I have the JP-08, JX-03 plus the JU-06, and I also have a Roland/Studio Electronics SE-02 analogue module. I use the Boutique range a lot, from when my son Joe and I started doing stuff.
“Within the computer,” Neil adds, “I love G-Force plugins, each and every one of them. They are absolutely the dog’s bollocks. Unbelievable. My absolute favourites are Oddity 2 and ImpOScar. With Oddity 2 I know the original ARP synth but the VST is absolutely brilliant. The way you can manipulate it is wonderful.
"I also have the Arturia collection. What I really like is that sometimes I have the VST going and then at [super analogue synth collector] Benge’s studio, he gets the original synth down from a shelf and we replace it!
“I use Arturia’s SparkLE drum machine,” he continues. “It’s very versatile and I also use the Waves plugin collection, particularly the API 550 EQs and their vocal stuff. I also sometimes just shove their one-knob filter thing on everything. And then there’s Audio Damage; I use a couple of their things. I really like the Filterstation and their Rough Rider compressor. I also love Glitchmachines’ Fracture and the Korg MS20 synth.”
We tell Neil about the latest Korg Collection, complete with the PolySix and MonoPoly classic analogues. Did he use the real things back in the day?
“I used to have an original Korg PolySix. I used to record a load of that into a Tascam 4-track! I don’t have anything [classic] anymore. It’s finances – I don’t have a big mansion! – and I had some stuff stolen.”
As well as a more treated guitar sound, the new Blancmange album also has one or two recognisable synth patches. Is that a Yamaha CS-80 we can hear? A software version or one of Benge’s original synths?
“I think it’s Benge’s. He also used a Jupiter-4 and a PolyMoog. Oh my god, getting that synth in tune was something!”
No laptops live, thanks
“Last weekend I did my first Blancmange show in two years in Belgium,” Neil explains, clearly excited to be back ‘out there’ after the enforced Covid break. “We had to jump through hoops but we did it; there were three of us playing to 4,500 people. There was a power cut and it rained on stage but we still got through it and it was amazing!”
And that gig will hopefully be the first of many, as Neil is preparing for a full Blancmange tour as we speak, although he will be wrestling with an on-stage Akai-based hardware rig, he says. ‘Why not just go down the laptop route?’ we helpfully (we think) suggest…
“I don’t want to do that anymore. We had always used laptops for the bass part and the drums, but with Oogoo Maia, being a fantastic player, I thought we’d do this [non laptop route].
"So we’re using two MPC Lives and Roland drum pads triggering from one so we have live drums too. I just wanted to get away from the laptop. I think most people are also a bit fed up with seeing laptops on stage so I wanted to do something a bit different.”
Back to Vince
And finally we return full-circle to Vince Clarke. Neil obviously knew him from the Tenerife trip back in the 80s but we hear there might be a collaboration on the cards?
“We really met back in ‘81 because of our involvement in [record producer and label owner] Stevo’s Some Bizarre album. [Ed’s note: a legendary compilation album which features early tracks from Depeche Mode, The The, Blancmange, Soft Cell and other massive bands.]
“Stevo organised some gigs for the album and we did some of them together. I remember one gig he had organised at The Hope & Anchor in Islington where we headlined above Depeche Mode because they had to get the last train home! Then we went on tour with them a couple of times.
“We kept in touch [with Vince] although I haven’t seen him for decades,” Neil continues, “but we’ve now been on touch and we’ve finished recording [a project]. Benge is involved in it as well which is fantastic. Vince was due to come over and we were booked in to mix it but it wasn’t feasible at the time. But we’ve all been exchanging files to get it done.
“We’ve been working on it for… well we’ve been working on it since the late 70s I guess [laughs]!. It seems like a long time anyway. It’s an album of covers but I am not going to tell you what’s on it, although I can tell you one thing: there’s an ABBA cover on it!”
Of course there is… “We had to do it didn’t we?”