Blancmange: “We have no choice but to go forward”

The 80s new-wave pioneer Neil Arthur on looking forward, reality checks and enjoying the most prolific era of his career

The trajectory of Neil Arthur’s Blancmange is not a usual one. Having released three albums with then-bandmate Stephen Luscombe that helped define the new-wave sound of the 80s, with hits such as ‘Blind Vision’, ‘Living on the Ceiling’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me’, in 1986 the duo turned the lights off on the project and let pop music takes its own path.

That was, until 2011, when the pair returned with their fourth album Blanc Burn. Luscombe soon had to leave due to health reasons, but Arthur would continue solo in unrivalled prolific fashion; in the decade since, there have been 14 further albums, not too mention other projects such as Fader, with long-time collaborator Benge.

As Arthur prepares to bring Blancmange back to UK stages in November 2023, and again in summer 2024, we caught up with him to discuss his progressive ethos, re-signing to London Records and the importance of remembering that a song is sometimes just a song.

Blancmange – Don’t Tell Me (Official Video)

I’m sure this is often brought up, but it’s remarkable how prolific you’ve been since reigniting Blancmange in 2011. Does this feel like something that’s keeping on, or has it felt like there’s been dips?

It is evolving, I’m learning. I get to work with some great musicians, one of them being Benge (Ben Edwards), we work on Blancmange and the project Fader together. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, analogue synths are delicate beats. They’re big, but delicate. It’s evolving, and I like to think it’s going to continue to evolve; I don’t particularly want to repeat anything I’ve done. It’s not a nostalgia thing, what’s next? What am I going to be surprised at next time? I’m lucky, really lucky to work like this.

I do it all on my terms, I’ve just signed to London Records, or re-signed after Stephen and I initially signed to them 40 years ago. That’s wonderful, I really like London Records, they’re very supportive. I can do whatever I want to do, and I suppose I’m slightly off the leash. I don’t know if I thought I was ever totally on a leash before, but in the 80s you certainly did have a feeling, during the second and third album, we were aware that people were expecting hits. It wasn’t just, “let’s do remixes and dance stuff and see what happens”, there were expectations. I don’t have any of that now, apart from reminiscing and recalling it. I take the ideas to Benge, we finish them together and we say that’s it. There’s no um and ah, no A&R man coming down to the mix where we give him a dummy fader to push, which is what we used to do [laughs]!

As you mentioned, it’s been 40 years since Happy Families released on London Records, how did re-singing with them come about?

My manager Steve and I were having a chat at the end of 2021, when I’d finished the tour to promote Comercial Break and I suppose Mindset as well. We had a discussion about whether instead of it coming out on my own label, Blanc Cheque Records, we should talk to London about the possibility of releasing it. We spoke to Cherry Red as well, they’re a lovely label and have been very supportive to Blancmange over the years; I initially signed to them for publishing years ago. We ended speaking to London and played them some of the demo and pre-mixed material and they liked it — surprisingly! What do you know, they liked it! They liked the old git’s music! So a deal was struck, obviously my manager sorted that out.

Blancmange - Reduced Voltage (Official Video)

Private View was mainly written in lockdown, but I read that you were conscious that you didn’t want it to be too tied to that time. How did you go about keeping in tune with that time while also keeping it timeless?

Well if I can start by saying, we came into lockdown just as I’d written Mindset, so though it wasn’t written during that period, it was released then, and weirdly some of the content of it felt fitting. It fitted in with the difficult times we were all having to go through. I suppose my escape in that period was that I found I could still be creative, I couldn’t go to the studios but nothing could stop me thinking. So I decided I’d use that and get some ideas down, ready for when I could go to Benge’s. They kept putting all those restrictions, so we did an expanded mindset remotely, sending each other files. Meanwhile, I’d done Nil By Mouth 3 and started 4 and 5, I’d done Waiting Room Vol. 1, and I was getting on with stuff. I’d spoken to friends who’d found it very hard to be creative, it was a terrifying period for everybody. Bloody worrying, we’ve got a government who’s bloody clueless half the time — more than half the time as far as I’m concerned, and now with what’s going on? Don’t bloody start me. Hellfire. What is it going to take for people to say, “Hold on, that’s enough now”? Govern! Sort us out, help us out! Christ.

Anyway, you can see I’m not a fan, you got that? Where were we, I ended up doing Commercial Break, which was very much an album written in lockdown, reflecting on the observations and feelings I was picking up. Stuff that I’d seen, heard, read, saw, been told, half-stories, full-stories, some lies. All mixed up. I came out with Commercial Break. So when I decided to start writing the next album, Private View, even though it was in lockdown, I was adamant it was going to look forward, beyond. We have no choice but to go forward, you can’t go back. A lot of people get nostalgic and try to hold on to things, but I’ve said before and I can’t remember who originally said it, but for me nostalgia is like history without the guilt. I love history, I read a lot of history, but you’ve got to be very careful because quite often it’s written with a bias. I needed to move forward, needed to know I could write something, lyrically and sonically, that was gonna push us. Me and Benge pushed this thing forward, and I didn’t want to repeat anything I’d done before.

There are times lyrically where I’ve looked a long way back to things that I can remember, stories and how those things stay with you. Experiences that I’m sure that other people would have had equally as profound that have stayed there. Once you’ve seen and heard something, you can’t un-see or un-hear it. I started thinking that I’m 64 now, what am I going to be doing in 20 years time? Will I be here in 20 years time? Am I gonna be here in a day’s time? I started looking at these kinds of things and it started to form the shape of what has become Private View. At the end of the day, John, I got a bit serious there. They’re only bloody songs. I’m gonna walk away from this chat and have a game of football tonight, that’s much more important, you know?

You’ve always worked with synths of course, but they do sound especially futuristic on this album, for example on the opening track ‘What’s Your Name’…

I’d done a version of that and sent it to David [Rhodes]. We’ve worked together since Happy Families, we’re mates, we’ve done marathons together, we’ve done marathon drinking sessions together. We know each other quite well. Some of the guitar playing he’s added to this, and on any album, is absolutely beautiful and I’m so pleased that I asked him to contribute to this. But lyrically, Blancmange goes through a bit of a dark door sometimes, you know? But also live, in the set, you’re gonna get ‘Don’t Tell Me’, then you might get ‘Take Me’, which is a very serious song about how a relationship endures and how a couple puts up with each other. The rough and the smooth are very much there.

But on that very first song, ‘What’s Your Name’, I remember in lockdown — this is as close as it gets to referencing lockdown — when people came to the door you had to get them to leave stuff outside, didn’t you? They knock on the door, we’ve got this mottled glass on the door, and people would be talking all muffled and I’d be talking back to them, so that’s where the line “Speak to me through mottled glass” came from. I like a bit of a laugh in my lyrics as well, even in the darkness of it all, I like a bit of wordplay. [laughs] Ya daft bastard!

Obviously Stephen couldn’t join this later chapter of Blancmange for health reasons, how engaged is he with the project, do you ever go to him for thoughts and ideas?

I play himself stuff when it’s done, and he’s always given a thumbs up. But not before it’s done. I sometimes talk about the stuff I’m doing, but I just get on with it. On the last Fader album, Quartz, the first track on there is called ‘Serpentine‘. That song is a description of a day I spent with Stephen years ago. We had a really beautiful day. He hadn’t been well, but he was up and at it and we’d decided we’d go for a swim — on a very cold day I remember. But we did it, it was just the two of us having a swim in Hyde Park. I sent it to him and I think he just said, “Ah, lovely”. Anyway.

Blancmange - Living On The Ceiling (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)

Obviously your albums in the 80s are quintessential art-pop/new wave, they capture that sound tied to that decade. It was the sound of that era, and one that got you quite popular, but it’s also in the past now, so I wonder how consciously you try and navigate that?

No, I would never do it intentionally. One, because of the technology we use, we’re using a lot of old synths and rhythm units, and then there’s me. There’s me in the equation, who’s been doing this for 40-odd years. We will sometimes say we’re using a 303, we’re using a LinnDrum because we want that sound. But it’s not like we’re trying to get it to sound like a song from 1982, or particularly a Blancmange song from 1982. That’s never gonna happen.

Well, looking forward then, what does the future hold for you? Are you already working on the next record or just looking towards the live shows?

Both actually. I’m working on the live show, speaking to the musicians. We’ve got Chris Pemberton coming out and Liam Hutton joining us on stage. I’ve got another project I’ve been doing with Liam, and we’ve got an album that’s finished as well, which is gonna come out next year. There’s another project I can’t really tell you much more about but I’m hoping that’ll be out next year too. There’s another Nil By Mouth in the pipeline, and there’ll be another Blancmange album, but probably not until 2024 with all this other stuff going on. Keeping busy, playing lots of football (very badly) and annoying the family.

Blancmange are on tour in October 2023, before returning with a major UK tour in summer 2024. Find tickets here