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Painting, Punk and Powdered Potato

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Entering the scene in the early 80s, English synth-pop band Blancmange return with a new album, Mindset, which will be the third album co-written and produced by Benge and Neil Arthur. We spoke to Neil upon the completion of this album, to discuss where Blancmange started and the influences that the group had. From using cutlery as drumsticks and pots and pans as drums, we learnt a little bit about how their creative process has, and hasn’t, changed.

Is recording a more enjoyable experience now than it was 30 or 40 years ago?

I did enjoy it then, but technology has moved on and there are now things that have been made slightly easier. For example, I haven’t made a tape loop for a long time. When I started making electronic music in the 70s, we would have been trying to get two instruments to sync together – like a rhythm unit with a synthesiser – and you could spend most of the day trying to get that going. Having said that, we quite often revert back to some of the old stuff because some of the equipment we use is from the 70s and there’s no way round that. I feel really lucky to have been making music for all these years. Benge and I were saying when we were finishing the album that it’s just like playing! We know it’s work, but we just really enjoy it and as long as I feel like that, I’ll carry on doing it.

The genre of music Blancmange adopted is quite niche, where did your influences come from?

We were non-musicians and we wanted to find a way of expressing ourselves. I was at art college when punk music came on the scene and there was the very sudden and influential explosion. It wasn’t necessarily the sounds of punk which drove us, it was what came after. For me, punk came along and said, anybody can make music; you don’t have to have a cape and 24 keyboards and be a trained musician doing solos that lasted three days – you can express yourself as we did, by making experimental noises. We had no intention of becoming a synth-pop band. That was just an opportunity that came our way years later and we ran with it for a short period of time. We were interested in so many different things, Stephen and I shared a real love of Captain Beefheart, we both like Frank Zappa and Here Come the Warm Jets was a massive influence on us both. I would go to see bands like This Heat, Echo and the Bunnymen, Clock DVA, Joy Division, The Tiller Boys and Young Marble Giants – who were massive influences on Blancmange – and I used to think, ‘Well if we start structuring these sounds that we’ve made into very simple songs, we can just see what happens.’ I tried it and I came up with the embryonic versions of ‘Waves’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, and ‘I’ve Seen the Word’ and I took these ideas and played them to Stephen, and he added a lot to that as well. 

You used to use utensils and different instruments to create music, what was the oddest one you used?

Well, Tupperware became the norm for us actually. We wanted to make a noise, but we didn’t have a drum kit and we didn’t have a rhythm unit. Somebody lent us a good tape machine and we had a very nice microphone and so we thought, ‘let’s set about making some noise with it.’ There seemed to be more things in the kitchen that you could hit than there were in any other room, so we found things from the cutlery draw to use as the drumsticks. There used to be a pot called ‘Smash’ and it was a type of powdered potato – it was awful stuff, but you added water to this powder and it became mashed potato. We used to put things across the top of the tin, hit that with little brushes and things and that would be our snare. We would put it through a distortion peddle and stuff like that. Benge and I still hit the most ridiculous things if we have to; we use anything and I still use a very rudimentary distortion peddle on my guitar which I love playing on the album, so anything goes!

Did you always want to go into music?

No, I wanted to be a painter. At a very young age before I even knew art school existed, I wanted to do art. My dad worked in a textile factory where they made carpets and he took me to their design studio and there were these massive drawing tables with huge pieces of graph paper. They’d have this massive grid and would just fill them in and make designs and patterns. That was my dad trying to help me, being like, ‘He’s probably not going to make it on the shop floor, this lad, but he might be able to help out doing a bit of drawing.’

Were teachers encouraging of the art dream?

Oh yes, because I was bloody hopeless at everything else! When I got to art college –particularly once I’d done my foundation course in London – I suddenly started meeting kindred spirits like Stephen, who wasn’t actually at the art college but had friends there. That’s when I started realising that it doesn’t actually matter, all the rules are there to be broken. It was just so exciting to feel that liberation. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you can’t play very well, if you’ve got an idea and you can articulate it, that is enough. I’m dyslexic so it’s an awful thing because you’ve got this idea in your head and you think, ‘Oh god I better not write it down.’ It was my partner – who I’m still with now – who said, ‘you shouldn’t worry that the spelling is wrong, it’s the idea.’ She helped me start to believe in the lyrics as well as the music.

Could you tell me about the time you met Madonna?

We were working in New York recording ‘Blind Vision’, so that would be 1983. Jelly Bean was in one of the studios and we were in another. I’d bought a Walkman that you could record with, so I was outside recording the noise of the lift and the lift came up, the doors opened, this girl comes out and she’s got this square bag on her shoulder. She said, ‘Do you know where Jelly Bean is?’ and I said, ‘Oh he’s in there’, and then about ten minutes later she comes out and says bye. I went back in the studio and said, ‘What we having for lunch?’ and they said, ‘We don’t know, it’s a bit early isn’t it?’ I said, ‘They’ve just had pizza delivered.’ They said, ‘What do you mean they’ve had pizza delivered?’ I said, ‘Well this girl’s just been in taken them pizza’ and they said, ‘That’s not pizza delivery, that was Madonna!’ I said, ‘Oh, what’s she got on her shoulder then?’ and they said, ‘That’s how she carries her 12 inch records!’ 

If Madonna isn’t joining you on this tour, who is?

Well, Oogoo Maia will be playing synthesisers, vocoder and singing. Oogoo has been involved with Blancmange for many years and has been on many tours with us now. He’s a good mate and I’m looking forward to him coming back on tour with us. Liam Hutton will be playing electronic drums and percussion so there’ll be three of us on stage including myself and I’m really looking forward to it. On the first dates which come in May, we will be supported by Oblong so that’ll mean Benge will be on tour as well so Benge and I will no doubt have a bit of a laugh together which will be good. Then of course we’re out again for a longer stint in September and October which we’re really looking forward to. I don’t enjoy the travelling, but I really do enjoy the gigs. Each one has its something to deal with – whether positive or negative – but I get to have a good chat with people afterwards and sign the merch and stuff like that so, it’s good. It’s a really nice thing to do and I get some great ideas for the next album

Do you think Stephen will join you again someday?

It’s not going to happen unfortunately; Stephen’s health will prevent that so no. I speak to Stephen a lot and we exchange very funny emails – well, his emails are very funny, mine aren’t. Many years ago, he gave me a kick up the arse and said, ‘Get on with it, you want to do it’, so I am. 

For more details on tour dates and album release details, visit blancmange.co.uk

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