Following ‘Blanc Burn’ in 2011 and a 21st Century rework of their debut ‘Happy Families Too’ in 2013, BLANCMANGE are back with their fifth album ‘Semi Detached’.
A brilliant title, Neil Arthur’s tremendous wordplay does it again with a phrase that acts as both a commentary on English suburban aspirations and the fact that this new long player is Arthur’s first of new material recorded without his long time partner-in-crime Stephen Luscombe. Sadly Luscombe has been unable to work due to illness since BLANCMANGE went back on the road in 2011, but with Arthur’s notable dry Northern humour, he manages to put joy into despair with just those two words.
Filling in the void though is producer Adam Fuest along with guitarist and long-time collaborator David Rhodes whose other credits have included PETER GABRIEL, JAPAN, GRACE JONES and NEW ORDER. His whirring E-Bow is a particular highlight on the ‘Heroes’-esque ‘Useless’, but Neil Arthur’s own six-string textures make their presence felt on the sombre closer ‘Bloody Hell Fire’, concluding the bitter sweet journey that is ‘Semi Detached’.
In some ways, this is BLANCMANGE’s technolstalgic album and beginning with eight minute opener ‘The Fall’ which actually references Mark E Smith’s cult combo, ‘Semi Detached’ is Neil Arthur’s personal recollections as an art student set to a midlife narrative. The first single ‘Paddington’ features some of the Middle Eastern aesthetics that BLANCMANGE became known in the mainstream for with hits like ‘Living On The Ceiling’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me, but the raw backing and Neil Arthur’s endearing drawl keep things very English and minimally contemporary.
As the first act in the history of The Electricity Club to be interviewed for a fourth occasion, Neil Arthur kindly chatted to TEC about BLANCMANGE’s latest opus…
It could be… but there’s an ambiguity in there like in much of the lyrics so they can be taken in more than one way and that goes for the title. It can mean many things and of course, that definitely crossed my mind. Since we finished ‘Blanc Burn’ in 2010, Stephen hasn’t worked with BLANCMANGE and you haven’t seen him live, but the project goes on with his blessing. Sadly, he’s not well enough to work. So musically, I’ve driven it forward the last 4+ years and ‘Semi Detached’ is me writing and recording it.
Looking back, was reworking ‘Happy Families Too’ a busman’s holiday to prepare you for ‘Semi Detached’?
It took a bit of rearranging but I didn’t have to do any writing *laughs*
‘Happy Families Too’ and ‘Semi Detached’ were very different animals. Interpretation is a very different thing so what I did do was go into the minutiae. That was a strange journey going back to ‘Happy Families’ in such depth and understand what it came from beyond the embryonic memories of what happened 30 years ago. It was actually analyzing data. When I was programming the very early stages of the new versions, it unlocked a few memories that I completely forgot about.
When you come to writing a new album, you don’t have that. But you take on board the experience and one of the things was the technicalities… I always try and learn something from doing any project whether it’s film or doing a new album so that I can learn and say “I won’t make that mistake again”. I’m not a trained musician so you’re kind of cobbling it together… and you think you’re gonna get found out! *laughs*
On the subject of looking back, I remember you saying to me in 2012 that you weren’t interested in doing nostalgia events like Rewind, but you relented and played it in 2013. Why was that?
There’s two answers here; one is, and I’ll basically be honest, I was offered a fee… like everybody else, I have to earn a living and there’s certain things you will do and things you won’t. An offer came in and I knew I was in the process of putting together ‘Happy Families Too’. And in that process, I also did a load of other stuff as well, like things with ‘Blind Vision’ that may not actually ever come out. It made sense to take it a little bit further to understand some of the things we’d done in the past. One of the great things about that is I was creating a lot of sounds for us to be able to manipulate live. When we were offered Rewind, it fitted in perfectly. We’ve been offered things like that since, and I’ve decided not to do them because I want to concentrate on ‘Semi Detached’ and the future of that.
How was the various collaborative processes this time compared with ‘Happy Families Too’ and previous albums?
With ‘The Fall’, that started off as an instrumental groove that Graham Henderson, who’s played live keyboards with BLANCMANGE, had. Then I had another song from a project called AWP1 which Pandit Dinesh played in sometimes. I was listening to this other track called ‘Sequence’ and I had these lyrics and it took me on a journey… I don’t sit around with notebooks waiting for something to come, it tends to mull around in my head and then it just ends up being there. 70-80% will just come out! I wrote these things down and then with these two songs, which are very different songs, I decided to play one on top of the other to see what happened and it just sounded nice. So that’s a kind of collaborative thing!
‘Useless’ is brilliant, it’s quite ENO circa ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ meets LCD SOUNDSYSTEM. Is it about anyone in particular?
Well, yes and no! It’s about anyone who thinks they might be Useless… I take it as a compliment about ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’, it’s one of my favourite albums and I really do like LCD SOUNDSYSTEM. This song is about that whole idea that we’re all flawed and you’re “useless as you are”… there are just times when you think “f*cking hell, I couldn’t organise a p*ss up in a brewery” or that whole thing about confidence. Whatever they think is their failing, irrespective of that and with it, “useless as you are, everybody loves you”… I thought that line just deserved to be in a song. Once I got those lyrics together, I had this trip down memory lane in terms of melodies and cheap synth sounds, and put them all together, cliché upon cliché really. And then I thought, how can I make it slightly odd without anyone noticing, so I took a bar out of the song… if you listening to it, instead of being four or eight, quite often it’s three and seven, just to be awkward! *laughs*
How did ‘Paddington’ come about?
I don’t live in London anymore, much as I love it. I spent 34 years of my life in the city, it’s a part of me. No disrespect to Paddington, but it’s not the prettiest place to disembark into… I love the station but do you know what I mean? But what I absolutely loved when I came in that way was how people bumped into you, everybody is going about their business and you’re anonymous. I’m not joking about this, but I have kissed the ground at Paddington because I love London so much. So many memories and there’s so much future there and I enjoy aspects of it.
It conjured up this idea of this journey of tiny snippets, like looking at a cutting room floor for bits of memories… I just patched all those bits together, turned it round and played with words. For example, “tank top, bus stop”, it was just good fun and fitting them into an electronic groove. Quite a bit of it is ad-libbed but then weirdly, I’ve just had to write it all down which is interesting. That made me look at things like ‘Feel Me’, ‘Blind Vision’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’, they’re all ad-libbed… then you’ve got to try and remember the words! Quite often, the fans know the words better than me! But it’s my prerogative, I wrote them so I’m entitled to ad-lib it again! *laughs*
I decided to use a different sequencer, I’d been using Logic for years and I wanted to use a different digital audio workstation. I used Ableton for ‘Paddington’, then transferred it across to Logic and it ended up in Nuendo! A lot of the songs, I took to Adam who has a studio up in Wales to mix it. We’ve worked together since my solo album ‘Suitcase’ and he comes out on tour with us controlling the sequencers on stage.
You have David Rhodes again working with you on ‘Semi Detached’?
Yes, but on ‘Bloody Hell Fire’, Adam and David voted for my guitar to stay from the demo… they rib me about my guitar playing and say “we wouldn’t have it sounding like that”; but that’s why it works because I’ve gone for the tinnier sound. It wasn’t intentional, it only fitted there. It’s a crappy sounding guitar but they feel it works. Why bother with six if two will do!? I think what influenced my playing initially was punk, YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS and T-REX, they used to have fantastic sounds but quite minimal at times. But I talk a lot more than I play! *laughs*
I’m collaborating with myself mainly, battling my way through programming synths up and taking it to Adam’s and doing the lead vocals. One big contrast with ‘Blanc Burn’ is I decided I would have a number of backing vocals on.
On ‘Happy Families Too’, I had post-it notes around and one of the things was “minimal – stripped back” to remind me it didn’t have to be over produced. I kept that in mind when I was doing ‘Semi Detached’. One of the things about having more space was to have fun with some backing vocals. There are lots of backing vocals, my family did backing vocals, my daughter sang on it, one of my son’s mates came and sang on it. And then I got the neighbours in and some other friends on ‘I Want More’! I think everyone and the dog’s on that one!
What inspired you to cover CAN’s ‘I Want More’?
The work was done for me but I’ve always enjoyed CAN. I first did a demo of that with David McClymont and Malcolm Ross from ORANGE JUICE back in 1987-88 when we were working on a project post-BLANCMANGE with Dennis Bovell. We went to a studio down the Old Kent Road and that was one of the tracks we did. Funnily enough, we approached CAN to produce our second album, so it could have been even more of a story but we ended up working with John Luongo and Peter Collins.
You’re back doing instrumentals again with ‘MKS Lover’, what is that referring to and why did that not end up with a lyric?
It would never have had a lyric, it’s like ‘Sad Day’… but it isn’t like ‘Sad Day’ in sound. ‘MKS Lover’ was the working title and it was as simple as this; it was all done apart from the 808 rhythm unit on a Roland MKS80 which is a Super Jupiter, and not to be confused with a Jupiter 8.
Overall, you’ve kept the sound of ‘Semi Detached’ quite stripped back and raw with vintage drum machines. Was that deliberate?
Well, it’s all I’ve got! *roars of laughter*
I’ve still got my original 808 and that gets used… with a struggle on some of it, I ended up using the MKS80 with the MPG80 programmer to replicate some of the percussive noises, plus there are some VSTs in there. I’m quite awkward, I put VSTs through amplifiers and god knows what to get I want. The thing for me is I tend to work with a limited palette, because if you’re confident enough to let the line breathe on its own, it doesn’t really matter what it is. I will use anything, I really would… there’s no kazoo on this one, but there was definitely kazoo on the album before! *laughs*
CHIC’s ‘I Want Your Love’ has also been covered and is on the deluxe 2CD edition. What’s that like?
I first did a version with AWP1, the band is basically two acoustic guitars with noises and percussion. We tried to play as little as possible to support the song. Our manifesto was “less is best”… I once fell asleep during one of our songs in rehearsal, I’m not joking!
I thought ‘I Want Your Love’ would lend itself to an electronic version and it is absolutely not a dance track, it is a ballad, stripped down… it’s a bit dirty and seedy actually, very sad and menacingly desperate. So it’s a tad darker than the CHIC version which I do love! *laughs*
What else makes up the bonus CD on the deluxe version of ‘Semi Detached’?
I had a pool of about 20 songs and it ended up with 16 being recorded. I didn’t want 2 covers on the final album so we split them. ‘I Want More’ ended up on the album and ‘I Want Your Love’ didn’t… very similar titles actually! There’s a couple of other songs ‘Silk Sea’ and ‘That Worm’ which we thought would be good to go on the deluxe 2CD, but a track called ‘Cactus’ that might come out in the future, I didn’t put on at all. And then we added alternative mixes including a very long version of ‘I Want More’ plus extended versions of ‘Paddington’, ‘Like I Do’ and ‘Useless’.
With the upcoming shows at Red Gallery, are you likely to extend it as a tour and have you decided what to play? Are you going to do all of ‘Semi Detached’?
I did a working setlist the other day and it starts with ‘Irene & Mavis’! So that’s because I did it in chronological order. The shows are obviously to launch ‘Semi Detached’ so there will be a number of songs from it… so you might get to hear ‘Useless’ and join in on the chorus! My dream is for that to become a football terrace anthem: “EVERYBODY LOVES YOU! USELESS AS YOU ARE!” *laughs*
I think people will be disappointed if we they didn’t get something from what we did in the 80s, and maybe we’ll have some things that haven’t had an airing for a while. I think I’ve put ‘Murder’ and ‘See The Train’ on the list… maybe we’ll do ‘Blind Vision’ and ‘Feel Me’ if someone twists my arm! My manager Steve says “if you don’t do ‘Living On The Ceiling’, you might have a problem!” so we’ll probably have to do that!
‘Living On The Ceiling’ has almost turned into a terrace chant live now…
…it’s a singalong, I can almost just leave it up to the audience. And ‘Starf*cker’ might get an outing. I wasn’t originally thinking about taking ‘Semi Detached’ out on tour, but it may well happen because it’s being discussed. I wanted to do something very different which is why the Red Gallery shows happened. I wanted to do something special and not just do the conventional tour. But we may be able to find the right venues for people to be able to come and see it further afield, we’ll wait and see. For now it’s just those two shows I’m concentrating on.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to NEIL ARTHUR
Additional thanks to Steve Malins at Random PR
‘Semi Detached’ is released by Cherry Red Records on 23rd March 2015 in CD, limited edition deluxe 2CD, vinyl LP and digital download formats. Pre-order at http://blancmange.tmstor.es/
BLANCMANGE will be appearing at The Red Gallery, 1-3 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3DT on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th May 2015. Support on both nights will be provided by BERNHOLZ
Text by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Hana Knizova
11th March 2015