One of the great scene debates runs as follows… what’s better? The John Foxx or Midge Ure era incarnations of ULTRAVOX? This is as idiotic as the Fish versus Steve Hogarth debates that rage (and they do rage) amongst MARILLION fans or the similar GENESIS camps that exist around lead singers.
It’s akin to comparing apples to oranges and without the front man leaving these bands, we would have been denied spectacular bodies of work and long careers from all concerned which would potentially have been cut shorter. And yes I include Phil Collins in this, bite me…
There is however a “what might have been?” surrounding John Foxx and ULTRAVOX, with or without the exclamation mark. Had he stayed with the band beyond ‘Systems of Romance’, what would it have sounded like? A continuation of the ‘Systems’ sound or something more like the imperious ‘Metamatic’? With the release of ‘Howl’, the fifth album under the guise of JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS, we get an idea of what could have been.
The big news is that Foxx and his Maths collaborators Benge and Hannah Peel are joined by former ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon. Simon appeared with The Maths at the Roundhouse in 2010 so this has been a while coming and it arrives in snarling upfront style with the opener ‘My Ghost’, with its stripped down punky intro morphing into a familiar Foxx effected vocal performance, all underpinned by an insistent rhythm track. On the playout, we get swooping synths under a simple but effective guitar solo.
One of the key contributions Simon brings to the table is what Foxx terms as “Demolition Intercision” and this is shown to its fullest on the title track ‘Howl’.
Recorded in one take which left everyone “standing on their chairs”, the tortured, swooping playing harks back to the songs like ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Dislocation’ in the way it interplays with the synths and Foxx’s voice.
“Born in the middle of a storm” sings Foxx and this is appropriate as his guitarist whips up a hurricane of noise which at all times remains musical. Hannah Peel is given room to shine on the next track, ‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’, a psychedelic electronic number that appears owes a more than a little to a certain BEATLES song. Given current events, the message of this track is all the more prescient. “we have to choose between the clowns and the fools…” bemoans the lyrics… quite…
‘Tarzan & Jane Regained’ (a contender for title of the year) and ‘The Dance’ tread familiar sonic territory for the Maths which is not to say they are not good songs, in fact ‘The Dance’ is in places a beautiful shimmering piece of electronica.
‘New York Times’ doesn’t outstay its welcome and features some great drum programming. As stated above these are not bad songs, it’s just these three central tracks are bookended by the sonically more interesting ‘stuff’. ‘Last Time I Saw You’ reintroduces Simon’s more upfront guitar work. In the press release, Foxx compares it to violence and it can be at times shocking but also “…a true delight”.
On this and the opening cuts, the almost visceral at times fretwork married to the electronics is not what one would expect from a band leader that is in his five decade as a performer.
This is however the key to John Foxx, he always does the unexpected and doesn’t allow himself to be pigeonholed. As happy to release an ambient work as he is a straightforward ‘pop’ album or indeed to walk away from music altogether, he really is someone that deserves wider recognition. That said, one feels the artist himself would be uncomfortable with that.
Keeping the best to last, closer ‘Strange Beauty’ is possibly the best thing JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS have ever done, an electronic ballad that puts the plodding attempts at similar by bigger bands to shame. Benge’s production on this really does merit his bandmate’s claim that he is this generation’s Conny Plank.
Across this release there is a musicality to the production that is missing from many modern electronic works. The shear fury in places of Robin Simon’s playing could have just been noise at the hands of a lesser, knowing producer but here it is given room to shine. As a closer, this track more than any other points towards that might have been.
Once again John Foxx has shown how to remain relevant in these modern times.
The Electricity Club has never hidden its love of the man’s prodigious body of work and ‘Howl’ reinforces that further. At a time when Moog are handing out ‘Innovator’ awards to artists as a purely marketing tool, we should be thankful that performers like John Foxx continue to push their own boundaries instead of playing it safe. I can’t wait to hear what he does next.
‘Mindset’ is the ninth full length BLANCMANGE long player of new material since their return in 2011 with ‘Blanc Burn’.
It is also the third BLANCMANGE album to be released in 2020 after the ‘Nil By Mouth 2’ instrumental collection and the ‘Waiting Room (Volume 1)’ outtakes compendium. During their initial London Records period, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe only released their albums between 1982 to 1985. With Neil Arthur continuing to fly the BLANCMANGE flag, who have thought there would have been triple that number in less than ten years?
As with recent albums, it is co-produced by Benge and Neil Arthur continues to give his morose take on the world although he maintains “It’s not all bad, but I’m observing stuff and looking for other worlds at the same time we’re living in this one, several things at once and questioning how people react with others, how they’re feeling about themselves and how that impacts on other people.”
Beginning with staccato piano and layers of guitar, the ‘Mindset’ title song offers a Velvets pounding that could also be seen as a NEU! influence with an art rock edge; “So much for giving, so much for taking…” our hero ponders while looking for the truth, but could he also be sardonically quipping “so much forgiving…”?
With the deeply sombre scene set, Neil Arthur’s delivery is anything but a ‘Warm Reception’, although this is all countered by the enjoyable cutting sharpness of the synths which add to a most excellent electronic track. With spacey sweeps, ‘This Is Bliss’ continues the tread as a close relative to ‘Warm Reception’, but a variety of percolating patterns and a deeper trance bass resonance are apparent with a repeated ranting chorus.
The superbly titled ‘Antisocial Media’ references to “Orwellian Thought Police” and captures more of Arthur’s dismay with fantastically primitive synths recalling the early Fast version of ‘Being Boiled’
‘Clean Your House’ is also very synthy with a bubbling bassline and gated pulses, lyrically reflecting on events of recent times but could easily able to applied to more personal relationships with the necessity for the occasional life laundry.
The ‘Mindset’ is played with further on ‘Insomniacs Tonight’, as a “tunnel train of thought” with “long rails on trails” is accompanied by a big rigid beat.
The midtempo minimal synthpop of ‘Sleep With Mannequin’ echoes THE HUMAN LEAGUE in their poppier phase with clean digital drums and analogue passages, but a marvellous concoction reveals itself as KRAFTWERK meets FAITHLESS on the mutant electronic disco of ‘Diagram’ with Arthur repeating like a preacher on how “I want transparency” in his sharp Northern lilt.
‘Not Really (Virtual Reality)’ vents with a rockier musical aggression and pounding drums but closing proceedings, the downcast ‘When’ calls for the truth among the screaming and shouting. As the chorus goes “When is anything about what it’s about?”, there’s the sound of a two note panic alarm recurring to symbolise a state of panic and anxiety.
Neil Arthur’s grim but humourous take on the world continues, but with a lot of choruses and more structure on ‘Mindset’, there are potentially some singalong elements which could rouse audiences at future live shows alongside ‘Living On The Ceiling’ and ‘Blind Vision’.
Strange but accessible pop music for our strange times, Neil Arthur’s dark ‘Mindset’ is only reflecting what many are thinking and it will be on that level which will connect people with this album.
‘Howl’ is the fifth studio album from JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS and sees the former ULTRAVOX! front man reuniting with his ‘Systems Of Romance’ guitarist Robin Simon.
Also featuring Chief Mathematician Benge along with live band member and regular collaborator Hannah Peel, ‘Howl’ does as its title suggests.
Presenting eight tracks of fierce art rock, it sees guitars as very much part of the scenery in partnership with the electronics. Recorded at Benge’s MemeTune studios in Cornwall , ‘Howl’ is the first JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS album since the instrumental score for a theatre production of EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, released as ‘The Machine’ in 2017.
Before that, there was an extremely prolific period which saw three albums ‘Interplay’, The Shape Of Things’ and ‘Evidence’ issued between 2011-2013. And this was without Foxx’s other ambient and soundtrack outings.
The Electricity Club caught up with John Foxx for a chat about the genesis of ‘Howl’ and drawing on artistic parallels from working with Conny Plank back in 1978 for ‘Systems Of Romance’…
After the prolific release schedule of 2011-2017, you’ve kept a low profile over the last few years, what have you been doing to keep you busy?
There’s always loads to do -Writing lots of songs and throwing them away. Editing ‘The Quiet Man’ book and digging stuff out of notebooks. Learning to play primitive guitar again. Remembering who I am and for what. Enjoying other people’s gigs. Relishing out-of-control feedback and the sheer joy of being inhabited by very loud, bone-shattering music.
Photo by Ed Fielding
One of the high profile tracks towards the end of that period was ‘Talk (Are You Listening To Me?)’ with Gary Numan in 2016, how did it all come together?
Well, Gary and I had been mentioning we ought to do something together – for about thirty years, but never got around to it. Then Steve (my manager and a friend of Gary) was in LA with him and played the Maths version of ‘Talk’. Gary liked it, Benge got in touch and they began to swap recordings. We mixed a version, and that was it. About time.
Your most recent five album releases have been ambient or instrumental soundtracks, so what inspired you to start working on songs again with ‘Howl’?
Decided to have a listen to everything I’d made – which is something I’ve never actually done before. Bit of a shock. Felt there were a couple of important things I hadn’t properly got to.
One was recording with proper violence and growl. What Lois and I used to call ‘Radge’. I also wanted to get to the sort of cruel glam I really liked – nothing pretty, but a dark, writhing glamour that The Velvets or Iggy touched on – a sort of torn sequins and shades thing. A bit damaged and very urban.
At the same time, I realised I’d not done another of the things I most wanted to – which is work with Robin Simon properly again. Rob came out of that glam into Punk thing as well – and he can play the most violent guitar you’ve ever heard – so the time was absolutely right.
In terms of writing and demos, had these songs been conceived with guitars in mind from the off?
Lyrically, what was moving you with these ‘Howl’ songs?
Well there’s plenty to howl about at the moment. We’re all living in particularly fast-moving and downright weird times. ‘The Dance’, ‘Howl’, ‘Last Time I Saw You’, ‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’, in fact all the songs, are kicked off by that.
Robin Simon performed with you at The Roundhouse and Troxy gigs in 2010-2011, so it has taken a few years for you both to work together on this record, you rate him highly don’t you?
He’s the best guitarist ever. Doesn’t play clichés, invented modern guitar – everyone imagines guitars always sounded like they do today but they certainly didn’t before Rob.
In my book, there are four top guitarists – Rob Simon first, along with John McGeoch, Steve Jones, and Fripp. Rob combined the ferocity of Punk with overdriven synths and he was the first to work in that way, using effects as an integral part of the sound. Fripp did some marvellous things later with Bowie. McGeoch worked with MAGAZINE and created their sound, then I met up with him in my studio when he, then Robert, were working with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. Steve Jones did the most massive blazing chop and drone ever recorded. All these guys have completely unique properties
But for me, Rob combines all of that with the kind of finesse and bite that Mick Ronson had. It’s a broad spectrum, but one thing Rob never loses sight of is the basic animal aggression- and I love that. Agility and power. Marvellous.
Is ‘Howl’ sonically a record perhaps you’ve been itching to make since you left Cologne in 1978 after recording ‘Systems Of Romance’?
Oh yes – exactly. But I needed to exorcise a few things first – KRAFTWERK, for one.
You’d worked with Robin since that time on ‘The Garden’, ‘The Golden Section’ and ‘In Mysterious Ways’ but on ‘Howl’, you’ve given him more of a free hand, are you working like you did when you were both in ULTRAVOX!?
Absolutely. A few things have changed though – we don’t rehearse live all together, and I do miss that – We might correct that next time. It gives certain feel to the songs that I like.
Sometimes Rob will give you three or four versions of a song each time he plays it. All good – and mostly better than you imagine. Sometimes so radical you catch your breath.
The thing is to try to absorb what he’s doing quickly enough to work with it. It’s the catching lightning in a bottle thing. You also have to get out of the way sometimes and concentrate on simply catching the take. You learn to live in the moment and the whole process becomes organic and alive – it’s real life actually happening.
You’ve often likened Benge to Conny Plank, so was there any moments of déjà vu when you, Robin and him were together in his countryside studio in Cornwall?
Many times – in fact most of the time. Surprises you in the same way. Never off balance. Always totally competent, but completely unpretentious. Always out for sonic adventure. He even looks like Conny – especially when he’s thinking. Same sort of mannerisms. I swear there’s a stray gene knocking about.
It’s a fantastic piece of luck to come across two guys like that in a single lifetime.
The manner of the guitar driven start on ‘My Ghost’ will be something of a surprise to some?
I do hope so.
While the album has a distinct guitar focus, the synths have not disappeared, like on the title song which has a screeching first two thirds but a more electronic final section; it’s a monster in a scary kind of way, what was on your mind when you conceived that one?
We were simply reacting to what Rob delivered. We’d all found a sound that seemed alive, so of course Rob was straight in there wrestling with it. Luckily Benge recorded all that immediately. It was a single take. Rob played it all over another song – Completely demolished it, so I had to write another around what he’d delivered.
I’d also been thinking about the Allen Ginsberg poem ‘Howl’ and what Rob did fitted. A sort of telepathic coincidence, because I hadn’t mentioned that at all. The song isn’t about the same thing, though.
The track is very reminiscent of that ‘Systems Of Romance’ period…
I’d been pondering how to revisit and update a few impressive things from the past, but in a completely modern context, and here it all was.
Hannah’s busy conspiring too, with her wipeout feedback – especially at the end, and Benge did that great squelch synth to break into the end section – plus some nice and mucky but spare bass and drums, to give everyone enough space.
In short – a series of accidents and coincidences that delivered something alive into the room. That’s how recording should be. Couldn’t sleep properly for days after.
So Hannah Peel is there with her violin on the ‘Howl’ album, evoking even more parallels with ‘Systems Of Romance’?
Always liked what an amped up violin or viola can do. I need chaos. Cale was always an inspiration in the Velvets – it’s another living beast to wrestle with, and Hannah loves to let it howl too. She’s absolutely full spectrum, is Hannah – conducts an orchestra and equally capable of conducting total demolition via feedback and distortion levels that can wreck a sound system. Remains calm throughout.
‘Everything Is Happening At The Same Time’ and ‘New York Times’ both have something of a Metadelic vibe about them?
That’s always there. A sort of punk psychedelia – it’s a cornerstone for me. Always emerges. Goes back to ‘When You Walk through Me’ from 1978, then into ‘No One Driving’ and so on.
Can’t ever forget Rob first playing ‘When You Walk Through Me,’ when I brought it in to rehearsals. He understood it instantly and completely. Fantastic playing. Especially that and ‘Maximum Acceleration’. Totally bloody Marvellous!
‘Tarzan & Jane Regained’ comes over a bit like U2 covering ‘Quiet Men’ with all that echo-locked harmonic guitar?
Well, although I like some of the things they’ve done in the past, we’ve no wish to sound like them – U2 certainly pinched some of our early sound in the 1970s. Particularly Rob’s approach. Mind you, they weren’t alone. I think we were the most copped unit on the planet around ’78-79.
In ‘The Dance, there’s some echoes of ‘Goodbye Horses’ by Q LAZZARUS which was on the soundtrack of ‘Silence Of The Lambs’, any coincidence?
Completely. I’ve got no memory of that. I’ll check it out.
‘Last Time I Saw You’ art rocks like hell…
Great – Rob and Benge were saying recently that’s the starting point for the next album. I’m on the case.
Where did the gorgeous cinematic ballad ‘Strange Beauty’ emerge from? Is that a soaring ARP Odyssey solo or a violin?
It sort of descended all at once, one night, as the best things tend to. No memory at all of writing it. Simply played it to some exterior direction – and there it was. Had to check it wasn’t someone else’s tune.
The solo is Hannah integrating with synth as she does so perfectly. She did a lot of that on the record, as well as the wild stuff. Widens everything out somehow. After she’s worked on a track, it sounds twice as big, and you’re not sure how she did it. Benge also did massive things with the drums and more synths. Rob did his seemingly simple but essential structural work. Everyone really went for that one. It went tidal.
Is the prospect of JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS performing again as a group ever a possibility in the future?
We’re being offered USA and Mexico at the moment so I guess we’ve got to get down and review things asap, but it’s like knitting fog. Penalty of working with top people – Everyone’s suddenly off with their own career – Hannah in Ireland and increasingly global, there’s an international queue for Benge in Cornwall, Rob nipping between LA and Yorkshire.
We all want to do it, because it’s a real buzz blasting it out together, and Rob seems to have galvanised the whole thing – as he always does. But it’s got to be absolutely right for everyone to think of clearing the table.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to John Foxx
Special thanks to Steve Malins at Random Management
Developing on a childhood fascination with electronic sound, after finishing art school, Ben Edwards set up a music studio in London and began acquiring discarded vintage synthesizers to equip it.
Under his nickname of Benge, he released his debut album ‘Electro-Orgoustic Music’ in 1995 on his own Expanding Label.
But in 2011, he became best known for his role as Chief Mathematician and collaborative partner in JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS.
By this time, what had now become Benge’s MemeTune Studios was housing one of the largest collections of working vintage synthesizers in the world and was the location for several interviews filmed for the BBC documentary ‘Synth Britannia’.
Among the equipment were modular systems from Moog, Serge, E-Mu, Formant and Buchla, the ARP 2500 and 2600, digital systems like the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI, drum machines including the Linn LM1, Roland TR808 and CR78 as well as classic polyphonic keyboards such as the Yamaha CS80, Polymoog, Oberheim 4-Voice, ARP Omni and the less celebrated EMS Polysynthi.
As a collaborator, John Foxx said Benge was “Really good – Intelligent, knowledgeable, technically blinding. He does remind me of Conny Plank. Same generosity and ability, same civilized manner – even looks similar.”
Benge left London and relocated MemeTune Studios to Cornwall in 2015, but with artists savouring this more remote setting near some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery in England, he is now busier than ever as his recent production portfolio has shown.
So by way of a Beginner’s Guide to Benge, here are eighteen examples of his work, subject to a limit of one track per artist moniker or combination, presented in yearly and then alphabetical order. As his own blog says “It’s full of stars”!
TENNIS Weakness Together (2001)
Benge’s instrumental duo with Douglas Benford, TENNIS released their second album ‘Europe On Horseback’ just as dub electronica seemed to be all the rage. Scratchy and weirdly hypnotic with hidden hooks at over eight and a half minutes, the metallic percussive notions of ‘Weakness Together’ with its metronomic rhythms and solemn Cold War synths came together for a great highlight. A third long player ‘Furlines’ emerged in 2003 with ‘The Horseback Mixes’ as a bonus.
Noted for his experimental solo albums, Benge’s most acclaimed was 2008’s ‘Twenty Systems’. It was an insightful soundtrack exploring how electronic sound architecture has evolved from using transistors to integrated circuits and from ladder filters to Fourier approximation. With each track crafted from a singular instrument, Brian Eno described it as “A brilliant contribution to the archaeology of electronic music” while it was via this album that Benge came to the attention of John Foxx.
Legend has it that Serafina Steer’s union with Benge occurred when her harp was stolen and he made synths available to fill in for the intended harp parts. One of the more electronic tracks ‘How To Haunt A House Party’ added drum machine and the spacey accompaniment complimented the songstress’ quirky brand of kitchen sink introspection. ‘Change is Good, Change is Good’ got an endorsement from Jarvis Cocker, the PULP front man declaring it one of his favourite albums of the year.
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Watching A Building On Fire (2011)
Joining forces with Benge, John Foxx found the perfect creative foil to further his earlier analogue ambitions, only this time combined with a warmth that had not been apparent on ‘Metamatic’ or his work with Louis Gordon. The best track on their debut album ‘Interplay’ was a co-written duet with Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON entitled ‘Watching A Building On Fire’. With its chattering drum machine and accessible Trans- European melodies, it was an obvious spiritual successor to ‘Burning Car’.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS album ‘Interplay’ via Metamatic Records
The first band that the young Ben Edwards ever saw live was OMD, thanks to them opening for Gary Numan in 1979. He presented a suitably harsh remix to suit the harrowing lyrical tone of ‘Dresden’. But Andy McCluskey of OMD said: “‘Dresden’ is a whopping great, unsubtle metaphor… it’s not about the bombing of Dresden in the same way as ‘Enola Gay’ was about the aeroplane that dropped the atom bomb.”
The moniker of Elizabeth Bernholz, the secomd GAZELLE TWIN second album ‘Unflesh’ with additional production and mixing by Benge, allowed the Brighton-based songstress to extract her demons with some artistic violence. One of the highlights ‘Exorcise’ was an impressively aggressive cross between PINK FLOYD’s ‘One The Run’ and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Home Computer’. Its uneasy resonance was aided by Bernholz’s harsh, deadpan commentary.
Available on the GAZELLE TWIN album ‘Unflesh’ via Anti-Ghost Moon Ray
Hannah Peel joined JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS in 2011 and became one of the MemeTune family, eventually taking over the studio space when Benge relocated. At the time her most overtly electronic song yet, she teamed up with Benge for a haunting modern day seasonal hymn. With a suitably poignant message, ‘Find Peace’ was a Christmas song longing for the cold but merry winters of yesteryear under the modern day spectre of global warming, armed conflict and political tension.
Available on the HANNAH PEEL single ‘Find Peace’ via My Own Pleasure
A trio featuring Benge, Stephen Mallinder ex-CABARET VOLTAIRE and of TUNNG’s Phill Winter, the WRANGLER manifesto was to harness “lost technology to make new themes for the modern world”. ‘Lava Land’ saw Mallinder’s voice manipulations ranging from demonic gargoyle to stern drowning robot. The frantic pace was strangely danceable but the twisted mood was distinctly unsettling and dystopian, especially when the screeching steam powered Logan string machine kicked in.
Available on the WRANGLER album ‘LA Spark’ via by Memetune Recordings
GHOST HARMONIC omprisedof John Foxx and Benge alongside violinist Diana Yukawa. ‘Codex’ evolved over the space of a couple of years. Foxx said: “the underlying intention was we all wanted to see what might happen when a classically trained musician engaged with some of the possibilities a modern recording studio can offer…” The result was a startling dynamic between Yukawa’s heavily treated violin and the looming electronics. Closing the album, the title track was a string and synth opus of soothing bliss.
Available on the GHOST HARMONIC ‘Codex’ via Metamatic Records
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS featuring GARY NUMAN Talk (2016)
‘Talk’ has been used by John Foxx to explore different approaches from a singular idea with other kindred spirits such as Tara Busch and Matthew Dear. ‘Talk (Are You Listening To Me?)’ finally saw Gary Numan working on a track with his long-time hero who he had admired since the ULTRAVOX! days. His take naturally screamed alienation and fully exploited his haunting classic synth overtures, thanks to Benge’s use of a Polymoog and his effective application of its swooping ribbon controller.
While BLANCMANGE’s ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ was the first time Benge and Neil Arthur worked together, their FADER duo project saw the former instigating the music as opposed to working on already written songs. Working on their parts separately, Neil Arthur said “In FADER, Benge will send me the embryonic musical idea and I’m reacting to what he’s given me” ;‘3D Carpets’ captured an independent post-punk intensity, like JOY DIVISION or THE CURE but realised with electronics rather than guitars.
“Benge and I had always wanted to write together, so we took the opportunity to do so here, by expanding on the ‘Zombies 1985’ world.” said Tara Busch of how he became involved in the soundtrack of I SPEAK MACHINE’s short film about greed and self-obsession in Thatcher’s Britain as a businessman drives home, oblivious to a zombie apocalypse going on around him. The brilliant ‘Shame’ was a wonderful hybrid of THROBBING GRISTLE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and GOLDFRAPP.
LONE TAXIDERMIST is the vehicle of Cumbrian lass Natalie Sharp, a performance artist who believes “Your body is a sensory device”. With Phill Winter of TUNNG and WRANGLER among the collaborators, Benge acted as co-producer and released the album himself. The debut album’s opening song ‘Home’ made Sharp’s avant pop intentions clear with a catchy throbbing outline and a wonderfully wayward vocal style crossing Grace Jones with Ari Up.
Available on the LONE TAXIDERMIST album ‘Trifle’ via MemeTune Recordings
Working with Benge again on what was effectively their third album together, Neil Arthur has undoubtedly found comfort in their partnership. ‘Wanderlust’ was possibly BLANCMANGE’s best body of work in its 21st Century incarnation and from it, ‘In Your Room’ was a great slice of vintage robopop, with a vocoder aesthetic and an assortment of manipulated sounds at a reasonably uptempo pace. “Lyrically it was about being content with something quite simple” added Arthur.
Available on the BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ via Blanc Check Records
With eclectic US singer / songwriter John Grant joining forces with the WRANGLER boys Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phill Winter at MemeTune Studios, CREEP SHOW was something of an electronic meeting of minds. On the resultant album ‘Safe & Sound’, the quartet explored a spacious KRAFTWERK vs Moroder hybrid using dark analogue electronics, gradually revealing some wonderfully warm melodic synth textures to accompany Grant’s passionate lead croon.
Following the artistic success of the CREEP SHOW collaboration, it was only natural that Benge would step up to produce John Grant’s number four solo album ‘Love Is Magic’ to more allow the Icelandic-domiciled American to fully embrace his love of electronic music. Making use of a vintage synth brass line, the mutant crooner disco of ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ was driven by a delicious synthetic groove while not forgetting to include an uplifting chorus.
Lyrically inspired by the apparent emptiness of contemporary life, when British nu-folk queen Laura Marling teamed up with Mike Lindsay, co-founder of acid-folkies TUNNG and Benge’s one-time partner-in-crime, it called for something out-of-the-box and that came courtesy of Benge’s Moog Modulars. A hypnotic sequencer line provided the backbone to ‘Hand Hold Hero’ for a rather unusual slice of Sci-Fi Country ‘N’ Western that met ‘On the Run’ somewhere on the Virginia plains.
Available on the LUMP album ‘Lump’ via Dead Oceans
It only took 13 years to follow-up their debut record ‘Indicator’, but with the second OBLONG album ‘The Sea At Night’, the trio of Benge, Dave Nice and Sid Stronarch delivered a collection of rustic electro-acoustic organically farmed electronica! With mood and pace, ‘Echolocation’ was a classic synth instrumental with its crystalline textures and charming slightly off-key blips, aurally reflecting the remote moorland location in Cornwall where it was recorded.
As prolific as ever, Neil Arthur has a new BLANCMANGE album set for release in May 2020.
Entitled ‘Blancmange’, it will be the eighth full length long player of new material since 2011’s return with ‘Blanc Burn’. Despite their success, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe only released three albums during their original heyday which began in 1982 with the hit single ‘Living On The Ceiling’.
While BLANCMANGE are also known for their cover of ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’, Neil Arthur has also notably reinterpreted CAN and CHIC.
When Stephen Luscombe was unable to continue with BLANCMANGE due to illness after ‘Blanc Burn’, Neil Arthur continued alone, working on other projects such as NEAR FUTURE, FADER and KINCAID while driving his main vehicle in parallel.
In his tenth interview with The Electricity Club, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the site, Neil Arthur chatted about his mindset, his music and his motivations…
Does ‘Mindset’ have a concept?
It’s not a concept album. Lyrically with the title song, there’s a part that says “so much for giving, so much for taking…” – it has two meanings, there’s looking for truth, so I’m saying “so much for giving” but that could also be “so much forgiving…”, I felt that set the tone.
I’m on a bit of a journey where I’m looking for truth, where you think about the mass of information and misinformation that’s around, and somehow we’ve all got to make some sense of it. Even if we don’t choose, we’re filtering things all the time, this “what’s going on here?”.
This isn’t just in a virtual reality world, it can be applied to the way people end up being acting themselves or socialising. It’s not all bad, but I’m observing stuff and looking for other worlds at the same time we’re living in this one, several things at once and questioning how people react with others, how they’re feeling about themselves and how that impacts on other people.
Has politics affected you?
Right back to ‘Happy Familes’! Listen to the link between ‘Wasted’ and ‘Living On The Ceiling’! *laughs*
Back then, we were writing pop songs but I haven’t changed my tact on that in a way, but I’m not really writing singles now for a record label.
But of course the politics and recent events have affected me sonically as well as lyrically. I’m an artist and I observe what’s going on around me, for better or for worse, I reflect that.
But I don’t have a soapbox to stand on or find it particularly easy, but this is the way I get my thoughts out. There’s ambiguity in there as well so you can take things in many different ways. There’s a lot of choruses on the album, I deliberately wanted them on quite a lot of the songs, there’s more structure, it’s not all of them but that was my general approach with the music and I wanted some of the sounds to convey what I was saying lyrically.
So for example, there’s a song called ‘When’ and the chorus goes “When is anything about what it’s about?”, so I’m asking the question… you know when somebody says something to you? You could take them at face value and you can trust that and it’s great… but sometimes, when somebody screams and shouts, you’re thinking “what’s going on here?” and of course, you don’t know half the story. What you’re getting is what you’re receiving at the moment…
All the way through the song, there’s the sound of a panic alarm, it’s musically there to represent a state of panic. So they’re not only trying to deal with their own emotions, but whoever else is offloading their baggage onto them.
The first single is the ‘Mindset’ title song and it’s very band sounding with that staccato Velvets / Bowie piano and guitar, but then those psychedelic vibes clash with that arpeggio during the close?
I write a lot of songs on guitar but it doesn’t always end up on the album. While we were doing this, Benge and I had a chat and he felt the very simple guitar part really needed to stay, as he thought it was fundamental to what had been written. With the instrumentation, I wanted a repetitive piano thing which was slightly and deliberately out of time now and then, and also an odd note like a 7th. The one reference that was definitely discussed was NEU! and that period when Michael Rother first went solo. It sent us on a creative journey and I ended up going away to listen CAN again. It was good fun to put together, but most of the time, we took stuff out rather than adding.
‘Clean Your House’ though is very synthy with that bubbling bassline and those gated pulses…
It has a really simple synth line and gets busy on the outro but we tried to keep it reasonably empty so that there was a dynamic emphasis on the chorus when that arrived. Lyrically, you could say it’s reflecting on events of recent times or you could it slight more personalised like a relationship.
‘This Is Bliss’ appears to be a musical relative to ‘Clean Your House’, but adds a trancier element perhaps not heard a lot on previous BLANCMANGE songs?
Maybe I should have added a question mark, y’know ‘This Is Bliss?’, is this it? Or again, this IS bliss. I spend a lot of time playing with words and moving them round with the music, if it doesn’t need anything else, it’s best to leave it like that. With the music, it’s very stripped down.
In terms of the content, I wanted to have a good groove to it and I thought if we can make it work with the least amount of elements, it might have a chance. I didn’t want to add little bits to it, you can but it would be very difficult to keep simple. So when the chorus comes in and repeats itself and does the breakdown, the lyrics become a musical noise, so it takes you into that trance thing. Its original title was ‘The Lost Wallet Experiment’ and now it’s called something in the chorus which is ‘This Is Bliss’! *laughs*
You are working with Benge again, did you find any gear that had been new to you that fascinated you?
We had a Polymoog on it, one of things we had to do was keeping it in tune, there were a few issues with it but Benge got it absolutely spot on.
The Buchla was doing some rhythm parts, there’s a Jupiter 4 and a Jupiter 6 on the album, some nice unique stuff.
Benge’s band OBLONG are opening on the first leg of the tour, ‘The Sea At Night’ is a rather good album…
Yeah, I like both their albums, that and ‘Indicator’ the one from ten years before that. Great sounds on them, there’s going to be more people with the opening act than will be with the main act! *laughs*
Is there a reason why you tend to tour in small chunks around weekends rather than whole weeks at a time?
Yeah, I want to go home! *laughs*
I’m looking forward to taking ‘Mindset’ on tour, but as you know, I don’t like the miles. A lot also depends on the venues and their availability.
There’s all sorts of reasons but if you can do a Thursday-Friday-Saturday, it’s a lot better than doing a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday in terms of footfall, that comes into it. From my point of view, I’ve done long tours and I’d much rather do it like this without a doubt.
The likely demographic for BLANCMANGE tends to not want to go out on a ‘school night’ but can handle Thursdays-Fridays-Saturdays… *laughs*
Yes, that comes into it. It’s difficult because there are some areas where it wouldn’t make so much difference, but in general, it’s better to do a Thursday-Friday-Saturday, Saying that, we do get some younger inquisitive people coming along who are getting into BLANCMANGE because of younger DJs who are playing the music. It’s funny because we notice that little pockets of them are all dancing while other people are going “What are people dancing for? We want a seat!” But they’re all very welcome *laughs*
There’s an Roman Flügel remix of ‘Living On The Ceiling’ that’s just come out and an upcoming remix of ‘Blind Vision’ by Honey Dijon as part of ‘London Remixed’, are you happy with how they’ve turned out?
Yes, I particular like the Dub mix that Roman’s done. I was very flattered because I really like his work. And to get Honey Dijon to do ‘Blind Vision’, I’ve heard the test pressings and what she’s done is phenomenal.
The thing is, for some people, the mix of ‘Living On The Ceiling’ that was done all those years ago is always going to be THE MIX. Nobody is trying to make it better, it’s just another interpretation.
And if you can introduce another audience to your music by doing that, then so be it. Nobody is saying “this is how it should sound”, it’s just an interpretation, it’s only a bit of music and you shouldn’t get too carried away with it. I’m flattered they wanted to do it but of course, I‘m being paid for it *laughs*
I’m all for different stuff, you know me, I’m not that nostalgic, for me, nostalgia is history without the guilt. I’d much rather deal with the history, deal with the guilt… yeah, all these things happened, it’s not sometimes quite how you’d like to remember it, it was slightly different y’know. I’m also very much interested in the future.
Looking back on your return in 2011, how do you look back on the body of work running from ‘Blanc Burn’ to ‘Wanderlust’? Any personal favourites?
I don’t have a favourite as such. I feel lucky I get to do what I do and I look forward to doing more. I really enjoying working with Benge on BLANCMANGE and FADER, I would love the opportunity to take the FADER project out live.
In terms of a musical moment I am most proud of, that was when I stood on stage with my son for the first time in Liverpool Arts Club, when Joe under the name KINCAID, opening for CREEP SHOW on tour. That was a really significant moment for me.
Has it been better than you thought it would be?
There’s been a few surprises, I’m quite a nervous person, sometimes I feel more comfortable on stage than I do off it. I was very nervous about coming back with BLANCMANGE. I didn’t know what to expect or whether it would be just one album. The opportunity came along but Stephen has to stop doing what he did for health reasons and it gave me a kick up the arse to get on with it, which thankfully I did.
It was very different because I had been signed to a major record label, this is no disrespect to London Records because this is how all labels operated back in the day, I have a lot more control now over everything that we do, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I am under no illusions that I will have huge success, I am very happy doing what I’m doing. And if people are interesting in buying, or listening or coming to a show, that’s fantastic. I’m doing it because it’s my job, I need to work and earn money, and this is a great way to try and do that. It’s tough without a doubt, you’ve got to do a lot of legwork and but I don’t mind that.
As long as I can, I’m going to keep doing it, it’s not easy but I think I enjoy it a bit more now than I did in the 80s. And I think I’m more appreciative… I was then, but even more so now.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Neil Arthur