Neil Arthur of synthpop favourites Blancmange tells us about the software and the people that inspire him to keep going after decades in the music business
80s legend Neil Arthur on his new album and a million collaborations, including the mighty Vince Clarke, and his own son!
Blancmange’s Neil Arthur spent the 80s making hits like Living On The
Ceiling and Feel Me. He then disappeared to the soundtrack composition world, only to kickstart the band in 2011. Since then he’s been involved in countless projects with everyone from Vince Clark to… his own son!
1 Tell us about your musical history?
Neil Arthur: “My name is Neil Arthur. I am in Blancmange (ha ha). I’m also part of Fader and Near Future. Back to Blancmange. It came into existence in 1978, after I met Stephen Luscombe at an art school gig he was performing at with his band Miru. We chatted and found that we shared a few things in common – music tastes and a taste for beer. We met up sporadically and set about making some noises with household objects and the odd musical instruments, recording our efforts onto a borrowed Sony cassette machine or a four-track TEAC 1/4” tape recorder.
“God knows how we ever managed to get a song together, but somehow we did and the results were released, thanks to a friend – David Hill (not Slade) – who fronted the money from a tax rebate. Rough Trade took 25 copies and one fell into the hands of Stevo [from Some Bizarre Records], who after a couple of hilarious meetings involving pints on heads, asked us to contribute to the Some Bizarre sampler LP. We had just recorded an instrumental, Sad
Day, so we licensed him that. The release got noticed by a few people in the music business and, along with fellow album contributors like Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and The The, we managed to somehow get a record deal. In 1982 we were in the studio recording our first album, Happy Families,
including songs like I’ve Seen The Word,
Waves, Feel Me, God’s Kitchen and Living On The Ceiling, the latter becoming a Top Ten seller here and elsewhere in the autumn of ’82. We made lots of mistakes – some we got away with.
“I now collaborate with Ben Edwards (Benge) at his studio. We are Fader and Benge helps me with the Blancmange stuff, particularly as it nears completion.”
2 What would you say is your overall philosophy or approach when it comes to music production?
“Keep it simple. One note at a time on a synth, one string if possible on the guitar. Why put on another layer if one will do?”
3 When and how did you discover the route to computer music-making?
“In around 1983 or 84 when I bought a BBC B computer and a sequencer called a UMI, developed in part by Lynton Naiff, who I’d first met when he scored the orchestral parts for the song Waves that was on our first album.”
4 How do you think software has affected how you work?
“As a limited-ability musician, it’s enabled me to get ideas down relatively quickly.
That said, they’ve driven me mad over the three or four decades I’ve tried to use them. They are always right. Initially with the UMI, it was all step-time inputting. Eventually I moved on to an Atari with the E-magic Notator. Then the early Logic programs on PC, integrating it with the Soundscape digital recorder, which was fab for film work. Then later and up until now I’ve used a Mac with Logic Pro and Ableton.”
Tell us a little about your studio… 5
“Quite often I start on an acoustic guitar, working out ideas, structures and so on. Then I may put that down on to iPhone and import to the Mac (Logic or Ableton). My setup is very simple. I won’t go in the studio unless I have an idea, meaning I don’t sit there waiting for one to arrive. That usually happens when I least expect it, so I prepare. I might be out on a bike ride and an idea will start to form as I struggle up another hill. If it does and, importantly, if i can remember it by the time I get to the top of that hill, I mutter the idea into the iPhone and carry on. Back to the studio, a glorified word for my space, I use third-party plugins, Gforce’s Oddity 2 being my favourite. I have a few external synths, an MPC, a Joe Meek Q3 that I put my vocals through, a few mics, oh and a load of backup hard drives.”
6 What are some of your favourite plugins and why?
GForce Oddity 2
“It’s versatile, the presets are always a good starting place, easy to control, brilliant sounds.”
GForce impOSCar 2 “Likewise it’s versatile and packs a punch.”
AudioThing SR-88 “I have the real thing [Sound Master Memory Rhythm SR-88, a rare 80s drum machine], but as a plugin, I love the raw sound and its simple programming features. Also the MIDI file drag-and-drop is brilliant.” Arturia Spark drum machine “This is useful when I’m figuring out a song. Lots of good sounds available, and easy to use.” Logic Pro X pedalboard “Nice for dirtying things up when I’m in a rush.”
Korg MS20: “Does what it says on the box.”
7 How does a track typically start and then progress?
“It varies. I wish sometimes I did have a formula, but not having one keeps me on my toes. I like to surprise myself.”
8 Do you have any specific production tricks you can reveal?
“I put things out of time and tune, nothing is perfect. Strip back to the bare bones wherever possible. That goes for lyrics too.”
9 What is on your wishlist gear wise?
“A new MIDI controller and an update for the MPC X to allow third-party plugins and better integration between it and Ableton Live.”
10 What would you like to see developed in terms of studio technology and why?
“A musical time machine, to travel back and forth, to different studios that I’ve been lucky enough to work in. There I could record a synth from Blackwing – make a stem and cart it back to the present, before flying off to collect samples from the future, returning with them to add to a future-pastpresent composition! Oh hold on, I do that already at Benge’s!”
11 What advice have you picked up from playing live?
“Don’t overstay your welcome, or take yourself too seriously. Appreciate every moment. The audience paid good money to come and see you; don’t take it for granted.”
… and from the studio? 12
“Try not to go in there without a plan. Even if it is hard work, it’s got to be fun too.”
And from the music industry? 13
“A huge pinch of salt is needed for the potential disappointments and rejection.”
14 Tell us about your latest release and why people should check it out...
“There’ll be trouble if they don’t. Blancmange’s next album is called Mindset and out in early June. The tour will be in September, October and December. ”
15 Finally, what have you got planned for the near future?
“Exactly! Your last words, Near Future, a second album in the making with Jez Bernholz. I’m working with Vince Clarke and Benge on a project. Also, I’m writing with my son Joe (Kincaid), who I toured with last year. Then there’s a project with Liam Hutton (Boxed In) and Finlay Shakespeare. So, I’m keeping out of trouble.”
For more info, visit blancmange.co.uk