Neil Arthur, lead singer with Blancmange, chats with Kevin Cooper about giving The Housemartins their first break, his encounter with Billy Fury, their latest album Unfurnished Rooms and their forthcoming tour of the UK.

Neil Arthur is the vocalist with English synth pop band Blancmange who were formed in 1979 with other band members Stephen Luscombe who plays the keyboards, and Laurence Stevens, who left the band shortly after it was formed.

The duo released their first EP, Irene And Mavis the following year, but their first real exposure came via a track on the Some Bizarre Album compilation, alongside acts such as Soft Cell and Depeche Mode. This led to them signing a recording contract with London records.

Following some minor success, it was the release of their single, Living On The Ceiling which really took off, reaching number seven in the UK Singles Chart and earning them international success. Their debut album, Happy Families was also a success, as was their second album, Mange Tout which reached number eight in the album charts.

Whilst they released further material, the band’s fortunes declined and so the duo announced that they were splitting in June 1986 after a farewell concert at The Royal Albert Hall. However, after a gap of a quarter of a century, Blancmange reunited and released their fourth studio album, Blanc Burn in 2011. Unfortunately Luscombe was forced to leave the band through ill health leaving Arthur to continue recording and performing as Blancmange with the assistance of session players.

Since then Blancmange have released another four studio albums and have recently released their fifth, Unfurnished Rooms, which they are touring to promote.

Whilst busy rehearsing, Neil Arthur took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Neil how are you?

I’m very well thank you Kevin how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

You are absolutely welcome Kevin and thank you.

And just how is life treating you?

Things I have to say are not too bad. Today I am doing a series of interviews, I have got a total of three hours of interviews which is good, I suppose (laughter) I am trying not to repeat myself so I will let you know as we go and most importantly I am trying to behave myself (laughter).

The glamorous side of the music business that very few people actually get to see (laughter).

That’s right but being honest it is also a very important side of the business. Let’s just say that I have now been doing it long enough to know that it is a very important part of what I do. It is very much part and parcel of the job; it’s not just about writing songs. Some people only want to be interested in the makeup and the dancing but I have to tell you, I could leave all of that well alone (laughter).

On the subject of makeup and dancing I was speaking to an old friend of yours recently.

Really, and just who might that be?

I was speaking to Marc Almond.

Did you really, Marc is a lovely man. He and I go way back since the release of the Some Bizzare Album back in 1981. So tell me, what is he up to?

He has just released an album of 1967 torch song covers including the old Billy Fury track I’m Lost Without You. Am I correct in thinking that you once had, shall we say, a brief encounter with Mr Fury?

(Hysterical laughter) yes you would, you would be totally right in thinking that. However, I am more interested in just who the hell has told you that (laughter).

I couldn’t possibly reveal my sources (laughter).

Well now that you have mentioned it I suppose that I had better tell you the real story behind me and Billy Fury hadn’t I (laughter). Blancmange were signed to London Records and there were always two ways into the London Records offices. The main entrance was located on Hanover Square but one day someone told me that you could actually go through the Warner Music offices which were located on New Bond Street so that you didn’t actually have to enter through Hanover Square. If you remember The Man From UNCLE, it used to be like that with a small side entrance (laughter). There was this little side door which you nipped though and there you were, inside this massive building.

Anyway I went into the Warner Music offices one day to look at guitars, and there was another chap doing the same. At that time I knew absolutely nothing about guitars, in fact the guitar which I had used on all of the Blancmange recordings up to that point was the one which I had bought off an old art college pal, Tony Cooke for eighteen quid. Anyway once we signed to London Records I had the opportunity to buy a proper guitar. I am looking at a whole load of guitars and this guy says to me “that’s the one that you want to choose” and he pointed to a really old early sixties Epiphone Coronet. It was the guitar that I had seen Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones play.

So I bought the guitar and the man who advised me to buy it was in fact Billy Fury. So not only did I meet Billy Fury, he actually chose my guitar for me (laughter). Then a few years later when Blancmange had a certain amount of success, we were playing in New York and we played two sell-out nights over there and on the first night we had used, as we always did, our backing tape, which had the drums and the bass on; it was one of the large reel to reel tapes, the same as Depeche Mode use. One night it overshot and we had to rewind it a little and whilst we were doing that I announced to the audience “I’m sorry about that, our drummer has messed up” (laughter).

After the gig we came off stage, went to our dressing room upstairs and my girlfriend at the time who I am still with had flown over to spend some time with me. We were chatting about the show and then all of a sudden the doors burst open and this man walked into the room wearing what I can only describe as a massive Flanagan and Allen fur coat flanked by two minders (laughter). He walked over to me and it was in fact the late Robert Palmer. He came straight over to me and said “never apologise to your audience” (laughter). After that he asked me “is that Billy Fury’s daughter” pointing to the lady who I was with. I just laughed and said “I bloody well hope not. I’m in bloody trouble if it is” (laughter). I have to say that I absolutely loved Billy Fury and he chose my very first proper guitar for me.

Anyway I suppose that we had better talk about your latest album Unfurnished Rooms hadn’t we?

That would be very nice (laughter).

Well I have been playing it for a few weeks now and I am sad to say that I love it (laughter).

(Laughter) I’m sad to say, you cheeky bugger (laughter). That’s great for Blancmange isn’t it; it really makes sense. The last journalist I spoke to said to me “I am really enjoying what I have heard of the album but I have to be honest and tell you that I haven’t heard all of it” so not wanting to embarrass him I simply said “thank you very much”. He then went on to say “it’s a bit of a dark door isn’t it” (laughter). The thing is that it is a bit of a dark door with a bit of dark humour every so often for Christ’s sake (laughter). It’s not all doom laden but you have to remember that it is not all roses out there, either in my head or outside my head.

As for the content of the songs and what it is that they are all about, I will leave it up to the listeners to make their own minds up about that. When they have they can come back and tell me (laughter). You know me and the fact that I like to leave a little ambiguity there, so thank you very much indeed.

Compared to previous albums I have to say that, in my opinion, there is a dark and raw feel to the album. Would you agree?

The credit for a lot of that should go to Benge who I have mixed the album with and who has also contributed in terms of replacing some of the sounds that I had put down using soundboard instruments. Benge has actually replaced them with the real thing. Not only is he a fantastic producer and mixer, he is also a wizard of the synthesiser and also a very accomplished drummer. So where I have used soundboard instruments Benge has gone back to the 1970s and has replaced them with real analogue synthesisers and let me tell you it has been fantastic going back through that process. Hopefully people will enjoy the darker side of the album as well as the musical aspect to it.

The title track Unfurnished Rooms gets your interest, leads you into the rest of the album, and you find yourself thinking what’s coming next, what have I let myself in for?

(Laughter) what can I say, if it is working then someone has got the sequencing right. Let me tell you that there was much deliberation as to what track should go first and open the album. However, because I had already written the song and had decided that the album was going to be called Unfurnished Rooms we couldn’t very well leave that track off (laughter). In terms of compiling the order of the songs full credit has to go to my manager Steve. He is great at doing that. He may go backwards and forwards a few times but I must admit he usually gets the final say.

You mention the time and effort that goes into sequencing an album. I sometimes wonder if kids realise just what they are missing out on when they cherry-pick the odd song here and there?

Yes they do, some people will do that. However, if they buy the vinyl version of the album you would like to think that they would play it in order, side one and then side two. That is how it should be heard and not by jumping certain tracks. I was listening to the swearing bit on Hey Jude by The Beatles the other day and I have to say that after forty odd years that was the very first time that I had actually picked up on it (laughter). Although I bought that record many years ago now I couldn’t be bothered to get it out to play it so I listened to it on Spotify and the thing that I had missed because of all of the scratches on my copy was the swearing (laughter).

When you are a kid you will listen to something so many times that not only will you know the song so well, you will even know where it is scratched. Isn’t that amazing, you can know exactly where a scratch is coming. So yes I fully agree with you that there is that thing about just how people listen to music. However, I am glad to say that there are a lot of people who will still listen to music on a decent hi-fi system. What amazes me is that although you have gone to a lot of trouble mixing the record, a hell of a lot of people will only ever hear it as an MP3 which is twenty times less the quality that we mixed it at, at best (laughter).

I did a Skype conference call some years ago now with one of the tech magazines together with some producers and engineers both over in America and here in the UK and I suppose that you could say that I was the guest artist amongst the group. They were talking about production values and things that were, to be honest, way above my head. I knew where they were going with it but it was not something that I wanted to get into. I am a writer; I don’t get into technical things although after many years of working with electronics, I am fine with that side of things. It’s a bit like the monkey with a typewriter; give me long enough and I will come up with something (laughter).

They were dark times and I have to say that it was hard work for me writing the singles and thankfully I don’t have to write singles anymore. However, don’t get me wrong as I would gladly write one again but who wants a single from a fifty-nine year old man (laughter). So where was I, there we all were talking about all of this technical business together with the equipment that they had at their disposal; some of the things that they were telling me they already had in the studio and the quality that they could achieve was incredible. And then they got to me and finally asked me what I thought about it all.

I thought for a minute or two and I said that when people listen to the finished mix of the album that we spend so long working on, many people really do have lovely systems at home, but there are an awful lot of other people who will simply listen to the album on their mobile phone. They will listen to the album on their mobile phone on a speaker that is no bigger than a threepenny bit (laughter). It’s just bonkers isn’t it, what a world.

I have to admit that being a lover and collector of vinyl it did take me a good few years to succumb and actually buy my first iPod.

(Laughter) well it’s a good job that you finally got one as they have stopped making them now.

I honestly only bought it for convenience so that I could have a semi-decent collection to play in the car so you could say that the devil now has a little place of his own (laughter).

I know exactly what you are saying, that is actually one of the reasons why I bought myself an iPod. As I have mentioned earlier I too use Spotify, I also use iTunes and in fact my mobile phone is at the side of me now as we are speaking. We also have a dock in the other room but I keep getting nagged because apparently whenever I leave the house nothing works (laughter). It’s true, you can either Bluetooth it or actually put your iPod onto the thing but whenever I leave the house I take my iPod with me (laughter). As we have upgraded over the years the actual thing that you dock your iPod onto gets used about as much as the docks in bloody Hull gets used (laughter).

And that is ridiculous because the ones in Hull should get bloody used. Anyway that drives me mad so don’t start me off about that. I have been listening to the series about Hull being the City of Culture and they have all been reminiscing about all of the industry that was once there. Oh for goodness sake, it is so sad, it drives me nuts.

I know exactly what you mean, here in Nottinghamshire we had the coal mines together with heavy industry involved with the mines but alas, there is bugger all left now.

I remember very clearly what happened to the mines and the miners in the early 80s. Don’t talk to me about (Margaret) Thatcher (laughter). That really would get my goat up would that. One of my mates comes from Nottingham and whenever he sees me he always greets me with ‘hey up duck’ (laughter). He is an artist and I went down to Nottingham to see some of his work and while I was there he took me to the Goose Fair. He actually entered me in the tallest man in the world competition (laughter).

Don’t get me started on the Goose Fair otherwise we will be here all day (laughter). Back to the album, you have mentioned vinyl, you have mentioned MP3 so I have to ask you, why have you not released the album on cassette?

I know, it’s a good idea and really I think that we are missing a trick there aren’t we. Not only could we have released Unfurnished Rooms on cassette but also The Blanc Tapes; why have we not released them on cassette, the bloody name speaks for itself (laughter). I was originally thinking of releasing them on a wax cylinder (laughter). We should have gone with cassette shouldn’t we, it is a really good idea.

The only concern that I have with cassettes is just who has the capability to play them anymore?

A good friend of mine, Jez Bernholz who is one half of Gazelle Twin, worked with me on the Near Future project back in 2016, and he released one of his solo projects only on cassette. So he must have worked out prior to that that there are still places where you pick up a cassette player.

Well Feeder have released their new material on cassette and when I recently spoke to Grant (Nicholas) I asked him if every cassette came with a free pencil (laughter).

(Laughter) well I do know about that because when I was putting a lot of the demos together for the box set of The Blanc Tapes I had to get some of the original tapes digitised and some of them hadn’t been played for a while, so I had to very carefully rewind them with a pencil. A biro simply will not work, it has to be a pencil. A pencil is absolutely great, it fits perfectly. I found it to be very satisfying sitting there rewinding cassette tapes. I have got a professional Walkman which is more sonic than other domestically available recorders, and the tapes have to be at the right tension before you play them on that and yes, the pencil was perfect for that job. In fact I must have used the one pencil on over fifty cassettes. (Laughter) a free bloody pencil with every cassette, I love it (laughter).

You can just imagine it in the recording studio can’t you “I’m sorry chaps but the recording process has come to a standstill, I can’t find a pencil” (laughter).

(Laughter) now wouldn’t that be hilarious.

A lot of fans are saying that Unfurnished Rooms is your best work to date, would you agree with that?

I really don’t know. Although what I would say is that if you were to say a comment to me like that, I would have to reply ‘thank you for that kind comment’ because I personally really don’t know. Everything that I do I doubt. I always think that I can do better, and I think that it should always be like that. You should always be striving for the next thing. So I just say “thank you very much for that comment”, and it is nice that you think that and it is great that the new material is working for you.

I have had two albums recently drop through the door, one is yours and the other is Exile & Grace by King King and I have been playing them both constantly both in the house and in the car.

Thank you for that, and I have to say that you have a rather eclectic taste in music.

Are you constantly writing?

Yes I am I really am, although I think that I am currently in denial (laughter). I just see stuff, I hear things, I mishear stuff, I misread things, I am very interested in writing and I have to be honest and tell you that writing helps me deal with me.

And when you are writing is it lyrics first or the melody?

With me it varies as I personally do not have a formulae with regards to writing. However, I cycle quite a bit and sometimes I will hear a repetitive noise while I am out on the bike. If I do I will stop and record that on my mobile phone and then when I get home I will take that loop and put it into the analogue machine on the computer, and eventually work it up into something. However, there may be another time when I will hear somebody say something or something will come out in conversation. For example, I have got up in front of me Note on the iMac and just the other day someone was speaking to me about changing something and altering it and it just made me think of a flat-pack alter (laughter).

That immediately made me think of Ikea and that is how my mind works, I simply thought ‘I will have that’ (laughter). Another example of how it works for me is that some years ago now I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is also a musician and we were talking about colours. He and I worked together for a while and we called ourselves Leatherhead (laughter). Anyway, one day we were just sitting around talking about colours and eventually we got onto beige as a colour and my friend called it hectic beige (laughter). It made me laugh because beige cannot be hectic can it, it is just so boring (laughter).

And that’s where the line ‘roof tiles dry after a heavy night of rain, any moment now it will start to rain again, you will take reflections on hectic beige concrete’ (laughter). That saying hectic beige has stayed with me since the early 90s and I just thought ‘I have got to get that into a song’ (laughter). So as you can see I will write something today which will trigger something from something that has previously happened, and I will work that into a song that I am working on and that is how it all works for me. Sometimes with the music it will be a groove that is going round in my head for example We Are The Chemicals off the new album.

When we were playing that in rehearsals last week I was singing like I was trying to be Robert Palmer (laughter). Listening to the track you could be forgiven in expecting me to sing it in the style of Robert because it sounds as though it is going to go that way doesn’t it. However, I just like the idea of coming in and going ‘there’s been a chemical spillage, on a trading estate, in Altrincham’ rather like Noel Coward (laughter). That is not what you are expecting but I do like the idea of giving the people what they are not expecting whilst making it sound normal (laughter). I am trying to simplify things all of the time, especially my life.

I may have told you this before but the one thing that I am absolutely sure of is that at fifty-nine years old is that I am not sure (laughter). Why not try things and try to be yourself. Let people come along for the ride and enjoy it, after all its only music. There is loads of other stuff out there (laughter). I have probably told you this too but I never listen to any of my stuff after I have finished it. I will be listening to the likes of Fats Waller, Anna Meredith, I really like The Soft Moon and stuff like that, and there is loads of it. But I am not going to be listening to Blancmange and I am not going to be listening to anything from the 1980s. I been there and done it; I was there the first time and I am very happy to play it again on tour but I am here for tomorrow.

Now that the album has been released and it is finally out there, are you excited at the thought of playing the new songs live to the fans?

Yes I am, I really am. We recently had three days of rehearsals so it is always nice to get that out of the way and then I really do start to feel ready for it. I am enjoying the round of interviews that I am currently undertaking, there are a few radio interviews to do later, so I am going to be kept extremely busy over this next period and yes, I am looking forward to it, getting the album out there and doing the dates as always (laughter). I always try to meet the people who have come along to see us and have a chat with them after the show and I would like to think that they are fans (laughter). It’s always nice to see some familiar faces together with a few old mates.

Are you a meddler or can you walk away from it and say that it is finished?

That’s easy, I can leave it alone. I didn’t use to be like that, in fact I used to be terrible, but through having a fantastic partner who I play my stuff to, over the years I have learnt to say “that’s enough” and I actually feel as though I am getting better with my music. You have to remember that in the music business there is always room for you to learn. I really do beat myself up in order to get everything right but in terms of writing I really can say “that’s enough” because you can always write another one or at least try to (laughter).

Now I know that they say that you should never believe your own publicity but I can’t speak to you without mentioning that quote can I?

What quote is that? (laughter).

Moby has been reported as saying ‘I am listening to Blancmange obsessively. They are probably the most under-rated electronic act of all time.’ When you read that just how did it make you feel?

What can I say, it is lovely of him to say that and to be honest I felt flattered and totally humbled by it. I wouldn’t have expected it in a million years and it is lovely to get that kind of feedback from somebody who you also respect together with their body of work. Even now I still feel gobsmacked whenever anyone mentions it to me. It is very nice of him to take the time to say something like that; it’s very, very nice. I just do what I do and if people like it whether they are famous or not, any constructive criticism is well worth taking on board. I know that I am not everyone’s cup of tea but I just get on and do it.

Does touring still excite you?

I have to say that I really do enjoy the gigs, but what I don’t like is the bit in-between. I don’t like all of the travelling and I don’t like the repetition of the hotels. If I could come home every night then that would be fantastic but I am intelligent enough to know that simply isn’t possible. I simply have to get on with it and let me tell you, the camaraderie of Blancmange and the unit that work together are just brilliant. We all go back a long way now and we now all know just how much space to give the other members of the entourage. If you are on tour then you don’t want to develop cabin fever (laughter).

We have all done it long enough to know that as soon as we have finished the gig and we are back on the tour bus heading for the hotel or wherever we are going, it is quiet. There is no pounding music, it is quiet. We all have a nice quiet chat, have a beer but we all respect each other’s space. That is how we get through it, simply by respecting each other. And let me tell you, it makes the miles shorter (laughter). So to reiterate the answer to your question do I enjoy touring, yes I love the gigs, I really do enjoy meeting the fans I really do but sometimes the tediousness of waiting around together with the travelling and the repetition of the hotels, as many musicians I am sure will have told you, really does take the sheen from it sometimes. I live for the performance really.

You will be here in Nottingham at the Rescue Rooms on 4th November, what can we expect?

Well let me say that we are really looking forward to playing the Rescue Rooms without a doubt. We have played there before and think that it is a great venue, and the Nottingham crowds have always been very kind to us so hopefully they will have a great night along with us once again.

You have played Nottingham many times, do you enjoy your time spent here in the city?

Yes we have and yes I do. Back in the day Blancmange played Rock City and I think that our first time there was on a record label review with the likes of Theatre Of Hate, Classix Nouveaux and Naked Lunch. Sometime later we found ourselves back there supporting Depeche Mode and then we went back there in our own right. After that the last big gig that we played in Nottingham was at the Royal Concert Hall. Bloody hell thinking about it that was a long time ago now and it was in fact the last tour that we did (laughter). I love Nottingham, we always had a great time whenever we played up there. It has a good vibe to it and feels more like a Northern town than somewhere in the Midlands, if that makes any sense to you (laughter).

Nottingham has always been fantastic and so we always look forward to playing in Nottingham, we have many good mates up there so I really do look forward to having the odd pint or two when we get there.

Didn’t you personally have a hand in giving a certain young, up and coming band named The Housemartins their first break in the music business?

(Laughter) just who the bloody hell has told you that (laughter). Right, back in the day Blancmange had an entire office block in the centre of London that we rented and shared with Talk Talk (laughter). What a waste of money that was but there you go. Anyway, one day we were in the office listening to a load of demo tapes that had been sent to us by up and coming bands who wanted to support us on that very last tour. A lot of them sounded like us so they were relegated to the bin, simply because I was looking for something that was different from what we were doing at that time. After a while I thought ‘this is it, this is what I have been looking for’ and it turned out to be The Housemartins (laughter).

So The Housemartins had their very first UK tour with Blancmange.

Yes they did. They supported us and they were absolutely sensational plus they were a bunch of piss heads as well (laughter). They were absolutely brilliant and a total contrast to Blancmange. I can remember all of us being outside round the back of the Concert Hall playing football with them and let me tell you Paul (Heaton) is no slouch when it comes to football. I like a game of football but Paul could really play. They as you well know went onto massive things both individually and collectively as that band.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Don’t laugh but I have to say that it was Mungo Jerry at The King George’s Hall in Blackburn. It was going to be T.Rex but my mum wouldn’t let me go because she thought that it was a matinée (laughter). She wouldn’t let me go when she found out that it was in the evening and it was on a school day (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That was Someone Great by LCD Soundsystem who are an American rock band from Brooklyn, New York.

On that note Neil let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great once again. Bye for now.

Kevin it’s an absolute pleasure chatting to you and if you can make sense of that then you are a better man than me (laughter). Take care and I will see you in Nottingham.