Some Sort Of Surrender: An Interview With Paul Buchanan Of The Blue Nile
, July 19th, 2012 05:39
Blue Nile singer Paul Buchanan and David Peschek get teary-eyed discussing mortality, love and Mid Air, his first solo album- and his first release in 8 years
"Paul Buchanan", wrote Chris Roberts, "can make the word 'stay' more evocative than an entire Yeats compendium."
"Stay, stay," Buchanan keens on the first Blue Nile album and then, easy as conversation, hard as love, "and I will understand you." A Walk Across The Rooftops has so many moments like that, tiny moments on which great things hinge, a constellation of epiphanies. Unique even in the band’s own catalogue, it sounds like nothing else: full of space, rupture, suspension, flight, awe, possibility. Years before I ever dreamed of moving to Glasgow – where the album was made - A Walk Across The Rooftops made the city seem deeply romantic, glamorous in the headiest way. "Is there a place in this city – a place to always feel this way?" Buchanan sings in ‘Tinseltown In the Rain’ – Glasgow as Hollywood strafed with drizzle. Hats, which followed six years on in 1989, is more streamlined – still gorgeous though: glistening like the rain-splashed streets the songs inhabit. Then the gaps between records grew longer and the records themselves less cohesive – always threaded with magic, but frustrating too. Four albums in something like three decades. It seems now as though Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore are unlikely to record together again – but there is Mid Air – a masterpiece of long-dark-night-of-the-soul meditations on mortality; on evanescent love and indelible memory. Has the man often called the Scottish Sinatra made his 'The Wee Small Hours of the Morning'? Sinatra’s an odd comparison I always think: Buchanan’s suave, yes, but for me closer to the Bowie of ‘Word On A Wing’ (from Station to Station) but with a rasp, a crack in the voice, a creasedness that somehow simultaneously suggests weariness and wonder.
Mid Air is tremulous, tentative, little eddies of piano and vocal rather than rigidly structured songs, glances at something that in fact works cumulatively: glinting fragments of something you have to stand back from to see properly. Closer reference points: 'Patty Waters Sings' - a strange, haunted witching-hour album of fractured should-be standards written and sung by the white jazz singer/pianist beloved of Miles Davis and released on the avant-garde-bordering-on-down-right-eccentric label ESP Disk in 1965; Tim Hardin’s equally fractured, witching-hour intimate 1969 album Suite For Susan Moore and Damion: 'We Are One, One, All In One' – recorded late at night, scraps of feeling spun into smears of song intended to win back a family that was already gone.
Finally meeting the man whose records have sung inside me since I was a teenager, it’s wonderful to see how much like his songs he is: vulnerable, lyrical, "In love with a feeling." There’s a moment when deep into our conversation he voices something about the gap "between the advertisements and the traffic" – and I have chills. It’s as if – as I have been for a quarter of a century, as I am whenever I look out across any city at night, but especially in Glasgow – inside a Blue Nile song. Is there a place in the city – a place to always feel this way?
So, we’ve come to expect lengthy breaks between Blue Nile albums, but the absence of Paul on your tour six years ago, this solo record – does this mean the end of the group?
Paul Buchanan: I don’t know what happened with the band; it’s up to everybody - and, in a way, I ended up making the record for a number of reasons, but I suspect my uncertainty… and, kinda, mournfulness about the group was one of them. I just made the record that came out. It would be difficult to construe it as anything that’s supposed to be a Blue Nile record, you couldn’t argue that’s it’s like the Blue Nile.
[with mild incredulity] You couldn’t?
PB: I don’t think so, no. There’s no… ‘stuff’ on it. I know there are similarities, possibly in a couple of the ballads, but no it wasn’t in any sense a reaction. You know, I love the other two men, it’s a such a huge part of my life, and my bewilderment about whether we were going to make another record was part of it. Having had a sense of purpose for all those years, even if it was just: the three of us will meet, and we’ll put our money together, and even if we’ve just got one pound for a cup of tea – it was somewhere to go, you know. So honestly – it was nothing to do with career. There’s an emotional strand in there. I would like to think we’ll have some sort of Damascene moment, bump into each other and go, You know what? Let’s do the show right here.
You’re still in touch with Robert.
But not Paul.
PB: No. Neither me nor Robert have seen nor heard from him much at all really, to be honest. There was some paperwork that had to be signed recently, so we all did it, as straightforwardly as we could. It’s a mystery to some extent and I think you have to respect that. The other night I watched - there was a very low-budget documentary we made in America a hundred years ago, and I happened to see some of it the other night. It’s just very difficult – as it is in any relationship, you know, how did we get there from here? And I don’t think Robert knows either. Half the time I sort of expect Paul to just show up, you know?
Creative relationships can be just as intense as romantic relationships.
PB: Starting back into it, you don’t realise how close you were.
It’s a very intimate thing to do with someone…
PB: …very. And all your defences are down; and it was joyful. It was absolutely joyful. I’ve got nothing negative to say about it. It’s like love in the regard that you have to accept that there are some periods that are mysterious to you. And this is a little bit mysterious to me. But there was never any question in my mind that Paul is gifted. There’s nobody like Paul; there’s nobody like Robert. You know perfectly well that a group is a dynamic. The three of you together create something like… a fourth person.
‘The other thing.’
PB: The other thing. I was very lost when I realised I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to a little rehearsal room. Truly, truly lost.
When was that?
PB: Probably after High , and the touring, it started to dawn on me. I think in the back of my mind I – and Robert - sort of expected, when we were getting ready to tour, that Paul would wander in. Definitely at the beginning. But then as we finished off the dates, it dawned on me: the phone’s not ringing.
He knew the tour was being planned?
PB: Yeah, I’m sure he did know. I think you’re always trying to balance what you want with respect for the other person’s wishes. I think in that sense we excelled with each other. It would have been better, for me, if we’d carried on - but maybe we needed to stop, and it may be that we’ve achieved, individually, some perspective that will inform the music. The clichés are true: you start out in absolute privacy because nobody’s interested and you think external strains aren’t affecting you…
…and they are…
PB: They are. It’s very simple: if I had to choose whether or not to make another Blue Nile record before I die, the answer would be yes. It’s very liberating to be with two people you trust completely. It brings out the best in you; it makes you very unself-conscious. I think it’s true of all groups. So I was heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken and I probably spent a couple of years really just sitting in the kitchen wondering what had happened. Even with this record, I didn’t dust myself down and think, Well let’s get on with making a record. I was kinda working away, trying to write something for someone else with no luck whatsoever, but when I listened back to it – on a little Dictaphone actually, that Robert gave me – the songs that are on the album, they were all there. And a friend said, You should make a record – just a 10” EP or something, it’d be good for you to do something. So the first thing I did was go to the studio and play the sketches to the engineers, and said, I’m thinking of releasing this, as a sort of lo-fi thing. They put the songs up on the studio speakers and said, Well, you can’t really hear the music: you can hear your foot, and your hand hitting the keyboard, and the telephone; you can hear traffic: We don’t think you should [release it as is].
[laughs] ‘Automobile Noise’.
PB: ‘Automobile Noise’. So I thought, I’ll re-record them. I only did a couple of afternoons a week, to tell the truth, with a young engineer who’d never made a record before [actually the son of the engineer on all four Blue Nile albums]. So it was therapeutic rather than careerist.
Have you ever been careerist?
PB: I think at certain points you get drawn into going with the flow, largely because there are so many things to say yes or no to you literally can’t answer them all in a day. And with the best of intentions, you think, it’s ok, none of this is affecting me. Obviously, we didn’t produce records very often; we didn’t try to generate an image of any kind. So no, I wouldn’t say we were careerist. Once in a while, you look back and think, Maybe I should have shaken hands with that person – but I think we were beyond that. As I said once when we were playing live, ‘I flirted with obscurity but I went too far.’ But – c’est la vie. [On the deluxe double CD version of Mid Air] There’s a couple of other songs, and instrumental things. A couple of them are instrumental versions of the songs, and the others are what I initially intended to put on the ‘A’ disc – but I was prevailed upon to do otherwise. I had thought about it working a certain way. I had recorded the songs instrumentally and then, almost as an afterthought, I sang them. But when I realised that probably more people would buy the standard versions, Robert and the engineers and prevailed upon me [not to]. For me, I actually listened to the ‘B’ disc a lot, and was satisfied there was a good half-hour of music that was worth having, because you don’t want to look like you’re padding it out. The versions spoke, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to have to do that thing you had to do in the old days of loading up b-sides of 12"s in order that people would buy them. I think it works on its own; it’s a different mood. You get a box! What can I tell you!?
It can be a job making a CD into a lovely object.
PB: The designer was endlessly patient and constructive and attentive. You need that good fortune to have someone that’s as involved as you in making something aesthetically beautiful.
And if you’re only doing it, well… roughly once a decade…
PB: Yeah – I need to step it up.
Are you gonna play live?
PB: Well you know - that’ll be a hoot! Yeah – I think so. I was just waiting to see if anybody would be interested in seeing it, to be honest.
Oh! Of course they are!
PB: Ach, come on. It’s such a funny wee thing I couldn’t work out how to do it. But now I think it would be good to play [straight through] from beginning to end. It’s only 36 minutes. And then I’ll try to figure out what to do [after].
Play Mid Air in its entirety, have a little interval and then do greatest hits! Play the spoons!
PB: Play the spoons, yeah! Going out with a guy to play the piano, and maybe one other guy too do some of the… background. To go from that to a Blue Nile set is such a leap in terms of personnel and money you know? So what I’d do is try to prevail upon whoever’s [promoting] it to reflect that in the ticket price. So people could come and get an hour and a quarter [and not feel cheated]. Come out again after the interval essentially with the same people. I could do ‘Family Life’, ‘From a Midnight Train’ – at a stretch I could do a couple of things on the guitar.
That acoustic session you did for [US West Coast radion show’] Morning Becomes Eclectic is great. It’s almost like a little album itself. That’s you playing guitar isn’t it?
PB: Yes. Me and this other guy, a lovely guy who’s played on and off with us for years: a great human being.
When you said ‘I’d like to make another Blue Nile record before I die,’ I was gonna say, somewhat cheekily, You might only get one in!
PB: [laughs] I might only get one in! I’ve probably written it; I’ve certainly written quite a lot of it but it’s funny – you have old habits. I’ll write a demo up to a certain point and then stop; I’d want to stop, because it’s habit…
Because you’re waiting for what the others bring?
PB: Yes. That space. And I might go in and say, I’ve got ten songs and they’ll say, We like seven of them. That habits remains, so we’ll see. I hate to sound Biblical about it, when I look at what we did do, and as you get older you look at yourself more – your vanities and your dreams – well, I’m now looking and thinking the only way I can redeem my own life in some sense is to do something that was a little bit of a quantum leap in terms of what it expressed and what it stated. I know I can’t think that – I’m not clever enough to think of what that is, so it becomes some sort of humility, some sort of surrender. You accept that you’re deeply flawed as a human being – you have major character flaws and insecurities and all these things, and accepting that, and that you can’t really think your way to the next stage, and at this point the only thing I can imagine or hope to validate the shambles of my own existence is to in some way be part of something that expresses harmonically what I can’t articulate.
To pour yourself into the music in some way.
PB: You read about some conflict in the newspaper and think, I wish I could solve that. Really pull the juice off. How do you let go of your own imprints, the things that are ingrained in you? It’s the only thing I can think of now that would provide a happy ending.
PB: Me, or what I chose to do with my life.
Isn’t the happy ending that, among other things, you made those records and people love them?
PB: It’s a great reward that people have affection for them, it really is, but you still struggle with your own imperfections. You almost want to announce it: you struggle with it. Maybe that is vanity in itself, to think it matters that much. But in terms of going forward or looking back, if there’s one record, one note - that’s fine, it’s the right note, the right record - that’s something. There is music that does that; it’s not undoable. There’s art that does that. Even last night, I was maybe having a Robert de Niro Analyze This moment – towards the end of that movie Kick-Ass, the Nicholas Cage character is dying and he and his daughter tell each other they love each other. It’s not the highest achievement in all fields - I mean, there are the sciences, not be glib! – but in a sense it is: to tell each other we love each other. That honestly is where I’m at. I feel like a blank canvass, I can’t think of any new beginnings for myself that I actually believe in. I just hope that lightning strikes. That was a fairly light answer wasn’t it.
That’s ok, most of my interviews are like that!
PB: I think it’s you – I’ve read some of your things!
There was a point a few years ago when every interview I did was with someone who’d made a record out of extreme personal trauma. The musician Archer Prewitt finally told me, two hours into a conversation, how his wife – with whom he is deeply in love – had been held at knife point and tied up where she worked – her assailant was pulling on latex gloves when he was disturbed and she escaped…
PB: God almighty! God almighty…
And then you have to honour that in the piece, to do right by it. And not be exploitative – even though it can feel like laying a trail of buns to lure a bear out of a cave.
PB: Yes. And everywhere you see tragedy reduced to… a crumb. It’s totally disheartening. It’s funny - the demand for information and news that’s so relentless and then once in a while you see the heart of the public: you know, with those miners trapped underground or the woman who died during the London Marathon; you see this sudden outpouring of goodness and empathy. The rest of the time I’m astonished to see the way things are lived out in public. Phew… it’s heavy. It’s really heavy…
All through your songs, there’s a real sense of the evanescence of things. “Is there a place, in this city – a place to always feel this way” [‘Tinseltown In the Rain’]: I feel fantastic, how long’s it going to last? Or “Now that I’ve found peace at last, tell me Jesus, Will it last?” [‘Happiness’]. Or something like ‘Family Life,’ which is half comforting, half devastating – which I suppose is what family life is. I was in a bar with Mark Eitzel once, putting the world to rights, talking about a new relationship I could sense was built on shaky ground and – ridiculously grandiloquently, I said, All pleasure for me is inherently vertiginous: I mean I can always see the drop. He slammed his glass down in the the bar and said, "No! You’re worse than me!"
PB: [laughter] Is that self-fulfilling?
I don’t know. Is it? Yeah it can be! There’s a lyric from the first Throwing Muses album: "Give me what I want and all I can think about is losing it."
PB: There’s a gap I suppose between the ideal and the action. But I think, I hope in individual songs there’s an assertion at least by the end of them that there’s more than one side to things. I’ve never been aware – possibly I am? – that the worst is going to happen. I think like many people, I’m aware, possibly too much – and not just for me but for everybody – of the gap between… the advertisements and the traffic. There’s a huge gap, an immense gap. However much we sell ourselves this winner culture, it’s unsustainable. It has to be ok to lose, it has to be ok to be unhip. It brings me back to what I said before about the immense struggle in loving each other. That’s the goal. Everything else is nonsense, people who don’t really believe in it selling it to people who don’t really believe… But in the normal course of life, there are moments everyday that are absolutely wonderful. Someone says something in a shop, or makes a joke; you see somebody wearing a crazy hat and you think, Fantastic - I love it! Signs of life.
Those moments are brilliant, aren’t they?
PB: They are. The more eccentric the better. I don’t think misery’s a foregone conclusion.
Is it that the thing you can hear in the songs? That whatever it is, it comes and goes?
PB: Honestly, that’s just experience. And you do get beaten down a little bit from time to time.
There’s seems to be a real sense of that on Mid Air: what would be left when everything else is gone.
PB: Yeah. Within ‘Mid Air’ the song itself, there’s a sense of ‘I can’t see you anymore, but I can still feel you; I’m aware of you." Obviously it’s a song. It’s a wish not a reality.
Don’t say, ‘It’s a song’ in a dismissive way!
PB: I’m not making any existential claims. All you can do – and I hope that’s in the record – is, you get up and try again. Some things don’t fade; some loves don’t leave you. Your memories of some people don’t change or leave you. They’re eternal. You don’t want to replace them, they’re enough and that’s positive. Part of what’s going on with the record is… my best friend died. But he would have been the first to say… you know…
Was it an unexpected death?
PB: Yes, it was absolutely sudden. And on the basis of an attempt at levity at the funeral service I said, I’m not going to let this spoil the friendship. Which is exactly how he would think. But you’re always wary of saying too much – you don’t want to turn people off with preaching. I think our unconscious is important, and many of us – it’s a quirk of human life, to think: only I’m seeing this, like a movie. It’s ungraspable. Ungraspable. Therefore empathy, or love – acknowledging the other people is… the song ‘After Dark’ at the end of the record is a reassertion of [those] ideas… I’d like to think if we made another record as a group again, or if I had to make it myself, that’s something I’d like to pursue: that however naïve your starting points were, you can nevertheless reclaim or re-express them.
Is there a sense in which ‘After Dark’ means ‘after death’?
PB: [quiet laugh] Again, I can’t speak lightly of these things. Certainly I was just referring to that quietest of moments when you are finally still. I think the same about the end of ‘My True Country’ is it’s you without all the add-ons – you without the apps! When you didn’t have to explain or articulate or rely on language or decide whether the people in your class liked you or whether you were doing well in school. It’s just you. And that feeling of self-acceptance and acceptance by another person is… hard.
There’s a piece by John Berger, at the end of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos: "What reconciles to my own death more than anything is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of your feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough."
PB: I’m gonna be crying.
I’m getting you back, because the first time I listened to Mid Air I was on a train at rush hour and I burst into tears.
PB: I thought of that piece when I was listening to the record this morning… [realising he has tears in his eyes] Sorry, I didn’t mean to… [pause] Fantastic. Fantastic. That, or seeing one person sacrifice themselves for another, is what inhibits you from making claims for what you do for yourself, and also leads you to finally, finally, finally concede your own weakness, your own flaws, and concede what you yearn for really: ‘Yeah yeah I was in love but I’m over it now; I used to think [whatever] but it’s ok now.’ That’s just sublime, just lovely. Obviously you can never tell what the circumstances of such things were, but in medieval churches you’ll see tombs with the lord and lady lying side by side. How would you know [their true circumstances] but there’s always something profoundly affecting about it.
There’s that Philip Larkin poem, 'An Arundel Tomb' – he talks about the apparent affection the two figures show for each other, but says "time has transfigured them into untruth". It ends with him saying, obviously with huge implicit ambivalence, that they "prove/our almost-instinct almost true/what will survive of us is love".
PB: But it’s more important to focus on the "is". You’re absolutely right, maybe they’re not true stories but when you see these things, they resonate – because, like the John Berger poem, you hope that your own love is or should be without condition, but you keep failing. You fail and fail and fail and fail. For example: do you love someone less when you perceive that they’re not really in love with you? Possibly. Should you? No. To go back to a science thing – it was as much in jest as anything, I was having a joke with a friend who’s much more expert in these things than me, and I said to him what I thought was the ultimate scientific remark, which was "love thine enemy". We were trying to tease each other really, but you know: go, go; try it. Do it - it’s difficult.
Well, I guess if scientific advance is what we think of as progress, that’s the most progressive thing you can do.
PB: All you can do is address your personal struggles. I don’t have advice for anybody and I don’t have any manifesto at all. I think that for me, Plan A didn’t work; Plan B didn’t work; Plan C didn’t work, Plan D didn’t work; Plan E didn’t work… [pause] Plan F didn’t work; Plan G didn’t work…
PB: Generally. That would include relationships or love. That’s not to reduce anything. It’s not to do with anyone else, like I said to you before about the group there’s always plenty of room for looking at yourself – always, always, always. That piece you read is very consoling. Given the certainty of death – finding some sort of resolution, some way you can live with yourself and accept the circumstances of your own existence – you have to think that’s a fairly pressing goal. More than having a new watch or something. Maybe I’m just temperamental and prone to dwell on these things too much. That’s my function, if it’s only to serve a few thousand people.
TS Eliot said "the poet is more alive than the rest of their generation".
PB: Yeah, I like Eliot. But as I say, I’ve got no claims. There are two ways of being: you’re either dead or alive. I think the only thing you can do to strengthen it, to help its progress, is to surrender with due modesty. That’s the best way to communicate with other people: I recognise it, you recognise it, other people recognise it. If you can withstand your own ego and that niggling doubt if you could do this and also go to P-Diddy’s party at the same time… You wrestle with that, with your self-esteem.
You did have a brief Hollywood moment didn’t you?
PB: I did. It really was interesting. I have to say it was lived in all earnest. I probably had straw in my hair the whole time; I was really a gawking tourist. And there was much good there, I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it. It’s a part of life, and of course there’s a period when you think, Do I belong here? The great thing all the time was you were constantly wanting to phone friends and say, Guess who’s in the shop? Guess who’s in the supermarket? I’m not immune to all that. In the movies – celluloid’s better than life isn’t it? It makes everything glossy. I don’t mean it’s better, but it’s so glamorous, I met lots of people – it was fascinating.
Something roots you here doesn’t it?
PB: Yeah - I was always all over the place and then when I came back I had mixed feelings about it.
PB: About being static. You eventually realise, with some activity you think, That’s good I’m really busy - but you’re just running up and down the same stairs all the time, not getting anywhere. That’s the trade-off. If you flirt with obscurity you can go too far. I don’t think life’s that complicated – [the band] was just three friends making it up [as we went along] on a daily basis. It leads you to certain places and it’s absolutely normal to find that exciting and intriguing, just like it’s absolutely normal after a while to think, Well – now what?
The break-up of a band can be devastating. Robert Wyatt told me that, to this day, he feels being thrown out of Soft Machine was worse than ending up in a wheelchair.
PB: [visibly shocked; quietly:] Wow. My goodness me. You wonder how many of us, with people all around us all the time, have learned to conceal or disguise what really hurt us. Doesn’t everyone want to be numero uno? A celebrity? Doesn’t everyone want to be loved and adored? Recognised as a beautiful woman? It’s like being at the airport, watching the people who work there: the rest of us are jet-setters while they’re there to sweep the floors? They’re ok with that? I don’t really think so. Whatever matters to people matters to them. I’m astonished by what you told me about Robert Wyatt. I think the search for the ineffable – it’s not in everyone, but that moment when you’re overcome with emotion, you can’t swallow, whatever it is just hits you, hits a nerve. It can be the funniest things. No matter how resolute your defences are, the tiniest thing can find its way through the armour.
It can just be a waft of scent.
PB: Absolutely. Someone said to me recently, and this is a tough guy, he was somewhere and someone was wearing a perfume he recognised and he just left. You know that Prince song, 'Terminal Condition of the Heart': "There was a woman in the ghetto/who made funny faces just like Clara Bow/how was I to know that she would wear the same perfume as you..?"
Yeah, yeah. Oh!
PB: Those are the things that get you. The funny thing is, when things like that happen, the person you want to speak to is the person.
The person you can’t speak to about it…
PB: Yeah. And I mean really, who wants to get over love anyway? I realise I’m sounding very glum today…
I don’t think you’re sounding glum; I hope I’m not making you glum.
PB: Absolutely not! Having someone, an outlet, a friend or whatever, you can really tell, you can really express things to [is wonderful]. Even accepting love is a struggle. It can be the thing a person wants [most]… but they’ll resist, find reasons against. We’re so mixed up.
It’s so hard to coincide with someone.
PB: But it’s absolute euphoria. Then there’s this other side of your brain saying – not that it will necessarily dip or diminish, but do I know anyone else in the world who’s magical? Ok. Not really. So empirically, the chances of this person being magical are not that high. And yet… my spine tingles, I’ve got goosebumps: it feels like the truth. I’ m so mixed up about all of that stuff and I think I’ll never resolve it. These are huge moments of realisation for me; I think other people realise them when they’re twenty: OK, you love each other and you get on with things. Meanwhile I’m still wandering round in the foothills of all of this, very, very slowly coming to realise basic and essential things about romance and so on.
Getting stuck into my 40s, and having been single for large tracts of my life, I used to – though I don’t anymore - feel terribly jealous of people who settled into good relationships in their twenties.
PB: I tend to think they’re better than me, more mature.
Half of me still thinks that too, to be honest.
PB: There’s an irony there – I’ve made a very humble living by espousing the romantic – and then you think, Wait a minute…! What if that’s not what it’s about – and actually it isn’t. Is it not in fact about putting up with each other and doing the difficult things and did I grasp all of that…?
I wouldn’t say I look at your records and think this is propaganda on the level of Disney or a Hollywood rom-com. It’s not that evil.
PB: [laughs] No it’s not. Thank you! Maybe it’s more just an expression of aspiration, of what you hoped for – the white picket fence.
That makes me think of one of the many great things Chris Roberts wrote, about The Sundays, something like they reminded him that ‘sadness puts a pin in happiness.’
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Your songs don’t really espouse a romantic ideal.
PB: No, you’re probably right. How have I survived this long? How have the public put up with me? I thought that recently: on some level every time I’ve done anything, I’ve just assumed because compared to say, Beethoven, you’re doing something very fizzy…
PB: Yes. You finish something and think, Oh my god; I get so engrossed in it – we all did – I forget what it will be like to hear it. I always forget the consequences: I always think it’s something that’s really poppy, but later when I look at it you think my goodness, that’s a bit weak. There’s a prevalent energy about the records – it can be one of a million energies - and ultimately that’s what communicates. It’s got nothing to do with [aesthetic choices] – well, it does, but these things are details, expressions of that energy, and if those choices are informed by the right energy they tend towards the right decisions but it’s not down to whether there’s 10% reverb or 12% reverb on the snare. It matters; of course it matters: you’re communicating aurally to people. People get a massive, massive amount of information from a sound, and even more from a voice. At the ludicrous end of the spectrum, if you’re watching a TV movie and a particular kind of soundtrack starts, you know what you’ve to feel: sad or happy or sexy or whatever. I saw something recently while in Europe – there was a scene in a forest, and [the soundtrack was really excessive]; it must have been a really big forest! You wanted to say to the guy, We get it! But I think that underlying energy or tension in a record is principally what people absorb, and if they understand that you’re sincere, or they just like what you’re trying to do they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
The first Blue Nile album doesn’t sound like anything else – it doesn’t even sound like other Blue Nile albums. Did you have any idea what you were doing?
PB: [laughs]. No. The engineer, Calum Malcolm who made all four Blue Nile records with us – I made this record with his son – towards the end of High he said to me, You know I had no idea what I was doing during A Walk Across The Rooftops, and said, I didn’t either. That was what was good. We weren’t part of any scene; we didn’t have people who could play a lot of great chords on their instruments. We could play a little, but I was the worst by a long way. The real key to it was we got more and more interested in trying to make a landscape, to have the music reflect some component of the backdrop. We didn’t want it to sound like it was made in a recording studio: we wanted the guitar to sound like the traffic. We wanted height. We were very concerned about height on that record – and by extension, depth, obviously, and perspective. It took us a long time after that to realise we shouldn’t be trying to do that again, which partly accounted for the gap between the first and second records.
Wasn’t there an album you scrapped?
PB: Not an actual album. There was a lot we threw away that was half-formed. We went into the studio too soon – we were under pressure to make another record. The bravery of [what we did] if that’s an applicable word, was we eventually said: Enough. Stop. The studio was a Victorian schoolhouse; we took the master tapes and wiped a lot of things – the rest we took out into the playground and set it on fire. It was completely liberating. We realised we had a few things we liked; we then couldn’t get into the studio for a year and a half. The record company had put someone else in: "You guys, you take ages." It didn’t matter – we did what we should have done to begin with we came home to Glasgow, we met up, we had a cup of tea, we rehearsed, stumbled onto things we actually cared about and we went back to the studio and it [came together] really quickly. That was a lesson. The same thing happened with the third record [Peace At Last] –we didn’t want to make the second record again. Why would you? Robert phoned me up one day in New York and said, "I saw a guitar I thought you’d like." I never go into guitar shops, neither does Robert. That day, I’d been into the same shop and tried the same guitar – it was just an enormous coincidence.
PB: Yeah. It was actually quite a difficult guitar to play, but that became he starting point of that record. Then a whole lot of litigation kicked in and we ended up going to America more because we couldn’t do anything here. There was a fall-out between the label and the licensing company, and we were stuck – there was no question it started to affect us. We were in America quite a bit and that’s when the stress and strain started to kick in. I think the effort of making Hats – not of making Hats, of not making Hats, of holding off and everyone saying, You’ve blown it; your moment’s passed – your one gold chance; why don’t you just finish it and put it out?
We were broke. It really caught up with us. After Peace At Last – we were signed to Warner, and although the band seemed wobbly the record company was stable – and then the owner of Time Warner died and everything changed. We were on the point of making a record and we then had to delay that for a year and a half. Then when we did make the record there was something missing – what you confront then is what I said about core energy; the net effect of the ups and downs - the intensity and closeness of the friendship you had had somehow got scattered, dissipated. But then I could always see that while Peace At Last was executed as well as it could have been, that there were flaws in it and if we made another record that was short of perfection then that would be the perception of the arc we’d achieved. That would always be the perception. When we eventually finished High, I don’t think it was bristling with the same joy and naivety we’d felt when we started. We’d gathered ourselves long enough to make it. It seemed to me a stoic record, to some extent a record about ourselves, though I didn’t realise that ‘til later. It was a collected and fairly stoic record which I was proud of and, in a sense, we just made ourselves focus. We showed up, we went into the room and worked, and whatever drift had set in we were loyal to each other and we knew we had to form the wagons into a circle. And that’s where we left it.
Talking of resolving things, if there is trick in those songs, isn’t it chord progressions that don’t quite resolve, that give that feeling of being suspended? Three notes instead of four and because the fourth is absent you’re left…
PB: …waiting. This is a good question. I’m not a musician.
[incredulously] Is it really simply instinctive?
PB: I was doing something recently and was asked, What key do you want to do it in? I had absolutely no idea what to say. No idea. What I can say is: I started on a C, but that doesn’t mean in it’s the key of C. You probably do play the same things most of the time. You sit and bash away on the piano or strum away on the guitar – eventually you forget what you’re doing; some emotion that’s in you surfaces…some [looks away] In the songs that see the light of day, the majority of the lyrics – certainly the definitive phrase – come at the same time. It’s automatic. They just come along. Robert used to say that with good ones, the words sound big. "Sometimes I walk away…" [‘Let’s Go out Tonight’]; ‘Tinseltown’ – once he said it, I thought, "So they do." Apparently I like certain [musical] things – I’ve had it explained to me but I’ve forgotten them now. I just like that wee shape going into that wee shape. Maybe ten days in a row you’re playing a melody and you think, Be good! Be good! And it’s not good. Another day you pick it up and sing a beat early or a beat late and suddenly that’s it. These songs [on Mid Air] – actually what I was trying to do was write something for somebody else. I’d sit and think, What was that I used to play again? Or: this is absolutely no use at all. But just to remember it I’d stick on the Dictaphone and maybe mumble a few lines. This happened over verging on three months. Eventually I thought: I’m not getting anywhere, so I listened back to see if there was anything that was suitable, to see if I’d missed something, but in listening back I was thinking – it’s not like you’re Beethoven – but [a song like] ‘Two Children’, you’re just thinking: They’re true. They’re true; not good or bad. When I finished it, I more or less had a panic attack: I thought, it’s not coherent, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, it’s hopeless. But…
...It’s not so much a collection of songs which operate as independent entities. it’s the whole thing. A song-cycle.
PB: It’s the whole thing. It’s [one] long song. Honestly it wasn’t until after I’d finished that I realised that.
They songs don’t really have choruses do they?
PB: They don’t have any shape. They have the shape they have. Because life is inconclusive and the things that the people in the songs are saying are inconclusive: he doesn’t actually want to leave her; she doesn’t actually want that. Maybe they’re gonna get on the plane, maybe not; maybe it’s ok, maybe not. Maybe, maybe.
By bearing witness to that uncertainty, you can make other people feel less alone in their uncertainty.
That’s a great thing.
PB: It is a good thing. But I wasn’t doing it as a public service. I was just doing it because I was alone. ‘Half The World’, for example: there’s no major philosophy behind it – I’d be standing alone in my kitchen at 3am in the morning looking out of the window. I would realise that there were a lot of other kitchen lights on.
I call that a Blue Nile Moment: whenever I’m looking out of a window at night across a cityscape I think that.
PB: That’s nice. That’s good. I would have liked to be happy and a huge success and had lots of kids – I’d have liked all of that. You get what you get. I’ve been very, very lucky.
Do you mean happy or content?
PB: Good question.
Knowing what makes us happy is easy – although getting it might be difficult – it’s maintaining some sense of satisfaction on a day by day basis that’s really hard. To be content: that’s the thing.
PB: You’re right. You can achieve moments of happiness, or even periods of happiness. But I find solitude pressing more and more heavily on me and there’s a terrible aspect to that so far as you begin to accept it.
I’m with you there…
PB: Having said that, I’m not [generalising about] any peoples’ lives. But there are a lot of people who are alone and not happy, not content. There’s no question that being able to share something withy another person, have support from another person, is helpful, is good, is beneficial. I think I’ve more or less accepted my fate. I was in a relationship and I’m not entirely sure whether that’s ongoing or not. You do get to the point of thinking: I’m too old and too tired to sell it to myself, never mind to anyone else. My sense of self-worth is very low. That’s why something like the John Berger piece is so touching, it’s one of those Citizen Kane ‘Rosebud’ moments when you think, What happened to me? Whatever happened to me, to that kid? You know? In terms of writing the songs, partly what was good about it was I was away from all of the stuff that had started to surround us – about record companies; expectation – "Why don’t you write ‘Tinseltown’ again?"
Did you get a lot of that?
PB: I think it’s normal. People don’t know what they’re saying. People stop you in the street and say: Oh, 'Tinseltown'; I love ‘Tinseltown.’ It’s lovely, it really is – but’s a bit like somebody saying, you know I really liked you twenty years ago – when you were good-looking! It’s all good.
Far be it from me to suggest what that song’s about – but one of the things it seems to me it might be about is impermanence, maybe? Flux?
PB: You’re probably right.
So someone asking you to repeat something that in itself is about something impermanent is really not getting it, are they?
PB: Absolutely. The thing is: why would I do it again? I don’t understand. People speak as if it’s a kit you buy [and] just put the bits together. It’s not a recipe! It’s a great example of what I was talking about earlier: [an expression of] whatever the underlying energy is [at the time]. With ‘Tinseltown’ we’d recorded it – I had real difficulty getting a good vocal, we eventually got one that was sort of ok. In those days obviously you had 24 tracks and that was it. The record was due in the next day. I was disconsolate really because I didn’t think I had sung it well and there were no tracks left and the record company were coming the next morning. We were having problems balancing it as well. Finally, at 9 o’clock in the evening, just to get a break as much as anything else – I prevailed upon everyone to let me have a shot at fixing one or two lines. So they said, Fine – just go in. We won’t record. They muted the vocal so I could just song along. They actually did record!
That old trick!
PB: [laughs] It was lovely of them. I don’t think you ever come out and think, That was really clever, I’ll do that again someday; it’s just what happens. I’m delighted that people like particular songs; in other countries it’s different songs. The only way to get back to anything good is to try to be as sincere and true as you can. One of the things that was good about [Mid Air] was there were no distractions. I didn’t have a record company; I didn’t plan to release it as a record. It was free of all of those things. I didn’t think, I should add another chorus; I’d better put another piano under there just to lift it up a little. I just thought: No.
It feels – and given the process of its making this seems an ironic word to use – the most full-realised, cohesive record since Hats.
PB: I’m trying to tell myself this as much as you… External factors creep in, how can they not? You keep telling yourself they’re not affecting you and they are. Even when you’re not consciously – and we never did, there was never a conscious sense of compromise - but you’re not fully in the moment. You must find sometimes when you’re writing that the right sentence or the right word or the right expression eludes you. Just eludes.
Oh god, yes.
PB: You can look in every dictionary, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s not coming until you forget [yourself].
Do you have periods when you just can’t write?
PB: Absolutely. All the time. In some sense, it just passes through you.
As in: you’re a conduit?
PB: Yes. Whatever Spencer Tracy said about acting ‘know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.’ It just comes when it comes. You get what you get. Bob Dylan got what Bob Dylan got; Radiohead get what Radiohead get; Arcade Fire get what Arcade Fire get; Bruce Springsteen gets what Bruce Springsteen gets; the Beatles got what the Beatles get – and somewhere, way down at the end of the line, you get what you get. And you should be thankful.
Do you tinker with lyrics, or do they come fully formed?
PB: There may be a line or two where I think, Oh god, I just cannot get this. It’s like the story about, I think it was Alan Jay Lerner, when was trying to finish [sings the tune of 'All I Want Is A Room Somewhere', from My Fair Lady] Da-da-da, da-da, daa, da, daa... and it took him six weeks to write the last line: "Lovely, lovely lovely lovely"! When I was trying to finish the song ‘Mid Air’ there were two lines that were bothering me. It was like having an imaginary piece of something on your suit! I couldn’t get it at all. I thought, Just forget about it, it’s fine, leave it alone. Then one night I happened to [come across] ‘Mid Air 1’ – so it was obviously from the original Dictaphone [recordings]. You [repeat the same stuff] for 6 or 7 minutes hoping [it starts to make sense]… about 5 minutes in, I said two lines [ - the ones I’d been trying to summon].
And you’d forgotten about it – and there it was.
PB: You end up thinking: Am I leaving messages to myself? By this point a year and a half had passed. I don’t know – I’d like to ask other people how the experience is for them. Is it just a wee moment? The residual anxiety for me is that you put people off by breaking it down too much. My output’s low, and it relies entirely on the listener being willing to imagine.
In terms of..?
PB: Like theatre: you have to be willing to not see [the wings]. They’ll just go with it – and if you tamper with it too much…
There’s often an imaginative leap involved with the way your lyrics work; there are sequences – of phrases or just words – that appear initially to be non-sequitur but as with poetry, they resonate with each other. The first moment for me that happened with 'Mid Air' was that line about "starlight in my suitcase" – and this, as I said, was on a commuter train at rush hour. I heard that line and just lost it. I was sobbing, quietly, into my hands. Which is really fine, by the way!
PB: That’s lovely. Good!
But "starlight in my suitcase", even "the cars are in the garden" – your brain wrestles with that…
PB: Yes, it does.
You half know what it means but…
PB: My dad mentioned that song. There is something oppressive about it I think. It was only after the song, I looked out of the window one day and you know how it is around here [the West End of Glasgow], the cars are nose to tail, and quite often because the streets are so narrow, they’re half on the pavement. Obviously that wasn’t what I was thinking about. The garden was somehow simultaneously a normal garden and Eden, you know? That’s why, at the end of the song – and I regard it as an imploring thing to say: "We’re in the garden now." Let’s make the most of it. Let’s not mess it up. "The stars are underneath the clouds": the whole record is meant to be naïve, in a way. But that song is particularly claustrophobic – that sense of being invaded by everything. Absolutely invaded by everything. In the second verse – "take me to the crossroads" etc etc – and the music threatens to go a bit Mid-West, wide-frame-y, to me that was his or her imagined potential escape. Can we get away from all of this? Obviously not. The next section – and it is disjointed – is more internal, he’s reflecting on, I could leave or could stays or whatever. Then it’s "the toys are in the garden; the cars are in the garden" – but we’re in the garden. We should try to make the best of it. With "starlight in my suitcase" I just loved the idea of it.
I don’t know exactly what ‘gather me in snowfall’ means [‘Family Life’, from Peace at Last] – and I don’t have to, it doesn’t need to be pinned down like that, but every time I hear it I get a rush of goosebumps.
It’s the way in which poetry can have a meaning, a resonance that derives from the way in which the words chime against other, beyond whatever the actual meaning of the poem may be.
PB: Absolutely. Some of the lines do, and some don’t refer to memories of my own, childhood memories – but that’s not what is interesting about them: what’s interesting is what we’ve got in common. Again, it’s what I was talking about earlier: the only redemptive thing I can think of to do – and I think the band achieved this in some way, on a personal level – the only thing that’s left is sacrifice. Sacrifice. That’s all. I’m never gonna be Number 1, I’m never going to cure the common cold, I’m never going to bring peace to the Middle East, I’m gonna be able to tell the people I love how much I love them. Never. I’m never gonna feel the feeling that John Berger describes for any human being, probably no human being is ever gonna feel it for me – but it doesn’t mean I’m giving up. The only way I can see towards it now is surrender – absolute surrender: surrender to your own inconsistencies, your own cowardice, your own weaknesses, to concede them – and take that as your starting point. Not to reach that conclusion and think: everything’s simple from now on, it’s not. I’ll leave here – if I manage to get out of here without falling over a chair, that’s a good thing; I’ll make a mistake walking home.
The only thing I can think of that’s left is that. If I’m being absolutely honest, I don’t want to grow old and die alone. I’d rather it didn’t take forever. Yes… I’d rather it didn’t take forever. I’m saying that now [smiles] maybe check with me later! All I can think of to do is to somehow get to that point of acceptance and just hope that what the fates have in-store for you is: See that loser there? Give him that piece of paper. Give him that line. Give him that song. Make him bump into those other two guys in the street. Make that happen. That’s all, that’s it. If you set out thinking you’re gonna do something good, maybe that’s the price you pay for it. I never [use] Youtube, but I did look at it the other night and I saw some things people had said… you’re not talking about a lot of hits – is that what you call it when people view stuff? – so it’s not like you’ve affected large numbers of people, but it was still lovely to read some of the things. I thought: how does my vanity and my ego and my humility feel about that? Was that enough? That’s what I got. That’s what I got. And is it enough? Can I live with it? Well it doesn’t matter because it is what it is.