The Maiden Aunts Of Techno: Blancmange Interviewed

John Doran hails the return of Blancmange after a 25-year absence, and finds out all about their new album Blanc Burn

The cyclical nature of all things musical has birthed a genuine revival in the fortunes of synthesizer music – you know this, as it’s impossible to miss. This was always on the cards after the strip mining of post punk that peaked a couple of years back and has already proved to be more satisfying than the faddish interest in 80s fashion provoked by New Rave and the silly hipster interest in MicroKorgs a while back. Over the last few years a large synth collection with a nuanced understanding of how they work, has made in demand producers of some (SMD, Benge) and further enhanced the reputations of others (James Murphy). From Cold Wave and Minimal Electronics becoming the new northern soul to industrial being reclaimed by club culture, to outliers such as Mordant Music, Lichens and Oneohtrix Point Never all the way to large corporate indie bands such as Editors and White Lies undergoing synth make overs, you can’t miss the influence of Messrs Roland and Moog and friends.

This entire turn of events is most welcome as far as we’re concerned. Seeing such diverse acts as Chris and Cosey, Gary Numan, John Foxx, Yazoo, Heaven 17, Human League, The Units, Ruth and Cabaret Voltaire etc appreciated by a young, discerning audience is heartening. Out of all the bands who have resurfaced recently however, childhood favourites Blancmange have probably caused the most unexpected delight.

In 1980 Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe formed Blancmange, which was originally a post art school project having more in common with Fad Gadget than it did with OMD. Embracing "the spirit of the times" they played early gigs with amplified washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Their first EP in 1980 Irene And Mavis (featuring the icy ‘Holiday Camp’) saw them branded "Maiden Aunts of techno" by supporter and Mute boss, Daniel Miller, cementing their distinctly out of step with the times aesthetic which was more provincial, surreal, wry and British than that belonging to most of their futurist contemporaries with synthesizers. After featuring on the Some Bizarre sampler (alongside The The, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell) they switched to a more pop direction and almost immediately hit it big with their third single ‘Living On The Ceiling’. The song (still one of the author’s favourite 45rpm 7" singles) had the disjointed and nonsensical but brilliant idea of combining a Middle Eastern refrain with European techno/synth pop and Indian percussion, and became a smash hit. The group recorded a string of excellent tracks (‘Feel Me’, ‘Don’t Tell Me’, ‘Blind Vision’, ‘Waves’, ‘I’ve Seen The World’, and a cover of ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’) before breaking up in 1986.

Well, now they’re back with a new album Blanc Burn which is as instantly recognisable as Blancmange from its 1950s advertising aesthetic cover art as it is from the bizarre synth pop vignettes it contains. The pair have been reunited with ‘third member’ Pandit Dinesh, who has a working relationship with both members that stretches over the best part of three decades. After several false starts, I caught up with Neil and Stephen last week.

I guess the million dollar question is, why reform now?

Neil Arthur: There were a few things really. A lot of people would ask us, ‘When are you going to make another album?’So off we went… and it went out of control.

Stephen Luscombe: Yeah, there wasn’t any plan to leave it 25-years. A few years ago Neil and I happened to be in the same room at the same time and we were talking about the music of Blancmange and we just agreed at the same time, ‘Yeah, let’s do some music together.’ There have been occasions before where one of us has said that we don’t want to do it. But this time we both said yes.

NA: What we did was put out some rough mixes on MySpace and they got a good response so we began whittling away at songs in between doing our own work making music for TV and film.

I remember reading an interview with you in Smash Hits when ‘Waves’ was a big hit…

NA: You’ve got a good memory.

Only for things that happened before I started drinking… actually quite sadly, I think I had the interview and the lyrics cut out and kept inside the sleeve of the 7", which is something I used to do when I was younger.

[Both laugh.]

Anyway, in this interview I remember you saying that you had to send a sachet of Blancmange with you press kit to America because none of the journalists over there knew what your name meant. Does anyone know what Blancmange is now? I mean, can you even still buy it?

SL: You can. In fact someone was making one on the telly the other night. It was on Come Dine With Me. This silly woman was making an edible pair of tits for a theme party. They were made from pink blancmange with two grapes as the nipples.

NA: When we actually got to America they thought we were named after a Monty Python sketch. It was one of the few we hadn’t seen however, about people playing tennis with blancmanges.

You’ve told me why you’ve reformed now, but it feels like the right time doesn’t it? There’s a lot of interest in synthesizer music going on at the moment.

NA: There certainly is a lot of referencing going on to early 80s sounds at the moment. It might be fortuitous, I don’t know, although we didn’t plan it like this.

SL: I think it might be a generational thing as well. When we were young there was a lot of interest going on in the 60s and people doing all sorts of retro stuff then.

NA: That said things would have been different if we had have done this ten years ago. There wasn’t a massive amount of interest in electronic music back then.

SL: Electronic has always had a funny sort of role because when all the first synth bands came out big time, there was a lot of resistance from the Musician’s Union. They said they were going to ban us all and put us out of work and all that palaver. I think Vince Clarke was going to start a Union of Sound Synthesists – the USS – as a reaction to it. But, you know… music’s just music.

I was at a bar in Dalston and they were playing a lot of Cold Wave and rare synth pop last year, and the hipster DJ dropped ‘Holiday Camp’… I don’t think the DJ was even aware of you as the pop band, just this obscure proto synth pop gloom…

SL: Where did he get that from? Goodness me! That was on our very first EP…

NA: I went to a lecture given by Greg Wilson, the Hacienda DJ and he was talking about the stage when electronic music became very influential on house music. I think people react against this mistaken idea that the machines have take over music by going back to things like the early BBC Radiophonic Workshop stuff where you can still point to an obvious human touch in it. If you listen to all electronic music in that context, it’s easy to remember that it isn’t machine music; it’s all programmed or played by humans.

SL: We went to get interviewed on the radio the other week where we were asked to play some tunes on the radio that have informed us to do what we do now. One of the tracks we chose was the Dr Who theme, obviously composed by Ron Grainer but realised by the Radiophonic Workshop, whose most important member was Delia Derbyshire. So they weren’t even just sitting and pushing buttons; they were making instruments and tape loops and all sorts by hand. In fact the TARDIS noise is a piano wire being scraped, a slowed down cabbage, it wasn’t just machines, it was organic…

NA: Hold on a minute… slowed down cabbage… what does that sound like?

SL: Sorry a sample of cabbage being sliced, slowed down. With a hippopotamus mating as well.

Yeah, the BBC has totally lost that thing now, of having very talented people secreted away down corridors just being left to get on with really forward looking things.

SL: Well, when we used to do Radio 1 sessions you used to pass them on the corridors at Maida Vale. Not just Delia Derbyshire but David Vorhaus and Brian Hogson who had been White Noise and they were the first people using the first portable synths like the EMS Synthi VCS3… before that it had been the MOOG. And we’d be walking past them in their cubby holes at Maida Vale, tinkering away.

NA: We used to borrow one of those portable synths from a friend when we first started and record the tone onto a cassette machine. What we realised quite quickly is that no matter how you patch it, it’ll never play the same tone quite the same so that’s it. We used to make some tones, give the synth back to its owner and work with the tape.

I know when you first started you used to do things like mic-up washing machines and things like that. Were you more in tune with people like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle when you set out?

SL: I suppose so but not consciously and that was just more the mood of the times wasn’t it?

NA: We just used whatever we could get our hands on. And we certainly wore great big long overcoats. I guess at first, we weren’t making what you’d call songs, they were just different noises and textures so, yes, in a way I guess you’re right.

SL: Also, despite the fact that I didn’t go to art school, I knew a lot of people who did and that was where I met Neil, in Harrow. And my background was in experimental music anyway, in free jazz and things like that. We were into Terry Riley and things like that.

It may have been a while since you first started but your new record Blanc Burn is quite clearly a Blancmange album. As soon as you look at it, it has the type of artwork that one would associate with you. Was it important to keep the aesthetic the same?

NA: Why not? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We wanted something that was similar to the first album, although, the first album is based on artwork and the cover to Blanc Burn is actually an adaptation of a real advert from the period.

SL: It would have been easy… well, perhaps not easy but it would have been obvious to try and update the sound. To try and apply everything that we’ve learned since and tried to apply it to the album, saying let’s just do whatever is on the record player these days but we said, ‘Let’s just do what we do.’

NA: I don’t know what the Blancmange sound is so I’ve never been able to say, ‘Let’s do something like the first album’, or whatever.

Well, it’s a good thing and something that’s worked to your advantage. We really enjoyed listening to the album. One standout track which I gather might be a single, is ‘The Western’. Now melodically it doesn’t sound like ‘Living On The Ceiling’ but texturally it does. And you say you don’t know what the Blancmange sound is but in some cases you could say, very clear synth pop melodies with a persuasive undercurrent of Asian percussion.

SL: Well, I’ve been working with {Pandit] Dinesh for over 25-years now, so I guess that’s inevitable.

I was going to ask about Dinesh; how did you first come to work with him?

NA: He’s part of the family. I’ve literally just got off the phone with him before this interview because he’s coming over from India for some rehearsals. Steven’s always worked with him.

I’m very interested in this. Because not only was it an odd influence in early 80s pop but it’s something that’s directly influenced both of your solo work since. Where did this fascination with Asian rhythms come from?

SL: It was our manager’s idea to put Deepak [Khazanchi, santoor] and Dinesh [Pandit, tablas] on ‘Living On The Ceiling’ even though it’s a Middle Eastern melody. It’s a geographical nonsense! But even before we met them the influence was there. I was brought up near Heathrow Airport in the late 1950s and 1960s and lived near Southall. There were a lot of Indian and Pakistani children at my school, so it wasn’t just the mass immigration of those times but a lot of families near mine worked for the airlines. We used to go to and watch the old Bollywood films when they had a good one on. The comedies were the best. We’d watch them at the old Dominion Cinema.

It was around this time that I heard a song [that would be very important to us]. I ended up working with the guy called RD Burman who wrote it in Bombay many years later. I played him this track we did called ‘Hello Darling’ which was a mash-up of a track he did for a film called Darling Darling based on the idea of My Fair Lady. The track was sung by Kishore Kumar, a great comedian and vocalist. But back then [in the late 70s] I didn’t know what I was listening to. In fact I would hear it at 7am because I would hear it on the radio before starting my paper round on a show called Make Yourself At Home. And it started from this radio show and later John Williams our manager would introduce us to Dinesh and Deepak who would help us transfer these sounds to our single ‘Living On the Ceiling’ and it went from there, I suppose.

Elsewhere on the album you have another killer track called ‘Radio Therapy’, which appears to give a tip of the hat to the daddies of all electronic pop music, Kraftwerk.

NA: I suppose it has yeah… We wrote it initially on a guitar and then cut up all the loops, which is a different way of working but there are some quite pure synth sounds on it.

SL: I’ve got some really old albums by Kraftwerk, from before they released Autobahn and they were a lot more arty. Using equipment with wires sticking out all over the shop… before they got that ultra-clean Germanic image. When you watched them live there would be piles and piles of equipment on stage and you wouldn’t be quite sure what was going on. They were more similar to Tangerine Dream or one of those Krautrock bands.

Most synth pop groups of the 80s such as OMD and the Human League came directly in the wake of Kraftwerk but you were always a much broader band stylistically, and so it is here with elements of lounge, soul and rockabilly.

SL: You can’t unlearn what you’ve learnt basically. You pick up all these things along the way. I’ve learned loads working with Dinesh in India for example, doing films in Bombay. It’s a whole story in itself. You do end up feeling like a magnet just dragging stuff along as you walk past it. You collect everyday things. For example, I still listen to ABBA, I’m sure lots of people listen to ABBA now but we were genuinely listening to ABBA back then. People would look at us and go, ‘What the hell are you doing? Are you sure?’

Well, I understand what you’re saying because to my mind you chose what is by far and away ABBA’s best song to cover, and I genuinely love ABBA. But ‘The Day Before You Came’ is a work of utter genius.

SL: To me they always had a sort of 19th Century romantic sensibility. It’s very European. Like Kraftwerk they were totally European, having nothing to do with America whatsoever. Not that I’ve got anything against the country but it was very European if you see what I mean.

Noble Paul Noble, our radio show producer, is a massive fan and he told me this theory that some hardcore ABBA fans have is that the song is from the POV of a murder victim, killed by a stranger, the day before it happens.

SL: [laughing] I’d never thought of it like that before.

NA: I have been asked before why we changed Marilyn French to Barbara Cartland. But the fact that anyone would even have to ask why is hilarious. ABBA actually wrote to us and said that they liked our version and they even gave us permission to use their video.

SL: But then we went for a drink and left the letter in the pub… it just shows how efficient we were.

What marked you out as being different from the other acts on the Some Bizarre sampler?

NA: Crappy name!

SL: We were the only people on it with an instrumental and, I don’t know if this marks us out as different but it was certainly too late to change our name by then. I think the other thing was, that we went on tour with Depeche Mode early on a few times and we knew Daniel Miller, who called us the Maiden Aunts of electronic music and that was the nice thing about it, we were a bit more homely than other acts around at the time.

NA: And we didn’t take ourselves very seriously.

Talking of which, how were those early tours with Depeche Mode and Grace Jones?

NA: Fantastic. They [DM] were very, very supportive of us… they had a record company when we didn’t have one. To be a support group on a tour and to get a soundcheck every night was a rarity.

SL: They were the first all synthesizer group I’d seen or heard that had such a huge teen following. After the show each night we’d jump on the coach and it would literally get pulled from side to side by these kids trying to get their hands on the Depeche boys for autographs.

Then when you hit the top of the charts yourself, what was it like becoming that famous?

NA: Er, yeah… well… hmmm… Well, it was our third single and I guess it took us by surprise I suppose. We’d had the double A-side ‘God’s Kitchen/I’ve Seen The World’ out and then ‘Feel Me’ which had gotten to number 46 in the charts so I guess we thought we were moving in the right direction. I think we were more surprised when ‘Living On The Ceiling’ actually got into the charts. Stephen phoned me up and told me that it was at number 19 or whatever and we were chuffed to bits.

SL: After that we kind of got ate up by the machine though.

NA: After that was a hit, we’d initially decided to release ‘Kind’ as the follow up single but then we thought well we’ve just done ‘Living On The Ceiling’ why not do something entirely different? So we slowed it right down and came back with ‘Waves’, which… by the time it came out… [laughs] It had this massive orchestra on it. We went up to watch them play while they were working on it… it just seemed ridiculous.

Was it your nod to the Walker Brothers?

NA: No, not intentionally.

SL: We had stopped thinking of ourselves as a purely electronic pop group. We just thought, ‘Well, let’s just try it and see what happens. Which I guess is what we’d always done.

Blanc Burn is out on Proper on March 7

Blancmange Live 2011









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