At The Water's Edge
Five years ago The Blue Nile released an LP that has had the music biz desperate for more. Nigel Lord waxes lyrical over emotional songs and ill-defined technology.
Five years ago, The Blue Nile released an album that was to be regarded as a classic fusion of sound and song - five years later they've done it again...
FINDING WORDS TO REFLECT THE emotions evoked by a piece of music is never easy, and heaven knows, music which has been a part of your life for the last five years is responsible for more than its fair share of emotions. So how do I go about describing the music of The Blue Nile to those unfamiliar with the name? The simple answer is I can't. Its understated grandeur, and indeed, the wholly unspectacular approach of the three people responsible for it have a strangely humbling effect on, I suspect, all those who stumbled across their first album back in 1984.
There was no precedent for A Walk Across The Rooftops. After a promising, but unsuccessful first single, Paul Buchanon, Robert Bell and Paul Moore, went into Castlesound Studios in Edinburgh to demo an album which they'd been working on during the previous year. Whilst there, Linn, the company famous for their high-quality record decks, happened across one of their tapes, and immediately offered to sign the band to the specialist record label the had established.
Realising that the company's decidedly low-key approach would allow them to work and develop at their own pace, the band signed to the label and spent the next five months at Castlesound recording their debut album. Six months later it was released, along with a single, Tinseltown In The Rain', and within a few weeks had stirred the hearts of all who heard it. And then? Well, despite constant talk of a follow-up, nothing transpired. Two years after, I stopped watching the music press for news. Two years after that, I concluded the band had gone their separate ways.
A year later, I'm sat listening to their quite stunning second album, Hats, and I have an invitation from the awfully nice people in the Virgin press office to go and interview the band in their native city of Glasgow. There just might be a supreme being, after all.
Leafing through a clutch of past interviews with The Blue Nile, the difficulty of the task ahead soon becomes clear. Everything you'd want to say about them, has been said - most of it five years ago. And we're not just talking critical acclaim here. Where genuine emotions are involved, even hardened critics are wont to wax lyrical about a piece of music - and here there were seven, all exquisitely crafted by a band with no particular axe to grind and no wish to elicit a response from the world other than through their music. Not only that, but statements weren't being made about getting back to pop fundamentals or thrusting forward with the instruments and attitudes of a new age. Just three men doing their best to produce songs reflective of their lives, using the fairly limited resources at their disposal.
But nothing could halt the adjectives of the critics... evocative, haunting, wistful, melancholy, plaintive, impressively fragile, harmonically gorgeous - and every word of it true. For this is the power of the song. Melody and conviction achieving that which style and the beat never will. It is perhaps time we re-learned this simple truth.
The Blue Nile have probably always known it. Their problem lies in making sense of the industry of which the release of two long playing records has made them a part. They tread very warily. Talking to the three of them in a hotel bar, I sensed a reawakening of some half-forgotten sense of just what happens to you when you produce music that people want to listen to. The sudden focusing of the media attention, the hype, the elation, the frustration, the interviews.
Making up for the fact that answers don't trip as easily from the tongue on the first or second interview as they do on the 21st or 22nd, speaking to a band in advance of the rest of the media has the advantage that questions sound fresh. So how about the one that will surely find them groaning in despair in a couple of months time. Like, what on earth happened to the last five years?
"That's the time that's gone by since the release of the last album", Bell explains, "but the studio time can be condensed into a much shorter period. Really, there's been a number of reasons why we couldn't record over the last five years. The first year we had to attend to the group's affairs in order to protect the music, and the second year we weren't able to use the studio at all. And we have been working on other things like a soundtrack for the BBC and Halfway to Paradise on Channel 4".
Even so, five years? How does a band take the sort of critical acclaim meted out to A Walk Across The Rooftops and then resist the pressure to produce more of the same? Vocalist Buchanon: "We just wanted to make anther good record, but circumstances went against that. It wasn't easy, not putting one out - you're left living with a vacuum. But we didn't want to make another record just for the sake of it."
Was there not perhaps an element of 'how the hell do we follow that' involved? Bell: "In retrospect, yes, especially when people say nice things about the first record. But all you want to do is good work. You can't put out work that you don't believe in."
Nevertheless, there must be a danger of the five year hiatus being interpreted wrongly. "I am slightly concerned that it will be misconstrued, yes", agrees Buchanon, "but really, it didn't happen like that. We didn't spend any longer writing and recording this album than we did the last. It's just that this time people were aware of us."
I'm almost convinced. Five years can slip by very quickly. And sadly, the wait hasn't exactly been eased by the kind of music which has dominated the intervening period. In fact, in the present musical climate, The Blue Nile seem poised to offer the world that which it has been waiting for: a rediscovery of the song, the wresting back of melody from beneath the all-consuming beat.
Moore: "I can't tell you how relieved I am to hear you say that! I've been sat here listening to us painfully trying to explain the time away, flicking through the Tuesdays and Wednesdays and thinking, why didn't we, why couldn't we... and then you say something like that and... Well, it's what I've been waiting to hear. I just hope there are other people that will feel the same."
HAVING SPENT THE LAST MONTH listening almost exclusively to the new album, I really don't believe there can be any doubt.
Certainly, as far as Virgin Records are concerned, stones are unlikely to be left unturned in their efforts to bring TBN to widest possible audience. So are the band aware of some huge machine being wound up ready to roll?
Buchanon: "I think there are a lot of good people in the record company who want to be involved with something they feel is based on integrity and good intention. I'm sure that prevails to a large extent."
I'm sure it does. And it isn't difficult to be drawn in by the band's honesty and self-effacement. Rather like fans of some Hollywood legend each believing themselves to be the most devoted, the music of The Blue Nile elicits a very personal response from its listeners which has each convinced they alone can truly empathise with it. It is an intensely romantic music...
"As far as equipment's concerned, there's a great enjoyment to be had in working with what's available to you at the time; it obliges you to investigate the possibilities."
"That's another reason why it took as long as it did - the climate you find yourself living in sometimes just isn't conducive to writing about true love rather than it just being a rhyme. I think we were holding out until we heard music back on our tapes which we recognised as being genuine in that way."
The emotion of which we speak stems in no small part from Buchanon's extraordinarily poignant voice, which if anything, is given a more demanding role on this current album than it was on the last. Having said that, this slight shift in emphasis has perhaps been at the expense of the rhythmic inventiveness which characterised the first album.
Bell: "I take your point, but I don't think you can cover all bases at once. To have the kind of emotion that we've tried to get onto this record involves an element of stillness which means rejecting most rhythms out of hand."
Buchanon takes up the theme: "Once you've crossed a bridge I don't think there's any point trying to cross it again. We didn't set out to make the definitive Blue Nile record; we just made a Blue Nile record. It's very romantic music but it's a different kind of romance than the last record. It's slightly less austere than some of those songs, and that's something we wanted to achieve".
What of the problem of objectivity? Surely in any creative process which involves sustained periods of concentration and thought about what it is you're trying to achieve, the first thing to go out of the window is objectivity.
Buchanon again: "We try not to lie to ourselves. A lot of times we record a song and listen to it a couple of days later and if we don't feel moved or touched by it we won't use it. But you can't cue ready for the best distillation to come along, you can only wait for the right things to happen and then just accept them and try not to be defensive about them. In many ways this is a less defensive record - it's like, here we are with all our vulnerabilities.
"Writing is a pretty democratic process for us, I don't think we're ever really at variance. Our imaginations seem to respond to the same stimulus - by which token, we also tend to make the same mistakes. We reject an awful lot of songs, too; we'd try songs which were just alright, and then maybe seven or eight months later, something would come along which was a simpler distillation, and we'd realise we'd been writing towards that for some time. But we'd have perhaps written half a dozen songs which didn't quite articulate the feeling."
AT THE TIME OF THE LAST ALBUM, THE band seemed to have adopted a "whatever comes to hand" approach to the instruments with which they plied their trade. Beyond Buchanon's position as vocalist, it was hard to even identify the instruments through which each of them defined their role as a musician. Was this still the case?
"I think so, yes", Moore explains, "but in terms of equipment we've probably, got less now than we had before. We seem to have quite an emotional relationship with our instruments."
"Apart from the guitar which Paul plays, we tend to swop round with everything", offers Bell. "If you don't have the rule book, there's no need to obey the rules."
We seem to live in an age where the equipment a band uses (or doesn't) often becomes part of some political statement they're trying to make. What are Blue Nile's politics?
"We haven't decided. We're the don't knows", replies Moore with a wry smile. OK, let's try, it another way: is there any instrument you wouldn't be seen dead playing?
A moment's pause. "The flute." (general murmurs of agreement from the three of them). "Yeah definitely', flutes are out." "And I've got a personal vendetta against the harmonica", adds Bell. "That's entirely his predjudice!", interupts Buchanon, "I like the harmonica".
Er... I'm not entirely sure this is the sort of stuff readers of Music Technology are going to want to hear about. Could you perhaps be a little more specific about the instruments you play?
Moore: "A couple of guitars, bass, a couple of keyboards, some real strings..."
You don't happen to know which keyboards by any chance?
"Er, just Roland and Casios... Roland and Casios."
"All I know about music is that sometimes if I've got a record on, it will make me feel like laughing - or crying. And that's as much as I need to know."
Any particular Roland or Casio?
"There's a Jupiter 8..." Great. Anything else? "Obviously we use samples..." Ah, what sort of samples? "Everything and anything really." Natural sounds? "Yeah, sometimes." Alright, alright...
Clearly, equipment maintains its rightful status as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. But in this day and age no-one can totally divorce themselves from the technical aspects of modern musical instruments.
"I get to read all the manuals", muses Moore with touch of irony. "But I am interested in the gear. It's one of those things I've learned instinctively - along with how to keep it out of the way of the music." "It's subservient", interrupts Buchanon. "Paul's very gifted at developing sounds, but he does it as a sort of a cross between an artist and a scientist. It seems to me he has a great empathy for the emotional value of sound, and because of his background in electronics he's able to develop that.
"But as far as equipment's concerned, I think there's a great enjoyment to be had in working with what's available to you at the time, it obliges you to investigate the possibilities. For instance, if you have the volume almost off on an instrument it'll produce a different kind of sound where you can maybe hear the sound of the keys being hit. For me, it's very often the last-minute tweak of the knob that nudges it from being a promising sound to being a thrilling one."
Bell: "I think it's a mistake to have all your bases covered... it's a bit like having all your pencils sharpened before sitting down trying to write ."
But this is all very much the preserve of the band which has control over its output. The Blue Nile, for the most part, seem to have been able to maintain their independence without the usual pressures being applied externally, but this isn't always the case.
Buchanon: "I think that's partly because it's an industry and it's difficult for people to evolve musically in any sense of isolation. These days there's a great self-awareness about the whole notion of record contracts and so forth. In retrospect, I think we were very lucky to be able to work privately for quite a while before we made the first record - its only now we've experienced how difficult it can be to be your own man."
Difficult or not, The Blue Nile guard their independence jealously. But whilst it is easy to identify this with the attitude of many provincial bands, no-one here is making statements by their continued residence in Glasgow. It's simply not an issue. Having said that, living in a city clearly makes its contribution to their music. Is this urban feel something they're aware of?
Buchanon: "I think it affects some of our sensibilities - like our visual points of reference. We perhaps tend to see cityscapes as being the signs of human presence. But it's also to do with the level of emotion people express here in Glasgow: it's a very emotional city".
"I don't think living here defines the music", Moore continues, "but living here and being brought up here does go through you. The last thing we'd want to do, though, is lift it out as a sort of musical reference. You wouldn't corrupt your imagination by just dragging something in like that. It might be common practice, but to me it seems preposterous."
How about influence from other forms of music?
Buchanon: "I think we distinguish between music we enjoy and admire, but which we have no wish to replicate. Certainly, making Hats we discovered that it's what you do simply and naturally that's the best.
"Next time, maybe we'll have the courage to do what we feel first rather than to go through the machinations of trying to assemble a record to meet a deadline. We tried that, and we just couldn't bring ourselves to live with it, so we kept on going until we returned to some sort basic impulses and instincts. And having lived through it I think I would now respect that way in the first instance. I cannot imagine myself now sitting down and trying to write a song."
TALKING TO THESE THREE MEN YOU soon get the impression that they really don't see themselves as fitting within the pop music industry. As Buchanon says "I don't think we take ourselves that seriously. It would seem hilarious to me to find myself in any of those guises; we've all lived too long on this side of the fence. We want to stand up and be counted, but when you keep selling yourself on the basis of being six feet two and really suave, it automatically excludes a lot of people who aren't six feet two and really suave. Anything which is exploitative of people ultimately deprives them of something."
The problem is, in an industry where every image has been tried and exploited to some extent, even the image of the reluctant hero has become a little tarnished. And whilst there can be no doubt that The Blue Nile regard themselves as neither reluctant nor heroes, there is a danger that their genuine attempt to make sense of the business that surrounds them will ultimately be misinterpreted as yet another pop ploy.
Bell: "It's an interest point. But it's surely a mark of what's wrong with the industry that there is always an element of doubt surrounding something that might be genuine."
"It terrifies me", continues Buchanon, "because I am always afraid that someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'You're a hypocrite'. We're engaged for vast amounts of our time in scanning ourselves, making sure that we're not tricking ourselves or coming on like philosophers. All I know about music is that sometimes if I've got a record on, it will make me feel like laughing - or crying. And that's as much as I need to know.
"But I am frightened that through cynicism someone will misinterpret us. We've tried to stay out of the way as personalities and as musicians in order not to obstruct the emotional content of the songs. Earlier, it might have seemed we were being evasive about the equipment we use, but really, we don't want people to listen to the record and be thinking, 'that sounds like such and such an instrument'. Our labour is to try and evoke an altogether different kind of response."
Were this 1969, The Blue Nile would be walking a fine line. In 1989 they're on a tightrope. But as they themselves point out, it's all too easy to be jaded, too easy to let cynicism get the upper hand. Their greatest strength is each other, and the respect they share can only sustain them through the inevitable madness of the months ahead.
"We've made a lot of mistakes but I think we honestly try to do something that we see as better than we are. We've always believed that by exercising their own choice people can maintain music as a form of expression rather than as a means of large companies producing something. The one remaining hope is that no-one can make you like something. They can make you buy it, but they can't make you like it."