With their second album just released, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe take a rest to talk here about the trials of their rise to fame, and their musical and equipment plans for the future. Dan Goldstein (a trifle agog) listens in...
Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe are two young musicians with a surprising talent for crafting a catchy pop melody and producing impressive-sounding recordings with what has often been the bare minimum of equipment. So far, their unique recipe has been a successful one, and Dan Goldstein chatted to the duo shortly after the completion of their second album about their background, their philosophies, their techniques and their future..
What sort of instrumentation did Blancmange start off with?
Stephen: For the first recording we did, we had one snare drum, bits and pieces of tupperware, a speaker and a tiny little amp that we used to call the Polystyrene Fuzz-box, through which we put Neil's guitar and bass and the first keyboard I ever had, an Armon Bunny One organ. I suppose, when we first started, Blancmange was a bit like those dreadful things you do in music lessons when you're about five: lots of random hitting of percussion, maracas and triangles, that sort of thing.
Neil: We made an EP - on our own label - of that sort of music, and eventually Stevo got hold of a copy of it through Rough Trade, and he asked us to put a track on the Some Bizarre compilation LP that he was putting together. It so happened we'd been doing a few four-track recordings of some more conventional pop songs at around that time, and so we put one of the songs we'd done - 'Sad Day' - on the album. There wasn't really very much to it. It was just Wasp synth, Steve's organ, a little Korg Minipops drum-machine, and my guitar, with some liberal use of reverb and echo machines.
Stephen: Whenever we did a concert and there was a new soundman at the back of the hall who wasn't familiar with us, he'd see us setting up our equipment and say: 'is that all you've got?', which struck me as being a bit stupid really. There seems to be this preoccupation people have with what instruments musicians use, when really they ought to concentrate on the music itself. Neil used to play a cheap old saxophone on stage, and everybody used to laugh at it, but what mattered to us was that it made a good sound.
We did an awful lot of gigs supporting bands in little pubs up and down the country, and eventually we started playing some more prestigious dates. One night we played a gig supporting Grace Jones at The Venue. There were a lot of A&R men there from different record companies, and the concert was a complete disaster, one of the worst we'd ever played. Despite that upset though we managed to get a spot supporting Depeche Mode on one of their first tours, and we also supported Japan on one tour just before we got a deal with London Records. We released a single - 'God's Kitchen' - and went on the road again with Depeche Mode just after that, and the whole thing really took off from there.
Did signing up to a record company enable you to buy better instruments?
Neil: Not at all! In fact, for most of the first album we still had the same basic line-up of equipment, and where that wouldn't suffice, we just borrowed gear. I played an £18 Gibson SG copy - I think it was a Torreadour - on 'Living On The Ceiling', though nobody seemed too bothered at the time.
Even the equipment we borrowed was quite straightforward really. We had a lot of Korg keyboards: an MS20, a Delta string-machine and a Polysix, plus a Roland TR808 drum-machine and a Jupiter 8 polysynth.
Stephen: A lot of the songs on Happy Families had been written some while before. A couple like 'I've Seen The Word' and 'Feel Me' were very old indeed. In a way I suppose we were reluctant to change their instrumentation too much, because we knew they sounded good the way we'd been playing them before.
What sort of things have influenced your music during your career?
Neil: I don't think there's any one thing that's influenced either of us profoundly. There's been nothing that we've heard and then said, 'I want us to sound like that'. I think we're influenced by lots and lots of different things, not all of them musical. Really you're influenced by just about everything around you. If you like reading you'll be influenced by what you read...
Stephen: There was one man - a guy called John Stevens - who taught me musical improvisation, and who I suppose played quite a big part in making me what I'm doing now. Really his teaching helped form the basis for my future musical development. He used to hold Spontaneous Music Workshops at an arts centre in West London, and it was really through them that I met Neil in the first place. We used to play any instruments that would come to hand: there was a big old grand piano in there, violins, flutes, and again, all sorts of different percussion instruments. We used to build sound sculptures from bits of wood and metal, and one Saturday afternoon we did a performance of some of our work - using those sculptures - at the Serpentine Gallery in London. There was also a guy called Max Eastley who did similar sorts of things only on a much more grandiose scale, and I liked his work a lot then, too.
Have there been any particular significant lyrical influences?
Neil: Not really. Again, as we were saying with music, there are really too many different things to mention. You might start to write a song, and then because you're influenced by almost everything that happens to you, by the time you finish composing it, the song's been changed 600 different ways.
I do like the idea of writing very simple lyrics, which is one reason why I always liked John Lennon's lyrics. He had a knack of putting things across very simply and poignantly, and I try to do much the same thing with my lyrics. That's not to say there's any great prophetic message in our songs or anything, it's just that simplicity that I'm aiming for.
Stephen: We do take our work very seriously. Being in the music business isn't like one of those jobs where a true professional can knock-off at 5pm every day. Being a musician is like being an actor. Someone like Dustin Hoffman has to live whatever character he might be working on 24 hours a day, and it's much the same with us. Being a musician requires a similar amount of dedication, not because you spend all your time playing but because whatever you try and do, you can't get away from the demands of having to write and record new material, play concerts, do interviews (!) and all the rest of it.
Presumably, then, in the early days, music dominated your lives to less of an extent?
Stephen: I wouldn't say necessarily, no, because it did play an important part in our lives. It was just that it did so in a different way, because it was self-imposed rather than being forced on us.
Neil: When we first started playing music, it was like a kind of therapeutic exercise, something to relax us. When I got home in the evening, I didn't want to paint or draw, because that was what I was doing during the day at college. It was nice to just sit down and write lyrics or play a bit of guitar. Now, we've moved on from music being an important sideline to becoming almost our entire lives.
You've just finished work on your second album. How would you say it differs from Happy Families?
Stephen: Well, the first thing is that the songs themselves are longer. We've given our melodies and rhythms more time in which to develop, so that the album is almost a collection of twelve-inch mixes, if you like. What you've got to remember is that, as we said before, a lot of the songs on the first album dated back a long way, so that really the new LP is the first real example people have had of what we're interested in doing now.
The production is different, too. I think this album is quite a bit rawer in feel, and that's largely due to the producer, John Luongo. We'd wanted to work with him ever since he did the twelve-inch re-mix of 'Feel Me' with all that extra percussion on it. He also produced 'Blind Vision' and in fact the new album was recorded at the same studio as that single, Sigma Sound in New York.
In a way I think we've expanded on a few things that we first Started experimenting with on Happy Families. Things like backing vocalists and Indian and tribal percussion...
You're also touring to promote the LP. Will there be any other musicians playing on stage with you?
Neil: Oh yes. We'll be using a couple of the people who played with us on the album. There'll be David Rhodes (Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Peter Hammill) on guitar, at least one extra percussionist, and two new female backing vocalists. We'll also be using tapes for the bass and drum parts.
Stephen:...I'm not particularly fond of the term, 'backing-tapes'; I think it implies some sort of con, and that really isn't the case with us at all. The tape to us is as important as any other instrument, and when we do a tour, we're not miming on stage, we're performing. The tapes are an important part of our music that need to be there, because they're part of the nature of our music. Our music is designed to accomodate tapes: when we write a melody, we don't then say 'right, let's get a drummer and a bass-guitarist in', we perform those parts ourselves using electronics and store them on tape.
There are still a lot of people around who haven't accepted that idea, even in 1984. I'm appalled at how old-fashioned some musicians are, especially young ones that say 'let's get back to guitars'. Synths have been around for quite a long time, but it's only really over the last year or two that they've been in the public eye and become more accessible. Ten years ago you needed a room full of equipment to get what you can get out of a Jupiter 8 now.
Do you have any problems combining esoteric work with the production of commercial music?
Stephen: Well, that's a difficult one because so far we've managed to make a very good compromise. We've been able to write and record whatever we feel is right at any particular time, and some of it has been commercially successful, almost by chance really. What has happened is that we've written a song - 'Blind Vision', for instance - and then taken the most commercial elements from it and emphasised them.
Neil: What you've got to remember is that any song is simply as commercial as the record company wants it to be. 'Blind Vision' is a case in point. Really it's just a simple dance track, but it didn't do so badly. It got to number ten.
Stephen: I think in many ways it's silly not to make some attempt at commercialism, because if you're involved in art and you're at all serious about what you're doing, you've got to have some means to fund your work.
Anybody, in any art form, you've got to have some means to fund your work. Anybody, in any art form, whose main activity could be classed as an indulgence, has got to support himself in one way or another. For instance, I'd like very much to do an album of Indian music with some Indian musicians who I met recently, but I know that in order to be able to do that, we as a band have got to have some commercial success so that we can justify our less marketable product to the record company, which makes an awful lot of sense, really.
Neil: The other side to it of course is that it's perfectly possible, once you've had some success, to go for the jackpot and simply try to repeat a winning formula. When we had a hit with 'Living On The Ceiling', it would have been very easy for us to have played the lead melody backwards or something and produced 'Living On The Ceiling 2', but we didn't. We don't really work to any formula at all, we simply do what seems right to us.
You said earlier that you were very wary of an over-emphasis on particular instruments, but have you ever wanted to become more involved in the technical aspects of how synthesisers and so on do their job?
Stephen: Not really. I don't really consider it my job. What I'm good at is writing, primarily, and playing. I'm fairly confident I know enough of the basic building-blocks of how a synth works to enable me to manipulate it and get it to do what I want it to do. I'm not really all that interested in knowing how to modify particular instruments, because I find most of what I use versatile enough already.
Neil: I suppose there are times when, for example, you want to trigger one synth from another and you curse the fact that they're incompatible, and you think it might be nice if you knew how to go about making it work regardless of the synth designers, but on the other hand I don't think it's the sort of thing I'm ever likely to lose sleep over, simply because it isn't that important to the design of our music.
Stephen: What is important to us though is the way things look. I know that might sound a bit silly, but almost everybody thinks about the way, say, a recording studio looks, and we just happen to think the appearance of the equipment itself is also important. When you look at something like, for instance, the Jupiter 8, its got a very logical layout, so that you can start programming on it and finding things out very quickly, and it also looks well-built, which gives you a lot of confidence.
I'd say almost all the gear we like and use regularly actually looks good in addition to being versatile and sounding good. I know it may sound a strange sense of priorities, but there it is!