The Day Before You Came
A talk on the cheap side as the duo explain the democratisation of electronic music, and what they use to achieve it. (Including a preview of the UMI-2B interface).
Richard Walmsley talked to Blancmange about their recent work with the UMI 2B interface.
The day I came to Neil Arthur's flat to speak to Blancmange he'd had a flood. Now why couldn't that have happened the day before I came? So I sat in the front room in an iron chair waiting for an errant Stephen Luscombe to arrive, while Neil flitted about with his Max Ernst hoover and plied me with lager.
Blancmange made their debut on the fondly remembered Some Bizarre album with a song called Sad Day. Previous to that both had been graphic designers with interests in various offbeat areas of music, such as Stephen Luscombe's five year involvement with the Portsmouth Symphonia. Thus it is that even after they signed to London records their music became both an inspiration and an infuriation to the record buying public.
Their first major hit Living On The Ceiling, a catchy fusion of British electro pop and Indian percussion, set no precedents; it was followed by Waves, a ballad which slipped from the charts into the Mantovani songbook and became the most popular record on the German equivalent of Radio 2! A similar dissonance marked all their subsequent single releases, the only common features being an accessible electronic style, and surreal (weird) lyrics. And just to rub salt into everyone's wounds they proceeded to give us a cover of an ABBA song, The Day Before You Came.
"Experimenting in public" is now they describe what they do, and they see themselves not as virtuosos of electronics or songwriting, but simply as musicians exploring and learning as they go along.
Neil: "I hate it when you read an interview and people talk as if they've never made a mistake. I'm just like the people who are going to buy this magazine, we make as many mistakes as anyone else. You wouldn't get to hear our music without those mistakes coming first."
Technophiles they are not. Stephen Luscombe's old Bunny 1 organ which was prominent on the band's earliest releases still makes the occasional appearance in the music, as do various other low tech instruments and artifacts.
Stephen: "I still use the Bunny 1. The best thing about our music is mixing up all these things with computers, and then throwing in a washing up bottle or something. That's really the heart of it. Machines are just functional, you've got to have something else to give it warmth."
Neil: "When we go away we try to collect crap bits of instruments, kind of souvenir things. The plan is to sample these things, and then it'll be like the old days except that we won't be hitting the tupperware, we'll be pressing the Fairlight."
At the centre of Blancmange's sound over the last few years has been Stephen's Roland Jupiter 8, an instrument which he cherished and claimed to know inside out. His first excursion into the domain of electronic sound came some years before when he borrowed a VCS3. It turned out to be a good introduction: "The VCS 3 helps to understand how synthetic music works, because it has a matrix on it. You could see where one oscillator went through an envelope, then through a filter or whatever. And you could see why it did it and how it affected the sound." In spite of his mild disdain for digital synthesis ("I still don't like ultra squeaky clean things...") he has finally yielded to the times and switched to the JX8P.
However the instruments about which both Stephen and Neil enthuse the most are their two Casios, a CZ101 and a CZ1000, which they describe as 'absolutely wonderful.' The pair had interrupted work on the new album to do the interview, and they had already used the Casios on the two tracks which they had completed so far.
While working on ideas for the album in Neil's rather soggy backroom, they also use Korg Poly 6, Korg MS 20, TR 707, 808, 909, not forgetting Neil's new and 'dramatically rescued' Fender Strat Elite (snatched from a watery death in that persistent flood). When they go into the studio they use these and more sophisticated tools besides.
Stephen: "We use Emulators and Fairlights all the time. We don't actually play the bloody things. It's just people in the studio, and we say, 'Can you try this, can you try that?' As far as drums go we use whatever comes to hand at the time, or whatever we feel like, 707, 909, DMX. If you tune the clave and the clap on the Linn really low strange sort of things happen, so we use things like that as well as triggering the AMS etc."
Whether Blancmange's experiments will continue to be made public remains to be seen since their writing process has recently been enhanced by the acquisition of a pair (one each) of UMI 2B sequencer interfaces, which they use with the BBC micro. They are so chuffed with the UMI 2B that they now regard it as an essential part of the writing, and we waded through to the backroom where they put it through its paces for my benefit.
Developed by Linton Neff (who did string arrangements on the last Blancmange LP Mangetout), UMI 2B is about the size of a box of Milk Tray, and enables the operator to program up to sixteen parts — split between two MIDI channels — either in real or step time. It can be used with two keyboards, and compositions can be stored or edited onto disk. Neil comments, 'We use step time for weird noises, but usually we use it to sequence in real time.'
Like the Linn drum, a part can be begun simply, say with a note on each beat, then overdubbed to create more complex ideas. Then you have options to edit, modulate, bend notes or autocorrect. The interface has its own internal click but can be used with a drum machine, sequencer or tape via clock out and sync out ports. All in all it gives a writing facility comparable in its scope to the Fairlight's page R, but is simpler to use, a whole heap more accessible to the average punter, and is basically only limited by the quality of keyboard you are using in conjunction with it.
Computer literacy is not a prerequisite of being able to use the UMI 2B:
Neil: "The brilliant thing about it is that it actually tells you what to do, when to do it, and then just press a button and you're in. So being computer illiterate makes no difference whatsoever."
Stephen: "That's the beauty of it; it prompts you all the time."
Stephen and Neil have been using the interface with their Casios and are likely to use this as the basis for a studio set up, since it can be used with SMPTE as well. As mentioned above, the potential of the interface is very much down to the MIDI capabilities of the keyboards you are using. The Casios, apart from obviously having their own distinctive sounds, offer different possibilities to the JX8P.
Neil: "The Casio (CZ 1000) has actually got the facility to do four different sounds at once when it's in monophonic mode, by assigning different sounds on the Casio to different MIDI channels. Or alternatively you can play polyphonically if you keep all the channels to the same sound."
Stephen: "The JX8P responds to all the MIDI channels regardless of what they're assigned to; it just goes in and that's it. So you can double up lines and play polyphonically as well."
One of the reasons why Blancmange are so taken by the UMI, is that it offers not only a new approach to writing, but also to recording. For although they don't actually write their music in a studio, the UMI enables them not only to economise on studio time, but also to avoid the frustrations which occur when a recording isn't going as well as expected.
Neil: "The idea of using this equipment and working so much at home is basically to cut your recording costs. A recording studio is great when you're being creative, it's like climbing a ladder. But if you're stuck on a rung it's not worth staying there and that's boring."
Either way the UMI is undoubtedly going to make a difference to Blancmange's music, although whether it will be an audible difference remains to be seen; we'll know when the album comes out. For Neil, who is very much the songwriter of the duo, the UMI gives the opportunity to experiment more quickly with different forms and ideas without actually having to commit anything to tape.
Neil: "We're not committed to using the UMI and nothing else. But you can literally hum a song, go to the keyboard, play it, then overdub straight away. So you are realising an idea immediately. The first concern is getting all the parts of a song down as quickly as possible, and then maybe start looking for the perfect sound. You can just use a sound to represent a bass, it doesn't have to be the one you will use on the record."
Stephen tends to be more concerned with sounds, creating the textures which enhance and embellish the basic lyrical ideas of Neil Arthur. Thus, whilst conceding that a tool like the UMI enables one to realize possible options more quickly, he sees the interface as having limitations for anyone trying to work on the atmosphere of a track.
Stephen: "I agree with Neil in many ways, but my approach differs in that I will play with sounds and I tend to start off from that point. I get a fabulous sound and then wonder what I can do with it. I don't consider myself a songwriter."
Neil: "But my idea for a lyric will tell me what the mood for a song is and I know Stephen can conjure up a sound for it, so I work with a sound which is good enough to represent a part in order to cope with composing the rest of the song."
However, all this is not to say that this type of set up cannot be a part of an inspirational composing style.
Stephen: "The other extreme of that is like when our manager came round to my house and we got a bit drunk. We just started bashing the keyboard to see what happened and it would remember little cycles of the most odd things. You've got those forever, and they are actually real as well. The way you make music with this is a combination of doing real music and then computerizing it in a way which doesn't lose any of the original feel or humanity. That's quite an achievement for a little box like that."
It's an interesting concept, and a very levelling one, to think that over the next few years both amateurs, would be pop stars, and actual recording artists might be using exactly the same type of set ups to create music, and that the days of wistfully wondering whether the only difference between yourself and your idols is a massive recording budget are numbered.
Stephen: "It's the democratisation of music really, which is good. But even with computers it's still the same thing of 'shit in, shit out.' At the end of the day it's what you put in to the thing that counts."
The UMI would have blown Bach's mind, but left Beethoven cold. And in any case, don't you have to sit and read a boring manual first?
Neil: "It's like walking in the dark really. I mean when we got these things I phoned Stephen and asked him how he was getting on with the manual, and he said it was just better to learn how to switch it on and then start pressing all the knobs and going bonkers on it."
Stephen: "I think that's the best approach for anything like this; children learn through play, why can't adults do the same?"
Neil: "You've no need to be baffled by computers. I mean, Christ, if you can't use one in five year's time you're going to be considered illiterate. Mind you, by that time you'll probably have ones which actually speak to you to tell you what to do. People are frightened of them, but it's just like learning to swim; just learn the basics and you're off. Mind you at the moment we can play keyboards and learn to swim at the same time."
We'll have to wait till summer to sample the results of Blancmange's cottage industry. On the new LP they will be working with producer Peter Collins, who was also present on the earlier Blancmange LPs, Happy Families and Mangetout. They also intend to produce some of the tracks on their own, and for the rest of the album they hope to be produced by Stewart Levine, a producer best known for his work with BB King, Womack and Womack and The Crusaders, in the meantime, check this month's tape issue for the sound of Blancmange. They told me it was to be a surprise, so who knows what it will turn out to be?
Whatever it is, it's sure to bring a smile to your face; Blancmange's work must be one of the warmest examples of electronic music around at the moment, very english you might say, informed by two of the most unusual wits in pop music.
We hope to carry a full review of the UMI 2B interface in next month's issue.
Interview by Richard Walmsley