Blancmange/Near Future’s Neil Arthur shares the influences that shaped him. And yes, the sound of grouting is among them…
MUSIC… AND DIY CLOTHES
My earliest memories are about music. My gran used to have an old piano in her front room, and when my dad took me to see her he’d play songs by people like Fats Waller that seemed from another time. But the biggest formative influence was having an elder sister. Our Gill had great taste and loved Atlantic soul, she’d hog the record player putting on the few records we had over and over. Discs like ‘Telstar’, and novelty records like ‘Poisoning Pigeons In The Park’ [by Tom Lehrer] that I ended up using some of the lyrics from in an early Blancmange track.
When I got older me and my mates started noticing new bands like T.Rex and Mungo Jerry, but then along came Bowie. He changed everything. I never imagined it could be like that. That switched us on to what felt like the alternative to all that prog nonsense. Roxy, then Eno, and then punk, which was that eureka moment when we went, ‘Shit! We can do this, we don’t have to play like those guys in cloaks behind 15 keyboards and 12 guitar necks!’. We’d even make our own clothes like T-shirts fashioned out of bin liners using this welding tool at college. God knows, we must’ve looked daft.
SAYING HELLO TO VAN GOGH
Going to art college in Harrow opened everything up for me. Being in and around London, and having some of the greatest art in the world handy, well that was a very big deal. I’d sometimes get off the train at Charing Cross to go somewhere in Soho, and walk across Trafalgar Square and instead of going up Charing Cross Road I’d go through the National Gallery. And I’d go say hello to Van Gogh and Velázquez, Rembrandt and Vermeer. And I’d have a chat with them. There was also this painting by Bellini that I used to sit in front of – can’t remember its name, but it has this incredible background [at which point, a tearful Neil Arthur takes a moment to compose himself as the recollection reminds him that it’s a favourite painting of his partner, Helen]. And you know, thinking about all of this reminds me how lucky I felt to be among it all. There I was, this lad from Darwen, getting beaten-up by skinheads and Teds as you can’t run away when you’re wearing bondage kex, soaking it all up.
I’ve always really noticed noise. Mundane things like this noise now [the racket the air conditioning fan is making above us], that you have to block out in order to be able to get on with things, but if you actually stop and listen it is interesting and complex. DIY noises like grouting as well… I know it sounds ridiculous, but those noises are so specific to the tasks they’re involved with that I find them very curious. The sounds of domesticity have always been a bit of a thing for me, right from ‘God’s Kitchen’, the low-level cacophony of all this minutiae. The same goes for everyday conversation, the chat that you overhear, snippets of what people are saying to each other. A long time ago we did a track called ‘All Things Are Nice’ – there’s an earlier version that went on the B-side of ‘The Day Before You Came’ – and its lyrics came from a day I spent on Brighton Beach the day after Thatcher was elected. I wasn’t very happy that day. I sat on the front with my girlfriend and listened to everything that people were saying as they walked past, writing everything down, the interesting bits of which I worked into the lyrics of that song. I love all that, bits and pieces of things that you can make into a story, weaving in truth and half-truth, and then making something else out of it.
I love walking, running, cycling. The peace of mind I get is one thing, but it’s the perspective you get that’s so useful. It’s not so much getting rid of problems than gaining some distance on them so you can work things out. If you’re stuck on something in the studio, you go out for a ride or a run and your mind’s freed up and you see things with more clarity. So fragments of melody will come to me and I can stop and record them on my phone or I can go through lyrics and things that have been bugging me seem to iron themselves out… or they can get chucked in the ditch.
I won’t go in the studio unless I’ve got an idea. I’ve learned not to just stare at the metaphorical blank page and expect inspiration to strike. A lot of the work is done beforehand, the rumination and thinking, up in the hills or in the woods. It’s also where my partner Helen’s influence is strongest. She’s fantastic at coming in and basically saying, ‘Oh, I don’t like the sound of that, far too much salt!’ and stopping me from adding one more unnecessary little thing to embellish. Everyone needs someone who can say ‘That’s enough now’ to them. Having said that though, if I want to write about grouting, I’ll bloody well write about grouting.
Blancmange’s ‘Red Shift’ EP is out on Blanc Check