You’ve Got Mail: Near Future interview
Away from his Blancmange day job, Neil Arthur has teamed up with Jez Bernholz to form Near Future, a musical collaboration all done via email that has spawned an album of epic synth ambience, spoken word menace and the sound of sizzling carrots… yes, really! Join Classic Pop as we step into the duo’s mesmerising world. Written by Andy Jones.
Blancmange frontman Neil Arthur is enjoying probably the most prolific phase of his musical life. Not only has he successfully rebooted Blancmange, releasing several acclaimed albums in recent years, including Blanc Burn and Semi Detached, he’s also discovered the joy of collaborating, and he can’t seem to get enough of it. Last year we saw the first release from Fader, his joint venture with producer Benge, and this year an album with Jez Bernholz as Near Future.
Jez is a Brighton-based solo artist who has released material under the name Bernholz but he also plays live with the critically-acclaimed Gazelle Twin, a project fronted by his wife Elizabeth.
The new album from Near Future, Ideal Home, is as mesmerising as it is varied. Material ranges from the delicate Come And Play, to the electro sparseness of the title track, while the spoken word Dawn is both captivating and terrifying in equal measure. The closing song, Bulk Erase, is a swirling electronic crescendo of a track, the perfect album finale.
What makes the project even more extraordinary is that Neil and Jez did the whole thing by email, a kind of WeTransfer collaboration, if you like. They didn’t meet and could do whatever they liked with one another’s musical efforts. There were no rules to guide or constrain them. In fact, the pair only met at the project’s inception after a typically outlandish Gazelle Twin performance and, if you haven’t seen Elizabeth Bernholz live as Gazelle Twin, Jez makes a compelling case as to why you should. “In terms of what to expect at a show, people are really in for a treat,” he says. “It’s a really exciting project to be involved with. Elizabeth is a phenomenal performer and thinker. She is the centre but the show continually changes. It’s always been intense but the presentation is always evolving. The really early performances were ethereal while the Unflesh Tour that we did was intense, minimal and quite confrontational. The most recent Kingdom Come shows are almost performance art, although still very aggressive and powerful.”
Introducing Jez Bernholz…
We’re guessing you already know a little about Neil Arthur. He is, after all, the lead singer and co-founder of Blancmange. However, you may not know much about Neil’s partner in Near Future, Jez Bernholz, so we asked him to introduce himself…
“I’ve been making music since I was a child,” he says. “I was recording, doubling and tripling my voice using two ghetto blasters! I started making tracks from around the age of 12 and it’s just been like that ever since. I really focused on my solo project around 2011 and I’ve been constantly developing what I do and am becoming freer from what I see as a constraint of just producing songs. My background is in fine art and video, so I’ve become more confident in bringing that into my music. I am constantly trying to make what I see as a hybrid between high and low art; pop music and sound art. I use basic and crude methods of making music against clean, crisp, well-produced moments that are wide in scope. I’m particularly fascinated with the poetry in things which can be passed off as mundane.
“My music is made using toy keyboards, four-track tape, Ableton software, reel-to-reel recorders, mobile camera mics, sampling… In fact, anything goes. I released my only album proper, How Things Are Made, in 2014 but I have an ongoing project called Consequences, which allows for a lot of experimentation. I have several albums in the pipeline ready for release including Consequences 5 and 6, which will both be put out on cassette later this year as well as another full album called The Innermost Surfaces Of Eggshells which I’m very proud of but I am waiting for the right moment to release it as it is been sitting on the back burner for quite some time now.”
“As for Gazelle Twin, I’m really excited as we’ve got our first live show coming up in Birmingham and following that, Elizabeth is putting the finishing touches to her incredible album which will be released later on this year and we’ll tour after that.”
And how much was Jez aware of Neil’s work with Blancmange, both the early and later versions?
“I was really into the [first Blancmange release] Irene & Mavis EP,” he says. “I wasn’t so conscious of the big pop stuff, I must confess, even though I’m certain I knew of it. It’s been great getting familiar with it these last few years, though.”
Neil offers a more direct account of his experience. “I went to see them at the Barbican and it was absolutely unbelievable. It was based on a J.G. Ballard story against a beautiful film, with a person doing amazing movements in a hoodie, and then all of a sudden these clone figures come out wearing stocking masks so you couldn’t make any detail out of their faces. And they’d been sat among us all the time before they got on stage – it was brilliant!”
Meeting Of Minds
It was after this particular Gazelle Twin performance that Jez and Neil got talking and realised they had a similar interest in music. They exchanged some of their own tracks and, so impressed was Neil of Jez’s, that he asked him to support Blancmange on their tour for the album Semi Detached.
“I listened to some of his own releases under the name Bernholz and I really enjoyed it,” says Neil. “Then he had a few musical ideas that he sent me and I sent him a few of mine and Near Future pretty much started from there. We were then exchanging lots of files remotely and finding that we were quite enjoying reacting to each other.
“I was really excited by some of the stuff he was sending to me, and I get the impression that he was also responding well to what I was sending him, so it was a parallel process.”
The pair deliberately set out to make music with no agenda or plan, just to see what they would come up with free of any such constraints, and that could well explain the album’s diversity.
“The idea was there would be no specific target for what we were going to achieve,” Jez confirms.
“It was really just a chance to play around and flex our songwriting muscles. I’d always wanted to do a project that was done remotely and I think Neil had as well, so we both embraced it and it was a lot of fun. Initially, it was just some email exchanges with no idea what the other person had made but it eventually turned into a stream of songs.”
“As there wasn’t a formula or any rules we could cut anything out, add anything, lose it altogether or turn the words upside down – do whatever we liked,” adds Neil.
“He could sing it or I could sing it. We had absolute blank canvases that we could splatter with anything. But in that splattering, we both found that we had a shared interest in the music that we both liked and we also introduced each other to things, particularly me – Jez introduced me to loads of things I’d not heard.”
Go With The Flow
The duo released the Ideal Home EP, a couple of varied tracks, but it was enough of a release to make an impact and they were consequently offered the chance to play at Sensoria 2016 – the Sheffield-based electronic music festival – ironically in a slot right after Gazelle Twin.
Exploring The New Blancmange Album…
In April, Blancmange announced a new studio album and a UK tour for November. “The album is called Wanderlust.” Neil Arthur reveals. “I was reading a book about [the Prussian explorer and geographer] Alexander von Humboldt. It gets to one page and they are talking about this melancholy, this desire that people think they saw in him, that he was always wanting to be far away. It wasn’t always a physical need, often a kind of mental one.
“You can have that feeling in so many ways and I started thinking about it and thought about the word ‘Fernweh’, the German word which is that overwhelming desire to be away – you’re absolutely driven to it and by it. It could be to actually go and search for something or somebody or it could be a purely mental exercise. So, I thought: ‘I really like the sound of that, so I’m going to look up what it means in English’. Of course it came up with another German word, wanderlust, which has a different meaning but it’s a word which we [the Brits] have adopted. I thought it was such a beautiful word that I wrote a track called Wanderlust for the album, but it is such a great word that we decided it should be the name for the album as well.”
It’s been 40 years since Neil started Blancmange with Stephen Luscombe (who stepped aside for health reasons some years back) but how does he feel that he’s still making music under the moniker after all of these decades?
“It is a long time I guess, but I don’t really spend too much time thinking about it,” he replies. “But now you ask me, it seems bizarre as it doesn’t seem like two minutes since me and Stephen were making tape loops and trying to make weird, homemade instruments sound like synths. Forty years! God, I wouldn’t have thought back then that I’d be still doing it. The weird thing is that people still ask, ‘why Blancmange?’… I openly admit I was never keen on the name. I actually hated it at one point and I imagine it also put loads of people off listening to us!”
“It was really strange that we were on after Gazelle Twin but it was an honour,” says Neil. “I got to watch Gazelle Twin again! But because we’d been offered this full gig, where we were contractually obliged to play for a certain period of time, I then thought: ‘God, we’ve got to come up with an album’s worth of material to fill it!’ So me and Jez got together and decided to properly structure the gig so it lasted for a good 40 minutes, and that’s really how the album came to be.”
“The Sensoria gig really cemented all of the ideas we already had and the flow of the music,” adds Jez.
“We had a lot of the material and it was a great chance to see how we could translate that to a live performance.”
To complete the album, the duo started talking about themes and ideas to make it gel. They had a lot of very different sounding tracks but needed something to link it all together, and they soon hit upon a solution…
“We started talking about ‘found sound’ and field recordings,” says Neil. “These were just recordings of natural things that could link the tracks together. Like I found a pan lid that sounded like it was in perpetual motion so I just recorded that and other bits like it. Those found sounds are the glue and actually it makes the album effectively one long piece. But it’s not like it’s just one track – there are 10 distinct tracks – but there are wonderful link ideas between each of the songs.”
They are indeed, atmospheric interludes and not always recognisable, although when Neil reveals one of the other ‘found sounds’ it does make us want to get back and have another listen if only to see if we can make out the sound of, well, cooking vegetables…
“With another one of the links,” Neil starts laughing, “I took these roasting carrots out of the oven and they were making the most incredible dive bomb squeaking noises so I had to record it and you wouldn’t believe it’s carrots – it really is unbelievable.
“Then there were things like recording the dawn chorus which was probably done because I don’t sleep very well and get up early. That recording was amazing and I analysed it afterwards. It had all these other noises going on and they combined to create a beautiful rhythm in the background, so I just used it and even emphasised that rhythm in the recording. I would then send it to Jez and he’d send back what he’d done over the top, which ended up being my favourite words on the album – a fantastic poem that he used a treated voice to deliver. I thought: ‘God he’s raised it a couple of rungs there. Shit, I’m going to have to get my act together!’ But that’s the lovely thing about collaborations – you’re not really trying to outdo each other, you want to create one thing between you that is better.”
“Being able to constantly surprise each other was one of the best aspects,” Jez agrees. “It also meant we had to work quickly. Neil was fundamental in giving me a kick up the backside to get on with things.”
Days Of Future Past
As the album came together Neil and Jez realised that, not only did the field recordings gel the tracks together, but a theme started to emerge. “We started looking at each other’s lyrics and there was clearly a domestic theme running through it,” says Neil. “There is also an observational theme of consumerism as it’s just around us all of the time.”
So, will the duo revisit the live arena? “I’d really like to take it out live,” Neil replies.
“This is only the beginning,” Jez agrees. “I think it’s going to work brilliantly live. The more shows we perform, the more ambitious I think it will get.”
“We’re already thinking about taking it further and discussing another album,” Neil confirms. As we finish talking about the Near Future, Classic Pop can’t help talking about the past and reminds Neil – much to his mock annoyance – that it must be 40 years since Blancmange first started out and wonder where this desire to collaborate has come from?
“I had done various collaborations,” he reveals. “But I was happy working on my own – it’s a nice, comfortable place to go and you can spend more time with your family and things like that.
“I was a little bit nervous about collaboration, thinking: ‘Well what am I going to bring to the table, why do they need me? What am I going to do? I can’t play anything!’ I’m a little bit handy with a guitar but I don’t really play keyboards.
“But now I’m also off the leash and it’s freed me up. It made me realise I can let go a bit sooner. I’m also very driven and there’s nobody around, like back in the day, demanding a single, or suggesting a dance track, or whatever.
“It was a very different world back then [in the 80s] like if you’d go in a studio it would cost a fortune. But now I’ve got enough of a studio set-up to get all my ideas down before I get to the next stage of working.
“So now it’s great. Blancmange is a thing that I do, and Fader is another very important thing, too, as is Near Future. There will be other things, too, so Blancmange will just be one of them. But without the Blancmange aspect I might not have had the opportunity to do all of these other things which I’m very grateful for.”
“I’m actually happier now more than ever – I’m in my element,” Neil smiles.
“Plus I’m not really good at doing nothing. It’s probably for the best that I’m occupied or god knows what else I’d be doing!”