The Blue Nile: A band that likes to take its time
In 25 years, The Blue Nile have produced just four albums of melancholy perfection. Their low-key singer Paul Buchanan tells James McNair why you can't hurry love
Wednesday 22 November 2006
No eyes trail Paul Buchanan as he enters Booly Mardy's bar in Glasgow, but then he often goes unrecognised. Now 50, The Blue Nile's singer-songwriter has trodden a rather singular path, the flamboyance and commercial acuity of more calculating rock stars clearly not for him. He smiles often, and has no deceit in his deeply lined face. That he can be relied upon to make emotionally mature, heart-melting records about the stuff of everyday life makes sense.
"A four-wheel drive wouldn't bring me peace," he tells me. "My main goal is to try and express ineffable beauty and retain some credibility. I know that solace in life doesn't come from faking it, and hopefully there's an element of consolation about The Blue Nile records that is based on actual compassion for people. For us, it was always about that Walt Whitman thing of standing up for the stupid and the crazy, about the fat kid that nobody noticed. We thought art should be an expression of love."
Buchanan and I have ostensibly met to discuss his UK tour. Saying he's playing old and brand new songs pretty much covers it, so we're soon on to the glorious certainty of youth, and a Russian Army Choir CD that recently moved him to tears. We should mention, however, that while Blue Nile bassist Robert Bell is part of the tour, PJ Moore, the keyboard player who completed the original trio, is not.
The singer says that Moore is always welcome to return, but that the future of The Blue Nile is "very uncertain". Still, given that all three played a Blue Nile-billed concert in Ireland last year simply because a friend asked them to, Buchanan's claim that he and Moore are still good friends rings true.
The Blue Nile was formed in 1981 while the trio were at Glasgow University. Paradoxically, the kind of drum-machines and synthesizers that are associated with monochrome froideur became instruments of great warmth and colour chez The Blue Nile. Through subtle programming, judicious use of samples -and through Buchanan's plaintive, almost feral-sounding voice, of course - they were able to enthral and disarm listeners. The electronic backdrop, their singer says, was primarily a pragmatic rather than an aesthetic move.
"I wasn't much of a guitar player, and we were the only three people in the room. PJ had bought a tray from a waiter. It was made of zinc and it made a good noise when you hit it. We sampled it and PJ made a pad to trigger it from for £3. It was all very primitive back then - you had to hit it about two seconds before you wanted the sound to appear in the song.
"None of us were proper musicians," Buchanan says, "which is why I've always found it strange that people missed the 'punk' aspect of A Walk Across the Rooftops. We were living in a flat in Glasgow with no hot water. We barely knew what we were doing and that was very liberating."
Released in 1984, Rooftops was a richly cinematic album establishing themes Buchanan would revisit on later Blue Nile works: the highs and lows of romantic love; the smudged beauty of rainy, neon-lit cities; the dignity and courage with which ordinary people often live their lives. Unusually, the modest budget for Rooftops had come from the hi-fi manufacturer Linn. A further mark of Buchanan and co's singularity, though, was their failure to return Linn's initial call for nine months. Then, as on future projects, striking while the iron was hot didn't come into it.
It was five years, for example, before Hats emerged in 1989, another seven before 1996's gospel choir-imbued Peace At Last, and a further eight years before High was released in 2004. Along the way, the band moved from Linn Records to Virgin to Warner Brothers to Sanctuary, various businessmen enjoying the kudos of signing such a lauded act, then baulking at the lengthy gestation periods outlined above.
"You have to remember that we were just three panic-stricken guys," he says. "If we were full of confidence the records wouldn't have that ambivalence that attracts people. At times record companies would get exasperated, but there were issues for us, too. I'd be like, 'I asked you two years ago for a month off to re-write that song', but they'd go, 'No, we need it tomorrow.' The problem is inspiration doesn't always come tomorrow."
There is, of course, a relationship between the stringency of an artist's quality-control measures and the amount of admiration they gain from their peers. That's why The Blue Nile can count the likes of Isaac Hayes, Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson among their fans. Having sold far less records than any of them, though, Buchanan's longevity has partly depended on royalties from other artists covering his songs, including Rod Stewart and Annie Lennox.
Last year, he lent gravitas to fellow Scots act Texas when he duetted on "Sleep", while more recently, he penned a song for Shirley Manson's solo album. So the props and the plaudits keep coming, but might Buchanan's commitment to music have stopped him from having certain things? "Of course," he smiles. "You can't be in two places at once, and sometimes the energy and turmoil that propels you to do something artistic can make you negligent of relationships with your partner or your family. That's what happened when we got locked into making Hats, I think."
There is still the stoic comfort of his music, though - for one more album at least. "In terms of the arc that we always wanted to achieve, five albums always seemed about right," says Buchanan. "You don't want to outstay your welcome, but PJ used to say we were the consummate semi-professionals, and right now I'm keen to regain that 'gentlemen amateur' status.
"I honestly don't know if the last album will be a Paul Buchanan record or a Blue Nile one, and I'm sure there will be more explosions between now and the finishing line. If somebody somewhere puts on one of the new songs and says, 'Oh yeah baby - I feel that', it will all be worth it, though."
Touring the UK until 27 November ( www.the-blue-nile.com)
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