Wednesday, 15 December 2004

Interview: Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile

An Ordinary Miracle

"Never mind the money, never mind the time, never mind the career, never mind anything…" The Blue Nile are three people, four albums, and twenty-one years in the public eye. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Paul Buchanan explained their strange career path to James McGalliard on a late-night call from Glasgow.

"The thing is that we’re three guys who came to the end of University and looked at what was ahead of us and could sorta play our instruments and somehow or another kinda got sucked into this…we are just regular flawed black-and-white people. But in these terms, we have remained deeply committed to it in every way that is good." Paul Buchanan is trying to find the words to explain how The Blue Nile have managed to keep it all together through the intervening years from their formation at the beginning of the 1980’s. "…There’s that terrible struggle fighting off your own flaws and your own vanities and dynamics between the three of you, and the pressure of never quite having enough money and always being on the outside…and spending years not getting anything that you think is warm-blooded."

For those who have just joined us, a quick history lesson. The three members of The Blue Nile, Paul Buchanan, Paul Joseph Moore and Robert Bell, got together at Glasgow University. Their debut album A Walk Across The Rooftops was released in 1983. That enigmatic recording only listed the names of the three members and little else, a fact which probably helped to create the mystique that has since surrounded them. This was intensified by the five long years that passed before Hats [1989], which was rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece. The live dates to support it were a revelation; for people who had exclusively worked in a studio, they were absolutely phenomenal as a live band.

It wasn’t until Peace at Last in 1996 that we heard from them again. We hoped for new songs before the end of the century, but it wasn’t to be. Other than Paul’s guest appearance on Peter Gabriel’s Ovo, then there was silence. Even the fan’s websites stopped being updated. "It was all terribly ominous, wasn’t it?" notes Paul.

"We recorded an album and a half and…we realised we weren’t in love with it… The vast majority of it we just dumped; we just put it to one side and didn’t touch it any more". Then Paul contracted a form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and was completely unable to work for months. But even this is seen in a positive light, "In a funny way …even though I was kinda dilapidated, I started to do better work then than I had been doing".

The result is High, which following the calm of Peace at Last, sees them return to the search for the soul. So what happened? "Peace didn’t last", says Paul. "It didn’t last".

Paul is a thinker, and comes across as open, honest, even disarmingly frank, which only serves to give his answers a special resonance. I tell him that, even as a fan, I found this album hard to come to grips with. It’s not as forgiving as the earlier ones; you actually have to give it the time to reward…"Yeh, I totally agree. I was worried when we finished it. I thought ‘Oh Jesus!’ It’s like too resilient, too low-key, too sorta unbending in some way, it’s just too stern and there’s not enough glamour, and not enough ‘you’ll love this’. I thought there was too much hard work for the listener and I still think that. I don’t think it will be everybody’s cup of tea."

"But actually I think if it gets to you, and if it gets under your skin, and you stop worrying about that stuff – the tone of the record, by which I mean the overall sense and the feeling that you get from the sound of the record from the first note to the last note, is just at such a lovely frequency. I think it was a record about standing up again. If you look at each of the songs … it’s a record that’s looking at circumstances and starting to build from there, and getting to the point and state of everybody else symbolically, or literally, moving on."

So why the length between their albums? "I don’t think we would have wished for it, but … it should be the quality o’the work that’s important. I think what we’ve done is gone into the diamond mine each time and however long its taken us to find the thing that we believed was good – that’s how ever long it’s lasted. I know it kinda sounds like we’re tuned out and it’s not a very rock-n-roll thing to do, but actually, in my experience, it’s a quite hard-working, hardcore way of approaching things. Because we’re just thinking ‘Nah! Never mind the money, never mind the time, never mind the career, never mind anything…It’s what we do."

I tell him that High almost comes across as a love letter to someone that you don’t know if they still quite love you anymore. "What a lovely way of putting it" he says, lost in thought for a moment, "write that down".

Filmic images permeate Paul's lyrics, and how he sees the band’s music. "I thought that the camera distance was different this time. If it was in a movie, this would be a head-and-shoulders shot, you would see a little bit of the background; you would have an impression of the background." But what the band creates is more like a snapshot, or a sketch, as it’s not following a narrative line telling a straight story. "I never think they’re autobiographical…I’m not really writing about my own life. Funnily enough, my dad said to me on the phone last night, he said ‘Son, can I ask you what Broken Loves is about?’ I was taken aback by the question. I mean, clearly a bit of it is about my relationship with him, but I’m not sure which way. But I also regard it as a love song, and I don’t regard it about myself at all in many ways. I’ve got a complex relationship with the track. He said ‘I’m really getting to like Broken Loves at the moment’. It was very touching."

"In many ways it would have been easier to explain socially and to my family if we had had a more recognisable career pattern. But we only get the juice that we get and we have to be content with communicating at a meaningful level with the people we communicate with, on the occasions we communicate with them, either through a record or through a live thing. But the downside is that as people, and financially, and creatively, we can’t deliver it all the time – I wish we could. I wish we could"

Such integrity and purpose is rare, and should be cherished. The Blue Nile tell stories that delight in detail, the minutiae of modern existence. "You know, I think that’s part of our job really – to express what’s going on in that little gap in between what people dream and what they get. To find good ways of looking at that and to find what is positive about it and to make unimpeachable records as far as possible on behalf of the stupid and the crazy or on behalf of the part of us that is dispossessed by a non-spiritual retail-orientated society".

© James McGalliard 2007
A version of this interview was printed in Inpress, Melbourne on 15 December 2004