At the Source of the Blue Nile: An Interview with Paul Buchanan
Blue Nile singer and songwriter Paul Buchanan talks about life with -- and without-- his much- loved, sadly unprolific band, and how great pop slips between the crevices of language to communicate the inarticulatable.
“Being in a band is a very particular life. You’re sort of family to each other,” says Paul Buchanan, who from 1981 until fairly recently, headed up the synth-heavy, proto-new wave Scottish band the Blue Nile. The band formed as Buchanan and his friends Robert Bell and PJ Moore finished university, and lasted through more than three decades and four widely spaced albums. Though never wildly successful commercially, the band had an outsized impact. The super clean sound of the Blue Nile’s debut Walk Across the Rooftops is said to have inspired Phil Collins. The second album, Hats, set a standard for impressionistic, cinematic pop.
But when, at the end of the 2000s, it came to an end -- about the same time that a close friend passed away -- Buchanan says he found himself at a bit of a loss. “When it becomes obvious that things are stuttering, it makes you just stop and think about all those years of saying ‘Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow,’” he says, a palpable wistfulness permeating his thick Scottish vowels.
Buchanan drifted until Shirley Manson of Garbage asked him if he’d write her some material. Buchanan sat down at the piano in his living room and began trying out ideas. “I wasn’t getting anywhere,” Buchanan admits. “But in the process, I had a little -- it’s more or less a glorified Dictaphone -- and I had that kind of propped up on the piano, so if I stumbled onto something, I would just switch it on and record it. I knew they weren’t right for Shirley but eventually after I’d written something for Shirley I went back and listened to them.”
Those songs, spare and tremulous and full of fragmentary images, became the foundation for Mid Air, Buchanan’s first solo album after most of a lifetime in music. “It’s wasn’t like, okay, now I’ll make a solo record,” he insists. “I would have quite liked it if the band got together again. But I was going to continue. Not seeing my friends every day, waiting for the phone to ring, that was part of the record. I thought, well, as long as I’m sitting here I’ve got all these little, tiny songs, I’ll record them.”
Buchanan asked a friend, a sound engineer, to listen to the original set of home recordings. “To be honest, I went and played the sketches for the engineer and said, ‘Do you think I could release these?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can hear the traffic and you can hear the fridge. You can hear pretty much everything except for the songs, so maybe not.’”
Buchanan began the process of re-recording the songs, sticking closely to the original spare palette of sounds -- his voice and a piano mostly, with a few strings added. “I think I’d just about finished the record, before I’d even talked to a record company,” he says. “So it was lovely. It was unselfconscious and very private. It was only later that I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve released that. What have I done?’”
The songs are allusive, suggestive, moody, sketching feelings and situations without providing too overt of a narrative. Buchanan says that’s partly because he wants them to resonate with other people who may not be feeling exactly what he’s feeling. Still, little bits of Buchanan’s rough recent experience, particularly the death of his friend, filter through the images, as on the haunting title track. “I think that song is partly about the fact that someone’s goodness and someone’s presence can stay with you even though they’re not there anymore,” he says. “The impact a person has on you will stay with you. If there is a wistfulness, I think comes from the idealized notion that most of us have in life, that you’ll meet some magical person and true love and so on… I think the song came out reflecting on those two things.”
Love also turns up in “Wedding Party” (the Blue Nile used to insist that all their songs were love songs), though in an attenuated, bittersweet sort of way. Buchanan says he’s amused by the “Wedding Party” sign at a function room near where he lives that is always the same, for all of the scores of people who gather there to celebrate the beginning of their (perhaps very different) married lives. “You see the couples there, the people in their finery, family members crying or having a cigarette,” he says. “It’s one of those occasions in life where everything comes to the surface.”
The song ends in the phrase, “Let it go…let it go,” which Buchanan says is about the part of life after the wedding, when couples face actual life together. “I find it kind of a consolation that after the party’s over, really, I think that person in that song is making a reaffirmation of love. You know, I’m not perfect, but come on, let’s keep going,” he says.
Of course, the way the songs are constructed, they could mean many different things. Buchanan says he’s not big on nailing things down or making his messages too overt. That’s partly because he began this project as an internal dialogue. “When we’re thinking within ourselves about how we feel, we don’t necessarily put every little bridge in there. You can sort of go from one thought to another, and it’s incredible how one thing that’s entirely unrelated can provoke a memory,” he says.
Still Buchanan also likes a certain amount of terseness, a quality he admires in some of his favorite hardboiled detective novelists -- Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. “I’m not necessarily advising the content of The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy,” he says. “But while it’s difficult for the first 30 pages, but once you get into it, it almost addresses your subconscious. It’s telling you things, but it’s not saying ‘and’ and ‘but’ and ‘because.’ You’re always looking for a way to let songs resonate with other persons’ experience.” He adds, sheepishly, “That was a terrible answer.”
Songs for a Latin drum machine
Buchanan grew up in a Glasgow suburb, not far from where his Blue Nile keyboardist PJ Moore lived, though the two didn’t know each other well before university. “You know, Glasgow is just a small Northern European city. The people are good and they’re nice and they’re very interactive. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the street. People are quite open with each other,” he says. “And it rains a lot. Really, really rains a lot. And that’s about it.”
Buchanan’s dad worked for the government, but in his younger days had sung semi-professionally. There was music in the house, records and a piano, but Buchanan says it was only later, after graduating from the University of Glasgow, that he began to think seriously about it. The fact that he hadn’t studied music, had never even had a piano or singing lesson, made it all the more attractive.
“I came out and I just thought, you know, I’ve learned and learned and learned and it’s wonderful, but I’ve sort of learned all these techniques. I’m concerned that I’ve lost my instincts somewhere along the line,” he says. “In a way, I turned to music because it was a way that you could get in touch with yourself. You could put two notes together and if it felt right to you, if it made you happy or sad, that was what mattered.” He met Robert Bell at school and the two began writing songs together. A little later, an acquaintance introduced them to a new keyboard player, PJ Moore, whom Buchanan vaguely remembered from his neighborhood at home.
That was it, then, the band, though at first the three of them tried to recruit a drummer. “God knows we tried to have drummers, but we could just never get anything to stick,” he remembers with a laugh. “We’d rehearse for months and months and months and then do one gig and the drummer would get a job or move away. I think one day, something like that had happened and the three of us were just kind of sitting down looking at each other and thinking, ah, let’s start again. You know what, let’s just see if the three of us can do it.”
Instead of a drummer, the three of them found a rudimentary drum machine through a friend. It was a battered contraption that would only play Latin rhythms. “So we borrowed it and taped rhythms onto a cassette and then we started to rehearse against that,” says Buchanan. “We went and gigged, because we needed the money, we’d do gigs where we’d do cover versions with the cassette of Latin American rhythms. And we were terrible. But we picked songs that were so completely durable and well-known that people recognized them. No matter how badly we mangled them.”
Adventures in high fidelity
Even then, Buchanan says, he and Bell and Moore were writing original songs, but they were, at first, reluctant to play them. “Some of the places we played were pretty rough. We were pushing our luck as it was, without saying ‘Now we’d like to play one of our own songs.’ It wouldn’t have gone over very well,” Buchanan remembers. But, little by little, they saved enough money to make a single. “I Love This Life”, backed with “The Second Act” was recorded in 1981.
The band continued to play around Glasgow and record demos when possible, when they got an unexpected break. They had been recording in a studio equipped by Linn Electronics, a brand of high- end audio systems, and they left a demo in the shop. A man from the audio company came in the next day. “They were testing these very expensive speakers, and they happened to say to the engineer, put something on, so that we can see how the speakers sound, so they put our demo on,” says Buchanan. The company liked the demo enough that, soon after, they called the Blue Nile. They offered to give the band enough money to record an album, which could be distributed through Linns’ electronics stores. The Blue Nile didn’t answer right away. In fact, they took nine months to call back. But even so, Linn financed the first pressing of Walk Across the Rooftops, the Blue Nile’s first album.
In a review at Rolling Stone, Tim Holmes observed, “The music slips between the cracks, an effortless flow of acoustic and electronic sounds with nary a hook in the curiously murky mix. Without the benefit of either a traditional grab-you-by-the-ears pop sensibility or -- the usual alternative --bombastic sonic aggression, the Blue Nile courses quietly down its own channel, using subtle and impressionistic melodies and intuitively sprung lyrics to evoke mood and memory.”
The album’s ultra clean, smooth sound kicked off a decade of synthy clarity and gated drums. Phil Collins is said to have modeled his solo sound on Walk Across the Rooftops, and Rickie Lee Jones became a high-profile fan. Still Buchanan says that there was something very underground about the early days of the Blue Nile. “The three of us -- I wouldn’t say it was punk, but it was certainly boho. We rehearsed the whole album through one Marshall cabinet and a borrowed amp, but our goal was to make the record as timeless and as good as we could,” he says. “I think the wisest thing we did was we avoided some of the keyboards and some of the things that were prevalent at that time. I mean, if you listen to them now, I’m not saying you can’t identify the decade of the record, because you can, but at the same time, they weren’t as processed, as heavily processed. We were just meticulous. And we just tried to record everything and let the air in.”
Romantic pop in the age of punk
Walk Across the Rooftops was made right at the commercial peak of punk rock, when bands like the Talking Heads, Television and the Clash hit their stride. Though the Blue Nile's romantic, electronically-based sound could hardly have been more different than those bands, Buchanan says that he and the other band members went to punk shows and liked a lot of what they heard. “The first time we heard Talking Heads, we were thinking, ‘I could do that.’ And I don’t mean that I could do that, because it’s difficult. But you could sort of figure out the chords. There weren’t any 12-minute solos. Or ridiculous hair,” he says. “Punk is like everything. It’s romanticized. There was an incredible amount of rubbish as well. But there were some great things. The Clash. The Pistols, the Talking Heads, and Television. I suppose we were at the right age as well.”
The Blue Nile released a couple of singles following Walk Across the Rooftops, but it was six years before they released another album, scrapping an entire record’s worth of material in the interim. Hats, out in 1989, is widely considered the band’s best. It got a five-star review from Q magazine. Jason Ankeny of the AllMusic Guide wrote, “Sweeping and majestic, it's a triumph of personal vision over the cold, remote calculations of technology.” Peace at Last followed in 1996 on Warner Brothers to mixed reviews, and High came out in 2004.
Rediscovering lost gems
But though the Blue Nile had some commercial success (Hats went to #12 in the UK) and critical appreciation, they never became household names. In fact, Buchanan tells a story about a friend of his from the neighborhood who recommended he check out a band called the Blue Nile. He had no idea that his friend, someone he’d known since high school, was the singer in the band.
This year, listeners will get another chance to appreciate the Blue Nile, as EMI is reissuing all four records, in remastered versions with additional material including singles, some remixes and alternate studio mixes of album materials. But despite the archival treatment, Buchanan seems not quite ready to let the band go. Asked if there will ever be another Blue Nile record, he says, “A sentimental part of me always wishes that would be the case. But I’ve come to the realization that as in any relationship, you’re hard pressed to explain why it came together in the first place, and you’re hard pressed to explain the mystery of why it started to diminish. The best thing that I could think of to do was to give those two guys their space. And tell them that should they ever like to do it, it would be great.”
Buchanan is no longer in contact with Moore, but he speaks to Bell often and even enlisted his help in the final stages of Mid Air. “I got to the end of the record, and there were two tracks that I wasn’t very pleased about,” says Buchanan. (He identifies “Mid Air” and “My True Country” as the two problems.) “So at that point, I said to Robert, ‘Robert, I’m going to send you a couple of things. Just tell me what you think.’ And I think just because we’ve known each other so long. He knew instantly. It needed a compressor or something. So he came in and sorted it out with the engineer and that came out and it was great.”
Bell also did a remix for Mid Air, completely reimagining “Buy a Motor Car". “It’s very Robert. He just took the piano off completely, which is exactly the right thing to do for a piano record, you know?” says Buchanan.
When asked about Blue Nile’s legacy, Buchanan is typically self-deprecatory, but also, in his way, quite moving. “I think that we were sort of like the Marx Brothers. But, we really meant it. We absolutely meant it. We went into it knowing we weren’t musicians. Sometimes, I suspect, people think, oh, you guys take so long between records, you must be self-indulgent. But actually, nothing could be further from the truth. We absolutely lost our way, more than once. Yeah, the Marx Brothers.”
And along the way, the band wrote and recorded songs like “Downtown Lights", “Saturday Night” and “Tinseltown in the Rain". Buchanan says that he knows a good song, his or anyone else’s, when the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “Somehow or other, the music sort of gets in between your sentences and expresses something that with language we can still find difficult, maybe it’s soul. And I’m not saying language can’t do that. Sometimes it can. But you hear a great song, and you’re thinking ‘I felt that.’”