David PeschekJuly 19th 2012
"Paul Buchanan", wrote Chris Roberts, "can make the word 'stay' more evocative than an entire Yeats compendium."
"Stay, stay," Buchanan keens on the first Blue Nile album and then, easy as conversation, hard as love, "and I will understand you." A Walk Across The Rooftops has so many moments like that, tiny moments on which great things hinge, a constellation of epiphanies. Unique even in the band’s own catalogue, it sounds like nothing else: full of space, rupture, suspension, flight, awe, possibility. Years before I ever dreamed of moving to Glasgow – where the album was made - A Walk Across The Rooftops made the city seem deeply romantic, glamorous in the headiest way. "Is there a place in this city – a place to always feel this way?" Buchanan sings in ‘Tinseltown In the Rain’ – Glasgow as Hollywood strafed with drizzle. Hats, which followed six years on in 1989, is more streamlined – still gorgeous though: glistening like the rain-splashed streets the songs inhabit. Then the gaps between records grew longer and the records themselves less cohesive – always threaded with magic, but frustrating too. Four albums in something like three decades. It seems now as though Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Joseph Moore are unlikely to record together again – but there is Mid Air – a masterpiece of long-dark-night-of-the-soul meditations on mortality; on evanescent love and indelible memory. Has the man often called the Scottish Sinatra made his 'The Wee Small Hours of the Morning'? Sinatra’s an odd comparison I always think: Buchanan’s suave, yes, but for me closer to the Bowie of ‘Word On A Wing’ (from Station to Station) but with a rasp, a crack in the voice, a creasedness that somehow simultaneously suggests weariness and wonder.
Mid Air is tremulous, tentative, little eddies of piano and vocal rather than rigidly structured songs, glances at something that in fact works cumulatively: glinting fragments of something you have to stand back from to see properly. Closer reference points: 'Patty Waters Sings' - a strange, haunted witching-hour album of fractured should-be standards written and sung by the white jazz singer/pianist beloved of Miles Davis and released on the avant-garde-bordering-on-down-right-eccentric label ESP Disk in 1965; Tim Hardin’s equally fractured, witching-hour intimate 1969 album Suite For Susan Moore and Damion: 'We Are One, One, All In One' – recorded late at night, scraps of feeling spun into smears of song intended to win back a family that was already gone.
Finally meeting the man whose records have sung inside me since I was a teenager, it’s wonderful to see how much like his songs he is: vulnerable, lyrical, "In love with a feeling." There’s a moment when deep into our conversation he voices something about the gap "between the advertisements and the traffic" – and I have chills. It’s as if – as I have been for a quarter of a century, as I am whenever I look out across any city at night, but especially in Glasgow – inside a Blue Nile song. Is there a place in the city – a place to always feel this way?
So, we’ve come to expect lengthy breaks between Blue Nile albums, but the absence of Paul on your tour six years ago, this solo record – does this mean the end of the group?
Paul Buchanan: I don’t know what happened with the band; it’s up to everybody - and, in a way, I ended up making the record for a number of reasons, but I suspect my uncertainty… and, kinda, mournfulness about the group was one of them. I just made the record that came out. It would be difficult to construe it as anything that’s supposed to be a Blue Nile record, you couldn’t argue that’s it’s like the Blue Nile.
[with mild incredulity] You couldn’t?
PB: I don’t think so, no. There’s no… ‘stuff’ on it. I know there are similarities, possibly in a couple of the ballads, but no it wasn’t in any sense a reaction. You know, I love the other two men, it’s a such a huge part of my life, and my bewilderment about whether we were going to make another record was part of it. Having had a sense of purpose for all those years, even if it was just: the three of us will meet, and we’ll put our money together, and even if we’ve just got one pound for a cup of tea – it was somewhere to go, you know. So honestly – it was nothing to do with career. There’s an emotional strand in there. I would like to think we’ll have some sort of Damascene moment, bump into each other and go, You know what? Let’s do the show right here.
You’re still in touch with Robert.
But not Paul.
PB: No. Neither me nor Robert have seen nor heard from him much at all really, to be honest. There was some paperwork that had to be signed recently, so we all did it, as straightforwardly as we could. It’s a mystery to some extent and I think you have to respect that. The other night I watched - there was a very low-budget documentary we made in America a hundred years ago, and I happened to see some of it the other night. It’s just very difficult – as it is in any relationship, you know, how did we get there from here? And I don’t think Robert knows either. Half the time I sort of expect Paul to just show up, you know?
Creative relationships can be just as intense as romantic relationships.
PB: Starting back into it, you don’t realise how close you were.
It’s a very intimate thing to do with someone…
PB: …very. And all your defences are down; and it was joyful. It was absolutely joyful. I’ve got nothing negative to say about it. It’s like love in the regard that you have to accept that there are some periods that are mysterious to you. And this is a little bit mysterious to me. But there was never any question in my mind that Paul is gifted. There’s nobody like Paul; there’s nobody like Robert. You know perfectly well that a group is a dynamic. The three of you together create something like… a fourth person.
‘The other thing.’
PB: The other thing. I was very lost when I realised I didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to a little rehearsal room. Truly, truly lost.
When was that?
PB: Probably after High , and the touring, it started to dawn on me. I think in the back of my mind I – and Robert - sort of expected, when we were getting ready to tour, that Paul would wander in. Definitely at the beginning. But then as we finished off the dates, it dawned on me: the phone’s not ringing.
He knew the tour was being planned?
PB: Yeah, I’m sure he did know. I think you’re always trying to balance what you want with respect for the other person’s wishes. I think in that sense we excelled with each other. It would have been better, for me, if we’d carried on - but maybe we needed to stop, and it may be that we’ve achieved, individually, some perspective that will inform the music. The clichés are true: you start out in absolute privacy because nobody’s interested and you think external strains aren’t affecting you…
…and they are…
PB: They are. It’s very simple: if I had to choose whether or not to make another Blue Nile record before I die, the answer would be yes. It’s very liberating to be with two people you trust completely. It brings out the best in you; it makes you very unself-conscious. I think it’s true of all groups. So I was heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken and I probably spent a couple of years really just sitting in the kitchen wondering what had happened. Even with this record, I didn’t dust myself down and think, Well let’s get on with making a record. I was kinda working away, trying to write something for someone else with no luck whatsoever, but when I listened back to it – on a little Dictaphone actually, that Robert gave me – the songs that are on the album, they were all there. And a friend said, You should make a record – just a 10” EP or something, it’d be good for you to do something. So the first thing I did was go to the studio and play the sketches to the engineers, and said, I’m thinking of releasing this, as a sort of lo-fi thing. They put the songs up on the studio speakers and said, Well, you can’t really hear the music: you can hear your foot, and your hand hitting the keyboard, and the telephone; you can hear traffic: We don’t think you should [release it as is].
[laughs] ‘Automobile Noise’.
PB: ‘Automobile Noise’. So I thought, I’ll re-record them. I only did a couple of afternoons a week, to tell the truth, with a young engineer who’d never made a record before [actually the son of the engineer on all four Blue Nile albums]. So it was therapeutic rather than careerist.
Have you ever been careerist?
PB: I think at certain points you get drawn into going with the flow, largely because there are so many things to say yes or no to you literally can’t answer them all in a day. And with the best of intentions, you think, it’s ok, none of this is affecting me. Obviously, we didn’t produce records very often; we didn’t try to generate an image of any kind. So no, I wouldn’t say we were careerist. Once in a while, you look back and think, Maybe I should have shaken hands with that person – but I think we were beyond that. As I said once when we were playing live, ‘I flirted with obscurity but I went too far.’ But – c’est la vie. [On the deluxe double CD version of Mid Air] There’s a couple of other songs, and instrumental things. A couple of them are instrumental versions of the songs, and the others are what I initially intended to put on the ‘A’ disc – but I was prevailed upon to do otherwise. I had thought about it working a certain way. I had recorded the songs instrumentally and then, almost as an afterthought, I sang them. But when I realised that probably more people would buy the standard versions, Robert and the engineers and prevailed upon me [not to]. For me, I actually listened to the ‘B’ disc a lot, and was satisfied there was a good half-hour of music that was worth having, because you don’t want to look like you’re padding it out. The versions spoke, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to have to do that thing you had to do in the old days of loading up b-sides of 12"s in order that people would buy them. I think it works on its own; it’s a different mood. You get a box! What can I tell you!?
It can be a job making a CD into a lovely object.
PB: The designer was endlessly patient and constructive and attentive. You need that good fortune to have someone that’s as involved as you in making something aesthetically beautiful.
And if you’re only doing it, well… roughly once a decade…
PB: Yeah – I need to step it up.
Are you gonna play live?
PB: Well you know - that’ll be a hoot! Yeah – I think so. I was just waiting to see if anybody would be interested in seeing it, to be honest.
Oh! Of course they are!
PB: Ach, come on. It’s such a funny wee thing I couldn’t work out how to do it. But now I think it would be good to play [straight through] from beginning to end. It’s only 36 minutes. And then I’ll try to figure out what to do [after].
Play Mid Air in its entirety, have a little interval and then do greatest hits! Play the spoons!
PB: Play the spoons, yeah! Going out with a guy to play the piano, and maybe one other guy too do some of the… background. To go from that to a Blue Nile set is such a leap in terms of personnel and money you know? So what I’d do is try to prevail upon whoever’s [promoting] it to reflect that in the ticket price. So people could come and get an hour and a quarter [and not feel cheated]. Come out again after the interval essentially with the same people. I could do ‘Family Life’, ‘From a Midnight Train’ – at a stretch I could do a couple of things on the guitar.
That acoustic session you did for [US West Coast radion show’] Morning Becomes Eclectic is great. It’s almost like a little album itself. That’s you playing guitar isn’t it?
PB: Yes. Me and this other guy, a lovely guy who’s played on and off with us for years: a great human being.
When you said ‘I’d like to make another Blue Nile record before I die,’ I was gonna say, somewhat cheekily, You might only get one in!
PB: [laughs] I might only get one in! I’ve probably written it; I’ve certainly written quite a lot of it but it’s funny – you have old habits. I’ll write a demo up to a certain point and then stop; I’d want to stop, because it’s habit…
Because you’re waiting for what the others bring?
PB: Yes. That space. And I might go in and say, I’ve got ten songs and they’ll say, We like seven of them. That habits remains, so we’ll see. I hate to sound Biblical about it, when I look at what we did do, and as you get older you look at yourself more – your vanities and your dreams – well, I’m now looking and thinking the only way I can redeem my own life in some sense is to do something that was a little bit of a quantum leap in terms of what it expressed and what it stated. I know I can’t think that – I’m not clever enough to think of what that is, so it becomes some sort of humility, some sort of surrender. You accept that you’re deeply flawed as a human being – you have major character flaws and insecurities and all these things, and accepting that, and that you can’t really think your way to the next stage, and at this point the only thing I can imagine or hope to validate the shambles of my own existence is to in some way be part of something that expresses harmonically what I can’t articulate.
To pour yourself into the music in some way.
PB: You read about some conflict in the newspaper and think, I wish I could solve that. Really pull the juice off. How do you let go of your own imprints, the things that are ingrained in you? It’s the only thing I can think of now that would provide a happy ending.
PB: Me, or what I chose to do with my life...
More... much more at http://thequietus.com/articles/09375-paul-buchanan-blue-nile-interview