Paul Buchanan speaks to ClashMusic...
In the three decades since The Blue Nile first stepped into a studio, Paul Buchanan has enjoyed overwhelming acclaim. The Glasgow band's output is slim but nigh on immaculate, engendering a reputation for being awkward audiophiles, stubborn aesthetes and quite, quite brilliant.
With the band's first two studio albums ('A Walk Across The Rooftops' and 'Hats' respectively) set to be re-issued, Clash was granted time with the singer. He's a little husky, with the encroaching Scottish Autumn leaving traces on his voice, but Paul Buchanan remains an articulate, passionate frontman.
Modest about his own achievements, the artist is forceful when he needs to be and occasionally a little bemused by the continuing halo which surrounds his work.
To go back to the beginning, The Blue Nile formed just after university - when did you meet?
We were all at the same university at roughly the same time but we didn’t know each other at uni. It was just a coincidence.
Glasgow has changed hugely, what it was like back then?
It probably wasn’t a healthy environment, in terms of lifestyle and so on and so forth. I think, in a way, to me there wasn’t a whole lot going on but at the same time that reputation that Glasgow had – that the streets were getting roamed by razor gangs – had stuck long after the event. We had no money, of course you don’t at that point in life. It’s very small anyway. It wasn’t very cosmopolitan, I would say. It was small, you would wander into town and bump into everybody you knew basically. It wasn’t the Jimmy Boyle story!
How much freedom did the Linn Records deal give you?
It gave us a lot of freedom. It’s only when you look back that you think – how did that happen? What would we have done if it hadn’t have happened. I suppose, you’re so engaged in what you’re doing you don’t really think, “well this might not work, that might not work”. We were just genuinely involved in what we were up to, whatever it was. The back story to that really was that we had made a single which was what you did in those days. Self-funded, working with a record label called RSO picked it up and they put it out and immediately it went bankrupt which sort of set the pattern for our career, really. They went bankrupt but in the very brief spell that we were with them we popped back into the studio because they had asked for another track. We popped back into the studio to do a couple of demos and Linn Products – who produced hi fi’s – they’d been testing speakers out at the studio and it was that simple, really. They said to the engineer “oh, who’s been in recently?” So he played them the demo and they wanted to make a record to sell in their shops, the hi fi shops to demonstrate the product. Actually, it was just at the beginning of the analogue / digital battle and they wanted to make a very pure sounding record to demonstrate the qualities of analogue. It was great because they left us to it. There was no producer, there was no A&R person – there was nothing. They trusted the engineer and they trusted us so they said, go off and make a record. It was great. Unusual, you know, to get that freedom at that point in your career.. I can’t imagine what would have happened otherwise.
Did you feel as a band that you had enough experience to take the project on?
No. Absolutely not. Callum, the engineer, said to me a couple of years ago.. He was being modest because he’s a very good engineer but he said: a lot of the time I didn’t really know what we were doing when we made ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ to which I said “well, we didn’t either!” I suppose you learned as you went along.
Did the Linn Records project affect the sound of the band, or were you already pulling off into one direction?
Totally. We were – as you would imagine – you’re so fervent about what you’re doing that nothing would dissuade you from it and nothing would persuade you to do otherwise. So no, it wasn’t anything to do with anything to be honest. We didn’t have a phone for it took us nine months to phone Linn back and say, yeah we want to do that. I remember them saying, it was nine months ago that we left a message for you. I think that just about sums it up. There have been points in our career where – if we’re being honest – you think, I wish we could shake that audiophile thing off. For us, it was always about the pictures and the emotion. We would have tried to do the same thing. As I said, we’d already demo’d some of the things before we’d even met Linn so.. na it was nothing to do with that.
Where did that cinematic sense of glamour come from?
I think it’s the romance of youth, in some way. You know the world feels fairly limitless, and without wanting to sound too fancy about it.. if you see a car brakelight reflected in a puddle it’s pretty much the same in Glasgow or New York. That was an aspect of it for us. I think, like everybody, we liked the movies and to some extent that’s why the album is called what it’s called – because it was imagined. We were just imagining what it would be like. It’s like the mythical feelings that you have when you fall in love with someone. It immediately becomes this epic ‘Romeo And Juliet’ story for everybody, for all of us as individuals. I think that sense of glamour comes from the individual and so I think that’s what informed it. That’s not a very good answer! (laughs) I don’t honestly know, it’s just what we felt. I suppose you are intense at that point. Maybe you’re intense throughout life but certainly at that point. We were very intense and idealistic.
How old were you at that point?
We’d been through uni and then life everybody we had that desert period where you’re trying.. we’d tried to put a couple of bands together without success. Eventually you reach a stage where people don’t stick and you’d be better just doing it yourselves. Then the panic sets in and you think: oh my God, what am I doing? You’re out of university five years and you suddenly think: what am I doing? So no, we were all in our mid to late 20s by then.
The album had this sleeper affect, did you notice a change after its release?
You notice the change in your life insofar as life up to that point had been pretty much the three of us trying to scrape together enough money to get a couple of coffee. It wasn’t that our lives change financially particularly, but all of a sudden we had to go places we had to interact with new people. Linn obviously licensed the record on so it would have been impossible not to feel some sort of different because up to that point our days consisted of practising for ten or twelve hours a day. Each as cheaply as possible.. sleep and then practise. We weren’t dreadfully aware of any success, it was a sleeper insofar as it sold what it sold, but it kept selling what it was selling, if you know what I mean. That’s what we wanted, I mean we didn’t do any posters, for example, for the first record. Or the second one, actually, because we knew from our own lives and our own experiences that word of mouth was the best thing. We were very pure about everything and we just wanted the record to find our own way. There were demands on your time but that was all.
‘Hats’ followed five years afterwards, why was this?
I don’t know what would have happened if things had been different. Honestly? I just think you got – or we did – and I admire bands that don’t but I think we somehow or other got nudged away, nudged off just our normal process. To write the songs, practise them, do this and do that. We pretty much put the record out, promoted it and then the next thing we knew we were back in the studio. That whole gestation period had gone missing. I think getting put into the studio like that meant that.. it was like pre-season, you just didn’t have it. We didn’t really have the songs. We laboured away in the studio trying to generate the material there, which just didn’t work. We recorded but we just didn’t believe in what we’d recorded. We also – it’s been lost in the mists of time – but actually, eventually our own record company – not Linn but Virgin – put another band in. Then they got into the same sort of thing and we couldn’t get back in. I think people perceived it as it was all to do with us sort of being in the studio for five years but of course you couldn’t be in the studio for five years you’d lose your mind. There was a two year period where we would have gone back in but we couldn’t get back in! So when we got back we actually finished ‘Hats’ quickly. The period when we got bumped out the studio we had nothing else to do, so we packed up and went home. Which is what we should have done in the first place, because when we went back home we reverted to our old routines – practise, play and sit about each other’s little flats and talk things through. We should have done that to begin with, really.
Is that a recurring factor in your career?
Yeah I think that was always the way of it, for us. It’s finding the target was illusive. Once we got it, a lot of the time we were able to go straight to it. As I said, I admire bands who can maintain having a foot in both camps. I don’t think we ever adjusted terribly well to the outer world.
How heavily involved were you with the re-issue process?
Aye we re-mastered them and we sort of collated the B-discs. Again, the B-discs you’re not trying to make any vast statement. The records, as far as we were concerned, were the records. We had distilled what we had to get to that point and that was what we decided to release as the records. But you know what it’s like these days – you have to have a salad with your dinner. We just tried to do something which was of interest rather than a total hotch potch. I thought, Robert thought – oh I’d be interested in hearing x, y and z if I was outside the band.
Was that an emotional experience?
It was funny being back in the studio. I think going back in and listening to them with a re-issue in mind I just was struck by the amount of love which had gone into the recordings.
What have you been up to in the mean time?
I’ve actually been working on a little piano record. I put it out earlier this year, so I’ve been working very hard with that. It’s been good, actually – I’ve been lucky, very grateful to be at the point where from a standing start.. I’d forgotten what it was like spending so much time waiting for my bags to come out. It’s been good. I’ve been grateful for it, so that’s what I’ve been doing – I’ve been promoting the other record.
You’ve had a sore throat...
Yeah I’ve just got a bit of a sore throat. I mean, the weather up here doesn’t help. But I’m not alone. This whole thing went round, you’d go in somewhere to order a couple of coffee and the waitress would have no voice. It affected lots and lots of people. As you travel it gets on top of your voice and you just wear it out. I’m fine, though, I’m sure that over Christmas I’ll be back to my best. I’m just sounding a bit like Tom Waits at the moment! (laughs)
Can you envisage the Blue Nile working together again?
I mean, I can. I don’t know where things stand with the other two guys. Robert I tend to see fairly often as well live in the same city. In a way, I think it would be the right and proper thing to do but I’ll just need to wait and see. If the others say let’s do this... Certainly, if I bump into them on a corner my hope would be that we could say: so what are you doing tomorrow?