In discussion with truly-madly on “Hats” by The Blue Nile (1989).
How did you come across this album for the first time?
In my early teens I was quite nerdily into hi-fi – it didn’t stop there to be honest – so there would always be a copy of „What Hi-Fi“ knocking about, covered in drooled saliva at the valve amp page. The magazine had a small music review section – I don’t recall usually paying much attention to this but for some reason I read the entry for „Hats“. I don’t remember what it said but something in it must have appealed to my inner angst – nor did that stop there either – at that time. Surely the word ‘melancholy’ was used. So I bought it blindly (the cassette). At that time I was listening to bits of everything, early House, Synth Pop, Indie, and I was buying vinyl but had this odd mental divide that meant I would buy albums on cassette and singles on 12”. And actually I only finally bought „Hats“ on vinyl fairly recently – random find at Rough Trade Portobello in London.
Why did you choose „Hats“ for this interview? What are its special credentials for you?
It would probably be too difficult to choose a House or Techno album, which might be the natural thing to do, and this was the first that came to mind otherwise. I still think it’s quite obscure in a way, despite being part of the mainstream, and seemingly more popular than I realised.
My first encounter with The Blue Nile was probably hearing „Tinseltown In The Rain“ on the radio, from their first album „A Walk Across The Rooftops“, released in 1983. Do you like that as well?
I like all their stuff but don’t remember anything pre-“Hats“. I now know Tinseltown was some kind of hit but don’t directly recall it from the radio, etc. But occasionally I’ll hear it, in a cab or something, and think there is more to it than simply having listened to it from the album, that maybe I did hear it around the time it came out. That first album, and „Hats“, they are the best ones for me.
For me it is a topic worthy of thorough academic research how the electronic music of the Synthpop era and beyond is so often pared with very charismatic lead voices. Is this only for contrast, or is there more to it?
Erm, is it too late to change my album?
How would you rate Paul Buchanan in comparison to other singers of those years?
Well I think his voice is quite unique, and instantly recognisable. I also think when he sings it’s heartfelt, kind of believable, knowing a bit about him. His personality is reflected in the music and lyrics, maybe moreso than most.
The album is quite introspective and poignant. Where did all those melancholia in Synthpop come from? A sign of the times?
I think this is next level introspection and reflection, and not necessarily representative of a lot of other Synthpop stuff. I’ve never really connected it that way at least. The whole album has an air of impending doom and hopelessness, but is also tinged with some kind of blurred optimism. In simple terms it’s that happy/sad thing that attracts me to a lot of music. The situations and experiences it describes, you kind of want to be there, even though you know it wouldn’t end well. I think that’s why it’s always appealed to me, how my life has been in a lot of ways.
The Blue Nile is a rare example of me taking note of the lyrics. Almost all other stuff I just don’t take them in – there are songs I’ve listened to a thousand times, but I still couldn’t tell you the words and they’ve never registered. I don’t agree with the convention that lyrics enhance music and vice versa. If you’ve got something to say write a poem. Words are processed in a different part of the brain to music, and they are processed quicker too, so effectively if you’re listening to the lyrics you’re being told how to feel about the music. Note I am not backing this up with links to scientific studies – but no comebacks! Anyway The Blue Nile escaped my purist tendencies somehow.
Apparently the band struggled a quite bit to complete „Hats“, working on it from 1985 until it finally came out in 1989. By then the musical landscape had changed quite dramatically, and the classical Synthpop of the early 80s was fading from the charts, and particularly the clubs. Is this album oblivious to these developments, or did they find their way in?
I’ve never really seen it as connected to any kind of scene to be honest. It’s not the type of stuff that would be played in clubs, apart from somewhere really obscure maybe? But I only started going to clubs at the end of the 80s, and it was pretty much all House and Techno by then where I was. So I mainly missed the years Synthpop was played in clubs. Can’t imagine anything from „Hats“ filling the dancefloor but you never know.
I always found it interesting that bands similar in their approach to pop, like Prefab Sprout or It’s Immaterial for example, made music that did not necessarily make you think of clubs, but in the UK they found their way into according contexts nonetheless. Where is that phenomenon coming from?
Prefab Sprout and especially It’s Immaterial seem to be a different category – I can see how their stuff would make and be big in the clubs, it’s a lot more upbeat. Not wanting to be too categoric about what you can and can’t dance too, maybe it’s the way I came across „Hats“, and the time of life, but I’ve never associated it with dance music or clubs. I am going to have a dance to it soon though. In my house. You try it too, Finn, „From A Late Night Train“ perhaps, and we can compare notes. Actually I can see this as a new scene – start thinking of names.
Sorry for bringing it up, but I will probably never get over you once claiming the Dire Straits album „Brothers In Arms“ is Deep House. If you were even only half serious, how Deep House is „Hats“?
No problem bringing that up, it’s an eternal truth.* (* with the omission of the heinous „Walk Of Life“ and equally terrible „Money For Nothing“). I think you finally agreed didn’t you?! Preceding Fingers Inc „Another Side“ by a matter of months as the first Deep House album ever. “Deep” seems to have become a dirty word recently, mainly because of all the derivative and formulaic shitehouse taking over the term. But we’ve been describing stuff as deep since the 80s and it still to me describes a very personal take on something. So yeah, „Hats“ is well more Deep House than most of the latest fodder, and I think the production is really important in that. Callum Malcolm has to take credit for that, and the gear he used – capturing the mood, atmosphere, space, all that use of heavy reverb but never too much, it’s perfect for their sparse stuff. So actually it’s good Minimal Techno as well as Deep House.
Could there ever be another album by the band as good as this, or is it over and done with?
Of course the music connection with memory is hard to shake, so it’s impossible to have an objective view, and it’s right it should be that way. So because that album has been with me for so long now and has soundtracked different parts of my life, and because it’s connected to growing up and all that goes with that, I don’t think anything the band could do would resonate like „Hats“. I do like the albums after „Hats“ but the direction seemed to be at odds with the reasons I was into the first albums – not sure it was a conscious effort to try and make it less introspective and more upbeat, or maybe the problems they were having eased – the title „Peace At Last“ would suggest that, that album even sounds Gospel influenced in places to me. So no, „Hats“ was a time and a place and it just stuck, I don’t think it will be repeated. Although I’d love it if they did.