And quiet flows the Nile
The Blue Nile have binned more songs than they have released, with just four albums in two decades. It makes it hard for them to fit into the pop world, writes Jim Carroll.
You cannot mistake this voice. Hearing it on brand-new songs is a sign that another Blue Nile album is finally coming down the tracks. For those who treasure Paul Buchanan singing weather-beaten pop about weather-beaten lives, a lengthy wait is almost over. That this audience has waited eight years to hear High shows that patience is more than a virtue when you're dealing with a band who have released just four albums in 21 years.
If pop's high street is increasingly cluttered with low-rent operations fronted by brash barkers hawking shoddy goods of every description, The Blue Nile operate in that little artisan store hidden down a side lane. For those who make the effort to seek them out, The Blue Nile offer music untainted by commerce or fashions. The reasons why 1983's A Walk Across The Rooftops and 1989's Hats still sell are because few artists deal with such matters in this way. Rich, soulful and exquisitely crafted, it's extraordinary music about the most ordinary of circumstances.
Yet Buchanan knows that The Blue Nile's reluctance to release what they view as substandard work has meant that many people just do not know who they are. With only one album released in the 1990s (and the patchy Peace At Last at that), a generation has grown up without hearing the band.
"We sometimes give scientific reasons for the gaps between records, but we just lost our way a couple of times; it's no more complicated than that," says Buchanan ruefully. "We would record a lot of songs and then realise that they were not right, that they were too uptight or too formularised or too thought out."
Constant writing and recording have yielded hundreds of tracks (the nine songs on High were written and recorded over a decade), yet only about 30 have ever been released. "For all I know we could have scrapped our best tracks during that process," he shrugs, "but it doesn't seem that way to me. You always set out to do the best you can, but sometimes songs can be informed by anxiety or some other digression. Our criterion is fairly simple: if it moves you it's on, and if it doesn't move you it's off."
Since they released Peace At Last, in 1996, Buchanan, P. J. Moore and Robert Bell have been writing and recording as they've always done. Live shows have been largely non-existent: their last was at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 2001, at a tribute concert for Uaneen Fitzsimons, the music broadcaster who was killed in a car accident.
"There have been days, and indeed weeks or months, when we haven't done anything because one of us just isn't in sync with the others," says Buchanan of life during the eight-year gap. "That becomes more of an element as you get older and other things come into your life and you lose that certainty of youth. It's important to keep the unit together to ensure the same chemistry, because we're found that three heads are better than one. At the same time, all three heads have to be operating at the same time."
Such lack of productivity means a somewhat limited income, and Buchanan mentions a frugal lifestyle. The old records still sell, and the band received a tidy pay-off from Warner Bros, their previous label, but even such revenue streams aren't enough to prevent what Buchanan terms "those Mr Micawber moments where you're down to your last fiver".
The singer believes they have ended up here because they followed their nature. "This is not the life that I wished for: I would have taken a more superficial result if it had been on offer," he says. "You don't set out thinking and hoping you'll grow old doing this. The bottom line is this is just what happened. Our merit, if it is a merit, is that we stuck with it.
"We may have alienated people or missed out on people or lost momentum or wasted effort, but we have at least maintained our credibility - and that's important in the long run. You have to stick to your goals, and we're lucky, because we're still going. I would like to be able to look back and know we have always done the best we could."
But there must be a part of Buchanan that looks at the success of other groups and thinks of what might or should have been. When he talks about "putting in all this agonising and effort, and then other groups come along and effortlessly sell loads of records", his frustration is obvious. After all, Coldplay and Keane are all the rage these days, and they do what some people might call emotional, intelligent pop not a million miles removed.
Buchanan uses an interesting analogy to explain this. "I went to see Analyze This in the cinema and it was good, it was funny. But I didn't think it was as good as The Sopranos. The Sopranos is on at 10.30 or 11 p.m. on Channel 4, and it doesn't get a huge mainstream audience, but if you love it you wouldn't change it for anything.
"You could look at someone like Coldplay and how effortless it has been for them. The lead singer [Chris Martin\] even appears to have a healthy emotional life, while I'm wandering around like a cross between Woody Allen and Dylan Thomas and not getting anywhere. But I would be lying if I said they're doing what we do.
"I don't think our music is soft music, but I think it's compassionate in the real sense of the word. I like what they do, and there's an emotional resonance in it, but I don't see the whole movie. It's two different things, it's like Ulysses and Tess Of The D'Urbervilles. They're both good books, and both have words on the page, but one is dealing with a different reality."
Buchanan is acutely aware that his views on music are hugely at odds with popular opinion. "The way music is branded these days seems to sell it short," he says. "It's not really about commerce or ring tones. Music is a language, and I think it has been hijacked and turned into a commodity and a lifestyle. You get acts pushed towards you who are just collections of people who met on TV shows. It's a fact of life now, and it's the way things have advanced. You don't want to have sour grapes about it, but you can't help wondering where it is going."
For him and The Blue Nile, their striving for perfection is about maintaining a relationship. "The way we're trying to address the listener is a private experience, it's not about a sound bite. I wouldn't like to disappoint people. You can't have a relationship where you want the work to have a value and only do that some of the time: you have to do that all of the time."
Buchanan admits he is something of an "apologist", but his dedication to the cause is obvious. It's this compulsion that has meant both that The Blue Nile have scrapped more songs than they have released and that they have not reached the same heights as many lesser talents.
He knows too that he is the most unlikely of pop stars when he says that self-importance is the enemy. "The three of us are trying to hack away at that. We feel we're observers rather than pop musicians or artists: we're not one of them. The way pop musicians have been rewarded and treated over the years actually removes you from the very thing that you're doing. You can't just go to a restaurant: any room there has to be a VIP room or table.
"I've experienced a tiny amount of it, and I can tell you there is no magic realm, you don't get into a room where everything is better just because you get to hang out with Jennifer Lopez every day." He smiles broadly. "That just doesn't happen to us." Lopez doesn't know what she is missing.
High is on Sanctuary Records