No static at all: The story behind Blueneck's sixth album The Outpost

A press shot of Blueneck

F orming in the year 2000, Blueneck evolved quickly from a live, cinematic-minded experimental rock outfit to being at the forefront of the UK post-rock scene. With the rise of post-progressive music in the late 2000s, the band then found themselves collecting a new set of fans. “The fact that the ‘new prog’ thing happened, we’re completely happy to be associated with that,” says guitarist Rich Sadler. “It meant different people coming to the shows, more guys in their mid-to-late 30s or older, as opposed to kids with backpacks and hi-tops.”

Now, on the eve of their sixth album, The Outpost, Blueneck, comprised of Rich and vocalist and keyboard player Duncan Attwood, are taking stock of where they are. Perhaps more importantly, they’re wondering where to go next, with a return to playing live top of their priorities list. The Outpost, in fact, started out life as a side project with exactly this goal in mind. The association of Blueneck had become somewhat constricting to Duncan and Rich, and they began to work up a sparser set of material that was “more reliant on Rich’s guitar melodies”, according to Attwood, with a view to playing it live. Sadler elaborates: “Coming off the back of King Nine, with everything taking so long and the fact it was an album pretty much built from scratch in the studio upwards – there wasn’t really a full band involved in that – meant that this time we started off and said, ‘Christ, we want to do something a bit more dynamic and easier to do. We were talking about taking something on the road, and we wanted to do something more electronic, so we stood up a separate project with the idea of it being more electronically based, not called Blueneck.”

In any event, it quickly became apparent during the writing period that this album was not a stand-alone project, and the pair had to make a decision. “We reached a point where we realised that it could be so much better if we stopped limiting ourselves to something we could perform onstage [as a two-piece],” Sadler begins, explaining that one day they just said: “‘Actually, let’s go back into the studio, let’s get Ben [Paget] our bass player up and back on it, let’s get involved with Matt [Sampson], who worked on King Nine as our producer, and really go for the full Blueneck effect.’” Attwood jumps in: “I remember that it was almost like a lightbulb moment. One morning I was sat at work listening to the tracks and I just thought, ‘Actually, this is gonna be so much better if we just call this Blueneck and go gung-ho on all of this.’”

“There’s of course a legacy,” Sadler muses, linking this to the finished album. “We’d progressed the electronic thing, which had made it sound very fresh and exciting.” Attwood agrees: “The writing process was different because me and Rich had wanted it to be a different project; I was purposefully looking at these songs, looking at different structures, looking at a more melodic approach than we’ve done before. Shorter songs, really ramping up the electronic side of things.” Besides drafting in their bandmates, there was also the small matter of their long-time collaborator, producer Matt Sampson. “He’s as good a Blueneck member as any of us, really,” states Atwood emphatically, “because he has a certain way of working. Now, Matt is our producer and we wouldn’t work with anyone else. Since the third album we’ve grown with him, so that’s where a lot of that confidence with experimenting with all the synths and programming – we’ve gained a lot of experience through Matt.”

The new album expands on the band’s existing vocabulary, continuing their obsession with subtle layers, soundscaping and ambience, but also adding directness where necessary. Atwood attributes this to being “more reliant on my vocal melodies and more reliant on a really strong singular synth sound and decent rhythm”, which he says is the result of breaking the habit of “straight away thinking, ‘This’ll be great, because we’ll chuck 40 fucking layers of guitar sounds over the top of this.’” Though the guitar work is at times more direct, the difference is most consistently in the synth parts; while electronics have always been a part of the band’s sound, on The Outpost they are more prominent than ever before. “Duncan and I grew up in the 80s, and we always loved the electronic sounds of that period, whether it was things like Howard Jones or Genesis,” laughs Sadler. “But also loving stuff like Moderat or Modeselektor or East India Youth or LCD Soundsystem – all of this stuff that we love we were now trying to bring to it.”

Beyond the instrumentation, the lyrical themes are radically different. “This is going to sound really dodgy,” begins Sadler, “but it was almost like, trying to make it a little bit more sensual and a little bit more, well, I guess seductive really – as opposed to bleak.” Once Rich and Duncan have finished laughing at that description, Atwood elaborates: “I think we liked the idea of playing with themes almost veering towards love and more delicate areas.” Atwood pauses, then offers, “King Nine was, for me anyway, a really dark album. That was far and away the darkest Blueneck album, even if it might not sound like it. Me and Rich talked about themes and lyrical content before we started looking at [The Outpost] and I think we both liked the idea of doing something that was a bit different to the really dark, dark parts of us.” There’s continuity though; as Sadler observes, even if The Outpost has a more ‘playful’ feel, with Blueneck: “You’ll always get a strong sense of melody and a strong sense of melancholy. I genuinely don’t think there are many people who can combine those two things any better than [Duncan] can.”

With a new album on the way, the band are in a reflective mood about their progress thus far. “We genuinely didn’t know whether people were gonna like it, and I know that’s such a cliché, but it’s not as if Blueneck is paying the mortgage,” says Sadler. But that also this gives them the freedom to say: “Let’s fucking do what we want to here.” Their reason for continuing is largely a case of challenging themselves, according to Attwood, “A lot of post-rock bands, maybe the more unsuccessful ones, tend to stay doing what they’re doing. They find their niche and release album after album doing the same kind of thing and if that works for them, great, but certainly for me and Rich, we’re doing this for our own enjoyment. We both feel that you have to be continually evolving and progressing.” Despite this seeming distaste for the genre tag, they are ultimately happy with whatever tag they are given, be it ‘post-rock’ or ‘post-progressive’, so long as people don’t expect them to stay creatively static forever. “I feel fine about it, call us what you want,” says Rich with a laugh. “It was helpful when we first started releasing music and getting noticed – there was a lot of attention on the band around the era of Sigur Ròs, Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I could see the connection and it helped us.”

Though it’s clear their satisfaction in their art and its creation comes from within, they also recognise that sometimes there are external measures of success that are recognisable – and aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “One of the last gigs we played was Glastonbury, and I’d dreamed about it for God knows how many years,” says Sadler. “But it was nowhere near some of those smaller shows that we’ve played.”

After such a long time working together, what the pair love about music has become deeply intertwined with the life of the band itself. “With the risk of sounding cheesy, for me it’s a lot about friendship, it’s the context for your friendship, the camaraderie of doing this,” Sadler explains. “Sharing that among your friends is the coolest thing. Continuing to do this and have the shared experiences is the cool stuff.” Attwood picks up, “I think for me, when I think about music, from a very early age music has always been in my life… I always tapped into the sadness in songs and the melancholia. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a depressed kid, but that’s how music has always touched me.” Sadler concludes: “For me it’s just like the connecting energy between everything. As a kid it was me bonding with my Dad over Phil Collins, or connecting with that girl you fancied when you were 15… but when you start writing your own stuff, you arrive in a city and you have an instant rapport with people over something that’s so nebulous. I’d be lost without it.”

The Outpost is out now on Denovali Records. See more information.

Blueneck - The Outpost album review