Championing a little respect, to the sky and back – the Vince Clarke interview

Little Respect: Erasure’s Andy Bell (left) and Vince Clarke try to keep a low profile (Photo: Doron Gild)

When World Be Gone, the 17th studio album from Erasure, crashed into the UK album chart at No. 6 this month, it proved to be this established synth-pop duo’s highest new entry since 1994’s I Say I Say I Say, which went on to be their fifth straight No.1 LP in six years.

The new album was released – as with all Erasure’s recordings – on Mute, a record label synonymous with the work of keyboard maestro and band founder Vince Clarke since his first successful studio venture as chief songwriter of the fledgling Depeche Mode in 1981.

After a pivotal role with that Essex synth-pop combo on their Speak and Spell debut LP, Vince walked away on the eve of their first US tour, but quickly proved he had retained the Midas touch after forming Yazoo with Alison Moyet, two more hit albums following before another early disbandment in early ’83.

At that stage Vince envisioned a new project alongside his studio engineer, Eric Radcliffe, this time involving a variety of vocalists, the first recruit former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey, the powerfully-emotive 1983 top-five hit single Never Never following, credited to The Assembly. Later came a collaboration with Edwyn Collins’ old schoolmate Paul Quinn, previously with Bourgie Bourgie, on One Day. But this time they failed to chart, and an alternative vision was floated, a subsequent advert in Melody Maker bringing Andy Bell to his door, this 20-year-old from Peterborough – selling women’s shoes and performing in a band called The Void at the time – impressing at his audition, leading to a winning partnership that has now endured for 32 years … and counting.

In fact, Erasure have amassed 17 UK top-10 singles along the way, not least Sometimes, A Little Respect, StopDrama!, Blue Savannah, Chorus, Love To Hate You, and the Abba-esque EP that topped the charts for five weeks, 25 years ago this month. And while that chart presence inevitably fell off a little over the last two decades, this is an outfit still very much on top of its game, with their latest offering, World Be Gone, the follow-up to 2014’s The Violet Flame, seeing them in more reflective mode, tackling world issues and recent political upheavals.

Don’t get the wrong idea. These seasoned dancefloor fillers haven’t turned their back on synth-pop, and have hardly become po-faced, as highlighted by the first release from the album, the celebratory and super-catchy Love You to the Sky, just the latest fine example of Bell and Clarke’s pop craft. What’s more, the new LP artwork shows a ships’ masthead rising from stormy waters, and as Andy put it, ‘I think there’s an under-swell of opinion, and people are slowly waking up. I’m hoping people will take the album in a positive way, as optimistic rabble-rousing music’.

But on this occasion it was Vince I was speaking to, via the wonders of Skype from my place to his home in Brooklyn, New York, before he set out on Erasure’s next batch of live shows. He’s lived in the US for more than a dozen years now, including a spell in Maine. I guess it’s a good life out there, I put to him.

“Erm …. It’s alright.”

It’s hardly Basildon though.

“No, it’s not quite Basildon.”

That introductory exchange seemed to sum my interviewee up. Don’t expect hyperbole, just understated honesty. His band may carry an air of flamboyance, but that’s mostly down to an outwardly more-showy frontman, with Vince far happier in Andy’s shadow. Watch a couple of Erasure’s ‘80s and ‘90s videos and you’ll see that. And they’re still putting on great shows today, as anyone who catches their latest live outings as special guests of Robbie Williams will tell you. Not as if Vince will shout that from the rooftops.

“The touring always tends to be great in the beginning, then not so great … like with anything – the grass is always greener. I think Andy’s always more the showman and really enjoys the touring, despite all the pressure he’s under, whereas I enjoy being in the studio more, recording.”

I guess he’s someone good to hide behind on stage. That must take the spotlight off you.

“Well, if there were two Andys on stage it’d just be ridiculous, y’know. It’d be mayhem! So I’m really happy. He’s an amazing showman … and you really don’t want to see me dance.”

Silly question maybe, but are they proud of the latest batch of songs?

“Yeah, we’re really pleased. We had a lot longer to record this record than we normally get so had the chance to write more songs than we needed, and that’s a real luxury. The process went really smoothly, the songwriting seeming to come quite easy this time round. And while the last two albums were more dance-y, it was nice to do something completely different.”

And lyrically, as heard on the more mellow Be Careful What You Wish For and the title track, this is Erasure reflecting on what’s going on in the world, isn’t it?

“Well, I think with all the weird stuff going on we thought we had to say something. Having said that, I don’t want people to get the impression it’s all doom and gloom. Hopefully there are a few positive notes within the record.”

There certainly are, but 32 years after their first 45, Who Needs Love Like That, I wonder if Vince could ever have imagined he’d be in this position, a North-East London lad who made his name with a few mates from Basildon still travelling the world, having shifted huge amounts of records, and now long since established in America. Was there ever a clear dream of where this might all take him?

“I had no idea. I couldn’t have imagined two weeks in advance. Even with Erasure, when I look back I can’t believe it’s been 30-plus years we’ve been together. In the beginning all we cared about was the next week – the next gig you were playing or perhaps the next single you were writing or album you were releasing. And I’m not one to reminisce. The only time I listen to old Erasure records is while preparing for a tour.”

After those short but successful stints with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, then The Assembly project that never really got off the ground, those three decades with Andy have certainly bucked a personal trend.

“Well, yeah. The Assembly thing was meant to last a little longer than it did, but just proved impractical really. And it was at that point that the producer I was working with suggested getting someone permanent as the singer.”

Hence that Melody Maker ad.

“Exactly, yes.”

When you met him, was there an affinity straight away that made you realise ‘this is it’?

“Well, there was as far as the sound of his voice was concerned. We’d been auditioning people all weekend and when he came along his voice just shone. With regards to his personality we had no idea. It took us a while to get to know each other. But it turned out that we are pretty similar, with similar political views for one thing.

“He’s just an incredibly laid-back person and super-easy to work with. The other good thing is that he’s totally not interested in computers, while I’m not so interested in recording vocals. We have our own little corners, and it’s a match made in heaven.”

And yet, with the miles between the duo these days – with Andy dividing his time off between homes in Miami and London – I guess they spend a lot of time (as Vince and I were on this occasion) talking and swapping ideas via a computer link.

It’s interesting, I tell Vince, seeing his early career in bullet point via all the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 – first with Depeche Mode, then with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, then Eric and Feargal in The Assembly. And while Erasure followed, there have been lots of other collaborations for Vince over the years, from Paul Quinn to West India Company – also including Blancmange’s Stephen Luscombe – through to Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware (The Clarke and Ware Experiment), past Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore (VCMG), and even Jean Michel Jarre. Then there are the countless remixes since the late ’80s for other high-profile acts, from Happy Mondays, Betty Boo and Sparks through to The Saturdays, Blancmange, Dido, Franz Ferdinand and Goldfrapp.

“Recently I’ve been collaborating more and more. As I’ve got older I enjoy it much more. When you have your own studio in your own house it can be a bit lonesome, so there have been more collaborations and remixes for people.”

I might be giving your record company an idea here, but any chance of a compilation of some of those collaborations from over the years?

“Well, I wouldn’t put it past Mute! There’ll be someone planning something, somewhere!”

When Vince left Depeche Mode he was taking a big career chance, as he was when he walked away from Yazoo. Word was that he didn’t enjoy the public aspects of success, not least touring and interviews. Did that get easier over the years?

“Well, I keep in the background pretty much anyway, so just learn how to do that. I don’t like going to public events and reward shows. That just doesn’t interest me. And I have a pretty anonymous lifestyle here in New York.”

Basildon Boys: Depeche Mode in the early days, with Vince Clarke, right, playing a key role.

He says that, but he did collect his ‘outstanding song collection’ gong at the 2009 Ivor Novello awards ceremony, in recognition of 30 years in the industry.

“Weird. I wouldn’t say I was glad I did it, I kind of wished I hadn’t. Maybe it reaffirmed my belief that I’m not into that sh**!”

While he suggests he tends to avoid the nostalgia circuit, there was also 2008’s 25th anniversary reunion with Yazoo. So, any plans for a 35-year celebration with Alf next year?

He snorts a little at that, then adds, ‘No – no plans. We’re just thinking about the upcoming tour, the tour with Robbie (Williams) and our own 2018 tour, starting in the UK early next year. That’s as far as I’m looking ahead.”

So far this year the band have already played late-May headline dates at Glasgow’s 02 Academy, Manchester’s Albert Hall and London’s Roundhouse. And then came their seven-date UK stadium run as special guests of Robbie Williams, reaching London’s Olympic Park on Friday, June 23rd. A 22-date European leg follows with the former Take That star, starting in Dusseldorf (June 28th) and ending in Moscow (September 10th).

And then the band are set to return for that headline tour next year, starting with three dates in Dublin in late January, the UK leg including visits to Liverpool Philharmonic (February 6th) and Manchester Apollo (February 8th), culminating in a return to London’s Hammersmith Apollo (February 23rd) then seven German dates, with full details here.

Of course, a lot of those audiences will want to hear the old songs too. And yet you tell me you’re not a nostalgic.

“I think that’s true of most artists, really. In our case it’s about that search for that elusive, perfect pop song.  And I love writing with Andy. It still amazes me how we go into a room with nothing and come out maybe a couple of hours later with a song. That’s one of the huge reasons why Andy and I are still together, I think. And there are still surprises out there.”

So many hits too. That shouldn’t automatically define the success of a working relationship, but there have been so many good tunes. And I’m not sure you get your fair share or even just – sorry – a little respect for that.

“I don’t know …  we’re still looking for that perfect song. When we do that I’ll Skype you and let you know – a bit of an exclusive!”

Odd Couple: Vince Clarke with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, his second success story.

I loved the 13 albums project he talked about in The Quietus in late 2013, where the likes of the Sex Pistols and T-Rex sat alongside Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, Philip Glass, Genesis and The Eagles. With that in mind, going back, what was the biggest influence on Vince – the thrill of punk or later electronic outfits like The Human League and OMD taking on Kraftwerk’s legacy?

“I wasn’t a huge fan of punk music, personally.”

Maybe not, but surely the DIY aspect of it all and the independent approach resonated with you, judging by your work ever since.

“Yeah, but at that time I was getting into trying to improve my acoustic guitar playing. I was more of a folkie.”

You were playing violin early on, weren’t you?

“Yeah, I played violin, although thankfully there are no recordings of my performances.”

It’s not like a Sherlock Holmes thing then – it doesn’t come out when you’re looking to solve some dilemma or other?

“No. Mum sent all of us to music school on Saturdays. I took up violin, my sister did piano, my brother did flute and my other brother did trumpet, I think. I don’t know why I chose violin.”

V for violin, V for Vincent, maybe?

“Something like that. But the moment we worked out how we could bunk, we used to do that.”

Live Wires: Erasure’s summer line-up. With Andy and Vince are (left) Emma Whittle and Valerie Chalmers.

Do you tend to write with piano or with keyboard these days?

“In the past, the majority of what we recorded was written on guitar or piano. But with this record I worked out some kind of atmospheric backing tracks before joining up with Andy, writing lots so we had lots of choices. We then worked out the songs around those tracks.”

While not on the road, Vince is based in Brooklyn with wife Tracy and their 11-year-old son, Oscar, having relocated his Cabin studio and synthesizers collection from their previous home in Maine. Tracy is the co-founder of the nearby Morbid Anatomy Museum and the twin sister of New York author Tonya Hurley, who is married to Erasure manager Michael Pagnotta.

Is Oscar following in Dad’s footsteps?

“He’s a real Logic guy, the same program I use. He was having lessons for a while but got bored as the teacher wasn’t fast enough! I’ve had a piano for about 20 years, which I had moved here, and he’s been tipping those keys now. Yeah, he’s definitely got a musical sensibility. He’ll come down to the studio and tell me I’m doing it all wrong! I can’t impress him.”

Does he not realise how much of a synth-pop idol you are? If I was you, I’d probably be sat watching TV and announcing to those with me, ‘I worked with him’ and ‘I worked with her’.

“Ha! Not really. I don’t think he really knows or appreciates … I don’t think he really understands what I do. He just thinks I mess about … which is kind of what I do really! As far as he’s concerned, he has to go to school while I just stay here, fiddling with synthesisers all day.”

Whatever Oscar might think, it’s a mightily-impressive back-catalogue – from 1981’s Speak and Spell with Depeche Mode right through. And which past album would he say he’s most proud of?

“One of my favourite records is Chorus, just because it was … I don’t know … the songs kind of wrote themselves and we were being quite experimental with the keyboards and synthesisers. I just think it’s got a really nice, semi-dark feel, which I really enjoy.”

Although you may not be the kind of guy to hang out with a few showbiz mates, do you keep in touch with the likes of the two Martins (Gore and Ware), Alison Moyet, or even Feargal Sharkey?

“I don’t tend to, but when we do bump into each other, that’s the only time I do a bit of reminiscing.”

And I guess you’ve got plenty to reminisce about with Andy Bell these days anyway, after all these years.

“Oh, I’ve got some stories you wouldn’t believe!”

Intriguing. Are you willing to drop in a juicy fact or two here before we finish?

“No.”

Ah well, I tried.

Heading Off: Erasure’s Andy Bell, left, and Vince Clarke, in the driving seat and coming to a town near you (Photo: Doron Gild).

World Be Gone, written, performed and produced by Erasure and mixed by Matty Green, is available on CD, limited-edition orange vinyl, regular vinyl and cassette. For details head here. And to keep in touch with all things Erasure, including live details (not least with a lot of those early 2018 shows already sold out) check out their Facebook and Twitter links. 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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