Interview: Vince Clarke of Erasure
Speaking from his Stateside home in Portland, Maine, Vince Clarke talked about Erasure’s new album, their forthcoming tour plans, and the reasons for their longevity.
The title of the album – Light at the End of the World – sounds both apocalyptic and optimistic. What were you conveying with that?
“I think it’s optimism. Most of the tracks are upbeat, and that’s the general vibe of how we wanted the record to sound.”
Did you have a pre-planned intention for the album, or did its themes naturally emerge during the recording?
“The themes just naturally happened. We wrote the songs initially in Portland, Maine. Andy Bell came over to the US for a while, and we demoed the songs on guitar. Then we rented a house in town and built a studio. Usually I’ll go to the UK, but because I’ve got a little baby and everything, we decided to have the producer come over here. As the producer and I worked on the tracks, Andy would start formulating the lyrics, and it just built that way.”
Does the songwriting process always involve the two of you working physically together in room, or are things ever arranged remotely?
“We always have to start the song together. We’ll sometimes do the production apart, and he’ll sing the lyrics in a separate studio. But this time round, we did the whole thing together. We wrote the songs together, and we were in the studio at the same time while the music was being produced. He would sing vocals in the evening, and we’d do it that way.”
Andy’s lyrics can sometimes be enigmatic, but you generally get the feeling that they’re based on real events in his personal life. Do you ever ask him for further clarification, or are you happy to let the enigma stand?
“I usually get what he’s saying anyway. On this record in particular, his lyrics were much more personal. He and I share everything that’s going on in our lives anyway, so I can tune into what he’s trying to say.”
This feels like your most uptempo set in a long time – especially the opening three tracks, which are all highly danceable. It reminds me of the start of the last Madonna album, as a real statement of intent. I heard that you were suffering from a “mid-tempo crisis”…
“That’s definitely true. As we got older and older, our songs got slower and slower. So we made a concerted effort to write more dancey tunes this time.”
But you’re a married family man now. When was the last time you went out and shook your hips in a club?
(Laughter) “Ooh, I can’t remember! 1979, I think! Andy still goes to clubs and stuff, but those days are over for me.”
What about remixes? Are you going to be looking for dance remixers to get involved, maybe with [the current single] Sunday Girl?
“Yeah, we definitely want to get some good remixes done. We have a guy that looks after us in the States, and he’s really interesting in getting a kind of US angle on them. So we’re looking at various people from over here to maybe contribute.”
You’ve always done well in the Billboard dance charts, so I guess some of the tracks might be showing up there.
You’ve been together as a working partnership for 22 years, which is roughly half your lives, and longer than many marriages. What is it that keeps you together, and have there been any moments when a divorce has looked imminent?
“We don’t clash at all. We haven’t argued in 22 years. Andy’s a really easy-going guy, and I think his easy-going nature has rubbed off on me as well.”
“The other secret is that we don’t get precious about our own ideas. If he comes to me with a lyric and I say “Well, I don’t know”, or if I come to him with a tune and he’s not 100% behind it, then the song just gets dropped, and we move on. If we’re not both fully committed to the tune, then inevitably it won’t sound very good.”
Yourselves and the Pet Shop Boys – and arguably Depeche Mode, funnily enough – are the last of the Eighties synth-pop acts who are still regularly releasing new material. What is it that has enabled you to remain viable for so long, while most of your contemporaries have fallen by the wayside?
“We’ve had a fantastic fanbase: people who have stayed with us throughout our existence. We did a lot of touring early on, and people have just stuck with us.”
“We also have a very loyal record company. The guy that runs the company [Daniel Miller of Mute Records] is a fan. I don’t think we would have survived if we had been signed to a major label.”
Even though they have major label backing now, Mute Records still retains the identity of a quirky, leftfield, arty, independent label – and I wondered whether a large part of your longevity was down to that support. If you have an album which maybe doesn’t do as well as the previous ones, they’re cool with it.
“Absolutely – and Mute really is a one man operation, as well. So it’s not like we have to build up a relationship with a new A&R person every time we release a new record.”
Since your commercial peak in the early Nineties, you still register very consistently sales-wise. Indeed, every UK single since Sometimes has gone Top Thirty, which is quite a hell of an achievement. It means that you’ve never become a nostalgia act.
(Deadpan) “Only to ourselves.”
Because you’ve never dramatically altered your sound, it’s like you exist in a separate musical universe all of your own. Do you feel any musical kinship with other acts?
“I don’t know. You talk about nostalgia; well, I’m nostalgic for music that came from the Eighties. It’s not that we’ve set out to have a particular identity; what we’ve really tried to do is write electronic music around good songs. For us, the most important part of a record has always been the tune. I guess that gives us a particular identity.”
You’re touring the UK in the autumn, but before that you’re taking part in a summer package tour in the US called True Colors, which features quite an interesting line-up of acts. Can you explain something about the concept of the tour?
“It was an idea that was put forward by our US agent, about a year and a half ago. He wanted an event that was almost like a family day out, with lots of bands. He asked us to take part, and it just felt like an interesting thing to do. It will hopefully be playing to an audience that haven’t necessarily seen us or heard of us. It’s not just old codgers like ourselves there; there are a couple of young bands as well, so it won’t be like a geriatrics’ convention.”
Who else is on the tour with you? Rufus Wainwright sticks in my mind…
“I think he’s doing a few guest appearances. There’s Blondie, and Cyndi Lauper will be headlining. Then there’s various different bands playing on different nights – about five or six every night. Everybody plays a 45 minute set, and it will be larger venues than we usually play.”
With Blondie being on the tour, you could wheel out your cover version of Rapture, for comparative purposes…
“Well, she’d be chuffed about that. Not!” (Laughter)
Any thoughts, at this early stage, on what we might expect from your autumn tour of the UK?
“Once we’ve done the True Colors tour, we’ll be touring the US in our own right. I’m not sure what Andy is cooking up for that side of the tour, but I assume that whatever happens here is going to be transferred to the UK. I’m sure there’ll be costumes involved! (Laughter) It will be all electronic, all-singing and all-dancing, and lots of… clothes.”
Which songs do you never tire of playing on stage, and are there any old hits which you’ve quietly dropped?
“There’s lots we’ve dropped – but the song I enjoy playing the most is A Little Respect. Everyone seems to know all the lyrics. Last time we performed it, which was in London, the audience sang the whole song before we’d even started it. It was amazing; really, really moving.”
When you’re on stage, how faithful do you like to be to the original versions? Do you like messing around with old favourites?
“I change from tour to tour. Sometimes I radically change the sound, almost doing a complete remix of the track; at other times it’s very true to the album. It really depends on the day. The technology’s changing all the time as well, so that often changes the sound.”
When it comes to contemporary music, do you still follow the charts? Do you still try to keep up with everything?
“Well, no. Now I’ve got a child, the only music I listen to is The Wiggles.”
Do you ever hear other singers and feel tempted to work with them, or is it a pure monogamous loyalty to Andy?
“It is a monogamous loyalty. I do work on other stuff, though. I do bits and pieces with Martyn Ware [Heaven 17] sometimes, on various projects. Not making pop records, but making music for exhibitions and stuff. I just did some music for a cartoon here in the States. So, little bits and pieces – but not actually working with another singer and making an album, no.”
Career-wise, perhaps you’ve already done it all – but are there any musical ambitions left to achieve?
“Yes. To appear on Sesame Street. That would be brilliant, wouldn’t it?”