Interview: Andy Bell of Erasure
I actually spoke to Vince Clarke a few months ago; it was back in April, just before your current album Light At The End Of The World was released. Speaking to you now that it’s been out for three months or so, are you pleased with the way it has been received?
It’s really hard to tell these days. I think we’ve sold about 70,000 copies worldwide, so sales-wise it has been disappointing – but when you go out and play, and people know all the words to the new songs, even in America, you think: oh, this is really amazing. So I think people are just sharing their music. They don’t buy anything much anymore, unless it’s blasted at them all the time, on the TV and stuff. So I’m pleased at how people know the songs, and that they’re going down well.
In 1995, when we had the Erasure album out, and Fingers And Thumbs was released as a single, we went on stage and nobody knew it. But this time, they’ve heard them.
Well, you do have a very dedicated fanbase – and extraordinarily, you haven’t had a single fail to make the UK Top Forty for over twenty years. That’s an incredible achievement. How do you keep that kind of consistency?
Vince and I still love writing songs together, and we don’t always realise what craftsmen we are. We just do it, without comparing ourselves to other people. When I listen to something like Abba’s Lay All Your Love On Me now, it still sounds really beautiful. Then I think: well, some of the stuff we’ve done sounds just as good. The vocals are really tight, the music’s clear and sharp, and you can hear all the words.
It’s the same on stage, where things are note-perfect. We may not have the same exposure, but it’s high quality material.
I was talking to Vince about your particular creative process, and it was interesting that you’re always together in the same room when you write, despite living on separate continents.
You have to be, really. We did one experiment before Light At The End Of The World, where Vince sent me ten dance tracks, of music that was inspired by Electric Blue [Andy’s 2005 solo album]. I tried to think of some tunes, but he wants the whole song all at once – whereas when we’re separate, I just get up on a vibe. But when we’re together, then he can say: right, we’ll use this part and that part, and we can put them together. Otherwise, I’ll just sing a lot of rhythm parts strung together, which is mostly what dance music is these days.
Everything you do is clearly song-driven, even if there are dance undercurrents…
I think it’s kind of old-fashioned now. It’s quite hard; you don’t hear too much of it in the charts anymore. Even stuff that’s quite popular, like Mika and stuff; it just sounds like an advert or something.
So in a sense, you’re preserving the art of songwriting when so much else is groove-based. But when you started out, you were an electronic duo at a time when it was a very progressive, futuristic thing to do. You’ve very much stuck to that template, but do you ever worry that you might turn into the Status Quo of electro-pop?
Well, probably! [Laughter] I don’t really mind. I’ve always tried not to concern myself with those fashion things: whether you’re in or you’re out. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider anyway, along with Vince; not really into designer labels, and what’s the latest really hot thing that you have to wear, and gadgets, and things like that.
Well, nothing dates more quickly than the fashionable…
Yeah, and I think it’s the same with music as well. You can date quite quickly; within three years or so. Sometimes, I must admit, I can get a bit bored with the sounds that Vince uses, and I do tell him, but he just sticks to his guns. I sometimes think we could make it more up to date – but in the long run, I think he’s making the wisest choice. He’s keeping his sound pure, and it’s recognisable as him, so he’s being the designer, if you know what I mean.
You both talk about ploughing your own furrow, and not taking account of prevalent trends, but do you feel any particular kinship with any other current acts?
I’d say definitely with the Scissor Sisters. They’ve done it the opposite way round; they’ve come out of America and have done it in the UK, whereas we came out in the UK and did it in America. I think they’re really brave, being “out” in America, where it’s still really hard. Even for us, it’s still hard.
I was wondering whether the experience of being on the True Colors package tour in the States had brought you together with people you might consider to be your fellow travellers…
Oh, it was lovely. I couldn’t believe that we were together with Deborah Harry. She’s such a wise lady. I was asking her all of these questions about what it was like, being in the limelight and being the most photographed person, and she said: well, it’s the same for you. She was so gracious; she bought me a T-shirt that had “Rock Royalty” written on it. I couldn’t believe it, because I was such a huge, huge Blondie fan. And she’s done all this solo material, but I said: that’s fine, you do what you like, and I think some of your solo songs are really good anyway.
Then also, Cyndi Lauper turned out be a huge fan of ours! I really hadn’t taken much notice of her career, although I knew her songs – but now that I’ve listened to her songs after being on tour with her, she’s an incredible singer, and I’m going: wow, her voice is amazing.
I think I’ve always undervalued her as well. She was a bit uncool when she started, and I kind of wrote her off.
Yeah, but when she sings She Bop, and she goes up and down that trill like Lene Lovich…
I heard there was an amazing version of She Bop. I was talking to The Gossip, who were also on that tour, and they said that was one of their highlights. But they said they felt kind of stuck on the edge of things a bit, being a younger band but playing to an older audience.
Oh, they did really well; their reception was fantastic.
When I spoke to Vince, I was asking him about what music he was listening to, and he said that basically, as the father of a young child, the music he hears the most is The Wiggles. So I wondered whether this has any bearing on the rumour that your next project might be a concept album of nursery rhymes…?
We’re kind of halfway through doing that. We’ve started it already, and now Vince wants to turn it into an original Gothic story, rather than just using old nursery rhymes. Which sounds a bit complicated, inventing these people from the past, like the old woman who lived in a shoe, her story. We will finish it, but we are going to have a couple of years’ break, after the tour has finished. We’ll probably do some other things outside of Erasure, but that one is still in the pipeline.
Vince and yourself are clearly different but complementary personalities. I asked Vince what was the last time that he went out and shook his hips in a public place; he reckoned it was about 1979. What about yourself? Do you still get out there, and go out clubbing and stuff?
Not so much, really. When you’ve been doing a gig, you don’t feel like shaking it all around. If I’m DJ-ing, then that’s still a bit like work, but I really enjoy it.
I wasn’t aware you did DJ-ing…
Only a little bit. We did one in Atlantic City; Perez Hilton was there, and the guy from Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, so it was fun. Our singers dance, and some of the crew dance, and things like that. I suppose that going out-wise, I go down to the south coast quite a lot. I just go out to the pubs around Hastings. It’s enough, really.
You’ve been touring the US, and you’ve just taken a month’s break before commencing the UK tour next week. What have you done during the break?
Well, as I say, I’ve been down on the south coast. I have my boyfriend there on the market stall. I’m a housewife when I get home. Which I really like! [Laughter]
He has a market stall, does he?
Yeah, he sells bread.
Do you find there’s a difference between your US and your UK audiences? I’d imagine that in the US, it’s more of a cult gay thing, whereas in the UK it’s more mainstream.
It’s quite gay, but in the UK it’s not that huge an amount of people. I’d say it was probably about 30%. There’s quite a few young people, who have either heard us themselves or through their parents, and quite a few oldies as well, so it’s a good mixture.
You’re starting the UK tour in Oxford on Monday, and then you’re coming to us in Nottingham for the second night. What can we expect from the tour? I’m assuming costumes…
Well, it’s quite pared down. It looks quite sharp and slick, as you’d imagine an electro band to look like around twenty years ago. Like the Human League when they started. We’ve got all the DVD monitors behind us, playing mashed up versions of the videos. Plenty of dance routines, and the most glamorous backing singers that you’ve ever seen.
In terms of balancing old and new material, you’ve never become a nostalgia act, so I presume the new album is well represented?
That’s something I’m quite scared of, becoming a nostalgia act.
I don’t blame you…
So the mixture works really well, between old and new.
How do you approach the old material? Do you like to play it straight, or do you like doing significant revamps?
No, that will be one of our next things as well. When we do tour again, in a couple of years, we’re going to do The Remix Tour. Vince doesn’t really listen to them, so I’ll choose the ones I think are really good, and do some interpretations of those.