Mike Atkinson

Interview: Vince Clarke, Yazoo

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on June 6, 2008

Twenty-five years after splitting up, Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke have reunited as Yazoo for a two-month tour of Europe and the USA. Speaking to me in late April from his home in Portland, Maine, Vince Clarke looks back on Yazoo’s brief but remarkable career. 

I think Alison described Yazoo’s reunion as completing unfinished business. If that’s the case, then why has the business taken 25 years to complete?

Well, she’s looking at it from a different perspective from me. Alison loves performing live, but she’s never been able to perform half of the songs that we wrote.

Although I knew that Alison was keen to do something, I didn’t really know that I’d have the time to do anything. I was so busy with Erasure. It was only during the last tour that Andy mentioned to me that he’d like to take some time off. So I thought: OK, Alison wants to do this tour and there’s this anniversary, so let’s do it.

How long were Yazoo together as a working proposition?

It was 18 months. Two albums, and one small tour.

And that was supporting the first album, whereas you never toured the second.

That’s correct.

You formed Yazoo very quickly after leaving Depeche Mode. Did you have any pre-conceived ideas for the project, before you hired Alison?

Not really. All I had was a song, which was Only You. I wanted to demo it, and I knew Alison, vaguely. We both come from the same town. The guitarist in her first punk band was – and is – my best friend, so we kind of knew each other, and I knew she had a fantastic voice.

So I just phoned her up and said: look, do you want to demo this song for me? Then I talked to the record company, and it just went from there. We never sat down and had a plan. We did the first single and that did quite well in the charts, and then the record company said: right, why not make an album?

Your background was synth-pop and Alison’s was blues-rock and punk rock, so you were merging two different musical approaches. Did Alison need much persuading as to the joys of the synthesiser? 

(Laughs) She told me two weeks ago that she was quite embarrassed about doing the demo. She didn’t tell her friends. The way that she saw it, she would do a demo, which would be a decent recording quality, and then it would be something that she could play to prospective bands, to let them know that she was a good singer.

It was about the same time that some student friends of mine were in a rock band. They went into a studio and recorded a demo, and they played it to a couple of people who said: well we’re not sure about the rock stuff, but there’s this really good track at the end where you’ve got a female singer. So they had to explain: er, no, that’s Yazoo’s Only You. It just happened to be on the end of the cassette. 

(Laughs long and hard)

People forget that what Yazoo were attempting had never really been done before. The synth-pop gods at the time were Kraftwerk and Berlin-era Bowie, and there was an awful lot of Alienated Urban Robot music going around. Did you feel on a mission to prove that synthesiser music could express warmer, more recognisably soulful emotions? 

I think I was on more of a mission to produce good songs. It just so happens that I used synthesisers. It’s my tool. If I was a really good guitarist, then I’d probably be writing for a rock band. I wanted a voice that could express emotion, and make the songs come alive. It wasn’t like I sat down and cynically thought: right, synthesiser music, bluesy voice, that’s something different. I was just looking for a really good singer.

It’s tempting to theorise about the reasons why you might have felt frustrated with your previous band, Depeche Mode. Maybe you were coming at things from more of a classic pop approach, whereas the other band members had a hankering to get edgy and industrial. Was Yazoo a chance to further those ambitions? 

I think it was a chance to perhaps write more expressive songs. And maybe more romantic.

You did seem to catch a moment. Were you at all aware of the link between what you were doing in the UK and what the early hip hop acts were doing in the US, where they were merging American soulful influences with European electronica in a similar way? 

I don’t think so. Alison was saying the other week that we never actually played each other records whilst we were recording. We never really talked about music. We weren’t friends when we made those records. We didn’t have a real relationship. We lacked the skills of communication. So that’s why the group didn’t last.

And that’s precisely why Erasure have lasted, of course. 

Yeah, we were 21 and I think we were a bit paranoid. In the course of being together, we never went out for a drink and we never did anything social. We just did the work. Because we weren’t able to express any problems that might have arisen with each other, that’s when it all went pear-shaped. I was pretty good at working with synthesisers and using a mixing desk, but I had no idea how to talk to people.

I have been immersing myself in Yazoo back catalogue this week, and it has been an interesting experience, hearing some of the songs for the first time in 20 years or so. What struck you when you sat down and listened to the tracks again? 

Well, I’m the same; I hadn’t listened to the songs in ages. I’m just amazed at how sparse they are. Looking back, I think the reason why they sound like they do is because everything was new to us. We didn’t feel that we had to fiddle with the tracks and add frilly bits. We made a decent snare sound, which was fantastically reverbed (laughs), but that was great, you know! To us that sounded really impressive, because we’d never heard that before; it was all new.

Unfortunately, what happens as you get older is that your songwriting starts filling those spaces. So it’s almost impossible to go back and make a simple record like that again, I think.

I think that’s part of the joy of the first album (Upstairs At Eric’s), actually. There’s a sense that you’re making things up as you go along, and there’s quite a bit of overt experimentalism, such as the little snatches of studio dialogue that appear. But after that, you kind of smoothed things out, and you followed a more classic direction. With the first album, was there a sense that you were getting that “mucking around” aspect out of your system? 

Well, there was definitely a lot of mucking around and experimenting in the studio. We were working with such a fantastic producer, Eric Radcliffe, who was just totally open to all kinds of ideas. I was so full of questions – like what would happen if we did this, and what would happen if we spliced this piece of tape with this – and I learned a tremendous amount from him. We had the freedom to do that, and so a lot of the material was written on the go, as we were in the studio.

I think of Eric Radcliffe as the unsung third member of Yazoo, if you like. Would that be over-stating it? 

No, I think that sounds very true.

What happened to him? 

He carried on with the studio. But everybody’s got studios at home now, so the business didn’t last as long as it should have done.

There was a side to your music which was very club-friendly. Situation and State Farm were big club tracks at the time, for instance. Was that a happy accident, or were you intentionally designing tracks like Situation to work in a club environment? 

We both enjoyed recording dance tracks, but again we didn’t sit down and talk about it, you know? Situation was on the B-side of Only You, and then it was remixed for America, and did quite well in the clubs in the States. But it’s not like we were going to clubs and finding out what was happening; we were just doing it.

So that side of things took on a life of its own, really. 

I think so, yeah.

(with sarcasm) It must have been a great thrill for you both when Alison’s laugh on Situation was sampled on the Macarena. Did you get any royalties on that?

No, no. I’ve think I’ve heard her laugh on more records than anything. It’s incredible, it appears everywhere.

It also struck me, when I was listening to the songs, that Alison’s voice was much wilder and rawer in those days. In more recent years her voice has matured, and it has developed a kind of comparative restraint – so it’s expressive in a different way. I guess you’ve already been rehearsing the tour, so has there been a process of finding a way back into those old songs, but from an older perspective? 

Well, actually we haven’t started rehearsing yet. Not until a couple of weeks’ time [i.e. early May]. All that’s been happening is that I’ve been preparing the stuff for the tour. I’ve got all the multi-tracks here, and I’ve been sort of taking them apart, analysing them and trying to put them in time and in tune. (Laughs)

When we play the songs live, my intention is to try and keep them as authentic as possible. I don’t want to start making them up to date or anything, because it’s not like we’ve played these songs over and over again. It will be the first time that some of these songs are heard live. First and last probably, you know? So I think people would want to hear them as they were.

You were actually quite cantankerous, in that you announced your split before the release of the second album. Is that right? 

I guess so. I mean, I don’t remember.

It wouldn’t be allowed these days. You’d be screwing up the marketing campaign. Were you aware of being put under any pressure to stay together for the sake of the children, the “children” being the new songs on You And Me Both

No, there wasn’t really any pressure. The guy who ran the record company, Daniel Miller, was busy with Depeche Mode anyway at the time. It wasn’t like there was a huge organisation or anything like that. It was a small independent record company, and they were as supportive as they could be. But they certainly didn’t start begging us to stay together to sell more records.

How did Yazoo end? Was it an amicable mutual decision, or was there some great big drama, or a big flashpoint? 

There was no drama as such. I think it was just a building up of tension. We were unable to talk to each other, and so that tension grew to be unbearable.

Perhaps that creative tension between your two backgrounds got too much, and so the centre couldn’t hold, in a sense? 

Possibly. I think it was more to do, like I say, with the fact that we weren’t really close, and friends. Had we gone out a few times and got drunk together, we would probably have lasted a bit longer.

I remember reading that there was a bit of an argy-bargy about the song Happy People. Alison refused to sing it, so you sang it instead. Is that your only recorded instance of a lead vocal? 

(Firmly) It’s my first and last.

And will you be treating us to a rendition on the tour? 

No, I don’t think so. (Laughs)

I thought that would be one of the two least likely songs, along with I Before E Except After C. Are you going to be attempting that one? 

We might do something with that track again. I heard a really interesting remix of it, actually. But we’ll see. As I say, we start rehearsals in a couple of weeks’ time, and that’s when we’ll really sit down and decide what we’re going to do.

In terms of staging, are we going to have dancers and exciting sets and stuff like that, or is it going to be more of a stripped down approach? 

It’s going to be just myself and Alison, but we are going to have lots of sci-fi effects on stage. On the first tour that we did, or rather the only tour that we did, we were back projecting onto a screen, and so we’ve kind of updated that idea. There will be lots of video and film, and all kinds of images going on, so plenty to look at! (Laughs)

Are you going to be dusting down that Andy Warhol fright wig that you wore on the last Erasure tour? 

I’m attempting to re-grow my quiff, but it’s coming mostly out of my ears at the moment. (Laughter)

How much time have you and Alison actually spent together in the same physical place? Or has this all been arranged remotely? 

Well, we actually got together two weeks ago in the UK [i.e. mid-April], for the first time in fifteen years. So… that was quite… weird. I’ve seen her a couple of times: I saw her at my best friend’s wedding, and I saw her perform live on her acoustic tour. But as I say, that was fifteen years ago.

Obviously we had all kinds of stuff to talk about: finding out who’s married who, and who’s working where, and all that sort of stuff. She had a lot of people that we both knew. So it was very nice, and very calm.

It’s great that you got Andy’s blessing for the project, because it strikes me as a little bit like leaving your long-term partner to go off on a date with an old flame you found on Friends Reunited. 

I wouldn’t have considered doing this tour if Andy hadn’t given his support. You know, my life is Erasure; I’ve been working with Andy for twenty years. It’s the most important musical relationship I have. I would hate to do anything to jeopardise that relationship.

So it’s a finite project, and there’s no question of getting back in the studio or anything like that. Is that completely ruled out? 

Yeah, we’re not going to be recording again. We have discussed the idea of maybe sitting down and writing some songs, which would be nice to do in the tour, but we’ve got no plans.

Last time we talked, I was asking about what music you were listening to, and you were kind of stuck with The Wiggles. Has your son moved on in his musical tastes? 

He has, actually. We’ve started downloading glam rock from iTunes; it’s his new thing.

Oh, that’s all right. It could have been Hannah Montana; you could have got really unlucky. 

He likes something with a beat, so Sweet, T.Rex, that kind of stuff. So we enjoy that. We usually have it on a Saturday night…

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