Personality Clash: Vince Clarke vs Andy Butler

The men behind Yazoo and Hercules & Love Affair
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You wanna make something real, you wanna make a Yaz record... Clash locked two generations of synth boffins in a room to slug it out.

Vince Clarke virtually defined the synth pop genre via his work with Depeche Mode and Erasure, and is set to reincarnate Yazoo, the ’80s electronic duo with Alison Moyet, for album reissues and a tour. Andy Butler has turned Antony Hegarty into a house diva on the spellbinding debut of his Hercules And Love Affair project.

Although the two have never met, Vince Clarke has influenced Andy Butler’s life in more ways than he knew possible. Within seconds of the interview Butler described Yazoo as “the music they have in heaven”. Between them, the two set out a decent case for why the pearly gates are soundtracked not by harps, but by antique synths.

Andy: I don’t want to turn into a blubbering fan or something, but I’m actually a huge admirer of Vince Clarke and his music. So I have a bunch of his records in my collection.

Vince: For the last two years I’ve just been listening to the music of Sesame Street as I have a two year old. So I know nothing about new music. As far as electronic music is concerned, the first band that really made an impression on me was The Human League. Their first two early albums. Bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, they were one of the first bands that I felt made emotional electronic music.

Andy: Well it’s funny because as far as disco / dance records are concerned, the first one that I responded really, really, strongly to was ‘Situation’ by Yazoo. I heard that when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, and it made me crazy from the first time I heard it. After that, I got hit hard by house music, and early techno music, but the very first stuff was new wave. It actually happened for me a little bit later though, as I was three or four years old in 1982 so I started listening to new wave music when it was retro, in the later part of the ’80s.

Vince: There weren’t really influences that we looked to, because everything seemed new. Going into the studio, using that kind of equipment, discovering synthesizers – it was all about doing it ourselves, rather than trying to emulate anyone else. I obviously had definite influences, and people who inspired me to create electronic music, but there was no game plan in the beginning. No real idea of what we were doing actually.

Andy: I would imagine that in essence you were making punk music with electronic instruments.

Vince: Yeah a little bit of that whole movement was actually a bit anti punk as well. I think a lot of people had gotten tired of that whole angry, aggressive rock music and were looking for something different – and for me, of all of the movements that have happened over the course of music history that particular time was one where nothing was being repeated. No one was creating a new version of rock ‘n’ roll, or a new version of punk. We seemed to be doing something original.

Andy: Were you a fan of Kraftwerk?

Vince: Well I must admit that I was a fan later on, once we’d started working with the record company in the UK (Mute). The guy that runs the label, Daniel Miller, was a huge fan. Once we started recording and working with them, we started listening to their records and taking an interest in them. Even though I really like their music, I felt that what we were doing was more emotional. Even though I loved the noises that Kraftwerk made, and make.

Andy: Yeah, it’s like there’s a simplicity to the music. I hear something very fundamental in Kraftwerk, and in early electronic bands like OMD. In some ways in your early productions the simplicity combined with intense emotion is what I like. Perhaps Kraftwerk is a little devoid of the human component that OMD or Yazoo had. But the simplicity of it was really effective, just pairing really simple groups of tones, really evokes a lot of emotion in me.

Vince: I think that when you’re using synthesisers, even analogue synthesisers or whatever, I think that because the tone is so perfect and consistent that you don’t need necessarily a lot of lines, a lot of melody and things going on to fill the space. Perhaps if you were using guitar, rhythm guitar or something, there would be a timing issue and that kind of blurs the image a little bit, and there’s the tonal aspect and that blurs the image a little bit.
With synthesizers the sound is so clean and everything would have to find its place, and that makes electronic music unique.

Andy: It lends itself to that kind of purity, or the quality that feels almost pure.

Vince: I think you’re right in that simplicity is sometimes a lot more effective. I’ve tried before to keep things simple as we did then, and it’s just impossible because you’ve got this whole sophisticated knowledge of how music works, and how certain chord structures work and how sounds work. It’s almost impossible to go back and be that naïve again.

Andy: You know I deal with the same thing, I’ve felt like that since I first learned the piano. Sometimes I just wish I could shake the little bits in theory and composition, because it somehow hinders your approach to something simple, a naivety that I feel is, as a listener, so charming, so endearing and so powerful.

Vince: It’s weird, it’s like almost your head can’t accept that if you just use those three chords… If you listen to records you really like and songs you really like, for me most of them have three or four chords in but they work really well and are really effective. I think also it’s a little bit to do with when you go into the studio to begin with, and start writing songs, everything you do sounds exciting because you’ve never done it before. You’ll never recapture that feeling.

Andy: That’s another thing, once more and more technology becomes involved the more and more diluted ideas become. I find myself sort of wading through these amazing options, in terms of these sonic ideas, while sometimes I feel I need to resort to finding the simplest patch on a synth, the simplest most organic sound and writing from that place rather than writing from a place where I have a tendency to tweak sounds before I’ve really laid down the foundations.

Vince: I agree, I mean when I worked with Andy (Bell) in Erasure all our songwriting was done on guitar, for that very reason. If we were in a studio and I was in front of a computer then we wouldn’t get past the introductions. We wouldn’t quite get to the chorus ever. Even when we’ve been in the studio we’ve never really produced ourselves, there’s always been someone there to stop us recording. There are endless possibilities that present themselves, someone has to be there for us to say “actually, that’s it”. I look at the screen ten hours a day when I’m in the studio.

Andy: That’s a good point, sometimes I ask myself, “what is it I do again, do I work in an office or do I make music?” It’s hard; the computer is such an integral part.

Vince: I mean another thing that helps myself and Andy, when we’re writing songs in particular, is that if one of us isn’t behind the integral idea fully, 100%, then we just drop it. We don’t try and make a song out of it. For us, what I think we’ve discovered is that there’s always another song, there’s always another track. It’s not as if each idea is a winning idea. I mean, I know some filmmakers and I’m always amazed that someone will come up with an idea for a film and then they all spend years and years trying to flog this idea to production companies instead of coming up with another one instead.

Andy: It’s really amazing to hear you say that because I feel the same way. I feel like I don’t treat it preciously. I’m just starting out, having my first record come out and everything, so I don’t feel much concern about the well drying up or anything. That kind of thinking is something that we create, it’s not something that I find myself terribly worried about. I think that especially when it comes to collaboration my experience is that kind of flexibility, of letting go of ideas, but retaining a central relationship to them is really important. Are you excited to be touring with Alison Moyet this year?

Vince: I’m apprehensive and a little nervous. I’ve seen her play since, but we’ve not gone out for a proper drink in a long time. Most of the songs that we’ll be playing have never been played live before, so it’s a little nerveracking. How about you, how long are you touring for?

Andy: We’re doing two weeks on, then two weeks off… We’re planning on doing quite a bit of touring. We will see, it’s interesting; I’m much more at home in the studio in a songwriting setting, I really just thrive on making music and writing music and being in the studio. But all the people in the band are trying to convince me that I’m going to love it, and that I’m going to want to keep doing it. I sort of have a romance with being in the studio and writing.

Vince: I think it’s important to do just to see the other side really. This is the first time with this group of people you’ve performed live?

Andy: Yes! I’ve done a lot of DJing, and I had to do various performance things in school but I’ve never performed my music. It’s cool but nerve-wracking. Especially because you really, really want it to sound good, sonically because I hate going to shows and having bad sound, like the sound sucks.

Vince:That’s something that drove me to despair in the early days, you know.

Andy: That’s what I feel will happen to me, if I have like shows where the sound system is off and like really bad.

Vince: I remember having discussions with sound guys afterwards and saying “well I didn’t hear that cowbell on the fifth bar of the second verse of the fourth song” and we live with that in the studio forever. You know every single part, and I couldn’t understand why it didn’t sound like the record. The problems with venues, if it’s a bad venue or if the sound system isn’t up to scratch, in the end, people come along to see a concert because they want that live experience and they want the feeling of listening to music communally, of being amongst people while they’re listening to a track. It’s not like they’re listening to records on headphones. It took me years to understand that!

Andy: Right, like why don’t they want to hear the cowbell in the fifth bar!?

Vince: Yeah, they’ve missed that and no one’s mentioned it!

Words by ROBIN MURRAY

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