New Horizons: Erasure Interviewed

New Horizons: Erasure Interviewed

Vince Clarke and Andy Bell in conversation...

It’s a cold, wet Monday evening in January and Erasure’s Vince Clarke and I are having a pint in a pub near Holborn. Thanks to the endless rain and the uptick in news headlines about a mystery virus that seems to be making its way from Asia, it’s the kind of day where it’s difficult to be excited about anything.

Vince, however, is buzzing with enthusiasm. Partly this is because he’s back on his home turf in England; mostly it’s because he’s in town to mix what would become the new Erasure album, ‘The Neon’. He talks with zeal and not even remotely concealed glee about how the mixing sessions with David Wrench are going, how the album is sounding and how happy he is with the songs that he and Andy Bell have written this time around.

It’s that sense of enthusiasm that can be found throughout ‘The Neon’. Rightly heralded by the critics as a classic in the Erasure canon, 'The Neon’ is an upbeat, vibrant, stunning collection of songs that finds Vince Clarke and Andy Bell at their absolute best; an album that radiates love, hope and the enduring power of positivity.

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In the context of Erasure’s last album, 2017’s ‘World Be Gone’, that positive energy is a surprise. When Clash spoke to Andy Bell about that album while the band were on tour to promote it, his demeanour was sullen and despondent. It was the residue of a mood that had crept into the songs on ‘World Be Gone’, an undoubtedly beautiful album, but one that feels like the complete inverse of ‘The Neon’.

“I honestly didn’t realise at the time how negative I felt,” he admits. “Vince was equally as gloomy. I wouldn’t say we were in despair at the turn of world events while we were writing ‘World Be Gone’, so I really didn’t really realise how much I was affected by the whole thing. Honestly, I try to live every day as it comes, I really do, but that period really affected me and the lyrics I wrote for that album.”

Vince nods in agreement. “We didn’t plan it that way,” he adds, “but I just think that maybe subconsciously we felt like we wanted to say something about what was going on in the world. And so that’s just the way it turned out.”

Strange then, that ‘The Neon’ should sound so completely different when the world seems to have lurched toward a situation that only the most resolute pessimist could have predicted in 2017. For both Andy and Vince, there came a point where they felt like they just had to stop being so miserable. “It’s funny,” says Andy. “I remember sitting on a train a few years ago, and this old couple turned round to me and said, ‘There’s no point in worrying, lad. It’s a waste of energy.’ I started to think about that again not too long ago, because it’s so true: if you’re constantly worrying and focussing on negative things, that’s what you manifest.”

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Erasure might have been pretty inseparable – musically – since emerging in 1985, but they don’t always spend a lot of time communicating with one another. If that seems odd, it can perhaps be explained by not living near one another – Vince in Brooklyn and Andy dividing his time between Miami and London – and each having their own domestic lives and other projects to work around. For Andy, the first time he knew that Vince was also sloughing off his own negativity came when he first heard the demos that his song-writing partner had crafted for the new album.

“It’s weird, where the songs lead you,” reflects Vince. “We never really know what we’re going to do, or how the album’s going to sound, or what the songs are going to be like. And then you write the songs, and the melodies, and this time it turned out to be something a little more uplifting than the last album. That’s just the way it goes.”

For Andy, receiving the demos that Vince been working on was more than he could have wished for. “I was so pleased,” he gushes, prompting a satisfied smile from Vince. “It was almost exactly like the thing that I’d been wishing for subconsciously. He’d got the message and put it into music. As soon as I heard the tracks, I knew he’d really been enjoying himself down there in his basement and having a good time making those songs. I could tell that he was still discovering new things after all these years. He’s like a sculptor. A sound sculptor. He really is.”

Vince putting together tracks for Andy to respond to, lyrically, isn’t how Erasure used to write songs. Back in the day they’d lock themselves in a room with a tape recorder, acoustic guitar or piano and come up with demos together: the outline of chords, tentative melodies, placeholder lyrics, rough sketches. They’d then divide up the time in the studio, usually involving Vince working with a producer on the sounds in the morning and Andy joining later in the day to work on lyrics. Over time, song-writing in Erasure has became an exercise in creating music over a distance, with Vince creating the initial tracks alone and Andy recording his vocals without Vince being present. It doesn’t make them any less of a duo writing in this way, but it’s just different from how it used to be for the initial part of their career.

With ‘The Neon’, while Vince might still have been working on the demos in isolation from his home studio, the duo decided to meet up at a studio in Atlanta to record the lyrics together. Both of them really enjoyed the process. “I was really thrilled when Vince came to Atlanta,” enthuses Andy. “It was like we reconnected somehow. It was almost like starting Erasure all over again.”

For Vince, all being in the studio together took him right back to South London’s Blackwing Studios, where he recorded the first Depeche Mode album, both Yazoo albums and where he set up his first studio space in the basement. Coming over to London to work with David Wrench – whose mixing prowess has been applied to albums from Goldfrapp and Let’s Eat Grandma – was also a boon for him. “It was a really lovely experience,” he says with a smile. “I work on my own, at home, in my basement. I’m here every single day, so it was nice to be in a different environment, meeting new people, and getting someone else’s perspective on your record. I loved that. I’ve been working on my own for so long now and I think I needed that.”

His appetite for human company might seem at odds with an impression of Vince as this solitary character locked away in a Park Slope basement making sounds, but collaborations have been a mainstay in Vince’s output over the past few years. In 2016 Vince started his own record label, VeryRecords, launching the imprint with his own duo collaboration with Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll. Since then, VeryRecords has issued albums by Reed & Caroline, Alka and Brook, each of which sees Vince getting involved with ideas, programming and the general direction that each of the artists might take their music. He’s also working on a project with Blancmange’s Neil Arthur. And if you want a first-hand encounter of just how far from the truth this idea of Vince as some sort of reclusive figure preferring to stay out of the limelight, just check out his fortnightly Maker Park radio show with Reed Hays, one half of Reed & Caroline, and you’ll see (and hear) how wrong that misconception is.

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The week I spoke to Vince and Andy coincided with the release of the second single from ‘The Neon’, the emotive ‘Nerves Of Steel’. The reaction from Erasure fans was broadly positive, with the exception of one comment I read that exasperatedly wondered why Andy’s lyrics made no sense.

“I do love nonsense,” he confesses, with a chuckle. “The original demo words for that song included the line ‘I ain’t never gonna get you under my car.’ I thought, ‘You’re not going to be able to write a song about being an engineer in the local garage,’ although it would have made a great video. So I had to ask myself how I would make a love song out of those demo words. One fan wrote on one of the Facebook groups, ‘Andy probably wrote this taking a dump on the toilet.’ I just take it as a compliment. It doesn’t matter. You can profess to be the most intellectual, poetical person on the planet and it doesn’t matter. They’re just words in the end.”

Way back in 1994, upon the release of Erasure’s ‘I Say I Say I Say’, Andy mentioned in an interview how much he loved Blondie’s approach to writing lyrics, singling out the band’s ‘Atomic’ – a song that he and Vince would go on to cover – as a brilliant example of a song where the lyrics made no sense, but where the overall mood of the track had the capacity to move you in some emotional way. A lot of Erasure songs are like that – the lyrics mightn’t convey emotions directly, but their positioning in among Vince’s music, along with Andy’s distinctive soulful delivery, somehow transmits the essence of the emotion to you.

At this, Vince deadpans that they should do an album where the lyrics are just emojis; Andy ponders how they might do this and suggests that this could be the basis of the next Erasure album. For a brief moment it seems like they might be deadly serious until they simultaneously break up into uproarious laughter.

And yet, while ‘The Neon’ might contain its fair share of unfathomable lyrics, with expert precision it also contains some of Andy Bell’s most brilliant ideas. ‘Fallen Angel’ uses a soaring chorus that finds him seeking joy in simple things – riding a rollercoaster, walking the wrong way up an escalator – to re-capture the feeling of being head over heels in love; ‘New Horizons’ might be one of the most downbeat tracks on the record but its plaintive, honest optimism sounds like Andy approaching everything around him with a new lease of life; the lyrics to ‘Careful What I Try To Do’ might, on first listen, sound like Andy is offering a heartfelt message of thanks to his husband, but you could also hear it as an ode to Vince Clarke, who selected the callow young singer from the many who auditioned to be a part of his new project thirty-five years ago.

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Andy Bell concedes that it’s an peculiar time to be releasing an album. Then again, these are peculiar times for everyone. Normally, by now, they’d have announced imminent tour dates and Andy would be popping up on TV shows doing promotion. Instead, the tour has been confirmed for deep into 2021, the whole album launch feels curiously virtual, and most of their interviews are being done in front of a screen.

“I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s real or not,” Andy laughs. “Like this whole thing – is it happening or not?” He talks about the relative quietude of the capital being like when he first moved there at the start of the 1980s, when cars were fewer and Soho still retained most of its neon-lit charms.

It is into that era that many critics seem to have placed ‘The Neon’, almost suggesting that this is the 1980s Erasure album that never was. Vince – who first started making electronic music pop music at the start of that decade, lest we forget – shakes his head at the idea: Erasure were already there in the 1980s, and this sounds nothing like the type of music that was being made at the time.

“I don’t know what it is,” sighs Andy, mystified. "Younger musicians talk to us and say, ‘Oh we love the 1980s!' but the things they choose that they think are from that period, or the sounds they choose to focus on, are things like huge drum sounds from power ballads. Those sounds almost become like go-to fashion statements. It’s not wrong, but it’s like an aspect of music that was never on our radar in the 1980s at all.”

In years to come, albums released during lockdown will be like time capsules. They will unlock memories of how we were feeling, what we were thinking, how we were coping (or not); the stresses, strains, uncertainties, simple moments of fleeting optimism, and many more moments where it feels like you’re staring into an endless bleakness. We will listen to them and they will transport us back to that frame of mind and what we were all going through – together and alone – at that time.

‘The Neon’ may well become one of those time capsules. For now, though, its much-needed euphoria, and its knowing awareness of what it’s like to appreciate being alive and in love shines with an intense and undimmable brilliance. We need light in this dark, dark world more than ever before. ‘The Neon’ is that light.

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'The Neon' is out now on Mute.

Catch Erasure at the following shows in 2021:

October
1 Glasgow Armadillo
4 Dublin 3Arena
6 Edinburgh Usher Hall
10 Manchester O2 Apollo
12 Cardiff Motorpoint Arena
14 Bournemouth International Centre
16 Birmingham Utilita Arena
17 London The O2
18 Brighton Centre

Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Phil Sharp

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