Songs Of Silence: Vince Clarke Interviewed

“When I'm working on something, I find myself totally immersed in it...”

A couple of years ago I emailed Erasure’s Vince Clarke asking if he’d be interested in contributing some music to a project I was working on. For someone so synonymous with electronic pop, his response initially surprised me.

“I can send you some drones, if you like,” said the email.

He went on to explain that it was more or less all he could face making at that point, but that he was enjoying the process of making something very different from what he was used to writing. The idea of Clarke tapping into a genre synonymous with long, unwavering tones, spiritualism and experimental composition was intriguing and exciting, but totally unexpected.

A few days later, a version of his piece arrived. Containing a rich drone at its core, it was dark, brooding, pensive and unlike anything I could point to in his back catalogue. It wasn’t static and motionless, exactly. It seemed like sounds were perpetually moving around the drone that ran through the length of the piece, as if possessing some sort of restless, undulating kinetic energy.

And then, halfway through, a brief moment of complete clarity that suggested a melody – just two or maybe three notes, delicately and deliberately placed there. It was suddenly immediately, indisputably, recognisably a Vince Clarke piece.

It’s that compositional sleight of hand that dominates ‘Songs Of Silence’, Clarke’s first solo album.

“I threw a pebble in a brook, and watched the ripples run away, and they never made a sound.”

  • Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Leaves That Are Green’ from ‘Sounds Of Silence’ (1966)

The ten pieces on Clarke’s album literally emerged from silence. Specifically, the cloying, impenetrable, deafening, shared silences of the 2020 lockdown.

Clarke’s studio occupies the basement of his Brooklyn home. Ordered and organised, vintage synthesisers are arranged on every wall. Everything is connected. Everything is accessible. There are no piles of dusty equipment lurking in corners waiting to be used. There is no store room whose door is bursting open with yet more kit, retained just in case they might one day be useful. The only thing that is rarely used is a lone acoustic guitar, propped up near the stairs.

Utilitarian and practical, everything else here has a purpose and a role to play. Low-lit, it is a sanctuary, a place to retreat, a place where Clarke can escape to, where he can create, completely undisturbed. Of the many times I’ve sat with him in his studio, I only recall one occasion where someone came into the studio. “No one is interested in coming downstairs, apart from the cat,” he says, with a shrug.

Most days, you will find Clarke at a desk positioned toward the centre of the room at a Mac, his back to the stairs, surrounded by his equipment, and surrounded by sounds. He is a perpetual creator. Always working. Always working on something. Remixes. Ideas for future Erasure tracks. Reworked Erasure hits and album tracks for the next tour. Collaborations. Anyone who has collaborated with him will tell you that he works lightning fast, with complete decisiveness and enviable discipline.

Clarke’s studio is a place where he can be himself. I’ve sat with him in that basement and shared beers from a mini-fridge. I’ve seen Clarke grinning and laughing infectiously at really bad dad jokes, memories and stories. I’ve also watched him become introspective and reflective. Most importantly, in the context of ‘Songs Of Silence’, I’ve watched him as he listens intently, completely focused and present, never distracted.

“When I’m working on something, I find myself totally immersed in it,” Clarke explains. “I can completely switch off from everything else that’s going on around me and just focus on thinking about the music. I can multitask, but not when it comes to music. I’m not complaining. I like that, and having the studio was a real haven from everything else that was going on. And especially working on tracks like these where I’m listening to this stuff over and over and over again. It’s not like listening to a song. I’m literally listening only to a tone. I really like that. It’s almost spiritual.”

‘Songs Of Silence’ wasn’t intended to be an album at all. Clarke had no plans to release this, and its pieces were made primarily for himself, occupying a place somewhere between extended exercises in experimentation with Eurorack modules and soothing catharsis. They started forming when Clarke watched ‘Blade Runner 2049’.

“You watch that film the first time around and you obviously go, ‘It’s not as good as the original,’” he laughs. “After I’d watched it three or four times I began to feel that it was as good, if not better, than the original. And then I started paying attention to the soundtrack. I thought it would be an interesting thing to try and do something like that. In my head, things would start off very simply, with a very, very simple tone or sound.”

He cites an influence in the form of Icelandic duo Pan Sonic, whose first album – ‘Vakio’ – Clarke had bought when it was released in 1995.

“That was a drone record, except it was all completely straight tones,” he recalls. “I didn’t really want to do something like that. I wanted the tones and sounds to evolve and change. I took the very simple tone I came up with and started adding things and building things. It was important to me that the music moved all the time and was forever different.”

That initial experiment would go on go become the first track to be released from ‘Songs Of Silence’, the haunting melancholia of ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’.

“I started doing more and more experiments with the Eurorack after that,” remembers Clarke. “I’d always follow the same process. I’d start with one tone, usually something very, very simple. I’d add parts and then manipulate and sculpt the sounds inside the computer.”

What became ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ initially began life sounding, according to Clarke, like a soundtrack to a sci-fi film, which is no surprise given the influence that ‘Blade Runner 2049’ had on its creation. In its final form, ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ was transformed through the cello playing of Reed Hays.

Hays has worked with Clarke for the best part of ten years. As one half of the electronic duo Reed & Caroline with Caroline Schutz, he released two albums for VeryRecords, Clarke’s record label. A warm, engaging, enigmatic character, Hays has had a storied career, working with Charlie Morrow and drone composer Phill Niblock during Downtown New York’s 1980’s experimental music resurgence. He is both a classically-trained cellist as well as an aficionado of vintage synths, particularly the complicated Buchla system, a synth that the accomplished Clarke rejected because he found it too difficult to use.

In the years leading up to lockdown, a firm friendship developed between Hays and Clarke, and ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ can be very much be viewed as a testament to the enduring bond that exists between them. Together, they began presenting a radio show on a Staten Island station, each weekly broadcast showcasing their deep love of electronic music. Even though the studio wasn’t open during lockdown, and Hays had by then moved out of New York, the pair found ways of recording the show most weeks.

“During lockdown, for both of us, it was great to have that Staten Island radio show,” says Hays. “It gave each of us an excuse to see someone other than our immediate family. He came up to Massachusetts a couple of times, and we did it from from my house. I went down to Brooklyn a couple times, and we did it from his studio. Anytime we did one of those things, we’d turn it into an excuse to eat lunch and hang out.”

Hays was the first person that Clarke told about making drones.

“I remember that I went over to his house,” remembers Hays. “He told me he was working on something, and he played the first piece he’d been making, which would eventually become ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’. I almost started laughing because there were a couple elements in the track that just got stuck in my head, as though he had somehow taken this meditative genre and still made it into a catchy Vince Clarke thing.”

Clarke invited Hays to add cello to the piece. What he sent through was a mixture of long tones and fast-paced arpeggios. Both assumed that elements would be extracted from what Hays had played and that these would then be augmented into the track. In the end, all of Hays’ playing was used, in the process becoming the central focus of ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’.

“It suddenly became something much more human, and much sadder,” says Clarke, before tailing off into a long, ruminative pause. “I often have a hard time with things that aren’t played by machines, because of the timing. It’s impossible to make the timing precise like you can with machines. I lived with what Reed played for a long while and got to realise that it was perfect. I remember that I asked him, ‘Did you notate it?’ He said, ‘No, I just practised a few scales over a few days and then just recorded it.’ It’s pure genius.”

There is no denying that Hays’ cello amplifies the mournfulness of the track. A few years ago, Hays told me that you have to be really careful with the cello because you can make it sound too sad. Despite that helpful risk warning, ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ leans directly into a heavy maudlin quality. Hays is quick to point out that this wasn’t entirely his doing, and that these qualities were already there in what Clarke had produced.

“If you listen to that piece, there’s part of Vince’s drone where the overtones sound like they’re crying, or sighing, or weeping,” he reflects. “It’s playing overtones that aren’t part of the harmonic scale. You can really hear that, and it’s dissonant. It’s powerful. It’s got that kind of tear-in-the spacetime-fabric sound to it. You hear that stuff before I even start playing.”

“I love the word lamentation because it’s so sad,” muses Clarke. “I started reading about the poems of Jeremiah from the Old Testament. The track was never meant to be religious or anything. I just liked the feeling of those words. It felt like it gave the track real depth, and importance, and gravity.”

“I love collaborating,” says Clarke. “I love working with Andy Bell in Erasure. I love it when we get together and start writing songs. But that was a completely different vibe to recording these pieces, especially bearing in mind that I wasn’t actually making music for an album. I was just making music, because I was enjoying doing it, and because I enjoy the process. I wasn’t thinking about track titles or album releases or interviews or anything like that. I was just totally immersed in doing the music. When Andy and I go into the studio, and we start working together and writing together, we know you’re we’re going to come out with a song, and hopefully enough songs to make a record. But in this case, it wasn’t like that at all. I was just making music, because I enjoy doing it.”

And yet, these pieces have become an album. Clarke is adamant that he had no intention of ever releasing the tracks, because they were only made for his own pleasure. A conversation with Daniel Miller, head of the Mute label, was the catalyst for this becoming the collection it is. There are few examples of an artist staying with the label as long as Clarke has. Mute released Clarke’s first band Depeche Mode’s debut album ‘Speak & Spell’ in 1981, and it’s been his supportive label home ever since. Central to this is Miller’s unwavering trust and belief in whatever Clarke decides to do.

“I spoke to Daniel just before Christmas last year,” remembers Clarke. “He said, ‘What are you up to?’ I mentioned this drone thing. And he said, ‘Well send it over.’ So I did. And then I didn’t hear anything back. And fair enough: I sent it to him because he was curious, and we hadn’t seen each other for a long, long time. And then a couple of months or so later, he got in touch with me and said, ‘These are really neat. I’d really like to talk to you about making this into a record and releasing it on Mute.’ To be honest, I was shocked. I thought it was a joke, and I dismissed the idea, really. And then I got a call from Paul A. Taylor At Mute, who said, ‘We need to talk about artwork,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, they really are going to release this thing!’ It came as a huge, huge shock.

“So then I had to get down to business,” he continues. “At that point, all the tracks were just ‘Drone One’, or ‘Drone C Sharp’, so I had to actually come up with titles, and think about the name of the album, which is something I’ve never done before, because I’ve always left that to Andy.”

Clarke says ‘Songs Of Silence’ was a name that he originally proposed for the last Erasure album until Andy Bell came up with ‘The Neon’. It is a title that speaks to the conditions in which these pieces were formed, and nods squarely in the direction of Simon & Garfunkel – Clarke’s first musical love – and their album ‘Sounds Of Silence’.

I also like to think that it also showcases Clarke’s dry humour: with a couple of exceptions, these aren’t songs, and they’re anything but silent.

“I begin with the ‘Opening Chord’ and it develops and grows, and each performance takes its own shape and structure. I’m interested in this concept of continuity, of music that goes on, let’s say, forever. I’m not just daydreaming away and getting lost into this music. I’m really playing on a very high, inspired level, and it’s influencing the entire development of the piece.”

  • La Monte Young on ‘The Well-Tuned Piano’ (1964), quoted from Brooke Wentz ‘Transfigured New York’ (Columbia University Press, 2023)

For each of the ten pieces on ‘Songs Of Silence’, Clarke created a central drone that runs the entire length of the track. Though they may appear outwardly very simple and pure, Clarke spent hours, days even, developing these tones. The product of a time, before Miller’s intervention, when these pieces were simply about Clarke absorbing himself in sound, there is so much happening in these foundational moments.

Although synonymous with meditative practice and deep listening, I’ve always found that drones are best heard at higher volumes. Doing so best reveals the harmonics and overtones, and approaching ‘Songs Of Silence’ in this way highlights just how carefully these apparently stationary blocks of sound were composed. Sometimes they are turbulent and violent; other times serene and gentle; sometimes they oscillate wildly between both extremes.

And then there are the moments that arrive suddenly, like Hays’ cello on ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ or a burbling sequence on ‘White Rabbit’ that completely reorient you and redirect your attention, even while the drone continues its ceaseless, restless progress underneath.

“Within the confines of a soundtrack or an instrumental track, there are still rules,” offers Clarke. “When you write a song, you want there to be a chorus and a verse and a bridge and for those sections to be very different. With something like this, I’m looking to have moments of interest: so even though the track is quite simple, an event will happen, and that will perk you up. They didn’t start off as 10-minute pieces and I to edit them down. They started off as three-minute pieces and I had to extend them with those moments.”

Clarke has always been a fan of rules. The best example of this came when he and Bell were working on ‘Chorus’ (1991). Going back to what he said about having a problem with timing, for ‘Chorus’ he vowed there would be no MIDI and that only analogue equipment would be used; it was contrarian on one level given how everyone else in electronic music was diving deeply into digital synths and computers, but was mostly founded on his focus on perfect timing, something that was only then possible with analogue kit. For some musicians and artists, rules are there to be broken; for Clarke, they are important guiding principles to be adhered to.

“With the tracks that feature sequences, the temptation is definitely there to go, ‘Okay, at this point in the song or in the track, it’s suddenly going to become a dance track,’ and then you start putting in loops and kicks and snares and hi hats and all the rest of it,” he says. “I resisted that. I started doing that with a couple of tracks and it got tired very easily. It wasn’t so sustaining. It’s almost like the less there was the more interesting it was.”

Hays recalls talking with Clarke about this very deliberate approach to sustaining the pieces.

“He worked pretty hard on that,” says Hays. “He was thinking very consciously about when to introduce something interesting, but not to throw too many pieces of silverware into the mix.”

A thread that has run through Clarke’s work over the last twenty years is a sense of minimalism. Though they might lack the grids of beats that characterised his work with Depeche Mode co-founder Martin Gore as VCMG, or the many minimal techno remixes he’s delivered in recent years, these pieces nevertheless feel tied to that notion of reductionism.

“I like music that’s neat and organised, for sure,” Clarke admits, thoughtfully. “When I created these tracks, most of them had a lot more things going on than what appears on the album. I cut back when the decision was made that it would actually become a record. Then I started doing a lot more editing and checking and making things as simple as possible, while still making them interesting.

“I’ve done quite a bit of that before,” he continues. “I’m pretty good at taking shit out. When I work with Andy it’s the same thing, really. Both of us know when we’re going overboard and putting too much into something. We both know when it’s not working, and then we start taking stuff out or even discarding ideas, because there’s too much. I like that. I do like that style. And I think it’s probably part of the way that I am, generally. I’m a neat person, I guess. I really don’t like mess.”

Working with Hays on ‘The Lamentations Of Jeremiah’ seemed to open up new ideas for Clarke to explore. Despite being a fan of compositional guardrails, Clarke is not averse to breaking them occasionally. One of the rules for these pieces was that every sound would be made using his Eurorack modules; Hays’ cello gave him permission to break that rule. Other non-electronic additions followed – an opera singer sourced from Fiverr on ‘Imminent’, breathy vocals on the atmospheric ‘Red Planet’, Latin-inflected acoustic guitar on ‘Scarper’, voices from radio broadcasts on ‘Cathedral’ and, in arguably the most unexpected moment of of all, a dusty recording of a Union folk song on ‘Blackleg’.

That piece began years before when Clarke was working with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware as The Illustrious Company, whose location-specific soundscapes provide the closest parallel, sonically, to ‘Songs Of Silence’.

Martyn gave me a recording of this a cappella song when he and I were working on the music for an art installation,” explains Clarke. “He said, ‘Maybe we could make something out of this.’ I’ve tried many, many times to turn it into a track, and I just couldn’t. It just wasn’t working. And then I happened to add it one of the drone tracks. It was kind of freaky, really. It just fit perfectly. I didn’t have to tune it. I didn’t have to time it. It just felt like it always belonged there. It’s nice having those human, organic sounds. They often lift the tracks and take them to different places.”

Reed Hays and I were walking along the harbour near his Massachusetts home a few weeks before ‘Songs Of Silence’ was released. A solitary live date in London, taking place at the LSE Student Union on the day of the album’s release, had just been announced, which would see Hays performing elbow-to-elbow with his friend. As we looked across the rows of small boats gently bobbing up and down on the waves like some of the sounds floating above Clarke’s dronescapes, we reflected on how enthusiastic and excited Clarke was about the live date.

I’ve seen Clarke like this about a project once before, and his energy levels were infectious. He was in London mixing Erasure’s ‘The Neon’ with David Wrench in January 2020, and his eyes were literally sparkling as he talked about how good the album was sounding. For the live date, his energy was being directed toward the visuals and animations to accompany each piece, something that he saw as really important focal points for the audience.

“We were looking for somewhere that was a bit more gallery-like, rather than a traditional rock and roll venue,” said Clarke of the LSE Student Union. “I didn’t want the focus of the show to be us on the stage. There’ll be visuals going on around the room to grab your attention. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. A lot of the show will be about what you see, as opposed to what you hear.”

On the night, Clarke seemed nervous, and not without good reason. This isn’t a natural environment in which he operates. When Erasure perform, he will usually be found comfortably at the back of the stage and the limelight will always fall squarely on Andy Bell.

“That’s fine by me!” he laughs. “I find being on stage embarrassing. I would never have done this show on my own, without Reed. It wouldn’t have been contemplated.”

There is, however, the sense that Clarke was challenging himself here, whether with the live show, creating visuals or just delivering an album that doesn’t immediately conform to what people expect of him.

“As you get older, it’s really, really, really important to keep learning new stuff,” he reflects. “I think it’s what keeps you alive, really. There’s lots of things I’ve had to learn over the course of this album, whether it was making this type of music, or the way you produce that, and also organising a live event. I always like to be busy, but it’s good to do something that’s totally different from anything I’ve done before. That’s really important for me, at this point in my life.”

‘Songs Of Silence’ is out now.

Words: Mat Smith
Photography: Eugene Richards

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