What do you get a band for their 30th birthday?
Mute Records have the answer, for they have been showering Andy Bell and Vince Clarke with gifts to celebrate their three decades together as Erasure. In that time the pair have had almost as many hit singles as you and I have had hot dinners, and in recognition Mute have pushed the boat out in spectacular style.
Not content with releasing their first 15 albums as LPs, the label have painstakingly compiled From Moscow To Mars, an anthology of the duo’s career over no fewer than 13 CDs and 200 tracks. Among the audio material are B-sides (two CDs), remixes (also two), demos, the documentary A Little Respect and footage of the Wild! tour from 1989. Also featured are bespoke playlists from Bell and Clarke, singer and instrumentalist respectively.
In celebration the latter – also of course a veteran of Yazoo and Depeche Mode, as well as collaborative projects – picks the albums that have influenced him most in his This Music Made Me here, and below talks with musicOMH about what amounts to the duo’s audiovisual autobiography, and why their new album will be rather different to what went before…
Clarke admits with enjoyable honesty that a lot of the media uncovered by Mute came as something of a surprise, an experience akin to looking through old photo albums. “I listened to the stuff that was readily available, but it was interesting for me to hear some of the rarer things like old demos and audition tapes, that kind of thing. It was a big surprise, I was shocked that they had all this stuff!”
Even though the pair are looking back on their career, when Vince is asked about the songwriting dynamic between the two he immediately projects the question towards next year’s new album. “We’ve been together four times this time around I think, in various parts of the world. We’ll sit there with a guitar or a piano and work on the melodies. The only thing that has really changed is that back in the day we would almost always complete the song in one go, we would write the melodies and then work on the lyrics. Now we tend to just concentrate on the melodies, and then Andy will go away and work on the lyrics and I’ll work on the musical arrangements. When we write the songs and we’re working on the melodies we’re both there sitting in the room, so if something is in the wrong key I’ll just change the key. I think over the years Andy’s voice has changed, it’s gotten a lot richer and lower – and warmer.”
As you might expect, Bell writes most of the lyrics. “I’ll put my oar in now and then, especially if he gets stuck, but we’ve been together for 30 years over time, and we both know each other’s strengths and how to work efficiently. I’ll be musical arranger and he’ll be lyricist.”
Clarke remembers a spirit of discovery when writing songs in the early years. “Before I was in the band I was playing acoustic guitar, and because my guitar playing was so shit I wasn’t really learning melody or harmony so much, I was just struggling to play silly stuff. When synths came along and you could actually multitrack, that was a revelation to me.”
He was largely self-taught. “I had guitar lessons at school, and with keyboards it was little monophonic synthesizers, not like playing piano. The Kawai 100FS was the first keyboard I bought. It was a bit of a disappointment, because when Depeche Mode started it was just Fletchy (Andrew Fletcher) could play bass guitar, I played guitar and we had a drum machine. Then Martin (Gore) kind of joined, he had a synthesizer, so we realised that synthesizers were easier to play, and we had a Marshall Stack amplifier we could use, so we became a synth band out of economy.”
When did he sense things were turning in Erasure’s favour? “I think it was probably when Sometimes was released in the UK, and when it charted. That was our first song in the charts, on the second album, and we were feeling really good about our relationship. It was a time when we were both writing together, so in the UK that was the time for us.” Clarke has fond memories of 1989’s Wild! concert at the London Arena in 1989, documented as a DVD on From Moscow To Mars. “That was just completely mad. We took it everywhere, and we were playing massive venues. It was weird because the tour previous to that, in the States, we had been playing little tiny clubs, and then we were playing to 5,000 or 8,000 people with this massive crew. That tour went on for ever it seemed! Looking back, everything happened so quickly for us that I don’t think we kind of had time to take it in properly, to appreciate it.”
The inclusion of Abba‘s music in the band’s live sets and musical approach was also a key factor. “In our very early live sets we always used to do a cover of Gimme Gimme Gimme, and that always went down really well”, he recalls. “We were playing a few gay clubs, and high energy was the music of the day, so it fitted in. Then Andy came up with the idea of doing an Abba album, and we chose the songs that we really liked – but we found that after four tracks we were going nuts, and it was time to move on!”
“It’s all about the melody. You can’t make things better in the studio without having a fancy melody, I don’t think.” – Vince Clarke
He considers other bands to have had an influence on his writing. “When I was really young I was in to the music of Simon & Garfunkel, and I like that very simple, minimal approach they have – voice and guitar. You get the melody and really hear the lyric. We’ve never made a record that’s been particularly over produced, and this is one of the reasons why.”
Clarke relished the experience of choosing the songs for his curated disc on the box set. “I don’t listen to old records of ours particularly, so I had to go on to Wikipedia and find out what was recorded. Then I had to check out the different songs I’d forgotten on YouTube. That was the way I did it. I like slushy songs, so most of the ones I chose were all slow.”
Among those chosen were the emotive Piano Song, which shows how well Erasure songs can stand up on their own, in a more acoustic setting. “The songs were written like that,” explains Clarke, “and they were written with bass guitar or maybe a piano. A song that could end up on one of our albums was a song that went through that format. It’s all about the melody. You can’t make things better in the studio without having a fancy melody, I don’t think.”
Does he perceive this as a problem with modern pop music, that people don’t put in enough time making a decent melody and drown it with production? “I can understand why people like that sometimes, but I’ve always been into songs, and Andy’s the same. People work in different ways, but I like good melody. For me a song that you’ll remember in 10 years’ time is a song that you remember the chorus to. It’s not going to be that you used a Roland Xi for a bass sound!”
Although his time with Bell has been a constant, Clarke has more recently turned to collaborative side projects, working on instrumental electronic music with Martyn Ware, Martin Gore (as VCMG) and most recently Paul Hartnoll of Orbital. “I’d like to think they are completely different”, he says. “I’m really enjoying collaborating with people now. Twenty years ago I don’t think I wanted to do that, but now I enjoy meeting people and seeing people, and working with them in the studio. It’s especially good because you can do so much in your bedroom now that it’s actually quite lonely. Having an opportunity to collaborate with different people is really great, and I don’t think the Paul Hartnoll collaboration or the record with Martin was us trying to be popular, we were just doing what we could do.”
He has warm words for Gore’s recent solo record, as well as the new album Chill Out, World by The Orb. He also has clear affection words for the band’s relationship with Mute, a constant through their 30 years, though is struck by a realisation. “I’m the oldest person at Mute now, I’ve discovered! Apart from Daniel Miller that is. My relationship with Daniel is weird,” he explains with a laugh, “because when we first met Daniel, when I was in Depeche Mode, he seemed so much older than me. Thirty years later it turns out he’s not that much older than me at all! The things we talk about now when we meet up are different. I really enjoy being on Mute, I think Daniel’s an incredible person and he’s made some incredible records. I feel very lucky that he’s stuck with us for so long. We’ve had our ups and downs, but Mute have always stood by us which is amazing.”
Bell and Clarke have looked to keep a high quality musical threshold throughout their work together. “I’d like to think so. I think every record we make is the best record since sliced bread, you know, but we’ve never sought to work out what other people might like. We’ll just say ‘OK, we think this is really good, this is what we’re gonna do’.” Yet he finds they are often pigeonholed to the wrong decade. “If you’re looking at hits, most of our hits were in the 1990s, so it’s funny when a lot of people say we are a 1980s band. I don’t know what the answer to that is!”
He is keenly aware of the importance of pop music as the tempestuous year that has been 2016 draws to a close. “The current world climate is definitely reflected in the record that we’re making at the moment, especially lyrically,” he says warmly. “We tried to write political songs before, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this time around it seems that there is so much bad stuff, there’s loads to write about.”
“We tried to write political songs before, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but this time around it seems that there is so much bad stuff, there’s loads to write about.” – Vince Clarke
Did anything in particular act as a spur? “Well the first thing was with me living in the States, and Trump announcing that he’s going to run for president – that’s really hilarious, you know. Only it isn’t. Then of course Brexit happened, so I couldn’t laugh at my American friends any more, you know what I’m saying? It’s a dilemma! But Andy and I are exactly the same in how we feel about it.”
He is conscious of the effect Erasure’s music has on people. “It’s interesting, because when we did our last tour in the States, around two or two and a half years ago, that all came to the forefront. We were doing meet and greets, and there were so many people coming up to us and Andy in particular, and saying to him ‘this song changed my life’. And he was like, ‘wow’. It was very inspiring, and because we were talking face to face with these people, it was something else – amazing.”
He confirms the duo are heading out on tour in the near future. “The new record will be finished in around five or six weeks,” he says, “and then we will start touring in the spring of next year.” Making live music still gives them a thrill, though Clarke confesses to not being a natural on stage. “The first 50% of the concert is really great, and the second 50% is wishing it would end to be honest! It’s a thrill to get to see and meet people, and we have a fantastic crew, so we’re a big family when we go on tour. The big pain in the butt is travelling, and getting through airports. They’re there to piss everybody off I guess.”
Looking at the box set, Vince picks out a couple of particular songs that are meaningful to him, or musically satisfying. “I think both Andy and I would say that one track that speaks to us is the one called Home, on Chorus. It’s one of those songs that feels really important, but you have no idea what it’s about. When I hear that song or when I perform it, it triggers certain memories. With that album we were recording a lot of it in Hamburg, and it was a really good time.”
Musically, the choice is different. “I would go for the really simple songs like Oh L’Amour – which is one of my favourites, and is nearly all major chords, which means I can play it! In 1986 I was still discovering musical harmony, I didn’t really understand it, and so everything you did you discovered something that would make you go ‘wow, that’s amazing’. Even though it’s a million years old it would be new to me, and that was how I felt with Oh L’Amour. The riffs came pretty easily, and I thought ‘bloody hell, that’s pretty good’, though it wasn’t that unique – but to me it was.”
Clarke sees a substantial future for Erasure, as their music continues to evolve. “This next record we’re doing is quite different from the last three, because Andy suggested we don’t make a dance record. This record is more reflective and moody than previous records, but I’m sure when we make a record after this one there will be another vibe going, so we’ll see.”
“Songwriting with somebody at first is quite… not embarrassing, but you’re bearing your soul, like if you were co-writing an article or something. Because we trust each other, that kind of initial embarrassment dissipates in a couple of minutes.” – Vince Clarke
Meanwhile the creative process looks set to remain the same. “We don’t really have concepts as such, but when we sit down and start writing songs you never have an idea if anything will happen at all. When Andy and I meet up at first it’s quite awkward, because songwriting with somebody at first is quite – not embarrassing, but you’re bearing your soul, like if you were co-writing an article or something. Because we trust each other, that kind of initial embarrassment dissipates in a couple of minutes.”
It is a moment he clearly treasures in their relationship. “There’s always lots to discover, because as I say when we first sit down to write a record there is that kind of embarrassment but also wondering if anything will actually happen or come out, and it always does – and I love that part of the process. To go to a room with no ideas at all and then come out two and a half hours with a song, that’s a miracle! You’re faced with this blank page and you start writing and stuff, and then you’re like f*** me, where did that come from?!”
Is there a worry the two might move in different directions? “Not so much that. If I come up with an idea and Andy’s not into it, then the idea’s just forgotten and we move on. We understand that, so nobody’s fighting in the corner for their particular genius idea. There’s always the next song, the next day – you just move on.”
Erasure’s From Moscow To Mars is out now through Mute. Further information can be found here.