A Clean Slate
Erasure head man Vince Clarke and his new band face the horror of a Tony Reed interview
Having Depeche Mode, Yazoo and The Assembly in his pedigree isn't enough for Vince Clarke. He's aiming for more of the same with his new group Erasure.
A bitterly cold Thursday night in February. Outside, cars creep cautiously through sudden flurries of snow, headlights myopic in the gloom; pedestrians pick their way pigeon-toed along the treacherous pavements. It is a night for staying at home.
Strange, then, that the club is packed to capacity, rumours going round of a further 50 frozen souls still waiting to get in. Stranger still, the almost empty stage. The support band have played, packed up, and gone; the headline act, announces the club DJ, are due out any moment. So where's the gear? This is the Marquee, goddamit: pattern to a thousand clubs up and down the country, holy grail to hordes of young hopefuls, the place where everyone who counts has played. This place has history. Now, almost on the eve of its rebirth as an identikit upwardly-mobile meeting place, it is perhaps the last authentic, sweat-stained, smoke-choked, crowded, rowdy Rock club in the country — SO WHERE'S THE GEAR? No amps, no stacks, no drums — not even a roady fiddling with a guitar. Simply: five pedestals ranged along the back of the stage, each bearing a small, anonymous box; each linked to its neighbour by a single grey cord. At the side of the stage, to the left of the only recognisable instrument on it (a Casio keyboard) squats a computer monitor, its screen covered in non-commital gibberish. The whole thing looks like a particularly avant-garde installation at the Tate Gallery. It might be Art. But is it Rock 'n' Roll?
Earlier, in the Marquee's graffiti-scrawled dressing room, a short, hard-looking young man is explaining to me just how Rock 'n' Roll he can be. His name is Vince Clarke — founder member and original prime mover of Depeche Mode, Alison Moyet's partner in the incredibly successful Yazoo, the man who gave Feargal Sharkey his first post-Undertones hit (The Assembly's Never Never) — and now hoping to do it all over again with his latest project, Erasure: "Yeah, we very nearly didn't make it tonight," he explains, in his cocknier-than-thou Basildon brogue.
"...we were coming back from last night's gig in Liverpool, and the van broke down, 20 miles outside London. In the end, it took us 8 hours to get here, which is ridiculous, cos it only took us 10 hours from Scotland! We ended up having only half an hour's soundcheck for both bands."
The Liverpool gig itself was a near-disaster too: an unstable power supply wiped out the band's entire computer-controlled set, leaving Vince's new partner to pull it all together in the best showbiz tradition: 21-year old singer Andy Bell entertained the crowd for nearly half an hour with acapella renditions of their numbers, and his own inimitable line in camp patter.
Ah, Rock 'n' Roll life! Don't you just love it? Rock 'n' Roll didn't play much of a part in the duo's first meeting though, at least according to a possibly apocryphal story related by Andy: "Vince advertised himself in the City Limits lonely hearts pages as a 'frustrated musician'. I was in a similar situation, so I wrote off to the box number..."
"Well, it was just a case of being frustrated, you know."
Musically, or sexually?
The upshot of this dubious first contact was an audition for Andy along with a gaggle of other hopefuls at Trident Studios in Soho. What was that like? Vince again: "Terrible — 40 auditions, half an hour each... We had two women leave in tears, loads of people who really thought they were God's gift... Andy's was the only fresh voice."
But why bother with that sort of thing at all? Surely with your reputation, Vince, you could have worked with virtually any established artist you care to name?
"Naah, it doesn't work like that — if people are famous, they want to hold on to their own individuality, and they can do it, too. I wanted to work with someone, you know — new...
Someone you can mould to your own image then, Vince?
"No — not mould. Just someone with a fresh approach, instead of some old Rock'n' Roller."
Andy is certainly not that. Prior to Erasure, his only musical experience had been some demo recording, and 'hitting musical toys when I was a kid'. As well as singing, of course:
"I was always singing; my parents were always telling me to shut up. I used to tell people at school that I'd be really big one day..."
And is this the band to do it?
"I think if we work hard enough, we'll get our reward."
And what's that: Money? Fame?
"Oh, I just want people to piss their knickers when they hear us."
Andy's commitment is matched by Vince's — in the past a man noted chiefly for one-off, short term collaborations, and by his own admission a dogmatic and occasionally difficult partner he is, nonetheless, quick to reject the idea that Erasure is only a temporary arrangement: "As far as I'm concerned, this is my first band ever! Yazoo was more an experiment which just went on — this is set up as a band; it's a permanent relationship."
A relationship found both in the studio, and on stage. Clarke, once the Fairlight's staunchest — and most solitary — supporter has turned his back on it, returning to Tin Pan Alley Technique in this work with Andy:
"Normally, Andy'll sing some ideas, I'll bash out a few chords on a piano, and we'll get it all down on a Walkman..."
Hi-tech it isn't, and a long way from pre-Page R days, when Vince would spend 'literally hours' painstakingly entering ideas into the Fairlight note by note. His attitude to the success of Page R in popularising the machine however, is mixed:
"I want to get back to synths that sound like synths, not like brass or voices, or whatever. I know it's not hip but I don't care"
"Obviously that blip-blip-blip, auto-correct stuff makes using it infinitely simpler, but I'm fed up of hearing the same samples all the time, samples of other peoples samples... and it's getting so expensive to keep up with the updates. It's twice the price now than when it first came out."
A more general dissatisfaction with his working methods led to a break with engineer and close colleague of over three years' standing, Eric Radcliffe:
"We were in the same studio for over a year, working on The Assembly and other projects... we both just got sick of the environment; it wasn't being productive. So we decided to go home one day, and do some work..."
A brief flirtation with production work quickly illustrated to Vince his unsuitability for the job; "It's all personalities — I just don't know how producers do it! People are all for you one minute, and then, finicky as hell. It's even worse when you're working with a major label. They're so finicky about every little thing it just isn't true. That part of my career is shelved — permanently!"
This short spell on the other side of the mixing desk was to have a happy consequence however. Through it Vince met Flood, an engineer and producer with a formidable reputation for working with left-field, 'difficult' artists like Foetus, Marc Almond, and PsychikTV. He is less well-known for his extensive work in the Hi-energy world, principally with producer Ian Levine... For Vince it was an irresistible combination:
"I love rhythm tracks, so I thought it'd be very interesting to see how it worked out — and it did work out well. Flood did a couple of our better remix releases, and has been a lot of help to us in the studio. There's been a lot of give and take."
"Yeah. I think the last remix, which we hated, was printed and out in the shops before we even heard it. I still haven't got a copy... in the past, I used to take a lot more interest in that sort of thing, but the pressure of touring has kind of got in the way of that."
"We'll be making sure it doesn't happen again though," warns Andy, ominously.
Some wags, observing the radical changes that have taken place in Vince's working methods of late, have speculated that the band was called Erasure to indicate his clean break with the past. Vince is happy to indulge them, but they couldn't be further from the truth. His liking for Andy's Blues-tinged voice is perhaps the clearest link to the past, but there are other, subtler references too: his opinions on instrumentation, for instance:
"I want to get back to — Kraftwerk, you know. Synths that sound like synths, not like brass, or voices or whatever. I know it's not hip, but I don't care."
Though still computer based, and not exactly cheap, the tools of Vince's trade these days — those anonymous MIDI-linked boxes on stage — have a lot more to do with the workaday realities of ordinary musicians than with Fairlight fantasy. In the strangest of ways, Vince is getting back to his roots: "The entire set is on disk, a BBC computer linked to the UMI-2B package. That's driving an Oberheim Expander — all six channels, giving me bass and two melody lines. It also goes to three Yamaha TX modules, for three more musical lines, and some percussion effects, then on to a Yamaha RX11 for the drums, and a Roland TR727 for percussion. One MIDI lead goes to a CZ101 for chordal parts, and I play a bit of CZ1000 and guitar, over the top. Each new song has to be loaded in from disk, but since that only takes about three seconds, that's not a problem. The first bar of each new song automatically makes program changes on all the instruments, setting you up for when it actually begins. Simple..." He smiles.
Chosen for its reputation as a 'friendlier' system over the competing QX1 sequencer, the UMI has only let the band down twice, due to voltage spikes slipping past their mains suppressor.
"When the system goes down," Vince cheerfully admits "... you're fucked. But usually it's only a matter of reloading everything back up again."
Fortunately, as the face saving acapella of the previous evening demonstrated, there is still room for the human element:
"Andy did a lot of backing vocals on the album, so to flesh it out for live performance we've got two backing singers, Derek Ian and Jim Burkman..."
"...And as I'm beginning to loosen up on stage, chat to the audience more, I'm persuading the backing singers to play around a bit more too," adds Andy.
It all makes for a much livelier show than Vince — a professed hater of live work — was previously used to. Free from the pressures of high-profile performance, the normally dour onstage Clarke opens up, relishing his brief guitar solo, and proving to himself and the audience just how much of a non-musician he really is. He grins maniacally through the whole set.
Andy meanwhile, horribly conspicuous in tacky red tights and blue lurex vest against the more subdued absurdity of Vince's Max Miller-check suit, clearly thrives on the constant dashing between audience and stage, running back and forth across it, flirting with the front row... Hey! This might be a Rock 'n' Roll band after all!
As I make for the exit, and the coldness beyond, the art-forms at the back of the stage kick into a thunderous reprise of Who Needs Love... The audience go apeshit.
Erasure: right now, a work in progress. But, one day, you just might piss your knickers for them.
Interview by Tony Reed
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