Computers have made Vince Clarke a different Keyboardist. And you'll never guess why.
Erasure has made Vince Clarke a changed man. He's gone off sampling, he's abandoned expensive computers for cheaper ones, and he likes gigging. What's happened to this man, and is singer Andy Bell to blame?
In Vince Clarke's 'workshop' everything glows except the people. The people turn blue.
"Sorry it's so cold," apologises Vince, wheeling a blazing Calor gas fire closer to our chairs, and pulling his woolly hat tighter over his ears. "I think the central heating's gone off." 200 grand's worth of delicate hi-tech gear scattered around the walls and it's the boiler that lets you down.
The Workshop is one of record company Mute's outflung buildings - a skylit top floor where Erasure can write, arrange and program, before venturing into the studio where the tape runs.
"That Vince Clarke", total strangers will occasionally say to you in crowded lifts, "is always working." Since Erasure are already compiling material for their next album, before the last one is even released, these mutterers could be correct. Conversationally, Vince and Andy are torn between describing the process for "Wonderland", and explaining how different things will be on the follow-up. Such is life, and lots of bands live it. The change in attitude doesn't mean you're dissatisfied with what you've done, but that you're always thinking ahead. So let's break some ice with the question of gigging at 30 universities up and down the country.
"I'm surprised at myself," confesses Vince. "There's more space playing live, you can take more risks. You can get away with murder live, because it's gone in a second and anything the crowd hasn't heard before will get them going. A year ago I wouldn't have said that... I would have said it was a load of bollocks, but now I've experienced it, I've got to admit it's changed my attitude. I like it."
The live Erasure set-up - excluding the human beings - runs to an Oberheim Xpander module, a Yamaha TX rack with three modules (equivalent to DX9s in a small box, reckons Vince), a Sequential Pro-One synth, plus two Casios, the CZ1000 and CZ101, all driven by a BBC computer using the almost universally praised UMI-2B MIDI sequencer. A Yamaha RX11 and Roland TR727 (latin) supply the drums. Not much then, Vince, I ventured foolhardily.
"It may not look much, but it's the equivalent of eight separate synths. You don't get many bands with eight synthesisers... you don't get many bands with eight instruments, unless you count the drums individually.
"I've also MIDI-ed up the drum machines so they don't use their internal memories, they're all driven from the UMI which is really good. I can store the whole set on one disc and change the order at any time.
"That's been interesting because working live is a different cup of tea - you find out what really sounds good, and what helps to build a gig up. We discovered at the start, that no one would dance during the first half, but one number into the second half and they were away. We altered the set around and now we get them going from the start... well, usually."
And how's the keyboard technique coming on? "Oh, just as bad as ever. No, it has got a bit better playing live so often. When I first used to program everything, I left myself just a little bit to play on stage." Just so you wouldn't feel guilty? "No, not so much that but because I was shit scared in case I made a mistake. But I'm feeling more confident now and can start overdubbing bits that aren't planned." Even on guitar.
This seemed a far cry from one of the earliest Yazoo gigs using Vince's own Fairlight (now at his studio), and another hired from Syco Systems. Let's just say that the good old emergency backing tapes didn't have much chance to gather dust.
"Terrible, and terrible sounds as well. I didn't like it at all. The sounds I'm getting now are much better - no bandwidth problems, no restrictions to monophonic lines only, and the drum sounds are tighter than the woolly old Linn we had."
Vince professes to be fed up with the Fairlight in general, and sampling in particular. If Erasure want to drop in their own samples, they'll use Akai's rack mounting S612, but are growing less keen to do even that unless something else is mixed on top. Sampled sounds are fast becoming too recognisable; even more rapidly cliched. And where's the creativity attached to wrestling with a DX7 front panel until you finally produce a sound all your own. "I don't mind using percussion samples, but I'm fed up with hearing the rest. You always end up using the pre-sets anyway, because the people who build the keyboards can always do the sampling better than you."
The urge to escape the factory choice runs strongly through Erasure's plans for the next album. "As soon as you write something, you find yourself thinking 'oh, that's a brass part', which is bad. I've just spent time fiddling around with the DX's and Casios, coming up with a selection of weird sounds, without any song in mind." That library will be leafed through for the upcoming collection of material.
Vince and Andy are going no further at the moment than deciding structures. Vince will play a chord pattern on one of the Casios, while Andy experiments with worldless melodies until they sift into choruses, verses and links. After that they plan to take what most bands would consider a colossal if not entirely mental risk.
"Eight synths. You don't get many bands with eight synths. You don't get many bands with eight instruments..."
They're giving the whole lot to an outsider who'll write the rhythms.
"I'm not a drummer, and I already know all the drum programs I'd be able to come up, so we're giving the tapes to another drum programmer to work on, Chris Brigden."
Have you given him any instructions, or even suggestions? "No. None. I think that's good. All we've said is make it groove. Towards the end of the last album Andy and I were listening to more and more dance and funk records, so I suppose that's the direction we're going in. We'd like the next album to be a dance album.
"We may have a song with an eighths feel, and want to make it jump a little bit. It's knowing where to put those extra beats in, and only a real drummer knows that. Chris is a drummer, a percussionist, and he knows instinctively what to do. We could mess around for ages and still not hit it."
But there is a real problem and that's locating a bass player to complement the jobbing drummist. Where are all the computerised rhythm sections we wondered, trying to come up with a Sly and Robot. "That's our stumbling block. We've asked around but there doesn't seem to be anyone. We may get a bass player in, see what he can do, and copy his parts down onto the UMI.
"The reason there are drum programmers around, is because drummers got worried about drum machines taking over. Bass players never had that worry."
But let's go way back in time to events actually taking place at the moment. The release of "Wonderland".
It witnesses the dying throws of the Roland MC4 Microcomposer, an old and faithful sequencing tool, finally overtaken. "After that album was finished, I had to reprogram the whole lot to get it into MIDI."
Recording was carried out at Livingstone and the Power Plant, but principally Trident, the HQ for their producer, Flood. Andy, who has just arrived following an encounter with the dentist and an upwardly mobile nerve ending, takes up the story.
"When I met Vince last year, he had a lot of material already written. Some of the stuff we did over and over again, and still had to remix it, but some worked out straight away.
"I was a bit wary of my voice being weak. People are always saying 'he sounds like Alf, and stuff like that. I think she's got a really good, gutsy voice, but my voice box is not made that way at all. It's more warbly, So I thought, how can we bolster it up... by double tracking the voices. But in the end it drowned, rather than strengthened."
When Erasure laboured away, they generally co-operated over the studio piano - Vince enjoyed the "physical" presence. There's always the danger, when writing on synths, that you'll never be able to think of the song with any other sound than the one you first punched up. The piano is "anonymous".
How did the synthesiser instrumentation divide up? Vince takes a glance around the workshop and begins to tick off the gear racked across the walls.
"The Pro-One (an old monophonic synth) for the bass, I still haven't found anything to beat that. At least it makes sure your bass sounds are varied - it's never the same when you turn it on. Something to be said for not having a memory. The Kobol (a French made monophonic) also gets used for bass and then there's the Syrinx which reminds me of the Oscar with that really clean square wave sound. It's got an interesting filter and modulation section, "If I want weird sounds, then I'll go for the Oberheim... I think I understand how it works... but not why." The Oberheim Xpander is a complex but vastly versatile beast. Erasure's stage act usually has three different sounds coming out of it once. The six voice package is semi-digital, with a waveform creation system akin to Yamaha's FM technique on the DXs, but offering greater control over every step in the chain.
Then there's always the Synclavier. It's actually the property of Mute man Daniel Miller who's toying with the idea of upgrading it to full polyphony: "he was asking me how much I use it, I think he wants something to justify the expense to himself." But if, through some mischance en route for the forthcoming American tour, Erasure did the-bit-with-the-desert-island, which one keyboard would you take with you down to the beach, waiting for the passing freighter?
"The Casio CZ5000, the one with the sequencer built-in. That would serve me well." That, and the Calor gas fire, maybe.
Interview by Paul Colbert
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