Home is where the art is
Someday, all home studios will be built this way - an exclusive survey
A space-age control room that looks like something out of Star Trek is the place Vince Clarke calls home. Ian Masterson is granted an exclusive audience in the studio where the analogue synth is king and a hit is born every time the owner hits 'Record'...
"It's good to be back," sighs Vince Clarke, collapsing onto a swish designer settee. "Amsterdam was good, but to tell you the truth, I haven't been over again since I moved here. I just like England."
Yes, the Basildon Boffin is back. Back in England after three years of living in Amsterdam, back with a new Erasure album, and back in the limelight again. And, one suspects, happy to be back near his friends, his old stomping ground, and his mum. Don't let that sombre-yet-mischievous exterior fool you; Vince Clarke has a heart of gold.
He also has a brand new home, a brand new studio, and some seriously old synths. Exactly one year ago, I visited him in his previous habitat: a townhouse-cum-recording complex in the heart of Amsterdam, where he gave this magazine's ancestors, Home & Studio Recording and Music Technology, an exclusive tour of his private analogue paradise. Tired after a hectic European tour, the success of the Chorus album and the No.1 smash Abbaesque EP, he and partner Andy Bell were taking a well-earned break - although even back then, they had written five songs for 'the new album'. That new album, I Say I Say I Say, was released last month on Mute Records and shot straight into the charts at No.1. The preceding single, 'Always', peaked at No.4, and there are plenty more hits where that came from.
Vince's new abode, with adjoining studio facility, has been four years in the making, and seems to represent everything he ever wanted in a home. His fascination with modern technology and space-age construction has produced a complex of outstanding architectural achievement. Both the main house and the separate studio building are dome-shaped, reminiscent of huge igloos, and finished in copper and stone. The house is spacious, light, and airy, with huge windows, glass partitions and simple, modern furniture. A central computer controls all the lighting electronically.
The studio is artificially lit, save for a central skylight in the top of the dome, and incorporates a main control room, a kitchen/lobby, a vocal booth, and an underground 'warehouse' of (as yet unused) equipment. I'd like to meet the estate agent who could reduce this place to '3 Bed, 2 Rec, Kit, Bth, OFCH'.
But a tour of the premises is saved for later. Right now, Vince proffers coffee, lights a Marlboro, and settles down to chat about Erasure's latest chart offering.
"Yeah, I think the new album's great actually," grins Vince, adopting a pop star pose. "No, to be honest, I am pretty pleased with it overall. It's been a weird album to do, simply because we've lived with the songs for so long. Normally we'd record all the songs immediately, sit back, and make a judgement. But this time we wrote them right after the last tour, and sat with them for ages because we were waiting to find a producer. I wasn't really sure about them because of that; they were still really rough, and I didn't know how good they were, if you see what I mean. But I'm happy now.
"The actual writing process was the same as ever: just me and him sitting round a microcassette with a guitar or piano. Once we'd found a producer, we did some really rough backing tracks in my studio in Amsterdam; that was done really quickly, over about seven days. Then we went to Dublin for three weeks and did the bulk of the vocals. Well, Andy did them really - I was just there to say hello every evening and drink Guinness! After that we came back here and did the music proper, with some additional backing vocals.
"It worked out well in the end, because usually I'll do the music first, and then I'll be waiting around for ages while Andy sorts out the lyrics. This time all the songs were finished before we began recording, which meant I had the finished pieces to work with. I could see exactly where all the spaces went, and what sort of arrangements would fit the vocals, instead of the other way around."
Indeed. Many of those who have listened to I Say I Say I Say mention a sense of 'space' around Andy's rich vocal harmonies and melodic lines - something less apparent in the 'in your face' musical arrangements of Chorus.
"I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we recorded all the vocals first," adds Vince. "It meant that Andy wasn't fighting for space to get his ideas across in the mix. We did spend a lot of time on the vocals from the start - that was always our intention really. And I do think it worked out better."
The change in atmosphere on I Say I Say I Say also has something to do with the producer Vince and Andy eventually chose to work with: Martyn Ware. Vince had been a fan of Martyn's for many years, from the earliest days of The Human League, through Heaven 17 and the British Electric Foundation and beyond, and was delighted when he found out that Martyn could work with them.
"It was a bit of an accident we found him, actually, because I didn't know he produced. A friend of Andy's suggested him because he knew Martyn had produced Tina Turner. Once I found out about him it was sorted out really quickly. Personally, I was delighted - I couldn't wait to drill him about all the stuff he did back in the early days of the Human League and things. But then I met him, and it turns out he'd forgotten it all! I was saying: 'Well how'd you get that sound there?' And he couldn't remember!
"It was interesting because he'd sold all his analogue synths as well. I asked what the first one he had was. It turns out he used to have a Roland System 100 - you know, the one in the suitcase with speakers, not the modular version that I have. So I phoned around and managed to get hold of one for him, gave it to him and said: 'There you go, welcome back'.
"He's worked with all sorts of bands, and a lot of good singers, but he's not overly technical with synths, which is a good thing. He hadn't worked in all-analogue since the Human League, and he really enjoyed getting back into it. We got into the whole business of timing again, with an oscilloscope in the studio. Martyn was scope man, like Spock in Star Trek, peering at the screen all day and checking the timing of everything.
"He never once tried to get me to use samplers or MIDI gear, like some people might have done, and he wasn't interested in loops or anything. When he first realised the logistics of recording using an MC4 [the classic old Roland analogue sequencer] that did take him back a bit, because it is time consuming; but once we got over that everything was fine."
"The writing process was the same as ever: just me and him sitting round a microcassette with a guitar or a piano"
Those of you with an interest in analogue synthesis will undoubtedly recall that Chorus was recorded using nothing but old monophonic synths, even when it came to creating the various drum and percussion parts. Vince assembled a massive array of modular machines and keyboards, all connected using CV and Gate rather than MIDI (a technology he detests), and proceeded to program the whole lot up on an ancient ARP sequencer and the Roland MC4. The same collection, now slightly enhanced and residing in his new studio, appears on I Say I Say I Say. After Andy had laid down the bulk of the vocals in Dublin, Vince returned to his home studio to power up his appliances and get down to some serious tweaking.
"I'd go into the studio on my own for a day, to get each track up and running on the BBC UMI sequencer, and then Martyn would come in and we'd start tarting it up and ironing things out. We'd get maybe 98% of the whole track up and running before we recorded anything.
"When I'm actually programming, doing the physical sound-generation, I prefer to be on my own, because it gives you a chance to make your own mistakes and then correct them - rather than having someone over your shoulder saying: 'No, don't do that, do this'. People who do that are frustrating, because you're working within other people's definitions. So I just wandered in and out of the studio and the house all day on my own, trying things out until I felt they were right - and then they would be open for criticism, rather than being modified by other people every step of the way. Anyway, when there's the whole picture it's much easier for people to see the gaping holes...
"Andy isn't interested in that process at all. He appreciates the results, but I'm glad he doesn't get involved in programming because it allows us to give each other space. He might come up with melodic little riffs sometimes, but not often. And I'm not interested in singing either."
Last time, Vince used only monophonic interweaving lines to create his harmonies. Chords seemed like an easy way out. For this album, the rules were relaxed slightly.
"We used a few chords on this record, albeit sparingly. But mostly they were generated from the MC4, recording one finger, on one channel, at a time. The real difference in the programming this time was that we used a six-channel analogue sequencer instead of the single ARP. Tony Wride built it for me, and it's great, because we were able to get all the parts on a drum track going at once, for example. The six-channel unit was mainly hooked up to the System 100M. It's really instant as well, and you can fuck about with the parts as much as you like. Again, all the drum and percussion sounds were programmed on synths; you'll notice that there aren't any crash cymbals on the album because we didn't use any drum boxes and they're just too difficult to synthesise properly."
Since Chorus and the Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour, Erasure have used their time to indulge in a little self-analysis. The result is that they now seem keen to move on from the gleeful excesses of camp and frivolity that surrounded the last dose of chart success. I Say I Say I Say, despite what the music-hall style title suggests, is a deeply reflective album. There are still the classic throbbing disco tracks - 'Run To The Sun', 'I Love Saturday' - and every song is so pure in its pop pedigree that it could be a single. But the music is also characterised by an ethereal, glittering quality, reinforced by Andy Bell's wistful, enchanted lyrics. Producer Martyn Ware has added his own polish until the whole album gleams - from the endless, swirling effects applied to Vince's melodic riffs, to the inclusion of an angelic cathedral choir on 'Miracle' and 'Man In The Moon'.
Vince pauses to mull over the apparent change in mood.
"I think that vibe comes more from the lyrics this time - they're definitely more dreamlike, perhaps more so on this album than any other. And perhaps a bit more depressing as well - but it reflects a mood, I suppose.
"I've really only listened to it through once, to be honest. Andy's really into sorting out which tracks go where on an album, but my philosophy is that you always play your favourite tracks first anyway, so it doesn't matter where you put them! We tended to work on each song more or less in isolation, I think, rather than viewing the thing as a whole. You try not to repeat yourself, obviously, but we were rarely thinking in terms of 'an album' as such. Then again, I think I did repeat myself in certain areas - for example, I tended to use the same percussion sounds across various tracks.
"The choir was Martyn's idea. He found this cathedral in Dublin and went in to record them; the choirmaster did all their arrangement. They recorded them very simply, with just a couple of mics. It turned out well, I think.
"We didn't mix the album here because we weren't sure about the acoustics of the room, since it was so new. Martyn and Phil Legg [the mix engineer] mixed it at Strongroom in London. I'd just stick my head round the door every couple of days to check it was going okay."
And what about the final result?
"Well, as I said, I'm pretty pleased with it. These things always work out in the end anyway, but we were happy with the songs before we went to record them - we felt they were strong, and the music and ideas came really easily. That's usually a good sign.
"'All Through The Years' is probably my favourite track. There was a lot more arrangement done on this one than some of the others. We spent a lot of time thinking about structure and arrangement, trying to get something a bit different on all the songs. I really like Andy's backing vocals on this one; there's a movement there.
"We spent a lot of time on the vocals from the start - and I think it worked out better"
"'Run To The Sun' was actually written on a piano [Vince roars with laughter when I say that some people have described this song as Eurodisco in a sort of 2 Unlimited style] It actually sounded like a rock song to me when we first wrote it! We weren't cross-referencing to other tracks or artists when we were writing. I've almost completely switched off from modern music now anyway. I've finally got a decent record player so I'm swapping all my CDs for vinyl. It's not that I'm ignoring contemporary music for the sake of it, it's just that I'm not that interested. I bought the last Stereo MCs album, though..."
But Vince, that album was released in 1992. You had it when we last met...
"Well, you see what I mean then!"
Producing music for the future using machines of the past. Erasure celebrate a world soon to come - while shunning much of the present. It's a uniquely creative approach to music-making that has stood them in good stead. Another triumphant collection of timeless melodies and classic songs, I Say I Say I Say captures the spirit of the moment and seals it up for all eternity. And isn't that what great pop music is all about?
Interview by Ian Masterson
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