You And Me Both
Electropop veteran Vince Clarke and latest partner, Andy Bell, discuss composing, sampling and singing following their debut album release. Tim Goodyer takes notes.
After paving the way for electropop with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Vince Clarke has joined forces with singer Andy Bell to form Erasure. The beat, the melody and the instrumentation are as strong as ever, but so far, commercial success has eluded the duo.
THE NAME VINCE CLARKE FEATURED IN THE ORIGINAL Depeche Mode lineup of 1980, alongside those of Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher and Dave Gahan. It was Clarke's songwriting talent and willingness to play pop on unlikely new instruments (cheap synthesisers) that gave the Basildon band their initial success with singles like 'New Life' and 'Just Can't Get Enough'.
But at the tail-end of '81, he bravely abandoned the safety of the Depeche camp to begin afresh. He resorted to the classifieds column of Melody Maker in an attempt to establish a working partnership with a singer, and received a response from one Alison Moyet. It was an unlikely combination — he a composer of up-beat synth pop from the sticks, she an experienced London blues singer — but the result of the unholy marriage was the enormously successful Yazoo. Huge, worldwide hits like 'Don't Go' and the immortal 'Only You' not only established Clarke's prowess as a popular songwriter and put Moyet on the map as a singer, but also established the viability of an electronically-based duo in modern pop. For Clarke had remained loyal to the instruments he knew — cheap monosynths, drum machines and Microcomposers — and continued to rely on the production skills of Mute label boss Daniel Miller and engineer Eric Radcliffe. With their help, Yazoo proved themselves an immensely capable and versatile act, with two albums (Upstairs at Eric's and You and Me Both) that demonstrated not just an uncanny ability to create some of the early eighties' best-crafted electropop tracks, but also calmer, moodier songs like 'Winter Kills'.
But all good things, as they say, come to an end. And so it was that Yazoo ceased trading in 1983, with Moyet setting out on what was to be a staggeringly successful solo career, and Clarke beginning a series of uneasy associations with other singers under the umbrella title The Assembly.
The most successful of those collaborations was with ex-Undertone Feargal Sharkey, who sang on the Autumn '83 hit 'Never, Never'. But after that, Clarke sank into a period of inactivity, eventually forming a new duo, Erasure, with unknown singer Andy Bell. Together they've released three excellent (but unrecognised) singles and an album, Wonderland, that's offering the public an opportunity to make up lost ground.
Talking with Erasure shortly after the album's release, it transpires that his association with Bell is another example of Clarke's 'classified ad' strategy.
'Andrew and I met about a year ago after I put an advert in Melody Maker for a versatile singer. We did about 40 auditions altogether, and he was almost the last person to come along.'
The placing of that advert marked the final admission of failure for the Assembly project, as Clarke explains.
'When we did The Assembly it was meant to be an album full of different singers. We started doing the album after the first single but there were lots of problems in finding singers. People imagine that if you're a musician it's like one big family, but really you don't know anybody else. I contacted a few people and they either didn't want to do it or they weren't available, and when they were there were contractual problems with other record companies. I also had problems with producers because the producer I wanted to use, Daniel Miller, just wasn't available at the time.
'The result was that we spent a year in the studio hanging around writing songs, preparing for the Assembly album which never materialised. In the end I was just sick of the studio. We started to do the next single but we couldn't get the right singer, so myself and Eric took our synths and went home. It was a really bad time; it was a year wasted and it made me really lethargic because we hadn't actually got anything finished.'
Then, according to Clarke: 'It was time we started a proper band. There's Andy and I in the studio. We find it more workable that way, although we get session people in sometimes to play guitar or whatever. It works very well — we don't have any personality problems.'
Bell describes himself as 'the eternal optimist' to Clarke's 'eternal pessimist'. As if in confirmation of this, Clarke continually refers to Wonderland in the past tense as if its failure were a historical fact.
'I liked the album', he says. 'I think it's the best thing I've ever done, but one of the problems when we first started recording was that Andy and I didn't know each other very well — I just wanted to record his voice. It's taken this long for us to get to know each other and know what each other's views are. Consequently, I don't think the album had anything to say lyrically. I'd like to incorporate those views into the next album.'
That next album could be heard in the making throughout the course of our conversation in Mute's own London recording studios, and sounds like it's set to continue where Wonderland left off.
WHERE WONDERLAND PICKS UP is another story entirely. With its driving drum-machine beat, tingling mono-synth arpeggios and highly-charged vocals, it's an obvious continuation of the theme Clarke began with Depeche and continued with Yazoo. In the light of the universal success enjoyed by Yazoo, it seems strange Erasure haven't risen to instant fame and fortune.
'You've got to have exposure on Radio 1', suggests Clarke. '90% of the population of this country that listen to the radio listen to Radio 1.
'We're doing all right in America. They're still working the first single there cos everything takes a lot longer, but we're doing all right in the dance charts. We've just come back from doing five dates out there and they went really well. It's tough to sell records there because the record companies you're dealing with are so difficult to crack — it's not so much cracking the public as convincing the record companies that the music's worth investing in and selling. Visiting America and seeing Warner Brothers (Erasure's US label) in action really pissed me off. They've signed me for six albums; that's a big commitment for me but it doesn't seem to be a big commitment as far as they're concerned. They'll release a record but they won't do anything about selling it.
'We played LA and there were about 1200 really enthusiastic people at the gig. LA is where Warner Brothers have their head office, so a lot of the Warner Brothers people were there. Backstage afterwards they were all there laying into the drink and Andy came into the dressing room. The first thing that anyone said to him was "where's the corkscrew?". The second thing was "what do you do?" and this was after the gig... But if it means we've got to spend six months out there and disregard promotion in this country, it doesn't bother me at all.
'There's a problem here in Britain but I haven't worked out what it is yet. Because I've been away from recording for so long I think I may have missed out on a lot of things. I haven't managed to keep up with what's happening as far as production and sounds are concerned. Radio 1 like to think they're really trendy and if anything sounds a little outdated, they won't play it.
'But you just keep going, trying to improve your technique as a songwriter. Erasure's done a lot of gigging and I think that's helped us build up a grass-roots following. We can only record and gig, that's all. We can't go to Radio 1 and shake the DJs until they play the record.'
On the subject of gigging, one of the reasons most often quoted for the demise of Yazoo was Clarke's reluctance to perform live. Three years on, it's strange to witness the pleasure with which Clarke relates the success of Erasure's recent live excursions in America. Why the change of heart?
'It was only that I wasn't 100% happy with the way that Yazoo were doing it. We had to rely on tapes and that just wasn't as exciting as it could have been.
'Now we're using the BBC Micro and a UMI software system. It's programmed to trigger seven synths plus two drum machines, and I play keyboards myself a bit, too. That's the basis of the music, and Andy handles the vocals.
'It's definitely a step away from the Fairlight. I spent a year-and-a-half messing about with that and I just got sick of it. I did use it with Yazoo live for a little while but it proved really cumbersome. We actually had to use two so that we could have one loading up while the other was playing.'
In conjunction with the UMI, Clarke has an Oberheim Xpander, a Yamaha TX rack equipped with three TF1 modules, and a Casio CZ101. A Yamaha RX11 and a Roland TR727 (the Latin Percussion one) take care of the drumming chores.
'I can trigger 16 polyphonic synths simultaneously with the UMI so, for live work, I use two of the channels for drums and the others for music. I write a blank bar at the beginning of every song which is a patch-change bar; all that happens in that bar is that all the synths change sounds, although I can do patch changes within the songs as well. There are 12 songs for the whole set stored on one disk — backed up many times — and a song will load in about three seconds.'
On top of all the pre-programmed music, Clarke uses a Casio CZ1000 live, but the arrangement is all kept open to allow for further improvement when the time seems right.
'I want to keep updating the sounds all the time, and I want to start using the Pro One live again as well. I've always used it for bass because it's got such a great sound. It's bit dodgy though, because you'd have to use an interface to get it to talk MIDI. I want to start using a TR808 live as well — that'd just use the Sync 24 to the UMI.'
"I spent a year and a half messing about with the Fairlight and I got really sick of it... It proved cumbersome live — we had to use two so that one could load up while the other was playing."
SO FAR THE SYSTEM, WHILE NOT PERFECT, has performed to Clarke's satisfaction both in the studio and on the road.
'The whole system's pretty mobile. We took it to America and hired all the synths out there. It was easier to hire because it's all available there and it's cheaper only to have to ship the BBC. With the Oberheim we stored all the patches on cassette and took them over like that. The UMI stores DX sounds on disk so we put all the TX sounds on that, and there's no problem with the memory on the drum machines because we use those over MIDI.
'There've been a few breakdowns — we've crashed the disk a few times — but even when that happens, you just put a spare disk in and load up another song. Any mistakes like that people seem to love — they go down really well, especially when things work again afterwards. It was the same with the Fairlight and the MC4, but things are so much more reliable now.
'We start a major tour in the autumn and we're hoping to include a drummer in the band, but playing only a snare and hi-hat, not a kit, just to make it more visual. At the moment we've got four of us — Andy and me and two male backing singers — all at the front of the stage, so it's quite strong. But I fancy a stand-up drummer at the other side of the stage from me, so there's the three singers in the middle. I think it makes it more interesting, especially as there's not a lot of people doing guitar solos.'
Banishing a Fairlight from your keyboard line-up is the sort of behaviour that gets you labelled 'arrogant', but Clarke has his reasons and, anyway, there's a Synclavier sitting next door...
'I got sick of hearing samples on records. I think some people do it really well. I really admire the stuff Daniel (Miller) does with Depeche because he never repeats himself. The problem with the Fairlight, and also the DX7, is there are too many presets involved. I look through the trade magazines and there are people advertising DX ROMs, so you don't have to bother programming yourself.
'Even using the TX is a problem, because it's really hard to get away from the inherent sound of the thing. Rather than use too many FM sounds, we're trying to get back to using analogue stuff like the Xpander and the Syrinx — that's a really wild analogue-sounding synth. The Xpander is quite user-friendly as well. There are so many things you can do with it. You've got 30 envelopes and 30 LFOs — it's ridiculous, you can just go wild. I'm the sort of person that likes to stand and twiddle knobs until something sounds good, and the nice thing about the Oberheim is there are so many knobs to twiddle.
'The Synclavier's Daniel's so we've just been messing about with a few things on it. I don't think it's very user-friendly — there are too many multiple function buttons — but the sound quality is excellent. We're getting it MIDI'd up as well now, so we can start doing sequences on it. But hopefully the whole album will be done here with the UMI. That way I won't have to start re-writing programs for live work.'
And as an acknowledged master of the art, how does Clarke see changing technology affecting songwriting as a whole?
'I'm always amazed when I get letters or demo tapes from people and they say: "If only I had a Fairlight this would sound really good". That's a really terrible attitude to take — sort of blinded by science. I can't complain with a Synclavier sitting over there, but I do think it's a shame that people don't realise the potential of cheaper synths and drum machines. Casio are really paving the way with their synths, but there are some really good cheap synths about. It's like punk all over again.
'I really like a good tune with a good chorus. I started off doing folk music and playing guitar and it's all derived from that. I only knew three chords to start with, so that was all I could write. Folk music is very simplistic but very effective all the same, and I think I've captured that.
'The way you write depends on whether you view the verse as the rest between the choruses or as a part of the song; to me it's all got to be pretty good. It's nice when it doesn't matter if you're listening to the verse, the chorus or the bridge section but it always comes alive.
'Most of Wonderland was written in the studio with me and Andy sat around a piano. I don't like using electronic keyboards because they're not physical enough. I like the idea of a piano because you can bang it. I only occasionally start with a sequence — mostly I'll play some chords and Andy'll try to sing a tune over them. We record that onto a Walkman, then we go into the studio and start constructing the parts for the song. The words come last.
'I'm using more black notes now, and there are a lot of chords on the last album, too. I think that I can play a little better than I used to, or ever dared to. When I was in Depeche we played everything manually — now I look back and say: "How did I manage to do that in time?". With Yazoo everything was programmed into an MC4, but I'm getting back into the playing now.
'We decide on the style of song once we've got the melody, then we usually work out a bassline and the drums around that. Then we start overdubbing sounds and experimenting, just layering things on and taking them out if they don't work. We also spend a long time working out the vocal harmonies.'
YOU CAN'T LISTEN TO WONDERLAND without noticing the marked similarity between Andy Bell's vocal style and that of Moyet, regardless of the difference in sex. Clarke pleads to have been blissfully ignorant of the fact until it was pointed out to him.
'It didn't occur to me in the beginning. I was really surprised when people first mentioned it, but it's funny that he's also been compared to Feargal Sharkey. Andy met Alf at a party and she said: "People compare me to Helen Terry because I'm fat". It's just association. There are some inflections that are similar, but I know Andy and he sounds just like Andy.
'It doesn't stop us doing what we want to do. I don't think punters sit down and start comparing voices in the same way they don't wonder what synths you use or why there aren't any guitars in a song; they either like it or they don't. The only people that are interested in the actual music are other musicians.'
Bell continues his own defence.
'It's just technique. I love female singers — I listen to them a lot and I learn from them. I think my mid-range is very similar to Alf's, but then we go off into different areas. People were saying that I didn't have any style of my own, and that I was imitating her. Now they're calling it the dreaded comparison, but only because people are getting used to all those other ranges. I don't mind being compared as long as I'm not considered a cheap imitation.'
Bell's limited musical background has also proved to be as big a blessing as it's been a burden to Erasure's progress.
'I've never worked with anything other than synths, so I'm used to that side of it now but I'm only just learning about technical things. It's taken me a year just to get into the group. I feel a bit thick sometimes, sitting around when everyone gets really technical. And I get quite bored while they're doing sounds over and over again, and I can't hear the difference!
'It took us a while to suss each other out and it's taken me all this time to settle in and get used to doing TV work and so on. At first I thought it was a bit weird, but now I really enjoy it.'
With high technology in mind and a vocoded voice from the studio in my right ear, I bring up one of Goodyer's pet subjects — the vocoder.
'That's the Synclavier you can hear', comes the reply. 'Andy doesn't like vocoders. I've got one of those Sennheiser vocoders and I've only ever used it once. It's one of the worst things I've ever bought.'
'I hate them', confirms Bell. 'You know, Herbie Hancock and all that. It's not as if I don't like vocal effects, it's just vocoders. I like things that make you sound like you're on drugs — they do that at clubs sometimes!'
'Actually I quite like them when they're used tastefully', muses Clarke. 'But I'm not really into sampling voices because I think they lose their sparkle that way. It's nicer when you can do things for real.'
An outsider, not versed in the way Vince Clarke works and what his machines can do, would probably consider that last line a downright lie.
To the musician, familiar with Clarke's writing skill and the honesty of his approach, it rings as true as 'Only You'.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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