- 18 Aug 20
Frontman also talks classic hits, ’90s excess, LGBT rights and “not having sex for months” during lockdown.
Legendary synth-pop duo Erasure are back with their superb new offering The Neon – their 18th album, no less. The words of Trent Reznor when inducting The Cure into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame last year are equally appropriate for Andy Bell and Vince Clarke: “They have been in and out of fashion so many times, they’ve transcended fashion itself.”
After the halcyon days of the ’80s and early ’90s, when they produced a string of sublime pop classics such as ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Love To Hate You’, Erasure endured the sort of rocky period all long-lasting acts eventually encounter.
The fact is, though, quality will always out, and thus throughout the noughties and into the next decade, Erasure’s brilliance as a live act – fuelled by their treasure trove of era-defining hits – saw them become a huge touring draw. There were also other notable cultural moments, such as the prominent use of their music on the Rules Of Attraction soundtrack, and Adult Swim’s utilising of the wonderful ‘Always’ to score one of their video games.
Along the way, of course, Bell and Clarke have also kept the quality control on their recorded output remarkably high. So how does Bell feel about the fact that they’ve now been together a remarkable 35 years?
“I know!” chuckles the softly-spoken singer, speaking down the line from London. “It’s like having our own little corner shop. It’s funny, you look back at particular moments and think ‘That was a real high’ or ‘That really connected with people and was exciting.’ But when you’ve been around for so long, and you get into a certain sort of rhythm, part of you is also going, ‘Well, if I somehow went away or disappeared, things would just carry on regardless.’ You get that sense of perspective as time goes on.”
In the early days of lockdown, Erasure performed as part of Short Circuit, an all-star live stream from their long-time label, Mute Records, which also featured contributions from the likes of New Order’s Stephen Morris and Liars’ Angus Andrew.
The imprint has been Erasure’s home from day one, and a fitting one, with Mute issuing plenty of other groundbreaking electronic music throughout its existence, from founder Daniel Miller’s JG Ballard-inspired new wave classic ‘Warm Leatherette’ (performed as The Normal), to the thrilling dark electro-pop of Frank Tovey, aka Fad Gadget – a somewhat overlooked genius of British music.
“Fad Gadget was fantastic,” enthuses Andy. “It’s funny, thinking back on it, I don’t think I ever actually met him. But yeah, he was a wonderful artist, and Mute continues to produce a lot of great new acts, as you saw on that stream.”
Does Andy keep up with new trends in electronic music – has he ever been to Berghain, for example?
“Berghain, I’m not sure I know it… Oh wait, that’s the club in Berlin, isn’t it?”
Indeed it is.
“Oh yeah, Daniel Miller DJs there. Apparently some great stuff gets played alright… I think on the weekends as well, they also have the S&M club in the basement, if you really want to party!”
Andy then mentions a one-time global pop superstar who apparently used to have an apartment on top of the building and get the elevator down to that very same club – but, perhaps correctly, feels such a conversation could get us in enormous trouble, and moves on to other subjects.
On a more serious topic, one of Erasure’s most affecting songs is the title track of 1987’s The Circus, which paints a powerful portrait of a working class community decimated by the closure of local industry. Does Andy feel it has extra resonance in these times of social division and economic turmoil?
“Well, it’s hard to say,” he responds. “Obviously the context of certain songs shifts and changes over the years. I think part of what fed into ‘The Circus’ was the experiences my dad had as a worker in Peterborough, where some of my family still live. I remember he went to the bosses one day with suggestions on how to improve the company, and they weren’t interested at all, very dismissive. That stuff stays with you.”
In addition to Andy’s typically spellbinding vocals, Erasure’s latest album The Neon again showcases Vince Clarke’s credentials as one of electro-pop’s most brilliant and creative minds. His abilities were apparent from day one, when he masterminded Depeche Mode’s breakthrough early ’80s hit ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ – these days an anthem amongst Celtic and Ireland football supporters.
As well as crafting the various gems in the Erasure catalogue, Clarke also had a major hand in one of the keynote baggy hits, courtesy of his remix of Happy Mondays’ ‘Wrote For Luck’. More recently, he provided a magnificent reworking of Future Islands’ ‘Doves’.
For me, perhaps Bell and Clarke’s true masterpiece is the 1991 smash ‘Love To Hate You’, a perfect marriage of underground electro and mainstream synth-pop. The duo’s visual aesthetic, meanwhile – that of the electrifying frontman and the almost comically deadpan sidekick – was also nicely captured in David Mallet’s surreal video.
“It’s good, but I do prefer other stuff in our catalogue,” says Andy. “It’s a track that’s popular in Eastern Europe, and you can guess why. I’m into different material from our older albums, like some of the songs from Nightbird. In fairness, it was a good video – back when people could afford to do videos like that. Nowadays, it’s probably only Beyonce or Taylor Swift who could do something on that scale.
“It is difficult to say why specific songs catch on. Like, you mentioned ‘Sometimes’ earlier, which does have a great chorus – the ‘woah-woahs’ always go down a storm live. Then you have tunes like ‘Always’ which seem to resonate… But you know, sometimes I think it’s because people hear a particular song a lot! It gets a decent bit of radio play or whatever and just takes off.”
In a 2014 interview to promote his solo album and Edinburgh one-man show, both titled Torsten The Bareback Saint, Bell reflected on the period of excess he went through during the peak of Erasure’s chart success in the ’90s, which included a lengthy battle with cocaine addiction. In 2004, meanwhile, he publicly announced he was HIV positive.
How does Andy now reflect on that ’90s period?
“You know, there’s a process of maturing you have to go through,” he says. “You’re young and in a successful group and you want to explore. I did always like going out to clubs, enjoying myself, and seeing what was happening culturally and musically. There were times when it might have been a bit more risky for me, like when we touring in the American south, and I’d head off and people wouldn’t know where I’d gone. But it’s all part of a journey, I suppose – I definitely feel more settled these days, and I think that’s conveyed in the positive tone of this album. I hope it’s a ray of light for people.”
Our interview is taking place in June during Pride Month. Did Andy keep tabs on the Irish marriage equality referendum in 2015?
“Yes, I knew it was happening and it’s great,” he responds. “But the Pope has got to have a word with Poland – because they are out of order.”
Finally, with live music off the agenda for the foreseeable future, is Andy missing the buzz of gigging?
“I do it miss it, certainly,” he nods. “I mean, I’ve been in a fortunate position during lockdown and things have been fine for me, which I’m grateful for. The only think is my partner got stuck in quarantine in Miami, where he lives, so I haven’t had sex for months! But yeah, you get into that rhythm of performing when an album comes out and it’s strange not to have it.
“Ireland is obviously somewhere we’d love to get back to. You know when people climb inside those inflatable bubbles and walk out on top of the audience? Maybe we could somehow modify those, position them off the coast and perform that way. That might be the answer!”
The Neon is released on Mute on August 21.