Vince Clarke is one of the greatest music visionaries to emerge from the late 1970s d.i.y. electro scene. His songwriting capabilities are extraordinary – taking up a musical style that was pilloried at the time as being soulless, impersonal, and without merit – delivering extraordinary, emotional top ten hits for more than two decades.
In honor of last week’s release of the fourteenth Erasure studio album, Tomorrow’s World, I got to chat with Vince via telephone during their first tour since 2007.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU0OkKWpw1A
My respect for Vince Clarke has its roots in my love for early Depeche Mode, both from the dark classic “Photographic” on the Some Bizarre compilation, and the ridiculous pop of “Sometimes I Wish I Was Dead” on Flexipop. Those songs made me explore everything Clarke had done, connecting the dots between the Mode, Yazoo, and Erasure, as well as some odd one-off singles I had in my collection.
Of course, Speak and Spell in 1981 started Vince Clarke’s 20-year unbroken association with Daniel Miller’s legendary label, Mute Records. Chart success followed – number 10 on the UK album chart, and two top twenty singles – “New Life,” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” (“Dreaming of Me” inexplicably didn’t crack the top 40) – before leaving to try something else new.
Clarke recruited Alison Moyet to form Yazoo in late 1981 (Yaz in the United States due to a lawsuit), releasing two powerhouse albums – Upstairs at Eric’s (number 2 on the UK chart) and You and Me Both (Clarke’s first number one album), spawning another series of top singles – “Only You,” “Don’t Go,” “The Other Side of Love,” and “Nobody’s Diary.” Yazoo broke up before the summer of 1983, with Clarke releasing one-off singles with Feargal Sharkey (as the Assembly) before the end of the year, and Paul Quinn just over a year later in 1985.
Clarke advertised in Melody Maker for a new singer, recruiting the flamboyant Andy Bell before the end of the year. Erasure steadily built a following, releasing the low-charting debut, Wonderland (1986), the top ten The Circus (1987), and Clarke’s second number one album, The Innocents, in 1988 (Depeche Mode wouldn’t have a number one album without Clarke until 1993). Erasure had a string of four more number one albums ending in 1994 – capping thirteen years of chart success – before descending into mid-table chart stability (2005’s top ten single “Breathe” aside).
BYT: How the new tour’s going so far – it’s your first tour since 2007, right?
Clarke: It’s been brilliant!
BYT: What’s up with the stage décor for your new tour? It looks pretty goth – and you look a bit like Tom Waits. I see a Halloween outfit in the making…
Clarke: That’s quite a good idea. Yes, the set design is a bit gothic, isn’t it? We wanted it to be like a dilapidated, decayed city to contrast with the jolliness of me and Andy!
BYT: So, you started off on Some Bizarre, but now after 20 years on Mute Records – through the corporate EMI years – that’s pretty unprecedented stability. What do you attribute that to?
Clarke: Well, I’ve known Daniel Miller (Mute Records founder, owner, producer, remixer, and recording artist) since 1980, and he’s always been 100% behind me and Erasure. He signs the bands that he likes, not the ones that make him money, although it happens that his strategy has made quite a bit of money!
BYT: A lot of your peers from the electro class of 1980 are novelty acts or have reformed to try to recapture past glories. How have you maintained your currency for 20 years?
Clarke: I think it’s because we never rested on our laurels. On this tour, we’re already talking about and looking forward to making the next record. I think we stay relevant, then, by writing good songs – its strong choruses that make good songs, not technology.
BYT: Do you feel any pressure to chart?
Clarke: No, I feel under no pressure at all, and we never have. A lot of that is staying with Miller for all these years. Also, Mute doesn’t have some huge marketing and promotions department constantly pushing us to stay current and do things we didn’t want to do. They let us do what we want.
BYT: Not even during the years that Miller relinquished power to EMI in exchange for surviving the lean years?
Clarke: It was still always Mute, even during the EMI years. We never had to deal with EMI executives. Daniel (Miller) always dealt with them for us. Even the EMI collaboration started out as a good idea, but it all went pear-shaped – and I was happy when they put Miller back in full control.
BYT: I would like to talk about your collaborations. It seems like you were doing a song a week with a different singer – kind of like the British Electric Foundation. What brought you together with (legendary lead singer of the Undertones) Feargal Sharkey and (less legendary Bourgie Bourgie singer) Paul Quinn?
Clarke: Actually, my idea was exactly like BEF, but it became difficult to work the logistics and timing of all the guest singers. I got together with Feargal because a British music magazine put out a story that it was happening. I read it and Daniel called his people on Wednesday, we traveled to Northern Ireland, recorded it on Friday, and came back on Saturday. To be honest, we were scared of him. I loved “My Perfect Cousin” (the Undertones biggest chart hit), but we were terrified that he’d make fun of us art school boys and instead, he was the nicest bloke ever.
BYT: I really loved the resulting song, “Never, Never.” I hadn’t listened to it in years, and recently put it on my iPod – it’s just amazing.
Clarke: You know, he hadn’t sung it in about 20 years, but we had him come out earlier this year, at the Short Circuit festival in London. I was stunned – his voice hasn’t changed – he sounded just as good as he did in 1983.
BYT: I read an interview with you in the run-up to the London reunion shows, and you said you hadn’t listened to a Yazoo record in years and years. Do you ever listen to any of your pre-Erasure work?
Clarke: No, I don’t have any of my old albums, not even Erasure! Andy has every single one of our songs and every one of our records, but I don’t have any! The only reason I listened to them was for the concerts.
BYT: The most unexpected collaboration in your discography has to be the East India Company. I mean, Asha Bhosle? That’s pretty amazing – and not just because of the shout-out by Cornershop.
Clarke: Blancmange had opened for Depeche Mode on our first tour, and I got to know Stephen Luscombe, who was obsessed with Hindi singers. I have no idea how he got in touch with her, but we worked together on some tracks for the single. She arrived with this massive entourage, and he put her up in a luxury hotel. It must have cost a fortune!
BYT: So, electro music has a reputation as being emotionless, blank, and yet all of your work focuses on extreme emotions – singers that emote extraordinarily (Gahan, Moyet, Sharkey, Bell). Why do you keep working with such emotional singers?
Clarke: When people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wanted to be a folk singer, and when I started writing songs, they were all about romance – it was just natural for me to write them that way. Then I tried to sing, and I sounded like a robot – my voice is crap. I can’t sing at all, so it was natural for me to gravitate towards singers like Alison and Andy.
BYT: The advances in digital recording technologies mean that you have instant access to literally millions of sounds on your computer. Is it harder having instant access to any sound compared to being strictly limited by the technology you could afford in the 80s?
Clarke: No, it’s marvelous living now – we’re in a time of constant revolution in software and synths and computers – there are always new things to learn. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.
BYT: How do you pick which songs to remix?
Clarke: I listen to songs, and when I think I can contribute something – sometimes they’re just perfect, but if I can help, I do my best.
BYT: Still, how do you narrow it down to a particular sound for an individual record?
Clarke: We only write songs on acoustic guitar and don’t let ourselves get sidetracked by equipment or technology. We have producers to worry about the technology – otherwise, we’d never finish anything!
BYT: I read that you tried to have Kate Bush produce an Erasure album, but she turned you down. Do you think maybe now she’d reconsider?
Clarke: I don’t know – she was quite nice, and we had a lovely chat, but I don’t think she would be comfortable working with us.
BYT: How did you end up with your new album’s producer (Frankenmusic) opening for you?
Clarke: It’s excellent. His management contacted ours, and he’s got a new album, so it’s all worked out quite well.
BYT: How was touring South America earlier in the year? You took in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador – how were the audiences there? Is there a marked difference between the crowds there and here?
Clarke: We’ve not played South America since 1997, and frankly, we were concerned they’d forgotten about us there. Then we got to Brazil, and the crowd was significantly younger than the band – we figured the average age was about 25. They knew all the lyrics, and it can’t have been through the radio. They must’ve been downloading everything for years. Andy and I were talking about it – it was all very flattering.
BYT: I see from the schedule that you had a free day after your show in Philadelphia. Did you take in the Liberty Bell?
Clarke: No, actually, we drove straight after the show to Boston and wandered around town. I know it quite well from my time living in New York and vacationing in Maine – I fell in love with it and moved to Portland, Maine, and now live just an hour and a half away from Boston.
BYT: Is it hard touring with such a rigorous schedule – 50 dates in a year – after a four year hiatus? Do you ever find yourself getting weary or emotionally exhausted when you recall what’s ahead for you?
Clarke: No, actually, it’s just the traveling that gets me down now. All the flying across the United States and through South America – flying used to be such a, well, such a breeze. Now I love touring by bus.
BYT: I understand your son, Oscar, turned six in September. Did you take him along for part of the tour?
Clarke: No, his first day of school was in September as well, so he couldn’t come along. Actually, after the second show in DC, we drove to pick him up from home and drive him to his first day at school, and then proceeded to the gig. I felt terrible having to leave and not be there that week, but I’m so grateful to my brilliant staff for at least setting that wonderful surprise up.
BYT: Are you worried at all about what Oscar is going to listen to? Any trepidation about having him explore your back catalog?
Clarke: When I’m home, Oscar is in my studio every night listening to music. He loves brash pop music and disco, and he’s a big fan of Green Day.
BYT: You know Billie Joe Armstrong got thrown off a plane for showing his ass crack on a plane?
Clarke: Oh my, I didn’t hear that. I hope Oscar doesn’t find out.
BYT: Thank you so much for spending so much time with me. Before I let you go, in honor of one of my fellow writers who wanted to conduct this interview, I have to ask, what metal band is the biggest bunch of pussies?
Clarke: [Laughs] Oh, well….does it have to be current? [Laughs] Oh, gosh, I don’t know…man…I don’t like their music but…what if they’re tough, they’ll come round and beat me up! Okay, I respectfully have to decline to answer.
BYT: Good enough, sorry Jeff. Thank you Vince!