Erasure’s Radio Activity:
Brit Duo Launch New Disc and Back to Back Tours
by Tony Phillips
Leave it to Brit synth pop duo Erasure to keep things surreal. From the titles of their early albums of the middle 80s like Wonderland and Circus to their latest disc Light at the End of the World, keyboardist Vince Clarke and lead singer Andy Bell have always demonstrated a flair for the Fellini-esque, but they quite outdid themselves on a recent visit to the Sirius Satellite Radio Station in midtown Manhattan.
When I enter the studio, the band is behind a glass wall in the midst of a sound check. Vince is comfortably ensconced behind a tiny pile of keyboards and propped up on a high stool. Andy is front and center, arms extended and fingers snapping. The strange thing is, the studio is soundproof and instead Andy’s lovely voice, Vince’s former band Depeche Mode pipes in over the PA. “And let my body do the talking,” Dave Gahan — who replaced Clarke as lead singer of Depeche — insists while Andy mouths different lyrics but still manages the occasional lipsynch with the other song. I take a seat and wait for Allison Moyet — the lead singer of Clarke’s other supergroup Yaz — to pop into reception and ask if I’d like coffee or tea.
But tea nothing, when I get with the band a little while later in the lunchtime greenroom, it’s strewn with sushi and beer. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Vince, 46, is drinking and Andy, 43, is smoking. I rejoice that I’ve finally found a rock and roll outfit that behaves like one. No one touches the sushi. Vince, a UK native raised in Basildon in the South of Essex who recently relocated from Brooklyn to Mid-Coast Maine, sets me straight. “We decided from the outset that we’d like to make a dance pop record,” Vince explains, “all of our stuff was getting slower and slower as we were getting older and older so dance pop was the one and only rule.”
Bell, a vision in army green, is decked in camo pants cut at the knee and a fitted tee advertising a pub called The Thirsty Mermaid. He is one of the most surprisingly butch falsettos I’ve ever encountered and hails from Peterborough, a cathedral city about 70 mile East of London, but he couldn’t be happier about Vince’s new digs. “It’s lovely,” Andy enthuses, “over the winter Vince had snow up to the top of his door.” Andy made three trips to Maine over the course of constructing Light At The End of the World. “Twice for writing and once for recording,” he adds. When asked how he handled the stir crazy that comes with a Maine winter, Andy explains the cottage is fairly close to Portland and we both marvel over that tiny berg’s glut of fag bars. “Chi Chi La Rue told me there was a pole dancing strip club,” Andy adds, “but I haven’t been able to find it yet.”
What the band has found is themselves at the other end of 20-years in the music business together, yet promoting a new record that has them carrying on like they’re in their twenties. And in a way, they are. They’ve just notched 20 million albums sold worldwide and have about twenty different records if you count the EPs like Crackers International and Abba-esque. Let’s not even get into the side projects, as the band has a gig to play for Sirius contest winners in about a half-hour. But Light at the End of the World, particularly coming on the heels of last year’s acoustic Union Street, is especially bracing. I liken it to being Jennifer Beals and pulling that chain only to find the bucket is filled with ice water. They’ve enduring comparisons to everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Gilbert and Sullivan, but leave it to Erasure to travel to the ends of America surrounded by ocean and forest to produce their one of the most unrelenting, computer-based, electronic pop records of their career.
“You kind of feel like we may have set our sights too high in the first place,” Andy says of all the return to form accolades that have greeted this record and most of the band’s efforts over the course of their career. “I think it’s always really good quality, what we do, but, you know, I listen to people go on about how fantastic Abba was and how pristine the backing vocals were. I was just listening to one of their albums and thinking, well; it’s not that good, really. But I think it’s always hard to go above parameters that are already set really high. Still, I feel like we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. When we try and experiment and do different things, people don’t like it, but then when we do what we’re good at, people say, oh hooray, they’re back.”
It’s then that Vince decides to take me all the way back, to the genesis of the band. “I was working with a producer named Flood in London,” Vince remembers, “I’d been doing lots of side projects that weren’t really going anywhere. So Flood said, look, you should find someone that’s going to work with you all the time. So I placed an ad for a singer in Melody Maker, which is a music paper in London. And Andy was one of the guys that came into the auditions at the studio.” Andy remembers it slightly different. “It was very strange,” he begins, “of all the people that were on the charts at the time, I just thought Vince was the coolest. After Yazoo split, I was thinking maybe I should write him a letter, but I didn’t know where to send it. But when I answered this advert, it was for him. I just couldn’t believe it.”
“I answered an ad once,” Vince offers, “some band was looking for a guitarist. I remember talking to the guy on the phone and he said, what sort of music do you listen to? I named the bands I liked and he said, no, I don’t think this is really going to work. Right over the phone!” Andy goes a little further to set the mid-80s scene. “When I moved to London, Boy George was around and Marilyn and all those sort of people were going to nightclubs. I went for my first audition and Vince was there in the studio. He was on the Space Invaders machine. I thought, oh, that’s Vince Clarke over there. Depeche Mode were rehearsing in the other studio at the same time. My audition was for Bow Wow Wow, but I didn’t get it.”
So in Clarke’s case, there’s such a solid slew of success: from Depeche Mode to Yaz and now Erasure. In Bell’s case, one could also take the young ingénue arriving in London and almost immediately hooking up with Clarke as some sort of manifest destiny. Does the band believe they were preordained to reside at the top of the pop charts? “Nah!” the two chime in unison. “We’re just lucky,” Vince explains, “the first album that we made we spent a year recording and working really hard and it didn’t get any radio play at all.” And their process? Clarke handles the music, while Bell crafts the words, but Vince stresses, “We write together with a guitar and a tape recorder. Andy will perfect the lyrics and I will try and perfect the musical arrangements.” And if you continue listening to them, they’ll even try and convince you that Vince is the fuck-all, while Andy is really the shy one. That’s where I draw the line, reminding them that on their first tour of America, the young Bell took the stage dressed in a black rubber wrestling singlet.
“Oh that,” the shy one demurs, “you know, with those rubber leotards, I didn’t know what we were going to be wearing until the day before we left. I just went down to the market and grabbed a load of stuff. So that’s where they came from, but they’re really easy to keep. A little baby powder and you’re good to go.” When asked what they have cooked up for their current world tour, the shy one gets visibly excited. “It’s scratchy,” he explains, “we’ve got video jocks doing stuff for us and they’re making the films at the moment, but we’ve seen about a third of them so it’s going to be sort of on the fly. It was really good, the stuff that we saw, and we’ve also got some NASA pictures that we managed to get a hold of, so it’s all going to be very disco. There’ll be giant gemstones swizzling around and our khaki gear will have jewels all over them so it should be nice.”
“We’re starting at the beginning of June,” Andy explains, “we’re rehearsing in LA with two more girls and then we hit Vegas for the True Colors rehearsal for four nights, as well, so there’s plenty of time and we’re up to scratch, but one is right after the other. True Colors is fifteen shows and then we do our own tour.” When I ask him if there’s anyone he’s particularly looking forward to meeting on the True Colors Tour, the shy one demurs again. “Well, not really,” he begins, “I’ve never met Rufus Wainwright, so I’m quite looking forward to meeting him. I really love Margret Cho. She’s great. I met her at Gay Games in Chicago. But I’ve never seen Cyndi live, only on the TV, so I’m looking forward to that and my heartthrob is Debbie, so I guess I’m looking forward to it all.” That would be Debbie Harry. And Cyndi? Well, I mean, come on. I make him promise to try some of her “special” tea and he asks, “It’s not magic mushroom, is it?” Vince does a spit take with his Molson. These boys are ready to carry on. I assure him Cyndi’s blend isn’t exactly mushroom, but make him promise he won’t have any until after he leaves the stage. At this point, I’m not certain Andy Bell ever leaves the stage anyway.
“I’m not sure we’re exactly like a marriage,” brand-new daddy Vince supposes of their duo-ness, “because that would be bad. Our relationship is very easy going. Andy’s a really laid back person, and I wasn’t when I first met him.” Andy adds, “Vince is a comedian. He’s got a really dry humor when we go out.” So that person we see onstage, front and center, the one that likes to glitter and be gay? “It’s a persona really,” Andy explains, “God, I remember our first gig. I was really hopeless. I used to remember thinking, how would Alison Moyet sing this song?” At this point, I flail around a bit. Bell has been out from the get-go, long before it was the popular, marketing bullet point it is today. He also recently came out again regarding his HIV status. The boys are headlining what’s probably the most important gay banner cause of the summer and raising buckets of money for the HRC in the process, but I don’t know, I guess I’m just not happy with the political in action. I want some kind of grandstanding statement, but that’s not their style at all.
“It was mainly for my own sanity,” Andy allows of his admission at the end of 2004 that he’d been HIV-positive since 1998, “but it was also for insurance purposes. When you’re touring around, you just have to tell people to get underwritten. So I thought, well if they’re going to know, everybody else ought to know. I don’t think it’s much more different than coming out as gay, really, but it is a little harder, for me anyway.” There’s a bit of a pause, and then Andy brings up the tour again. I ask them if they’ve ever visited the venue for their August solo gig in Brooklyn. They tell me they have not and I begin to describe the fabulously dilapidated ruin that is the McCarren Park Pool. “Is it outdoors?” Andy asks. “How long has it been drained?” Vince wonders. The boys are suddenly excited again and have a million questions about their upcoming Bushwick engagement, but their publicist appears and starts pulling them towards their afternoon gig. Andy, perhaps beginning to flip over into that glittering stage persona, turns back on his way toward showtime. He’s beaming. “Look,” he says, “water or no, Erasure always makes a splash.”