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Music

Synthpop King Vince Clarke on Erasure's 18th Studio Album, 'The Neon'

Photo: Phil Sharp / Courtesy of Mute Records

PopMatters recently dialed in with synthpop maestro Vince Clarke to discuss the 35-year history of Erasure and their most recent album, The Neon.

The Neon
Erasure

Mute

21 August 2020

Vince Clarke is a songwriter and composer whose four-decade-long contribution to synthpop has defined the genre. Forming Depeche Mode in 1980 with schoolmate Andy Fletcher, and Fletcher's good friend, Martin Gore, Clarke is responsible for the band's most enduring hit, "Just Can't Get Enough". This single, couched within the album Speak and Spell, set the tone for the playful but incredibly innovative popular sound of the decade that explored the sonic capabilities of new electronic instruments; notably, the synthesizer.

As Gore's writing began to steer Depeche Mode towards darker shores, Clarke left the band only to serendipitously come across an ad in a local paper for a vocalist in search of a "rootsy blues band". Having recently penned some new lyrics and being without a band to record them, Clarke connected with Alison Moyet, a familiar face around the Basildon post-punk scene, who just so happened to boast an incredibly soulful voice perfect for the role.

Within a week, Yazoo were formed, and Clarke and Moyet recorded their first single, "Only You". Scoring a number two spot on the UK charts, this single and its highly successful follow-up, "Don't Go", formed the basis of their debut album, Upstairs at Eric's, which reached platinum status after selling over 300,000 and 1,000,000 copies in the UK and the US respectively.

Two albums and six hits later, Yazoo split up because of personality conflicts, only to push Clarke into a collaboration with sound engineer Eric Radcliffe, the very same Eric whose studio gave rise to the title of Yazoo's debut album. Despite surviving no more than a year, the duo's project, the Assembly, struck a number five hit with the compassionate electropop track, "Never Never", which remains a key fixture of synthpop playlists today.

In 1985, while searching for a vocalist to support on a few personal compositions, Clarke posted an ad in Melody Maker, the very same publication that had connected him with Moyet four years earlier. Andy Bell, already a fan of Depeche Mode and Yazoo, auditioned for the role, and within just a few months, the duo began to release incredibly charged pop ballads. "Oh L'amour", "Sometimes", "A Little Respect", "Love to Hate You", "Stop!" – the hits abounded from the newly formed Erasure, all but guaranteed by the pair's synergistic relationship and the appeal of their euphoric musical output.

This year, Erasure released their 18th studio album, The Neon. With electronics that sing with emotion, simple, catchy melodies, and Bell's interminable passion and openness, The Neon reflects the duo's commitment to vibrant pop hits packed with melodies that stick with you in the shower.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License)

In between Erasure releases, Clarke's curiosity has seen him stretch his creative palette into ambient and techno collaborations, remixes of every artist who ever stepped foot in England, and producing new music through Very Records, his record label that is "committed to releasing very fine electronic music". While it would be reasonable for Clarke to sit back and lean on the successes of his past, his desire for creation and connection is seeing him move from project to project, developing an increasingly rich body of work, and preserving his title as the king of synthpop.

While Clarke's contribution to music lends itself more to a book than a feature article, PopMatters recently dialed in with Clarke to discuss the 35-year history of Erasure and their most recent album, The Neon.

You've participated in a handful of exceptional bands and collaborated with incredible artists like Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Martyn Ware (The Human League, Heaven 17), and Paul Hartnoll (Orbital). With this in mind, what's kept you and Andy bound to each other all these years?

We have this really cool relationship. I mean, in the beginning, it was pretty awkward. I met Andy because I put an ad in the local music paper (Melody Maker) for a vocalist. He came along to the studio and sang a few songs, and then we decided to try and make an album together. Andy was incredibly shy, and I was only a bit more confident, and we just started writing songs and putting ideas together. That was the foundation of our relationship. That was the point where I went, oh, I can trust this guy, he has good ideas.

Also, Andy is incredibly tolerant. There's no ego involved in the band, and it's something that I hope I've picked up from him over the years. Our relationship is really about non-ego. It's about the idea that you can put an idea forward, and if the other person isn't really into it, then you just drop it and move on to the next idea. There's no one pointing to their own corner, and that's very important.

How has this relationship shifted and been tested over time? Eighteen albums are quite a few.

I think it's gotten better and better actually. In the early days, I wrote most of the songs for the first album, and Andy contributed a few ideas. Now it's completely like a 50/50 split. Now, I think we totally rely on each other. Every time we make a new record, for instance, the new record, we don't see each other all the time, then we get together to make a record. In the beginning, it's always a bit awkward, and you know, there's a bit small chat going, but then it evolves. I mean, writing songs together is about bettering yourself a little bit, I think. And in order to do that, you have to be with someone who won't laugh at you, or who can criticize you without you being offended. And that's how our relationship developed.

Beyond your songwriting process, what common attitudes or values have seen Erasure become such a successful partnership?

The reason we get on so well is that we both share the same political views, pretty much. We both have similar musical tastes; things that outrage Andy are the same things that outrage me, and the things that warm his heart are the same things that warm my heart, also. It's like one of those really lucky marriages. Our career has been longer than most people are married for, and it's because there's this give and take, there's a shared feeling of what's right and what's wrong. That's the thing that's kept us together.

Photo: Phil Sharp / Courtesy of Mute Records

I'm curious by one remark Andy made in the past. Andy said that if he were a closet gay, Erasure would have been a much bigger band. I wanted to ask you how Erasure's relationship with the gay community has influenced its success and creative direction over the years.

I don't know that what Andy said is true, really. I think that's actually been one of the reasons why we've done so well because people love Andy. He's been totally honest and open and always has been from the very beginning, and I think it's helped our career. I mean, the last tour that we did in America, there were so many people coming up to us and saying, you did this song in such and such, and that really helped me. It was heart-warming. I think the reason that they said that was because Andy has always been so upfront about who he is and you know, doesn't give a shit.

The Neon sounds like the material you were putting out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I'm curious what prompted the return to this sound, especially after you surprised us all with a number one classical album in 2018 with World Beyond?

As far as the direction of the music is concerned, I wanted to make the music simpler. I didn't want it to be too clever. And I guess that's the same as how we started. Although, when we started, we thought we were doing something clever! At the end of the day, the thing that lasts and the thing that's the most important to the song is the melody. It's the thing that's going to get you singing in the shower. So, we don't necessarily need all the drums and whistles for that to be right. The less flowery, the better.

You've mentioned that you were enthusiastic about returning to analogue synths and the simple production techniques of the 1980s. How did this influence the album's creative direction?

You know, I'm sitting here in my studio right now, surrounded by analogue synthesizers. Quite early synthesizers, which I love. I started thinking about what's really necessary to make a song shine. Do you really need all that extra stuff, all those extra parts? I was trying to hone down on, okay, this is the song, this is the melody, these are the lyrics. Let's just make those parts shine. The fewer things that I do in the studio, as far as the music is concerned, the better.

Were you trying to revisit some of the sounds that got you interested in electronic music in the first place? I know you're a very vocal fan of the early Human League and OMD work.

When I first started playing music, the band I was in was a traditional guitar, bass, and drums setup. And then electronic music happened, with those early records, as you say, early Human League and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Normal, stuff like that. It really intrigued me, and I just decided that it's much easier and less technical to play synth than it was to play guitar. So, that's when I started getting interested in electronic music. It was all practical, really. I was a much better keyboard player than I was a guitar player.

Orchestral Maneuvers were such a huge influence on me. The reason I got into electronic music was because I heard the track "Almost". That's when I thought to myself, oh my God, electronic music actually has some emotion, and I wanted to do that, be a part of that.

How long do you think it took for the mainstream to accept that electronic music could display some emotion?

Gary Numan didn't do it, really. He did a lot, but I think OMD are the guys who did that. They had a really good voice, and they created real songs. I mean, they were the songs that if you played on a guitar, if someone's singing them without synthesizers, they would say, "Hey, that's a good song, yep, I get that." Whereas if you were to sing "Autobahn" with a guitar, it probably wouldn't be that interesting.

Comparing your music with Andy to the other work you collaborate on, what's distinct about an Erasure track?

Well, with an Erasure track, it's a song that Andy and I can perform with a piano and a voice, or a guitar and a voice. That, for me, is the best song. When I do the other stuff, the other collaborations, it's more about the sonic possibilities. So, with the Martin Gore thing, it was all about the sound effects, making the best sound effects. I mean, you make a groove that's 127 bpm and then you can do what you like, really, as far as sound is concerned. You're not worried about the song. You're not worried about the lyrics coming through or anything else. It's more about a sound effect. Erasure have always been about songwriting, and we like to think of ourselves not as a synth band, but as songwriters. We just happen to use synthesizers to do that.

You've only been creating these sonic records, as you called them, purely electronic music, for the last decade or so. How did the VCMG album with Martin Gore come to be, and why now?

With the VCMG record, I had just discovered techno. Before then, I didn't know anything about it whatsoever. I knew that Martin was interested and had been interested in that music for a long time. So, I emailed him and said, "Hey Martin, I'm doing this solo project at the moment, fancy collaborating and making a record together?" He was up for it, and it was lovely. Funnily enough, we never actually met during the process of making the record.

We didn't meet till the end of the record. He would send me ideas; I would send him ideas; we would mess around with each other's ideas. And again, it was nice because there were no egos. It wasn't like someone was saying, man, this is the best baseline since sliced bread. If Martin suggested a different baseline, I'd go for it. And he came up with some amazing ideas. It was a real joy to do.

People often ask you why you left Depeche Mode, and I'm curious if the genuine exhaustion from answering this question impacted your ability to establish a good relationship with Martin?

No, I didn't really know Martin that well. We were in the same band (Depeche Mode), but only for a year, and he wasn't my mate; he was Fletcher's mate. So, it was nice to get to know him. I mean, I knew his body of work and that he was an incredibly amazing songwriter. For me, it was more about Martin's interest in that whole sonic world. He has an amazing studio in California, and he has the same kind of gear that I do. We would share ideas about synthesizers and envelopes and filters, all that stuff. It was really cool – bit nerdy, but cool.

I know you were never in direct competition but did you ever find yourself running head to head with Depeche Mode? Were there any tensions that existed early on in your career that you've had to apologize for?

No, I don't think so. I mean, Erasure and Depeche Mode are like black and white, really. Like chalk and cheese. They went in the direction they went, and while Martin's an amazing songwriter, he's a different songwriter to me. They decided that they wanted to go down that particular path, and I think we're a little less serious.

Watching your collaborations grow and the work with your label, Very Records, increase, how do you see your non-Erasure body of work developing?

For me, it's all about meeting new and interesting people. I realized a few years ago that my world is so tiny, so that's when I decided to do the label. Obviously, I wanted to expose the world to these really interesting artists, but also, I wanted to meet people myself. When I was in my 20s, I had no interest in collaborating whatsoever, because I just thought that everything I did was brilliant already.

Now I'm older, and I realize that it would be quite nice and interesting to meet new people, meet people with new ideas. And be a listener rather than just someone that's dogmatic about my views. And that's kind of how Erasure worked in the beginning. I had my ideas, I had my own songs and stuff, and Andy was just going to sing them. That changed around because Andy had some amazing ideas, and we decided to work as a team. So, that's what fueled my interest in eventually coming out of my shoebox.

Knowing that, how does it work when you're exchanging files online with a collaborator rather than being with them in person?

Well, it's not as good, but we have to do that now anyway. Saying this, the first record that I did with Very Records was with Paul from Orbital, and I went out to Brighton in the UK, and we worked together in the studio. With the other artists like Alka, I went down to Pennsylvania to visit him, and with Brooke, who's in Brooklyn, I went there, too. So, I got to meet people in person. Now, it's impossible, unfortunately. With the whole collaboration thing, it's all well and good when you're exchanging files online, but I miss being together physically. There's no way that Andy and I could have made The Neon without actually being face to face.

So, what does your world look like today?

I'm sure it's the same as yours! I'm at home with my son, who's 15 and spends all of his life in his bedroom. He's really into music; his big thing at the moment is Halsey. I mean, he's really into her. We analyze her lyrics and everything. It's part of his schoolwork now. He'll find a Halsey vocal from a song, from a track, which has been stripped of the music. And then we'll spend hours reworking the track. It's not a remix so much; it's more of a reworking. He's very, very strict about the chords. I mean, this is a rework, this is a remake. You can change it around a bit, that's the point. You don't just replicate what's been done already. So that's an ongoing conversation, an ongoing discussion, in our house, I should say.

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Max Shand is a music enthusiast and tech professional. He loves creativity wherever it comes from, whether that be in music, books, or business.

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