Men Say Go! Martin L Gore & Vince Clarke In A VCMG Interview

Martin L Gore and Vince Clarke have reunited after three decades on new techno project VCMG. Luke Turner speaks to them both about rediscovering their collaborative creative energy for one of the best albums of 2012 so far

"Vince was more interested in the flow of the words and rhymes than in the meaning," said Martin L. Gore to New Sounds, New Styles magazine back in March 1982. "He presents you with riddles, things you can’t explain."

Gore was speaking in the wake of Vince Clarke’s departure from Depeche Mode, who were then on a meteoric rise into synth pop stardom following the release of their debut album, Speak & Spell in the October of the year before. For three decades, they’d see each other "now and then, just down the pub", according to Clarke, as he got on with first Yazoo and then Erasure, and Gore piloted Depeche Mode from cheerful Essex synth pop poster boys to stadium goth pomp.

Then Clarke presented Gore with a fresh riddle and a new challenge, by emailing him to ask if he’d like to collaborate on a techno project he’d begun working on. Clarke had found his way into the genre accidentally and rather late, after he was asked to remix Plastikman and ended up getting lost in the electronic labyrinth that is the Beatport shop.

The result is the hugely enjoyable and entirely riddle-free techno pop album SSSS, which has been preceded by two EPs, ‘Spock’ and ‘Single Blip’, that have been remixed by some of the most forward-thinking people in electronic music today, including Regis, Byetone, Edit Select and Terence Fixmer.

Yet while this is an entirely forward-looking project, it’s possible to hear the spirit of their early work together throughout SSSS. There’s a certain almost undefinable soul to what they come up with that’s present here, simply dressed in a techno rather than a synth pop coat. Listen to Speak & Spell and SSSS one after the other, and all sorts of motifs seem to cross over – the odd popping rhythms and morse beeps of ‘Single Blip’ capturing something from ‘I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead’, while VCMG’s rich synth muscularity can be heard in the darker sounds of, say, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ ‘Zaat’ feels like Speak & Spell track ‘New Life’ in robot uniform.

For two men who now both live in the United States, there’s a really English character to this record, as if Vince Clarke and Martin L. Gore are still both Essex boys at heart. Similarly, this doesn’t have the sense of self-importance that you might expect from two men who have sold tens of millions of albums between them. There is the feeling, though, that aside from making the record together, Gore and Clarke aren’t exactly going to be hopping from American seaboard to seaboard for BBQs in each others’ gardens.

Yet just as they are in their respective interviews, SSSS is entirely down-to-earth. It’s also exuberant, and fun. There’s the future-fi space police TV drama build of opening track ‘Lowly’, the multi-faceted brilliance of their first single ‘Spock’, which combines most of the pop tricks of techno in under six minutes, the naughtiness of ‘Skip This Track’, which stutters along as an excellent bridger, before at four minutes giving the ears and mind an almighty twist. Just as last year Azari & III’s debut album reworked classic house for a pop audience, VCMG’s hugely accessible, cheeky record (that stands among the best work of the careers of either artist) does exactly the same for techno.

The Quietus spoke to both Clarke and Gore over the phone from America (they’re doing their interviews for the UK press separately) to untangle the story of what seems to have been a project where unfinished creative business reaped great reward.

Martin, it was interesting to read in The Stool Pigeon that Vince, who first approached you about VCMG, had never listened to techno until recently, whereas obviously you’ve done more with DJing and so on.

Martin L Gore: I’ve been listening to techno for a long time now. I read The Stool Pigeon interview as well, and found out things about Vince I didn’t know! I never really knew Vince over the years, so that was a surprise to me that he only got into techno a couple of years ago. Mute even had a techno label for ages, NovaMute, and I remember being into the Tresor stuff, and Daniel [Miller, Mute boss] putting some of that out. Techno has been in my blood for ages.

Was it surprising how easily VCMG came about, if in fact it did?

Vince Clarke: I started working on the record on my own. I was working on about three or four tracks before I decided that I’d like to collaborate with somebody and contacted Martin. I think the surprise was how in tune Martin and I were about this kind of music. At the same time, it was really great because I’d send him something and have no idea of what he would be sending me back, but as it turned out it was something I really liked. I wasn’t just being nice! We just seemed to fall into the same mould.

Were you ever worried that he might say ‘no’?

VC: I didn’t know… I wasn’t sure… I know Martin’s always busy and I didn’t know what the Depeche Mode schedule was at the time. What I said in the email was that there’s no pressure, no deadline, no timeline, no release date scheduled, nothing, it’s something we can do and we can have a bit of fun with, and if you’re up for it then let’s do it.

Did he get back to you quite quickly?

VC: Fairly quickly – about a week and a half.

Martin, were you quite surprised that the idea was there? What was your initial response?

Martin L Gore: Of course I was really surprised, because I’d never in my wildest imagination thought that Vince might contact me and think we’d do a project together. So when I received that email it was a total shock. Once I’d got over that, it seemed like a really good idea because apart from the fact that it was nice to be doing something with Vince again after 30 years, I’ve been into techno music for a long time now.

You’ve said how when you were first together in Depeche Mode you didn’t actually know each other that well. Listening to VCMG it sounds very fresh and sparky, do you think that gap or cutting short of a relationship that still had a way to go creatively helped that? It means your partnership hasn’t become staid at all?

VC: Oh definitely. When I left Depeche, obviously Martin took over the writing, and his writing style is completely different to mine. Over the years we’ve developed completely different styles, and I think that’s why the record sounds so different. I don’t think people would have expected the record to sound as it does if we’d been working together for 25 years in the same band.

What did you think about that, Martin?

MLG: That’s a good point, I’d never thought about that. We never actually met for this whole process, it was all done via filesharing, but I suppose we both wanted to keep up some sort of standard and impress each other.

Thinking about the use of equipment, did you have quite a synth-off?

MLG: I think both of us have been really into synths over the years. He has a huge collection of synths and I have a huge collection of synths. I do actually envy some of his, and that’s rare because most people would come in and look at my stuff with awe, but he does have some quite cool rare things.

VC: Martin and I are overly interested in synthesisers. We’re both interested in electronic music, and Martin has done a bit of DJing as well, so he knows a little bit more about this genre than I do. It’s just worked out really well. I think the fact that there was no pressure for Martin, I think that really helped the project.

How did you decide what to use? Did you discuss it?

MLG: It sounds really far-fetched, but we didn’t actually have a conversation about this project. Everything was done in emails, and they weren’t detailed emails, they were really brief and to the point. All that was said in the first email was ‘I’m thinking of making a techno album, do you want to collaborate?’ When I said ‘yes’, Vince started sending me basic ideas and we took it from there, and just plunged into it. From the first couple of tracks I suppose I got the drift of where Vince was going and then we just carried on with the project. There’s always a bit of a template when you’re making techno music, because 99% of the time it’s going to be four-to-the-floor, and have a certain tempo range.

There wasn’t any typing notes back and forth? Was the music doing the communication for you?

MLG: We did not have a serious conversation at all. The first conversation I had with Vince was a conference call involving me, Vince, Daniel from Mute and both of our managers, and that was when we had almost finished and were talking about a band name and ideas for an album title, things like that.

What do you think it is about techno as a form that has really inspired you with this project?

VC: To be honest it’s never been a music that’s interested me at all, not ever. What happened was I did a remix for a guy called Plastikman, and that sparked my interest. Then I got interested in the website Beatport, and I was amazed and blown away as to how people were using synthesiser sounds in electronic music in that genre. The great thing with Beatport is that you can listen to a minute and a half of everything before you buy it. There were so many subgenres as well that I knew nothing about. But I’m an old person, so why would I?

I realised that as long as you keep to a fairly regular beat you can do anything you want. I realised that the way you make the music emotional is not by having a torrid lyric or anything like that, the way you get emotion is by pure sound, building up a track or making the arrangement really sparse and suddenly making it massive. I found that really inspiring and interesting.

Did you hear in some of the sounds and their experimentation something of what you were doing back when you were among the first people to use synthesisers? Was there a spirit you connected with?

VC: No. People were stretching synthesisers much more than I had ever attempted to do. There isn’t the restriction of having to worry about a chorus or a middle eight or anything like that, it’s just pure sound. That’s what made it interesting for me.

I’ve listened to SSSS next to Speak & Spell and I thought there was something really striking that it felt really natural that it was you two on this record. The spirit and character of Speak & Spell seems to be there wich VCMG. There’s something quite cheeky about it. Am I being outlandish and daft?

VC: I don’t know. I haven’t listened to Speak & Spell for 25 years. I’ll do that tonight.

MLG: [laughs’] I don’t know whether I should take that as a compliment, but I suppose I will.

It is a compliment.

MLG: I think it’s not exactly a comedy record, but I think there is a quirkiness to it, even down to the title and the snakes. It’s not an existential record, is it?

It works really well as an album, which not all techno LPs do, and I listen to it as a pop record. It has a huge amount of personality to it, which is quite interesting when it’s purely instrumental.

MLG: I’m glad that comes across, that’s nice of you to say. Thank you.

Is it because with you and Vince, pop will always be in whatever you do?

MLG: I suppose we both come from a traditional songwriting school, and if you put us into the techno field there will be an element of melody coming through, even if it is very basic. Like I said, I like the thing Vince was saying about realising that you can create emotions by being very simple. When you’re a songwriter I think the most important thing is to convey emotion, and that’s something that we managed to continue with this project even though it’s completely different.

Has it been like rejuvenating a friendship through music?

VC: It’s been really interesting, Martin and I never really became friends in Depeche because he was never really my mate, he was Fletcher’s mate. Martin was very very quiet. Having seen him since, I realise he has exactly the same sense of humour as he did thirty years ago or whatever. To me, he doesn’t look like he’s changed at all, whereas I’ve just got balder.

Was there less pressure for you too? Not worrying about have to write for a lyricist or the pop song format?

VC: Definitely. It was like having a palette of colours and being able to do whatever I wanted to do. A lot of what I was doing was cutting up sounds and rearranging sounds, rather than purely just generating sounds from synthesisers. I’d generate them and then start messing about with them on the computer. I wouldn’t say it’s easy now… but it’s easy. With Logic, the world is your oyster.

Do you think VCMG might influence what you’re doing in the future with Erasure?

VC: I’m sure it will. Nothing’s conscious. I’m still totally into writing songs, I’m still into writing choruses and bridges and middle eights and all the rest of it, and to good lyrics, but this freedom of sound I am sure will come into future Erasure productions, for instance. Andy and I have been working together for so long, and I’ve been working in the same way for so long, that I think I was probably getting into a bit of a rut, so doing something like this with Martin has opened my eyes a bit, and that’s bound to affect the next Erasure record.

And finally, if you’re going to take it out on the road, you’re a man who has excellent suits, especially the one you had on at Mute Short Circuit festival last May. How would you approach going out to dance to techno wearing a salmon pink suit?

VC: [Laughs] I don’t know. That’s a very good question. That’ll be my next… I’ll ask my wife, actually. That’s what I’ll do, ask the wife.

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