Vince Clarke Interview: Erasure, Depeche Mode Reuniting and Yazoo

Synth pop's retiring pop genius talks to us on the possibilities of a Depeche Mode reunion, Erasure's longevity and how he nearly got produced by Kate Bush

Personally I don’t need an excuse to find out what’s going on with Vince Clarke – the man’s a stone cold genius. Even if Depeche Mode Mk 1 aren’t your favourite incarnation, it’s undeniable that they would have fallen at the first hurdle without him. His mercurial pop songwriting skills, showcased on ‘Dreaming Of You’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, ensured that the Basildon quartet avoided being seen as a faddy synth act, joining the ranks of those with staying power including Gary Numan, Soft Cell and OMD. He was the lynch pin of the group when they produced their debut Speak And Spell but unhappy with the new, darker direction Martin Gore wanted to take the band in, he left to form the short-lived but excellent Yazoo with Alison Moyet. The band regrouped last year to tour Upstairs At Eric’s and Me And You Both with celebrity supporters like Antony Hegarty and Hercules and Love Affair shouting them on from the wings. Despite many interesting side projects (including an undervalued turn with Eric Radcliffe as Assembly, which spawned the excellent single ‘Never Never’ with Feargal Sharkey), perhaps it’s understandable that he’s best known as one half of Erasure with Andy Bell. A new compilation Total Pop! has the understandably upbeat subtitle “The First 40 Hits” and is out now on Mute, as is a remix compilation. We caught up with Vince in his Maine, Oregon home to talk past, present and future.

Other than the obvious reasons, why was now right for an Erasure hits package and remix collection to be released?

Vince Clarke: “To be honest I think it’s the record label trying to make some money at the end of the day. Sales of records are generally bad and MUTE have been remixing and reissuing everything on their catalogue. They’re under pressure from EMI to do that, you know to show profits. We’ve released two greatest hits. The first one did quite well, the second one was hastily done. It was felt it wasn’t done properly with good artwork and remixes and the like, so they’re kind of making up for that now.”

What was your view of Daniel [Miller] selling MUTE to EMI?

VC: “Well, it was quite a shock really. When he explained to me that he would still be in control of the company it didn’t seem so bad but now with the whole industry kind of thrashing its . . . now they’re under a lot of pressure to make money. Or not lose so much money. The whole atmosphere has changed.

And artists who are a lot more marginal than yourselves. People like Diamanda Galas and Barry Adamson,say, are the ones who felt the crunch a lot more acutely.

VC: “I guess so. We’re lucky. Very lucky because we have a very loyal fanbase who have kept us going even through this particular financial bad time.

No pun intended but over the years you’ve been instrumental in many acts and projects; what is it about yours and Andy’s relationship that has given Erasure such longevity?

VC: We get on really well. I think that when we both decide to sit down in a room and write a song there’s a real excitement in there because both of us: we don’t know what we’re doing. [laughs] We don’t have a plan. We just sit down with a guitar and a tape recorder and then something does happens. The whole, not knowing what is going to come up next is what keeps the relationship alive.”

Has it ever been a problem for Erasure with you living in Steven King country, Maine in the US and Andy living in Hastings in the UK?

VC: Not really. Obviously we have to be together to do the song writing. We don’t tend to do that via the internet. But usually we start an album by exchanging ideas on the internet but then we have to meet up. Either in the UK or here in America and physically do it. And then when the songs and the lyrics work out then it’s fairly easy to work on them separately.

The abomination that was Britpop saw off, or nearly saw off, a lot of groups that had their roots in synth pop but not only did Erasure seem to weather the storm you actually seemed to prosper during this godforsaken time.

VC: “Well I think it’s because we have such a great time. We’ve been touring for 25 years and over the years, people have been very loyal to us. I don’t know if you suffer because of the style of your music, you suffer more if you don’t write very good songs. We’re not a synth duo, we’re a song writing duo who use keyboards. And that’s why I think we’ve lasted as long as we have done.”

I do agree that there is a big difference between early Depeche Mode, Yazoo and The Assembly on one hand and Erasure on the other. Possibly the thing that you’ve done that is furthest away from that traditional idea of what a synth based group should do is the Union Street Project which saw you doing concerts in an ‘unplugged’/Americana style in Nashville. How did they come about? Was it a passion of yours or Andy’s?

VC: “It was an idea that we’d been talking about for a long long time before we actually did it. We wanted to go back to some old songs that perhaps hadn’t been highlighted before and play them in the form that they had originally been written in, which was voice and guitar. I was living in New York at the time and I caught up with a guitarist called Steve Walsh who agreed to produce the album and the timing was right. Andy loved the idea of playing to acoustic instruments and, yeah, that’s how it happened. Everything fell into place. The right people were there at the right time.”

Speaking as a lay person/non-musician I’ve noticed that on songs such as ‘Love To Hate You’ that the synth sound goes all the way back to ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados or perhaps something you’d hear on a Pierre Henry record.

VC: “Yes.

When you were a young adult/teen, were you really into vintage synth sounds?

VC: “Mmmmmmm, no I wasn’t really aware of those things and then when I was a teenager I was playing an acoustic guitar I didn’t get a synthesizer until I was 19 and then it was all Gary Numan and John Foxx. But I do know what you mean and I do love that sound. There’s something about that ‘Telstar’ [laughs] . . . that sound would cut through any record. It’s almost like having a ridiculously distorted guitar! It’s a singing sound and it works and I’m attracted to sounds like that when we’re working.”

Going back to your original fascination with the instrument, how did you first come across synths?

VC: “The first synth I ever saw was owned by Martin Gore because he lived round the corner from me. Me and Fletcher would be practising together and he would play bass and I would play guitar and then Martin got hold of this keyboard, so we decided it would be a great thing for him to be in the band. [laughs] He got involved and we all decided to get keyboards.”

Obviously a lot of people are very fond of Depeche Mode Mk 1; have you been offered a lot of money to reform to play Speak and Spell live for a 30th anniversary gig?

VC: “No. I wouldn’t be interested in doing that. I enjoyed doing the thing with Alison [Yazoo] and the tour that we did and that was fun but Depeche are a completely different band from when I was involved with them.”

It was really nice to see people reappraising Yazoo. It was perhaps good for people who either weren’t around at the time or had lazily perhaps assumed that you were only about one or two singles, to hear the box set and that body of work. Were you surprised at the amount of people who were in tune with what you were doing; people like Hercules and Love Affair and Antony Hegarty?

VC: “Oh yeah! We were really surprised. Particularly the audiences that we got in the States when we toured here. Yazoo had only ever played two or three dates in America which were all in New York but we toured pretty much all over the country [this time] and the audiences were all great. They were all like ‘Oh yeah, when I was at college this was the record I was listening to.’ So that was very flattering.”

Did it almost, in a way, feel like unfinished business? Because I know Yazoo only really existed in the terms of months rather than years – you can’t have played that many gigs for example.

VC: “Yeah, it was Alison more so felt that she wanted to sing the songs from the second album which had never been performed so for her it was like that; unfinished business. For me it was just interesting to see people listening to these records after all this amount of time. I hadn’t even heard them for 25 years. And then to prepare them and tour them live.”

What can you tell us about how the nursery rhyme project is coming on.

VC: [laughs] “It’s coming in stops and starts. You know, we will do it. We will. But it’s not going to be our next project. We’ve got a few ideas and we’ve got a few demos, a few ideas and we’ve written some lyrics as well but until I see Andy and we have a meeting about it I don’t know yet.”

The thing about demoing new material would this be the darker more introspective feeling music that has a soundtrack feel that you’ve talked about in the past?

VC: “Well I’d like to . . . after the last album which was very ‘pop’ it would be very interesting for us to explore a . . . not more serious but a deeper record and not worry about the constrictions of a three and a half minute song and a catchy chorus, necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with those things but it would be nice to take it a stage further because we’re all getting old.”

Talking about the less poppy stuff that you do, I remember the first record I bought after leaving my mum and dad’s house and moving into a flat on my own was your remix of ‘Wrote For Luck’ by the Happy Mondays and that was just as I was getting into the house scene or whatever. I really loved that record and I still do; but you haven’t really done that many remixes. Are there certain kinds of criteria that have to be met?

VC: “Well, I haven’t been particularly into it in the past to be honest. Recently I have been involved in a few remixes and I have enjoyed it. And it’s something that I want to do more of. I don’t have any criteria as such but you want to be remixing a great song, that always helps. I’m going to be doing more of it in the future because I’ve got a new studio which I want to utilize fully and that’s going to be one of the things that’s going to be happening here.”

Obviously you’ve worked with a lot of people and not just the stuff that you’re known in the mainstream for such as Depeche, Erasure and Yazoo but also the awesome Assembly project with Feargal Sharkey and work with Martin Ware [BEF/Heaven 17] and the guys from Blancmange. Are there any collaborations that didn’t come off or that you’re still working on trying to get together?

VC: “The only collaboration that didn’t work out in the end that both myself and Andy pursued was one with Kate Bush and that was quite a few albums ago. We asked her to produce an album for us but unfortunately she couldn’t do it. We got to meet her and everything but she didn’t feel that that was her area. It would have been great if she could have done it but that’s just the way it goes.

Wow, that would have been great! Well I’ll leave you with something that’s more of a statement than a question and maybe you won’t have anything to say to it but I have to get it off my chest because it annoys me so much. Erasure have had more hits – and much better hits at that – than Oasis or Primal Scream but I doubt (and I say this more as an acceptance of fact rather than what I would like to be the case) that you will ever be taken seriously by the press. One, does that bother you? And two, isn’t this mainly down to a fear of pop music which is seen as either too girly or too gay to be taken seriously by ‘proper’ male rock journalists?

VC: “Erm. I don’t know about . . . I don’t know if I can answer that question. But as regards to how I feel about being taken seriously, I don’t care really!”

[laughter]Well, I guess that’s probably the best answer! It was a pleasure to speak to you.

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