The Gayest Ball of Them All!: An Interview with Erasure’s Andy Bell

Posted May 9, 2007 in
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There have been times in their 20-something years of existence that Erasure has been known just as much for their ability to write a fantastic pop song, if not more, for the openly gay lavishness that is vocalist Andy Bell. While some have been critical of the line Andy has blurred between musician and activist, no one can dispute that his fearlessness is not only admirable, but something to be envied. It is easy to forget the progress that has been made in simple human rights since the mid 80s, almost as easy as forgetting how far we still need to go.

Photo: Dean Hillis

There are interviews where, as a writer, you go in not knowing what to expect of an artist’s personality. While many would suggest that writing music opens a view to a performer’s soul, this often is not the case. The kindest humanitarian lyricist can secretly be a raging egomaniac. In this case, Andy Bell is just as you would expect him to be: flamboyant and passionate. But he’s also emotionally engaging, earnest and compassionate. I wish I could effectively capture the way he enunciates the most simple of phrases turning them from mundane remarks into intimate confessions. Some might call this being “larger than life.” I’d call it full of life with a child’s excitement; always waiting, impatiently wondering what adventure comes next.

The past few years have been adventurous for Andy and synthpop keyboard legend Vince Clarke. Erasure’s 11th studio album, Nightbird came out in 2005. Met with acclaim by critics and fans alike, the ensuing tour saw the band expand its touring schedule to revisit places that had been overlooked in recent years. Andy Bell released his debut solo record Electric Blue (also in 2005), which was supported by a fair amount of radio and print promotion. In 2006, Erasure released Union Street, a collection of older Erasure songs re-envisioned with an acoustic, country twist. A tour of small theaters followed. The set list would include tracks from Union Street as well as many of the band’s greatest hits rearranged in that stripped-down style. In early 2007, a document of this tour was released in the DVD/CD combo Road to Nashville. May sees the next chapter with Erasure’s 13th album Light at the End of the World. June finds them playing second bill on the human rights festival True Colors with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Dresden Dolls, The Gossip, The Cliks and comedian Margaret Cho.

SLUG: It’s been a busy time for you.

Andy Bell: Yes.

If you could only hear the way he gushes this word; a mix of pride, exhaustion and anticipation.

SLUG: Any particular reason for the sudden burst of activity?

Andy: I don’t know. We just go with the flow. One Erasure album following after another with a solo album, that I’ve wanted to do forever, crammed in-between.

SLUG: When I talked to Vince just before the Nightbird album, he seemed reinvigorated, really excited to making music again.

Andy: Vince is a workaholic. He’s had a baby, really settled and found the love of his life.

There is a certain sense of pride and comfort in Andy’s voice, perhaps a touch of envy.

SLUG: And you?

Andy: I’ve been up and down a little bit. I’ve recently met someone new; it’s lovely to be with someone, to have that physical intimacy. I’m still living with Paul, who I’ve been with for 21 years and we’re trying to work it out. I think you hear bits of that in the new album.

SLUG: I know there was a mixed reaction from fans to the Union Street project and tour. Vince hinted at the nervousness going into the project knowing that there was a chance you could fall on your faces.

Andy: I’ve always had an interest in country music. CDs from Elvis, Charlie Pride and Slim Whitman have always been in my collection.

I suddenly have images from Depeche Mode’s film 101 where Martin Gore is seen purchasing multiple country cassettes and is presented with a “I Heart County Music” sticker.

SLUG: What was your reaction to the album and the tour?

Andy: I’m really pleased with the results. It was lovely to work with other people.

SLUG: You said you’ve wanted to do a solo album for a long time. What was it like to finally get around to doing it?

Andy: I wanted to do something really crazy. It turned out to be minimal electro, very pop; I was pleased with it, but I want to try different things; something not quite in character.

SLUG: Going into the new album Vince said he wanted to write some more up tempo songs, feeling that you’d become too slow.

Andy: Since the Erasure album, except for Cowboy, we’d been in a mellow period. Vince wanted to speed things up.

SLUG: I’d compare the sound of the new album to Chorus with a mix of dance tracks and ballads. What were the writing sessions like?

Andy: Vince and I got together twice. We’d write in the afternoons so he could go home to his baby at night. We’d been busy but we hadn’t written for awhile. We had a gush of ideas for songs; we knew we needed to be disciplined. We came up with 24 ideas. Vince took and edited the ideas. We realized we had used some lines twice and had to change those. It was sort of a mish mash.

SLUG: Was the process any different than before?

Andy: No, it’s just Vince and his guitar. Vince collects chords. He plays until we find a nice progression. I sing melodies over the top and we stop and record where it works.

To this day I’m amused by the image of Vince Clarke and Andy Bell sitting in a room without a keyboard or piano writing on a guitar. Despite the fact that Vince has often walked around playing a guitar in their various videos and was seen strapped behind an acoustic guitar for the Union Street tour I always equate Erasure with a bank of analogue keyboards.

SLUG: Do you have lyrics going in to the writing then?

Andy: No, I sing nonsense words and words that fit to find the melody.

SLUG: Are you interested in the music side of the writing?

Andy: I’m really interested, but Vince won’t let me touch the keyboards! He has his method for writing and I leave him to it. I love doing remixes.

I can’t help but imagine the scene: Andy rushing to twiddle with the keyboards only to have Vince slap his hand away like a parent protecting their child from a hot stove burner. I’m quite sure this is entirely inaccurate.

SLUG: You’ll be touring as part of the True Colors tour. How did that come about?

Andy: A human-rights tour was our manager’s idea and had been floating around for quite some time. We wanted to create a good, friendly environment. Once Cyndi Lauper embraced the idea she became a spearhead.

SLUG: I remember seeing Cyndi on television when I was young and it completely changed my life.

Andy: I’ve never seen her perform, I’m very excited.

SLUG: Have you had a chance to sit and talk to her?

Andy: No, she came up to me at a party once and told me she was a fan. I was very flattered.

SLUG: What sort of set can fans expect from Erasure at True Colors? I imagine it will be a bit stripped back from the typical Erasure stage show.

Andy: Yes, we’ll be playing for 45 minutes. But there will be an Erasure tour after, because True Colors is only 15 dates. We’ll be hitting most of the places we’ve played in recent years and playing the new album.

SLUG: Have you decided what the theme for the tour will be?

Andy: It’s a mix of Hitchhikers’ Guide and Andy Warhol.

SLUG: Pop-Art then?

Andy: Yes, Pop-Art-White-Trash and very gay.

SLUG: Do you still enjoy touring?

Andy: Yes, I love seeing loads of people. I would in the future like to see some variation in our shows, the set song list sometimes becomes a monkey on my back. I’d like to do remixed versions of songs, b-sides, something more special.

SLUG: Do you still go out to concerts?

Andy: I just saw Dolly Parton. She wasn’t as sassy as I expected. She was really humble. It didn’t seem like an act when she thanked us for spending money to come and see her. She had a really lovely energy.

SLUG: Do you find you’re still taking pointers from other performers?

Andy: I’m always learning. I think the biggest trick is getting over your own ego.

SLUG: Is it more surprising that here in 2007 you are able to do a tour for human rights or that even after all this time it is still neccessary?

Andy: Yes, well humankind can be quite cruel. Naiveté leads to cruelty. But there is a current under swell in evolution.

SLUG: Do you think there is too much of an emphasis on differences between people rather than focusing on similarities?

Andy: Yes, the anti-Gay side is so vocal. We need to mix in together. People need to see that you can find love in many places.

SLUG: Are things getting better?

Andy: Public opinion in England, even with a conservative government, is swaying up.

SLUG: You’ve been quite vocal since the very beginning; do you feel like you’ve played an important role in the fight for equality?

Andy: I’ve felt like a trail blazer at times but over time your stock kind of goes down.

SLUG: As someone living with HIV do you feel like too much of the focus has been turned to Africa, forgetting that there are still many people in other places that are being left behind?

Andy: No, because I hate the idea of there being “Third World Countries.” So many people are enslaved to the drugs.

SLUG: And they’re so expensive that many can’t afford to get them.

Andy: Everyone should have access to the drugs. That’s one of the major reasons behind the tour.

SLUG: Do you try and keep up with all the new medications and breakthroughs?

Andy: No, I’m not very active because it can be very confusing.

SLUG: Following the touring for Light at the End of the World what can we expect from Erasure?

Andy: Quite a break for awhile. Vince needs to see his baby grow up, so maybe until he’s five or so.

I could protest, complain that I’ve become accustomed to them being around these past few years, but that seems petty; particularly when there are Erasure concerts on the horizon to attend. No need to miss them before they’ve gone away.

SLUG: I’m excited for the tour; you’ll be playing Salt Lake on my birthday.

Andy: Oh, you better bring candles. Or do they consider them incendiary devices? I had my sparklers taken away when I went to see Prince.

SLUG: Prince has certainly mellowed over the years.

Andy: Yes, but he’s lovely.

The True Colors tour comes to Salt Lake City on June 9 at the USANA amphitheater.