For Whom The (Violet) Bell Tolls: In Conversation with Erasure’s Andy Bell
Erasure remain my favorite band. Sometimes the person who asks me that question will hear this and snicker or make a snide comment. Even my little sister tells people I’m quote: “stuck in the ‘80s.” Funny that one especially, since her birthday gift of their classic The Innocents (on cassette tape no less) all those years ago was the catalyst that started this obsessive journey. She means well, of course, but to her and others who view pop music as merely disposable—and rock music the only worthy genre—I must whole-heartedly disagree. It’s as if they think collectively all popular music is throwaway and unserious. They would be wrong, wouldn’t they? When I think of Erasure I think of marvelous things: infectiously melodic music, endlessly catchy choruses and bridges, and above all to me, the heavenly vocals of one Mister Andy Bell. As his musical partnership with synth legend Vincent Clarke reaches its 30th anniversary (and there have been no break-ups and reunions, no substantially noticeable absences between albums, no lack of creativity for that matter), I think of this duo’s music and how it came into my life and helped make it better. When I was first coming out, how songs like “Hideaway” and “Spiralling” spoke to me and made me feel less alone. With Erasure, I started serious music collecting and truly fell in love with b-sides and remixes (and remixed b-sides) and developed a stronger passion for attending concerts.
So being asked if I’d like to interview one of my idols is a dream come true. When it turned out to be Andy Bell, it was like ascending directly to fan heaven. With their recent release of The Violet Flame (their 16th album and a UK Top 20 debut) and its first single, “Elevation,” still climbing in the US dance charts, the critical accolades—especially from their fans—have been well deserved. With Erasure presently on an increasingly sold-out international tour, I had the humbling pleasure of speaking to Bell while the band was wowing audiences during one of seven stops in Texas, before their highly anticipated return to the Capitol Theatre Oct. 29. Even though we weren’t allotted a great deal of time—both Clarke and Bell are constantly in demand and working on various side projects—it was more about the quality of the conversation. I found him to be thoughtful, expansive and charming. We spoke of their devoted fan base (myself included), the demoing and recording of the new album, how they choose their producers and, specifically, working with Richard X, collaborating with other people, the story behind some highly personal lyric confessions, favorite b-sides and remixes and their pair of forthcoming singles, their status in the industry’s inclusive ‘boy’s club’ and how he keeps his pipes in such great condition.
SLUG: How is the Lone Star state treating you guys?
Erasure: It’s very good so far.
SLUG: Well that’s good, since you guys have another show there tonight, right?
SLUG: Nice! I was reflecting that here in Utah you have an extraordinarily large fan base, and I kind of reached out to basically all of my friends and conveyed to them I’d be interviewing you and every single person said the same thing: “Tell Erasure how much we love them!” And I said “I think they know that!”
Erasure: Awwww, we really, really appreciate it! It’s amazing how much in the audience, I’ve noticed, the looks on people’s faces and you kind of feel the camaraderie between everybody, you know? It really is something special, it really is.
SLUG: So when you’re performing, you feel that love coming back at you, right? I mean there has to be some kind of a satisfaction from that.
Erasure: Yeah, you do. I mean, as a performer you’re always naturally kind of… you have some trepidation before you go on, you know, and you just feel like you could easily say the ‘wrong’ thing…if you say anything kind of political…or…I don’t know, you could easily upset somebody or a group of small people. You kind of keep it to…I wouldn’t say you keep it superficial but you just hope that you can commune and send the love really via singing and the music, really.
SLUG: Yes, definitely! I’m kinda jumping all over the place with my questions, but your voice, especially on Snow Globe—and extra especially on this new album—it sounds incredible! You hear about singers’ voices kind of declining over the years and for you it seems to be the opposite.
Erasure: Right…I’m a great believer in, you know, I love Frank Sinatra’s voice and I love Elvis’ voice as well…he had a beautiful, soulful gospel voice…and I just think if you look after your voice really properly and take care of yourself, I can’t see why there’s any reason that it should fade, you know? Maybe when you get up into your eighties and stuff. Because you become frail, you know? Touch wood, I haven’t had anything wrong with my throat and—not seriously wrong—so I kinda feel like, I just really cherish it. And be ever so thankful that I’m able to sing, really!
SLUG: Well absolutely! And I have some questions about the recording of the album. So when you’re going to go do your vocal—when you’re preparing for that—is there a routine you do?
Erasure: Well, to be honest, I’m singing pretty much 24/7. We do warm-up vocals every day when we’re on tour…I’ll do them or either we’ll do them before sound check and before the show and you kinda get pretty much ‘warmed up’ all along so…obviously you like to have breaks—because it’s like you do with anything else—and your voice does get kinda rusty, or it becomes weaker…so it’s like anything, you just have to exercise and keep it in good shape, like an engine, and then, you know, get the ‘balance’ right, between work and play!
SLUG: The new album is so fantastic and I cannot stop listening to it!
Erasure: That’s great. We’ve had a great reaction from it, more than we’ve had for a long time.
SLUG: And it’s well deserved! So when you sat down and demoed the songs, and you did that in Florida I believe this time?
Erasure: Yeah, we did it in Florida and Vince came down and he stayed just up the road from where me and my partner have a place and we just did writing every afternoon for two weeks, and we did that twice, and he’d come over with already pre-recorded loops and chords and literally I’d sing them there and then with a little mic that we’d bought—
Erasure: —and either we’d keep the tracks that we hadn’t necessarily thought we’d got something we felt was good on, and then sing it overnight, sing something overnight, and e-mail him the MP3 from the iPhone. He’d come back the next day and we’d arrange them and then sing them properly—the demos—and then once we had all the demos we gave them all to Richard, who listened through them and [chose] what he thought was best. Then we kinda re-edited some of the songs, and then they started working on the music to make it all shiny and professional, and he worked with Vince remotely and then I went and worked on the vocals and lyrics with Richard over probably about a four week period.
SLUG: Now that’s what I was going to ask you: so Richard I know was involved—and I’ve loved some of his work, like especially Saint Etienne…that remix of Foxbase Alpha is incredible—he had worked with you on Snow Globe and is that how he got involved with this new album?
Erasure: Yeah, we tried him out for Snow Globe and we liked the results on that and how it sounded and stuff and yes, so we thought “Well, it worked once so we’re going to do it again.”
SLUG: Nice! Well, I did want to ask that question: How much say do you guys have in that? Is it entirely up to you, or do Mute and Daniel Miller get involved?
Erasure: No, we’ve gone with quite a few people a number of times…
SLUG: Yes, like Flood and Martyn Ware a couple of times.
Erasure: Yes, Flood and Gareth Jones. Sometimes people seem to think that when you’ve worked with someone a few times that they’re not going to find you a new niche or a new sound. Sometimes you have to listen to the record company and they’ll put people’s names forward and you listen to their music or hear about their reputation and stuff and say “yes” or “no.” You know, it’s quite a tricky process, I think, picking someone, because Vince, he knows exactly what he’s doing and he’s got his way of doing things and I’m kind of a vocal perfectionist. At the same time, I don’t know how to say it—I wouldn’t say we’re ‘boring’ but we’re definitely a two man team.
SLUG: So the producer helps you to direct the sound?
Erasure: Yeah, yeah and you know sometimes we like the results and sometimes we don’t like them, it just depends. I think sometimes you can get turned in the wrong direction…it’s tricky!
SLUG: Well it would be tricky. And I noticed too on the album credits that Richard X is credited for songwriting and I think that’s a first for a full album for you?
Erasure: Yes, with the lyrics, and, you know, I don’t mind collaborating with other people. I did on another record called iPop that was out this year from a band called Shelter and also the stuff I’ve done with Dave Aude and when I’ve done other solo stuff I was working with other people. But for Vince, for him it’s a very personal thing and he’s kinda like…it could have took him forever to find me or find someone that he felt comfortable enough with to go through that experience, ‘cos he’s very shy, he’s Cancerian and stuff. I think for me you have to go out and explore and then come back.
Erasure: Vince is doing that now more and more with his music. He’s collaborating with people on the music. But I think this year, because we’ve and I’ve had so many things going on, my brain was fried lyric-wise, so that’s why I had help from Richard.
SLUG: But go to “Smoke and Mirrors” for example. That is such an intensely personal song.
Erasure: Yeah, I think it’s very dramatic. I think it’s the kind of song you might hear in a musical or something. And you know, I did kind of go over the top, but you know Paul had a great life, we had a great life together. But you know this is kinda like carte blanche, this is how it is, bitches! Do you know what I mean? You know, being in show business?
SLUG: Right, and when I wrote my review for it, I kinda compared it to being the antithesis of “Loving Man,” from Snow Globe.
Erasure: Yeah, yeah.
SLUG: Whereas that one is so upbeat and so do you find that to be very cathartic to write these lyrics and to sing them?
Erasure: Yes, very much so! I almost felt like with Snow Globe that was kind of a final prayer, that was a lovely testament. Then I was quite surprised when “Smoke and Mirrors” came out, ‘cos it’s quite bitter and I thought, “right, well this is it now, this is too much” you know what I mean? I thought, “that’s it now.” You never ever get over your grief.
SLUG: Exactly, I was going to say that grief is such a personal thing for everyone and then when you are in the spotlight I’m sure it’s more intensified and then when you choose to share. And just briefly going back to another album’s lyrics, like “Storm In A Teacup,” that was quite a personal song for you too.
Erasure: Yeah, well that was. You know it’s very sentimental to me, you know, my mum, she’s in a good place now as well. She’s in a home and it was the only place for her to go really—which is heartbreaking in itself—but I just feel like it was really a very hard time for my father, well for both of them and I just thought “Storm In A Teacup” was kind of like…I don’t know if it “helped” anybody but…
SLUG: Well, it’s such a powerful song and, as a fan, I feel so privileged to get that peek inside you, because, you know, when I mention Erasure to a non-fan, they always think “happy, upbeat”…
Erasure: Yeah, they always think it’s all throwaway…
SLUG: Exactly! And which so much pop is, and yet when you present a song like that, especially “Smoke and Mirrors” you show that side and you’re such incredibly under-appreciated songwriters, you and Vince.
Erasure: Well, it’s so weird. I find it so strange how we don’t seem to be included within the media “rock fraternity” whatsoever. We’re completely ignored. Which, I think, in some ways is quite good because it’s very credible—it’s almost being anti-corporate!
SLUG: Yes! So, let’s maybe bring up happier things and not to talk so much about these sadder lyrics and such. So the new single, “Reason”—incredible, and the track listing, with all of those varied mixes of other songs and the b-side! So how much say do you guys have in the singles?
Erasure: Again it depends. On the Dave Aude “Aftermath” single we obviously gave it to DJs, so he knows lots of people and my partner, he employs lots of DJs as well, so he knows lots of people. But sometimes we choose them and other times we let the record company choose them. So the record company chose them this time, so it’s nice to hand over the tracks sometimes. ‘Cos when you use DJs, you know it’s like you’re playing with your own deck of cards, so you feel like you can’t play with the same cards too many times. You need to move them around a bit.
SLUG: Definitely, you need to keep it fresh. And you may not want to answer this or may not know, but is there a hint as to what the third single will be? The one the will fit into the “Elevation” slipcase?
Erasure: The last single is going to be “Sacred.”
SLUG: Yay!!! On the remix album, the Daniel Miller mix of that, I’ve read some criticism online from fans, but I think it’s incredible!
Erasure: Oh I haven’t heard that one yet, Daniel’s mix! There’s so many mixes I haven’t quite caught up.
SLUG: There’s a lot of mixes of your stuff! Speaking of mixes and b-sides, which I think you also are incredible at, you know you show that experimental side of yourselves, do you have a very, very favorite b-side?
Erasure: Favorite ever? Well, um…
SLUG: I tend to go to the Wild! era ones.
Erasure: Yes, it’s definitely on Wild!, I love the William Orbit “Supernature.”
SLUG: Me too, Andy, me too!
Erasure: Yeah, I like Gareth Jones’ “Blue Savannah.” It just depends really…I like Mark Saunders’ “A Little Respect.”
Erasure: I do like to hear and discover other mixes that kinda passed me by, or that I didn’t really understand at the time, you know?
SLUG: Yeah, definitely! When I lay out playlists for my phone or iPod, I have to have all those b-sides and mixes on there and you know I kind of lament the loss of the remixed b-side that was favorable and the late ‘80s early ‘90s period.
Erasure: Yeah! It was definitely a great period in music!
SLUG: Yes it was! And that leads to the final question about the industry, which has changed so much…do you have feelings like that? Is that better for you guys?
Erasure: Well, it seems like now it’s all a bit…it seems very desperate, the music industry, which it is. And to be a top number one, top ten artist you kind of have to involve all of these other people…they all have hundreds of teams of songwriters and they’re all vying for songs and it’s kind of like an auction really. So its kind of the highest bidder or who has the most profile and then this song is shared by a number of stars, just to make it hip and get their fan bases trebled or whatever and then they have to be at every event, in every single photo, wearing all the latest designers, taking their clothes off…and that’s all it is really!
Erasure brings “The Violet Flame” tour to the Capitol Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 29, with opening act Superhumanoids. The Violet Flame is available everywhere now.