Before forming Erasure, Vince Clarke was already an established synthpop legend, having founded Depeche Mode in 1980 before leaving that group to form Yazoo (known as Yaz in America) with Alison Moyet a year later. But while those projects were obviously highly influential, for Clarke they were short-lived. Conversely, his duo with Andy Bell, Erasure, is about to release its 18th album, The Neon, after 35 years together and an incredible 25 million records sold worldwide.
The Neon finds the band as energized as always, vibrant and in fine form, with a sound that’s reminiscent of Erasure’s clubby classic ‘80s catalog yet hypermodern at the same time. Floor-fillers like “Hey Now (Think I Got a Feeling)” and “Nerves of Steel” and the swoony, prom-worthy electroballad “Kid You’re Not Alone,” driven by Bell’s unmistakably brassy vocals and Clarke’s analog synths, are all strong last-minute contenders for 2020’s song of the summer. So, what exactly is the secret to Erasure’s longevity?
“I think the fact that from the very beginning, we pretty much shared everything, especially in the songwriting,” says Clarke, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from New York, while Bell teleconferences in from London. “Andy is a natural melody person, so we pretty much from the beginning started writing songs together. And I think that that's been one of the reasons why we've stayed together so long. But as we got to know each other and our lives have developed and the relationship has developed, I think it's now it's more about, for each other, respect for what we do. I think that's really important. Andy is a best friend. That's really unusual in a pop band.”
The story of Clarke and Bell’s egalitarian partnership and mutual admiration society is especially sweet considering that before auditioning for Erasure at age 21, the teenage Bell was basically a Clarke fanboy who used to practice singing to Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s and Moyet’s solo album Alf. Clarke’s roommate at the time even once told him, “That's going to be you in one year's time!” But it was a chance encounter that made Bell believe that his flatmate’s bold prediction could actually come true.
“It’s a bit mad, but it Vince was one of the first famous people that I'd seen in London,” Bell laughs. “I went for a previous audition for a Bow Wow Wow spinoff band, and it happened to be at Blackwing Studios [where Clarke was recording]. … I saw Vince on the Space Invaders machine with his fringe hanging down, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Vince Clarke!’ It kind of cemented it in my mind.”
When Bell heard that Yazoo had broken up and that Clarke was working on a new project, the Assembly, he actually considered writing Clarke a letter, cheekily asking, “Would you be looking for a new singer, by chance, at all?” Bell never got around to doing that (“Maybe I should write it now,” he jokes), and ironically, when he later answered an ad in the Melody Maker that read, “Established songwriter looking for versatile singer,” he had no idea that the songwriter in question was his hero.
Bell remembers “screaming around” his house once he found out that he’d be meeting with the one and only Clarke, but he was determined to savor every moment of the audition experience, whether or not he eventually got the job. “I mean, I was singing with Vince Clarke, singing one of his songs, you know?” he chuckles. “I can't believe my kind of audacity, really my self-belief, because when I hear the demos now of those audition tapes, they're so naive.”
As it turned out, although Bell was one of “40 or 50” singers who auditioned that fateful Monday, he immediately stood out. “The idea was that the person would come in, have couple of minutes to hear the songs, and then sing those songs and we'd record them,” Clarke explains. “Andy had, and does have, a very distinctive voice, and we were looking for someone that could sing with emotion and bring some emotion to the songs. … It was instant. It wasn't like it was something he worked up to. He just had, like, two minutes to learn those songs, and he decided then and there that what his interpretation of those songs was going to be. And then he just delivered.”
“I could see a Vince and [producer] Flood looking at each other,” Bell recalls with a grin. “I sort of got the vibe that, you know, there was a spark there.”
Self-belief may have secured Bell the job as Erasure’s frontman, but when the new group went into the studio to record the 1986 debut album Wonderland, that was when the magnitude of what was happening truly registered for Bell. “It was really, really painful, my shyness,” he admits. “Because in some way, I couldn't believe it. It was like a dream, and I could not believe I was actually there in the studio with Vince. That sounds like arsey, but it's true! I didn't want to start staring at him the whole time — you know, he could have thought I was like a psycho-killer. They were trying so hard to make me feel comfortable and tell jokes and things like that, but I think I reverted back to my choirboy and went into my shell. They sort of hooked me up, coaxed me out of it.”
Bell certainly came out of his shell, as he is now considered one of the greatest frontmen to emerge from the new wave era. Sadly, though, Erasure’s touring plans have been postponed until at least 2021 due to coronavirus concerns, which greatly disappoints Clarke and Bell when they have such a stellar new album to promote. “Seriously, I'm going bananas. I don't know what to do. I’m really frustrated. And I get a bit depressed about it, to be honest,” Clarke confesses. “Honestly, I've got to do something. I can't just look after the cat.” But Clarke is trying to keep busy during lockdown — and already looking ahead to making more music with his longtime best friend.
“I might maybe start putting some tracks together. I don't mean in a sense of us making a record, but let's just maybe get some ideas flowing again,” Clarke spontaneously tells Bell over Yahoo Entertainment’s Zoom call, offering to send Bell some raw tracks.
“I've got all those other tracks you're working on, Vince, having a session with the headphones and going deep in there,” Andy enthusiastically tells his bandmate. So perhaps we will hear new music, maybe even a 19th album, from this enduring partnership sooner than later.
Watch Erasure’s extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which Clarke and Bell discuss inspirations for The Neon, Bell’s status as an LBGTQ+ icon, the younger artists they’ve influenced, whether they’d ever do a rock opera or biopic, and much more.
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