Headed to town for a pair of shows Friday and Saturday at Chicago Theatre, I spoke with Erasure multi-instrumentalist, Vince Clarke about his band's sxteenth studio album The Violet Flame and the bond he's forged over nearly thirty years alongside Andy Bell as one of synth pop's most enduring acts...
At the forefront of an expanding genre of electronically influenced pop music breaking out of the U.K. in the late seventies and early eighties, in 1981, one of Vince Clarke's most lasting contributions during his brief tenure as a member of Depeche Mode saw release. The Clarke-penned "Just Can't Get Enough" appeared on Depeche Mode's debut album Speak & Spell. That same year, Clarke also formed Yaz alongside synth pop-chanteuse, Alison Moyet.
But it was with Erasure where he'd perfect his pop formula, once again in the form of a duo, this time alongside vocalist Andy Bell starting in 1985. And following the recent release of their sixteenth studio album The Violet Flame, it would be hard to consider Erasure anything other than one of the most enduring acts to come out of that genre of music.
As the band approaches a once unthinkable thirty year anniversary, they celebrate it not by looking back or going the full album performance route, but by looking ahead, as they always have, in the form of new music. With success comes expectations from a variety of different places but that's never something Erasure has allowed to cloud their creative process.
"Doing this now, when we make a record, it’s always for us. You can’t second guess what other people will like. You just have to do something that satisfies yourself, I think. That’s the way we’ve always done things. You could try to [write for] fans or even what the record company might like but that’s [not going to work]. And, you know, what’s the point?" says Clarke.
Erasure is the type of band that has thrived because they've never been afraid to try new things. Exploring new musical territory and creating different sounds have always been fair game and the band has continually grown, covering new ground along the way. Somehow they've managed to do that without ever straying far from their trademark synth pop sound.
"Especially when you’ve been doing it for so long, obviously, the biggest obstacle is repetition - doing the same old thing over and over again. So I think when you challenge yourself, and you make things a little hard, then hopefully it makes you stretch out a little bit and try new ideas and new techniques. That’s the healthy way of doing it, I think." says Clarke of the band's thought process heading into the studio this time around.
But in prepping The Violet Flame, the duo took that level of experimentation a step further, overhauling entirely the basic songwriting process that has been so successful for nearly three decades. Whereas, typically, Erasure songs and albums develop out of initial work on guitar and piano, this batch of songs was written primarily on synthesizer, an initially daunting idea for Clarke.
"It was a bit nerve wracking for myself. We’ve tried to do it before… but this time I had quite a bit of material before we sat down and started writing... That’s how we started the songwriting process. But the problem for me in the past has been getting that vibe. And you can’t go left or right, you know? You kind of have to kind of stick with it. And when we’ve done it before, I found it a bit restrictive. But this time around, it just seemed to work where the ideas were very free flowing. That’s a good sign I think when you’re writing a new record. So it was [tough] at the beginning but I think it panned out and worked out quite well."
Following the release of a Christmas and holiday themed album called Snow Globe last November, the band took a step back from the sunny pop of past hits like "A Little Respect" and "Chains of Love," to look at the darker side of Christmas, a holiday season where loneliness is just as common for many as more ubiquitous symbols like sleigh bells and snowmen. In April of 2012, Andy Bell's manager and longtime partner Paul Hickey passed away and both Erasure members had experienced difficult times personally, which carried over into the Snow Globe sessions.
But on The Violet Flame, the duo sounds reinvigorated, with Bell recently saying of the sessions that the pair had found their "mojo." Clarke concurs: "I think that that’s true. Both Andy and I are in good spiritual places. We’ve both been through some [difficult stuff] in recent times. And I think that this is a very positive, outward looking record as a result."
And while it took longer to catch on in the United States than it did elsewhere, electronic music continues to become a bigger and bigger piece of American popular music, as EDM DJ's have become an undeniable presence on virtually every pop hit. More than that, electronic elements continue to play a larger role in bands too as duos like Uh Huh Her, Ex Cops, Tegan & Sara and more build upon the foundation that Clarke and Erasure began laying down nearly thirty years ago.
"I think the realationship between us and what’s happening now is the fact that we’re making modern pop songs on synthesizers. There’s some amazing bands out there who do some amazing, innovative stuff. It’s a great time for electronic music right now… I mean who would’ve guessed ten years ago? Now people have laptops in their bedrooms and they’re making some really interesting music."
But despite selling over twenty-five million records, as always, Clarke has little interest in looking back. "To be honest, I really don’t think about that sort of stuff. The only time I ever do is when I’m preparing a live set for a tour. I’m not one to play old records. It’s all about the next thing. It’s always about the next project."
And even as the duo celebrates a new album released only weeks ago, the next project would seem to be right around the corner and, as per the usual, it's further exploration of the unknown that has Clarke most excited.
"When Andy and I sit down to start writing a record, we just don’t know what's going to happen or what’s going to come out. And when something does, it’s a huge joy for both of us, a huge satisfaction. We don’t sit down and plan records. We… see what turns out... He was playing me some stuff yesterday actually… And I’m getting kind of excited about what I’m hearing."
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
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(Details on this weekend's pair of Erasure shows below)
Friday October 3 and Saturday October 4
Also performing: All Hail the Silence
Click HERE to purchase tickets