For a while now, singer Andy Bell admits, pioneering synth-pop group Erasure has faced something of a dilemma.
The trouble extended beyond the common perception that Erasure is exclusively a “gay pop act” -- a label garnered, obviously, because Bell’s been largely open about his sexuality since the group’s 1985 debut. While that can annoy, he jokingly admitted during a recent telephone interview, the bigger issue is musical.
Bell and bandmate Vince Clarke have steadfastly refused to step away from the synthesizers which cemented their legacy. Many of the same electronic flourishes found on 1986 favorite “Oh, L’Amour” and back-to-back 1988 Top 15 hits “A Little Respect” and “Chains of Love” remain on the duo’s 14th studio album Tomorrow’s World, out last month.
To bring their sound into the now, Bell says Erasure had to do something he never thought possible. The once trend-setting duo turned the reigns over to 26-year-old hitmaker Frankmusik. Here Bell and GuideToGay.com Celebrity Correspondent Pollo Del Mar talk about everything from giving up control on the new album to Bell’s health and Madonna’s (apparent) pact with the devil.
Tomorrow’s World sounds classic – largely because of your voice – yet contemporary. As a pioneering artist, how do you manage to make that happen simultaneously?
What happened was, I wanted to work with Frank(Musik). He was an interesting choice really, and rather championed by Erasure fans. I think we’ve come to a point where Vince and I were prepared to let go, and kind of let him do what he wanted, let him manipulate my voice and Vince’s music, some of the melodies of the songs. Kind of give him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do. It needed someone with a vision to make it sound fresh. What happens is, because of our history and because Vince always uses synthesizers, people always associate it with being an ‘80s sound. There’s no escape from that. It’s just how people hear things. All it needed was some kind of fresh input was from someone who was a synthesizer fan himself but could see what embellishments needed to go into the music.
It must have been an interesting working with Frank, who actually cites Erasure as an influence in his own music.
Yeah, he was really sweet. Vince worked with him for one week in the studio in Maine. I was with him at his studio in Los Angeles, doing vocals for about 10 days. We were in London about just over a week, just before it came down to doing the mixing. We really weren’t together for too long, but he really brought it together. I think he was just really, really happy to be working with Vince, and Vince – I was really surprised he handed over the reigns to Frank, really. Ultimately, we’ve been doing songwriting on this for about two years. We came down to 12 songs in the end, and they were Frank’s choice.
With this being your 14th album, how do you feel about this becoming the next step in Erasure’s legacy?
I feel fine, really. It’s quite frustrating when you have albums out, and people don’t notice them, really. But we’ve always done unusual things. I love Nightbird. I love Love Boat, which was quite ‘indie’ for us. Then there was the Erasure album, which was kind of our studio, Pink Floyd-ish kind of album. Sometimes you feel they fall by the wayside, in terms of media, but all those things are the stepping stones to your next things. I think even doing the two solo albums, then Vince building his own studio in Maine, was the build-up to this. I think you can kind of feel it from like Nightbird onward. The last album, The Light at the End of the World, was nearly there but didn’t have someone like Frank working on it.
That album felt more “classic” than “contemporary.” This feels like a step forward, more in-tune with today.
Sure. It comes down to, I suppose, with people’s tastes and what’s current. It’s kind of a fashion thing, really. It’s weird. I love doing remixes and stuff, and when you’re doing them, you think how it’s making things sound really understated and stuff. Then when you hear it, maybe a year later, you think, “Oh, it’s really not.” Sometimes it takes an outsider to come in.
This is your first tour in five years. What’s it like to be back on the road?
It’s very exciting. The last time we toured, I think we were on tour for more than a year. It was like the 13th hour. I felt like we’d kind of been banging it, really, and just forcing it down people’s throats. I said to Vince, “Let’s take a break. Let’s take a time out and really let the people come back to us, so they’re anticipating something coming out.” I think that’s worked in our favor. I think I was also prepared for this tour, in terms of being in shape, but I don’t think you can ever be prepared for how much hard work it is. It’s very, very fun, but it’s also very physical.
None of us are getting any younger!
(Laughing.) No, no we’re not. All hail Madonna, that’s what I say.
I do wonder how Madonna continues to do it! She’s incredibly physically fit.
Well, she’s been a dancer her whole life and practices yoga, all sorts of things. I wish I was as disciplined as she is.
I’m sure her fitness was included in that Deal she made with the Devil years ago. (Both laughing.)
I often ask celebrities about gay followings. You’re different, since you’ve been “out” your entire career. Based on that, do you ever feel you’ve become simply a “gay artist”?
Uhm, you do somewhat. I think definitely you get pigeonholed. It’s very hard to get any steps in the straight fraternity, the kind of rock fraternity, which we’ve never really been included in. Sometimes you think, “Where’s our share?” At the same time, sometimes it makes you put your head down and just get on with it. Sometimes you feel kind of against the world, or that the world is against you, but at the same time, you can’t really think in those terms. It’s kind of a victim mentality. Sometimes you’ve got to just hold your head up, and get on with it. You can’t be concerned. It does get on your nerves slightly.
I bet so. (Both laughing.) A few years ago, you became extremely open about having HIV. How has that openness continued to connect you to your audience?
Well, I think that’s just how I kind of am. I wear my heart on my sleeve. What you see is what you get. I’ve never been very good at keeping secrets for very long. I just really feel like it gives you a really great connection, kind of a spiritual connection, to the audience. I think it’s great for being creative, you know?
Definitely! Is Erasure benefiting from the resurgence of ‘80s influences in popular music now?
Oh, definitely! Lady Gaga has had a huge influence on the scene, people like La Roux – bands like that. I think just from Vince sticking to his guns and using his synths, what I think makes you a really good band is kind of waiting out your time, waiting until the favors come back kind of thing. Sometimes it takes forever! It’s kind of a discipline type thing. It makes you appreciative of what you have.
Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark said in the ‘90s – if there were such a thing as an ‘expiration date’ for a band – it seemed they’d achieved theirs. Now, they are experiencing a resurgence.
That is true as well. We do interviews with many people, and some ask things like, “Why didn’t you break up years ago?” Like we should have broken up. We felt like part of our commitment to being in the band is just keeping your head down and working really hard. It seems like you’re always doing groundwork the whole time, and if you’re lucky, something will come up and something will come out, and you will be popular again. It’s like something in the stars! (He says the last two works with dramatic flair, for emphasis.)
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