Interview: Vince Clarke


In the synthpop world, there aren’t many artists who have enjoyed the artistic and commercial success that songwriter/synth wizard Vince Clarke has. As a founding member of Depeche Mode, he wrote the early singles “Just Can’t Get Enough”, “Dreaming of Me”, and “New Life”, and spearheaded the band’s 1981 debut album Speak & Spell before making a quick exit. Next came the short-lived band Yaz(oo) and songs including “Only You” and the dance masterpiece “Situation”.

In 1985, Clarke joined forces with singer Andy Bell to form Erasure, a band that has been going strong ever since. They have sold over 25 million albums, and have an amazing list of hit singles including “O L’amour”, “Sometimes”, “Victim of Love”, “Chains of Love”, “A Little Respect”, “Blue Savannah”, and “Always”. Just over a month ago, they released their sixteenth studio album The Violet Flame, which has been getting favorable comparisons with their recordings of decades past.

This interview was for a preview article for the Erasure concert at the Majestic Ventura Theater on 10/26/14. It was done by phone on 10/15/14. (Joe Dilworth photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Vince Clarke: The show’s about an hour and a half long, and we’ll be playing mostly stuff from our back catalog, a lot of which has been kind of manipulated and extended for this show. And then, obviously, we’ll be playing some songs from our new record. It’s a bit of a disco show.

JM: Sounds great! You mentioned the new record. How do you view that album in relation to the rest of the Erasure catalog?

VC: Once you’ve made the record, it’s very hard for me to put it into context with everything else that I’ve done, because it’s so new. I think certain songs take on different meanings as we grow older. That’s certainly been true for the songs we’ve done in the past. Or something that you don’t really understand, perhaps, suddenly takes on it’s own kind of meaning when it’s performed live.

JM: I find it amazing that you found Andy Bell just by putting an advertisement in a music newspaper. Do you remember what stood out about him compared with the other people that responded to the ad?

VC: The thing that we noticed immediately was the fact that Andy could sing the songs with such emotion. His emotional interpretations of the songs just seemed to be perfect.

JM: Obviously it worked out – you guys have been making music together for almost three decades now. Do you have a secret that you think has helped you to stay together, and seemingly get along with each other, all these years?

VC: I think the secret really is the amount of trust that we have between us. We both write the songs together, and I think writing songs is a very personal thing. You have to have the right person to work with to do that. You have to work with somebody you trust, and that’s something that Andy and I have had between us, that we’ve learned over the years.

JM: How do the songs typically come together?

VC: We sit together in a room in the beginning to work out the melodies and the chord structures, and then once we’ve done that I’ll go to my studio in New York and put the music together while Andy will go away and start working on lyrics. And then we come together at the end for the mix.

JM: If you don’t mind going way back in time, what initially drew you to electronic music and the synthesizer as an instrument?

VC: I guess I was just inspired by people like Gary Numan, The Human League, you know, the first Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark record. They were so unique and different from anything else that was happening. I really felt I wanted to be a part of that scene.

JM: Technology has advanced immensely since you first started writing and recording music. How has that affected the way you approach making music?

VC: I don’t think it’s changed the way we approach music, because me and Andy still sit down and write songs with guitars. That, for us, is the priority. I mean, all the toys come later. But I guess as far producing a record is concerned, it’s a lot easier and there’s a lot more choices. And it’s good and bad [laughs].

JM: You had a lot of success in the 1980’s, not just with Erasure, but also with the early Depeche Mode and Yazoo. To you, what was the good, the bad, and the ugly about that decade?

VC: Well, I think in all decades there was the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there is still now, you know. The plethora of electronic music out there, which I think is really exciting, at the same time there’s quite a few bad records [laughs]. But as a rule I think it’s great. I think the fact that technology is so much more affordable means that there a lot more people out there doing it, and I think that that’s a really good thing. It has democratized the whole music making world. The downside is that you’ve got to find the good stuff amongst the bad.

JM: I’ve read various versions about why you left Depeche Mode. Are you willing to set the record straight on why you really left? Or was it a combination of many things?

VC: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, we were a lot younger. We didn’t really know how to handle what was happening all at once, and I didn’t feel that the band were doing what kind of music that I wanted to do, I guess. There were a lot of personal conflicts, and there were egos flying around like crazy, you know? It doesn’t help that you’re like eighteen or nineteen.

JM: Throughout your career you’ve been on Mute Records, which I get a sense is perfect home for you. What do you feel were the advantages, particularly in the early years, of being on Mute Records?

VC: In the beginning it was incredibly exciting, because they were releasing the kinds of records that we all loved – “T.V.O.D.” and Silicon Teens, and stuff like that, Robert Rental. They were all records that were really out there. So when we got signed to Mute, it was the most exciting time of my life. None of us could believe it. It was really exciting. And over the years Mute proved to be an incredibly good friend to us. The guy that runs the label is incredibly supportive. I really believe that he signs music that he likes as opposed to music that he thinks will make loads of money. I think the Mute situation is incredibly unique, and we feel very privileged to be a part of that.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

VC: In order to get somewhere, if you want to get somewhere, I think the trick is to keep writing songs. Even if you’ve written a good song, there’s always the next song. And rather than trying to get a record label or get your record played on the charts, the important thing is to go out there and play live. Build up a following. I mean, everything can be downloaded, apart from that live experience. So I think that’s something unique. People love to go out on Saturday or Friday night and dance to music. That’ll always be, and you can’t download that. So I think bands should be taking advantage of that.

JM: Obviously you’re on tour right now and you just released a record. What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? Have you already started thinking about the next record, for example?

VC: No, we’re just really thinking about the tour at the moment. We’re thinking about two weeks ahead. We’re doing the tour, we’re looking forward to finishing the tour, and then next year no plans as of yet, but I’m sure there will be something in the very near future.

JM: My favorite Erasure song is “A Little Respect”. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came together?

VC: That was written… I had a house in London, and Andy came around and we were just messing about on the guitar, really, and I came up with this guitar riff or this guitar pattern. Andy just started singing little bits of melody into the tape recorder. It was pieced together like that. It’s one of those songs that really didn’t mean anything in the beginning, and then once it was played and performed, especially performed live, then it started taking on a meaning.

JM: Where are you speaking to me from?

VC: We’re in Dallas, Texas. We played last night in Dallas, we have one more night in Dallas, and then we’re on the bus to New Orleans.

JM: I hope you’re finding that America is still receptive to your music.

VC: It’s been great. It’s been really great. A lot of people come to our concerts that have been coming to our concerts for years, so that’s always lovely to see. And nobody’s asked for their money back.

JM: You’re clearly doing something right!


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