WE talk to the British electro duo Erasure, reunited with a new album after four years of solo projects.
Erasure's electric dreams
In the cobbled backstreets of Bristol, south-west England's historical port city, the walls of a small dockside music hall shudder and shake with alarming force. Although the night air feels chilly outside, the atmosphere inside is a roaring furnace of clammy excitement, the capacity crowd determined to dance despite being crammed airlessly together shoulder to shoulder. On the tiny stage, sweat-drenched singer Andy Bell struggles to restrain his hyperactive dance moves just enough to avoid whacking keyboard player Vince Clarke in the face.
This is how Erasure began their career, 25 years ago, playing to small crowds in packed nightclubs. Nowadays they are more accustomed to playing lavish arena shows in front of thousands, of course. But for one night only, at this secret fan-club event, Bell and Clarke are going back to their roots by playing a wall-to-wall feast of greatest hits - spiced with a smattering of songs from their new album, Tomorrow's World. As long as the roof does not collapse, this will be a great show.
Gushing, galloping, floor-quaking excitement has always been key to Erasure's populist appeal. Since forming in the mid-1980s, this musical odd couple have become one of British pop's most consistent and prolific success stories. Currently celebrating their 25th anniversary year, with more than 25 million album sales behind them, Clarke and Bell have seen their commercial fortunes wobble and dip over the decades. But timeless anthems of hedonism and heartache such as A Little Respect or Sometimes still strike a universal chord decades later.
Reunited after four years of solo albums and side projects, Bell and Clarke certainly sound refreshed and rebooted on their 14th album. To produce Tomorrow's World, they enlisted the rising British electro-pop boffin Vincent "Frankmusik" Frank, who has remixed or collaborated with a raft of stars including Lady Gaga, Pet Shop Boys and Keane. Now based in Los Angeles, Frank was born in 1985 - the year Erasure formed.
"He's 25, half my age now," Clarke laughs. "But we chose Frank because he has a different approach to the music, he is sympathetic to synthesizers and he is incredibly keen. He just really likes that American pop thing - that whole Lady Gaga, full-on, wall of sound."
Thanks partly to Frank's high-gloss approach, Tomorrow's World reboots and refreshes the Erasure sound, adding a supercharged sheen of digitally enhanced shimmer. Clarke and Bell may have started out as analogue electro-pop pioneers, but they still strive to sound contemporary. Unlike many former chart peers, the duo have always shunned nostalgia-themed 1980s package tours.
"That would be the end," frowns Clarke. "We'd no longer be a band, we'd just be a novelty turn. I think it would be a huge mistake because we're still a working band, still making records, and that makes you feel more relevant. Besides, we had most of our best-selling records in the 1990s anyway."
The Erasure story began 25 years ago, when the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Clarke advertised for singers to join a new musical vehicle to follow his phenomenal UK chart success with Depeche Mode and Yazoo. Then just 21, Bell was an ex-butcher and the 41st candidate that Clarke auditioned, but their creative chemistry was instant. Suddenly, Erasure became a duo, not a collective. One of the longest-running partnerships in pop was born.
After a phenomenal run of chart-topping hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Erasure saw their electro-operatic sound eclipsed by the guitar-heavy swagger of the Britpop movement. But music moves in cycles, and the duo have been heartened by the rise of younger electronic artists including Lady Gaga, Robyn, La Roux and Frankmusik himself. They may be easing into middle age, but Bell and Clarke are still enthused by the three-minute adolescent thrill of great pop music.
"In the 1980s and early 1990s, if you counted the number of purely electronic bands in the charts, there wasn't that much," Vince says. "Now it's like 90 per cent! This whole new electronic scene is really exciting, and I don't think anybody sounds like the music from back then, just because they are using synthesizers."
Outside of music, Bell and Clarke have dealt with fresh personal challenges in recent years including fatherhood, long periods apart, and medical problems. In 2004, the singer underwent two full hip replacement operations. Doctors blamed a number of factors, including 20 years of prancing around onstage in outlandish outfits. But he takes misfortune in his surgically enhanced stride. "It's because of the blood drying up on the bone," Bell explains cheerfully. "So now I'm bionic." Clarke relocated from London to New York City a decade ago, and now lives in Maine with his American wife, their five-year-old son and a newly finished home studio.
Several thousand miles of ocean now separate Bell and Clarke, but neither seems to consider this an obstacle to Erasure's career. "It's a real distant relationship," Clarke nods. "When we're together we are really together, but when we're apart we don't talk to each other - I think that's part of it. We never argue, and we have a similar sense of humour."
The odd couple of electro-pop still write music together in the most old-fashioned way, face to face, in the same room, with a piano and a guitar. Tomorrow's World took them longer than usual, but Clarke insists the old chemistry still works. "There is still an incredible amount of satisfaction once you've finished a song," he nods. "As long as that lasts, Erasure will carry on."
Tomorrow's World is out now on Mute/EMI