He was a founding member of Depeche Mode, he kickstarted the ABBA revival and he made our dads dance (and sing) silly to Give A Little Respect. Now Vince Clarke is back with Erasure – and a Seasonal Album called Snow Globe. I asked him about his relationship with Andy Bell, about the magic of synthpop and how to get in a festive mood in February.
Hi Vince! Before we talk about Snow Globe, your new album with Erasure, I would like to let you know about a novel I just read, The Fields by Kevin Maher. It is about a boy who grows up in Dublin in the 1980s, he’s raped by a priest, his dad dies of cancer and his girlfriend is pregnant when he is just 14 years old. But he loves pop music. He dances to songs of Bronski Beat or Madonna or Culture Club and it seems like to him it’s three minutes of paradise within a world full of shit. Is that what pop songs should be all about?
Vince Clarke: Yeah, maybe. Especially when you’re young, pop music is very important. It is something that your parents don’t understand, which is always good. And it’s a way of expressing yourself. It was the same for me when I grew up. There were lots of songs that I loved and when I listened to them it felt like: “They know exactly what I’m thinking.”
Is it something that you try to achieve with your own songs in Erasure?
Clarke: No, we don’t try to achieve anything. Andy and I try to write songs that we both like, first of all. Sometimes we are fortunate and those songs connect with people. They tell us that they were really affected by a song or that one of our songs helped them at one point in their life. But that is different for everyone and basically reactions are never as you might expect them to be.
Would you agree, that – as in Kevin Mahers book – the world is still full of shit but there are hardly any pop songs around that you can get lost in like the kid in this book?
Clarke: No, I don’t think so. There is always good stuff and bad stuff around. I’m always listening to new records and I like quite a lot of it. It might happen that I am really intrigued by some sound or production.
Are there any new artists around in which you can recognize your influence?
Clarke: Not really. It is flattering if some new acts name us as one of their influences but I don’t really see it, apart from the fact that we all use synthesizers.
Apart from your possible influence on the next generation of musicians, how do you measure if Erasure are still relevant? Is it record sales, album reviews, fan feedback? How do you know if Erasure still matter?
Clarke: It was never our intention to matter. We like to make music and we hope to make good music, basically for ourselves. That’s it. Andy and I are our biggest critics. And that’s why I got a mantra: I don’t read reviews.
You are making records with Erasure since 1985. I don’t mean to be rude, but I think I will make you feel quite old if I let you know that your first record is as close to Elvis Presleys first hit records as it is to today, measured in years. How does that feel?
Clarke: Wow! First of all it makes me feel very privileged and lucky. When we started, we would never have imagined that we’d still be making music now. We are thankful that we are still around. We have got a great fanbase, very loyal people. Some of them come to our shows since 25 years, they might even bring their kids along.
OMD, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys – they are all still around. I guess no one expected that back in the 1980s and it would have seemed quite funny if you did. What makes the sound of synthpop so special that people still care today?
Clarke: I think one of the reasons for Erasure is that we always focussed on songwriting instead of studio trickery or technology. Most of our songs are written on an acoustic guitar or a piano. We are looking for the best melody and the best lyrics. And people will always like a song they can sing in the shower.
What do you think is Erasure’s greatest achievement?
Clarke: Maybe the fact that me and Andy are still making music together. Writing songs is a very personal thing. You argue, you make mistakes and it takes someone that you can really respect to get through all this. Andy is so open and trustworthy – it’s great that we are still together, still write songs and still love each other.
Andy’s voice sounds great on Snow Globe. In fact, it sounds as if it hasn’t aged at all. How does he do that?
Clarke: He is much more careful nowadays. He looks after himself and there aren’t too many nights out for him. (laughs)
Do you give each other Christmas presents?
Clarke: No. We both have our own families, so we do not celebrate together. I will be in New York this year and Andy will probably spend Christmas in Florida. But we send each other Christmas cards.
If you could ask for one gift with which you could be blessed for Christmas, what would it be?
Clarke: I’d ask for someone who should cook Christmas Dinner for me. I usually do that myself and it’s an awful lot of work if you have got a couple of people invited. An assistant would be nice, or someone who could do that for me.
Recording for Snow Globe started in February, two months after Christmas. Where there any tricks to get you in a festive mood in the studio?
Clarke: We had some decoration in the studio. It worked quite well, although it was an unusually warm February in New York. But while we recorded I didn’t want to think about the fact that we were making a Seasonal Album. I did not even know some of the traditionals that we recorded, and I tried not to consider them as Christmas songs but just as new material that we are working on.
I read that Snow Globe is intended to put Erasure back on the scene. It’s quite strange to do that with a Seasonal Album with three cover versions and four traditionals on it, isn’t it? It would have made more sense to come back with an album full of original songs.
Clarke: We originally wanted to do that. But there were so many things happening on a personal level for Andy that it would have been really hard to write a complete album. That’s why we decided to mix a few of our songs with some covers. But we will start to write new songs in spring and from then on we aim to put new material out on a more regular basis.
How did the idea of a Seasonal Album come up? Did you always dream of doing that?
Clarke: That was our manager’s idea, actually. I wasn’t convinced at first, to be honest. There are so many Christmas songs that have been sung and recorded a million times. It’s very hard to do them in a different way than they have already been done. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I think we achieved that. But we won’t do a Christmas album again. (laughs)