Erasing the Past
Vince Clarke, the instrumental ringleader of the pop duo Erasure, has cast a large shadow over the field of electronic music. As a founding member of the seminal Eighties electro-bands Depeche Mode, Yazoo (aka Yaz) and the Assembly, he used his formidable musical abilities to create a genre that led directly to such contemporary offshoots as techno and ambient. Erasure, which Clarke formed with vocalist Andrew Bell in 1985, has also proven to be influential thanks to "Oh L'amour," "Chains of Love," "Blue Savannah" and other ultra-perky singles that once challenged Madonna for club-scene supremacy. America's Nineties obsession with the guitar-driven wing of alternative music lowered Erasure's profile stateside, but the band's 1992 EP of ABBA covers and its 1994 single "Always" made an impact on domestic charts. And now, with the arrival of Erasure's latest album, Cowboy, (issued by Madonna's Maverick imprint), Clarke is being identified in many quarters as one of the elder statesmen of today's electronica movement. It's a menopausal role that Clarke plays with becoming modesty.
"I think it's very interesting," he says about the newfound enthusiasm for electronic music in the U.S., "but I'm skeptical as to how far it will actually go commercially. At the moment it seems to be more of a media event." Still, he concedes, "I would be pleasantly surprised if groups like the Prodigy start getting played on Top 40 radio. I really hope it will take off. I think it would be fantastic if the radio DJs got away from playing the same old rock music all the time. I'm a fan of a bit of variety."
Not that Cowboy, recorded in Ireland under the supervision of Neil McLellan and onetime Depeche Mode producer Gareth Jones, represents an enormous departure from Erasure's previous efforts. The disc contains the group's usual mix of material: worthy, hook-laden efforts like "Reach Out," in which Bell's rich soprano is bathed in bubbly synth washes, and the melancholy "Don't Say Your Love Is Killing Me"; bids for airplay such as cover versions of Blondie's "Rapture" and Burt Bacharach's "Magic Moments"; and other cuts that constitute varying degrees of filler. This formula is accessible by its very nature, and Erasure's steadfast adherence to it raises questions about Clarke's commitment to taking new creative risks. So, too, does his response to questions about the overall concept behind the new album. "There isn't a theme, really," he says, sounding exquisitely blase. "That's why we called it Cowboy. We could have just called it Ten More Songs, but that would have sounded a bit naff, so we just called it Cowboy. It makes for a great stage concept, however."
Do these downbeat comments imply that Clarke is going through something of a creative mid-life crisis? After all, Erasure's approach might seem a bit out of place in a music industry dominated by the likes of Marilyn Manson and new labelmate Alanis Morissette--and even though portions of Cowboy rival or surpass the quality of his best-known work, that might prove frustrating for a market-conscious animal like Clarke. Still, the keyboard master denies that he's a bit bored with his signature sound, and he heaps praise upon his partner.
"Andy Bell and I just get on well," he notes. "We have a good relationship. And we write together, which makes a big difference in the band's rapport. When I worked with Martin Gore, from Depeche Mode, and Alison Moyet, from Yazoo, we didn't write the songs together in any real sense. But with Andy, that's not the case. Our hearts are in this work. We are both personally involved with the songs as we create them, and as a result of that, the whole songwriting process is a very comfortable situation. If one of us is not into an idea, then the idea is simply dropped. Neither of us gets too precious about an idea being his.
"You really have to bare your soul when you write a song or when you have to sing or play an idea to somebody else," he asserts. "It took a while for Andy and I to reach that comfort zone, but we've come to know each other so well now. If there's any kind of problem at all, we identify it immediately. We can almost read each other's minds."
The pair also shares an interest in the technology that underpins their music. The liner notes for Pop! The First Twenty Hits, a best-of package that reached stores in 1992, sports a list of the eighteen different synthesizers and sequencers Erasure has used over the years, including the Roland Jupiter, the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS, the Obie Rack and other no-longer-cutting-edge devices that Clarke has since retired. In addition, the twosome have been in contact with some of the newer artists they've inspired--namely remixing stars Tin Tin Out and Matt Darey, who recently put out new variations of "Oh L'amour," and Jon of the Pleased Wimmin, responsible for the remix of "Don't Say Your Love Is Killing Me." Clarke admits that this contact has had an effect on his music, as have the sounds these younger musicians have been making.
"Our writing has been affected by the sounds coming out of the dance scene," he says. "I remember in the early Eighties, an electronic band wouldn't even bother to use high hats in its rhythm beds. Now they are everywhere. I direct my drum programming towards more of a groove these days, which is something that wasn't really the way things were done fifteen years ago. Erasure started out focused very tightly on harmony and melody."
From a visual standpoint, the band has long been known as among the most flamboyant in pop music. The man responsible for this reputation is Bell, whose campy on-stage antics are diametrically opposed to Clarke's quiet, diligent persona. During the band's first tour, Bell regularly wore a huge red dildo and cavorted around stages in a manner that horrified some of the more sensitive (read: homophobic) audience members. Six years later, in 1991, the "Phantasmagorical Entertainment" jaunt was as theatrical an extravaganza as anything ever associated with the Jacksons. But of all the gigs he's played over the years, Clarke remembers one in Prague, Czechoslovakia, most fondly. "It was before the Communists lost power," he says, "and it seemed like everybody in the city was at the concert. They had no access to records, so half the people there were holding ghetto-blasters in the air to record the concert. We had to haul all of the equipment--even basics like amps and whatnot--in trucks from Germany. Hardly any bands had played in Czechoslovakia up to that point, so the audience was truly excited."
The Cowboy expedition may well have the same effect on American fans, who'll be getting their first glimpse of Erasure in several years. Even Clarke gets into the act: At one point during the show, he dons a cactus suit and plays acoustic guitar beside a campfire set up at center stage. Nonetheless, he insists that his focus will remain on the music. Unlike electronic acts that perform their songs to a background tape, Erasure goes beyond karaoke. "I did a lot of pre-programming for this tour," Clarke explains. "I can't use the same equipment that I used to record the album, so I had to re-create the sounds on more transportable pieces of hardware. Then we had a million meetings with set designers and stage designers and costume designers. We spent about two months all together prepping and getting the ideas together."
Thus far, the effort has been worthwhile. "We love being in America," he enthuses. "There have been so many young people coming to our shows. I'm kind of surprised--I was just expecting the die-hard fans to show, but there have been a lot of new faces. And there is so much open discussion about the state of electronic music right now." Adds the man who helped popularize the genre so long ago, "That's been fabulous to be a part of."
Erasure. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 10, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $17.50-$20, 1-800-444-
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