Vince Clarke: "I’m not a good-enough keyboard player to write on the synth"

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Mention Essex these days and most people automatically think of Lauren, Megan, Gemma, Diags and Arg as they pit their wits against the mighty challenges of modern life - buying shoes, using cutlery and the complexity of Ab Initio quantum computation of bulk properties. But, believe it or not, this much-maligned county has had a sizeable part to play in the development of British electronic music. 

There’s the Prodigy, of course; formed in Braintree. Underworld are based in and have occasionally namechecked Romford; frontman Karl Hyde refers to Romford as his ‘New York’. There was a dark side to Essex’s history, too: it was the entry-point for much of the E that landed here during the rave years.

But we can go back even further than that. To 1980, when Basildon schoolfriends Vince Clarke, Andy Fletcher and Martin Gore joined Dave Gahan in the strangely named Depeche Mode. In quick succession, the band signed to a fledgling record label called Mute, released three singles, and made the UK Top Ten. 

In 1981, they appeared on Top of the Pops for the first time. This was the classic four-lads-in-a-band line-up, but there was no posturing, no guitars and no drum kits - just bleeping synths accompanied by the incessant rhythms of a Korg KR55 and a ridiculously young-looking Gahan introducing the world to ‘geek dancing’. 

This was proper pop music - effervescent, catchy, singalong, verse-chorus pop music, played by boys who looked good on bedroom walls - but its sound was electronic.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone was happy with the ‘boy band’ success. Founder member and main songwriter Vince Clarke - Clarke was responsible for the still-superb Just Can’t Get Enough - left after one album. Initially teaming up with fellow Basildon alumnus Alison Moyet as Yazoo, he scored another series of pristine hit singles - Only You, Don’t Go and Nobody’s Diary all made the Top Three - before forming Erasure in 1985 with singer Andy Bell. Over forty singles and 25-million album sales later, the duo recently released number 17, World Be Gone.

Clarke left Essex many years back and is now based in Brooklyn, where he puts together the nuts and bolts of Erasure’s music on a collection of vintage synths. As he prepared for a forthcoming UK tour, he spent a morning with MusicRadar.

Is there any evidence to back up that Essex theory? Something in the water, ancient ley lines… decent music shops?

“Ha ha! The main reason I became interested in music was boredom. It was the same for most of the people I knew, and I think it was the same in towns and cities up and down the country. Basildon didn’t have a cinema, a theatre… not even a restaurant. Music was something to do. It was something to get excited about. 

“Watching Top of the Pops was one of the most important events in any kid’s week back in the 70s. I watched it religiously and loved the way that the glam bands stood out against the greyness of that era. Yes, you had Bowie and Roxy Music, but there was also Sweet and Alice Cooper. Great songs, too. 

“Although we weren’t a particularly musical family - my parents listened to music all the time, but they didn’t play any instruments - me and my brothers and sister ended up going to this music club on a Saturday morning. I was messing around on a guitar, but I’d also come across a piano in the local church hall; I used to go to Boys’ Brigade there.”

No synths?

“I started writing songs and playing in bands when I was about 15, but it was very much in the traditional framework of guitar-bass-drums. The first time I really remember taking notice of a synth was when I heard The Normal [the name Daniel Miller used to release records on his own tiny independent label, Mute; his bleak, minimalist synthesised soundscapes fused technology and punk, and were hugely influential on the late-70s musical underground].

“You’d also got the early singles by Human League [the much-admired Travelogue album was released a year before the chart-topping success of Dare] and OMD. In fact, it was OMD that convinced me to switch to synths. The first time I heard Almost, which was the B-side to their single Electricity.

“Up until then, even though I loved music, it’d seemed like a world far, far away from Basildon. Yeah, it was great listening to Sweet on Top of the Pops, but that would never be me; I couldn’t be a rock star. For a start, being a rock star was expensive… you needed all that gear and the outfits. Then you had to spend six months in a fancy studio somewhere. But when I heard OMD and The Normal, I thought, ‘I can do that. I can write songs like that’. 

“Obviously, I’d lived through punk, and I’d heard the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers, but that still sounded a bit ‘rock ’n’ roll’. Synths sounded different. They sounded interesting. When you’re a kid, that’s what you’re looking for; something that captures your imagination.”

When we spoke to Gary Numan recently, he talked about taking his guitar riffs and playing them on a Moog. Is that what you did - transfer your music to this new medium? 

“I’ve always written on the guitar - I still do, even today. I’m not a good-enough keyboard player to write on the synth, and I’d probably get distracted, twiddling knobs and going off on tangents.

“The problem is that I’m not really a very good guitar player, either, so all the songs I wrote when we first formed Depeche Mode were based on simple chords. And they were firmly rooted in what people would think of as the classic song structure of intro-verse-chorus etc.

“When it came to playing those songs on our newly acquired synths, we quickly realised that we only had monosynths, so we couldn’t actually play any chords. I think that’s where I got into the idea of all these melody lines and counter-melody lines - I needed to suggest chords and chord changes without being able to play any chords.

“In the early days, we didn’t even have any way of linking the gear together or sequencing it, so everything had to be played live. Getting everything in time took a lot of work. I wonder if that’s why I’m still a bit nervous when I do gigs; I still worry that something’s gonna go wrong.”

Getting everything in time took a lot of work. I wonder if that’s why I’m still a bit nervous when I do gigs; I still worry that something’s gonna go wrong.

For years, you were well-known for running a BBC Micro and the UMI sequencer at the heart of your setup. When did you first come across the BBC, and did it radically alter the sound of your music? 

“To be honest, we need to go back before the computer and talk about the sequencer. That was the real revolutionary step for me… that was the eureka moment. Daniel Miller introduced us to the sequencer when we signed to Mute and, after I left Depeche Mode, I started writing with a Roland MC-4. 

“For me, that was more important that the computer or the synth, because it was the first time I’d been allowed to make music that I couldn’t physically play. I wasn’t limited by how good a musician I was. Like I said, I was never a great keyboard player, but with the sequencer, I could play anything I wanted. 

“That was when the electronic door really opened and I got a glimpse of what was possible. Even after I started working with the BBC Micro, I would occasionally switch back to the MC-4. It’s just so tight.”

There’s been a lot written about why you left Depeche Mode. Did you enjoy the success? 

“It was great to be in the studio and properly record our music. To hear it on the radio for the first time. To find out you were in the charts. Being on Top of the Pops, the programme that had been such a big part of my life. Playing gigs was great, and watching the audience grow so quickly. Without a doubt, it was a very exciting time.”

Had you got an idea of what you wanted to do after you left? 

“Not at all. There was no big plan. When I met Alison and we recorded Only You, it was nothing more than a rough idea - a demo.”

If you look back at your singles career - I Just Can’t Get Enough with Depeche Mode, Only You with Yazoo; right through to the massive run of Erasure singles like Sometimes, Victim of Love and A Little Respect - it’s impossible to ignore just how catchy they are. Had you always worked with the idea that singles needed to be instant, memorable… hummable? 

“Honestly, it was never anything so calculated. And I think that if you do sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a catchy single’, it’ll never happen.

“I don’t know how to explain it. I loved music and I’d been listening to it all my life. What I had worked out was how to ‘make’ a song… a strong song. I didn’t know anything about harmonies and all that kind of stuff. I learned about that as we went along. Every time I went in the studio, I’d learn something new, and that gave me the opportunity to try different things.”

Having said that, the new album shows a much darker, more melancholy side of Erasure. At times, it almost feels… sad. 

“Yeah, there’s a sadness there.”

Inspired by anything? The age of austerity? The failure of global politics? 

“[Chuckles] If anything, it was inspired by cabin fever, like most of our albums. I’ll be in the studio, messing around, and it feels like the right time to make some music. I get together with Andy and an album will emerge, but neither of us has any idea of what it will sound like.”

Was it all put together in your studio, the famous Cabin? 

“Since me and my wife moved to Brooklyn - she’s American, that’s how we ended up in the US - the studio has been in the basement. It’s not a huge space, and there’s not really room to set up a proper vocal booth; Andy tends to record his vocals elsewhere and then send them over.

“I even had to get rid of a few synths when I set it up, mainly the spares that we used to take out on tour. What I’ve got now is every synth ready to go, all plugged in and running from Logic.”

When did you finally get rid of the BBC Micro/MC-4 combo? 

“We used it right up until 2002 or 2003. At one point, I’d bought about 15 Micros, still in their boxes, so I always had another one if something went wrong. The actual technical process of ‘making’ a song didn’t change for donkey’s years. I’ve tried MIDI, but I still don’t think it’s as tight as CV/Gate. Even though I use Logic, all the synths are controlled via CV/Gate.

Having worked with hardware, outboard, a sequencer and cables for so long, was the move to Logic a difficult one?

“It happened when I moved to the US and found myself with nothing more than a guitar, a laptop and Logic. We were getting ready to start work on a new album, so I had to learn Logic and I had to start writing songs. I’m crap at just trying to sit down and learn something, but if there’s something I need to do, I’m very good at getting stuck in.

“The main problem was programming with a mouse, but once I’d mastered that,
things settled down. I still wrote my songs on the guitar, but instead of transferring them to a hardware sequencer, I transferred them to Logic.”

Did it change how your songs sounded?

“Ha ha! The soft synths didn’t sound as good. I know this is very personal for each musician, but we did do one album entirely with soft synths and it felt different to me. The quality of the sounds was… just not as good.

“I have done the comparison test with some basic models like the Moog, and there’s no doubt that the sounds are getting better all the time. I guess it’s a bit like when Yamaha first introduced a digital synth, the DX7. At first, digital synths sounded quite crude, but technology pushed the sounds further and further.

“I’ll never stop using analogue synths, though, no matter how good the software gets. They’re tactile… they don’t always do what you want. I like that.”

 Any soft synths used on the new album?

“A few. Alchemy - which comes with Logic - provided the odd sound here and there. I think my intention was to replace them when we started putting the album together, but I never got around to it.

“In terms of effects, that’s much more weighted towards software. Most of the Logic native stuff is excellent, plus I’ve got Waves and some of the Oxford plugins. I was never a collector of analogue hardware like I was with the synths. That got a bit obsessive for a while. I had people all over the world looking for stuff. I think I’m cured… well, I would still like a Wasp, but that’s it.”

So, analogue makes all the noises and you put those noises together with software?

“Exactly. The two worlds working together. I have all the synths running live until I’ve got a fairly finished version of the song, then I send that to the computer, one synth at a time. As I’ve got deeper into Logic, I’ve also started to mess around with audio inside the computer. That’s the side of this technology that really excites me. I can take the main ingredients of a song and put them together in a way that would be impossible in the analogue word… well, it would be possible, but it’d take you a hell of a long time.”

As an electronic pioneer, do you still keep tabs on what’s happening out there?

“Yes and no. I’ve been listening to a lot of techno; I like that dark groove. I flick through a lot of stuff on Beatport and find myself constantly amazed by the way people are manipulating sound. But what I always find is that, no matter what genre it is or how many fancy techniques you’re applying in the studio, you still need a song. It’s the strength of the song that makes all the difference.”

Erasure’s album, World Be Gone, is out now.

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