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Erasure in disco diva mode

The duo talk new music and AIDS ahead of their Toronto show

Singer Andy Bell and synth virtuoso Vince Clarke visit Toronto Tuesday, Sept 30 to perform songs from their new album, The Violet Flame. Credit: Phil Sharpe

Formed in 1985 by lead singer Andy Bell and synth virtuoso Vince Clarke, Erasure has been massively influential in the fields of pop, club and dance music culture, having sold more than 25 million records globally.

Ahead of Erasure’s Toronto show, Xtra spoke with Bell by phone about the band’s 16th studio album, the dark, moody and infectious The Violet Flame; their extensive touring; and having the balls to come out in 1986 at the height of AIDS hysteria.

Xtra: Can you talk about how your new record, The Violet Flame, came about?

Andy Bell: I’ve been asking Vince for a while now whether we could write on synths, because usually we write on guitar and piano. And I’ve always felt that when you’re kind of making up top lines for the melody, when I’m singing along to a guitar, it always seems to fall into folk mode, you know? And I said to him, “I don’t want to fall into folk mode. I want to be in disco diva mode!” And I’ve been doing some stuff with Dave Audé, some collaborations.

Whenever I work with other people, because they’re mostly DJs, they already have stuff recorded. So, we did it that way. Vince came over, I was in Miami with my partner, and he came down from Brooklyn, and we were together for two weeks. Each afternoon he’d come over and play me some stuff he had done; I would sing on the stuff that he played. If we didn’t get any ideas in the afternoon, I would sing into my iPhone in the nighttime and send that to Vince’s hotel, and he’d come back the next day and say, “Which parts did you like, which parts didn’t you like?” and we’d sort of put them together. The whole process was much more immediate than writing on the guitar and the piano and, I think, much less melodic in some ways. We wanted to kind of simplify it

After the recording of Violet Flame, did you find yourself having a preference for either writing style?

To be honest, Vince was a bit nervous of not writing on piano or guitar because the root of the song must be a very strong melody. And I understand what he means, that you couldn’t write on synth that many times without changing your art form. I said to him that I’d love for him to go in the studio and have a live synth playing and experimenting with the sound and then just me holding a mic and singing along. And that would be kind of like a performance thing. I would love to do that some day, but it depends.

It’s just really weird trying to get your head around the psychology of being a singer. I think the best thing is to not think about it and go do it. It’s just really weird when you’re singing, when you’re onstage and you’re singing the songs. Sometimes I feel like it’s not me, or I don’t connect with them at all. And other times I feel that I really connected with that really deeply and, you know, I really felt that song that time, but it doesn’t happen 100 percent all the time.

You’ve been touring extensively for decades. Is it different tour to tour, or is it a unique experience each time?

It’s always different. You’re in another space; you’ve got a bit older. You do calm down, and you do come into your own as a singer, as a performer. I’m kind of crazy — I can’t help being crazy on the stage — but you almost feel like you don’t need to prove anything anymore, do you know what I mean? Because you’ve been doing it for so long! I really feel like I’ve earned my stripes in both being a human and being a performer. It’s almost like you’re apologizing to people for proving that you’re good.

You came out in 1986, during a very conservative time, at the heights of AIDS hysteria. How did you have the guts to come out and what influenced that decision?

To me it was natural. When I was a teenager, I was such a good liar. I thought, If I keep on lying in this way, I’m going to end up killing someone and getting away with it. And I thought, I’m not going to lie anymore; I’m just going to tell the truth. I was fed up with spinning tales and things, so, I thought, from now on I’m going to tell the truth, and that’s what I did.

I just thought it was such an easy, simple way to live your life if I tell you the truth. My god. Why can’t people just sit down and talk to each other, be civilized and all be open and honest and upfront and talk to each other? It’s so easy. I mean, it was in those times — there was a load of homophobia around and hysteria, but I think it kind of swirls around and it affects people in different ways. It’s almost like homophobia is a virus that sweeps around, as all kinds of phobias are, mass hysteria.

I get quite nervous sometimes. I don’t like these stadium crowds when you can whip people up so easily. I think it’s very dangerous to do that because it’s quite militaristic, so you have to be careful how you do things, you know? I just feel like being out from the very beginning we had loads and loads of cards stacked against us — we really did. As far as radio and media, the whole rock ’n’ roll process, where there’s the whole macho thing and you’d think that Elvis would have never existed. I think what we did was very rock ’n’ roll, but the rock press doesn’t see that, and so we’ve always been outsiders in some way; we had to forge our own way. But by forging our own way it’s given us a great deal of protection and armour. So, we can go and play, and we’ve built up a following from grassroots. As you say, we were never in the closet. We didn’t have a pretense and having built up a whole thing through lying to people. In some ways it’s the music, this integrity that’s carried us forward.