Andy Bell hopes Torsten the Bareback Saint does not appear on stage when electronic pop duo Erasure goes on tour to support its second album in two years, The Violet Flame.
With three weeks to go before Bell and Vince Clarke are to reunite for a lengthy return to North American soil, Bell is at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh performing a role in a one-man show (named after the title character, Torsten The Bareback Saint) that is based, somewhat, on his life. It’s also about a “semi-immortal polysexual sensualist” named Torsten, who’s clearly not Bell. Sound confusing?
The play includes a performance of 22 songs (also released as a Bell solo album) of the character, born in 1908. Because he doesn’t age, he sees his many lovers die. He doesn’t let himself get close to any. The songs are about sex, drugs and the consequences of fame, similar to what Bell and Clarke experienced in Erasure’s heyday in the mid ‘80s to early ‘90s (and Clarke before that in Depeche Mode and Yazoo). But the lyrics and stories told are considerably more vulgar than typical Erasure tunes such as “A Little Respect,” “Chains of Love” and “Always.” Like Bell, Torsten is gay. The play is not autobiographical, but it resonated enough with Bell that he did not request to change a single lyric or line of dialogue. Theater posters advertised, “Andy Bell IS Torsten.”
And yet he’s not. He’s a character that Bell would prefer stay far away from at an Erasure concert.
“Andy Bell is one person and Torsten is another,” he says. “I’m very much looking forward to being with Erasure again. Torsten is going to be an ongoing project. We’ve got more parts. There’s going to be a Part 2 and Part 3. They can run side by side, and if they cross, [it would be] very strange.”
As Bell and Clarke approach 30 years of making music together (The Violet Flame is their 16th studio album), both have been busy as of late. Their streak began with last year’s holiday album, Snow Globe, a test to determine whether they still had what it took to make a meaningful album. Up until the point, both were worried the creative well had run dry and began to doubt their ability to create something they were proud of. “Sometimes I [thought] we might be a little burnt out, or [we’ve] done too many songs or gotten stagnant,” Bell says.
Snow Globe was heavily inspired by the death of Bell’s partner of 25 years, former manager Paul Hickey, due to complications from AIDS (in 2004 Bell announced that he himself was infected). Hickey’s death devastated Bell. Snow Globe became a sort of prayer in Hickey’s honor. The album allowed Bell to move on, both musically and with his life. The album also propelled Clarke, who has spent the time since its release performing as a DJ and remixing and producing other artists such as Bleachers and Future Islands.
“He’s learning stuff all the time,” Bell says. “It all lends itself to our new sound. I’m sure he’s discovering music by working with other artists. It must have an effect.”
He considers that new direction to be a “renaissance,” similar to the many different paths traveled by Kylie Minogue over her career. Bell and Clarke wanted to keep the essence of Erasure intact, while at the same time sounding like a new band that could generate its own buzz. The two dropped dated production techniques, and for the first time they wrote part of the album in one of America’s dance music capitals, Miami, rather than Clarke’s New York base. Bell now splits his time between South Beach and London. “[You] can’t just reinvent your image,” he says, implying that wholesale personality changes are needed.
The city, home to Bell’s current partner, a dance club owner, played an active role in the feel of The Violet Flame, which is due Sept. 23 on Mute Records. Bell is at ease with his new life. He enjoys being able to wake up and walk with his partner and his Doberman, Angel, to have breakfast at a café.
“Vince came over, and we did the writing there [rather than in] snowy, freezing New York,” he says. “The culture and club life there gives you a boost that definitely comes out in the music.”
The new album is the counterpart to Snow Globe, but both are indicative of the polar opposite places Bell was at in his life at the moment of their creation. This one celebrates his new life, newfound optimism and empowerment. “Violet Flame is very much looking forward for inspiration and hope,” he says. “I’m in a really good space in my head, and I feel like I’ve come around in a great big circle. I’ve learned so much, and I’m ready to kind of start a new chapter with a clean slate.”
It was never in Bell’s or Clarke’s plans to release two albums so close to each other; it was just the byproduct of realizing they still had gas in the tank. Besides The Violet Flame, Bell still has more installments of Torsten and another solo album he’s been working on with producer Dave Audé. He would also love for Erasure to record a big band record, including standards such as “My Foolish Heart,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” He wants fans to know Erasure for more than electronic music. For those keeping track, the duo has also released a covers record (Other People’s Songs), a record of their own songs reimagined as country-western numbers (Union Street) and Abba-esque, an EP of Abba covers.
But for now, he’s putting his entire focus on the Erasure tour, which runs from Sept. 12 in Miami to Nov. 1 in Oakland, with two sold-out stand-alone shows in New York’s Terminal 5 in December. As busy as Bell has been, he considers being on tour to be relaxing.
“It’s very nice, being on the bus, and all you really have to concentrate on is doing the shows,” he says. “I love sleeping on the bus.”