Erasure’s Vince Clarke Keeps Hope Alive in the Age of Brexit and Trump
The British dancefloor pioneer is sure that love can—and will—conquer all.Photo by Doron Gild Music Features Erasure
It’s easy to be cynical these days. One glance at any front page is like staring straight into Hell: Brexit, Trump, Trump and Russia, Trump and Comey and Russia, xenophobia and police brutality, racism across Europe, the ongoing threat to women’s healthcare and about a metric ton of other issues. It’s enough to kill your spirit. Somehow, though, electro-pop icon Vince Clarke, who makes up one-half of British classic-alternative outfit Erasure and previously performed in similar synth-based staples like Depeche Mode, Yazoo and The Assembly, remains optimistic.
Clarke’s idealism certainly comes through on Erasure’s new album, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the title. World Be Gone, the band’s 17th studio album, is set for release on Friday and was written along with longtime collaborator and fellow scene veteran Andy Bell. Long known for romantic, starry-eyed fare, like the band’s beloved 1988 anthem “A Little Respect,” Erasure both grapples with and seeks shelter from the aforementioned global maladies on World Be Gone — “Be Careful What You Wish For!” takes on Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and the droning “Oh What a World” bemoans similar separationist themes. Meanwhile, its closing track, the thumping “Just a Little Love,” prescribes tenderness to “keep the storm at bay.”
Paste caught up with the 56-year-old Erasure singer-songwriter via Skype, where he spoke about the points he and Bell wished to address on World Be Gone, the similarities between Brexit and Trump and why, despite everything we face, he can’t afford to be pessimistic.
Paste: What’s kept you invested and interested in Erasure 30 years on?
Vince Clarke: Well, I really like Andy. That helps. I still get a lot of satisfaction in writing and producing with him. It’s a very easy relationship—he’s very laid back, Andy. When we start to write a new record, it’s always a surprise when songs start coming out. [Laughs.] I think also the reason why we’ve been together for so long is because there’s not any ego in the band. Say I come up with an idea and present it to Andy, and then Andy doesn’t really like it, then the idea just gets dropped, and vice versa. So nobody’s fighting for their corner, you know?
Check out the video for Erasure’s latests single, “Still It’s Not Over”:
Paste: You were originally influenced by English electro groups like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Are there any contemporary bands that keep you interested in making synth-based music?
Clarke: There’s been a real upsurge in interesting electronic music coming out from all sorts of people. I was doing a bit of DJing for a while, and I was completely out of touch with regards to the dance scene, so I started looking into Beatport, and checking out all the different genres and all the different styles. And there, a lot of people have been incredibly creative, especially with sound. I did an album with Martin Gore from Depeche [Mode] years ago, and that’s when I started listening to Beatport, and I was amazed at the kind of production and sound and experimentation that was going on in the dance scene. That had an influence on me, especially for the last two recent albums, which were more dance-orientated. Especially in Brooklyn, there’s a lot of nerds, man, making music—not even making music, actually—making sounds with all of this new Eurorack modular stuff.
Paste: The cover art for World Be Gone really jumps out. Can you tell me a little about who designed it and what you were trying to get across with the image of that ship’s figurehead?
Clarke: There’s a guy called Paul Taylor that works for Mute Records, and he generally takes care of most of the artwork for the Mute artists. I think the message we wanted to put across is one of yearning, I suppose. Yearning for perhaps a better world right now. I think the image is quite romantic, in a way. Lots of stuff that we write is about love and about relationships, so I think we wanted something that illustrated the lyrics of the record. Something like yearning and searching, and hoping for better things, I suppose.
Paste: When did you and Andy begin to write World Be Gone?
Clarke: The writing process started in February, and we did it in three or four sessions. It started in Miami, where Andy has a house, then we had some writing in New York, and then I went over to London a couple of times to finish it off. It wasn’t really rushed this time; usually it’s quite rushed, but we had plenty of time to write more songs than we needed, and that’s always a luxury. I think, in total, the writing process was over a period of about three months.
Paste: Why would you say it was rushed in the past? What circumstances changed that let you take some time now?
Clarke: I don’t know what changed, actually! It just seems that every time we make a record, the moment that we say we’re going to do it, someone gives us a deadline. [Laughs.] Suddenly there’s a date in front of you. But this time around, it wasn’t that. And we really wanted to spend some time because it’s a different direction for us, this record. I think we wanted to spend more time just getting the feel right.
“I’m not generally a pessimistic person, it’s just not the way I’m wired. In my lifetime, I’ve seen some amazing, positive things happen: I saw the end of Apartheid; I saw the Anglo-Irish agreement, the IRA being disbanded; we were in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. All these things that, at the time, you thought would never happen.”
Paste: Half the songs on World Be Gone are quite romantic, in the style for which Erasure has become so well known. But the other half tend to agree more thematically with the title of the record. World Be Gone sounds like a Noah’s ark, let’s-wash-it-all-away-and-start-over. What was behind that title?
Clarke: Usually the way that we work is that once we’ve roughly worked out the tune and arrangement, then some key work or phrase will enter the frame. Andy’s really good at this, coming up with the one-lines, and then the lyrics build around that one line. That’s definitely what happened with World Be Gone. And obviously, with all the political shit going on at the moment, there’s loads of stuff that relates to that particular phrase, and loads of things to write about. That’s how that works.
Paste: Can you tell me a little bit about the phrase, “Be Careful What You Wish For!” on the second track?
Clarke: I think that’s a reference to Brexit. [Laughs.] I think a lot of people in the U.K. voted for Brexit because of prejudice. But at the same time, a lot of people also voted because [they thought] they’d be financially better off. As we are still part of the European community, we pay X amount of billions of pounds into the European community. The people who were pro-Brexit were saying, “Instead of spending all that money into Europe, that money could maybe possibly be going to National Health or something,” which is complete rubbish. It just doesn’t work like that. Pro-Brexit people were also saying this would stem the flow of immigrants into the U.K. Well, that’s not the case either. Of course, now [Brexit has] happened, [and] it turns out there are a lot of bad things that are going to happen because of it. For instance, freedom of travel in Europe. People that work in Europe won’t be able to work in Europe anymore like they used to be able to. The European community was a borderless organization. The reason it started was because there were two world wars. France and Germany were the first members of the European community, and obviously they went to war twice. It’s just very sad; I like the idea of a European community, I like the idea of being European, not just us to be a single island. My bloody brother voted for it! I don’t think he really thought it through. I think that’s true of a lot of people now. The regret’s starting to set in. I’m sure if they had another vote, which they won’t, then it wouldn’t be accepted.
Paste: The Brexit vote seemed to presage the 2016 U.S. election of Donald Trump, who won after making a series of empty promises to stick up for the average American and keep immigrants out. But ultimately his decisions and policies are not structured to benefit his voters.
Clarke: Yep, I think Donald Trump definitely played on the whole prejudice, certainly. But it’s interesting—in America, probably half the people that voted for Donald Trump have never seen an immigrant, you know? I think that’s the same with Brexit. We have immigrants in the country; it’s a multicultural society. But at the same time, I’m sure that most of the people in the U.K. that voted for Brexit have never seen a Polish person. It’s ridiculous.
Paste: What songs on this record would you say kind of reflect that feeling? Maybe “A Bitter Parting” or “A Lousy Sum of Nothing”?
Clarke: I think with the lyric-writing, we try not to be too specific, in a way. We’ve tried to do that before, we’ve said, “okay, let’s write something about this, this, and this” or a subject, but it didn’t work for us before. I think what we try and do is give the listener glimpses of ideas in the lyrics. There aren’t songs specifically about “I hate fascists,” or whatever. It’s hopeful, it’s more poetic than that. There are certainly bands and musicians that can say that kind of stuff and do it really, really well, but we’re not very good at it.
Paste: You were here in the U.S. when Trump was elected. In more liberal communities, there was palpable sense of shock and mourning both during and after the election. Did you share those emotions?
Clarke: It was kind of weird. I didn’t think Brexit would happen, and I certainly didn’t think that Trump would be elected. I remember when Trump became the frontrunner for the Republican party, I was telling everybody at the gym then, “you stupid Americans, can you believe this?” In fact, when he announced that he was going to be running, it was the same week that woman who went around saying that she was black when she was white. I’m thinking, “this is mad! This is a mad country!” Then of course Brexit happens, and I can’t hold my head up high, you know? The night before the American election, I just went to bed early because I’m just thinking, “well, it’s a done deal. There’s no way that Trump’s gonna win. And when I got up in the morning and checked the BBC website, I couldn’t believe it. My wife was in tears. As you say, there was this really weird feeling in the street. New York voted for Hillary. I think it was this feeling of complete disbelief. I don’t think Trump even wanted to be president, I don’t think he really thought that he would win. I was thinking, “it’s gonna interfere with his lifestyle and his business empire or whatever.” I think he was probably as surprised as I was.
Paste: There is an overarching tone of hope to this record, though. Why was it important to you to imbue a sense of optimism amid the doubt and disorder?
Clarke: I don’t know. I’m not generally a pessimistic person, it’s just not the way I’m wired. In my lifetime, I’ve seen some amazing, positive things happen: I saw the end of Apartheid; I saw the Anglo-Irish agreement, the IRA being disbanded; we were in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down. All these things that, at the time, you thought would never happen. We’re going on a sort of downfall, but I’m hopeful that things go in waves, basically. I have an 11-year-old son so I can’t afford to be pessimistic. Hopefully, people come away listening to this record with a little bit of hope in their hearts, because that’s certainly how I feel.