He was a founder mem­ber of Depeche Mode and con­qered the sin­gles chart with Era­sure, but is he a dig­i­tal con­vert?

Computer Music - - Contents -

The Depeche Mode and Era­sure man talks synths past and present, and his ap­proach to writ­ing such catchy tunes

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 Dave 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, 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

, talk­ing about ob­ses­sion, se­quencers and the time­less joy of a catchy song.

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

“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?

VC: “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 chart­top­ping 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?

VC: “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’ve al­ways writ­ten on the gui­tar – I still do, even to­day. I’m not a good-enough key­board player to write on the synth”

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.”

: 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? VC:

“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? VC:

“It was great to be in the stu­dio and prop­erly record our mu­sic. To hear it on the ra­dio for the

“I didn’t know any­thing about har­monies and all that kind of stuff. I learned about that as we went along”

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? VC:

“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? VC:

“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, melan­choly side of Era­sure. At times, it al­most feels… sad. VC:

“Yeah, there’s a sad­ness there.”

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

“[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? VC:

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

“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? VC:

“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 your move to Logic a dif­fi­cult one? VC:

“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? VC:

“Ha ha! The soft­synths didn’t sound as good. I know this is very per­sonal for each mu­si­cian, but we did do one al­bum en­tirely with soft­synths 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? VC:

“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? VC:

“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? VC:

“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. Look out for their UK tour start­ing Jan­uary 29.

The track­ball seems to be mak­ing a come­back, but fu­tur­ist Nu­man never stopped us­ing his in the first place

With 32 years and 17 al­bums un­der their belt, Era­sure are still go­ing strong and fly­ing the flag for ana­logue tech­nol­ogy

“Even af­ter I started work­ing with the BBC Mi­cro, I would oc­ca­sion­ally switch back to the MC-4. It’s just so tight”

Vince bought loads of BBC Mi­cros so he’d al­ways have one avail­able. You might say he Just Can’t Get Enough

Vince and Andy are play­ing back-to-back dates on their UK tour this year

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