For the better part of their two decades together, Erasure's Vince Clarke and Andy Bell have been the Abbott and Costello of the electronic-pop world. Stoic straight-man Clarke feeds his synth lines to flamboyant singer Bell, whose vibrant, multi-octave vocals and campy persona transform his partner's arresting melodies into rapturous dancefloor anthems and cathartic bedroom ballads, coaxing smiles from loyal listeners even with lyrics that lament the aches and pains of the human psyche.
The passage of time certainly hasn't diminished the British duo's desire or ability to throw an extravagant party replete with sequins, disco balls, and outlandish costume changes, the latest being a US tour that celebrates Erasure's twentieth anniversary and the recent release of its eleventh studio album, Nightbird.
"This time, the set is based around the idea of an enchanted forest," Clarke says over the phone from an Orlando hotel room in his dry, low-key voice. "We've got angels, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley and, of course, Andy ends up prancing about in his sparkly underwear."
Clarke also has been known to partake at least somewhat in the onstage festivities -- perhaps decking himself out in a gold lamé suit or satellite-topped headgear -- but the keyboardist usually wears a glower or a scowl as he stands statue-like behind his equipment, in marked counterpoint to the giddy grin typically plastered on the ever-frolicking Bell's face.
"I know I look rather stern, but I'm not," he insists. "Mostly I'm just up there worrying. I'm always fearful that the technology's gonna break down, and sometimes it does, but it's never the end of the world. So I don't know why, but it always plays on my mind, and the more we tour, the more stressed-out I get. Fortunately, Andy's up there dancing around enough for the both of us."
After all these years of Bell sporting assless chaps, six-inch spike heels, feather boas, and Edwardian evening dresses, it's hard to imagine that the novice singer once bore an approach more in line with Clarke's serious countenance. The pair first joined forces in 1985 after Clarke, a few years older than Bell, put in time as the guitarist in an English folk duo, then as a founding member of Depeche Mode, and then as half of the short-lived, Alison Moyet-fronted duo Yaz. Despite the inherent sparkle and melodrama of Erasure's 1986 debut Wonderland -- which spawned the international hit "Oh l'Amour" -- Bell, who had been openly gay since his late-'70s teen days, was still reluctant to fully unleash his inner diva before crowds of laddish rogues.
"At the very beginning Andy really didn't move at all, it was a very different kind of live experience," Clarke recalls. "And I think what happened was that one day he just decided to go out and wear something a bit more interesting and put more of who he is into it, no matter what anyone thought, and everything grew from there to where we now have all these costume and set designers and it's turned into some version of a Broadway show."
Indeed, Erasure's recent record-setting, sold-out ten-night stand at New York's Irving Plaza lasted longer than some Broadway productions, and the two are set to mount a similar feat in San Francisco with five sold-out performances at the Independent from Friday through Wednesday (they're taking Sunday off so Bell can rest his still-impressive vocal cords). With scores of their own tunes -- plus their much-loved ABBA covers and takes on Peter Gabriel, Buddy Holly, and Righteous Brothers numbers from 2003's Other People's Songs -- Clarke says the set list will change nightly to accommodate diehards planning to attend all the shows. It also will include several tracks Erasure hasn't played in more than fifteen years (though he won't divulge which ones, for surprise's sake).
Most gratifyingly, much of the new material from Nightbird is good enough to hold its own against such classics as "Blue Savannah," "A Little Respect," "Chains of Love," and "Freedom." The album imparts a fairly downcast mood in its opening stretch. "No Doubt" and lead single "Breathe" are mid-tempo heart-tuggers during which Bell's rich, soaring croon articulates troubled and lost love over Clarke's affecting synth sweeps and crafty, understated beats. But "I'll Be There" and "All This Time Still Falling Out of Love" (despite its deceptively morose title) are as bouncily upbeat, joyful, and positively, perfectly fabulous as anything Erasure has ever composed.
Strangely enough, the pair seems more artistically connected now than they have in more than a decade, even as they've grown apart geographically. Clarke lives with his wife in Portland, Maine, while Bell splits his time between London and Spain with his boyfriend of twenty years, which means that after their initial songwriting pow-wows, much of their production work occurs by swapping MP3 files. Still, says Clarke, it's a process well worth enduring: "I really, really enjoy creating with Andy because we have this mutual trust and understanding, where if either one of us comes up with an idea the other doesn't like, we can tell immediately, and when things come together it's amazing. So we'll never split up.
"I've never really written songs with anybody else besides Andy, and I'm not sure that I could anymore," he continues. "I mean, I wrote most of the songs on the first Depeche album by myself, and with Alison we kind of wrote our own songs separately. At the time I didn't realize that collaborative songwriting was key to a longstanding relationship, and I was also a lot younger then and had troubles with ego. Y'know, when you're young and you have a bit of success, you think you're the biggest and most important thing ever. And everybody else in the bands I was in had exactly the same view of themselves. But with Andy, there's never any tension. We haven't argued in twenty years. Not once. He's a real laid-back person, very nonjudgmental and very humble."
And undoubtedly strong: In late 2004 Bell disclosed that he is HIV-positive, a diagnosis he received in 1998 after a bout with pneumonia. He also endured a degenerative bone condition that necessitated two hip-replacement surgeries last year (the singer has attributed the condition to either the drug cocktail he's on to battle his HIV, his lengthy-but-now-conquered cocaine habit, or all that dancing in high heels). Many critics and fans have grafted Bell's personal struggles onto Nightbird as a way to explain its melancholy edges, a notion that Clarke chuckles at with the tone of a guy who has had to field one too many questions about his cohort's medical maladies.
"Ehh, I don't know. I'll just say this -- a friend of mine came to see us in London recently and he really enjoyed the show, and he said it felt like it was a real lust-for-life, joy-to-be-alive kind of a concert."
Still, Clarke acknowledges his deep appreciation that the gay community has rallied around Bell following his announcement, has long supported Erasure, even in the commercial down-times, and certainly played a huge role in selling out the band's five-night SF run.
"We never set out to be anything or appeal to a specific audience, but given the stage show and the fact that Andy's always been very upfront and honest about his sexuality, it makes sense," Clarke says, adding with a laugh that he's always been unfazed by the mistaken assumption that he's also gay. "Andy was really the first gay person I ever met or talked to, so it was a whole education for me, him sitting down and explaining exactly how things work. Nothing of it particularly surprised me. I was just really interested in all of it. And it's truly flattering when people come up to us and say stuff like, 'I was a teenager and I was in the closet and I heard this song and it helped me to come out of the closet.' I love that."
And as for their brilliantly over-the-top performances, Clarke insists that the duo has no intention of scaling things back anytime soon. "I guess when Andy's sixty he might tone down his act a little bit, but not before then. But maybe when I'm sixty I'll finally start leaping around."
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