Ready to rock stage again: Erasure's Andy Bell talks ahead of Let’s Rock in Shrewsbury
Playing to vast crowds is nothing new to Erasure’s Andy Bell. After all, his band’s most recent gig was supporting Robbie Williams during a stadium tour of the UK. And prior to that, he’s spent many years playing the UK’s biggest arenas, thrilling many hundreds of thousands of fans every time he’s hit the road.
So topping the bill at Let’s Rock will, quite literally, be a walk in the park for the Brit Award-winning singer of such hits as Sometimes, A Little Respect, Ship of Fools and Stop!
Let’s Rock has become the biggest celebration of 1980s music in the UK and this year’s festivals will feature Erasure, Marc Almond, Go West, Status Quo, The Human League, Billy Ocean, Tony Hadley, Sister Sledge, Midge Ure, Jimmy Sommerville and others – though not all during the same weekend.
The moveable festival reaches Shrewsbury’s Quarry Park on July 13 and among the acts confirmed are The Human League and Sister Sledge. Bell is looking forward to popping in and out at various stages throughout spring and summer.
“Sure I am looking forward to it. It should be a great atmosphere and I admire so many of the other artists performing. This is slightly different from an Erasure show because we have a live band and backing dancers so the sound is quite different without only synths.”
There are, of course, enormous differences between headline Erasure shows and appearances at festivals. For one, Bell doesn’t get to feature alongside his partner-in-crime Vince Bell, instead being supported by a house band. And, secondly, he plays to an audience that only wants to hear hits and has less time for obscure b-sides from back in the day. He enjoys the laid-back vibe that festivals bring.
“I think it’s just great that people can just wonder around and pick and choose who they wanna see. It’s a lot more laidback and I love seeing the mums and dads with their kids.”
Let’s Rock celebrates the 1980s, which were a remarkable period for Erasure. Having gone from selling women’s shoes to forming the band with Vince, Bell enjoyed enormous success with The Circus, The Innocents and Wild, while he continued in a similar vein in the ‘90s. He has happy recollections of that era.
“It was just one hell of a run - probably too fast to remember, but I feel extremely privileged to have flown around the world a few times and played in some spectacular places. I never realised we had personal armed guards in South America - I thought they were just looking after us.”
Erasure have enjoyed a remarkably fertile period in recent years. The band entered the present decade flush from the success of their greatest hits record, Total Pop! The First 40 Hits, which featured the band’s first 40 hits.
The band hit the road for a 27-date US and Canada tour, as well as a gig at Estadio Monumental in Lima, Peru, before returning to the UK and Europe. They released a new studio album, Tomorrow’s World, one of five so far this decade, before hitting the road to play Russia, Ukraine and the whole of South America.
Their 2014 record The Violet Flame gave Erasure their first Top 20 album since Other People’s Songs in 2003 while in 2015 Andy Bell and Vince Clarke celebrated their 30 years in the music industry by releasing an updated version of Sometimes and a new compilation album entitled Always: The Very Best of Erasure.
More followed in 2016 with the release of an anthology box-set, From Moscow To Mars, while the band’s 17th album, World Be Gone, followed in 2017, accompanied by headline shows at major UK venues. There followed a four-month European tour as special guests of Robbie Williams in June, July, August and September and last year the album World Beyond was announced, having been recorded in just 10 days by Andy Bell and seven musicians from the Brussels-based ensemble Echo Collective.
Bell says it was an incredible experience to take the band’s music in a different direction by working with the Echo Collective. “That was an amazing experience, probably one of the best I’ve had. We only had 10 days to record so I sat in the middle of the room surrounded by classically trained violinists, cellists, keyboards, harpists and percussion, it was just magical singing live with strings. World Beyond is just a collection of personal songs that were inspired by world events and stories from my life. I’m very much looking forward to making a new one.”
And yet the band’s longevity has been remarkable. Most pop acts last for a year or three. Erasure have last that number of decades.
Bell says: “We were kind of seen as being a pop singles act in the early days, but then in 1995 we decided to call our album ‘Erasure’ and it was kind of an experimental album. It was our first supposed slot, which was 100,000 copies. I think any other label we would have been gone by then, we would have been history. They (Mute) ride with the punches.
“I think it’s great to allow the artist to experiment, allow them to fail… whatever that means. And to get back up again. It’s like any person writing a story, you can’t be doing bestsellers all the time.”
Clarke and Bell are close, giving one another the emotional and creative support that they need to continue to make new music.
“I do like Vince to be there, because – it sounds corny – but in some ways he is my muse. It’s almost like he has to be there in order for me to show off and come up with a tune.”
Bell and Clarke had the time of their lives when they hit the road in support of Robbie Williams and played to millions of fans.
“We were simply invited by Robbie to take part - it is a huge responsibility doing those stadium shows because so many people are involved. I really admire Robbie’s spirit and drive.”
Bell has continued to work on new projects and has been busy on his project Torsten, a stage acts with accompanying soundtracks, concept albums and remix albums. The series was written by playwright Barney Ashton-Bullock with music by Christopher Frost. Two major works emerged, Torsten the Bareback Saint (2014) and Torsten The Beautiful Libertine (2016) with two accompanying album/soundtracks and two Variance Remix albums.
Torsten in Queereteria is the latest instalment.
The singer loves it. “It’s a post-armageddon soap opera performed in a makeshift TV studio which used to be a sex club! Torsten is a semi-immortal poly-sexual so I’m 115-years-old. I love it because it’s filthy and I can swear a lot.
“I think perhaps the word had started to spread that is was something completely different from what people associated me with, it’s quite hard to break away from the pop mould and takes perseverance.
“I think we never want to be a cliché and try different things. You have to take the long route and go against the grain, it’s harder work sometimes but well worth the effort.”
Bell has long been an icon in the LGBTQ+ community and has lived for many years with HIV. He came out decades ago, telling Melody Maker in 1986: “I don’t want to go out of my way to talk about it but I’m not going to pretend I’m not [gay]. I won’t portray a heterosexual in videos and we’re consciously doing lyrics that could apply to either sex.”
Later, he told Seventeen: “I want to be known as a good performer but it’s important to me to take a stance. If you’re doing music, you should use it for something and have substance. Being gay and open about it is my substance.”
In 1988, he contracted HIV, sharing that news with the world some years later. He’s also spoken out about the complacency among gay men about HIV, saying: “There are definitely HIV-positive people who meet other HIV-positive men, and like still having unprotected sex. I think it must be quite hard for young gay men because there is so much for them now to do - there are so many saunas and stuff like that for them to go to, and it’s so easy to get it.”
He has struggled with ill health, including avascular necrosis, and has had both hips replaced. More recently, Bell married his partner Stephen Moss, in 2013. He finds it remarkable that such progress has been made and hopes that the UK continues to move towards equality as it embraces the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their sexuality and gender.
“I get blown away with how far forward the world has come regarding women’s, gays’ and transgender rights. I feel extremely proud to have been part of this revolution, but I think that Mother Nature is always 50 steps ahead of us. As for HIV, I’m convinced we will be cured of it during my lifetime.”
Erasure have been on the road for decades and despite playing all around the world, Bell and Clarke have always found the West Midlands one of their happiest hunting grounds. They’ve played often in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, thrilling local fans with their upbeat sets.
“I guess it’s kinda my neighbourhood really, from growing up in Peterborough. I feel a great deal of affection towards the people and always feel at home in Birmingham and Nottingham for instance.”
The band formed in 1985. Bell had been selling women’s shoes and performing in a band called the Void when he responded to a newspaper advert that was looking for a singer. Vince Clarke had been Bell’s hero and Bell successfully auditioned for the roll – beginning a run of success that saw the duo sell 25 million records.
Clarke had already established himself as one of the UK’s foremost creators of electronic music, having been initially inspired by Wirral synth band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. He’d been a founding member of Depeche Mode and the sole writer of their first three singles, including the breakthrough Top 10 hit Just Can’t Get Enough. He left that band in late 1981 to forge a similarly notable career with the duo Yazoo, though split that band after two hit albums in as many years with singer Alison Moyet. Clarke then formed the short-lived project The Assembly with producer Eric Radcliffe, which spawned the hit single Never Never, featuring Feargal Sharkey on vocals, before creating Erasure with Peterborough-born Andy Bell. Bell had practised for his audition by listening to Alison Moyet, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Communards and got the job. The rest, as they say, is history.
In recent years, Bell and Clarke have maintained their gigging and recording work with Erasure while experimenting with other projects. Clarke, for instance, has collaborated with musicians BT and Christian Burns on their All Hail the Silence project. And four years ago, he also announced a collaboration with Jean Michel Jarre called Automatic, which was released as a part of the full album Electronica 1: The Time Machine.
Erasure, however, remains their principal passion and they’ll be hooking up again later this year to create new music. Bell’s looking forward to that. “Vince and I will be writing at the beginning and end of July in Brooklyn, where he lives. So, depending on whether it goes well enough, some live dates in 2020 will definitely be attached to an album release date.”
We can’t wait.