Over four decades, Vince Clarke has helped shape the sound of electronic music. We talk to him about how his working practices have changed, from early Depeche Mode to the new album from Erasure.
"I'm sure there will be more musical innovation. At some point you'll be able to plug a cable into your brain and you won't have to bother with a sequencer."
Erasure's musical wizard Vince Clarke is pondering the future of electronic music, and whether pop's tectonic plates will ever be shaken in the way they were when machines first came to prominence in pop at the start of the '80s.
As a founding member of Depeche Mode, Vince lit the touch paper for a sonic explosion, and then fanned the flames with Alison Moyet in Yazoo. He continues to be a pioneering force in synth-led music right through to the present day, most notably in the form of his 30-year-plus songwriting relationship with Andy Bell in Erasure.
"I still feel it was the most exciting ever time within the world of music," he recalls of those early synth pop years. "The music was full of sounds you'd never heard before. Punk music was like rock & roll; there was a new attitude but the instrumentation was traditional. But those early Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark records, I'd never heard anything like them. They were using this amazing instrumentation but for brilliant songwriting. I'm a lover of songs so for me, it was really enlightening and exciting."
The Neon is Erasure's new album and the duo's 18th together. While their career glows with great music and big hits, such as 'Sometimes', 'Love to Hate You' and 'A Little Respect', alongside industry awards, acclaim and millions of sales, their future is still being written.
Tracing Vince's journey back is a long and winding route through wild creativity, flashes of inspiration and innovation all underwritten by a deep-rooted passion for the power of song. Originally into folk and guitar groups, it was 'Electricity' by Orchestral Manoeuvres that turned Vince Clarke on to this brave new musical world.
"Up until that point, I'd been into guitar bands," Vince recalls. "One of my neighbours [and Depeche Mode co-founder], Martin Gore, bought a synthesizer and then we started hearing electronic music, like the early Human League. So we decided we didn't want to be a guitar band anymore."
In those formative days, Vince and his friend's embracing of synthesizers came from a more practical perspective than one of artistic intent. A lack of money or easy access to any large transportation pushed this first rendering of Depeche Mode towards synths.
"We could never really afford the guitar amps, but we didn't need them with the synths. We were playing live quite a bit and with a synthesizer, you could each just plug it into the PA," Vince explains. "Then I really started getting into it. Everyone loved Kraftwerk when they had their first top-10 single in the UK. It all sounded so different to what I'd heard up until that point."
Vince Clarke: "There were no rules when we started out... So rather than writing chords or songs in a traditional way, I'd construct songs from individual melodic lines. Each of us had a monophonic synthesizer, so we'd build up songs like that.
Back then, a lack of musical virtuosity and the fact few artists were assimilating synthesizers into their sonic tool kits meant the transition from guitars wasn't as daunting as you might think. "We were never really very good at the guitar so we moved onto something else we weren't very good at," laughs Vince. "But there were no rules when we started out. With those early keyboards, you could create really big, rich sounds. The songs I was writing back then were very simple too. So rather than writing chords or songs in a traditional way, I'd construct songs from individual melodic lines. Each of us had a monophonic synthesizer, so we'd build up songs like that."
The Miller's Tale
Vince's musical career has been bookended by a long association with Mute Records and the iconic indie label's head honcho, Daniel Miller. Not only do Erasure currently work and release with the imprint, but Mute were behind the release of Speak & Spell, the brilliant 1981 debut album from Depeche Mode, also their only album to feature Vince's talents before he departed to deploy his musical energies elsewhere.
"Meeting Daniel Miller at Mute Records was a huge moment as he introduced us to the ARP Sequencer. He showed us how to use it and most of Speak & Spell was created with that," says Vince. "That was a game changer because it meant all of our terrible out-of-time playing no longer mattered. We could make a record which was actually in sync."
The first synthesizers Vince used were fairly rudimentary, as were the processes Depeche Mode used to record and write their initial forays into electronic music. "I had a Kawai Synthesizer 100F, an early monophonic synthesizer," he remembers. "Fletcher had a Moog Prodigy, and Martin had a small Yamaha keyboard. To start off with, we had a Roland Dr Rhythm. Then when we met Daniel, we went from using a drum machine to a two-track tape recorder to play the rhythms. So we'd record them in the studio, then they'd be our drum track."
The free-form way of using these early pieces of kit held great appeal for Vince and his musical comrades. Connecting with Daniel Miller not only gave them a platform for their music, but encouraged them to open their minds even further to the endless possibilities for experimentation.
"I loved how you could create sounds from scratch. I'd always loved the tactile-ness of using those old analogue synths. I'm using two hands and with a lot of the modular stuff, there are no rules, no path you have to follow," says Vince. "You can plug anything into anything and see what happens. We really discovered that. Daniel's ARP 2600 was a semi-modular synth. And as long as you didn't mess about with the electrics too much, that was one thing you really could mess about with, you could experiment all day with it. So that's kind of what we did."
1991's The Chorus was one of Erasure's biggest commercial successes, becoming their third number-one record and earning a nod from the Mercury Music Prize judges. The release, which included the title track, 'Love To Hate You', and 'Breath of Life', saw Vince change his creative approach, utilising a huge collection of synths, and coming up with an intricate patching system.
"We set down some ground rules. I didn't want to use MIDI," he remembers. "So everything was programmed with a MIDI sequencer, then I got that information into an analogue sequencer, which was our main sequencer, a Roland MC‑4.
"Then the other rule was that we weren't allowed to use any chords. Everything had to be monophonic lines but interwoven," Vince continues. "But we wanted to avoid samples and keep it as analogue as possible. It wasn't a particularly difficult patch. It was just laborious. Because you'd record the song in one format, then redo it using this old gear and sequencer and adhering to these new rules.
"At the end of the day, that's what gave that album the sound it has. And I think it's one of our more unique-sounding records."
With Vince's music so routed in circuit boards and wires, it's understandable he has a few favourite pieces of kit. He singles out the Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Roland System 100M from his vast artillery of equipment.
"My favourite synthesizer is the Sequential Circuits Pro-One. I bought that new and have used it on every album we've made. It's got a simple but interesting modulation section. My original modular synth is the 100M which you can just plug anything into. It's unpredictable which I really like."
His current studio is in the bottom of his home in Brooklyn, New York, where we are speaking. It being a basement studio, any new addition to his hoard of musical equipment is a question of logistics and whether there's enough space to fit it in. At the same time, such proximity to his favourite gear means musical creativity is only a few footsteps away.
"I'm really fortunate that it's plugged in all the time," says Vince. "So I get to just go downstairs and play everything whenever I like. It's super convenient. If I'm trying to get a sound on something and it doesn't work, I can almost immediately turn to another synth and try it on that. It's just a good way of writing, of enhancing my workflow."
The Neon is Erasure's much anticipated new record, and their first since 2018's World Beyond. After coming off a huge tour, the gears surrounding the creative process began kicking back into life again surprisingly quickly.
"We began writing straight away at Andy's place in Miami," says Vince of the record's genesis. "You never know when you write a record how it's going to turn out, you never know what the songs are like or whether you'll have any ideas. But we wrote more than we needed, which is unusual for us."
The album's 10 tracks, including big opening singles 'Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling)' and 'Shot A Satellite', were cherry-picked from about 20 different songs Vince was working on. The songs, the hooks and their energy are as good as anything they've put together over their career and came in quick creative bursts.
"We worked faster than we have in the past. We'd sit and listen to them over and over again, then Andy would come up with a melodic idea and we'd build the songs up from there," Vince says of the creative partnership.
"Things would get changed all the time, but once we had the basic melody, chord structure and arrangement, he goes away and works on lyrics. I'll be here in the studio finessing the music."
Vince Clarke: "If the song still sounds good when played on a single instrument, like a guitar or a piano, then it's worth investing in. It's at this point you know it will work.
Despite the length of time the pair have been writing together, their creative relationship is still a fertile one, with the record containing some of the best tracks they've written in recent years. "I love working with Andy. It's a bit nerve-racking at the beginning because you don't know if anything will actually happen. But thus far, touch wood, it's worked out," he says modestly.
The relationship with Daniel Miller and Mute remains an important one, not only in brokering Erasure's relationship with the machinations of the wider industry but also on refining and calling time on the recording process. Vince explains: "If I was left to my own devices, I'd never finish anything. I find it really easy to go back in and change something. But if you listen to something over and over again, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. We really rely on Daniel's feedback and we like any external thoughts from people we respect."
Daniel is, in Vince's words, the person they trust the most when it comes to their music and how it's presented to the outside world. "We leave it to him to decide on what the singles might be, whether a track is finished or not, those sort of decisions. It's a relationship we've built up over however many years. I trust his ideas and opinion. You'll think something might be sounding great and he'll say 'you know what, push it in a different direction', and I really enjoy that input".
With such an enviable discography and his experience and success working within music, Vince has seen a great deal during his pop music career. Unsurprisingly, he has plenty of tips for aspiring music-makers. "If a song still stands up when all the studio and production effects have been removed, or if the song still sounds good when played on a single instrument, like a guitar or a piano, then it's worth investing in. It's at this point you know it will work."
When it comes to production, giving yourself the creative space to play with your musical toys and experiment has always been a big driver. Vince still looks for new ways to innovate. "Something I've been really getting into is recording the sounds, perhaps from a synthesizer I'm using, then manipulating them within the sequencer," he says. "I'm recording the sounds, then doing lots of time-stretching; not so much effects per se, it's more looking at the waveform and wondering, if I change it, what will happen? If it looks weird, how will it sound?"
His home setup and process is based around Logic and plug-ins, then transporting the results onto his analogue gear and fleshing out sounds from there. "I really like all of the iZotope plug-ins, for mixing and different effects," reveals Vince. "I really like the Arturia stuff too. I do a lot of the pre-programming using these before I go analogue. They sound really good but I wouldn't tend to use them for my final recordings."
With The Neon released in August, Erasure should have been in the midst of rigorous rehearsals and gearing up for another lengthy jaunt around some of the world's biggest stages. But as we speak, he's at home in Brooklyn as the lockdown persists. Does he still get a kick from playing live?
"You go on tour and the first few months are really fun. Then it loses its lustre a bit towards the end. But finishing a record is a lot more challenging than beginning one. Hopefully we'll be out on the road again as soon as it's safe." Amen to that.