It’s been 30 years since ERASURE emerged onto the UK synthpop scene. DEPECHE MODE co-founder VINCE CLARKE joined forces with ANDY BELL and the rest became history.
Numerous albums later, the 1989 Brit Award winning duo have gone from strength to strength. Both have always been busy outside of ERASURE with their side projects. There’s been Andy’s opera appearances, collaborations with IN VOX, BRITISH ELECTRIC FOUNDATION, SHELTER and various DJs and solo work while Vince has produced for other artists, co-written with old DM band mate Martin Gore as VCMG and much more; they continue to dedicate their time to ERASURE at clockwork intervals, turning out marvellous albums which are not just popular with the electronica fanatics.
The boy with heavenly voice, ANDY BELL remains very demure, unassuming and laid back, ignoring the fact that he remains one of the best voices of any genre and that, to many, he is simply a god. Most recently, he has played an immortal polysexual in ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’, a role Andy himself has described as one of the biggest challenges of his career which has also since spawned ‘Variance – The Torsten The Bareback Saint Remixes’.
Having very successfully introduced audiences into the crazy, sad and wonderful life of Torsten, ANDY BELL chatted to The Electricity Club about life, Torsten, ERASURE and what is in store for the über talented man that he is…
I think it was Barney Ashton, he’s a poet and a bit of a playwright really, and I think he is just coming up with those ideas all the time, you know…
I’m not really sure how long he had the character in mind for Torsten. He first came up to me about five years ago. I went to the Kerrang Awards in London, it was to give Daniel Miller a prize for Mute Records. Barney was at the same table and we did briefly meet each other before, but we started talking.
He said “oh, I have this idea for this character called Torsten and you would be ideal to play the character… is it something you’d be interested in?”, and I said “sure”. A couple of years later, he sent me a couple of songs for the first episode, ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’ and I was really blown away with the songs. I think Barney is really a genius, he’s yet to be discovered, I think…
The song-cycle was first performed during two closed shows in July 2014, first for family and friends, and the second to ERASURE fans. Which one went down better?
To be honest, I can only remember the second one: lots of my mates were there, I was so nervous at the first one, I probably erased it out of my mind!
The second night went very well, I was more settled in, but it is quite nerve wrecking with your friends in the audience, people that you know. The venue was small and they were really close, and ERASURE fans expect ANDY BELL, but Torsten isn’t ANDY BELL… you can’t talk in between the songs or give them your cheeky grin or anything like that as you have to stay in character, so that was quite strange. It was like working in a library! I made more mistakes on the first night.
Audiences weren’t that big, there were so many shows during the festival: four thousand shows, I think. So, it was quite hard, the acts were being rotated. Before us, there was a South African dance choir, and a play after us, so we had to get the stuff off very quickly. I think we made a mistake in the promotion material, as we chose to show the back of my head. I think if we had shown my face, maybe more people would have come, even ERASURE fans didn’t know I was up there, many people didn’t know I was up there. It felt like a secret gig almost.
The most we had was about 25-30 people on one night, the best night. Otherwise we would have 5 people, so it was quite strange to be doing it to not that many people. It was really testing because it does take guts doing the show and even if it was empty, you’d still have to do it. You’d have to do it to an empty room, as that was the part of us being up there.
The context and content of the album, and the show are very brave, was the reception what you had expected?
I think some of the ERASURE fans were quite scared, because it’s very personal, and although it’s not me, it seems very personal. One guy came to see us from Manchester, as he was thinking of putting the show on in a theatre in Manchester; a gay guy, and he didn’t like it at all… I think it was because some of the references are so close to the bone, so truthful, that I think some people can’t cope with them. It’s not all happy clappy and saying the gay life is fabulous at all.
Is cabaret a style you had been previously well familiar with?
Cabaret is not a style I was familiar with, but I am a really big fan of Kurt Weill’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’, and that version of the cabaret I saw with Alan Cumming in New York. Cyndi Lauper was in there as well. I really like that leftfield, off-off Broadway kind of stuff, nothing that’s too commercial. I think ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’ fits into that really well. To me, it reminds me of those British black and white movies that came out in the early 60s; very cutting edge, I think it was called ‘A Taste Of Honey’ with a girl getting pregnant… it was more like the original ‘Coronation Street’ before it all went glam.
The idea of polysexuality can be difficult for some to understand and / or accept. Do you think the show’s audience fully accepted the concept?
I don’t know, it is really a strange thing, I’m playing a character and because I’m gay myself, people think that maybe Torsten is only gay, and it is strange when I’m referring to having had female lovers. I have only had one girlfriend in my life, so there’s not really an awful lot that I can relate to. I have got transsexual friends, and they have a really tough life. I couldn’t really imagine what it must be like having a relationship with someone like that, as it must be really, really tough, and there are lots of psychological things going on. I think Torsten is quite complex, I don’t necessarily think we would get on, if I met him. As a gay man, I don’t think he would fancy me as he’s too complicated.
I think the song-cycle was just the order in which the songs were recorded, that was the running order of the album really… it was changed for the show, but it’s something that came out organically, something that was in Barney’s mind.
It’s the same with Part 2, ‘The Beautiful Libertine’, which for me is much more song oriented, and gives you much more of an insight into Torsten’s background, how his character was shaped, when he was growing up. The introduction to Torsten was quite sporadic, psychotic, quite confusing to people, as it was a little bit all over the place. With the second one, Barney has definitely found a rhythm.
Would you like to be Torsten?
He’s really brave, I really hope for the best for him. But he’s made some really terrible life choices with the people he’s met, and they put him through hell, which now is reflecting on him. I don’t think he really likes the fact that he is living forever, he’s 108 and not growing old, I don’t think he really likes that eternal youth idea. I think that’s quite torturous for him, and in the end he may be celibate or decide he doesn’t want to have any more partners, as it’s too painful for him to see them coming and going all the time.
Having songs written for you outside of ERASURE, how did it feel?
It was really lovely, very flattering…
At first I was a bit weary, Barney said he’d heard this opera that I did with Peter Hammill called ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’, which was in about 1990… I just played a small part in that, he was called ‘Montresor’, and he was a very naive character, so it suited my personality. Barney had said that he had had me in mind while writing the ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’ and sometimes you think “people may just be saying that”, but then when I heard the songs, read the material, I could see lots of parallels.
Probably things that happened to Barney in his life, I can really relate to, by being a gay man, and being on the gay scene early on in the mid-80s and that kind of feeling of when you get rejected quite a lot and you’re not very confident… you just hang around the periphery of the club, but you don’t really feel part of it.
It’s quite tough to juggle these things, usually ERASURE takes precedence. We book out a period of a year and a half when we are planning for ERASURE, but I thought “I can’t keep doing that, I’d like to do things in tandem”. Just to be a creative person, you need to add different strings to your bow. It is really exhausting, but I really love the challenge. I do writing with other people like DJ Dave Aude, so it’s always tricky, but I’m not one of those people who plans things years in advance, I just do things as they come, whenever I can fit them in really….
Would the idea of immortality appeal to you, as you could fit in all those things?
Well, I suppose so. With finding out about being HIV positive, and when my long term partner died, even though we weren’t together anymore, it definitely makes you feel like you wanna cram all this stuff in, as…
Time is running out…
YES! Yes, yeah…
You described the project as the most challenging ever in your career? Having completed it, was it so?
It’s given me so much, and I’m so looking forward to doing part two, and we are doing a workshop on the last week of September and first week in October. I’m really, really looking forward to that, as I was kind of a half-baked actor when I was younger, in youth theatre and stuff like that, only like an outside school hobby… but it’s something that has always been on the periphery. It’s giving me so much. With the frustration in something like making music, and maybe not getting such a wide audience as you used to have, my satisfaction comes from doing things like ‘Torsten’.
On the subject of ERASURE, you have been band mates with Vince for a very long time, how do you keep things fresh?
I’ve just finished 10 dates in South America on my own, trying to get a show going on my own, we have these two amazing drag queen dancers, live drummer and a keyboardist, and we do use some of Vince’s ERASURE backing tracks, because that is what people want to hear as well.
We beef them up and I also have my solo stuff in there. But I think Vince really likes it as well, he’s always said he thinks I’m fearless. I don’t think he realises how much nerves I get, I just like doing these things and go and stand on the edge of precipice and see what happens.
Any plans with ERASURE in the near future, apart from the 30th anniversary releases?
I think we are going to write, there’s nothing yet, but we talked about it and had a meeting. I said to Vince that I’d love for him to do almost like a concert piece on his own, just do music on his own, like a symphony or something, and I can just listen to the music and see if it inspires me in any way. Just to add choirs and things like that.
Aren’t you missing your über cool costumes you used to wear during ERASURE’s live shows? Like for ‘The Tank, The Swan and The Balloon…’
Yeah, I loved wearing the Victorian lady’s outfit, top hat and stuff, but it’s one of those things you can’t do all the time… I find it a bit weary when you get those artists and they get a new look every week. It just depends on my mood, the tour and the vibe you want to give off. How surreal you want it to be, it’s not that I’ve stopped, it’s just… sometimes it’s just easy to wear jeans and T-shirt.
Did you achieve what you set out for ‘The Violet Flame’, say in comparison with ‘Tomorrow’s World’?
Vince and I think it could have been a bit more deeper, more housey, club style… it was still quite three minute pop songs, but we think it could have been a bit more experimental I suppose…
Vince reworked a lot of older classics for ‘The Violet Flame’ tour, which song did you enjoy performing the most?
I think maybe ‘Star’, it had this real tribal beats intro and we managed to get the flavour of being in a club. That was the vibe we were going for. In the beginning, we wanted to have a DJ booth above the stage, with me dancing underneath, but it would have been very expensive, so we stayed on the same surface.
Have you ever fancied bursting into ‘A Little Respect’ on the tube yourself?
No, I like being incognito, when nobody knows who I am. I prefer being not so well known… before, I used to yearn it, but I think you grow out of it. In 1992, after the ABBA thing, it went massive, I was walking in Hampstead, where we lived, and everybody was looking at me and I found it really embarrassing and thought “can you make it stop?”! Vince gets very embarrassed, he’s very not bothered, his ego is way beyond that.
I think it’s just developing the character more and getting to know him, I don’t think I really know him that well yet. With the second part ‘The Beautiful Libertine’, I can get to know him a bit more and maybe like him a bit more. After that there’s part three, I hope it won’t end for Torsten. I’m looking forward to doing the shows, it’s going to be next March in London.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to ANDY BELL
Special thanks to Matt Ingham at Cherry Red Records
‘Variance – The Torsten The Bareback Saint Remixes’ and ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’ are released by Cherry Red in CD and download formats, further information at http://www.cherryred.co.uk/
Text and Interview by Monika Izabela Goss
Live photos by Richard Price
16th September 2015