Erasure back centre stage with new 'best of'
After 16 albums and more than a few brilliant singles since forming in 1985, Erasure's new best-of is a shining showcase. Andy Bell reflects on the band's three decades with Andy Welch
NEVER less than entertaining as an interviewee – a mixture of scurrilous anecdotes, utter honesty and warmth – it's no surprise to hear that Andy Bell's been doing radio interviews all day.
He's promoting Erasure's forthcoming best-of compilation, called Always, and in a way, Bell – one half of the band that formed three decades ago – doesn't have much choice in the matter, since his musical partner Vince Clarke has all but retired from doing them.
"I remember when Kate Bush retired from public life," says the singer, now 51. "I'm a huge fan of hers and always loved that she did that. Vince is a bit like that – he's retired from public life, leaving me to the interviews.
"But he's deserved it; he's on his fourth band," he adds, referring to Clarke's other outfits; Depeche Mode, Yazoo (his duo with Alison Moyet) and his short-lived synth-pop two-piece The Assembly.
"I can't believe this whirlwind. I've gone straight from the Edinburgh show I did, Torsten The Bareback Saint, to this with Erasure and a single with [house producer] Dave Aude, but it's great having all this going on at once."
Bell wasn't really involved in putting together the album – "But I did write a lot of them and sing them all, so that counts for something" – which is released to mark Erasure's 30th anniversary.
It's available on single CD and 3-CD format. Whichever version you get – and you should – you'll get some of the best British pop music of the last 30 years.
Erasure released their debut single, Who Needs Love (Like That), shortly after forming in the mid-80s. It didn't reach the charts, and neither did their subsequent two releases, but something changed with fourth single Sometimes in late 1986, which went to No 2. From that moment, the duo became one of the most successful bands of the 80s and 90s, not missing the Top 20 with a new single until 1997.
"I'm not a nostalgic person, not at all," says Bell, "but it is staggering when I look back and see the body of work we've created. It's not that I wasn't present, but from 1986 to 1997 we were writing album after album, touring everywhere, so I wasn't aware of the historical context of the songs. I was too busy working to notice what was happening."
He says he still hears Erasure songs wherever he goes, whether travelling the world, or in the UK or Tampa, Florida, where his partner lives.
"I've been in shops in Tampa and heard one of our tracks and said to the person behind the counter, 'Oh this is me, this song', and they think I'm crazy. They have no idea. The songs are famous but we're faceless, and I suppose I look different now.
"But no matter how many things I have done, I'm not going to be Madonna," he adds, alluding to how he doesn't feel the need to preserve an eternally youthful and recognisable face. "I wasn't that good looking in the first place..."
He says he prefers to live between Tampa and the UK than commit to one place, and pays tax in the UK for healthcare reasons. He announced in 2004 that he'd been HIV-positive since 1998, and due to another unrelated ailment, he's also had both hips replaced.
He says he and Clarke, despite selling more than 20 million records together, only contact each other about twice a year, and will have their second meeting of 2015 next month, to discuss the possibility of another Erasure album and a tour next year.
"We have the utmost respect for each other, but Vince has his life and I have mine. And when we get together to work it's so intense. We've spent so much time together in the past that we don't need to be in each other's pockets. We have a great relationship."
Bell hopes Always is the start of Erasure getting some of the credit they're long overdue, and that they won't stay at the back of the minds of the people who control the media for much longer.
"People get embarrassed about what they liked in the past, don't they? That means we can't get on the TV any more, because the people running it don't want reminding of what they liked when they were kids. Obviously we remind them of their awkward teenager years or something.
"But when something like this compilation comes out, it strips everything back to just the music, and it's devoid of all that context and baggage."
He feels, especially after the success of last year's The Violet Flame album, Erasure's 16th, that their "wide elliptical path" is coming back round and they're in favour once again.
"It was always going to take us a while, but I feel very proud of the songs we've written and what we've achieved."
He says he thinks Erasure Pt II will be next, a follow-up-of-sorts to 1995's Erasure. "It won't be about writing singles, and Vince can have free reign on the music."
It's a quieter life that Bell now enjoys, and he says he doesn't miss the old days of being so busy. While he did enjoy the work, and lots of clubbing on top of that, he says he became paranoid people were staring at him wherever he went.
"I would always make friends with the bouncers, the owners, managers, bar staff and things, so they could help me if it got bad. But these days, I'd much rather go out and be incognito in the corner. I can't imagine what it's like when everyone has a camera-phone," Bell concludes. "I miss the nights out, but I much prefer travelling on the Tube."
:: Always – The Very Best Of Erasure is released today in single CD and 3-CD formats.
EXTRA TIME – ERASURE
:: Andy Bell was born in Peterborough on April 25 1964. Vince Clarke was born in north-east London on July 3 1960.
:: They met in London in 1985, Bell answering Clarke's advert in Melody Maker looking for a singer. Clarke was impressed by Bell's unconventional singing style.
:: At the time, Bell was working in the ladies shoe department in Debenhams.
:: During the 80s, he was one of just a few openly gay pop stars, refusing to hide his sexuality.
:: Outside the UK, Erasure are most popular in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Argentina, Chile and Peru.