Andy Bell on their latest project, and why he's destined to play the Phantom...

Erasure’s Andy Bell is on stage in Aylesbury, two weeks into a world tour, and doing what he does best: delivering witty, occasionally lewd banter, and belting out the appealing high energy pop songs that have defined his partnership with Vince Clarke since they formed Erasure in 1985. The duo’s hits are all here – ‘Sometimes’, ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘Oh L’Amour’, ‘Chains Of Love’, ‘Drama!’ – but Bell and Clarke also pepper their set with less obvious, less well-known tracks, fan favourites or songs that have rarely received a live airing.

Some three hours before the gig, the whole venue having been evacuated because of a fire alarm during their soundcheck, Andy Bell is sat by the bins near the stage door, a wax jacket buttoned up to his chin to keep out the cold.

He seems tired, despite confessing to having slept for something like sixteen hours, quiet and reflective, the polar opposite of his on-stage persona. “You don’t want to be a puppet just dancing around and singing ‘give a little respect to me’ all the time,” he sighs. “I know that’s what people want, and you have to give people a certain amount of what they want, but at the same time you need to be satiated too.” ‘A Little Respect’ would be the rousing encore of the show later, Bell delivering a brilliant, honed performance in spite of how he might feel about the song.

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You have to give people a certain amount of what they want...

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We are talking about last year’s ‘World Be Gone’ album, a record that was not wholly unprecedented in the Erasure back catalogue if you analyse it closely enough, but one – against a backdrop of Brexit, Trump, the disenfranchised march of populism, rampant inequality, ugly returns to intolerance and ignorance – that felt like a meaningful and timely departure for this enduring band.

The entire album has now been given a neo-classical makeover as ‘World Beyond’ by the Brussels-based Echo Collective ensemble, a move that both firmly cements the maudlin grandeur of the album’s ten tracks, but also allows Andy Bell to continue an evolution that has dominated his thoughts and feelings toward music over the past few years.

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During their set, Erasure perform the serene ‘Sweet Summer Loving’ one of three songs from ‘World Be Gone’ in their setlist, and one of the only tracks on that album to offer a degree of respite from the main themes of the record.

As the song concludes, with scant few members of the audience seeming willing or able to show their appreciation versus the hits, Bell says how sad it is that bands don’t make slow, soulful pop songs any longer, and confesses to how much he loves listening to Heart FM. It’s as if he’s trying to remind his audience that, once upon a time, Erasure were synonymous with that kind of heartfelt, sensitive, emotional music, whereas a lot of music today seems afraid to display its feelings openly. Later, the band perform a thunderous, drama-filled version of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, a song that Bell was voicing his enthusiastic appreciation for as far back as the mid-90s. ‘Atomic’ is arguably the benchmark for throwaway, instantly gratifying, emotionless lyric writing and the polar opposite of what Bell painstakingly wrote for the songs on ‘World Be Gone’.

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It was really, really concerning to me that society could be so subtly and easily manipulated.

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“I was so upset with the things that were going on at the time,” he explains of what went into writing ‘World Be Gone’. “I was reading about councils putting handles on benches in places like Bournemouth so that homeless people couldn’t sleep on them. I’d also read about about people being frozen, living outside and people having buckets of water chucked over them on their blankets – things like that. When we were doing the album it was also at the height of the crescendo, following on from Brexit, Trump and all of those things. It was really, really concerning to me that society could be so subtly and easily manipulated.”

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The political dimension on ‘World Be Gone’ might have passed people by. Partly this was because, perhaps, it’s not something anyone would especially expect from Erasure; the other reason is that there is a overall tone that pervades most of the album, a tone that is more world-weary, worn-down and disappointed than angry, as if they are songs about a loss of love – a familiar theme in Erasure songs – rather than a loss of freedom or a reversal of progress.

But political it nevertheless was: where 1988’s call-to-arms-disguised-as-a-pop-song ‘A Little Respect’ demanded equality, tracks like ‘Lousy Sum Of Nothing’ from ‘World Be Gone’ (sample lyric “I don’t know what we’ve become, don’t recognise the world as one”) felt anguished and hopeless, like all of those efforts and struggles were for naught. The epic ‘Still It’s Not Over’ dealt with the turmoil that led from the liberality of San Francisco’s Castro district to the Stonewall riots, the way the proponents were treated, and the long-term, hard-won rights that the LBGTQ community demanded – only for all that to have been seemingly lost with sweeping legislation that nullified some of those advances. The album’s title track was its polar opposite, Bell’s lyrics detailing a resigned, beleaguered disbelief that so much progress could be wiped out so ruthlessly amid a populist right-wing uprising.

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I think that as a society we’ve been numbed on purpose...

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“It’s become the same old story over and over again,” sighs Bell when reflecting on that prevailing mood. “It’s almost like we’ve just accepted it. I think that as a society we’ve been numbed on purpose.” This notion that inequality and a return to more intolerant ideals has become our terrifying new normal is a source of pain for someone like Bell who fought on the frontlines of demanding equal rights. “I didn’t really realise how profound, or how deep, the lyrics were going when we wrote the album,” he admits, with evident surprise. For him it was just the output of his normal process of composing lyrics, but it was fully inseparable from the mood of the time and what was going on around him.

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When I first heard ‘World Be Gone’, one recurring image continually came to mind: that of Ed Harris’s character in The Hours, his body wracked by AIDS and his outlook devoid of all hope, delivering a miserable monologue on the state of things before throwing himself out of an apartment window to his death on the sidewalk below. Bell doesn’t recall the movie, but he certainly recognises the misery. “I have been in those places at certain times,” he says, soberly, displaying a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity that squarely differentiates Andy Bell the individual from Andy Bell the more familiar, larger-than-life showman the public gets to see.

For Echo Collective’s Neil Leiter, the songs on ‘World Be Gone’ were tied to a familiar tradition. “These are protest songs,” he says pointedly from his home in Brussels, “but I’m not sure that people realised that when they first heard ‘World Be Gone’. Pop music and rock music had been a protest place for a long time, but, for one reason or another, it moved away from doing that. I think the way the lyrics are presented on the new version of the album will allow people to hear that they’re protest songs.”

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These are protest songs...

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US ex-pat Leiter is the co-leader of Echo Collective with Belgium’s Margaret (Meg) Hermant. The idea of their neo-classical ensemble arose out of their studio and stage work for the likes of Erased Tapes’s A Winged Victory For The Sullen and the recently-departed Jóhann Jóhannsson. “We were just learning through doing,” says Leiter, with a frank humbleness. “We were figuring out how things worked, and how to bring a classical affinity to this music we were involved with.”

Being musicians-for-hire wasn’t what Leiter and Hermant wanted to be. “We wanted to take a step toward composing our own material,” Leiter readily admits. “We got that chance through the Ancienne Belgique concert hall in Brussels. This last year they let us do a concert residency, and as part of that they commissioned us to rearrange ‘Amnesiac’ by Radiohead.”

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Neither Andy nor Vince was at all aware of our work...

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The ensemble’s take on that oblique left-turn in the Radiohead back catalogue is set for release on the K7! Imprint at the end of March and displays a stunning dexterity on the part of the collective. On their version of ‘Amnesiac’, Echo Collective tease out complex new arrangements from Radiohead’s artsy statements while retaining their distinctive essence – just without the inchoate Autechre-influenced electronics and Thom Yorke’s questing vocal.

Taking ‘Amnesiac’ out on tour, plus the stated ambition of wanting to compose their own original material, caught the attention of Mute Song, the long-running publishing arm of Erasure’s label. “Erasure and Mute were thinking of doing this project and Mute Song recommended us for it,” explains Leiter. “Neither Andy nor Vince was at all aware of our work. Then again, not many people are aware of our work yet.” Mute Song played the role of matchmaker, something they’ve repeated with a forthcoming Echo Collective collaboration with another Mute act, Maps.

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The idea of reworking the whole of ‘World Be Gone’ originally arose out of a suggestion that Erasure include an orchestral version of one of the album’s tracks on a single. Way back in 1987, Erasure had included three orchestral arrangements of songs from their breakthrough album ‘The Circus’ on a companion LP of remixes and live tracks. The Echo Collective project was to be very different from that early foray into classical territory; where those tracks mostly reused cast-off recordings of Andy Bell’s voice, what became ‘World Beyond’ effectively involved recording the entire album, and Bell’s vocal, all over again.

“We were lucky enough to have their ProTools sessions,” says Leiter. “That meant we were able to have the tracks completely decomposed in front of us, so we could listen to individual synth lines, and how everything fit together. We saw the whole puzzle.”

“For me, it’s always so magical to know someone else’s process of building a piece of music,” adds Meg Hermant. “When you listen to music or a song, you can’t begin to imagine that process, so when you can listen to everything, and you can mute things or play everything together, you are firmly acting as both the conductor and the orchestra. You suddenly know how the music happened. It was like a game, as Neil says. That first part of that process was definitely exciting, but then we had to actually do something with it.”

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When you listen to music or a song, you can’t begin to imagine that process...

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This initial step allowed Leiter and Hermant the opportunity to identify which sections were interesting, which bits would work in a new setting and which bits might not transfer to an orchestral arrangement. “We’d then listen to the track and work out which synth part would sound really good on the vibraphone and what would sound really good as strings,” Leiter continues. “Each instrument has its own inherent strengths. I think one of the important things in arranging is playing to those instruments’ strengths. For example, there are a lot of backing vocals on the ‘World Be Gone’ album, and those backing vocals became string parts, because strings are very vocal. So it’s the same melody as the backing vocals in a lot of places, but it feels very different because there’s no words, and there’s less clutter. It takes on a very different vibe and a very different colour.”

Leiter feels that this pared-back approach inevitably gives Andy Bell’s vocal, and the themes of his lyrics, a more central role in the songs. Bell agrees. “It made me look at the songs more, or just look at them in a completely different way,” he says. “It made me feel like I had to convey more of a message and try to tell more of a story.”

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Andy Bell spent five days rehearsing with Echo Collective at Leiter’s studio in Brussels. In the video that was released when ‘World Beyond’ was first announced, you see Bell sat in the middle of the group just singing along with them as a band. “I think that was elemental in him finding his place,” says Leiter. “Because we’re using acoustic instruments, we’d normally play unamplified. That means we’re used to leaving space for a singer and then finding a natural balance.” When it came to recording, the musicians would lay down full tracks during the day so that Bell could return to the studio for vocal duties in the evening.

This process was very different from how the ensemble approached reimagining ‘Amnesiac’ as an instrumental suite. “That was one of the first jobs we had been commission to do, and it was also a way to discover whether we could actually do it,” explains Hermant. “We really didn’t know how to make it happen. With Radiohead we also didn’t have the studio material to listen to, so it was more like feeling the music and choosing what we could hear in those finished tracks. There was also no singer, and it’s a completely different approach to arranging. With ‘Amnesiac’ we had to do everything ourselves. We had no contact with the Radiohead team, so we just had to trust our nerves and our process.”

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It was our first time working with a pop star, and I was really curious to see how it would go...

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What emerges on the new versions of the Erasure tracks is an opportunity to appreciate Andy Bell’s distinctive voice all over again, naked, unadorned and resonant. That voice sits amid poignant, evocative but never overly complex arrangements, something that Neil Leiter thinks would be ideally suited to being performed live in some of the classical world’s most renowned concert halls.

What’s perhaps surprising, particularly with how prominent a personality Bell displays on stage, is how amenable he was to approaching his vocal differently. Leiter was also slightly taken aback. “It was our first time working with a pop star, and I was really curious to see how it would go,” he laughs, suggesting that they were more concerned than inquisitive. “I thought he did brilliantly. When we were in the studio he was open to direction and when we asked him to sing a different way he would immediately do it, even to the point where we asked him to change octaves, just to give it a different colour. He was happy to do that. He’s a consummate musician. I think he’s much more of a musician than he’d give himself credit for.”

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For Bell, this is something he faces continually when people think of his role in Erasure. He has bristled before at the notion that Vince is solely responsible for the melodies that prevail in their songs. He is nevertheless also still happy to be guided by the one who gave him his break at a 1985 open audition, and who insisted that Bell’s was the only voice that could front what became Erasure.

“Vince always says he’s a really, really sensitive person, but he can also be quite diva-ish as well,” laughs Bell, “and yet people always think I’m the loud one.” Bell puts it down to celestial character traits. “He’s Cancerian and he’s also been in the music business for so long. He knows what he likes and how he likes things to sound when we make an album. And once he’s made his mind up, there’s no shifting it at all.” Bell himself is a Taurus, which should make him somewhat stubborn in combination with Clarke if you believe in such things, but instead he tends to rely on Vince’s ear and judgement in what makes an Erasure song work.

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And yet people always think I’m the loud one!

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There was a time twenty odd years ago when Bell would become nervous and uncomfortable if he was invited to contribute to a project without Vince, usually making sure that Clarke somehow became involved somewhere along the way. Even 2003’s ‘Other People’s Songs’, a collection of covers that acted as a comeback of sorts for the duo, was originally touted as an Andy Bell solo project before becoming an Erasure album proper. Since then, Bell has become much more self-assured and more willing to challenge himself. An appearance as a contender on Popstar To Opera Star was a nerve-jangling experience, but it was his celebrated solo turn in Barney Ashton’s Torsten The Bareback Saint at 2014’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival that would prove pivotal in wishing to continue pushing himself forward.

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You can easily draw a line between Bell taking on the role Ashton’s sexual polymath character, the more earnest, assured songwriting that went into ‘World Be Gone’ and his willingness to re-evaluate that body of work for the ‘World Beyond’ album, even if it wasn’t especially conscious. “It wasn’t a plan,” says Bell, “but the Torsten project was quite classical. The theatricality of that, and the experience of doing that, has leant itself to my performance today. It’s bound to come into the songs. More that that, I just think life experiences have a way of waking you up.

“I mean, I don’t have children,” he continues, gesturing in the direction of my eldest daughter who’s standing nearby. “That would be a huge wake up. I think you just get to a certain age and you feel like you want to do different things.” He goes on to say that Erasure’s disappearance from the limelight in the 1990s, at a point where pop music lurched suddenly toward something he and Vince Clarke couldn’t recognise, helped prepare him for a move in a different direction.

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I think you just get to a certain age and you feel like you want to do different things...

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“I think we were quite lucky because people had the notion that we’d gone away,” he says, without any trace of sadness, “but we hadn’t, not really. I think in some ways that’s quite healthy, because if you’re there all the time, people get bored of you. It must be really hard to make that sort of transition for someone like Madonna, or Kylie, someone who’s been a pop artist for her whole life.”

Andy Bell gushes with enthusiasm about how ‘World Beyond’ has turned out, evidently happy that another bold step into the unknown has paid off, both personally and artistically. When I spoke to Bell as he embarked on a short run of performances of the sequel to Barney Ashton’s original Torsten, that same sense of enthusiasm came through loud and clear, oftentimes overshadowing how he talks about Erasure. And, just as he did then, he reprises a notion that evidently he finds himself thinking about as he points in a more theatrical direction. “I’ve always wanted to play the Phantom. I think I’d be quite good. However, I think Andrew Lloyd Webber only likes famous people,” he says quietly, with a characteristic self-deprecation.

Nevertheless, even if Broadway doesn’t necessarily beckon, Bell is clear that the recent forays beyond his comfort zone aren’t enough. “I definitely feel like I want to do more of this,” he says cautiously. The fire alarm now over, he heads to his dressing room, whereupon this quiet, reflective individual will metamorphose into the enigmatic, glitter-sprayed and bodystocking-wearing Andy Bell that his audience knows and cherishes.

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Erasure's 'World Beyond' will be released on March 9th.

Words: Mat Smith

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