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After pioneering synthpop with Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke just kept innovating

interview depeche mode alumni vince clarke on modern synthpop recording erasure  2014 photo by joe dilworth
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If modesty were the best policy, Vince Clarke would be the king of tranquility. When asked about his indelible influence on today’s burgeoning electronic music scene, Clarke replies, “Our connection with what’s happening now is the fact that we play synthesizers. And that’s it.”

He’s really being way too modest. A forefather of the electronic generation, Clarke helped pioneer synthpop as a founding member of Depeche Mode (“Just Can’t Get Enough,” from 1981’s Speak & Spell, set the table for his riff-driven style), partnered with chanteuse Alison Moyet in Yaz (or Yazoo, depending on which side of the pond you’re on) for 1982’s new-wave/synth hybrid classic Upstairs at Eric’s, and, for the past three-plus decades, has been conjoined with vocalist Andy Bell in the iconic electronic duo Erasure. And, in his “spare” time, Clarke has done adventurous remixes for the likes of Bleachers, Future Islands, Plastikman, and Goldfrapp.

Erasure continues its electronic dominance and eternal relevance with The Violet Flame, out now on Mute Records. Flame reinforces Erasure’s aural strengths, from the gotta-dance burble of lead track “Elevation” to the anthemic thrust of “Sacred” to the percussive drive of “Smoke and Mirrors.” Recently, Clarke, 54, met with Digital Trends to discuss his synths and their sounds, his top albums and favorite songwriter (all of which may surprise you), and today’s DJ culture. Sometimes the truth is harder, but Clarke feels he couldn’t do it any other way. “That’s been my life,” he says. “It’s my chosen career, and I can’t really change it now.”

Digital Trends: The Violet Flame sounds as relevant to me as anything you guys have done. Do you feel good about how the album turned out?

“I still actually prefer listening to vinyl.”

Vince Clarke: The feeling that I have when I’m making the records is completely different from what I feel after I’ve made it. I don’t listen back to the stuff I’ve done, really.

So when you’re done recording, you just want to put it aside —

(Nods) I mean, completely. The only time I revisit records is when I’m planning for a tour. Even with this one. I’ve only listened to the three tracks we’re doing live.

The sound of Flame is fresh and finely detailed, and I hear we’ll also be getting surround sound mixes of these tracks as well. What’s your view of recording in high resolution 96-KHz/24-bit?

I’m still lost in that 96 argument. I appreciate it and I understand it, but I still think vinyl sounds better than CD. But there is definitely a difference between 16-bit and 24-bit, yeah. And I still actually prefer listening to vinyl.

Why do you think people have been getting back into vinyl?

I’m not so sure it’s just the sound quality. It may be for the actual physical element — you know, the fact that you have something big in your hands and you can read the words and see the big pictures. When I was growing up, that’s what I did for the outside of an afternoon. I’d go through every single frigging credit and read all the details about how the record was made.

What was the first album you had a connection with, the first one that was really special to you as a kid growing up?

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(without hesitation) Trick of the Tail, by Genesis. [Released February 2, 1976 in the U.K., Tail is the first Genesis album to feature Phil Collins as lead singer after the departure of Peter Gabriel.] I bought a stereo player just to hear it. Up to that point, we’d only had mono in the house, so I had never even heard a stereo record before that one. I think the player cost like 50 pounds. And I remember it clearly, because I was standing in front of the speakers to hear that album. I just couldn’t believe it. It’s such a fantastic album. I’ve listened to it since, and everything’s great. It’s a very underrated album, I think.

Tail was very much a transitional album for Genesis, but it had a lot of amazing songs on it, like “Dance on a Volcano,” “Squonk,” and “Ripples.”

They were a great band. They made some phenomenal records. And that was the first time I’d heard Phil sing.

When you hear a record like that, one that has such dynamic range, musicianship, and different sonics, did it give you the idea of, “Hmm, maybe this is something I could do”?

Actually, the inspiration for me to do what I do was the movie The Graduate, and when I heard the music of Simon & Garfunkel for the first time. After I watched the movie, I went out and bought the album and the songbook, and learned every song. “The Sound of Silence,” obviously, was big for me. I thought, “Oi, I can do this.” I thought I could make a legitimate living. “Oh, you know, if I can do that as well as this, I can suitably make a living, and not work in factories anymore.”

Have you ever met Paul Simon or talked to him?

No, I wouldn’t want to. I’ve been following his career since I’ve been 15, I wouldn’t want to meet him. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, but I don’t want to destroy the mystique.

I can see his influence in your songwriting to some degree. What would you consider the first song you wrote that made you think, “Hey, I can really do this”?

“Getting that synth was the only thing that was important to me.”

Probably a track called “Ice Machine,” the B-side of the first Depeche Mode single [“Dreaming of Me,” released February 21, 1981]. I was working it all out. The harmonies came together, and the melody came together. Everything came together.

The work that you created in that era came to define the electronic movement. Did you have a conscious sense of the scene shifting away from guitar to synthesizer?

Not really; it was more of just what interested me at the time. Gary Numan was out there, and Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark had their first single, “Electricity” [released May 21, 1979]. The B-side was a track called “Almost.” It was almost acoustic music done with synthesizers. I heard that and thought, “Well, that’s interesting. That would be a cool thing to do.”

What was the first synthesizer you bought?

The Kawai Syntheszier-100 F. It cost 175 pounds, I think. I bought it in 1980.

Where did you get the money for it?

I had lots of jobs. Getting that synth was the only thing that was important to me.

Did that change the way you composed music?

Not really. Almost all of the stuff I’ve ever written has been on the guitar, because it’s more immediate for me. It sounds nice immediately.

Did you demo the material for The Violet Flame that way?

Not this record. On previous records, we’ve either done acoustic guitar or piano. This time around was a bit different because Andy [Bell] wanted more of a dance feel, so I put together some grooves, drum loops, and bass parts instead. I remember I was a bit apprehensive about doing it that way because we’d tried it before, and it didn’t really work. Just because once you’re set in that framework — with guitar, you just change keys, and it’s different. But this time, it worked out really well. The ideas came; they were flowing.

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What’s in your synth arsenal these days?

I work with a guy in Brooklyn, Evan Sutton, and I said to him when we started, “We can use every single piece of equipment in my studio at least once.” So that’s what we did. And my synthesizer collection — I’m fortunate to have pretty much everything. (smiles)

Do you have a favorite synth?

The Pro-One [i.e., the Sequential Circuits Pro-One analog synth, used on Yaz hits like “Don’t Go” and “Only You”]. I’ve had it for so long. I like the envelopes on it, and it has really interesting modulation. It was easier to zero in on earlier in my career since there weren’t that many synths around, but now there are quite a few. Hopefully, I don’t go to a synthesizer to get a “particular” sound. I want it to remain challenging. Don’t just go to the Moog to get bass, you know? Try to get a kick drum out of a [Korg] MS20. (both laugh) That’s the goal. You’ve got to set yourself up a bit. The challenge for me isn’t playing really quickly; the challenge is trying to find a unique sound, and use a synthesizer for perhaps what it’s not necessarily best for, or best known for. For this album, I used the Arp 2600’s custom sounds, the Pro-One, the Roland System 100M, and the Roland System 700.

The Violet Flame runs about 40 minutes. Was there a conscious decision to keep it at such a concise length?

No. We had more songs than we needed when we made the record, so we asked the producer [Richard X] to choose the tracks he felt were the strongest, and it just ended up that way. He put a lot of importance on listening to the whole record from beginning to end.

Sequencing is a lost art these days. There’s a reason “Promises” comes a few tracks before “Under the Wave.” You’re taking us on a journey, and telling the story you want to tell.

“I get in my perfect position and I play the record from beginning to end, and I won’t do anything else.”

To be honest, it’s not something that would have occurred to me; it was the producer’s idea. He wanted it. But it’s interesting. You go back to Trick of the Tailthat’s an album you listen to from beginning to end. Which I did. (smiles) Or Pink Floyd, or any of those bands. Not so much pop bands, but I did listen to the first two Human League records [1979’s Reproduction and 1980’s Travelogue], the ones before the girls joined, and as you said, there’s a story to those records. And that’s nice.

With Pink Floyd, especially The Dark Side of the Moon — there is a story there. You can listen to the tracks individually, but you don’t get the full sense of what it is if you just randomly pull “Time” out for a spin. While it’s an impactful track on its own, when you listen to “On the Run” before it and “The Great Gig in the Sky” after it, you get much more out of Dark Side as a whole.

Absolutely, yeah! In fact, that album is the one album I would never pull a track out of to listen to on its own. I’ve always listened to the record. I’d never listen to a single track on that record by itself; I’ve always listened to the entire album. (chuckles)

And I’m more in tune with the way the vinyl sounds. I’ve just spent quite a bit of money on a fairly expensive record player stereo system. To me, there’s no comparison. I don’t want to get snobby about it; it’s just one of those things.

Would you mind saying what kind of stereo gear you have?

No, I won’t say. (smiles) We recently moved, and I’ve just set up the whole stereo system. When there’s an evening I’ve decided I’m going to sit down and listen to a record, I get in my perfect position and I play the record from beginning to end, and I won’t do anything else. But if I have on MP3s, I’m watching TV and doing other things, do you know what I’m saying?

What albums have you listened to lately?

I’m listening to old stuff still. I’ve got four copies of Dark Side of the Moon, two of which are unopened. Just in case, you know? T-Rex, early Genesis records, and American folkie stuff before 1980 all sound fantastic on vinyl, I think. I just love that sound, the space.

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My friend and I used to go the independent record shop in our local town, and that would be our afternoon — going through the records and deciding which one to buy, figuring out which one was “the one.” And we would each buy one, and then go back to his house since he had the record player, and argue about which was best. It was all about who knew best. “I have better taste than you do!”

What happened if you made a bad choice?

You wouldn’t make a bad choice, because you listened to the record before you bought it.

Right, you could do that over in England. We couldn’t really do that here in the States in most record stores. And sometimes we’d buy records just based on the cover alone.

Which is another way to start good arguments as well.

Do you think it’s a different experience for the younger generations who didn’t grow up buying vinyl but are getting into it now?

I don’t know. My son listens to music a little — he’s only 8, and I don’t think he could tell the difference between an MP3 and a vinyl record. The only thing he would notice is that it’s more of a bother to play a record. You have to get up and do something with it. You have to physically move. (both laugh)

Why has the DJ culture become so prominent?

“The ideas came; they were flowing.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the people see a way of making money out of it. You’ve got these massive audiences and these massive festivals like Ultra — they’re huge. The music doesn’t rely on radio; they just get it out there by word of mouth. But the technology to make that kind of music is affordable now. It was pretty expensive back then when I started, you know.

As a pioneer of the form, how do you view today’s electronic scene?

Our connection with what’s happening now is the fact that we play synthesizers. And that’s it. But I do think the whole electronic scene as it’s happening right now if very exciting — as exciting as it’s ever been.

Why is that? Why now?

Just because so many people are doing it. But there’s so much to listen to. I don’t have enough time in the day to listen to all of what’s out there. A lot of the stuff is crap, sure — but there are some people who are really pushing the boundaries. For me, it’s very inspiring. I’m a real beats addict, so I just listen to all the dance stuff that’s coming through.

Anything you’d recommend we listen to?

I would never recommend anything. (smiles while DT laughs) No, I would recommend you keep your ears open. That’s my recommendation.

Mike Mettler
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mike Mettler is the music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has…
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