It's difficult to overemphasize Vince Clarke's central role in the world-conquering rise of electronic pop. Born Vincent John Martin in the northeast corner of London, Clarke—along with Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher—was one of the founding members of the foundational synth-pop combo Depeche Mode. He penned the hit singles "Dreaming of Me," "New Life," and "Just Can't Get Enough"—as well the bulk of the band's debut LP, Speak & Spell, released in 1981 on Daniel Miller's Mute label. Their music—electronically rendered yet brimming with humanity, hooky-as-hell but tinged with pathos—went on to influence acts as disparate as Nine Inch Nails, Pet Shop Boys, M83, Lady Gaga, countless techno and house artists, and pretty much everyone working in the electronic-pop realm.
By the end of the year, following the mega-success of Speak & Spell, Clarke had quit the band; he and vocalist Alison Moyet formed Yazoo (called Yaz in the States) in 1982, resulting in such still-potent synth-pop gems as "Situation" and "Don't Go." By mid-decade, he was working with flashy frontman Andy Bell as the even-more-sparkly Erasure, crafting indelible, synapse-tingling tunes like "Oh L'Amour," "Who Needs Love Like That" and "Sometimes."
Even in that highly schematized rendering, this is a damn impressive early-career résumé—but rather than coming across as a swaggering rock star, Clarke is an exceedingly low-key guy. When I arrived at Clarke's home on a leafy street in Park Slope, Brooklyn for an interview, I found an artist modest to a fault, given to self-deprecation and even self-doubt. "When Erasure didn't really happen straight away—the first album didn't really sell—I was thinking, well, that's it, I'll get have to get a job at an advertising company," he confides. "I still worry about how things are going to go, about what I'd do if this all ends."
As far as Erasure goes, he probably can stop worrying—the duo is in the midst of celebrating 30 years of synth-pop perseverance via a slew of re-releases, with a new album (the pair's 16th) on the way. And he's kept busy with plenty of side projects, too. Just in the past several years, he's released a techno-tinged album produced with former Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore under the VCMG banner; remixed Plastikman, Goldfrapp, Bleachers and Future Islands, among others; and worked with Jean-Michel Jarre on a pair of tracks for Jarre's Electronica 1 release. But I'm here today to talk about his current project: a collaboration with Paul Hartnoll, one half (with brother Phil) of the seminal rave-era act Orbital.
The result—an album titled 2Square, out today, also serves as the first release on Clarke's new VeryRecords, described in a tagline as "a very small record label dedicated to releasing very fine electronic music" as its catchphrase. The imprint, Clarke's first, is a test of sorts for the veteran artist. "I started thinking that I could use the challenge of doing it all myself," he says. "Mastering the records, getting the publishing sorted out, trying to work out how you do press…normally I have people to do that for me, and I really didn't have much of an idea of how to go about it. Do you just phone people up and say, 'Hey, do you want to review my record?'" That record is, not surprisingly, a four-to-the-floor blend of Clarke's crisp pop sensibilities and Hartnoll's hazy dream-house musings. It's also extremely good, as it happens.
Our interview takes place in Clarke's basement, a spacious, paneled room that could double as a scene from a gear-nerd reverie. The room would put your average classic-synth museum to shame, with nearly every available square foot of wall and shelf space occupied by an impressive piece of equipment. There's a Prophet 5 here, a Doepfer A-100 there, a Roland System 100m over in the corner, Moogs, ARPs, Arturias…you get the idea. (There are some newer pieces and a laptop as well, in case you were wondering.) His favorite? "Sequential Circuits Pro One, because of super-fast envelope generators and mad modulation possibilities," he reveals. "Most of the sounds on the first Yaz album were made with it."
Quiet and subdued, yet friendly and open, Clarke was happy to chat about his history, songwriting and his latest project. The Q&A that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
THUMP: Where do you think your love of synthesized music comes from? I'm guessing that you, like most kids, were something of a rock fan when you were younger.
Vince Clarke: Actually, I was more interested in folk music when I was younger. But I can tell you when I first became interested in it—it was the B-side of OMD's "Electricity," a track called "Almost." When I heard that…I don't know, it was just really simple, and it felt like acoustic music to me. It was packed with emotion.
You made a top ten list of your all-time favorite albums a few years ago that featured OMD, along with some other music that people might expect, like Kraftwerk and Philip Glass. But there were also a few surprising choices, like the Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin's fourth album.
Led Zeppelin, definitely. I wasn't into that one when it came out; that didn't happen till much later, when I got a really good hi-fi. [laughs] That record sounds amazing on vinyl, especially when it's really loud. I mean, "Black Dog"…it's pretty incredible.
Not to dwell on ancient history too much, but is the oft-cited impetus for you leaving Depeche Mode—that the others wanted to go in a darker direction than you did—actually the reason that you quit the band?
Nah, we basically just weren't getting on. We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much. That started happening before that first album even came out—three singles came out before the album. Two of us were actually on the dole [unemployment benefits] when we started—and then we're suddenly playing shows in Paris.
Didn't you actually adopt the last name Clarke because you were on the dole, and you didn't want them to find out that you were making money
Yes, I had to. I was doing an interview for a newspaper, and I suddenly realized that they were going to mention that we were gigging around.
Do you look back at those early days with fondness?
It's really so long ago that I don't really think about it much at all. The stuff with Alison, a little bit more, because we did that reunion tour [in 2008].
What was it like to revisit those songs 25 years later?
It was good. And weird. [laughs] When I got the multitracks back, I remembered how simple they all were. There really isn't much on them. I guess that was part of what made them good.
Another of your early projects, of course, is Erasure.
It's been 30 years this year. We're actually in the middle of writing a new album.
What is your working relationship with Andy like?
It's great. It's still as good as it's ever been, and we don't argue—ever.
It probably helps that you're not together all the time, as you probably were with your Depeche Mode bandmates years ago.
That's true, but when we are together, it works. When you co-write with someone, you have to trust that person absolutely, and treat that person with respect. And we do.
We're sitting in a room filled with synthesizers, mostly classic analog synths. Do you still mainly work in the analog realm?
Nowadays, ordinarily, I'll do the preparation—the programming, the arranging and the rest—on the computer, and then I'll just convert to analog. I used to work in analog entirely—in the early days, MIDI was pretty bad, timing-wise. I actually tried MIDI, but there were real problems, so went back to using [old-school synth control methodology] CV and gate. But then Logic came out, and you could just move everything to where it was supposed to be, and that was that.
Does the fact that you weren't using MIDI so much in those early days account the precision that your early- and mid-'80s material has, as compared to the music of some other electronic artist from that era?
Well, it was the sequencers, really. With Depeche, we were using the ARP 16-step sequencer. Then it was a Roland MC-4, and then a 16-step sequencer make by a company called Umi, which was made to be used with the BBC Micro. They all did what we needed them to do.
Do you ever get sick of people asking you about ancient history?
No, I don't mind. I can't really remember many of the details anyway!
Is this room where you do most of your work?
Well, for the upcoming Erasure album, Andy and I have did most of the writing in Miami, in a rented house.
What's that writing process like? Is it true that you actually compose on guitar?
Yeah, most of our demos are with acoustic guitar. We like to keep it simple, just to work out the melodies.
You've always seemed to favor collaborations over working alone. You have very little solo work out there, right?
None. At least none that I want people to hear.
I don't know if it qualifies as solo release, but I have friends who are fans of that sample pack that you put out in 1993, Lucky Bastard.
Yeah, that's all right. [laughs] But I do enjoy collaborating—and the older I get, I like doing it more and more. Working down here, it can get pretty lonely, and you can go a little bit mad. And when you work alone, it sometimes feels like you really have to force yourself to work. Paul [Hartnoll] works in a communal studio where he is in Brighton, England, and he likes it—they all socialize and criticize each other's works. I think I would like to be in that kind of environment. It would be good to be able to have someone to do that with.
It's a bit of a cliché to say about a collaboration between two established artists, but a lot of the album's songs—"Underwater," for example, or "The Echoes"—really come off as an amalgamation of your two distinct sounds.
Yeah, it just kind of happened that way. When you collaborate, you do have to be open to the other person's ideas—otherwise it's not collaboration, is it? And even though we grew up in kind of similar ways, Paul and I have different musical histories. Orbital was much more…ravey, I suppose, than anything I was involved with.
I'm guessing that the songwriting process for a record like this is much different than it would be for Erasure. I doubt if you're sitting down with an acoustic guitar, for instance.
No, not at all. There was a lot of messing about with samples, cutting them up or whatever. That was really the basis for a lot of these tracks. It was similar to that VCMG record I did with Martin Gore, which was the project that kind of inspired me to think more about dance music. Before that, I didn't really understand dance music at all. I had never even heard of Beatport. But I really enjoyed making that album, I wanted to do it again. Just not with Martin—not that I have anything against Martin! But I'd already done one with him.
The press release describes this album's music as "home house"—which I'm guessing simply means house music for home listening, right?
I couldn't think of anything else to say about it, really. [laughs] Like I said, I'm new to this end of things; I've never had a label and never knew how to do press. It's just kind of a joke, really.
A few of these cuts are pretty club-worthy, though. Are there any plans to release any as singles?
Not at the moment. We'll see if there's a demand for it. Paul's said that he interested in doing some remixes, so that might be a reason to do it. And I might be able to get a few people I know, I'm guessing. I suppose I know a few people who could do it.
Is this going to be a continuing collaboration?
There are no plans yet, one way or the other. But it was a lot of fun to do, especially that last bit of working with Paul in the studio. When I'm working with Andy on Erasure stuff nowadays—when we're actually recording it—he'll do the singing on his own and I'll do the music on my own. We don't even get together to mix, since we're in different parts of the world. And with the record with Martin, that was all done via the Internet. So this was a really nice change. And he has a real mixing desk! I hadn't used one of them for a while. It felt really good.
You've been at this for three and a half decades, and have had the kind of success that most artists can only dream of. What motivates you to keep going?
I don't know, to tell you the truth. I'm not trying to prove anything to anybody. I'm not worrying about trying to write the best song since "Yesterday" by the Beatles.
Some might argue that you have a few songs that are right up there.
Oh, I wouldn't say that. [laughs] But I think what it might be is the idea of going into an environment like this, where we are now, with nothing—not even an idea. And you can come out with a song. You didn't really plan it, you didn't really conceptualize it, and then you can possibly end up with this symphonic piece of work. It's unpredictable, and it's what keeps it interesting.