VCMG: New Life
RA speaks separately to electronic pioneers Vince Clarke and Martin Gore about their new project.
Vince Clarke and Martin Gore are two electronic music pioneers, legends whose reputation precedes them. Clarke, a founding member of Depeche Mode along with Gore, departed from the group in the early '80s and went on to form Yazoo and Erasure—two of the most popular synth pop bands of their time. Gore continued with Depeche Mode through the years and helped create some of the most beloved albums of the '80s (and beyond).
The two haven't worked together in a professional capacity since those early Depeche Mode songs, but that changes with SSSS, an album for Mute due for release next week. Considering the duo's impact on electronic music, it's strange to be able to say that it's the first record that either has made that is firmly and strictly aimed at the dance floor. (Berlin's techno cognoscenti count Depeche Mode as a key formative influence, while Hercules & Love Affair's Andy Butler—among countless others—says Yazoo changed his life.) But as RA recently found out in two separate interviews, the duo are at a stage in their respective careers where the challenge of something new is exactly what they're looking for.
How surprised were you to get an email from Vince after all this time?
Martin Gore: Well, on a scale of one to ten, I'd say it definitely had to be up around a nine. Over the years we've bumped in to each other. During the '80s we were both living in London, so we used to occasionally just bump in to each other at parties cause we had mutual friends. I've been to see Erasure play a few times and I went to see Yazoo play when they re-formed as well. But we've not kept in touch very well apart from that over the years.
When he sent over some of the first sketches, what did you make of the music that he sent over?
Martin Gore: I thought it was very good, very dance-y. It had a real groove to it, and I thought it had really good potential.
What were the things you felt that you could bring to the project, that you could add to the stuff that he sent over?
Martin Gore: I don't know if I really looked at it in that way. I thought of it as collaborating, to try and make the most of the tracks. I don't know if there was anything extremely different that I was doing [in comparison] to Vince.
I wanted to ask about the remixers that you picked out. I know at least in the past with the band that it's been you and the label working in concert with one another to pick. Was that the same situation in this case as well?
Martin Gore: Yes. We got a list together of probably like ten or twelve people and chose the first batch of remixers for the first single.
Who did you put on the list that ended up on the first single?
Martin Gore: What happened first was that Mute sent us a list of people that they liked. And then I added a few people to that list. And I think that the people that I added actually didn't go on the first batch.
Were you familiar with the people that were on the first single at all?
Martin Gore: I didn't know them very well. I had to go and research Edit/Select and DVS1 and really listened through to their stuff, but I really liked what I heard.
Tell me a little bit about the album itself. I was interested in the first single: It said "album version," so this is very dance floor-orientated I assume.
Martin Gore: The whole album is, yeah. I think the slowest track is like 125 BPM, and it's up to about 128. But it's all dance. Which sounds odd for me saying that. Yeah, we made a dance album. [laughs]
Have you tried any of the tracks out on the dance floor?
Martin Gore: Yes, I DJ'd just before Christmas at a benefit in Santa Barbra for a local charity, and played a couple of tracks that seemed to go down very well.
I read that you first met in person in May, quite a bit after you had started work on the album.
Martin Gore: Well, I think we had already finished by then! [laughs] I mean the only thing that hadn't been done at that stage was mixing. The whole album was complete. The first time that we actually had a conversation was during a conference call that was very near to the completion of the recording, and that was when we discussed things like what name we were going to go under, what the album was going to be called, if we had any ideas for artwork. The music was all done via email and file sharing.
Are both of you guys pretty expressive over email? I mean were you talking quite a bit or was it "here's the file, listen to it"? [laughs]
Martin Gore: No, no they were very, very brief emails with files attached. [laughs] I think we're both very cagey.
It must have been quite a different way of working for you.
Martin Gore: Yeah, I've never done this before and I think if I ever decide to do a project in the future with somebody that I'm not completely comfortable with, this is the perfect way to work! [laughs] No, if it's someone you don't know that well it's perfect because you don't have to have that uncomfortable feeling of sitting in a room together and sort of bashing ideas around. Literally, that conference call was the first time we had heard the other's voice.
I guess it's not a traditional album for you, so you won't be touring it.
Martin Gore: Thank God. Thank God we don't have to tour it!
What would a tour look like of that stuff?
Martin Gore: I think it would be the most boring event you could possibly go to [laughs]. You can imagine the two of us on stage like barely moving, and we'd probably get someone to do some abstract visuals behind us.
Was there anything else that kind of was surprising to you about the process?
Martin Gore: I think it was just nice to do something that was completely off the wall and different to what I normally do. I really enjoyed the whole process, but it also made me appreciate going back to what I do normally as well, going back to actually writing songs with words. I have gone back to that with a new vigor.
Why was Martin the person you thought of when you decided to make a dance album?
Vince Clarke: Well, initially I was gonna do it myself, and I started three or four tracks. But I just thought it would be fun to have someone else to bounce ideas off. Knowing that Martin is as interested in the technology as I am, he seemed like the right person to ask. He also has the same kind of studio facility as I do, so it kind of made sense.
Tell me about the process of writing the album. He said you didn't meet up at all during that. Is that correct?
Vince Clarke: No, we didn't. The way we worked was either I or Martin would start doing the track, maybe lay down three or four elements without really having any idea of what direction the track should go or discussing it. Then I would just send him the files and he would add a little bit and then it would come back to me and I would add a little bit. There was no real kind of concept as to how the track would eventually sound. It was just a building block process.
Judging by the first single, it seems like it's definitely something that I haven't heard from you before. Was it tough to get it to a point where you felt like you were happy with it? Or did you not feel like you were in uncharted territory? Did you feel pretty comfortable with it?
Vince Clarke: I felt really comfortable. I've been listening to quite a bit of techno music prior to making this record. And minimal techno music. The thing I discovered—and the thing that attracted me to that type of music—was the idea that you can do anything you like. As long as you keep to a basic structure, there is no limit to the kinds of sounds you can use. For me, that made the whole process really exciting.
Looking back on previous interviews with you that's exactly the same sort of thing you said when you started out with Depeche Mode and Yazoo. I guess it must've been a similar feeling here.
Vince Clarke: Even more so this time because when I'm writing with Erasure or Allison or Depeche, there is a song structure. You have to think about verses and choruses and bridges and, obviously, lyrics. With this kind of dance music, those limitations aren't there. It's completely wide open, and that's what is so great about it.
He said you mentioned that you were listening to a lot of dance music around that time. Who were some of the artists that really struck your ear with what they were doing?
Vince Clarke: Well, actually it wasn't really any particular artist. Someone turned me on to the website called Beatport, and it specialized in this kind of music I suppose. And I was just completely won over by the kinds of sounds that people were using. I've never really taken an interest in techno music or minimal music, I've never really explored it. Through Beatport I started discovering all these different sounds that people were using and the way that people are really stretching electronic music.
With the remixers: Was that a list that you, Martin and the label drew up together?
Vince Clarke: No. Well, initially the label put together a list of people that they thought might be good. And then really Martin was more involved in the decision-making then I was. He's much more informed than I am about particular names and particular remixers so I just got lazy and left it to him.
I remember reading once that you said you have done a couple of remixes, but you've never really gotten in to it before.
Vince Clarke: Yeah, definitely. When I first started making music with Erasure, I was not really interested in remixing or remixes. I was more interested in songwriting. Over the last few years I've gotten more into it. I don't know... I think with the technology that's available now there's so much more you can do with a remix. That makes it interesting too.
Do you worry at all about how this album will be received by the dance music world? Obviously, you know, Erasure fans may not like it because it's not pop while dance music fans may come to it and say it's not dark and minimal enough.
Vince Clarke: I don't worry about that, no. You know I can't really... It's nice when people come up to you and say nice things about your music, but to be honest the way that I work is to try and make the music that I think is the best I can possibly make. Then I hope somewhere along the line someone else like it too.
Do you plan to work with Martin more?
Vince Clarke: I'd like to. He is actually in the middle of writing the next Depeche Mode album I believe, so he won't be available for quite some time. But yeah, I think that the whole project went really well. I think we both enjoyed it, got a kick out of it and I would definitely be interested in doing something like this again.
Do you feel like you have more to say in this genre after this album?
Vince Clarke: I think that there is definitely more to learn. I probably got a bit lazy over the last few years. I kind of stick to the technology that I know. But for this project I really stretched myself. I sat down and learned new stuff and I think that would be true of any future project that I will be involved in.
What was one of the things that you learned in the course of this project that you can point to very easily?
Vince Clarke: Something I've observed in listening to music in this genre is that while there are no lyrics and no real, I don't know, chord changes, there is still a need for emotional lifts in the track. So rather than trying to do that with a lyric or a heart breaking sentence, you do it with sounds and you do it with impact.
Was it hard to get a hang of that or did it come pretty naturally just through all of the accumulated experience you have?
Vince Clarke: I don't think you'd say naturally, I think you have to think about it. I mean you're listening to a track over and over again and if a track is six minutes long, then it's a case of working out "OK, I'm hearing these sounds for this amount of time and this is where I need that emotional lift." And then we would build up an emotional lift and then suddenly it would go down into nothing. I love that. It's like riding a roller coaster.