As the musical mastermind behind one of the most successful duos of all time, Erasure’s Vince Clarke is no stranger to pop charts. Yet 2002 sees Britain’s synth svengali regrouping with producer/engineer Gareth Jones to record an Erasure album of cover versions at their own expense. JONATHAN MILLER drops by Clarke’s private studio to find out why…


Depeche Mode, Yazoo, The Assembly and Erasure all have two things in common: one, they were founded by Vince Clarke; two, they all enjoyed catchy Clarke-penned synth-driven Top Ten hits in the UK and beyond. For over the last 20-plus years Clarke has had more hit singles than most have had hot dinners, clocking up no fewer than 15 Top Ten entries in the UK between 1986 and 1994 with Erasure – not bad going in the increasingly disposable world of pop, an achievement Clarke and charismatic vocalist Andy Bell were only too happy to celebrate with their appropriately titled Pop! – The First 20 Hits compilation.

So has it really been that long since Clarke first hit paydirt, catapulting the fledgling Depeche Mode into the European singles charts with light, bright and upbeat one-fingered synth pop ditties like ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’? Laughable as it may sound today, that seminal synth group was first written off as early as 1981 when, dissatisfied with promotional and touring rigmaroles, their then-principal songwriter unexpectedly departed immediately following their lightweight long-playing debut, Speak & Spell.

While Clarke’s former bandmates admirably reinvented themselves over coming years – attaining world domination status on the 101st and final concert of their Music For The Masses world tour when performing the dark, yet somehow uplifting songscapes that had become their trademark to a 75,000-strong audience in California’s Pasedena Rose Bowl in 1988 (captured on celluloid by none other than D.A. Pennebaker of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back 1965 British tour ‘rockumentary’ fame) – pop jukebox Clarke also did well for himself, finding further fortune when pairing up with gutsy vocalist Alison ‘Alf’ Moyet in 1982 to form seminal synth blues outfit Yazoo and later longevity with Erasure, the latter performing to 60,000 people at the Milton Keynes Bowl (UK) in 1989. Music for the masses all round, then!


Home is where the art is

10 Erasure albums down the line Clarke’s formidable songwriting partnership with Bell rewarded him well. Having previously rented studio workspaces in London and Amsterdam, today Clarke spends much time tinkering with his vast collection of vintage analogue synthesizers at 37B, a unique circular private recording studio sited in the voluminous grounds of his equally unique home in the southern English county of Surrey.

Clarke is not the first well-known artist to set foot in those grounds. The original house belonged to film director Peter Collinson (of The Italian Job fame) who, when refused planning permission to extend the property, promptly blew it up and constructed the outlandish Tara House (named after his son, Tara) instead! Suitably impressed, The Who’s Keith Moon bought Tara House in 1971, later selling it on to 10CC’s Kevin Godley when relocating to the United States in 1975. Come 1990, Godley was similarly seduced by the American dream and who should buy Tara House but one Vince Clarke. Like Collinson before him, Clarke promptly demolished the property in readiness for building his own circular home and attendant studio, having spent two years mulling over numerous futuristic architectural designs.

The reclusive Clarke’s reasoning behind this igloo-shaped studio is simple. “I fancied the idea of a round studio, because my house is round as well,” he says, matter-of-factly. “So a big balloon was inflated in a hole, sprayed with concrete and then removed to create the dome shape. Of course, once the building was finished, it sounded really weird – like being in a church spire or something – so a load of baffling was designed to bring the sound back to normality. Then all the synths were connected to a central patchbay system so I can patch an LFO from one synth to the VCA of another across the room, or whatever.”

Electric Eel Studio Design’s Kevin van Greene – who previously completed studio workspaces for Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore and Mute Records founder and Depeche mentor Daniel Miller – was duly charged with making Clarke’s dream studio reality, rising to meet the trying technical challenges involved with apparent ease. As 37B’s justifiably proud owner acknowledges, “It was a challenge for everybody, but a lot of time was spent researching it all. Everyone did a brilliant job!”


Going solo?

With 37B up and running by 1994, all subsequent Erasure albums have since been recorded there, in part or whole, with varying degrees of commercial success. Things finally came to a head when Loveboat badly under-performed in 2000. Could it be the hitherto unsinkable good ship Erasure has finally run aground?

An unfavourable press reaction implied this was perhaps the case with a British television documentary entitled Top Ten Of Electropop (broadcast back in April 2001) cruelly concluding, “Another album sneaked out at the end of last year, but no-one found it exciting, or new.” On the same programme Messrs Clarke and Bell did not appear unduly worried, however, with the buoyant Bell playfully retorting, “There’s some great songs on it. But we’ll just do another one. We don’t mind, do we?” By comparison, his recording buddy was seen to draw on a cigarette before laughing, quietly; clearly Clarke was not about to be drawn into a senseless debate. After all, what have Erasure got to prove?

 While some might say Erasure is taking the easy way out by opting to record an album of cover versions, such a plain perception understandably cuts no ice with a songsmith of Clarke’s undisputed calibre. “When the Loveboat album didn’t do very well the record company were trying to make me tour, and I didn’t want to tour,” clarifies Clarke. “So we thought that rather than sit around and sulk, we’d go and do something else – and move on. The fact that it’s cover versions came from Andy’s original concept, so we’ve just been following that through.”

 Indeed, it transpires Bell’s long-mooted solo album, comprising mainly cover versions and 1960s standards, unintentionally became the foundation of the forthcoming Erasure covers album, tentatively titled R.I.P. by Clarke (and instantly vetoed by Bell)! “Andy was originally working on a solo album of torch songs with Gareth [Jones], and I just got involved; I started interfering,” Clarke chortles. “We had this plan that rather than having it record company-fronted, we’d all share in the production as equal members, rather than Gareth just being the producer.”


Keeping up with the Joneses

Fresh from a lengthy engineering stint on Exciter, Depeche Mode’s multi-million-selling latest longplaying extravaganza, Gareth Jones has enjoyed a similarly fruitful professional working relationship with Erasure stretching back to 1989’s chart-topping Wild! album on which he shared production credits with Mark Saunders and the band themselves.

Jones picks up the story. “On this project I feel I’m an honorary band member,” he jokes, before adding; “it’s been a real working together.”

Clarke begins to offer an acute assessment of events leading up to the project’s three-way expansion – “I think Gareth and Andy were having trouble; not with the programming…” – before Jones interjects: “Well, we knew from the start we needed musical input,” he admits, “because keyboards are not Andy’s strength. I love programming, but I don’t have anything like Vince’s depth of musical talent – obviously! Luckily for us, Vince was very keen to be involved.”

With Clarke safely on board, Bell’s initial remit likewise expanded to take on board his collaborators’ wildly varying musical tastes. “I think Andy’s take on it originally was that he was more interested in doing torch songs,” posits Clarke. “I was more interested in doing pop songs and Gareth was more interested in weird songs.”

Jones is again quick on the uptake: “So we finished up with an amalgamation, really. Andy and I had demo’d up ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ on a laptop, and there was a strong Phil Spector feeling at the beginning. We started with 12 Phil Spector songs, but we couldn’t find a way to turn that into an album that was satisfying for all of us. So we chose some songs we loved, and had between 30 and 35 songs in the pool; Andy and Vince selected from those.”


Cover me

Choosing an album’s worth of suitable songs for Erasure to cover must have been an unenviable task for these three disparate musical characters. “It’s been a bit of an extended process,” admits Jones. “I kept out of it!”

Yet recording cover versions also has its advantages, as Clarke readily acknowledges: “You don’t have to worry about melodies; you’re not pulling your hair out worrying about the lyrical or melodic content – that’s already fantastic. So then you can make the track as leftfield as you like, because the song’s still great. What I think we’re trying to do is make them more weird.”

Jones agrees with his erstwhile colleague: “We’ve taken some great songs and done them in our style.”

Stylistically, Clarke and Bell have long since grown used to honing the instantly recognisable, yet continually evolving Erasure sound with a tried-and-tested working methodology: Clarke strums away on an acoustic guitar to work out a basic chord structure while Bell experiments alongside with possible vocal melodies and lyrics. Surprisingly, synths are usually nowhere to be seen during these early sessions, captured for posterity in a rough and ready form on a basic portable tape recorder of some description.

In the case of the as-yet-untitled covers album, the newfound trio are working with pre-existing song structures. This naturally necessitates another approach, as Clarke explains: “What we are tending to do is take the arrangement as it was on the original record and then start messing around with the sounds. So sometimes we take some of the original parts and then use unusual sounds to play those parts.”

Jones nods in agreement. “Rhythmically, we recreated each track.” he adds. “But we took a lot of the melodic parts and structures from the original arrangements. They’re such great songs already that I certainly felt I couldn’t actually improve on the arrangement by changing it. So I think most of the songs we’ve arranged ‘as is’ – out of respect to the originals, as much as anything.”

But where does one begin when covering a timeless classic like The Three Degrees’ ‘When Will I See You Again’? Jones’ reply makes it sound so easy – albeit unintentionally so: “Originally, all the songs are programmed up with a very simple rhythm, and guide chords. Then we obviously do all the normal stuff – get the key; decide what tempo we’re going to do it in. In a way, it’s a little bit like working with a demo; we didn’t go in saying, ‘Well, let’s program up this song to sound marvellous and then ask Andy to sing it.’ But key and time signature are really crucial; if you don’t get them right then you’re fighting an uphill battle all the way.”


Changing times

Timing can still be a tricky business, even when working primarily with strictly sequenced synthesizers. Covering Peter Gabriel’s popular early post-Genesis single ‘Solsbury Hill’ – one of Clarke’s all-time favourite songs – is a perfect case in point. “When we were sketching ‘Solsbury Hill’, it went along in 7/4 for ages and ages,” explains Jones. “We both thought it was great, then one day we just went, ‘Fuck it!’”

“We were trying to create drums that you dance to,” declares Clarke, by way of expanding upon his production partner’s unexpected expletive.

“That’s right,” Jones corroborates. “Neither of us could satisfy ourselves with 7/4 drums, so we just thought, ‘Let’s use 8/4.’”

In this case, it was ultimately deemed easier to get Bell to perform his vocal parts again. “Andy couldn’t tell that there was any difference, really,” Clarke grins, mischievously. “He just sang it naturally. ‘Solsbury Hill’ is very interesting, because once you hear it in 4/4 it sounds like it should be in 4/4. It just worked like that immediately.”

Such radical rethinking was also applied elsewhere on the project, as Jones relishes recounting. “There’s one song that suddenly went from being a 12/8 ballad to an uptempo 4/4 song! That came from working with Andy, who’s very passionate about disco. We were just working at his place, sketching an idea there, then we brought it back here, and it was a similar situation: ‘Vince, when you heard this yesterday it was a slow ballad, but now it’s a full-on hi-NRG track; what do you think?’”


Sing your heart out

Having inadvertently confirmed the presence of an additional recording set-up at Bell’s home, Jones divulges more. “Andy’s doing most of the vocals in his house in a little studio that we’ve built for him, based around a laptop,” he clarifies. “He’d been experimenting with a home studio set-up for a while, but it was a question of finding something he was comfortable with. He loved his laptop, which he used for email, graphics and word-processing, so we took the risk of using that. He’d worked with an Akai digital recorder in the past, and didn’t really enjoy it – he got a bit stuck, feeling he needed an engineer all the time. Part of what we wanted to do was set Andy up so he could work on his own whenever he needed to – partly to save time, and partly to give him creative freedom. When Andy wants to sing now, he just goes into his room and sings – he doesn’t have to wait for me to turn up, or ask Vince for help. Obviously, Andy already had the mic and vocal channel; all we did was buy Logic and a little mixing board, and set him up.”

With a dedicated vocal booth in its basement, Clarke’s impressive 37B studio has also accommodated Bell on this project. “Andy’s been doing vocals at home,” reasserts Clarke, “but he’s also performed a lot of them here in the control room, because he doesn’t particularly like working downstairs as it’s a bit isolated. We got a couple of fantastic vocal takes just using the little mic here straight into the desk.”

Jones is keen to point out that, unlike previous Erasure longplaying excursions, expensive outside commercial recording facilities are not the order of the day: “We don’t need all that! Just to emphasise what Vince said: some of the guide vocals are unbeatable still, after months of working. There’s a magic moment when we’re all here together and Andy sings a track for the first time that’s just amazing. That magic will be on the album!”


Back to the future

Not only is this forthcoming Erasure album a meeting of musical minds, it’s also a meeting of music technologies, with Jones merging his beloved Apple Powerbook G3-based portable studio set-up with Clarke’s resolutely analogue synth collection at 37B. With a twinkle in his eye, Clarke instigates a lesson in ‘mix ’n’ match’ recording techniques by possessively hugging his vintage (in computing terms) BBC B Micro-based UMI software step-time sequencer: “Well, this is mine! Most of the songs are programmed on the UMI, so that’s been the master of most of the tracks. We’re using that [points with mock distain to E-magic Logic Audio running on Jones’ laptop] as a tape recorder, mostly. Then sometimes we’ll get that to play my analogue equipment as well via MIDI.”

Jones goes on the defensive – in the nicest possible way, as is apparently his way. “Funnily enough, when we first started on this project, we were just recording on Vince’s RADAR,” he smirks. “I went through about 10 days of extreme frustration because we hadn’t made the transition to where we are now – really comfortable with Logic and the UMI system running side by side. I just felt I didn’t know why I was recording on what seemed like an old-style tape recorder when I’m a big Logic-head, full of the arrangements and sonic vibes that can be achieved with a modern workstation.”

Luckily for Jones, Clarke was open to suggestions; needless to say, it wasn’t long before an Apple Power Mac G4 came knocking on 37B’s heavenly door. “I suppose this relates to the fact that Vince has been doing some film work and different projects with Martyn Ware, who uses Logic Audio as well,” posits Jones. “The G4 computer was in Vince’s office, and we came together to work on this music at a time when Vince wanted to bring a digital audio workstation into his studio. One of the first things we actually did was to get the office computer’s stuff running on Vince’s laptop, and move the office computer over here and put a MotU card in it and generally get Logic Audio running in the studio.”

But is Clarke convinced? Given there are several back-up BBC Micro Bs in 37B’s basement it’s likely he’ll be turning to his trusty sequencer for quite some time yet. “Although this obviously can’t do a fraction of the things that you can do in Logic,” Clarke concedes, “ I can get it to do what it does very quickly, with almost instant results. When I see other programmers using Cubase or something, I get very, very frustrated: ‘Look, I just want a pitch bend! Why are you having to go through 10 pages?’ It drives me crazy!”

Jones assumes a peacekeeping role: “Well, now we can both be really comfortable with our respective sequencers. Here we’ve got three computers between the two of us, because it makes it a lot easier in terms of workflow.”


You’re surrounded!

Of course, what one chooses to sequence from one’s sequencer of choice is, likewise, down to personal preference. In Clarke’s case, the circular walls of 37B speak volumes: floor to ceiling, vintage analogue synthesizers are neatly arranged around Clarke’s central working position – from modular systems, like Roland’s System 100M and their even more monstrous System 700, to obscure monosynths, such as the Dutch Synton Syrinx; you name it, Clarke’s probably got one. Or even two! “I went out on a serious spending spree around the time of the Chorus album, because that’s when we started with all that weird rule stuff, like no chords and no MIDI,” recalls Clarke.

And while there are no rules as such on the current album, Clarke is keen to use this latest Erasure recording as another opportunity to push the subtractive synthesis envelope: “One of things we’ve tried to do is not use the same synths all the time. There’s always certain synths that you can just get stuck into, because you know them so well – you need a hi-hat sound, so you automatically turn to the same module. Or you assign a certain sound to a keyboard where you know you can get that sound quickly. I’ve got quite a few keyboards that I don’t really use enough, so it’s been a challenge for me trying to get a decent bass drum out of a Korg MS20, for example.”

Unlike Jones, Clarke’s not a big fan of soft synths. “They’re quite interesting,” he grants. “But we’ve not been using that many soft synths. I mean, why do I need to use Pro-52 when I’ve got two real Prophet 5s here!”

It’s a fair observation; one to which Jones responds: “Vince has got a very low boredom threshold, and he’s very fast with all of his gear. Like he said, there’s no point in emulating synths with soft synths when there are so many real ones here. But we’ve been using Reason quite a lot for beats, and also Battery, and we’re obviously using soft samplers because it’s a lot easier than using hardware ones.”

It’s that meeting of technologies thing again, and, judging from the impressive past works of Clarke and Jones, one that’s sure to work well on the new Erasure album – when completed.


Name that tune

Given that Erasure’s longstanding record label, Mute Records, have yet to hear the recording, Bell, Clarke and Jones are sensibly playing it close to their chests when it comes to the final track listing. However, Jones is prepared to reveal they are drawing from a wide spectrum of popular music eras. “There’s one song that predates the 50s,” he begins. “And there’s something from the 80s, because we’re doing an Erasure cover version as well. I was very keen to try and do something from Vince’s back catalogue. We managed to settle on one.”

Strangely enough, the prospect of covering one of his own compositions doesn’t feel strange to Clarke. “I’ve kind of done that a lot already,” he muses. “Because every time we used to tour I’d always re-program the whole set. But incorporating this new technology has kind of made working on this song more interesting. We’ve kept most of the parts, and just jazzed up the sounds.”

Erasure fans intent on finding out which song Clarke is referring to will just have to wait patiently in line, together with everyone else. Someday soon listeners will be rewarded with a classy contemporary take on several classic songs. And, hopefully, the good ship Erasure may find itself once again riding the crest of pop’s fickle wave.

Jonathan Miller is a British freelance writer living in…  well, England. He specialises in the ‘ancient art’ of the hi-tech music interview, and can be reached at




• Loveboat (Mute, 2000)

• Cowboy (Mute, 1997)

• Erasure (Mute, 1995)

• I Say I Say I Say (Mute, 1994)

• Pop! The First 20 Hits (Mute, 1992)

• Chorus (Mute, 1991)

• Wild! (Mute, 1989)

• The Innocents (Mute, 1988)

• The Circus (Mute, 1987)

• Wonderland (Mute, 1986)