With 16 studio albums to his name, 14 as part of Erasure and two as a solo artist, he’s racked up more than 25 million album sales. He’s had five number one UK albums and three US Top 20 singles. He recently appeared on ITV’s Popstar to Operastar. Laurence Watts chats to the incomparable Andy Bell.
I’m sitting on a sofa with Andy Bell. We’re in a hotel room, a block north of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Erasure are in town promoting their new album, Tomorrow’s World. I’m surprised to learn the album really was named after the now defunct BBC television series.
“Tomorrow’s World always tried to predict the gadgets we’d have in the future and yet somehow they missed the internet,” Andy tells me.
“The album title was Vince’s idea. He’s kind of obsessed with technology. The artwork was mine. I’ve been learning tarot and one card that kept coming up for me was a heart punctured by three swords. The first album design had two glass hearts with lightning going through it, which was a bit old Erasure. Then I suggested a tissue paper heart and that’s the one we went with.”
The new album is Erasure’s fourteenth studio album. Though the group has never been able to shake off its association with the 80s, a period in which they enjoyed huge success, their new album has been given a modern treatment by Frankmusik.
“Frank was our instinctive choice for producer. It needed someone who knew we could still sound really fresh. Frank did the 2009 remix of Phantom Bride for The Innocents album reissue, which we really liked. We love his stuff. The fans championed him too. I think it also helped that he was kind of enamoured of Vince.”
Andy is of course just one half of Erasure. The other half is Vince Clarke. Clarke is something of a legend in the music industry. He started out as a founding member of Depeche Mode. When he left he went on to found Yazoo with Alison Moyet before eventually partnering with Bell to form Erasure. While Clarke was responsible for some of the 1980s’ greatest pop songs, Bell was plucked from obscurity.
“I responded to an ad in Melody Maker,’ says Andy. “‘Established songwriter looking for versatile singer.’ That’s all it said. I rang them and they told me the auditions were full. They said they’d ring me back if they hadn’t picked someone. I didn’t think I’d hear anything, but they called me on the Monday and asked me to come down. That’s when they said it was for Vince Clark. They asked if I knew who he was. Of course I knew who he was, he was one of my favourite musicians! I thought it was fate because I’d contemplated writing Vince a letter before.
“I practiced for the audition by listening to Alison Moyet, Susie and The Banshees and The Communards. It went really well and the next day they called me again and asked me if I wanted the job. Of course, I said: yes.”
There was a small catch. Vince was still involved in a project called The Assembly, a collaboration that ended up releasing just one single before disbanding. Andy tells me he prayed it would fail so that Clarke would concentrate on Erasure. Given their initially unequal footing, how long did it take for him to feel an equal part of the band?
“It took a while. I’m quite please we weren’t an overnight success because I don’t think I’d have appreciated it otherwise. I felt it took longer for me to prove myself to the record company than to Vince. After we’d been together for about ten years I started thinking about ideas for artwork and shows and Vince just let me do what I wanted.”
Having formed in 1985 Erasure are now in their 26th year. Most pop and rock acts tend to break up over time because of arguments about money or direction. What’s the secret to Erasure’s longevity?
“Vince has always been open and fair,” says Andy. “He’s been very sweet from the beginning. He gave me 50 per cent of the credit for ‘Oh L’amour’ just for coming up with the phrase. When someone’s like that it makes you less selfish. I think Vince blames his split with Alison on wanting control and I think he learned from that.
“I really admire him for sticking by me when our first album failed to get much airplay and we were forced to do university gigs and clubs. He could have just got rid of me, but he wanted to make it work and he was willing to start again from scratch.”
Bell came out as gay very early in Erasure’s career. Since he was and remains the band’s front man, some argue this lead to Erasure being branded a ‘gay group’.
“Vince said he guessed I was gay because of all the boys I brought into the studio when we were recording. I think I just wanted to show off. Anyway, as a result of me being open we were kind of pigeonholed, especially in America. Would I rather have stayed in the closet and sold twice as many albums though? No, I couldn’t have done that. I wanted to take a stand.”
Andy also refused to stay silent when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, although it took six years from when he found out in 1998 for him to tell the world. He could have said nothing. Why wait and then announce it?
“In about 1990 I had my appendix out. I was tested at the time and it came back negative. Shortly afterwards some guy sold a story to one of the tabloids saying he was an ex-lover of mine and I’d infected him. The AIDS witch-hunt was in full swing back then and Paul, my manager, got the lawyers involved. He took my test results to their offices and eventually they dropped the story.
“That whole episode scared me. It was on my mind when I tested positive in 1998. It took me six years, but in the end I just thought: fuck it! Why should I hide? When you tell people you’re HIV-positive I’m sure they think you’re a slut. I’ve had my fair share of partners, but I’m certain I caught it from a boyfriend.”
HIV was once considered a death sentence. Nowadays, thanks to new drugs and drug combinations, HIV-positive men and women are able to live long and productive lives. Thirteen years after his positive test result and on a world tour, Andy Bell is testament to that. As a final question I ask him if people are less concerned about HIV now than they should be?
“It’s really tricky,” he says. “I would much rather not have HIV. We travel around the world and when you see how people cope in other countries it makes me so grateful to have the NHS. I’ve been with my American boyfriend now for a year and half and I would love to live with him over here, but he has to pay a thousand dollars a month for drugs! If you haven’t got the money here you’re f**ked.”