Andy Bell discusses Erasure’s dancey new album ‘The Violet Flame,’ being a bareback saint, and why Joan Rivers was so awesome
by Lawrence Ferber
Photo by Joe Dilworth
Erasure’s Andy Bell isn’t one for trends. On the afternoon of Apple’s crazily anticipated iPhone 6 announcement in early September, with the Internet and social media abuzz with details and consumer frenzy to buy one (and some anti-Apple snark), he simply couldn’t care less. “People are just mad,” he muses. “It’s like the ice bucket challenge—it’s ridiculous.”
Dance music, however, is never out of style with the 50-year-old frontman. His recent single with Dave Aude, “Aftermath,” hit #1 on Billboard’s dance charts, while Erasure’s new album, The Violet Flame (Mute), percolates with contagious ditties driven by the pulsing electronic melodies of longtime bandmate Vince Clarke. The pair is currently supporting the album with an international tour.
One standout is the opening track, “Dead of Night,” an instantly catchy, clubby track that owes a debt to EDM pioneer Giorgio Moroder. “I was channeling Donna Summer for a while,” Bell elaborates, “because I love Giorgio Moroder and love his early work. When Vince and I were talking about writing the album, I said I want to write with a synth instead of piano and guitar, because once I hear those guitar chords, it puts me into a folk frame of mind. You start sounding all folky. So having the synth as a backdrop gave it more of a dance impetus. I don’t think you can do that too many times because it would wear out, but when I’m working with other people I love doing that, especially with DJs.”
While Erasure’s previous outing, the 2013 holiday album Snow Globe, was a comparatively somber affair that served as a goodbye prayer for Bell’s late partner/manager, Paul Hickey (who died in 2012), The Violet Flame “is the flipside, almost like having a new page and fresh start,” he shares. Happily partnered today with Miami-based Stephen Moss, where the album was written and recorded, Bell admits, “I feel fulfilled. I feel so lucky and fortunate, and we’re really balanced. I don’t find myself chasing my tail. I think that has to do with growing up as well, but when you’ve found your ideal partner you don’t need to do that anymore. Which isn’t to say you’re not going to write an unrequited-love song, because that’s just the way singers are, I think.”
In fact, there’s plenty of drama—relationship and otherwise—going on in The Violet Flame’s songs. “Smoke and Mirrors,” Bell says, entails “a true showbiz story which is about how wicked you can be to the person that’s helping you the most,” while “Reason” represents “a promise to be faithful.”
Bell credits producer Richard X with helping him craft the lyrics for these songs, while modernizing and freshening up Clarke’s signature electronic sound. “Richard’s very disciplined, and it was good to work in a less haphazard way than usual,” Bell says. He helped with the words as well, because my brain was fried. I had done the Dave Aude record, and also the 2014 iPop record with the two guys from Shelter, and I did all the vocals for Torsten. I was almost wringing my brain for words!”
The Torsten Bell refers to a one-man musical, Torsten the Bareback Saint (saint-torsten.com), which ran at Edinburgh Fringe Festival last month. Portraying the titular character, a century-old, possibly immortal polysexual, Bell sings his way through 22 songs (the album’s available on iTunes) about lovers, dalliances, disappointments, and queerness.
“It was quite heavy,” he shares. “One guy came from the theater in Manchester and said he hated it, so I’m not sure if it was too close to his own thing. Some of the songs don’t reflect very well on the gay scene! One song is called ‘This Gay Thing Isn’t Working.’ So I think it was probably a bit too close to the knuckles. But most of the people who saw it enjoyed it. It was very emotional and tearful to perform—it wasn’t bells and whistles like Erasure.”
Bell says that he hopes to eventually bring the show stateside to San Francisco and New York City for engagements, and that a Torsten part two and three are in the works. “One of my ambitions was to be like a living soap opera, and I think Torsten is that,” he adds.
Bell, who is HIV-positive, regularly supports and appears at events for AIDS-related organizations like the U.K.’s Terrence Higgins Trust. He praises the late Joan Rivers for an occasion when he was slotted to appear at a London gay club, but when he got sick, she filled in and donated her fee to AIDS research. As for the “bareback” part of the musical’s title, which is as provocative and polarizing a term as there is in modern-day gay culture, Bell explains, “I don’t think it’s about barebacking as such, but it’s about your own sexuality belonging to you. There should be no rules as long as you’re not hurting anybody or putting them in danger, unless it’s not a mutual-consent situation. Sexuality should be infinite. Even saying ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ becomes a pigeonhole.”
See Erasure in Houston on October 10 and 11 at Bayou Music Center. Details/tickets at erasureinfo.com.
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.