Ask any music fan about their guitar heroes, and names like Jimi Hendrix, Jack White and Eric Clapton invariably come up. Such a topic might not be so easy when it comes to synth-pop icons, however. Nevertheless, it would be criminal if Vince Clarke's name didn't come up in that conversation. Clarke played with the first incarnation of Depeche Mode, made two studio recordings with Alison Moyet as Yazoo (known as Yaz in America), and has had a long successful partnership with vocalist Andy Bell as Erasure. Clarke is a special musician, and it's hard to imagine contemporary dance pop without his electronic keyboard input.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I noticed that with Yaz, it sort of switched off with you doing some of the songwriting and Alison doing some of the songwriting, whereas with Erasure the songs are credited to both you and Andy. Did your approach to songwriting change when you went from Yaz to Erasure?
Vince Clarke: When I was working with Alison, we didn't know each other very well. The first song we ever recorded was "Only You," which I'd written already. And I think we were only together for the course of two albums, and in that time we didn't know each other that well. I don't think we were ever intimate enough with each other for us to sit down and write songs together. Up to Andy, it was a mystery to me how people write songs together. Andy I, we've been together a long, long time and we feel very comfortable around each other.
Songfacts: You were one of the first people to bring a warm sound to synthesizer music, and really transformed it from a nerdy electronic thing to pop music. Did you feel like you were breaking ground when you started making even those early Depeche Mode recordings?
Vince: Not really. I never sat down with anybody and conceptualized about what we were doing. One of the big reasons I asked Alison to sing "Only You" was because I felt that it was a ballad that needed someone with a soulful voice. And it wasn't like I thought to myself, "Okay, you have a chance to marry electronics with song." It just turned out that way, and it happened Alison had a great voice, and it worked really well.
Songfacts: Do you remember the first time you heard her sing?
Vince: The first time I heard her sing, she was in a punk band called the Vandals. And my best friend, Rob, he was the guitarist for the Vandals, and they played at one of the local pubs. And then I saw her a couple of times after that. She sang for an R&B band. So when I finally had her do this demo with me, I knew she had a great voice.
Songfacts: Do you regret that you didn't make more albums with Alison?
Vince: No. I think the problem that Yazoo had was that we never really had the foundation of a relationship. We made a single, and the record company said, "Well, why don't you make a record?" So we made an album, and then we made another album. And so there was no real foundation or history to the band. We kind of fell apart, and I don't regret that happening. It was sad, but I don't think we could have continued working together without probably strangling each other.
Songfacts: You've worked with a lot of different groups, a lot of different partnerships, unlike some people who get with a band and stay with that band their whole lives. Why do you think that is?
Vince: Well, I'm more interested in doing new things, that's for sure. My mainstay now is Erasure, and I spend most of my time working with Andy, and in him I've found somebody that I feel incredibly comfortable with, who I could have married. But at the same time, that doesn't fill up all the hours of the day. So I'm one of these people that has to be working on something all the time. (laughing) There's always side projects to do.
Songfacts: When you're doing side projects, do you like to do things that are more experimental?
Vince: Well, I've done quite a few diverse things. I've done some music for some short films, and I've done music for a cartoon, and music for a book, and I've done music for art exhibitions. So it's nice to diversify. I think I'm getting quite good at programming now with the keyboard, so it's nice to use that ability for different kinds of music, so that always keeps it interesting.
Songfacts: Are there any songs that you've written that you're particularly proud of?
Vince: "Only You" I'm very proud of, because it almost makes sense lyrically. (laughs) And lots of people seem to like that song, so that would be one of my favorites.
Songfacts: Do you spend a lot of time on the lyrics, or is the music more important?
Vince: Well, I've tried to write lyrics that perhaps express the way I feel sometimes. I've struggled with that feeling. I find it easier to write lyrics about someone else's situation other than my own. I can't with any of my songs, say Yeah, that was me when I was half drunk, hung over or something or other. They're more situations about other people. Andy is much better at offering his heart to the world and expressing how he feels, he's a king at that, I think.
Songfacts: So you compensate for each other in a way, right? Because you come up with the melodic ideas, I would imagine, and then he kind of comes up with the lyrical ideas, so you don't have to worry so much about that, right?
Vince: Definitely. And also, Andy is not particularly interested in programming computers or synthesizers. And I'm not particularly interested in attempting to sing, so the relationship works out perfectly.
Songfacts: But I read that you did do some singing when you started out. Do you ever have the urge to sing a little bit more?
Vince: I did sing very, very early on. But I have no desire to make the world listen to me sing again.
Songfacts: Well, it's like Clint Eastwood said, right? "A man's gotta know his own limitations."
Songfacts: You've done some music for film and music for books and art. What are some of the projects you've worked on that are outside of the pop realm that you've really enjoyed?
Vince: Well, the most recent thing that I did was for a book series called "The Ghostgirl," which was written by Tonya Hurley. They did a spoken word version of the books, so I did some music for that. And I did some stuff for my friends who make these kind of arty short films. I did music for this other friend of mine that's just starting a kind of weird sports workshop Web page. All kinds of stuff.
Songfacts: You toured with Yaz again in 2008. What was it like to get back together with Alison and play to people that never had the chance to see you live?
Vince: Well, the whole thing was a bit of a surprise to me, really. Because when we decided that we'd actually do the tour, neither of us had any idea if anybody out there would remember us. Particularly when we came to the States it was quite amazing. In fact, when people came up to us afterwards and said, "Oh, that record, Upstairs At Eric's, that was the one that we played to death when we were in college," that was quite amazing; I had no idea that was going on. Because we didn't chart with it in the States, but I guess the thing was underground and got played on college radio a lot of times. That was very gratifying.
Songfacts: A lot of people, when they hear Depeche Mode's music now, would probably be surprised to realize that you were behind the beginning of that band. What do you make of how they changed?
Vince: Martin Gore writes in a different way than I do, so that's obviously the main difference. And they've developed this kind of a rock feel to their music. I'm more a fan of pop music, or I'm more of a fan of writing pop music, that's the most difference, I guess.
Songfacts: What kind of music do you like to listen to these days? Do you listen to a lot of the newer synth-pop bands?
Vince: I try and keep up. But I recently reinstalled my really nice record player. I've started going back through all my vinyl albums. So that's been interesting.
Songfacts: So you still like the vinyl. I know that in the UK you can still buy a lot of new albums, whereas in the States, it's sort of a niche industry.
Vince: Yeah, I live in the States now. I moved all my studio, my equipment and all my records over to the States.
Songfacts: How do you feel about where music is going? Do you miss the days of vinyl albums, when you had all the artwork and all that kind of stuff?
Vince: I kind of miss it. When I was 14, or 15, going to the record shop was the whole afternoon, because you'd be in there looking and there was only a little bit of money, so you could only make one choice. You would spend pretty much the whole day picking everything out before you made that commitment. I kind of miss that. And CDs are so tiny (laughs), you don't get the artwork. Man, when I was 15, I would read every single word on the record cover; who designed the graphics, who made the tea in the studio. It was really something else. All my friends are the same; they're all equally passionate about music, that's how it was back then.
Songfacts: I recently had a chance to do an interview with Andy of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and they have a song where they take Aretha Franklin's "Save Me" and they kind of re-imagine it with more of an updated backing track. And it's very good. But when I asked Andy about it, he told me that he wasn't ever a big soul music fan. Were you a pretty big soul music fan growing up?
Vince: Well, actually, no, I'm the same. I was never particularly interested in soul music. But at the same time I appreciate the great soul things I've had the privilege to work with. But I never think to myself, Well, one day I'm going to make a soul band to make soul records.
Songfacts: You make so much music that's so danceable. Do you like dancing?
Vince: No, I'm a terrible dancer. The best songs to play live on stage are those that a lot of people can dance to. It's kind of instant gratification for me when you see people dancing to music in that way.
Songfacts: When you see people moving, you realize that you've done your job well.
Vince: That's right. There is nothing like when your new record comes on and you don't clear the dance floor.
Songfacts: What are the next projects that you have on your plate?
Vince: Well, we just finished writing the next Erasure record, and we'll be starting to record that in the next couple of months. That's going to be busy. I might be working on a collaboration with Amanda Palmer from the Dresden Dolls. And other than that, I'm doing some music at the moment for an interactive Web site for very, very small children.
We spoke with Vince on October 6, 2010. Get more at vinceclarkemusic.com.