Interview: Andy Bell talks LGBT culture, choir days and more ahead of Erasure’s tour kickoff in St. Pete

UPDATE: This show has been postponed.

click to enlarge Erasure plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 7, 2018. - Sandra Dohnert (@sandrasonik)
Sandra Dohnert (@sandrasonik)
Erasure plays Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 7, 2018.

After limited success in Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and The Assembly in the '80s, Vince Clarke put an ad in British weekly music magazine Melody Maker, scouting out a lead singer for a new project that would hopefully put him on the map for good. In the end, he went with Peterborough-based singer—and at-the-time women's shoe salesman—Andy Bell (pictured above), who cited Clarke as his biggest hero.

It's safe to say that Clarke and Bell's collaboration didn't flop. Erasure became no strangers to the U.K. charts, and even scored a few hit albums in the U.S, including I Say I Say I Say, which peaked at no. 18 on the Billboard 200—not to mention no. 1 over in England.

Clarke and Bell are still musically tight after 35 years, and are about to embark on their first U.S. tour since 2018. Before St. Pete gets a live taste of the duo's latest album, The Neon, Bell got on the phone with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay to talk about touring with Blondie, being an LGBTQ+ icon in a much more conservative time, and his time as a choirboy while growing up in England.
UPDATE: This show is postponed.
Read a full Q&A with Bell below.
Location Details

Mahaffey Theater

400 1st St. S, St. Petersburg St. Pete

(727) 300-2000

You and Vince haven't toured together since 2018, so this new tour must be exhilarating for you, right?

It's great, yeah! I mean, I'm glad that we've done it this way as well, because it was postponed probably two or three times in the beginning. So, now we've got it. We've got it in three parts—we've already done the U.K. part, and now we're doing the North American section, and then we'll be going to South America. And then we have a couple more shows in the U.K., I think in July time, so yeah, it's nice to assess the situation in between also having played the U.K., but we have a brilliant reception at home, so I'm kind of hoping it's gonna be similar-ish in North America.

I saw that when you guys were in Europe, you played the O2. In the U.S, it looks like you guys are mainly gonna be in more intimate places, like theaters. Do you prefer to rock out in arenas like the O2, or do you prefer the intimate touch *Andy Bell chuckles* of theaters?

I love the theaters because I just feel like that's kind of my spiritual home, really. And you know, I like to think of all the productions and things that have gone on before we played there. I don't know, it feels like a more sacred space to me, the theaters. But the arenas, as well. And the nice thing is, it's kind of a different feeling entirely, because you could only see the first 20 rows, I suppose, of people and then when it's that big, it's very awe-inspiring. I mean, you can do like, bigger gigs for more money and less shows you know what I mean?

It's quite hard to get a balance in between the two, because you want that satisfaction of being in the theater, but at the same time, you don't want to break your back doing the shows, you know?
When you were in school, you were a choirboy. Do you remember what drove you to join choir in the first place?

It just seemed like a natural thing, really. I think they were always on the lookout for people, anyway. So, when I was in the choir, it was only junior school that I did it and then, when I went to grammar school, they did have a choir, which was attached to the cathedral, but because I wasn't christened or anything, I didn't sign all the forms and things that you had to sign out. So, I ended up not being in the choir in my later years. I don't know if I regret it or not, because I would have had to have gone to religious school on Sunday, you know. I kind of made up my mind about that when I was probably about 11 or 12. So, I love the experience of going into the church and the feeling of being in there, but not necessarily the lessons that were taught to me.

Was there a moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do with your life?

I think it's always...I wouldn't say taking it for granted, but it's always been in the background, singing all the time. You know, like singing in bed, singing over Christmas, going to other people's houses and doing carols and stuff like that. And I always wanted to be in a band, so I think it was all second nature to me, but I didn't really think that it would be my career. I didn't really put two and two together. Even though I'd moved to London to join a band, I didn't really necessarily think that I would be famous for a band. You know, I thought it might be something else.

It kinda just happened.

Well, yeah. I mean, you do make things happen on your own. But I remember, one of my flatmates was this girl called Jill. We'd moved down to London together, and she found the first band that I joined. Just in a music shop window in London, where we lived, and this was in Ealing. And so, we were like, in a band for about a year—four of us, and then I persuaded the bass player to be in the band. We formed a duo, and then after that, we really had a couple of gigs. Then I met Vince through the adverts and my band member Pierre, he just shook my hand and says, "congratulations," you know.

Now, it must have been rough being a gay icon in the late '80s-'90s, because that was when the world was more conservative about that.

Um, I don't know...I suppose you get used to the level of supposed homophobia, because you're prepared for it in some ways. You know, you do get shocked by reactions sometimes, when you're going around playing gigs. I think mostly we were safe, but we did have some adverse reactions in different places, including Holland, where we thought would be very progressive. But once you get outside of Amsterdam, you know, it's the same like anywhere else, really—quite conservative. And it's the same everywhere really, you know, once you get outside the big cities. Even within the safety of the big cities, you're not necessarily safe. So you have to keep aware.

London was quite a rough place to be in in the 80s—like anywhere else—but we had skinhead groups and stuff chasing you down the underground railway, so you had to be very vigilant the whole time. But at the same time, we achieved so much. There were huge political rallies going on. You know, we've managed to change the age of consent and stuff—we will recognize a move. We did a lot, but we had loads of camaraderie there, and we stopped with each other, you know?

LGBT culture has come a long way ever since Erasure made it big. What do you think parts of that culture still need improvement the most?

I think that the communication between us, kind of going across party lines. And also, for lesbians to interact with gay men and vice versa. And for us to kind of embrace much more, like the Latino and Black communities, and especially with transgender people. Mainly to not so much get into these arguments of how we describe ourselves. We just need to remember that we're all equal in the end. Let's go back to music. It's no secret that you're an ABBA fan. Have you listened to the new album, Voyage, yet?

I listened to it in parts, so I haven't listened to the whole thing. It's OK, but I wasn't really grabbed like I was before. But I think the main reason probably being because we wore it out a long time ago, from hearing their music so much. So I think once you've done a cover of the bands, in some ways, it—I wouldn't say ruins the bands for you, but because you've dissected the bands, it makes you realize more where they're coming from as musicians, rather than being a band.

Fair. You also cite Blondie as one of your influences. So, when you toured with Debbie Harry in the 2000s, do you think that was a hallmark of your life?

It was really amazing just to be, you know, hanging out with one of your idols and sitting backstage on the steps and smoking cigarettes and having discussions. It just felt really like it does when you're with one of your mentors and in some ways, it's kind of a homecoming, but it makes you feel great. You know, you feel like you've kind of made it.

Sure. So, how did The Neon come about?

That came about through Vince writing on synth in his studio in Brooklyn, and then me going around to his house, picking up the mic and singing along to the tracks that he created. And then, just taking it from there, really. Just kind of building up the vocal harmonies, and then taking all of that away with us, and then going off to Atlanta, trying to relate all of those melodies and stuff into lyrics, and then actually doing the vocals there, and then the whole thing was mixed in London. So for us, it was kind of like, almost like an escape back to your teenage years, when you first found the music, because it's quite easy in the industry to become like that. But you're on a hamster wheel going round and round, so sometimes it's just nice to get off and kind of reappraise your love of music.

In fact, I remember you saying that The Neon was all about looking back into the early days of the band, right?

Yeah, well, I think even pre-the band days. It reminded me of the excitement of going to cut your first singles and stuff like that, and when you hear tracks on the radio for the first time.
Though you've devoted most of your time to Erasure in recent years, do you have any plans for a third installation in your solo Torsten series?

Hopefully yeah, we do. We said we would make it easier on ourselves, and not do so many words, speaking words, because I find it quite tricky. So, we're probably going to do it more like a poet and a singer. So, we'll have Barney reading out his parts, or other people reading out their parts, and I'll be singing songs in between, like a kind of troubadour, I suppose.

Cool. So, if you ended up not impressing Vince Clarke in the '80s, what do you think Andy Bell would be doing today?

Um, to be honest, I think I would have been in another band, God knows who. Whether we would have been heard of or not, I don't know. Or otherwise, I mean, I would have always been involved with music. I'm always going to be involved with music or theater. I suppose if I hadn't gotten anywhere like that—by chance, maybe I would have tried to have gone back to university or something to get, I don't know, teacher training for juniors, children or something. Although I really like to tell stories and things to young people.

I would assume that if you went back to school for teaching, you would teach music.

Well, I can't read music! So that would be quite tough. I'm not sure, I was thinking maybe English. I don't know.

You know, Sting was an English teacher at one point, and The Beatles couldn't read music in the very beginning.

Oh, there you go. Dedication, I suppose.

What advice do you have to offer to young, up-and-coming artists, especially ones who are members of the LGBT community?

Right, I would tell them that it's about how you look. It's about how you feel, it's about who you are, it's about having good friends around you, and it's about sticking to your guns and believing in what you're doing, and who you are.

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Josh Bradley

Josh Bradley is Creative Loafing Tampa's resident live music freak. He started freelancing with the paper in 2020 at the age of 18, and has since covered, announced, and previewed numerous live shows in Tampa Bay. Check the music section in print and online every week for the latest in local live music.
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