Erasure’s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke pour on the emotion and the attitude on their 14th studio effort, Tomorrow’s World
Erasure (left to right)—Vince Clarke and Andy Bell.
When Andy Bell gets fired up, it doesn’t take long for his energy to turn contagious. Just ask the thousands of fans who have followed his every move since 1985, starting with the finely cut synth-pop gem “Who Needs Love Like That,” which broke Erasure to London’s club crowd and sparked a creative partnership with bandmate Vince Clarke that’s still going strong, more than a dozen albums and 40-odd singles later. In the fickle world of dance music, longevity like that is hard to come by, and while a lot of it has to do with just cranking out good songs, it’s really Bell’s commitment to his audience and his craft, his heart-on-my-sleeve honesty, that seals the deal.
That’s not to say it’s always been easy. Bell found himself emotionally and physically drained after making Tomorrow’s World (Mute), Erasure’s long-awaited 14th studio album, but he’s quick to point out that he had fun nearly every step of the way, especially with up-and-coming producer Frankmusik (a.k.a. Vincent Frank) lending his distinctively musical touch to the sessions. Rife with the ecstatic strains of electro-pop, soul, and even dubstep, this might well be the toughestsounding Erasure album yet.
“Definitely underneath, I think there’s a sense of anger,” Bell observes. “Always when we do an Erasure album, I want there to be this passionate pathos and yearning going on. But I was quite thrilled to be working with Frank because to me it was a grass-roots decision. It had come via the fans, and he had done a remix of our song ‘Phantom Bride,’ so to me it just felt instinctively right. His sense of melody quite blew me away, and I think it definitely gave us a fresh impetus as a band. When you’re a singer, you’re always in performance mode, so when you go in the studio, you rely on your own trills and your own melodic ideas. With Frank, I was totally handing over the reins, even with adlibs and stuff—he would ask me to try just about anything, and it would come out differently, but it was something that we really enjoyed. His musicality is just incredible.”
Andy Bell (standing) and Vince Clarke at work in Clarke’s log cabin studio in Maine.
Vince Clarke concurs. As the other half of Erasure and an acclaimed producer, composer, and keyboardist in his own right (as well as a founding member of Depeche Mode and Yaz), Clarke knows his way around a mixing desk. He also knows when to cede control if it will lead to a fresh and compelling sound, as Erasure’s studio outings with Flood, Gareth Jones, Thomas Fehlmann, and more have demonstrated over the years. This time, Clarke and Bell were content to hand over a grip of largely acoustic demos, amassed since late 2009, and let Frankmusik work his magic.
“It wasn’t really until we started working with Frank that the album took on any particular direction,” Clarke says. “He has quite a different sound from ours. You could say that the Erasure sound from the past is fairly minimal, whereas what Frank brought into the mix was a very maximum sound—it’s almost like a wall of sound, I think. A lot of it is heavily compressed and effected, and sounds much bigger than the kind of stuff that we would normally be producing. So it was really Frank’s guiding influence that brought us the end result.”
Lines of Communication Work began in earnest at Clarke’s state-of-the-art log cabin studio in Maine. After a brief period of listening to demos and getting to know each other, Frankmusik was ready to dive in. “For me, I engage with the song first,” he says. “The production will always fall into place, but the song has to be structurally sound, and then we can put the production in bit-by-bit. I like to close my eyes and let the sound guide the production. I never go in with a fixed, this-is-how-it’s-gonna-be attitude. I think that’s very limiting.”
Tomorrow’s World ripples with a musicality that reflects this approach, starting with the album’s first single, “When I Start to Break It All Down,” a down-tempo torch song that relies on subtle dynamics, rather than key changes, to imply its movement. It’s an emotional journey that starts quietly and builds toward each chorus, with Bell gradually reaching for the top of his vocal range as a simple cut-time beat and dozens of atmospheric synths trail him into the stratosphere. Clarke’s dizzying arsenal—which includes Roland’s modular System 100M, a monophonic RSF Kobol, an Oberheim Xpander, and the workhorse Roland Juno-60, Jupiter-8, and Sequential Prophet 5—has always been the lynchpin to Erasure’s sound, but in this instance, and on the rest of the album, the track-building process was a little different.
“Frank works mostly out of the box,” Clarke explains, “so once he and I had worked together using soft synths at the studio in Maine, I would find analog replacements for those sounds. I try to build a mixture of lots of different synths in each track, with the idea being I can get a slightly different sound incorporated into the song. Then I’d send those tracks to Frank over the Internet. Once we’d gotten down the bulk of the work, all the starky bits were done that way. We’d just send files back and forth.”
Frank clarifies further. “I would flesh out all the production that I felt the song needed—a lot of light synths and really thin stuff, so Vince could bring in his huge, full-bandwidth analog synths. I’d send him consolidated WAVs from zero—all the separate files, just gigabytes of WAVs. Most of my sessions peak up to about 80 tracks at least, and that’s all production. I only ever use one to three vocals, so the vocal tracking is doing hardly any of the work. And then Vince would just replace my synth parts with whatever he liked in his studio, send everything back, I’d drop it into Logic and turn down all the original parts and start layering.”
Vox Verité There are other mixtures moving through Tomorrow’s World, specifically with Andy Bell’s vocals. Some of the original demo passes he recorded in Maine, using just a handheld Shure Beta 58, actually made the cut. (The best example: “Be With You,” a hi-energy opening track where Celemony’s Melodyne came in handy for shaping the drawn-out “eee” Bell is singing in the main verse.) These early vocal sessions had a pristine quality that often worked well for the song, but Frankmusik was intent on getting even more from Bell when the two got together at Frank’s studio in L.A.
“I found it quite difficult, to be honest,” Bell recalls. “I’d never done it in this way before. Frank has so much compression going in, and that’s what he’s used to doing, so it was quite hard for me to sing melodies because you’re really singing on the top of your voice. I was right on the edge of my throat, just to get through the system, you know?”
The resistance comes from Frankmusik’s signal chain. Starting with a Blue Baby Bottle microphone, the vocals pass through an Avalon VT-747 compressor before they get slammed by a Universal Audio 1176. “It makes you really have to sing, because you’re fighting that compressor at the very end,” Frank says. “I usually set the attack on the 1176 to about 11 o’clock, and the release and input to about 2 o’clock. Then I really push back the output, to about 10 o’clock, so you have to sing twice as hard just to hear yourself decently. I think Andy hated working with me because of that.”
Singing through all that compression might be a bitch, but the results, in Bell’s case, are stunning. On “I Lose Myself,” one of the few songs on the album that sounds like a throwback to Erasure’s heyday, Bell is singing an octave higher in the chorus than he did on the original demo, and the power that he unleashes really propels the song to another level. “I said to Andy, ‘You need to sing this an octave higher, and you need to give it everything you’ve got,’” Frank recalls. “The verse is so feisty that the chorus had to hammer that last bit—that’s the payoff.”
Bold New Steps For musicality and radical production moves, Erasure’s latest is right on the edge, but what diehard fans will likely notice first is the group’s embrace of more down-tempo percussive styles that don’t fall neatly into the simple “dance music” category. The change stems in part from Bell’s desire to paint a deeper and more detailed emotional picture with his lyrics; isolation, frustration, loss, and redemption have always been key themes for him, but lately they seem to have taken on even more importance and urgency.
“You don’t realize the tremendous courage that it takes just to be out and open and honest, especially in the music business,” he says, his voice rising. “You get it all the time in the snide UK press—always these barbed homophobic comments that you hear within straight society. So I wanted to manage to say something in some way, on an instinctive, subconscious level really, and I think that comes through on this album. A lot of the music to me sounds like a maelstrom going on, which seems to be what’s going on around the world lately, but that’s exactly what we were after.”
For Frankmusik’s part, the music had to be reflective of that level of emotion. It’s a connection he explores the furthest in “What Will I Say When You’re Gone?”—a somber but hopeful tribute to a friend that’s arguably one of the album’s signature songs. “The one thing I’ll say about this track from the production side is that I come from the hometown of dubstep. I come from Croydon in South London, where it all started, and I’m not a big fan of dubstep, funny enough, but the tempo of the track is 145, which is pretty much the dubstep format. I wanted to do something at that tempo, with a similar percussive format, but make it utterly beautiful and exceptionally musical.”
As it turned out, matching the mood of the lyrics could only happen with the right drum treatment. “Initially the percussion in the verse was almost too heavy,” Frank explains, “and it was actually in the last week of mixing the album that we made them very small. I just laid together a few drum sounds from [Kontakt’s] OTTO and put them through the old telephone filter in Logic, and then I layered that with a FabFilter Volcano, just to really squeeze every bit of density out of it. When you know the back story to that song, it’s achingly beautiful, and I wanted that to be in the work.”
Since moving recently from his native London to Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, 25-year-old producer and recording artist Frankmusik has already made his mark as a talented mixologist who can pack a sonic wallop into a compact setup. Working in Logic on a Macbook Pro, not only does he record and mix entirely inside the box (with a small array of outboard gear for tracking vocals, described in the “Vox Verité” section), but at any given moment, he’s ready to pick up and hit the road with full studio capability and a minimal footprint.
“I’m not really the cheesy guy in the studio sitting at his SSL desk,” Frank quips. “I’m the guy with the backpack. That’s pretty much how I work. I do have a proper studio where I keep the outboard gear, and I work on Adam A7X monitors and a JBL sub— with a pair of Dynaudio BM15s in case some A&R people stop by and want to have a listen [laughs]—but really I work more off the vibe of the music, so I mix in my Sony V700 headphones for EQ. I have maybe five pairs and I’ve been using them since I was 17, so I know what they sound like.”
Naturally, for maximum portability, Frank is heavily reliant on plug-ins, sample libraries (such as Kontakt’s OTTO, a favorite source for drum sounds), and soft synths—in particular, reFX’s Nexus 2 virtual synth. “It’s just an easy way of nailing ideas quickly and simply,” he says. “I’m not a trance DJ or producer, and the Nexus seems to have this reputation of being a really trance-y, dance-y synth, but what all the kids seem to forget is, if you turn off the bloody reverb and delay, you have a really beautiful keyboard spread of some great, crafted samples. Someone spent hours trying to find the best sounds they could, on the original equipment.”
With plug-ins like Waves’ CLA Vocals (for fine EQ), SoundToys’ Crystallizer (for trippy after-effects), Smart Elektronix’s SupaTrigga (for re-ordering audio slices), MeldaProduction’s compressors (primarily for drums), and scads more, Frank is always looking to take full advantage of whatever random possibilities he can squeeze out of an algorithm. “I like to make things move through texture,” he says. “I’ll print a lot of plug-in effects over an initial waveform that’s unchangeable, and just let chance take over. Sometimes you can get very maffed out on specifics. When you’re given that much choice, you lose a lot of the fun, whereas if you print a random effect, put it on ‘full wet’ and just turn off the ‘dry,’ and cut that in and out of the original, that’s where you’re opening your mind to more creative options and letting the unknown become the known.”