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For the better part of two decades, Erasure's Vince Clarke and Andy Bell have been something akin to the Abbott and Costello of electronic pop. Straight-man Clarke feeds his synth lines to flamboyant singer Bell, whose multi-octave vocals and campy persona transform his partner's arresting melodies into dance-floor anthems and bedroom ballads.
Time certainly hasn't diminished the British-born duo's ability to throw a party replete with sequins, disco balls and more outlandish costume changes than an Oak Lawn drag show. The latest is a U.S. tour celebrating both Erasure's 20th anniversary and the recent release of its 11th studio album, Nightbird.
"This time, the set is based around the idea of an enchanted forest," Clarke says over the phone from an Orlando, Florida, hotel room in his dry, low-key voice. "We've got angels, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. And, of course, Andy ends up prancing about in his sparkly underwear."
Clarke's also been known to partake in the onstage festivities--decking himself out in a gold lame suit or satellite-topped headgear--but the keyboardist is usually content to scowl as he stands, statue-like, behind his gear, a counterpoint to the ever-frolicking Bell.
"I know I look rather stern, but I'm not," Clarke says. "Mostly I'm just up there worrying. I'm always fearful the technology's gonna break down, and sometimes it does, but it's never the end of the world. So I don't know why, but it always plays on my mind, and the more we tour, the more stressed out I get. Fortunately, Andy's up there dancing around enough for the both of us."
After all these years of Bell sporting assless chaps, 6-inch spike heels, feather boas and Edwardian evening dresses, it's hard to imagine the singer once bore an approach more in line with Clarke's serious countenance. But that was the case when the pair first joined forces in 1985 and began performing at polytechnic schools throughout the U.K. Despite the sparkle and melodrama of Erasure's 1986 debut, Wonderland (which spawned the international hit "Oh L'Amour"), the openly gay Bell was reluctant to unleash his inner diva.
"At the beginning Andy really didn't move at all. It was a very different kind of live experience," Clarke says. "And I think one day he just decided to go out and wear something a bit more interesting and put more of who he is into it, no matter what anyone thought, and everything grew from there to where we now have all these costume and set designers and it's turned into some version of a Broadway show."
Indeed, Erasure's live show lasts longer than some musicals, with scores of their own tunes plus their much-loved ABBA covers and takes on Peter Gabriel, Buddy Holly and Righteous Brothers. Clarke says the show will include several tracks Erasure hasn't played in more than 15 years (though he won't divulge which ones). But much of the new material from Nightbird is good enough to hold its own against classics like "Blue Savannah," "A Little Respect," "Chains of Love" and "Freedom." Strangely enough, the pair may be even more artistically connected now than they have been in more than a decade, even as they've been separated geographically (Clarke lives with his wife in Portland, Maine, while Bell splits time between London and Spain with his boyfriend of 20 years). That means after their initial songwriting powwows, much of the production work occurs via MP3 files. Still, Clarke says, it's a process worth enduring.
"I really, really enjoy creating with Andy, because we have this mutual trust and understanding, where if either one of us comes up with an idea the other doesn't like, we can tell immediately, and when things come together it's amazing. So we'll never split up.
"I've never really written songs with anybody else besides Andy, and I'm not sure that I could anymore," he continues. "I mean, I wrote most of the songs on the first Depeche album by myself, and with Alison [Moyet] we kind of wrote our own songs separately. At the time I didn't realize collaborative songwriting was key to a long-standing relationship, and I was also a lot younger then and had troubles with ego. When you're young and you have a bit of success, you think you're the biggest and most important thing ever. And everybody else in the bands I was in had exactly the same view of themselves. But with Andy, there's never any tension. We haven't argued in 20 years. Not once. He's a real laid-back person, very nonjudgmental and very humble."
And strong. In late 2004 doctors told Bell he was HIV-positive. He also endured a degenerative bone condition that necessitated two hip-replacement surgeries last year (the singer has attributed the condition to either his HIV drug cocktail, his long-standing-but-kicked cocaine habit or all that dancing in high heels). Many critics and fans have grafted Bell's personal struggles onto Nightbird as a way to explain its melancholy edges, a notion Clarke chuckles at with the tone of a guy who's had to field one too many questions about his cohort's medical maladies.
"Ehh, I don't know. I'll just say this: A friend of mine came to see us in London recently, and he said it felt like it was a real lust-for-life, joy-to-be-alive kind of a concert."
Still, Clarke acknowledges his deep appreciation that the gay community has rallied around Bell and has long supported Erasure, even in the commercial down times.
"We never set out to be anything or appeal to a specific audience, but given the stage show and the fact that Andy's always been very upfront and honest about his sexuality, it makes sense," Clarke says, adding with a laugh that he's unfazed by the common assumption he's also gay. "Andy was really the first gay person I ever met or talked to, so it was a whole education for me, him sitting down and explaining exactly how things work. Nothing of it particularly surprised me. I was just really interested in all of it. And it's truly flattering when people come up to us and say stuff like, 'I was a teenager and I was in the closet and I heard this song and it helped me to come out of the closet.' I love that."
As for their brilliantly over-the-top performances, Clarke insists the duo has no intentions of scaling things back anytime soon.
"I guess when Andy's 60 he might tone down his act a little bit, but not before then. But maybe when I'm 60 I'll finally start leaping around."