After co-founding seminal '80s groups Depeche Mode and Yazoo in the early '80s, keyboardist Vince Clarke went on to form the influential synth-pop duo Erasure with Andy Bell. For their 15th album, the UK hitmakers crafted Snow Globe, a secular-minded, minimalist Christmas album that stands apart from the usual holiday fare (we included the album's first track on our 15 Best Christmas Songs of 2013 list).
Fuse recently chatted with the synth-pop pioneer about his love for the stop-motion Rudolph TV special, his distaste for Christmas music in general and how John Lennon inspired a track on Erasure's new album.
One of the opening lyrics on your album is, "I don’t believe in your religion" (from "Bells of Love (Isabelle's of Love)"). Why start a Christmas album with such a secular line?
I have a niece who really loves John Lennon and she asked me if I like John Lennon. And I said, "Not really, it's not really my cup of tea." But I had some time in the studio and I thought, "I'm going to write a song that sort of sounds like John Lennon." And I know ["Bells of Love"] doesn't really sound like John Lennon but that's where it came from. It was a bit of a joke to my niece. Although I don’t really like John Lennon's music, I was thinking of his signature tracks like "Imagine." That is a brilliant song.
Why do a Christmas album at all?
Andy and I were supposed to be writing a radio record, but there was a lot of sh-t going on last year and this year and a lot of pressure. So Andy said, "Let's make a Christmas record! Then there'll only be the pressure of writing half an album," so to speak, because we split the record between originals and Christmas covers. And the manager was already very keen to make a Christmas record, but I was very uneasy about the whole thing. Every Christmas song has been covered a million times in different styles, so it was difficult for me to come around to the idea. And I'm not a religious person.
How did you go about differentiating your music from the glut of endlessly-covered Christmas songs?
I started looking at chord progressions and how these Christmas songs are made up. And I realized if you alter the chords in a particular way you can make the songs sound quite sinister. And suddenly, they appealed to me. Once we did a couple songs I thought, "Yeah, this might be an interesting project." I'm only interested in working on it if I'm interested in it. It was never about making an album because it's Christmas. Ever. It's not meant to be a traditional record. We wanted to try to make an album that sounds a little dark. And there are certain songs that are traditional or people associate with religion that are actually quite sad. The essence of a good song is something that twists you a little bit inside. The chorus or the bridge or the verse or even a lyric, something is slightly askew. That's what I felt we mostly achieved with this record.
Your version of "White Christmas" is very minimal and eerie. How did that come about?
That was one of the most interesting songs to do because it's been covered a million times. I thought it would be quite interesting to add a very lonely, sad feel to it. I imagined "White Christmas" being sung on the subways in New York by some poor guy with a quiet, sad vibe while the subways go past him. That's the feeling I wanted to get with that particular track: Make it as lonely as possible. It's quite a sad song already. He's not having a white Christmas—he's dreaming of one.
What's your favorite version of "White Christmas"?
I don't do Christmas music. [Laughs]
Your videos for this album are done in the stop-motion style of the Rankin/Bass '60s productions like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That's awesome. Who had that idea?
Actually my wife came up with the idea. I'm quite familiar with the stop-motion animation. It's not so much in England—it's a very American thing. But I love it, I love those videos. I've seen them many times. She had this idea to make a video in that style, and it turned out there was a team of animators working on some major movie in Hollywood that got canceled. So suddenly there were all these stop-animation guys out of work. So we got a really good deal. [Laughs] It's not what I would have imagined if someone had asked me what I think the video should be, but I think it turned out great.
Why do you love the stop-motion Christmas TV specials but not Christmas music?
They're quite sinister. The [scene in Rudolph] with the snow monster, the Abominable Snowman? That's pretty sinister.
So what's the future of these songs? Will you still be playing any of them in five years?
Andy and I will start writing the next Erasure album in January, and then we start touring in summer. We're thinking of making the show change over time so as it approaches Christmas, we'll be incorporating more of these tracks into the show.
Will the sound of Snow Globe inform this next Erasure album?
Eh, I don't know. You make one record and then the next thing you want to do is something completely different. But having made this record working in a minimal vein, I think that will imprint itself into the next Erasure record. That's something that really intrigues me. But we have no songs as of yet. The way Andy and I write is, we sit in a room and just mess about and something always seems to happen. But if you ask Andy that question, he might say the next record should be disco.
One final question: What are you doing this Christmas?
My friends and I just picked up the Christmas tree from the local deli. So that's up and running. We'll be getting some crackers here, some English crackers, and some nice cheese. We do the whole thing. As far as Christmas is concerned, we follow the rules.