On March 13, a veritable viper’s nest of hissing, undulating techno called Ssss will be released by a rather surprising source: Erasure’s Vince Clarke and Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore. Of course, it’s not the first time the two synth-pop icons have worked together. Clarke was a founding member of Depeche Mode, before leaving in 1981 after just one album to form Yaz with Alison Moyet. (Erasure, Clarke’s glossy dance-pop duo with Andy Bell, started up in 1985.) Since then, the two musicians rarely have crossed paths.
VCMG, as the reunited duo calls itself, was Clarke’s idea: He emailed Gore out of the blue saying that he wanted to make a techno record, and so they did — by email. And it’s techno to a “T,” too — throbbing, hammering instrumental tracks that hark back to the muscular, metallic sound of the mid-aughts (think prime Bpitch Control) and draw inspiration from Boys Noize’s buzzing onslaught.
I spoke to Gore about the duo’s long-distance relationship, the addictiveness of analog gear, and when (if ever) you’re too old to techno. He also talked about Depeche Mode’s return to the studio to begin work on their next album. With an estimated 2013 release date, this will be the band’s first album as free agents, prompting speculation as to how they may release it. It’s too early to speculate, says Gore, adding, “Who knows what will happen in the music industry by then.”
If all else fails, there’s always Kickstarter.
Was it strange to be working with Vince Clarke again after 30 years?
Actually, working with Vince again wasn’t as strange as the concept of working with Vince again after 30 years, really. I just got an email from Vince asking if I was interested in collaborating with him, which was a complete surprise. We hadn’t exactly kept in touch a lot over the last 30 years; we just bumped into one another at the odd event. He described it as a very loose project with no deadlines or pressure. The idea was to make a techno album, and that’s something that I’ve always been interested in, anyway, so I decided to just try it out. And it was a very pleasurable experience.
Techno producers have been so influenced by Depeche Mode over the years, I’m sort of surprised it took you so long to start making techno yourself. It feels like such a natural evolution.
Yeah, I suppose so. You’re right, actually, it should have come a bit earlier. But I think the timing for this was really perfect for me and Vince. When I got that email from him, it was the perfect timing for Depeche. We had just finished a tour, we had a long break, and it’s only now that we’re gearing up — I mean, I’ve been writing songs since I finished this VCMG thing, but just now we’re gearing up to go back into the studio. We’ll be working on the actual music for the best part of this year. If Vince had sent that email now, then obviously I wouldn’t have been available. Everything about it was right.
Was it difficult to get into a rhythm of working after having so little contact for so long?
I think the actual process that we used made it a lot easier. We were never in a room together, we were just sending files backwards and forwards. It was working with Vince without…neither of us had to deal with each other. It was just, like, receiving files, doing a bit of work, sending them back and getting a response, until we got to a point where we felt that the songs were at a mix stage.
How many passes would it typically take, going back and forth, before you felt like the track was ready?
I think most of the songs got to about version four, and there was the occasional version five. I don’t think we actually went past version five.
Was there any kind of division of labor—like, one of you would focus on leads, say, and the other on drums?
I don’t think you could actually say that there was a specific role for anyone. It was a bit of doing whatever you felt was needed on a track.
Was there much of a learning curve to making techno, or did it come naturally? Did you have to stop yourself from doing things that you’d normally do when writing a song?
[Very quiet laughter.] I think it came quite naturally, really. I’ve been interested in techno music for a long time now; I’ve been listening to it and playing it whenever I DJ, and I know that Vince got into it a few years back. So I think it was a very natural thing. The thing I really like about a lot of techno music is that it’s kind of got a Neanderthal drive. You know, even though it can be very intricate, there’s, like, one root note, and there’s not too much chord changing or too much melody going on the majority of the time.
I noticed that about these tracks; they’re very linear and sculptural. A lot of the focus is on the sound design. What sort of techniques or gear were you using?
As we worked separately, I don’t know exactly what Vince was using. I used a lot of Eurorack modular stuff, you know, some old vintage, like, analog stuff. I use a lot of hardware, really. I’ve become a complete Eurorack junkie at the moment. It’s taken over my studio. I’m gradually moving out every other keyboard one by one. It’s difficult to actually say one module, because it literally has become this monster in my studio. Now, pretty much, I would say that 80 percent of the sounds that I’m making, I go to various modules in the system.
Everyone I know who’s into modular synthesis says that it’s pretty addictive.
I watched that documentary I Dream of Wires recently. I just related to so many of the things they were saying, when they talk about the addiction. I also watched the YouTube interview with Adrian Utley from Portishead, and he was really funny, talking about his addiction — he said it’s a bit like crack.
Just much more expensive! When you were working on the VCMG songs, were you giving early versions to DJs to test out in the clubs?
No, I think we’re not that clever. [Laughs.] We just worked on the tracks until we were happy with them. I DJ’d at Christmas, and tested out a couple of tracks, but apart from that, no, we didn’t go around giving them to people. Actually, we were annoyed to the point of having to give up a track to Andy Fletcher, from the band. He was DJ’ing a lot last year, so at some point we had to give in and give him a track that he could play.
Is it strange to be making techno as an older guy?
No. I just turned 50 last year, but I don’t feel old. Maybe I’ve got something wrong with me; maybe it’s something to do with being in a band or being a musician, but somehow you just don’t feel any different mentally. Maybe a little bit physically. But mentally, I don’t feel any different from how I did 20 years ago.
Will you still be doing more solo material? I’m a huge fan of your Counterfeit EP.
Oh, thanks. Again, we’re just about to embark upon this project with Depeche that will probably take me into 2014, by the time we’ve finished the actual music, and then the promotion and get out on tour, so it’s difficult for me to actually plan anything at the moment. That just sounds so far away.
While you’re working on a Depeche Mode album, I take it you’re not going home and doing your own music on the side.
[More laughter.] No! I do occasionally like to sleep.
Is there anything you can tell us about the album so far?
It’s too early to really talk about it, but I think it was a very good thing to actually go off and do this VCMG thing. Apart from the fact that it was a very enjoyable process, I think it was a good break from doing what I do all the time, which is writing songs. When you’re away from that for so long and you’re doing something different, it’s actually a really nice feeling to go back to actually setting down songs and words, and coming back to creating more normal emotions that you’re used to creating.