March 2005
By Steven M. Housman

Erasure’s Andy Bell Cleans Out His Closet

Erasure is celebrating their 20th anniversary, and what better way than by returning to their roots with the pop-synth-techno sound that put them on the map two decades ago. Their 14th release, Nightbird, is their first album of original material in seven years, and is receiving some of the best reviews of their career. Lead vocalist Andy Bell explains why he and partner Vince Clarke are in the best places of their respective lives. Ever since Bell’s recent announcement that he is HIV positive, he has never felt better. Sound ironic? After reading this in-depth interview, I think you’ll see why Andy is filled with such optimism. He reveals himself like never before. He’s perfectly open and calm discussing his health, his once deceptive behavior, his long-term boyfriend, his closeness to his Mum, her alcoholism, his new found sanguinity, and much, much more. He’s frank, he’s opinionated, and most importantly, he’s healthy. For the first time, meet the real Andy Bell.

Thank you for being brave and going public about your HIV status. I feel you are doing a wonderful service for so many people.

No need for thanks. I hope it can help. Truthfully, it’s a load off my mind, as well.

When did you publicly “come out” and what made you decide to make your HIV status public at this time?

I came out right at the beginning of my career, around 1986. I decided to make my HIV status public because I hate secrets. I knew since 1998, and it was hanging over me quite a bit. My boyfriend found out he was HIV positive in 1990 and then we had quite a scare around the time of my diagnosis. Some guy had stolen my jacket in a nightclub. He had said that he was my boyfriend and that’s why he was using my credit cards. Then the police came to my house and asked me if I wanted to press charges against this guy. They said, “You know he has AIDS.” That infuriated me. They thought that made him more of a criminal because of the disease. Then the next thing I knew, this guy who robbed me had gone to the newspapers and said that I was the one that gave him AIDS! Coincidentally, I had just had my appendix out and the blood test had shown that I was negative at the time, so I took a doctor’s certificate to the newspapers, which I didn’t have to do. But after that, I became a bit nervous, and strangely, it was soon after that I was diagnosed and I was positive. But this was back in 1998. It’s taken a while for me to sort things out in my own head and become comfortable with myself and the fact that I was positive.

Are you in a good place now?

I am. I also had two hip replacements last year and I did some rebirthing and some counseling, and I’ve done some healing, and it just felt like the right time.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s son Makgatho Mandela tragically passed away from AIDS recently. The former President made a wonderful statement saying, "Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because [that is] the only way to make it appear like a normal illness." Is it your intention, as a celebrity, to give HIV and AIDS a human face to your fans, and the world, to continue giving this disease the much-needed attention that it deserves?

My boyfriend and I were just in South Africa for Christmas and it was very sad. As for my intentions, I was never comfortable with keeping secrets, ever. As a teenager, I realized I was a very good liar. I could carry on and keep fooling people for the rest of my life, or I could turn over a new leaf and be open about myself, and be truthful. I decided the truth was healthier. I also had some really great talks with my Mum. My whole family knew before I made the announcement, so it wasn’t a surprise to them. I just wanted it to be out in the open. We had canceled a couple of gigs on our 2003 tour because I got a lung infection, and all the rumors started flying around, so I thought I’d finally put an end to them.

So honesty really is the best policy as far as you’re concerned?

Yeah! I just have piece of mind, really. It’s not like I’m alone either. I mean there are just so many people that have HIV. Quite a few of my friends are HIV positive, as well. This might sound very weird, but it’s one of those peer groups I wanted to belong to.

When did you inform Vince of your HIV status – and what was his reaction?

He knew when I had the infection and I had pneumonia in ‘98. His reaction was okay, really. He’d been around it anyway. He had a couple of bisexual friends living with him and they both succumbed and died. That was probably about eight years ago, so he’s been very close to the whole thing anyway. Quite a few of his friends are on combination therapies, as well, so he was fine. He just wanted me to get well and that was it.

Do you feel it’s affected your songwriting?

No, I don’t think so. I think just being clear-minded has helped it, and general life experiences has given it a maturity. You also need a certain amount of pathos to sing the blues. There’s always going to be some heart-wrenching stuff in there. I don’t think I particularly drew creatively from HIV.

Were you and Paul in your relationship when you were diagnosed - or did the relationship come afterwards?

We’ve been together for twenty years. Paul’s writing about it at the moment. He found out that he was positive in 1990 when he had his first facelift. He’s writing a book about male vanity. In 2000, he had a second facelift and he subsequently had a stroke afterwards. That was in Los Angeles. Writing this book has been a very cathartic exercise for him, writing about his whole history and coming out. He was born in 1950 and he writes about coming out in the 1960’s in California - that where he’s from. He talks about the whole scene about being out in Los Angeles during that era and then moving here to London in the 80’s.

Does your and his HIV status have relevance to this book?

Yeah, part of the book, but it’s not the whole book. When he was first told, there was quite a witch hunt going on at the time in the UK, you know in the late 80’s and early 90’s when it was fashioned as a gay plague. When Paul went to have a blood test for his first facelift in London, he was told he was HIV positive and the doctor said, “Well, Mr. Hickey, I’ve got some terrible news for you, you’re going to die.” He came home in floods of tears and I said, “Don’t worry honey, it’s going to be fine, you’re going to be fine.” I don’t know what gave me that faith because we had already lost quite a few friends, as well as ex-lovers of Paul’s. But somehow I knew he would be alright. Even when I contracted the pneumonia, I just knew it wasn’t something I would die from.

You have a great attitude and it probably helped your healing.

I’m sure it did, it’s just one of those instinctive things that you know.

I understand you are planning to speak out to educate young people about HIV. How are you going about this?

Well, we did do a lot of safe sex campaigns back in the late 80’s, and there were quite a lot of things on the TV here. We felt a bit hypocritical at the time because I had slept around the world and I don’t really know when it was that I had contracted the virus. There were a few angry posts on the Erasure websites where people would ask “Why were you preaching about safe sex all those years and now you’ve got it?” It just happened and it’s one of those things. Now, what I would like to do is speak to the hometown where I come from, near Cambridge. They asked me if I would do a local interview, so I’m sure more things will come in from that.

I hear a wonderful pop-synth-techno sound reminiscent of your best work on your new CD. After your last studio CD, “Other Peoples Songs,” were you anxious to go back to your “roots”?

I think so. There’s a good electro scene going on here in underground London. All the best clubs are playing electro at the moment. There are a lot of these electro groups on the charts like the Sugar Babies and the people who do these electro backing tracks. Of course, groups like Fischerspooner are popular, too. I feel like a pop uncle when I enter these clubs, because there are all these kids there doing it for the first time, and they come up to me for advice. I feel like I’ve done my apprenticeship now, after twenty years! When I was a teenager that was my inspirational music anyway, so I always felt like I’ve had electronic music in my blood, especially since Vince and I have been together. So, it seems like a natural cycle that has come around again. It took a while, but it is a roots thing, you’re right when you called it that.

This is also your first album of original material in seven years. Did your diagnosis have anything to do with this hiatus?

I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it. I suppose in some ways I have put my career on the back burner. I guess I wasn’t really aware of that. Good question. At the time we started to do our last CD, “Other Peoples Songs,” it was going to be a solo Phil Spector project, that’s how it began. Vince thought it would be a good idea to do a cover versions CD and choose all of our favorites and make it an Erasure thing. So, that’s how that came to be.

There’s also a bit more optimism in the sound of this CD, as opposed to your last. Was that intentional, or did it just turn out this way?

Vince is in a really good space. He just got married this past year to an American lady and they’re now living in Maine. I really enjoyed going over to New York last winter where he was living and recording in Brooklyn. It was also recorded before I had both my hips done. Maybe I had come to a point where I could no longer get around, and I think I thought it was my last stop before my operation, and I had a great diagnosis, so maybe that’s where the optimism comes out. I had a good outlook.

When were the operations and how are you feeling now?

They were in May and October and I feel absolutely fantastic! Thanks for asking.

I understand you wrote the bulk of these songs in New York rather than your native London. Do you think that made a difference?

The last half of the album was written in New York and recorded at the same time. It was freezing cold there. Did it make a difference? Yes! I made some great friends, especially this lady who runs Chi Chi’s, which is a black gay bar in the village. We just hung out in the East Village and went to where they had some 80’s jukeboxes and stuff. I got such a good vibe there and loved the music, and I think it just rubbed off. The first half was done in London at Vince’s house in November 2003.

I love the song “Breathe.” Any particular reason why you chose that as the first single?

That was the most apparent. Every time we played the CD for different people, that was the one they liked the most.

Is there any other song on this CD that is especially meaningful to you?

I do like the last song on the album, “I’ll Bet You’re Mad At Me.” It’s kind of a song written to my Mum. Mum has problems with drinking – she’s an alcoholic. It just reminded me of a time when she would come home late at night and the drama of not knowing where somebody’s been. Then I would have the feeling and say, “You don’t have to apologize for anything if you’ve been naughty.” You know when someone has a drinking problem, there’s nothing you can do to help them. They have to make that decision for themselves. Another song I really like is the first track on the album, “No Doubt,” which is the last song we wrote. It just reminds me of electro soul. I know you only asked for one, but I also really like “I Broke It All In Two” because it’s so easy sounding. I just love the sentiment of it because it relates to chains of love.

What significance does the title “Nightbird” have?

The original title of the album was “Snail,” but the record company thought it was too slow. Also, another group took the title the same week we thought of it. So, then I started to really think as to what we could call it, and then we thought of “Nightbird” because I’m usually working through the evening, and I do have bouts of insomnia now and then. Also when you’re a performer you’re singing in the evening anyway.

You have a beautiful dramatic voice. I’m curious to know who your musical influences have been.

I love Elvis. My Mum was a huge fan of his and I grew up on his music. But, he was one person I could never imitate. I thought he was really unique. I could never do the rock and roll, you know, the kind of gutsy rock and roll he did so well. I’ve never been able to do that. It would probably come out like some kind of up-tempo soul disco song or something (laughing). I’ve always loved Annie Lennox, her voice, and The Ronettes and Phil Spector’s stuff. A big, big influence on me was Blondie from a teenager. Deborah Harry- she’s just fantastic!

I understand you have a tour beginning soon. Do you plan on taking it here to the US?

We begin February 24. We’re a bit bogged down with promotion at the moment, but we’re headed to Germany this weekend. But once we get back, I’m headed straight to the gym and to rehearsals for the tour. I thought of doing “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” and I thought who would be there on stage but Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe! It will be coming to the States in the spring.

Is it true that you may be performing concerts to raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS?

I hope so, yes. Nothing specific yet, but I would hope to.

One last question - If you had to choose just one song out of your vast catalogue to put in a time capsule, which song would you choose, and why?

I would choose “Siren Song” from our “Chorus” album because it is the song of the sirens. It reminds me of one of my favorite songs, which is “Song To The Siren” by This Mortal Coil, who are better known as the Cocteau Twins. It’s like all the vibe of all these mermaids singing out in space and guiding the spaceships towards them, but they wouldn’t go crashing on the rocks because the capsule was so tiny. That’s it! “Song To The Siren” is the one I hold dear to me and would like future generations to hear!

You sound like you have a new lease on life. Your personal life and your music are right on track.

I’m feeling fantastic and I’m very happy with “Nightbird.” Things are very good. Thanks so much for the kind words. It means a lot to me.

© 2005 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.