Erasure on Shaking Up the Holiday-Album Formula with New Release, 'Snow Globe' (Q&A)
No caroling here. Instead, the English duo offers tracks with such evocative titles as “Blood on the Snow” and “Bleak Midwinter."
You usually know what you’re getting from a Christmas record. But listen to indestructible English synth duo Erasure’s new seasonal offering, Snow Globe (Mute), and you’ll hear no songs about jolly old St. Nick, no mentions of a certain red-nosed reindeer. There are no jingling sleigh bells, no carols sung by a children’s choir and no cover photo of members Andy Bell and Vince Clarke in Santa hats.
Instead, the track listing features such evocative titles as “Blood on the Snow” and “Bleak Midwinter.” The first single is “Gaudete,” a 15th Century Latin hymn, the video for which features animated monks in a decaying monastery. And while there is the requisite cover of “White Christmas,” Clarke describes their rendition as “kind of sad, rather than the happy versions you usually hear.” The inspiration? "This idea of someone singing it in the subway [who is] homeless, old and sad."
Merry Christmas 2013 from Erasure!
But there is real beauty in Snow Globe’s melancholy, particularly the stirring “Gaudete” and their stark cover of “Silent Night.” This is a holiday album for those who like The Nightmare Before Christmas way more than Frosty the Snowman.
“We wanted to bring out some of the darker aspects of these tunes,” Clarke tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And, musically speaking, I thought it would be really interesting to strip the arrangements back as much as possible so that all you had was a spooky kind of musical background that would allow Andy's vocals to really shine.”
Clarke didn’t have to look far to find someone who got Snow Globe’s eerie, wintery vibe and would be able to translate it to its music videos. He turned to Tonya Hurley, the New York Times bestselling author of the marvelously macabre Ghostgirl YA series, who is also the twin of his wife, Tracy (and the spouse of longtime Erasure manager, Michael Pagnotta). Hurley’s task: Create a couple of clips that called to mind the look and feel of popular Rankin/Bass holiday specials like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
“As soon as I heard Erasure were making a Christmas record, I knew the videos had to be stop-motion,” says Hurley, referring to the technique in which thousands of still images of an object are manipulated to make it look like it’s moving. So she contacted veteran Hollywood animator and visual effects artist Martin Meunier, a protegé of Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline and James and the Giant Peach. The two ended up writing and directing the videos for “Gaudete” and “Make It Wonderful,” a haunting synth track that sounds like classic Erasure.
“The biggest advantage of stop-motion is that [unlike computer-created animation] there is a reality to it,” says Meunier. “If you look at the Rankin/Bass puppets, they look like toys. You want to hold them because they are real.”
For the forthcoming “Make It Wonderful” video, Meunier commissioned 10-inch mini-me’s of Bell and Clarke, whose Santa-like arrival by flying vintage Thunderbird convertible brings hope and good cheer to a dozen down-on-their-luck, urban-dwelling puppets.
So, did the duo have any requests regarding how their own puppets (see photo below) should look?
“Andy wanted a twinkle in his eye,” Hurley says. Meanwhile, “Vince continues to insist to his Twitter followers that we didn’t use puppets in the videos, that it is actually he and Andy in the videos -- actual size.”
Read on for more from Erasure: Why most holiday music makes Clarke cringe, the sad story behind Bell’s inspired vocals, and what’s next for these music veterans.
You wouldn't necessarily expect Erasure to jump at the chance to do a holiday album. Did you have to warm up to the idea?
Vince Clarke: I didn't want to do it at all, actually, because there are so many really naff [read: cheesy] Christmas records out there. And a lot of the songs have been covered in every single style imaginable. Daniel [Miller, founder of Mute Records] certainly had his misgivings about doing such a project. He was of the same mind: How are we going to do something in a way that’s not been done before? I was surprised that he went along with the idea. This is the first Mute “festive” record.
Andy, you’ve said that you and Vince both went through some “huge personal things” during the past few years. Is this part of the reason for the record’s somber tone?
Andy Bell: We went into this thinking we were going to make a happy-go-lucky, all bells and whistles type of album, and I think, because of where we were at in our personal lives, I wanted to feel like I was getting in touch with something. Last April I lost a life partner of mine (Paul M. Hickey). I really felt like I was singing from my soul and being, and trying to be healing in some ways with the music.
So it was therapeutic for you?
Bell: It really was. I feel like when I'm singing it's almost like saying a prayer. I feel like you're opening yourself up to something else, and hopefully it comes out through the voice. I've always been interested in seeing if it's possible to heal yourself through music and using your singing voice.
When you were looking at the list of tracks, did you see “Blood on the Snow” and “Bleak Midwinter” together on there and think, “Maybe this is a bit too morbid for the holidays”?
Bell: I do think it’s a lonely time of year, really. “Bleak Midwinter” is a traditional English carol, but I suppose it's evocative of some of the harder winters that we have in this country. I'm not sure how old the song is, but it sounds very old-fashioned. We used to sing it in school. And then “Blood on the Snow” was just another sound that kind of came to me really early, probably 3 o'clock in the morning. I just sang the song into the iPhone -- all the words just came out. I thought afterwards that it was based on the little tin solder story [i.e. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier]. ... We also tried to capture the essence and innocence of Christmases past, like those old black-and-white movies, It's a Wonderful Life and the original Miracle on 34th St.
Vince, you tweeted that you think Snow Globe features some of the best vocals Andy’s ever recorded.
Clarke: He did a brilliant job. “Gaudete” is amazing. When I first heard his vocals on that, I was blown away.
That’s saying a lot, as you’ve been making music as Erasure for nearly 30 years. However, you’ve spent the last few working on other projects -- Vince, you released the techno instrumental album, Ssss, with former Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore; Andy, you completed a solo tour of North and South America. What was it like to be together in the studio again?
Bell: The Christmas album was a way of Vince and I easing back into working together. There were a lot of things that had happened while we were away. I had a civil partnership with my new partner (D. Stephen Moss) last January.
Clarke: Working with Andy is it like putting on an old pair of slippers: You get into that comfort zone really quickly. He is so easy-going. I mean, there's a bit of nerves in the beginning because you're not sure what's going to happen, what will come out of your writing session. But I've known Andy for so long now, and we know each other so well, it's ridiculous.
Do you think the dark feel will carry over to your next studio album?
Clarke: I'd like to do the [next] in the same minimal style as the Christmas record. [But] Andy loves the idea of making a big disco record -- he loves that whole vibe.
Bell: I've always felt that performing with Erasure is a bit like being a ballerina on a music box, except with laser beams coming out and bouncing off a mirror ball.