As he was taking a break from tour rehearsals, I had the chance to speak with Andy Bell from Erasure about the bands new album, Nightbird, their 20-year legacy, and his courageous decision to come out publicly about his HIV status.
Out: First off, I love the new album. Its a more grown up version of the old Erasure like Wild and Chorus. Was that a conscious decision to return to that sound?
Andy Bell: It was kind of a conscious decision, but not too conscious. I said to Vince [Clarke, the other half of Erasure], my favorite album of ours is Chorus, so lets make it like that, because it is kind of minimal, but quite rich.
Where does the title come from?
We were gonna call it Snail, but the record company thought that was too slow. But me and Vince thought of it in the way of a little creature with his house on his back that can just get squashed with one foot. That was quite sad really. We thought of a lot of different words and then Nightbird was taken from my insomnia, which I get every now and then.
Which song from your catalog are you most proud of?
I really like Siren Song from Chorus and I love Tenderest Moments, which is going to be on the acoustic album we just did.
And what is the acoustic album?
Ive always been harping on Vince to do a country-western style album. So he arranged this whole thing with a friend of his from Brooklyn to do versions of our own songs that we thought wouldve been good tracks that were missed from albums. Using a lot of slide guitar, violins, cellos, oboes, those kinds of things, it is really beautiful. Its all new recordings, but of our old songs.
What song would you love to never have to sing again?
I get a bit bored with Love to Hate You and Heavenly Action I suppose. We have so many songs now on the new tour that by the time you get to Love to Hate You, youre worn out.
If you could do a duet with anyone, who would it be?
Debbie Harry. I love her.
Which song do you wish had been a bigger hit?
Probably In My Arms. But I think its much better to have released a classic and not have it be a hit than to have released something that was crap.
Definitely. I heard through the grapevine that Vince got married and moved to New York. How is that affecting your collaborations?
Well, actually, he just moved to Maine, but it was quite good because I would get free trips to New York when he was there. I havent been to Maine yet, but he has already checked out the gay bars for me and hes a real gentleman when you stay there. He does your washing, cooks your meals, and his wife is real lovely. Shes really brilliant. And it works quite well when I am here, since he is on farm hours and I am the nightbird, so we kind of criss-cross with our Atlantic hours difference.
Erasures music was the soundtrack to my coming-out years. How did you decide so early on in your career, and before it was even remotely accepted, to come out as an openly gay performer?
Well, I decided when I was a teenager that I was so good at lying, that I just didnt want to lie anymore. My thought was, To tell the truth would be easier. So the fact is, I just gave up lying at an early age.
How do you think that being out has affected your career?
Well, I think if I hadnt been gay, we wouldnt have gotten any press at all. I feel welcome wherever I go and theres always somewhere I can just go and hang out and I dont know that I would have necessarily had that if I had just been kind of a regular musician, yknow?
Do you find that people in the U.K. are more open to gays?
We still have ages to go, but there seems to have been a sexual revolution with the Internet. Were becoming closer to Europeand with their laws being much more open than ours were. For example, weve had to reduce the age of consent to 16, just to be within the European union, so thats kind of a good thing as far as changing the mindset about sex in general. But on the other extreme, it is like the lid has been taken off Pandoras box and people are fucking left, right, and center, and you dont know whos into what or whats going on. I feel like its overtaken me really.
The whole country is on the down-low! How are your hips? You recently had both of them replaced. What happened?
Theyre fantastic! I feel like a new person. I think its a bit genetic, and it may have been from the steroids I was on when I had pneumonia in New York.
So basically, youre going to be the Bionic Andy Bell?
Yes. I used to pretend to be the Bionic Woman anyway when I was a teenager. At the local swimming pool I would make that noise she made when I would jump off the high dive. I would say they should film me and play it backwards and it would look like I was jumping out of the water. I was either that or one of Charlies Angels. Of course, I was always Jill.
What made you decide to go public about your HIV status?
That was another thing that was just hanging over my head and I just felt like I was clear in my mind about what I wanted to say and how I wanted it to be. And I just dont like having secrets.
You were diagnosed in 1998; how did you decide now is the right time?
It had been awhile and there had been a few scare stories around in the U.K. while I was negative saying that I had AIDS and that I had given it to someone else, so I was a bit nervous about what people would say. But then I just decided fuck it. Why not? I just dont like when there are rumors and speculation going around. I like to clear the air.
How has it affected your music?
From where I am now, I just feel much more grounded having had deeper experiences, which helps my singing. It all comes from the ground upwards.
What do you think about the current political climate regarding AIDS in America and the U.K.?
I think we are really fortunate because we are white and live in the west, but that kind of tends for us to bury our heads in the sand a bit and not really concern ourselves about whats going on anywhere else. There are 50 million people that have HIV in Africa and only 5% of those people have access to medicines and I think we need to be more responsible for that. You just have to get things into perspective.
Sadly, I think people pay more attention when they have a face and are reminded that it can affect anyone. What has been the response of people since you came out as positive?
Its actually been really great. Sadly, I think its the first time we made MTV news.
I know your partner, Paul, is writing a book. What is that about?
He was going to write a book when he had his first face-lift in 1990 from a mans experience and being vain and gay and all that kind of stuff. Then he found out he was HIV positive from a blood test. Then when he had a face-lift in 2000, he subsequently had a stroke. So his book has been kind of a cathartic exercise, and his memory is amazing. He was born in 1950, so it is from his childhood, growing up in California, coming out in the 60s to hanging out with the U.S. Army guys and doing drugs and that kind of stuff, so its gonna be good.
And how long have you been with him?
Since when I met Vince, so 20 years.
Thats remarkable! If you had the chance to do your whole career over, would you do anything different or are you happy with just the way it is?
I wouldnt do anything different, but Id quite like to have been a woman.
Well, if it is any consolation, you have always looked better in a corset than most!