A Conversation With Erasure’s Andy Bell

I recently spoke to Erasure‘s Andy Bell about his role in Barney Ashworth’s musical theatre show Torsten – The Bareback Saint. The show ran during the 2014 Edinburgh Festival and was accompanied by an album of the songs from the production, released via Strike Force / Cherry Red.

Upon the release of Variance, a collection of remixes and new versions of songs from the album, and ahead of Bell treading the boards again next year for the follow-up instalment, Torsten – The Beautiful Libertine, I interviewed Andy for This Is Not Retro. The conversation can be found here.

Anyone who knows me remotely well will know that Erasure have always been, and always will be, my favourite band. To get the opportunity to talk to someone whose work you’ve literally grown up with is always a privileged moment, and I am continually grateful for such chances.

I had always intended to write up a review of the performance of Torsten that a friend and I watched in Edinburgh last year, but never did. In its place, these are the rough notes I took at the time, along with a text message to a friend, all of which would have become a review if I’d just bothered to finish it.

Andy Bell – Torsten The Bareback Saint, Edinburgh 13 August 2014

In the introduction to the programme that accompanied Andy Bell’s first Edinburgh Festival show, he described taking on the role of Torsten in this song cycle as a challenge. As he climbed up the stairs to the small stage in full top hat and tails while singing the song ‘Teacher Teacher’ it was pretty obvious to the twenty or so people in the lecture theatre-cum-studio that this came pretty naturally to Bell.

‘It was really good. He came on in hat and tails, at one point was in heels, a vest and a sparkly pair of pants and ended up killing himself in a dressing gown. Very dramatic, quite funny, stirring and emotional. Boy can he sing! Only about twenty of us there.’ – text to a friend immediately after watching Torsten The Bareback Saint on 13 August 2014.

Suicide. Robin Williams.


Showgirl headgear.

Snarl. Disgust. Rage.


(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence // interview (c) 2015 This Is Not Retro

New Order – Music Complete (Mute Artists album, 2015)

New Order release their tenth studio album – their first for Mute Records – on 25 September.

I reviewed the album for This Is Not Retro. You can read my review here.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Nitzer Ebb – NE + HH Live At The Markthalle (Major Records DVD, 2012)

dvd / 2 x lp // NE + HH Live At The Markthalle

major records | dvd 1nepdvd2012 | 02/12/2012
2 x lp edition: emmo.biz/kompuphonic | 2 x lp ezr011 | 02/02/2013

NE + HH Live At The Markthalle is Nitzer Ebb‘s first live concert DVD and was released by Major Records, a German imprint, in late 2012. The film captures the trio of Doug McCarthy, Bon Harris and Jason Payne at the Markthalle in Hamburg (Hamburg’s city code on car registration plates being HH, hence the title) on 30 December 2011 as part of a worldwide tour to promote Industrial Complex, the band’s first album since 1994’s Big Hit. The DVD was released as a limited, numbered edition of 500 (mine was #479) swathed in a black sleeve with bold, This Total Age packaging and a booklet of photos and credits.

Nitzer Ebb have always had a very definite image, mostly through their sleeve designs and use of simple but bold logos, and there’s something about the way the trio are dressed on stage that doesn’t quite seem to fit with that. Doug is dressed in a suit and tie, slim-fit white shirt and sunglasses, looking youthful and effortlessly cool, like he’d walked into the Markthalle straight from a Ferrari parked on the curbside after a long day of directing a movie in LA; Bon and Jason on the other hand are both wearing baggy slacks and braces, for all intents and purposes looking a little like extras from The Untouchables. What’s most remarkable is that Doug manages to keep his tie and shades on for the whole show – I have to loosen my tie just from the exertion of sitting at a desk writing emails all day, let alone leaping about a stage for nearly ninety minutes.

Throughout, Doug stalks the stage menacingly, every word delivered with an aggressive confrontational air; Jason casually bashes out percussion and percussion like he’s not really concentrating; Bon smacks pads and various percussion instruments with the same rude grace that a kid would approach a toy drum, waving his sticks aloft and generally looking like he’s having a lot of fun.

‘Let Your Body Learn’ is all aggressive, faithful urgency while ‘Shame’ has a real sense of the emphatic, even if it seems a bit lightweight delivered straight after the set’s opener. ‘Hearts And Minds’ becomes a minimal electro funk track, with Doug pointing a finger at the crowd every time he he shouts the word ‘you‘. Industrial Complex‘s ‘Once You Say’ includes synths that sound like pure electricity, blended with a tight rhythmic strictness, Doug and Bon commanding the crowd with the lyric ‘move that body‘ like they needed any more encouragement.

Alongside a particularly energetic ‘Control I’m Here’, two of the set’s highlights are the classics ‘Lightning Man’ and ‘Blood Money’. ‘Lightning Man’ sounds as noir as ever, the jazz / latin fusion and aggressive chorus at the centre still sounding unexpected after the muttered prose of the verses. ‘Blood Money’ is approached with a much harder edge than the album original, with Doug appearing to be taken over by the sampled religious talk of spirits toward the end, body jerking manically, just as it does on the cynical ‘Payroll’, only here interspersed with lewd gestures when he sings ‘you better suck it‘. The same sense of sexuality appears on ‘For Fun’ with Doug emphasising the point with some dubious hand gestures and by holding his crotch for most of the song.

‘Ascend’ is given a plaintive, emotional reading but the dense build of the music seems a bit lost as Doug’s vocal is just a little too loud. Most of ‘Join In The Chant’ is true to form – a series of shouted motifs over a thudding drum track, metallic percussion and a sluggish, funky bassline – but it’s spoiled by some percussion sounds at the start and end that make it sound like a PWL pop track; I genuinely thought it was going to open out into ‘The Locomotion’ by Kylie. Perhaps it was intended as a tongue in cheek reference to PWL mixmaster Phil Harding having worked with the band on This Total Age, but despite my reservations, the crowd clearly love it.

After a very long wait for an encore, we’re rewarded with a storming version of ‘Getting Closer’, Doug and Bon prowling the stage and flinging their lines out into the audience like cluster bombs, followed by ‘I Give To You’, which sounds as majestically sinister and harrowing as ever.

My only criticism of what is an otherwise good film is the over-emphasis on crowd footage. There are so many shots of the tall blonde woman in the front row that I’m starting to think she’s actually part of the band. Overall though, it’s a small gripe for what is a good, if not lavishly-produced, document of Nitzer Ebb on stage.

The DVD also includes murky versions of ‘Let Your Body Learn’, ‘Shame’, ‘Hearts And Minds’ (sounding a little like a proto acid house track) and ‘Lightning Man’ recorded at the Blackfield Festival in 2008. Doug – complete with military jackboots – appears to have been in a bad mood that day, and only really seems switched on when delivering a particularly emphatic version of the last track (though he also seems to miss some of his cues to start singing). Also included is an interview with Bon, Doug and Jason sitting on the end of a bed in someone’s very basic hotel room. Bon and Doug do most of the talking, and subjects vary from stuff about how demoralising it can be to go out on tour, to how chilled out it is to live and work in LA, and to Bon and Jason’s then-current work developing characters for stop-motion animation. The most interesting chat comes when they discuss how various tracks on Industrial Complex came about, including an amusing deadpan comment from Doug about roping Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore in to do backing vocals on ‘Once You Say’ because they wanted ‘a big, busty black woman sound’. There’s also a frank acknowledgment that trying to write a song like ‘Down On Your Knees’ in the style of ‘Let Your Body Learn’ is really difficult and that it’s ‘hard to regain that naïvete again in the studio’. Bon goes on to admit resignedly that it took two months to come up with a simple bassline for the track.

Since I started writing this, it’s been announced that Emmo.biz/Kompuphonik will release a limited-edition audio version of the Markthalle gig as a double LP in February 2012. According to the press release the album will be released as a limited edition of 500 copies in a gatefold sleeve, 400 of which will be pressed on transparent vinyl while the remaining copies will be issued on red vinyl inside a box containing a t-shirt, flag, badge and poster. Undoubtedly one for the Nitzer Ebb completist only.

Thanks to Hayo at Major Artists for the review copy of the DVD, and also to Jürgen for the vinyl press release and for reminding me about German number-plates.

1. Intro
2. Let Your Body Learn
3. Shame
4. Hearts And Minds
5. Once You Say
6. Lightning Man
7. For Fun
8. Hit You Back
9. Blood Money
10. Payroll
11. Godhead
12. Ascend
13. Down On Your Knees
14. Murderous
15. Control I’m Here
17. Join In The Chant
18. Getting Closer
19. I Give To You

Blackfield Festival:
1. Let Your Body Learn
2. Shame
3. Hearts And Minds
4. Lightning Man

1. Jason Payne, Doug McCarthy and Bon Harris interview

A1. Intro
A2. Let Your Body Learn
A3. Shame
A4. Hearts And Minds
A5. Once You Say
B1. Lightning Man
B2. For Fun
B3. Hit You Back
B4. Blood Money
B5. Payroll
C1. Godhead
C2. Ascend
C3. Down On Your Knees
C4. Murderous
C5. Control I’m Here
D1. Join In The Chant
D2. Getting Closer
D3. I Give To You

First published 2012; re-edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Goldfrapp – Head First (Mute Records album, 2010)


mute records | lp/c/cd/i stumm320 | 22/03/2010

Head First finds the duo of Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory abandoning not only the hippy etherialism of last album Seventh Tree but also the confrontational, over-sexed electronica – in the vein of, say, Peaches and Client – in favour of a pure pop sound. At first you’d think that this is intended to permit Goldfrapp to drop neatly into the current trend for female-fronted synth pop acts a la La Roux, Little Boots, who are intent on sweeping up the vast electronica vistas of the Eighties and claiming them as their own; but this is released on Mute, which has been producing quality, credible and enduring electronic music since before the Eighties were even born. Specifically, I’d suggest the influence of Vince Clarke during his late Eighties analogue renaissance would be a principal marker for the noises offered up on Head First.

This is synth pop at its shimmering, shiniest best. I’ve not listened to an electronic pop record for many years (probably since Erasure‘s last) that’s had me so captivated from the opening seconds. In Head First‘s case, that opener is the sublime first single ‘Rocket’ and is quickly followed by ‘Believer’, which starts with minimal pulsing beats before snapping into a huge sing-along chorus the likes of which Goldfrapp seem set on nurturing across most of Head First.

The second single, ‘Alive’ is a ballsy, disco-y track (in the vein of, say, Stock Aitken and Waterman’s take on the genre with Big Fun perhaps) which neatly encapsulates the vibe of Scissor Sisters. ‘Dreaming’ is probably my personal favourite song here – beginning with pulsing synths and breathy words that I can barely decipher, it’s the pleasantly uplifting chorus which provides the core emotional hook of the track. Title track ‘Head First’ sounded to me like an Abba cover with its simple piano lines and grandeur-filled bridge, and I wasn’t surprised to see journalists reviewing the album citing the same similarity. It’s a beautiful love song that the Andersson-Ulvaeus could feasibly claim as being descended from one of their own.

‘Hunt’ is less pop and more like something that the Goldfrapp / Gregory duo may have delivered up on Felt Mountain. The electronics sound submerged and minimal and Goldfrapp’s vocal reminds of how broad her sonic range can be. ‘Hunt’ shares some similarities with the only dip across the whole album, closing track ‘Voice Thing’, which, as its name suggests features Goldfrapp’s voice (wordlessly singing as she did on the Orbital records from years gone by) as a textural instrument. It’s clever, certainly, but a bit low-key compared to the rest of the album. ‘Shiny And Warm’ – a fast-paced and fairly minimal piece – is a song I’m not especially keen on, but it’s growing on me gradually. ‘I Wanna Life’, however, with a few more Abba overtones and a massive dose of Fame-esque optimistic cheeriness is much better.

Overall, this is a brilliant album, setting the duo off on an exciting new course. A couple of below par tracks aside, this really is essential listening for anyone looking for authentic electronic pop music from this consistently inventive pairing.

A cassette version of Head First was released by Mute for Record Store Day 2010.

1. Rocket
2. Believer
3. Alive
4. Dreaming
5. Head First
6. Hunt
7. Shiny And Warm
8. I Wanna Life
9. Voicething

First posted 2010; re-edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Josh T. Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen (Mute Artists album, 2011)

album // Last Of The Country Gentlemen
mute artists | lp+cd/cd/dl stumm326 | 14/03/2011
rough trade shops edition xcdstumm326 released 21/11/2011

Last Of The Country Gentlemen, Josh T. Pearson‘s much-anticipated début album, garnered all manner of positive reviews in the run up to its release. In a climate where everyone seemed to be focussed on the retro punk stylings of The Vaccines, it was pleasing to see that an album consisting mostly of heart-wrenching confessionals delivered by a singer over simple accompaniment (mostly guitar, some strings) could get so much positive praise. The album was preceded by a piano version of the track ‘Country Dumb’, the album version resplendent with guitars and violin instead of piano, a towering yet fragile ballad that stirs something deep within.

On a personal level, Last Of The Country Gentlemen‘s gentle, emotional grace is deeply affecting. I listened to this over a weekend where we had sold or given away some clothes, toys and other ephemera belonging to our two girls, in itself a moving experience, and Pearson’s songs of transition seemed to heighten the fragile mood I was in over the weekend.

Pearson’s voice is a beautiful thing to listen to. Occasionally whispered, occasionally rising with clarion quality, the consistent aspect is that he makes every single syllable, every word and every line count; everything that comes from his mouth is freighted with depth and sentiment. Though his Texan twang is a million miles away from Antony Heggarty’s vocal gymnastics, the two singers share the same talent for soaking their most basic utterances in something indefinable which can leave you feeling affirmed, tearful and empty after listening to their music; you will need to invest almost everything you have into listening to these songs, and you will feel utterly spent at the conclusion. One song is hard enough; eight songs is nigh on torturous.

Last Of The Country Gentlemen was, according to The Times review, written during a period of heartbreak, and there is a definite theme of separation running through the eight songs here (three of which are well over ten minutes in length). However, with the exception of the bitter (yet controlled) statement of intent ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’, soaked in strings arranged by Dirty Three and Bad Seeds / Grinderman violinist Warren Ellis that amplify the mood palpably, the theme does not appear to be one of regret at his loss; more, there is a resigned air of Pearson almost forcing a separation, for the benefit of his lover. The twelve minute ‘Sweeheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ is a case in point – throughout this song, Pearson is effectively advising his lover that she’d be better off without him. That sense of setting someone free, for their benefit, especially if they don’t realise it, is just about the hardest damn thing to do, a selflessness that is gut-wrenchingly moving.

That theme is somewhat at odds with the sleeve, which appears to show Pearson trying to prevent his lover – whose face is blank, emotionless, detached – from leaving. He is grasping her legs, eyes closed, as if he would rather be dragged across the gravel rather than let her go, but it fits with the heartbreak and torment evident in the songs here. The track ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’, is a song about marrying someone but still being in love with someone else; this is the closest Pearson gets to being frustrated with his lot (albeit, it seems, of his own doing), and there is a section where the strings come up in great big swells that make you sympathetic toward his conflict, not angry at his infidelity. ‘Sorry With A Song’ is Pearson’s apology, of sorts.

Something about these songs encourage you to believe that Pearson is telling you his story here; like a début novel, the roman a clef tends to be written mostly from personal experience and emotions, containing thinly-disguised autobiographical aspirations more than pure fiction. These songs seem so honest, so genuine, that you want to believe that this is Pearson’s own story being articulated across these eight songs in spite of the desperation, frustration and sorrow contained here. We would be faintly disappointed if this songwriting was found to be fictional.

Last Of The Country Gentlemen was recorded in Berlin, and mixed in London by Gareth Jones (although a couple of tracks were mixed by David ‘Saxon’ Greenep). There is a sense of hands-off production on these tracks, a sense of respect for the songs themselves and the outpourings contained within them. Presenting the songs ‘just so’ is a brave, yet powerful thing to do; the album thus has a stark innocence that leaves me well and truly floored whenever I listen to it.

Special edition: Rough Trade Christmas Bonus
mute artists | xcd stumm326 | 21/11/2011

Mute released Last Of The Country Gentlemen again in November 2011 with a second disc of Josh T. Pearson performing a selection of Christmas songs, the occasion being Rough Trade Shops placing his album at the top of their 2011 album chart. The expanded version was only available from Rough Trade. To celebrate the release of Pearson’s Rough Trade Christmas Bonus, Rough Trade East printed up a special rubber curtain containing the picture from the Christmas EP’s sleeve to cover their front entrance.

The thing with Christmas carols is that they can often have an air of sadness about them; few have an obvious joyousness, though all have an inherent beauty. As such, Josh T. Pearson is well-suited to delivering the five songs he intimately performs here. Last Of The Country Gentlemen had few naturally uplifting moments, though – as evidenced by the live LP (again, only released through Rough Trade Shops) The King Is Dead – Pearson himself is actually pretty light-hearted and self-deprecating. Here we find him struggling while trying to pluck the notes to a lovely rendition of ‘Silent Night’, unaware that his musings are being recorded, cocking up the introduction to ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and delivering a faultless accapella rendition of ‘Away In A Manger’, which masterfully rescues the carol from thousands of painful school nativities. Likewise, his bluesy rendition of ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ moves the song away from the tuneless butchering of this carol by assembled toddlers and into masterful, graceful territory. In defiance of his image as a humourless misanthrope, he even adds a wee coda of ‘Jingle Bells’ at the very end.

‘O Holy Night’ is testament to how Pearson can take a song that’s not his own and add his own distinctive style to create something utterly original. Here his reading sits somewhere between the melancholy grandeur of Last Of The Country Gentlemen and the more introspective aspects of the Rufus Wainwright back catalogue. In a burst of seasonal goodwill, an alternative version of of ‘O Holy Night’ was made available for free from Pearson’s own website.

1. Thou Art Loosed
2. Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ
3. Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell
4. Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her
5. Sorry With A Song
6. Country Dumb
7. Last Of The Country Gentlemen (lp/i bonus track)
8. Drive Her Out

1. Silent Night
2. Angels We Have Heard On High
3. Away In A Manger
4. O Holy Night
5. O Little Town Of Bethlehem

Note: this CD was packaged with the CD copy of the album as a Rough Trade Shops exclusive

First posted 2011; re-edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Josh T. Pearson – The King Is Dead (Mute Records album, 2011)

album // The King Is Dead

 Josh T. Pearson 'The King Is Dead' LP artwork 

mute artists | lp lstumm326 | 05/09/2011

In 2011, my wife and I went to see Ryan Adams at the Barbican for what turned out to be an excellent acoustic solo show. Adams’s musicianship has never been questioned, but what was surprising was how comedic and downright funny his story-telling and banter was; for an artist with a history of issues and a reputation for cantankerousness and volatility (only in evidence once that night), to see / hear this side of him was totally unexpected.

Later on in 2011, we’d had a plan to see Josh T. Pearson, also at the Barbican, for what was billed as a solo acoustic show (with special guests); unfortunately, we wouldn’t make it to that show thanks to a suspected burglary at a relative’s house. When we booked the tickets, Mrs S said ‘He’s supposed to be really funny on stage,’ which seemed totally implausible; the songs presented on his album Last Of The Country Gentlemen were so uniformly maudlin, intimate and personal that any possibility of a lighthearted side to Pearson seemed remote. But, at least at the start of this audio document of his performance at Union Chapel in Islington on 11 May 2011, what’s revealed is a man who’s not afraid to send himself up, making jokes about his appearance (‘I totally forgot to shave this morning,’ he quips, referencing his copious facial hair) and generally acting the clown; he comes across a lot like Loudon Wainwright III in the self-deprecating, all-too-honest way he speaks.

The King Is Dead is described as an ‘official bootleg’ and is presented in a way that does indeed look like a cheeky crowd recording (i.e. a simple white sleeve with the track details glued on). The 6-track album was released on LP only and was exclusively available via Rough Trade Stores and their website, where it was described as ‘future eBay gold’. For some reason, the rear sticker on the sleeve includes the old Mute Czechoslovakia logo. The album was sensitively mastered in Berlin by Stefan Betke, aka minimal techno musician and one-time Mute artist Pole, regarded as one of the best vinyl masterers in the business these days. Betke’s pressing manages to successfully capture the quiet, almost silent, sections of Pearson’s delivery. It is not, as I found, an album to be listened to on a train whilst commuting; this is one for the evening, at home, when the house is near-silent, with or without a herbal tea. Or possibly a glass of bourbon. And most definitely to be consumed on your own without people around you. Especially anyone you may have wronged at some point.

Last Of The Country Gentlemen was a moving album and Pearson’s live delivery of the outwardly simple, but inherently complex, emotional outpourings of his debut’s tracks – all of amorphous length, volume and with tempos often varying throughout – highlights the assuredness with which Pearson owns these songs. The addition of gentle orchestration (on ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’ and again on ‘Country Dumb’, with additional piano by Dustin O’Halloran) subtly raises the moving dimension of these songs. The section of ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’, where the orchestra swells above Pearson’s strummed guitar, is one of the most rousing moments in a set which could otherwise be depressing.

‘Devil’s On The Run’, included here and unavailable elsewhere, features the audience taking over singing duties toward the end – and, as this was recorded in what used to be a church, the assembled voices have a natural choral effect, which is a beautiful thing for your ear to experience. Appropriately enough, given the setting, Pearson also does his familiar blending of ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ with Last Of The Country Gentlemen‘s opener, ‘Thou Art Loosed’ and its one of the most sublime moments on The King Is Dead, particularly at the very end when Pearson’s guitar gets wildly fuzzed-up. Also included here is the upcoming next single, ‘Sorry With A Song’, which is exactly that – an apology, in a song; here it’s a somewhat more rambling affair, but it’s shorter than the other five tracks. The whole thing – all six tracks – runs for a grand total of fifty minutes; Pearson doesn’t do brief.

Listening to this on the way to work back in 2011 had an unexpected effect on my outlook for most of the morning; it may have been tiredness and nothing to do with listening to this, but I found myself thinking introspectively for most of the day, I couldn’t concentrate and I found myself apologising for things I knew weren’t my fault.

A1. Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ
A2. Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell
A3. Sorry With A Song
B1. Country Dumb
B2. Rivers Of Babylon / Thou Art Loosed
B3. Devil’s On The Run

Originally posted 2011; edited 2015

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence