“Do you want to see it?” Vince Clarke asked.
For the previous few minutes, Clarke, one of the most successful electronic musicians from the 1980s, had tried to explain Eurorack, the system he used to create “Songs of Silence,” his deeply personal first solo album, due Friday.
“It’s like having a Porsche engine glued together with a reliable Volvo car, and the wheels are the best ones from Dunlop, but they all join together. Does that make any sense?” he asked with a laugh.
“I’m very nerdy,” he added.
Clarke’s nerdiness, along with his sterling pop sensibility, has contributed to lots of great music. He wrote the three hit singles on Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut album, then quit the band and formed a duo, Yazoo, with the singer Alison Moyet. They had hits, too, including “Situation,” which is currently the song in a ubiquitous TV commercial for Truly Hard Seltzer. Clarke also had a side project, the Assembly, which produced one great track, “Never Never,” before he formed a new duo, Erasure, with the British singer Andy Bell. Erasure has placed 28 singles in the Top 20 of the U.K. pop chart, and three in the United States.
“He’s an important pioneer in making synthesizers more prominent in pop music,” Danz CM, an electronic musician and synth historian, said in a phone interview. “He has a knack for writing synth-pop songs with catchy, complex melodies.” (See: Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” Yazoo’s “Don’t Go,” Erasure’s “A Little Respect” and “Chains of Love,” his biggest U.S. hit.)
Clarke, 63, lives with his wife, Tracy Hurley Martin, and their 18-year-old son Oscar, a musician, in a sprawling Manhattan triplex loft in a part of TriBeCa where the streets are still cobblestone. He’s thin and smallish, with big eyes and a ready laugh sparked by a dry sense of humor. As we sat at a long dining table, we were watched carefully by an enormous red cat, whom Clarke addressed as “Cat,” even though his name is Dio, after the heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio.
Clarke is a pop guy, but “Songs of Silence” isn’t a pop record. The music is mostly ambient and drone, with no hooks or key changes. Since the start of the pandemic, ambient music seems to have found a new purpose and audience, as a salve for anxiety or sleeplessness. It’s been a balm for Clarke, too. In an interview last month with The Quietus, he said that making the album had been “very therapeutic.” The article mentioned that his wife had been seriously ill; asked to add more details, he said “No,” firmly. There was a pause, then he leavened the moment with a punchline: “That’s the end of the interview then! See ya!”
In May 2022, Andy Fletcher, a founding member of Depeche Mode, died. Four months later, Clarke’s best friend from childhood, the singer Robert Marlow, did too. Clarke’s sadness, and his concern for his wife, all leaked into the record.
Did he compose “Songs of Silence” out of a need for solace? “I don’t know if it’s a need, no. I’m not thinking, Oh, if I add another keyboard, I’ll feel much better,” he quipped. “But it did fulfill that function.”
Could Clarke, hypothetically, walk over to the upright piano in a corner of his living room and play something? He shook his head no.
“I used to play guitar, but I was terrible at it,” he said. “When synthesizers came along, I realized I could get a great sound just by hitting one note with my forefinger. It didn’t require any skill, which was a huge attraction!”
Clarke started out, with Depeche Mode, using a monophonic synthesizer — a keyboard that could play only one note at a time. “It was horrible, the Kawai S-100F. And it cost 400 pounds, which was a huge amount of money.”
He still uses only monophonic synths, and constructs his tracks one finger at a time, layering sounds on top of each other, which is a big part of why he called himself “a crappy keyboard player.” What, then, is his skill?
“I would put him in the Mozartian category,” said Martyn Ware, an original member of the Human League who has become Clarke’s close friend and frequent collaborator. “He’s prolific, and he understands melody lines and counterpoint, as well as how to create an emotional connection to the audience. Vince is like an orchestral arranger, but for synthesizers.”
Clarke’s family came from the East End of London, which is still evident in his accent, but the area was heavily bombed by Germany during World War II because of its proximity to the country’s shipping docks. So they moved to Basildon, one of many “new towns” Britain built quickly to create new housing — in some cases, too quickly. “Cracks would start appearing in walls, and they’d have to flatten the houses and start again,” he said.
His father was a tic-tac man who relayed betting odds to bookies at the dog track using an intricate set of hand signals, and his mother worked as a factory seamstress and also made clothes for Vince, his sister and his two brothers: “Three brothers, and we all looked the same because she used the same piece of cloth. It was naff.”
Musically, his first love was Simon & Garfunkel, after he discovered he could play their songs on a guitar. Then in 1979, synth-pop hit the charts. He fell under the sway of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, which he pronounced “the greatest pop song ever written,” and Visage’s “Fade to Grey,” as well as more industrial things, like Fad Gadget’s “Back to Nature” and “T.V.O.D.” by the Normal.
It felt to him like electronic music was the genuine punk rock. A guitarist needed to learn at least three chords, but a synth player could create a whole track even with nine broken fingers. “The Sex Pistols were real musicians,” he said. “The early electronic musicians weren’t. All they could do was” — he tapped on the dining table — “which is still all I can do,” he finished with a roar.
He and three friends formed Depeche Mode, a band with no drummer or guitarist. They played weekly at a Basildon disco, “but we only had eight songs, so the set was pretty short,” he recalled.
A local newspaper wanted to write about the group, and as the main songwriter, he became the mouthpiece. After the interview, he began to worry that if his real name appeared in the story, he’d no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. So he asked the writer to change it from Vince Martin to Vince Clarke, after the American D.J. Dick Clark — whose name, he found out later, doesn’t have an E at the end.
Depeche Mode had immediate success in England, but Clarke wasn’t happy. “Egos were flying around, mine especially,” he said. There was too much squabbling, so he quit. He figured he’d go back to one of his earlier jobs, which included emptying chemical toilets on airplanes, and make music as a hobby.
He wrote a beautiful ballad called “Only You” and needed a singer to demo it, so he replied to a newspaper ad by Moyet, a big-voiced, soulful singer whom he’d known distantly since childhood. But their personalities clashed — she was combative, he hates conflict — and the partnership ended quickly.
In a period of only five years, he made the first Depeche record, two Yazoo albums, the Assembly hit and the first Erasure single, “Who Needs Love Like That.” This hot streak, he said, happened because he spent almost all his time in recording studios. “I couldn’t soak it up fast enough.”
Near the end of our two-hour conversation, he proudly showed off his Eurorack, which is upstairs in the bedroom. “Ta-da!” he exclaimed. A Eurorack isn’t a machine, but a format, developed by the German company Doepfer in the mid-1990s, that allows users to link individual modular devices, made by small, specialty manufacturers, to create elaborate DIY super-synthesizers. Clarke has two Euroracks, and each has at least 30 different devices: oscillators, filters, envelope generators, sequencers, and more.
“It’s an infinite learning and discovery process,” Clarke said. “That’s what got me hooked.” The nerd in him was ecstatic.