Yazoo are carrying the flag for the human face of chart pop. While everyone else is either trying to pretend that the real world doesn’t exist (Modern Romance) or trying hard to be fiercely alternative (Dexys), Alf and Vince maintain an attitude of reality. They’re the sort of people with whom you can kick off your shoes and loosen your tie. In a word, they’re relaxed.
You’d expect from physical appearance that Vince would be the quiet introvert, and Alf would be chatty and outgoing, and to a degree you’d be right. Vince thinks before he speaks, the result of mis-quotation by our friends in the international dailies, but he opens out on subjects that interest him, like work. Alf is shyer than she pretends, but covers it well with volumes of firm opinion, punctuated by the occasional self-depraciating giggle. For most of the time, Alf does the talking for both of them, they seem to prefer it that way.
The actual interview itself was originally scheduled for the opening gig of their British tour, but was put back because of Alf’s throat infection. Our talk was postponed a further two times, and we eventually caught up with each other at the rescheduled first night. I was allowed to talk to both Alf and Vince, on the strict understanding that time was limited, so as not to over-tax Alf’s vocal chords. That was the theory, but you know how it is when people get talking, especially if someone drops the catch on the dressing-room door …
On original intentions
Both Alf and Vince freely admit that their motives for working together are basically selfish. Their success, on a commercial as well as personal level, neatly assassinates the theory that bands, or any group of people who work together in a close-knit unit have to be selfless individuals, happy to sacrifice personality and ambition for the good of the band/party/state etc.
“When we first started, I didn’t even think in the terms of the project working or not working,” Alf confessed. “I thought it might be a chance for us to go into the studio and lay down a track, or some tracks, which would give me material to use as a demo to get a band together.”
As a relatively unknown quantity, you could say that Alf was being cold and mercenary. On the other hand, you could be realistic as she and Vince are, and understand that people who turn down golden opportunities, never get anywhere. Vince, on the other hand, undertook the experiment that became Yazoo for different reasons.
“I wasn’t really interested in working with another band. That’s why I stayed with Mute Records, instead of signing with a major label. I’d already spoken to loads of majors in the past, and I wasn’t really interested. Yazoo started off as a one-off single and it just sort of escalated from there.”
Having split with Depeche Mode to escape the grind of pressure to record and tour, and generally be a pop star, it’s easy to see Vince’s reluctance to tie himself to the strings of a major recording contract. Thanks to the more sympathetic relationship with Mute, Vince was able to work at his own pace, and the results have more than justified the faith placed in him. As a major force behind one of Britain’s premier synthesizer pop bands (my opinion not Vince’s), it would have been easy for him to advertise for a vocalist, by trading on his own reputation.
“I didn’t want to do that really,” said Vince with disarming and totally genuine honesty. “It’s not as if I was in contact with anyone like that anyway. I couldn’t see myself advertising in the music press saying ‘I’m Vince Clarke …’ it was a really small time. I hadn’t been in a recording studio for a few months, and I just wanted to see if I could still do it. It’s the same thing with playing live. It was a new challenge, just the two of us on stage. Alison was really keen to go on the road, so we decided to give it a try.”
“I think this is the only tour we’ll do,” said Alf, dropping that particular bomb-shell in the matter-of-fact tone that suggested that it had all been discussed and agreed some time ago.
“It’s been a successful tour, but I don’t think Vincent particularly enjoys it, in fact I know he doesn’t. I really enjoy gigging and I’ll carry on gigging, but on a different level. I think we’ll become more of a studio band, it’s where we work best. We’ll probably record together as Yazoo for albums to come. I definitely enjoy gigging and I’m not going to give it up. Vince definitely dos not enjoy gigging, and he definitely is going to give it up!”
That explains why Alf continually refers to Yazoo as a “project”. They both seem to regard it it as a pick-up and put-down arrangement, depending on what suits them at the time. It’s a system which other bands ought to seriously consider. As Alf pointed out, being in a band is not like a standard day job, where you either have a job or you don’t. Being in a band gives you a unique opportunity to take time to explore other avenues, without loosing sight of the original idea. For Vince, the structured life-style of touring proved once again to be too much of a nuisance for him to agree with, especially if he doesn’t have to.
“The thing is, this tour has been really time-consuming,” explained Vince in a rare glimpse of genuine frustration. “All the preparation and everything, it’s been holding me up from even basic things like songwriting. With touring, when you’re up there on stage for an hour or whatever, it’s great. It’s just all the hassle beforehand.”
Speaking as someone who can just wire a plug, providing you don’t need it in the next two hours, I have a profound respect for anyone who understands the internal workings of electronic devices. I fondly imagined that anyone who works with the kind of complicated gadgetry Vince Clarke uses to make music, must have a degree in physics at least. In fact, Vince’s knowledge of the whys and wherefors of synths and associated devices, is limited to wiring the occasional lead. This meant considerable problems both ethical and electronics, when Yazoo came to try and put the whole show on the road, as Vince explained.
“What we planned to do was use a couple of Fairlight computers on stage which would do everything for us, but they turned out to be impossible to use. The problem is, they are so delicate, and five minutes before you’re due on stage, they can suddenly decide not to happen. You can’t afford a risk like that when you’re playing live and people are expecting a performance. Now we just use ordinary tapes.”
If Yazoo are now using standard reel to reel backing tapes, what was the advantage of using the Fairlights in the first place?
“None, really. It’s just a question of ethics. I had a real thing about playing love sequences. What happened was, on the first mini-tour we did, we wanted to use two Fairlights. I could be programming one, while the other was playing a song, and then swap them over. Just before the gig started, one of the computers broke down, so we’d have been faced with a one minute delay between songs, while I re-programmed the one that was working. As an emergency, we played an ordinary cassette tape of the backing tracks through the mixer, and no-one noticed the difference! After that, we decided to use normal reel to reel backing tapes anyway. The slide projectors work off tapes as well. We originally tried to get the slide machine to work off beats on the drum machine. It did work, but not very well, so we found a way of programming the projectors to work off tapes and that works very well.”
“I’d feel happier not using tapes,” said Alf, “but really we had no choice. We wanted to gig, people wanted to see us, so we went out on the road, with the tapes.”
It will be clear to anyone who has either seen Yazoo live, or heard their marvelous ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ album, that Alf and Vince operate from very different musical spheres. To write songs together involved a certain degree of compromise. Alf elaborates.
“If I write a song, I write the chord structure, and I’ll have an idea of what sort of sound I want. A lot of the time I leave it up to Vincent and he interprets it. Alternatively, if he writes a song, he’ll explain the basics of how the melody goes, and I’ll change it to suit myself.”
The underlying attitude here seems to be polite acknowledgement of each other’s territory. Alf wouldn’t tell Vincent how to programme a synth, and Vince wouldn’t pick on the subleties of vocal phrasing. It’s an understanding that’s vital if any sort of partnership is to succeed. Yazoo find it easier than most, because their entire relationship is based at a professional level.
On life on the road
It’s a common belief that bands spends every waking hour in each other’s company. The more enduring bands have realised that any group of people who spend too much time together, get on each other’s nerves, and breakup is just around the corner. The solution is to maintain the right balance between friendship and business, The Rolling Stones are an object lesson in survival, they work it by only getting together to record, or tour, living totally separate lives away from the band. This keeps relations between them at the right level. Close enough to work, distant enough to tolerate each other for long periods when necessary. Alf and Vince have managed to strike this crucial balance from the earliest days of their career.
“We don’t spend time together really,” said Alf. “On tour, I’ve spent most of my time with the support band, we get on very well, and Vince has been with his girlfriend. The only time we see each other is when we’re working. If it hadn’t been for getting together for this interview, I might not have seen him all day, until we actually go on stage, and we sort of wave to each other. It works that way. We’re not the same people, we don’t enjoy doing the same things, so what’s the point of pushing a relationship that’s not there? We like each other, and we get on, but it doesn’t go much further than that. It’s a working relationship.”
On life in the studio
“We have different opinions in the studio, and different tastes, but we’re generally pleased with the result,” said Vince summing up his opinion with characteristic simplicity. Alf was a little more thoughtful.
“I found in the beginning I had less confidence in the studio, because I was the unknown. I felt it was only through Vince that I had the chance to record. I didn’t feel strong enough to turn round and say ‘Look I feel very deeply about this.’ But since we’ve recorded the album, I’ve become a lot stronger. If I’d felt more confident at the time of recording, perhaps there are one or two things I’d have changed. Now that I feel happier about it, work in the studio is going better than ever.”
How many times have you really loved a certain band’s early albums, and then been disappointed or even downright disgusted at the apparent lack of care that goes into later efforts? At the risk of enduring vehement abuse, I have to cite Supertramp as a prime example. I thought, and still do think, that ‘Crime Of The Century’ is one of the finest albums in my collection. Now, thanks to their total absorbtion into the American superstar syndrome, they’ve lost the bite and creative edge that made them so very good. Why? Because they don’t have to try anymore. If they turn out substandard, or even duff albums, people still flock to buy them, so where’s the motivation to even try and write decent material?
Yazoo have reached the stage where their live performances are greeted with enthusiasm before they’ve actually done anything, so doesn’t it take the edge off their efforts?
“It works both ways really,” pondered Alf after an uncharacteristic pause for thought. “In some ways it gives me confidence, in other ways it annoys me. For instance, if I’m getting into something, and to me it’s moving or atmospheric, and there’s a lot of noise and banter going on, then it aggravates me. Then again, if it wasn’t like that, perhaps I wouldn’t have the confidence to go out and do it.”
On the future
At a time when apparently secure and successful bands are going down like nine-pins, it’s no longer safe to assume that favourites will continue to pump out songs until they end up tilling the allotment. Looking at the way some bands have slid from urgent vibrant force into sluggish FM non-entries, it gives evidence for a compulsory break after the peak of creativity have been reached. Since Yazoo are one of the successes of 1983 what about it Alf?
“I don’t really know what I’d do if Yazoo finished. I wouldn’t simply go out and form an r’n’b band, because I don’t think I’d be satisfied just doing r’n’b now. I’ve developed much wider tastes since working with Vincent. I don’t think people should limit themselves to one particular style. I’d like to get a band together and do a mixture of jazz and soul, and some of the stuff that I write that you can’t really categorize, just poems set to music.”
Those who saw Alf solo on B.A. Robertson’s show will be well aware of her homage to traditional blues music, and her ability to interpret the style with rare skill. Surely there must be something involving the blues in the future?
“I definitely intend to do more blues music. Vince and I are working on Yazoo as a full-time project at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do the things I want to do. Vincent has been working on his own ideas for some time now, and I intend to start work on some of mine as well. We both enjoy Yazoo, but we both want to work in other areas. You can only please so many people before you loose the original purpose which is to enjoy your own music. As long as what I do satisfies me, then I’m happy.”
There we had to leave it, as Alf and Vince were long overdue for dinner. We shook hands and commented on the realization that as the interview progressed, we’d all learned to relax and enjoy it. As they went off to eat, I reflected on the unique aspect of the conversation. This is the only interview that Yazoo have done while on the road, and since this may be their first and last tour, it’s a bitter-sweet satisfaction. It’s possible that Alf and Vince are paving the way for a new style of band. Everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, but at least they leave something worth enjoying after they’ve gone. Think about it.
Originally printed in the November 1982 edition of Zig Zag magazine. Reprinted without permission for non-profit use only.