Godfathers of Pop: Andy Bell
Andy Bell’s fifth solo album sees the Erasure singer once again stepping out from radio-friendly synth-pop into the darker territory of his alter-ego Torsten, a semi-immortal polysexual destined to love and lose many in his unnaturally elongated life…
Like previous chapters The Bareback Saint and The Beautiful Libertine, co-written by Barney Ashton-Bullock and Christopher Frost, Torsten In Queereteria is both an album and stage show, which is just finishing a run at London’s Above The Stag theatre.
Torsten is back for his third adventure. Had you and Barney Ashton-Bullock always envisaged this would be an ongoing project?
We had. We’re already talking about the fourth part, which will be kind of a greatest hits, a collection of music from the trilogy of albums, and maybe some new tracks added. It’s an ongoing concern because, like any musical show, it’s developing all the time.
How did you and Barney meet?
The whole thing sprung from when we were at an awards ceremony 15 years ago. Daniel Miller was getting an award and me and Andy Fletcher were presenting it to him; Barney was on our table. He does work for Cherry Red but his original job was as a curator of old movietone films, restoring them and making sure they don’t disappear into the annals of time. I don’t know if we were the only gays in the village, but he’s a very handsome man and we struck up a conversation, and he said he had this character with me in mind.
In the beginning I was a bit wary but then I really started to believe him, he knew a lot about my history.
When did Christopher Frost become involved?
I think Chris might have approached Barney. They’re quite similar to me and Vince [Clarke] in the way that they work. Barney is a poetry writer and a playwright and initially he will take these poems and sing them off the cuff and Chris will put music to them, a bit like Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
Have you found yourself warming to the complexities of Torsten over time?
I have. It is very daunting, even now I’m only just getting my head round the part although there’s nothing to get your head round because it’s all surreal. You try to think of a beginning, middle and end but there isn’t one. In this episode, he’s cryogenically frozen so they’re waking him up by drugs in this post-Armageddon – he’s like this state-sponsored entertainer. If I was him I think I’d be pretty groggy so it takes him a while to get warmed up in the act. Over the course of one show it’s like a live TV transmission in a dystopian state. There’s only one TV channel and they’re trying to make their own broadcast and it’s a bit haphazard, a bit like public access TV used to be in New York City. I said to Barney it reminds me of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It seems like all these people come in and out randomly but the original characters – Rupert, Torsten and Lady Domina – they do have a definite relationship going on. Lady Domina is like the Wicked Queen.
Torsten has always been admirably frank. This time he seems to be reflecting on his debauched days…
It’s always been messy. Sometimes I get a bit shocked. My hero is Debbie Harry who’s gone on to do her own solo stuff and off-Broadway plays and B-movie film noir-type things; I see this as a similar thing. There’s lot of stuff in there that Andy Bell – I mean me, the singer – wouldn’t necessarily do but through Torsten I’m allowed to pretend that I’m a slut, that I’ve been witness to these horrible things.
Could you recognise anything in the storyline from your own experiences of the music industry?
To be honest, I’m much more of a voyeuristic-type person. Because I’m an entertainer and the stage is bare, that’s your time, so I could do what I like when I’m on the stage, but even though I’ve been nearly naked I haven’t been totally naked. In our heyday, going out in the 80s and early 90s with my friends to Torture Garden and places like that, I was always a wallflower. I would never get involved in anything and I really couldn’t look either. I would go to the periphery of where some activity might be going on and avert my eyes. I’m quite prudish, really, which a lot of people might be shocked about.
The song If We Want To Drink A Little is a duet with Hazel O’Connor. Have you always been a fan of her?
I have. I remember her being on the TV when I was a kid, she had her own show and had a reel-to-reel so she was like one of the original synth people before it became really popular. I liked her Germanic style, I’ve always loved the Kurt Weill stuff.
How have you found Erasure’s fans have reacted to Torsten?
I hate to differentiate between them but I think some of the more serious people like it. We have had people laughing in the front row, though. I think people just can’t equate me being the Erasure singer with doing this Torsten stuff, which I quite like. To me, it’s not about being shocking, you have to have different facets to who you are, and they just want you to be the Erasure person.
Erasure are about to re-release a 30th anniversary edition of their fourth album, Wild! Do you look back on that period of fame with fondness?
It’s sort of like a different person. I think at that time maybe I used to rely on it too much. You did feel going out in London you were part of a clique, but I think that clique no longer exists and there aren’t the places to go to so much any more. And also you do kind of outgrow the early gay scene. You almost feel that you’re not part of it any more.
I put myself through the wringer to promote gay rights and you get tired. That’s why I really admire people like Ian McKellen.
Have you and Vince discussed the next Erasure album?
We have, and I just booked my flights [to the US, where Clarke lives] yesterday. I’ve got some Let’s Rock shows this year and some in the US so I’m going to stop off in New York on the way to LA in July. We will be back on the road in 2020, probably in the summertime.