Soft Cell: ‘I think you deal with themes that are meaningful to you when you get to a certain age’

Synth pop duo Soft Cell’s history has been interrupted by more than one break-up, but four years ago their show at the O2 Arena in London appeared to be their last hurrah.

Soft Cell. Picture: Andrew Whitton

Singer Marc Almond talks to The Yorkshire Post about what prompted him and keyboard player Dave Ball to reunite for a new album, *Happiness Not Included.

Soft Cell had seemingly taken their final bow at the O2 Arena in London in 2018. How did you and Dave get around to talking about writing new songs together a couple of years later?

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There was every intention that it would be the last show. It felt the right time, honestly, and when I sang the songs there it felt like a line being drawn under it, knowing I wouldn’t sing them again as Soft Cell. But then the world changed with Covid, and in many ways we all changed and what we thought was a mapped out future suddenly wasn’t. I found myself with time on my hands and in the bizarre dystopian world of Covid and panic, real tragedy and sadness, coupled with everyone going crazy, I think Dave and I thought, hell why not? With the new album – it all felt creatively much more Soft Cell than my solo work would have. I think we fed creatively both into and from that.

Had you both felt encouraged by the enormous affection that fans evidently still felt for the band four decades on from Tainted Love?

How could we not? There were truly magical moments such as 20,000 people singing Say Hello, Wave Goodbye and holding up lights – and that affection was in many ways overwhelming after so long. And now to be looking at a potential No.1 smash with this new album is the best feeling ever, a vindication of sorts.

Did you give Dave any suggestions for how you wanted the songs to sound?

We never really went back into the studio together. Dave sends me ideas and tunes, then I write lyrics and record vocals and send them back. We have always worked like that. Dave and I have drifted creatively towards each other over the years – written some great songs (and not always for Soft Cell). I just keep returning to these two worlds, both pre and post-Covid, and now it seems to me that all bets are off. And in truth, I had not worked in two years like most people and Soft Cell offered a better opportunity than my solo career. We are of course both so different, but our roots are firmly from the north/north west of England, and it is such a qualitative place. The affordable glamour and heart of Blackpool, seaside towns out of season like Southport, the darkness of Leeds in the time of The Ripper, the anger and excitement of the music scene with Northern soul, disco, punk and electro (and this was new to all of us, not just to one generation as it is now in this derivative age we find ourselves). I was angsty and spotty and gay (and the least likely pop star) and Dave was tall, handsome and charismatic. As Jung said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” And in many ways we both were transformed by each other.

Do you find yourself writing differently for Soft Cell to how you would on your solo records?

I put my Soft Cell hat on and everything is Soft Cell focused. Dave sends me tunes which are almost always great in some way and relatively easy to write lyrics around. So none of the songs are from Marc Almond’s world, so to speak. It is that distinction between Soft Cell and my solo work that I find comes naturally. My solo work is what I can do to stay sane and active, and express myself as an individual.

Does the album’s title encapsulate much of how you feel about the modern world? There does seem to be a sense of disappointment running through many of the songs.

I think it does. I think you deal with themes that are meaningful to you when you get to a certain age and find that everything you hoped for or imagined has come true, but only in part. A kind of warped and disappointing view of the future. But in the end, if indeed this is the end, there is a thread of optimism that comes with accepting who we are and where we are in the world. There is so much madness presently in the world that it all feels out of kilter and on the precipice

In Polaroid you recall meeting the artist Andy Warhol in New York in 1981. How did he compare in real life to the person you had read about?

The song is about my time at The Factory in New York, and meeting Andy Warhol. He was everything you would want Andy Warhol to be. There was nothing of who he was that he revealed. This strange creation, oddly taller than I imagined. He was polite, guarded, cold, but also exactly as I had wanted him to be. The current documentary available on streaming is astonishing (and heartbreaking).

Purple Zone, the collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, seems like the ultimate meeting of minds from 80s synth pop. How did it come about? Had you known Neil Tennant from his days at Smash Hits?

It was painless. Neil and Chris came to see the Soft Cell show at Hammersmith Apollo last last year and liked the song Purple Zone. It was sent to them and, the next thing I knew, this brilliant version came back to me: they had mixed the track and Neil had laid vocals down. It was such a surprise and they took the track to a new place, another level – quite astonishing. So I never actually worked with them. I knew Chris to speak to socially, but never knew Neil – they have both been so supportive. We subsequently made the video together and it was great fun. And people keep asking me what is the ‘Purple Zone’ and I tell them, “You’re in it!”

Nighthawks is a duet with the New York performance artist Christeene. Do you see that as a reminder of Soft Cell’s roots?

I absolutely do. She is a force to be reckoned with. Terrifying and so talented - she comes from that underworld that Soft Cell was all about. What a voice.

The album’s cover features a haunting image of an abandoned fairground near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Has that photograph become even more poignant for you, given the terrible events now going on in Ukraine?

It has. What can I say about the terror that is being enacted currently in Ukraine? The daily images of misery and suffering in Europe are unbearable. It is well known that I have spent a great deal of time in Russia, and the Russian people – the ordinary people – have opened their hearts to me for three decades. They too are also caught up in this madness. But what is happening in Ukraine is one of the greatest catastrophes of our age. Europe needs to take action and not just sit on the sidelines commenting – or are we just going to go on living under this threat, regretting how little we did when the Ukrainian people needed us the most? The choice is where shall we fight World War 3 – in Ukraine now and everything we stand for, or in our own country when it comes to us? Because it seems he will not stop.

How did you find the experience of revisiting Non Stop Erotic Cabaret on the UK tour last November? Did you and Dave get a chance to revisit any old haunts while you were in Leeds?

Really great. The show was a technical masterpiece and the response was overwhelmingly positive – we had the best reviews of our career from those shows. I never got to visit my old haunts – most have gone now (like my youth). I have to say that my affection for Leeds has never dimmed over the decades – and I remember so much of it so clearly. It made me the artist I am today.

Are you hoping that Soft Cell will play some more shows when Dave has recovered from his recent back injury?

We are – and we have some US dates planned for late summer.

*Happiness Is Not Included is out on Friday May 6. www.softcell.co.uk