When Steve Strange, the lead singer of the early Eighties British synthpop group Visage, attended the premiere of the recent David Bowie exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, he received a phone call put through the speaker system from an old friend. "He goes, 'Hi London, it's D.B.,'" Strange recalls. "'I just want to thank everybody for their enormous appreciation of this exhibition. Anyway, enough about me. Just want to let you know I've heard Hearts and Knives and I just want to wish you best of luck.'"
Bowie was referring to Strange's first new album in nearly 30 years with Visage, one of the leading New Romantic bands of the early Eighties, best known for the 1980 song "Fade to Grey." With its synth and disco-influenced feel, Hearts and Knives, which comes out on May 21st, is vintage Visage – it sounds more like it was made in 1981 than in 2012.
"We purposely did that," Strange tells Rolling Stone of the album's old-school production. "The oldest synthesizer [used on the album] – from the Moog, the Korg, the Roland – none of them are older than 1985. We wanted to keep that unique Visage sound, but we wanted to still be current, and basically bring it into 2013 with that fresh pop approach."
The current lineup of Visage includes Strange, bassist Steve Barnacle, former Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon and singer Lauren Duvall. The new album's lead single is "Shameless Fashion," a topic that is close to Strange due to his distinct look and striking wardrobe throughout his career.
"It's a double meaning about the fashion industry. It's literally about how fickle fashion is," he says. "I've never, ever followed fashion. If anything, I dictate it and predict fashion. People call me a fashion icon and a fashion legend, and it's because I never follow a trend."
Prior to Visage's return, Strange took time off from the music industry. He admits he was in a dark place in his life at the time, which included the death of his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence. "I just wanted out of London," explains Strange. "I wanted away from the successful clubs I was running, and I just wanted to go back to be close to my family."
Around that period Strange published his memoir and participated in the Here and Now tour headlined by Eighties pop acts. "When I did the [tour in] Britain," he says, "it sort of got the old cobwebs done and dusted, and it made me realize that I've always been missing that penchant for being onstage, and also missing that penchant of writing material."
During the recording of Hearts and Knives, Strange wondered if the band was going to persevere when a band member wanted to leave the project due to musical differences. "I just didn't want to disappoint these people that had been loyal and patient with us for this length of time," he says. "They've been with us for such a long period of time – through the good times and the bad times, solo projects that I've ventured out on – and they stuck by me with that. It's been, to me, very rewarding doing this album."
Visage was formed in the late Seventies; its original lineup included Strange, Rusty Egan and Ultravox singer/guitarist Midge Ure. In addition to being in the band, Strange and Egan operated London's popular nightclub the Blitz, which was the epicenter of the New Romantic scene during 1979 and 1980. Among the club's regulars were members of Spandau Ballet and Boy George in his pre-Culture Club phase.
"It was such an avant-garde café society," Strange says of the scene. "I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that people got disillusioned with punk and they were looking for somewhere different. Once they're inside that club, I wanted them to feel like they were in their own front room and they weren't going to be stared at like goldfish in a goldfish bowl. And that's why I adopted the very strict door policy, and that's why I got known as the biggest door-whore in clubland."
One person who didn't have a problem getting into the Blitz was Bowie, although Strange remembers him entering through a fire escape to avoid a mob. The encounter led Strange to appear in one of Bowie's famous music videos. "He said to me, 'I've really been admiring what you achieved in this amazing club, not just with what you are playing, but how unique all the people are who come here,'" says Strange. "'I would love it if you would actually style and choose the extras for the video ["Ashes to Ashes"], and would you personally be in it yourself?' I was like, 'This is too good to be true.'"
Visage had released three albums, the last one being Beat Boy from 1984, before the hiatus. Strange cites current electronic-oriented acts like Goldfrapp, Fischerspooner, Little Boots and La Roux for giving Visage credibility. "They also stated that if it wasn't for the likes of Steve Strange or Visage, that pioneered this electronic music scene, we wouldn't have this electronic pop underground scene we have today," he says.
Meanwhile, Visage is planning to do a European tour later this year. The singer acknowledges that the experience of making Hearts and Knives has inspired him to work on new music sooner. "People are already talking about the Steve Strange solo album," he says. "I've always wanted to do my homage like [Bowie's 1973 covers album] Pin Ups – my favorite tracks by other artists, and put my spin on them. There's also talk about reworking the Visage hits. But I don't want to go down like what everybody else had done and do the Michael Bublé version, like swing. I'd like to do mine with roots from Jamaica, Egypt or Barbados – even Turkish, Marrakesh. I'd like to be very experimental."