Erasure singer Andy Bell has found a new life as the star of a series of stage productions in the U.K. as Torsten, a mythical being who has lived for over a century, Bell has embraced the opportunity to showcase a varied vocal range and untapped emotional passion. The character first appeared in 2014 in one-man show Torsten the Bareback Saint and his story continued in 2016 with Torsten the Beautiful Libertine. He now returns again in Queereteria TV, a musical stage show opening at London’s Above the Stag Theatre on April 10th. Each stage production has an accompanying soundtrack album, allowing fans access to the stories outside the theater.
“We knew there would be at least three incarnations of him and a possibly a fourth,” Bell says of Torsten, sitting down to speak backstage at Above the Stag during show rehearsals. “Each show isn’t necessarily joined up to the previous one, and there’s not a continuity. They’re episodes, sort of like Black Mirror. That makes it fun.”
Bell joined the Torsten saga after meeting playwright and poet Barney Ashton-Bullock, who writes with musician Christopher Frost, at the Mojo Awards years ago. “We were sitting at the independent music table and he said, ‘I’ve got this character called Torsten, and I’ve always thought of you,’” Bell recounts. “He had heard this recording of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ I did in about 1990. He’d been thinking about it for a long time.”
In the latest tale, Torsten finds himself in a near-future dystopia where a “merry band of surviving dysfunctional queers” take over TV station to remake their favorite program, Club Queereteria. Torsten is the state-sponsored entertainer, who recalls his past and semi-immortal life through a series of emotional songs as he fights to regain his memory. There’s a political tinge to the story, which deals with the media and ways in which the news has become so scripted and controlled.
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“This ruminates on the current state of things and takes it a step beyond,” Bell explains. “Where are we in all of that? Politically, we seem to be gearing much more towards the dictatorship scenarios or non-freedom of the press. It seems like they’re clamping down in many places. It’s a weird time. It lovely to be part of because it’s not preachy. It’s quite swear-y and rude, but it’s not in-your-face preaching. It’s very comedic and quite gross — but with beautiful songs.”
Bell recorded the play’s soundtrack, Torsten in Queereteria, last year, shortly after he finished Erasure’s world tour. In the studio, Bell gave his own interpretations to the songs written by Ashton-Bullock and Frost.
“It’s not live in the studio, but it’s close,” Bell says. “Barney has already demoed his take on the vocals and then Chris finds the chords to Barney’s melodies. I give a version of Barney’s performance, which is usually quite close. I just put my own spin on it and make it feel in tune for me. It’s definitely a different part of myself, which is why I love doing it. I know Erasure by rote. That’s the difference between doing this and doing Erasure; with Erasure, you can turn up three days before the tour and do it because it’s ingrained. This is not, so it’s a challenge. You have to let your brain just go to new places.”
Exploring theatrical music has dramatically impacted Bell’s approach to Erasure, who will celebrate 35 years together next year. “There’s so much I can take back,” he says. “You know you can’t just do ‘Chains of Love’ and the same songs over and over again. You can hear it in so many bands when the boredom sets in and they’re doing it by numbers. You have to have something that comes along and shakes you up and makes you want to be in the band again. It can’t just be that you’re doing it every year because you want to get some money and go on tour. You have to want to be in it. With this, it gives me a new impetus. One feeds the other.”
This summer Bell will head to Brooklyn to work Erasure bandmate Vince Clarke. The plan is to work on new music, although the band currently doesn’t have a concrete intention for a follow-up to 2017’s World Be Gone. “We don’t have new songs yet,” Bell confirms. “We’re just going to meet up. [An album] is in the distance.”
Working with Above the Stag Theatre on a production has a special meaning for Bell, who became a patron of the LGBT+ theater three years ago. “It just feels really nice to be part of it,” he says. “There’s a community feel and it’s a place where people can be free and be themselves. But it’s not limiting. This is the first time we’ve had so much interest from those outside gay circles for this play. And it’s important not to segregate gay theater away.”
Playing the queer character of Torsten with an LGBT+ theater company has also allowed Bell to further explore his desire to keep his music open to all listeners. “The thing with my singing voice is I’ve never wanted it to be male or female,” he says. “I’ve wanted it to be androgynous. It’s for everyone.”
Torsten In Queereteria is out April 12th via Cherry Red. The album, told in four acts, includes an illustrated 32-page lyric booklet.