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Erasure's Andy Bell on his Fringe show, finding love again and living with HIV

We start with the Weston-super-Mare story.

It entails poverty, football and the potential for possibly illegal gay sex. All bases covered, then. When he was younger Andy Bell - singer, pop star, dog lover - went on a football tour to the Somerset resort. "I couldn't play to save my life," he says, "but two of the guys had dropped out and I was from a family of six children. We didn't have much money, so it was kind of a free holiday.

"It was all around the south coast and up to Weston-super-Mare and this guy, this old creepy guy was like, 'You can come and sleep in my sleeping bag,' and I was like, 'No, no, no,' because he was old and ugly. Otherwise I would have done." What age were you then, Andy? "Probably 15."

We are sipping champagne in Soho House as Bell tells this story. It is lunchtime. How decadent. For me at any rate. Small cava for him, of course. It's maybe overly dramatic to say that over the years he's been to hell and back - though he's certainly been to Hull; that's touring for you - but he is proof that sex and drugs don't necessarily need a rock 'n' roll soundtrack. Sometimes hit-hungry electropop will do just as well.

But we'll come back to that. These are the simple years for Andy Bell. A partner, a dog, a life divided between London and an apartment in Miami, a life of monogamy (or that's the plan), a life recording new music and singing old songs on tour.

Bell has already lived through the bullied years, the pop years, the wild years, the addicted years, the frightened years, the sick years, the HIV-positive years, the grieving years. Sometimes, many times those years overlapped. Simple probably sounds good now.

Bell is 50. He'll have been the frontman of synthpop duo Erasure along with Vince Clarke for 30 years come 2015 - I know, that makes me feel old too - and there's a new album and tour later this year. But before that he's coming to Edinburgh to appear at the Fringe in a one-man show, Torsten The Bareback Saint, a play with songs that takes in broken-down British resorts - and yes there's a song called Weston-super-Mare - gay saunas and homoeroticism. They're possibly a little more, umm, full-on than such Erasure hits as A Little Respect or Victim Of Love.

Erasure are, he thinks, seen as quite clean-cut as a band. "I think this is much more of what I'm really like." Inevitably, then, he is wondering how Torsten will be received. "I don't know if we have many old lady fans or old ladies go to Edinburgh …"

Are you suggesting they shouldn't? "I don't know. I would like them to, but …"

He's never been to the Fringe, has acted only once before, some 20 years ago in a show about the Stonewall riots. Everyone in it played Judy Garland. "You had to wear the Judy tights, leotard, top hat. I do remember I was fluffing my lines something chronic and I think it was from pure nerves."

Bell belongs to an earlier, possibly braver generation of pop stars - openly gay in the 1980s, when homophobia was far more front and centre and indeed legally endorsed (this was the time of Section 28, after all).

Bell followed in the footsteps of Boy George, Holly Johnson and Glasgow's Jimmy Somerville from Bronski Beat. "Jimmy was my comrade. He was the front line of defence. If he hadn't been there I don't know if I'd have been so brave."

Bravery meant appearing on stage in a rubber leotard sweating up a storm and looking like something out of a Tom of Finland cartoon. You wonder if when Erasure began there was any pressure on him to dial it down at all. "Not at all. I think Vince thought it was really cool. I think some of the record company PRs were a bit more reticent about it. Then when it started being a bit more tricky for us; it was like, 'Can't you wear a dress? Bouff it up a bit?'"

Of course it didn't get tricky for a long time. Erasure were huge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bell got the job after answering an ad in the music press only to find the person placing the ad was Clarke, already his hero for his work with Alison Moyet in Yazoo. Clarke had had hits with both Depeche Mode and The Assembly too. He knew how to make a pop record. After a first album flop - "I thought I was going to get sacked," Bell admits - the duo went on to boss the charts. When did he know he was famous? "I remember after we had the Abba thing out in 1992 [the Abbaesque EP, which became their first No.1 back when being No.1 was a thing] walking down the street and people looking at me and I was like, 'God, I don't know if I can really cope with this.'"

When Erasure started in 1985 Bell was only just into his twenties, shy and "completely enamoured" of his more successful partner. Clarke never liked the success, would run away from it. Bell loved it all. How has their relationship changed? "We tug and pull, I think. I go off and do my thing. He goes off and does his things. It's weird when we meet up. It's like meeting an ex-girlfriend. You get embarrassed, but then it's fine again. I think we both bring things from what we've been doing back to the table.

"I think I can be a bit more into one-upmanship with him. You'd think after all this time, 'Andy, put it to bed.'"

Do you still feel after 30 years like the junior member? "Not now, but it did take a long, long time. But that wasn't to do with Vince. That was to do with everything else."

Andy Bell grew up in Peterborough the eldest of six children, blond, blue-eyed and bullied. He was constantly being called names and running away. "I never got into fights. I was hopeless at protecting my sisters.

"I used to do a milk round with some of my friends and I remember the milkman said, 'Andy, you don't half walk like a girl. And it really f***** me up because I thought, 'Well, how do I not walk like a girl?' It made me very distrustful from a really early age. So I was quite on my own. I only played with kids younger than me or my older cousins. I didn't trust people my own age. But I think that gave me a really strong core."

He was also, he says, always being caught with his pants down with the boy next door. He never told his family he was gay. "I was very close with my mum and I told her I was bisexual. That's the cop-out. But I was having an affair with my best friend at school and I think he was a bit more ashamed about it so we broke up. Then I did try to seduce one guy while he was asleep at my house and he went to school and told everyone so I was kind of blacklisted."

Life was sex - or at least the hope of it - and music. He always loved the idea of joining a band. He'd spent his teens listening to the B52s, Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen. "I felt the weirder they were the better, because I felt like an out-of-place person in Peterborough." Is it too easy to say that sense of feeling out of place was down to his sexuality? "Well, to be brutally honest, Peterborough was too small. There was nothing to do. I'd been to all the cottages in the town."

You'd been to all the cottages in town? What? Oh wait, sorry, we're talking cottaging. Carry on.

"I thought, 'I'm going to get caught. I'm going to get pilloried, so I just need to leave.' And that was it."

There's a song in Torsten called Boy From The Sauna and it's another song in which Bell can hear echoes of his own life. "In the early Erasure days I would go to a few saunas in America and one of my past boyfriends used to go there all the time. The song relates to me. Just the feeling of being on the gay scene in the early days because I was hopeless at cruising. Really hopeless. I could never do the eye-to-eye contact thing."

Still, he threw himself into gay life in London in all its wild druggy excess. Did success make him more attractive to others? "I think it's to do with confidence," he says, but yes, maybe. And he took advantage. "Now I'm in a partnership and I'm determined that I'm going to be monogamous because it reminds me of tours when I've been drunken and trashy and just hooked up with whoever is there in the bar at the end of the night. And there's nothing worse than having sex and being really drunk."

He came out publicly in 1985. By then, of course, the Aids virus - the big disease with a little name, as Prince had it - was greedily ravaging the gay community. "All of a sudden it was like a tsunami," he remembers. "All this damage had been done."

He was in a relationship with his manager Paul Hickey by then. How did they deal with the fear of the virus? "To be honest, we just totally numbed ourselves to it. We just got stoned." Paul had already lost ex-lovers by this point. "It was Paul's friend, then his boyfriend and then his friend's boyfriend. It was awful. There was one person committing suicide because his boyfriend died.

"I'm not blaming the gay scene but a lot of it's based on drug-taking and hedonism and I think a lot of that is to do with trying to put that right at the back of your mind. I never went to a funeral of anyone. I kept it at arm's length."

But sometimes that's impossible. In 1990, Hickey was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Eight years later Bell would be himself. "At the time I was really, really low. I had so many things wrong with me and I didn't put two and two together. We were just in the cycle. Taking drugs, getting iller and iller. I think it was a self-destructive holding pattern."

He's said in the past that he thinks he might have tried to contract HIV deliberately. Self-destruction indeed. Where did it come from? "I think it was my self-esteem. I don't know if it was to do with the band or not. You don't even feel like you've done anything even though you've had all this success. I didn't really feel worthy of it, I suppose. And then you beat yourself up about it."

Maybe there was a feeling in him that Erasure for all their success were never quite as respected as some of their peers (ie the Pet Shop Boys). Or maybe he was just dealing with - or not dealing with - the things we all have to deal with; our notions of life and death. A realisation that none of us is immortal. Especially as in earlier years an HIV diagnosis was effectively a death sentence. "I just feel so fortunate being born at the right time for the medication and everything."

Not everyone in his life was so lucky. Hickey died in April 2012. Though they were no longer a couple, they'd been together for 25 years.

Bell met his new partner Steve Moss four years ago to the day we meet. "He lives in Florida. We met in one of his nightclubs. It's all very chanteuse. I was doing a PA there and it just clicked. He really helped me through what was happening with Paul. And Paul totally gave us his blessing. He said, 'Oh yeah, Steve's a really lovely bloke.' So I feel like my whole life has started again after all this time." Last year he married Moss in a registry office in Haringey.

Bell has done his time in Narcotics Anonymous, though it turns out it wasn't for him. "I think I had to temper my own addictive personality. I like smoking, drinking, but you have to realise in the end you're not indestructible. You're responsible for your own actions. Nobody else is going to look after you. You need to be healthy. You need to be on top of things. You need to be kind to yourself."

And so he's living the simple life with his husband and his dog. He makes records with Clarke, comes to Edinburgh to do a show, and does Gay Pride PA appearances in the States whenever he wants. "I do gigs on cruise liners." On cruise liners? "Yes, on the gay cruises. So life is pretty sweet."

He's had a bit of work done. A few fillers and that. "It starts getting scary, the fact of old age. But me and Steve have said we're looking forward to growing old together. That's a really nice thing to have. It's amazing to still have your heroes, Debbie Harry being 68 and strutting her stuff. I think that's good. That gives me 20 more years at least."

What does he see when he looks in the mirror? "I don't see the boy in Peterborough. I don't really know who I see. I see myself getting older. Sometimes I think I look quite handsome. Sometimes I can't even recognise myself. I don't know.

"Inside I feel like I'm either 17 or five or six. When I look in the mirror I don't know yet if I can look myself right in the eye. Can you?" n

Torsten The Bareback Saint will be at the Assembly George Square Studios from Tuesday until August 16. For tickets visit edfringe.com. Erasure's new album The Violet Flame is released next month.

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