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  1. Music

Erasure's Andy Bell opens up about finding love in laid-back Tampa

Erasure will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on July 7, 2018. Photo: Andy Sturney

Andy Bell didn't come to Tampa expecting to find love.

The Erasure singer had just emerged from a two-decade relationship with his partner and manager, Paul Hickey, with whom he was still close. Both were HIV-positive — Hickey was diagnosed in 1990, Bell in 1998.

Then, in the summer of 2010, Bell booked a gig at the Honey Pot, an Ybor City gay club owned by Stephen Moss.

"I had just done Dallas Pride, and then flew to Tampa on my own," Bell said by phone recently. "I saw Steve, and I think I'd been up all night the night before. He said, 'Do you want to go to dinner?' I said, 'No, let's get some rest before the show.' I just remember thinking, Who's this strange person? And that's what happened when I met my previous partner, 23 years earlier: Who's this strange person? I think that must be my keyword."

Eight years later, Bell and Moss are still a couple. They keep a place in Tampa, where Bell sometimes lives when Erasure isn't on the road. And that makes their concert Saturday at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater something of a hometown show.

"There's quite a few people that we know there," said Bell, 54. "I don't know if they will make it across the bridge from Tampa, but I hope they do."

Florida's long been a solid market for the British synth-pop duo, thanks to the club- and remix-friendly nature of their music. Since 1985, Bell and band mate Vince Clarke, formerly of Depeche Mode, have scored a handful of hit singles, including Always, A Little Respect and Chains of Love.

But they weren't really "MTV popular," Bell said. "We were like VH1 after-hours programming."

But they were always beloved in the LGBTQ community. Clarke is straight, but Bell, the group's ebullient frontman, has been openly gay since Erasure began.

"We were playing Pride (events) in the late '80s, '86 and '87, and before that I was going to Pride on my own in London," he said. "We didn't have sponsors in those days. It seemed more like a community thing rather than a business-oriented thing. I saw in London just how the thing grew so much, and became so huge."

Bell has likewise seen corners of the music industry come around to Erasure's buoyant, glittery sound.

"We had all these amazing remixes done of our stuff, so it was great when we were touring around North America and going to clubs, and it was much more cultish and underground," he said. "And now, that's kind of where people start with their tracks. You almost have to be a dance track or a club track to get radio play. It's swung around in the opposite direction. It's kind of like electro is the new rock."

Bell these days finds himself listening to more rock, like
AC/DC or Motorhead, than he ever did as a kid.

"As you get older, you really appreciate dad music," he said. "I think anyone that's still wandering around in their leathers and tight jeans and stuff, doing their head-banging without hair, is really quite cool."

In a way, Bell's life with Moss in Tampa fits this more relaxed M.O. They also keep apartments in Miami and Atlanta, and for tax purposes, Bell can't live more than 180 days in America in any three-year cycle. But Bell likes Tampa specifically because it's nothing like the crowded hustle of London. Here, he and Moss can escape into local hangouts like Fly Bar or Ciro's Speakeasy.

"I like it because it's quite sleepy and it's quite cosmopolitan at the same time, and very open and fresh," he said. "It's nice to go somewhere where there's not that many people. I like the relaxedness, that you can order food in, and just go out wandering around the mall and stuff like that. We go to the cinema, which is not necessarily a thing I would do when I'm here in London because I don't drive. It's nice having a partner that does."

Bell feels "really, really blessed" in his current relationship with Moss, who has a "sunny, laid-back disposition" that he believes comes from being a native Floridian. That support proved important in 2012, when Hickey, a Californian with a similar disposition, passed away.

"I was there right at the end, and I must say it was one of the most painful experiences of my whole life," Bell said. "It just makes you realize how short life is, and how much you need to appreciate people when they're here, living in the moment. It sounds corny, but it's the truth. None of your valuables or whatever you have on this earth can you take with you. So you might as well enjoy it while you're here."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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