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INTERVIEW: Dave Gahan
Ned Raggett , October 22nd, 2015 13:49

Dave Gahan has taken a break from touring the world and beyond with Depeche Mode for his second album with the Soulsavers team, Angels and Ghosts, as he talks to Ned Raggett about the new album, his songwriting process and taking time out from Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode has long been both the sum of its parts and something else beyond it, which is why it’s equally interesting to see what its core creative partnership of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore gets up to on its own. Earlier this year saw the release of Gore’s first solo album of all original compositions, MG; Gahan meanwhile has returned with what’s become his own new primary collaborative focus outside Depeche. Soulsavers, the duo of Rich Machin and Ian Glover, have their own new album Kubrick due out in December, but before that is their second album with Gahan on lead vocals, Angels and Ghosts, following 2012’s The Light The Dead Sea.

Angels and Ghosts manages the neat trick of making a series of individual sessions sound like a live-in-the-studio group performance. The rhythmic rigor familiar in Gahan’s solo and group work elsewhere carries over here, but the feeling is something more like an imaginary Muscle Shoals session that Nick Cave was able to carry out for an Elvis that didn’t die young. With Gahan moving from being the featured singer on The Light The Dead Sea to a full collaborative partner with the duo, it’s a strong showcase for both his own songwriting over the past fifteen years as well as his singing. Settled into both a resonant maturity and an easy way around both understatement and full-bodied efforts, his voice continues to be one of music’s most recognizable signatures.

Reached by phone, Gahan sounded reflective, relaxed and gracious, settling into the usual promo grind with the practice of someone who’s made it part of his life’s work. When asked if he preferred 'Mr. Gahan' he said with a laugh, "Oh, well, you can call me Mr. Gahan if you like, but — no, I'm just kidding. Dave is fine." And we were off:

This is kind of funny for me because I interviewed Martin a few months ago for the Quietus for his solo album.

Dave Gahan: I enjoyed that record a lot, actually.

Yeah. It was really, really nice. We could go on about that, I'm sure, but we need to talk about yours.

DG: I hope you've had a chance to listen to it.

I did indeed.

DG: It's a little different from Martin's electronic effort.

A slight variety. When I first heard about your first album that you did with Soulsavers, I remember doing some investigating at the time and going, "Well, do I know this band?" because they had done the two albums with Mark Lanegan already. I'm a huge Mark Lanegan fan since Whiskey for the Holy Ghost and somehow I had never heard of these albums. I remember just being annoyed with myself. Was it the same for you when you first heard about the band?

DG: Pretty much exactly the same thing happened to me. One of my favorite albums is that same album that you quoted, Lanegan's album. And I'm a big fan of Lanegan; I have been for years. I think someone else had mentioned a record to me as well that they had done together, which was the album It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. I just thought it was, for me, the kind of album that comes around for me once in a while and becomes my linchpin, go-to album when all else fails. What I loved about it was the combination of all the electronics, but crushed, gospel-y sounding organs, all kind of treated, along with this gospel choir. And of course Mark's fantastic voice, his lyrical content, and all that imagery that he throws out there. It was really perfect. It ticked off every box.

What I also love about that album - it's the same with an album I'm listening to at the moment by Algiers, which I really enjoy as well, same reasons - is it's a complete album. It's an album that you listen to as a whole piece of music from start to finish. You can't really cut into it. It's much more enjoyable when you listen to the whole thing. Really, that's what Angels & Ghosts is as well. When I'm trying to work with Depeche, in the back of my mind, I always have that imaginary list of how it's going to feel, how it's going to flow, what kind of journey we can take you on, what songs need to be removed because they don't fit in there. With Depeche lately, we seem to have too many songs sometimes, which wasn't always the case. [laughs] But now that Martin and I are both sharing a place to write songs and both work on them collaboratively, we seem to have an abundance at the moment.

With Angels & Ghosts, it was the same thing. Rich and I both come from that same school of listening and having albums in our past that are complete bodies of work. There were a few other songs that were contenders for this record that we ended up removing because it just was complete with the nine songs. If you started one side with 'Shine', ended that first side of that LP with 'All of This and Nothing', and then start the second side with 'One Thing' and end with 'My Sun' - this, for me, quite early on was the way it was going. The things that were in between there had to take you somewhere. I think I might have answered your question. I'm not sure. [laughs]

You answered a few ones I was going to ask along the way! I was giving a re-listen to your first album and then listening to the new one here, and I was trying to sense any difference. It really started to stand out on the second listen of Angels & Ghosts. My impression was the first album you figured, "OK. How do we work together?" Then this new album is, "OK, how do we extend what we've already accomplished?" Was that the sense that you were having going into this?

DG: That's fair to say. I would say that we never really stopped writing. It slowed down a bit because I had a project with Depeche in between, but we never really stopped that process. I think it is a natural continuation. I also think for me, lyrically, with the first album that we did together, it was definitely more introspective. I think with this album, lyrically and melodically, I'm looking outside of myself more and then using what I feel and see outside of me to bounce off. How does that make me feel? What words does that conjure up in my mind? What imagery, for me, does this music take me to? So the Soulsavers process is interesting to me, because it really searches my soul, if you like. It pushes me to ask questions about what I feel about everything.

It doesn't really make sense to me until we're coming to the end of what might be another complete project. Certainly the songs take this form that starts to really inform me. When I first start writing, Rich may send me a guitar line or something with some atmospherics on it, I really don't edit too much the words that immediately pop into my mind. I jot them down and then usually what happens when I continue listening is a melody may start happening, so I might throw that word into a melodic note or something. But then it starts, and then I have to wrestle with it. Then the song starts to really develop. It becomes alive and you've got to try and hold it down.

And take it where it goes. I wouldn't necessarily call it a concept album, and I wouldn't call it necessarily a through line of emotional states, but it was very interesting to me sensing the personal nature of your lyrics and how it had such focus. By your description, you say it comes together over time. Do you find it's something that ultimately makes sense in the end?

DG: Your description is absolutely accurate. It does come into focus for me, and if I just take pen to paper and I start jotting things down, it's way more introspective. I want to muse around it, and play with it. It comes with getting a bit older and a little bit wiser, maybe. It's a little cynical; it's a little comical in places as well, I think. I poke fun at myself a lot. And it's impossible to not take in what's going on around us in the world. We all know it. We all feel it. We're all affected by it.

For me, music is still a way to work that out and see, "Hey, what's my little part in this? How can I be a better person?" And then use these characters that maybe are not anything to do with me at all. But then, everything is there for a reason. Each word is there for a reason. I don't just throw it out. I really get into that a lot more, especially with the last few records that I've worked on. It may be abstract or it may be very obvious, but it's not a waste of space.

Even though I've just heard the album a couple of times, a song that's lingering with me more and more is 'Lately', and I wanted to do a deeper dive into that one. That has a slightly different feel to much of what's around it, especially just you and the piano lead for the most part. My understanding is that the album is a variety of different sessions, and at the same time it all combines like it's a live, straight-through performance, which was very intentional. Could you maybe talk a bit about that song, both the songwriting process and the construction of it?

DG: That song is actually probably my favorite on the album, and it was the hardest for us to place. It always felt like it should definitely be on the second side, and it should be on a side that takes you down to a different place. I think you've got a lot of space for you to use your own imagination. That's the real key with that song. Again, I'm looking outside of myself, and using current events of things going on around me, a feeling of disappointment or feeling let down by whatever. Politicians, you know. [laughs] Whatever it is at any given moment. The climate. Actually, weather comes into things a lot for me. I don't know why, but it just does. I seem to draw analogies there a lot.

This song in particular - I was feeling particularly low, to be honest, but I wanted to find a way to dig myself out of that. The song makes fun of my own wallowing and my own dark place and is a little cynical of my own thoughts, too. I say 'feel' so much. That's a choice. That's a direct choice. I used to spend a lot of time trying to actually avoid feeling anything, using various chemicals. But I don't have that anymore, so I just have to sit with it. Quite often, what comes out of that is this feeling of - there is a way to dig out of it. You've got to do something. You've got to take an action. You can't just sit there and wallow in what's going on around you or in your personal life. Some of that song, for me, helped me to get through that and to see myself in that picture. For me, the melody lifts, and it lifts you out of that, and I'm asking you, let's join forces, let's come together. It's my own humble way, if you'd like, of trying to do better. It's very hard to explain songs sometimes.

I know. It's so personal to yourself.

DG: I'm jumping all over the place, but it makes sense to me in the melody. When I sing that song - I've been doing some rehearsals - it gives me goosebumps, and I wonder who that person is. Sometimes I still feel so far away from that person, and other times I completely identify with not just the lyric but the way that it's sung. That's very important to me, the spacing of the words, the spacing of the melodies. Rich and I both seem to be on exactly the same page with that. We're very aware of creating space that allows the listener to use their own imagination and to get lost in there a little. We live in a very, very busy world and I'm always looking for some kind of space, to be honest. I live in New York City. It's something you can't avoid - you walk out into the street and it's just like, "All right! Here we go!"

Everyone's on top of each other.

DG: But I like that. You asked something else: we don't really spend a lot of time together in the studio. We did a bit with this record, doing all the gospel choirs and all the strings in Los Angeles, and we did all the gospel choirs in New York. But there's an understanding between us. We know where we're trying to get. So there's no worry about what it's going to feel like at the end, because we both know what kind of record we want to make. That's one of the things that people overlook quite often when they're making records: what kind of record do you want to make in the first place? Ben Hillier [producer of Depeche Mode's last three albums] used to ask that question. You have the songs, so what do you want to do with them?

That's funny. It reminds me of a comment that Daniel Miller just made in a recent interview he did for PIAS. It was this totally separate thing, but he was talking about how he had to let other people on Mute go, other artists, because they didn't have anything anymore. He'd tell them, "It seems like you're reaching for something; you're not having it." Usually the artist would say, "That's true; I don't have anything right now." So it's a question of that creative spark.

DG: Yeah, and I'm just trying to honestly follow that. I thought when I completed the last Depeche Mode tour, the Delta Machine tour, I was pretty exhausted and felt pretty depleted at the end of it. More so than ever before. It was almost a bit of sadness, to be honest, because it was such an enjoyable tour to do. It often happens at the end of tours, but it seemed to hit me a lot harder this time. These songs helped me eventually, once I started really getting into the writing, which was only a couple of months after that tour. I saw myself coming out of that hole, and felt suddenly very inspired and very creative. You kind of have to jump on that quick when it happens, because it will pass you by, as I mention in a couple of the songs. I've come to a place in my life where I just don't want to waste these opportunities that pop up for me.

I've mentioned before about Rich, when he first approached me to actually write, I was pretty sure something was going to happen. I've been asked many, many times to collaborate with various different people, and you might talk about it for a bit but nothing comes out of it. But when Rich asked me that direct question, he asked me how I write and how that process was for me. I explained to him, "Well, if I was writing with you, I'd like you to send me something, a guitar line or something, or some chords or atmospherics. It doesn't have to be in any particular structure. And I'll see what happens." And he said, "Ahh, that's interesting. That's how Mark [Lanegan] works, too." Now, with technology as well, of course, even though we're on different sides of the world, we're able to do that.

Over recent years, thinking of things I’ve seen in Depeche Mode press interviews, I’ve seen you speak about having gone through singing lessons and taking very careful care of your voice, doing your vocal exercises and so forth. Now that you've gotten to where you're at, with your age and your experience, do you find changes in your voice starting to occur? Do you work around those? How do you treat your instrument, for lack of a better term?

DG: It takes some time for any vocalist to find your own voice. It took me a while. I think I was for many, many years striving to just please others, do it correctly, to play my part, if you like. With very little consideration for how it made me feel, to be honest. I don't know, I guess close to 20 years ago now, 15-20 years, somehow that shifted for me and I had to find something deeper because it was no longer working for me to just be that. So it's taken some time, but the one thing I really notice, especially working on these last two records and the last few Depeche Mode records, is I've found the voice that I was looking for. It was always there, I think. Maybe it's really more a case of removing all those thoughts of trying to please somebody else, and really just trying to dig real deep and find some feeling and emotion within my spirit, in my soul, whatever you want to call it.

I do work on it, though. Doing my vocal exercises for 40 minutes or so a day, it's almost like I go into a meditative state. I'm not really doing anything else; there's no other distractions. I'm just doing that, and it's like when you're washing the dishes. You're just washing the dishes, and it's that same feeling. There's no distractions. And it just brings me into myself, and then I'm able to do things with my voice that just come to me.

But I think you're right. It's experience. It's time. It's age. It's a lot of work. A lot of touring, a lot of performing. When I'm performing on the stage, I use a lot of those thoughts and those feelings and I bring them into what I'm doing even when I'm working in the studio. I usually have a handheld mic. I don't work very well with stationary microphones. It doesn't really matter to me how expensive and nice they are; I'm usually better with just holding a mic in my hand, a dynamic mic, a Shure or something, and just moving my body. I'm not saying jumping all around all over the place, but you've got to put your whole self into that part.

Dave Gahan and Soulsavers’ Angels and Ghosts is out October 23 on Columbia. They are currently on a short tour of America and Europe

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