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The Thirteenth Step: Soulsavers Interviewed
Sam Spokony , May 16th, 2012 05:11

The Depeche Mode front man Dave Gahan his partner in spiritual agnostics Soulsavers Rich Martin talk to Sam Spokony about their new album

The opening track of The Light the Dead See - the new album by Soulsavers and guest vocalist Dave Gahan - is a brief instrumental introduction that feels like something out of an epic Spaghetti Western. It leads with a lonely, distorted, Morricone-esque guitar, and slowly builds in instrumental scope and intensity until you start to form a mental image of Gahan standing there, waiting silently for the showdown at high noon. It's passionate, and a bit sad, but there's a feeling of sheer resilience that sweeps like a current over the whole tune, as well as the rest of the album.

Gahan - who recently turned 50 - fits rather well into that role of defiance. After over 30 years and 12 albums with Depeche Mode (and a 13th forthcoming), as well as a career marked by artistic tension, drug addiction and several brushes with death, he's certainly had plenty to put into perspective. And after returning from a bout of gastroenteritis while on tour in 2009, which led to the surgical removal of a tumor and doubts from fans about his future, it's fair to say that Gahan has earned the right to be characterized as a resilient performer.

As with fellow DM member Martin Gore, who's said that his recent side project (VCMG, a partnership with ex-DM bandmate Vince Clarke) has injected new vigor into the rest of his work, Gahan seems to have gained a second wind of his own after teaming up with the eclectic production duo Soulsavers. The Light the Dead See, which will be released by Cooperative Music on May 21, represents a new direction of exploration for Gahan following two previous solo efforts - Paper Monsters in 2003 and Hourglass in 2007. It's more directly emotional, but it's also grander in scope, incorporating both shared influences and individual strengths throughout a powerful 12 tracks.

This is essentially nothing new for Soulsavers - comprised of Rich Machin and Ian Glover - who have worked with a cadre of high-profile guest singers over the past 10 years, including Mark Lanegan, Gibby Hanes and Jason Pierce. Their complex arrangements, which employ layers of unexpected instrumentation and a wide dynamic range, have allowed Soulsavers to adapt with success in each case, including the most recent effort. But The Light the Dead See may have had a new and different cathartic effect on Machin and Glover as well as on Gahan, given the apparent creative connection between them that's resulted from working on the album.

We had a chance to sit down with Gahan and Machin in a swanky hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the artistic bond that's quickly developed between the two was palpable. Though they were coming from two very different environments (Gahan has lived in New York since 1997, while Machin was visiting from the UK), the two looked and spoke like good friends, rather than just as a couple of top-flight artists - this from a pair who just put together an album that will likely be a definitive moment in both of their careers. They looked comfortable. And, for Gahan at least, that feeling of freedom - that ability to just relax and express himself - seems to make all the difference.

Did the origins of this project have a lot to do with the time you spent together when Depeche Mode took Soulsavers on the European leg of 2009's Tour of the Universe?

Rich Machin: Yeah, I can't imagine the conversation taking place without that.

Dave Gahan: Right, we wouldn't have had that conversation. I mean, I'm a Soulsavers fan. I follow them, and Mark Lanegan, and I was introduced to Soulsavers' records by Mark initially. And then the opportunity came for their band to tour with my band.

Dave, was that partially your idea, just because you were already a fan?

DG: Yeah, but it actually came about in a strange way. We were talking about it earlier. Martyn LeNoble was playing bass, and he was saying: "You should take them on the road, they'd like to go", and I heard Rich in the background going "Yeah, we'll go on tour!" So that's how the idea was planted, and I was like: "Really? Well, if you're up for doing that then you'll be at the top of the list in my book."

And was there a sense of mutual fandom?

RM: Yeah, with Depeche Mode there was a particular period that was very influential for me. Violator came out when I was like 14, and then I'd just started working on Saturdays in a record store when Songs of Faith and Devotion came out. And that period was the time in which my musical taste was really being shaped, and still to this day it's one of my favorite records. They were both records that shaped where I was going at that point in time, particularly Violator.

Back when you and Ian Glover started performing as Soulsavers, did you ever imagine something like this happening, or was it ever a goal for you?

RM: [Laughs] Maybe it's not to my benefit, but I've never had a goal. Unfortunately, that was always the case, and my teachers in school would always be critical of me for that reason. I've never had goals in life.

DG: It's much more of an American thing [laughs].

But once the relationship was formed, was there anything resembling a goal that you wanted to accomplish with this particular project?

RM: It was a very natural experience. We didn't set out to make a record when we first started working together, we just thought it would be cool to try some things out and see what happened. And what happened was something really good. As we got into it, I got a sense of that very quickly.

DG: The fact that we didn't set out with a plan was probably a big reason why it worked, but also we were just feeling each other out. Rich came up with some stuff that just worked for me. Immediately. As soon as I got something, I would start writing. That's the kind of chemistry that you can't really create.

Martin Gore and Vince Clarke recently collaborated on their VCMG project, but Gore said that there wasn't really any personal contact during that process. What was the day-to-day process like for you two?

DG: Well, knowing both of those guys, it was very different [laughs]. And I don't mean that in a negative way, and plus, theirs was an electronic project, all instruments. I've only heard a couple of things from it, but it's a completely different area I think.

It probably started out with Vince working on some stuff and he wanted some melodies, some input, or something from Martin, and reached out to him, and Martin wasn't particularly doing anything else at the time so he contributed. Martin's definitely become more open in that way. Over the past five or so years I've noticed a big change in Martin, where he's a lot more open to try different things that are not necessarily the path that he's already been taking. I was surprised by that, actually. But with Rich and me it was a totally different thing.

After recording your solo albums, you'd said that doing them was so fulfilling for you because you didn't have to follow the kind of rigidly planned work you were doing with Depeche Mode.

DG: Which is necessary. It's necessary, especially with a band that's been together for a long time, and you have to create interesting environments to work in. So you never really know how it's going to turn out, but there are certain elements of it that are already in place, and there are habits that are very hard to break. So you have your roles. It was different with this.

And in terms of Soulsavers, it just seems interesting to me because, where I'd be asking someone else about how a side project frees them up before returning to the main band, with Soulasavers I wonder if it ever feels more like an ever-evolving side project, in that each record has new dynamics.

RM: Well, that's what I need [laughs]. I need the excitement and change to keep me interested. It's such a time-consuming project that, for me to commit to making a record, I've got to be so into it, because it's just so draining. You have to give such a huge part of your life up to do it.

DG: And other areas of your life quite often suffer [laughs].

RM: Before we did this record, I spent a whole load of time wrapped up in a court case, and it's just like, I didn't sign up for this. Nobody mentioned this, and all of a sudden I kind of fell into this record and everything else, and I was like: "Wow, this is why I do it." I don't even care about anything else, and this is just great.

DG: And I don't think I've written any better songs than these, or been part of any songs that have stretched me this far as a musician and as a vocalist. Every aspect of what I do, I took risks with, and, lyrically, I made the choice to follow my heart rather than my head.

One track on The Light the Dead See that really struck me was 'Presence of God', and the way in which it presents this deep sense of religious and spiritual imagery. Was there a shared passion between you two in terms of those concepts? Because, even though it's heavy, it's such a clear and simple song.

DG: Well it is very simple, and very straightforward, but at the same time it was the complexity of the music that inspired it. And the visual depth that I felt, the emotion that I took from the music, is what inspired it. The chords that Rich was playing just led me to those words. And sometimes when that happens you've just got to stay open to it, because that's what's coming in first. There's no rational reason why that's happening, but you just have to feel it and go, "Wow, what's this all about?"

Having said that, do you feel any change within yourself, as a songwriter who's characterized by a sense of spirituality in his writing?

DG: Yeah, definitely. What happened throughout the writing together was that there was another piece to the puzzle. And that was throughout the last year-and-a-half that we'd been writing together. There were moments when I would surprise myself, and I'd sit back and go: "This feels great!"

It's hard for me to acknowledge when I'm feeling good about something, because I'm worried it's going to disappear real quick [laughs], and one of things I feel I've always struggled the most with is just being here and being part of something, rather than trying to lead the way, or be the answer, or do the right thing. You know, saying the right thing to my wife when she's asking me a question [laughs]. That sounds simple, but, trust me, I can do a real number on myself.

In terms of that search for a feeling of spiritual satisfaction, when you guys came together, how would you characterize...

DG: I like that it makes you uncomfortable [laughs]. It makes me uncomfortable, too.

Spirituality makes people uncomfortable.

DG: Well when anybody talks about it, yeah, when you throw the word God around… and that's why I use that word.

Because it makes people uncomfortable?

DG: Well, not because it makes people uncomfortable but because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable when I try to accept that there's something greater than myself. And I'm not saying that it's God, or whatever, but there are powers that be in this universe.

Rich, how would you characterize the powers that be in the universe?

RM: You know, I don't know [laughs]. It's one of those things. I have an issue with people who can't see the line that divides religion and spirituality. It's a completely different. Just because you're spiritual person doesn't mean that…

That you're going to church every Sunday.

DG: You won't find me in any church [laughs].

RM: I have a lot of problems with stuff like that, but the nature of my personality is that I ask a lot of questions about a lot of different things, and there's a lot of stuff I don't think I'll ever have the answer for.

Dave, as one who currently resides in America, I'm sure you had plenty of chances to laugh at this year's Republican presidential candidates when they started talking about God.

DG: I find it highly entertaining [laughs]. I mean, it's comical, along the lines of South Park. They are like South Park characters, aren't they? Let's face it. Jon Stewart couldn't have better material to write a show with.

You know, it's a strange world we live in, isn't it? We all know that it's a bunch of bullshit. The only thing that always grounds me is music. Throughout my life, that's the one thing I've been able to lean on, and it has the power to lift me out of places that a lot of people wouldn't be able to crawl out of. And these songs, they come from a place that's deep.

Speaking of crawling out of that hole, how much do you still look back on not only past drug use but on your illness a couple of years ago? Do the aftereffects of that experience still follow you as a songwriter?

DG: Well, it's the nature of life. You have these things that happen, and sometimes they're self-inflicted and sometimes you can't do anything about them.

Do you feel a sense of vulnerability that you didn't before?

DG: I feel a greater sense of being grateful for what I have, and what I don't have. That's something I did not have when I was 30 years old. But I think it's growing, although certainly by no means all the way there [laughs], because I get snatched back into it, usually when I try to run the show. But that's kind of my job [laughs], which is weird, because I'm also the front guy in a band, and so I put myself in a position to run the show. I don't really know how I ever got to be in that position, but there I am sometimes. And I'm not always comfortable with that.

With being a frontman?

DG: And being a husband, or a father, just like any other man.

Any leadership role, in which you're called upon and looked to in times of trouble.

DG: The role that society creates for us. And what we grow up with. But as I get older, and with the more experiences I have, the less I know. Which is a nice thing. The less I try and figure it out, the better life seems to be, if that makes any sense.

Rich, one common denominator among the diverse guest vocalists Soulsavers has worked with in the past - Mark Lanegan, Gibby Haynes, Jason Pierce, and now Dave - has been past drug use. Do you see any reason why these guys, who were coming out of similar holes, might have gravitated towards Soulsavers?

RM: No… I mean, I don't think it's a conscious thing for them.

DG: You don't go like, oh, tomorrow I think I'll become a junkie. It's an uncomfortability with life, an uncomfortability with self. And it doesn't stop at guys in bands. We all have our problems, and we're always looking for solutions.

But that wasn't on your mind, for either of you, throughout the process.

RM: It's not something I'm even conscious of. When you come out of rehab, people don't give you my number. I'm not Step 13 [laughs]. To be honest, I even forget things like that in terms of how I view people. These are people I just like and respect. It's not something that even enters my consciousness.

Along with that sense of spirituality, I felt a kind of emotional resilience and defiance about The Light The Dead See.

DG: That's a good description. That's better than I could describe it. There is defiance, all the time, and that's the rock & roll side of it. These are the rules, and you're not supposed to break them. That's something I've always struggled with. I know what's good for me, and I ignore that a lot [laughs].

Were those feelings of defiance a continuation of what you'd done with your past solo work, or was this a very new experience?

DG: This was both of those things. It was definitely a very new experience, and it felt like the most uplifting work I've ever been a part of. I know some of the songs come across as quite dark and moody, but it was the most uplifting experience I've ever had making a record. Without a doubt. I've had moments, but I could never say that I've had a whole experience of doing something and then, at the end of the day, feel like I've been completely honest about what it was I was trying to portray or question. And at the same time, in the melodies, as a whole, there's nothing I don't like about it.

And Rich, in terms of your past work with Soulsavers, did you feel the same way?

RM: Yeah, completely. I mean, I'm still learning. The one thing I find, if I do have to look back on what I've done, is that I can see a learning curve, and in terms of the different people who've come in to work with us, I've learned from every single one of them. I take part of that forward with me every time.

And you just have to enjoy it while it lasts.

DG: Right. That's all you can do. We're right here, right now, and this feels good. And sometimes you have to realize what a privilege that is. You have to do the other stuff to realize just how good this is. It's very easy, when you're a musician, to become jaded after a while and not appreciate the gifts you have. And no one else understands that. Record companies, managers, anyone who works with the business aspect of it, they can't understand what it is that you're doing really, and they can't get their heads around it. It doesn't matter whether it's Metallica or Soulsavers, they have the same idea about everything.

So, based on what I can hear on the album and by talking to you, it seems like you're both on a very similar wavelength right now.

RM: Yeah. When it locks it on every level, that's when you've got something very special.

So does this mean we can expect more work from you guys together in the future?

DG: I don't see why not. I could see it being a continuing thing.

But no plans, no goals.

DG: Yeah, we got to the point this time where we were like, well, we should probably finish this now, this is probably a record [laughs], it's finished. Because then it becomes real in that way. And now we'll give it to you, and you can pass it on if you like.

Maybe someday Rich will send me something and I'll be like, well, I'm really not feeling it, so you can never tell, but I don't see why not. And look, I was definitely in a place where I thought I wasn't ready to do anything. And that maybe was a good thing. I was exhausted from a band, a tour, and a record, and maybe I was at point where I was so wiped out that I was vulnerable enough to actually write something great. I didn't think I would be ready to do that, but it wrote itself.

And now that you've put the lid on this project, and you've exhaled, you're going back into the studio in March with Depeche Mode.

DG: Yeah, end of March.

One thing that Martin had said about his work with Vince Clarke that struck me was that the side project gave him more vigor for new Depeche Mode work.

DG: I've never heard Martin speak like that, but it's great that he feels that way, and I felt that when I hung out with him recently at his house. There's definitely a change in Martin, where he's excited about working. For this one he was really pushing to get us back in the studio to start writing again, and that's not usually the case [laughs]. None of us are really like that usually. We're very English [laughs]. It's hard to explain, but it definitely comes from our upbringing.

In addition to the side project giving you a feeling of artistic freedom, does it provide an outlet for tensions in terms of personal dynamics within the band?

DG: Definitely. I don't think I'd be jumping back into the studio right now if it weren't for this experience. Maybe. I don't know. But in the last 10-12 years, between every record that the band's done, I've done something. Even if it wasn't part of a plan.

So Rich, has Dave given you a good tour of the city?

DG: He's been here enough times…he probably does better than me (laughs). I don't really move out of my neighborhood much.

RM: I've been here enough times. It's strange being on this trip because, although I've never stayed here before, I used to really like this neighborhood.

Used to.

RM: And I'm not really into this hotel. It's in a really great neighborhood, but I don't really go out anymore at night. Five years ago I would've loved this place.

DG: Yeah, it's party central here! [laughs]

RM: Now I just get annoyed when people keep me awake at night [laughs]. I'm more interested in going out for a nice dinner. But I do love New York.

Did you record the album in New York?

RM: I've lost track of the list of places where we recorded this album. It was done in New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Sydney…I don't even know.

So you were already on tour while recording! You don't even need to go on tour to promote it.

RM: That's the irony of it, because the process was so grand but we ended up recording parts of it in people's living rooms.

What kind of effect did things like that have on the finished product?

RM: I've got no problem saying, if it sounds good, let's go for it. Just because it wasn't done in some nice studio…you know, if doesn't sound good, let's take it somewhere and make it sound good. I've got a seize-the-moment kind of attitude towards stuff now, and it really was an incredible process.

What was your fondest memory from the recording process?

RM: The strings. I recorded them at Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles], in the live room, and I had a real moment as I was doing it because we were in the room where they did Pet Sounds. And it's like, I was in the room before we started, thinking: "Wow, Brian Wilson sat right over there, and how did I end up here?" [laughs] There's the weight of that. Because I'm a music fan, first and foremost. Particularly I love music history, and Zeppelin had also recorded in there, and for me to have ended up there, I can still never quite figure out how that happened.

But you're not questioning it.

RM: I've just got a huge smile, which doesn't happen very often. It's great.

DG: I'm still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say: "The gig's up." [laughs] I still pinch myself, and I've had that experience at certain gigs where you're on the stage, at Philadelphia, where Bowie recorded a live album, or the Garden. The first time at MSG is something else.

How about live shows for you guys together?

DG: Look, like I said, I think this is the beginning of something, and I'm pretty sure in the future there will be more things that we do together, and things that will surprise me even more.

Fans of The Light the Dead Sea will not be disappointed in the future.

DG: I don't think so. And I think it's gonna be one of those albums that people talk about.

The Light The Dead See is out on Monday May 28th