Depeche Mode Interviewed: Universal Truths And Sounds

John Doran meets Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher and immerses himself in Sounds Of The Universe. Main portraits: Dean Chalkley

"I remember the future as if it were yesterday. But it didn’t look like yesterday, it looked like tomorrow. I remember the future. It died a generation ago . . . Faith in the future I mean."

Jonathan Meades, Remember The Future

Synth pop as we know it now is just settling into a comfortable middle age. By this we don’t mean electronic music which is well over a century old but the hybrid of pop, new wave and post punk that harnessed affordable store bought synthesizers. If we take its (arbitrary) genesis as the recording of ‘Autobahn’ by Kraftwerk in 1974 then the genre is currently in the process of swapping its Chelsea boots for slippers and black boiler suit for a comfy cardigan. While no one was looking it grew up. Of course the slightly melancholy and occasionally risible path well trodden by ageing rockers from the 60s is (thankfully) one synth pop cannot take. No one wants to hear Gary Numan playing the harmonica. I would sooner go blind than see the Pet Shop Boys sitting on stools, bearded, strumming acoustics, moaning about coal mining. OMD unplugged is a pointless notion.

The world’s biggest synth pop band Depeche Mode are currently facing this problem themselves. The band, that formed in Basildon, Essex, in 1980, have tackled this change of pace by embracing old technology. Creaking and (in relative terms) ancient Moogs and Steiner Parker monophonic synthesizers, cumbersome and chaotic sequencers and monolithic drum machines lend a care worn flavour to their 12th album Sounds Of The Universe. But this isn’t nostalgia, pure and simple. Amongst the old equipment they have been searching for new obstacles and problems to battle against, to find novel sounds in vintage gear.

This is music made on equipment that was designed and built when musical vistas were vast, or eternally wide even. This equipment that was designed and built without the sad knowledge that its invention would bring music to a plateau. A flatter terrain where limitless possibilities have often come to equal atrophied imagination.

So the future, as they say, isn’t what it used to be.

Looking backwards to look forwards today we meet the band. They are ensconced in a lovely and discrete members club in Mayfair. Andy Fletcher looking like a younger, ginger Alan Bennett, a vaguely bewildered but affable Martin Gore and an extremely suave and ever so geezerish Dave Gahan are all a pleasure to talk to. They seem relaxed and the spirit of dysfunction that surrounded the group for many years seems to have subsided quite a lot, if not evaporated altogether. This was not just fall-out from Gahan’s narcotically induced death wish but his more recent jockeying with Gore, the main song writer, for prominence. This new detente is trumpeted triumphantly by Mute who are only too happy to tell us the pair have written their first song together. (Although it later turns out that ‘together’ is perhaps stretching the term a little and the song ‘Toe Stub’ about a mishap occurring during a table football match, never made the final cut anyway.)

Like many record labels, Mute, understandably, go to extremes to stop albums from leaking. This includes sending out advance copies of albums to journalists under false names to prevent mislaid copies from ending up on the net. During the release of their 2005 album Playing The Angel they were disguised under the suitably gothic name of Black Swarm but this time out The Mode were known as . . . Tea and Biscuits.

Tea and Buiscuits!?

Martin Gore: [laughs]I think we used up all of our creativity on the album and we couldn’t come up with anything for the codename. It might have been someone at EMI who came up with this because the first incarnation of the codename got busted. What was it called? Well, it wasn’t that interesting. We were called The Dispersements!

Fletch: It sounds like a New Wave band.

Dave, does Tea and Biscuits reflect a new found maturity in the Depeche Mode camp?

Dave Gahan: [laughter] That’s nicely put! Yeah, I like that. I’ll go along with that. It was probably Daniel [Miller] who came up with that. There was some tea and biscuits involved in the making of this album; that was about as tough as it got during the making of this album as regards . . . refreshment! In the context of our output it’s probably one of the most disciplined records we’ve put out. Martin and I just turned up every day to work, both of us very focussed. It’s not something that we’ve sat round and talked about but he’s written some fantastic songs and I’ve got a few on there myself. When we first got together at his place in Santa Barbara it was a no brainer that we were going to work with Ben [Hillier]. We had a great time recording Playing The Angel with him. He’d expressed an interest in doing the record with us, and he was working with a different engineer and different programmer, which was appealing to us because it’s good to have new blood when you’re recording. And we all just gelled from the moment we started recording. It was obvious that the people that he was working with were going to be a good team. Initially I went out there and listened to about 15 demos that Martin had made, at least a dozen of which really stood out as great songs. It was a real no-brainer, making a record again. He’s in great shape Martin. We’ve made records in all kinds of different stuff going on. People being in the band, people leaving the band, new people in the band, personal stuff going on and sometimes you get to the end of the record and you’re glad that you’re at the end of the record but this one . . . there was something different about it. It was a real disciplined effort."

There is the trace of a serious question in there somewhere actually because you have turned a corner in a way. Sounds Of The Universe is another great Depeche Mode album but where I’ve always thought of Depeche Mode as tackling life’s big issues lyrically with a progressive, futuristic sound, this time the sound is quite retro in a way. You’ve used a lot of analogue, old fashioned instruments.

MG: I don’t see it as sounding retro even though we did use a lot of old analogue equipment. I just got into going back and buying lots of old analogue synths and drum machines and guitar pedals and stuff right around the time we went into the studio to start making the album. We used those in conjunction with a lot of modern technology as well. So I think it’s a mixture of different eras really.

DG: Martin has this new fetish on eBay of buying vintage gear. I mean literally every day something new would show up. Drum machines, synthesizers, sequencers. So there was some of the fun that there was in some of the early recordings in exploring a new piece of equipment and seeing what sound we could get out of it. There were a couple of pieces that were written on a Steiner-Parker synthesizer from about 1974 which was completely unpredictable, random things related to what we were looking for. It was a catalyst and would put the song in a new place. So that was one of the things that we did actually talk about a bit was talking about using a lot of analogue gear and combining it with a lot of performance. A lot of the stuff we had was always running live in the studio, we’d be in a room like this and all the stuff would be patched together, so we could have all the different parts of a particular song running together at the same time. These pieces of old equipment can often be unpredictable and can often go off on their own and it will never be the same the second time you play it. I think that created a spontaneity. The way that Ben works as well means you never get stuck. If you’ve been working on something for a couple of hours and you’re not getting anywhere with it then he says ‘let’s just try something else’. There’s always a freshness. There was a lot of performance. Martin playing guitar, me singing, everyday in the studio. There wasn’t this separation."

Are you the kind of song writer who needs to continually throw obstacles in his own path to aid the song writing process?

MG: "Not really but this time I did go about the whole song writing process in a totally different way. Even though we started making the album using these analogue synths the actual writing process I did on a lap top. It’s all in the virtual world, which helps me to be much more prolific. It’s so much quicker – there’s no running off and plugging synths in. The only time I had to ‘come out’ to the physical realm as it were was when I had to do a vocal or play the guitar. I think that was the reason why I wrote so many songs this time. I think I wrote 18 or 20 songs this time.

And I believe we’re going to get to hear some of the ‘extra’ songs on an expanded version of the album.

AF: "You’re going to get to hear five extra tracks."

MG: "With Dave’s songs included I think we had 22 songs of which we recorded 18 just because we honed it down to what we thought were the best 18 of the bunch."

So this is the first album where you’ve co-written a song with Dave. How was that?

MG: It wasn’t a real co-write because I had originally written the song as an instrumental but Dave heard it and liked it and he took it back to his hotel room and wrote some words and a melody over the top. It wasn’t like we sat in a room and wrote it together. But I guess it is interesting in as much as it is the first time we’ve co-written a song."

Even a few years ago that would have been unthinkable wouldn’t it? Even from an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to see that there was a big split between the song writer and the front man.

DG: Yeah and it’s never really been sorted out. I think that there’s definitely been a competitive spirit between Martin and myself for all these years and there still is. Undoubtedly, Martin is the songwriter and for me to put my foot in the door and go ‘Hey, I’ve got some ideas’ – that was bound to cause problems. With ‘Playing The Angel’ I think it was obvious when I first did that, I think before we even started recording we spent a few months haggling over the song writing: “Well, I’m not going to even do it unless I get five and that’s it.” It was pretty outrageous really. I ended up with three which was a good compromise as far as I’m concerned. That was more competitive, that record. Once we went on tour though it was obvious that it didn’t matter. I think on this record it was more relaxed. I said ‘I’ve got these songs’ and Martin was like ‘Good, I really like that one and I like that one.’ We were doing an interview in New York and he turned round to a journalist and said ‘I think you’d have a hard time guessing which ones were mine and which ones were David’s’ which for Martin is a really great compliment. He’d never turn round and say that outright. But I got it through an interview! It was pretty good. At the same time, I’m pretty comfortable now. I wasn’t but I am now. It’s given me more confidence in the studio. I feel more envigorated now about my involvement in all the recording process including Martin’s songs."

Would it be fair to say Andy that in some ways you’re actually the lynch pin of the group. That without you there at some points in the past that the group would have just ceased to function because without you Dave and Martin wouldn’t have been able to communicate with each other?

AF: "I don’t know. It’s just the type of band we are. We’re just a bit unconventional. In a guitar band you can see who the guitarist is, you can see who the bassist is, you can see who the drummer is. With electronic bands it’s always a bit different. I’m sort of the man in the background really and these two guys are the main guys but you need that kind of background really."

DG: "I hate to say it but you might be right! [laughter] Too much energy has been spent saying ‘You don’t fucking do nothing so shut the fuck up.’ There has been too much of that and it doesn’t serve me well, especially if I want to get closer to Martin creatively. They’re buddies. They went to school together. That is that. Martin is really loyal. He’ll stick up for Fletch over anything. And that’s cool. I get it. You’ve got to go directly to the source. Now, finally after all these years I’m realising that if I need to speak to Martin then I need to speak directly to Martin and not just suggest something to Fletch, which will somehow get mixed up in the translation. And it’ll be ‘Oh, it’s this again.’ ‘What did you say? I wasn’t listening.’ [laughs] Which sort of worked for a while but it doesn’t work any more. When we finished ‘Exciter’ it was pretty obvious that that way of working wasn’t going to work any more."

You’ve said (or at least your press release has said) that the making of this album was a frictionless process. But don’t bands need friction to function. Especially bands who are a few years in?

AF: "All good bands generally need friction because it’s the friction that’s generated between the members of the band that can make the band great. We’ve had friction in the past but it doesn’t mean you can’t release a good album without friction."

MG: "I think the whole ‘great band needs friction’ thing is an urban myth."

AF: "It’s electricity more isn’t it?"

MG: "Yeah. Chemistry maybe? I think the friction thing is an urban myth. I fell into the trap of believing that you can’t write songs unless you’re off your head on something or other. But again I think we’ve disproved that with this album."

Talking of which, do you find it easy to occupy yourself when you’re on tour or in the studio now that you don’t drink any more?

MG: "Yeah. I gave up drinking about three years ago and it was just a decision I made. I didn’t go to AA or any of that stuff. It was just a decision I made to stop drinking. I’ve found that I’ve got plenty of things to do with my time."

So, you’re not actually an alcoholic but you’ve had a drink problem in the past then?

MG: "Hmmm. Yeah, I think. It was all part and parcel of being in a band. It’s almost encouraged for you to be drunk almost all the time if you’re in a band. People are disappointed if you’re not! [laughs] There’s always someone somewhere who wants to give you something!" [more laughter]

AF: "Martin was an alcoholic but there are different types of alcoholics and there are different treatments for alcoholism."

I can see how this stuff crops up being in a band. On tour you get to a town feeling rough, you go on stage get adrenalized, come off drink, do drugs and then repeat the process. I can see why you’d want something to keep a cap on that really high and low experience of touring. What are the pros and cons of writing and touring in a more serene state of mind?

MG: "Well, like I said, I found it a lot easier which really surprised me because I thought it was going to be a real struggle. But I wrote more songs than I ever have and I actually think that the quality is better."

You’ve got a 30th anniversary coming up soon. Have you been offered a lot of money to do a ‘Speak And Spell’ tour with Vince Clarke?

MG: [laughs]

DG: "Not yet! [laughs] I know it’s coming! It’s like all these bands like The Stooges (it’s so sad that Ron died and so young as well) they got together and recorded a new album [The Weirdness] which I didn’t like but they did shows of their debut. Also David Bowie recently did Low in New York or Sonic Youth just did Daydream Nation. We were talking about this and Violator would be one of our albums that we could play in its entirety from beginning to end but I think Speak and Spell is one of those records as well. It’s just the thing that people do now and not that we have any plans to do that but in a way it is actually like that and we could do a showcase of that record. It was a complete record, which all worked together. When you make your first record you’ve been playing together for a couple of years and they’re like your songs and you get in the studio and you bash them out in a couple of weeks. That’s it and no one is going to mess with it. It’s taken a few years to get here but with Sounds Of The Universe that’s a complete body of work. Ben really had a lot to do with that as well. He knew how to present it. And also going into the studio with 20 songs helped. And there was more of a plan and a structure."

Do you have any intention at all to mark your 30th anniversary?

MG: "If we do then the first thing we’ll have to do is to settle on a date. I don’t even know what our birthday would be."

So you became Depeche Mode, what, about summer 1980?

MG: "I think it was around May 1980."

AF: "I dispute that."

MG: "You’re just wrong! There’s a friend of ours Daryl [Bamonte] who used to be a roadie for us back in the old days and he’s kept a diary which contains an official date – I think it’s some time in May when we first played as Depeche Mode. It was a school gig. I suppose in theory we would have got together at least a few weeks before that because we would have started rehearsing. But I reckon you could call the date of that first school gig the 30th anniversary."

What was that first gig like?

AF: "That’s when you were in both bands! There was another band playing on the bill called The French Look and Martin was in both of them so between sets he had to change his image. [both laugh] That was the first time that Dave sang and he was really nervous. So nervous. It was at our old school St Nicholas."

Were you quite a hit with the girls?

AF: [puts on mock offense] "Girls? We weren’t interested in girls!"

MG: "This was in Basildon, Essex, you have to remember. The main thing I remember about that night was that someone wanted to beat Vince up and one of our friends who was a good fighter had to step in for him and beat this other bloke up. [laughs] We were much more interested in getting home without having a fight than picking a girl up."

What do you think it was or is about Essex and all these synthesizer people because obviously it’s the home to Gary Numan and The Prodigy as well.

MG: "I think it was luck to a certain extent. Where we grew up there was nothing, musically, to do. No decent venues or anything like that. So I think what happened at that time was cheap synthesizers came on the market for the first time and then Vince ordered us to stop being a guitar band and to start being a synth group."

So Vince was very much running things?

MG: "He was yeah."

AF: "He was pretty driven. He was unbelievably driven. If you saw Vince now you’d find it hard to reconcile the two people. He used to work in the yoghurt factory and earn £13 a week and only spend about 20p of it because he was saving up to buy a new piece of equipment, he was so driven."

So without Vince you might have ended up becoming more like a New Wave band?

MG: "Who knows really. In the original line up of the band actually Andy was on bass, Vince was on guitar and I was on synth but then we liked the sound of the synth so much that Vince made the decision that both of them were going to move over onto synth as well."

With the track ‘Come Back’ which was one of Dave’s, there’ s a really nice overdriven almost shoe-gaze feel to it. Is there any sense in which you’re trying to recreate a transcendent, druggy feel?

DG: "Always! That’s always what I’m trying to do! [laughter] I can recreate that there and that’s the kind of music that I love to listen to. I like to be taken on a little journey, on a little trip. Unfortunately a lot of bands don’t do this. Someone will say oh you’ve got to check so and so out and I don’t really get it. But I did feel that with the MGMT record. What a great record from start to finish. And it sounds like they’re a band who have been making records for fucking years. Song wise, sonically, the drift of the album. And yeah, ‘Come Back’ is like that. It’s driven by this constant . . . nod. Martin came up with the idea. He started playing this really fuzzy, low end, driving Jesus and Mary Chain riff and I was like ‘Oh I like that.’ Because ‘Come Back’ is quite pretty, quite sparkly but it’s got a kind of Stooges-y drone on the bottom of it."

Talking about the druggy, psychedelic nature of this track. Are you at the stage now with being a recovering alcoholic and drug addict where you don’t think about it that much any more?

DG: "Quite the contrary actually. I think about it all the time. I don’t think so much about getting high but everything that I do in my life has an addictive quality about it. If it makes me feel good then I want more of it and in the past that’s been to my detriment. I think it’s about control. About wanting to control the outcome of the way that somebody feels about in a relationship or whatever. I’m not saying I’m a method actor or whatever but I’m trying to make a black comedy out of my situation. But it’s never really going to be enough. But actually it’s kind of the reverse of where I am in my life though. I’ve got much more of a sense of being part of life and enjoying it. On some days. But I’m the same in that on some days when it all gets a bit too much then all I really want to do is isolate. It doesn’t work for me. Isolation is like a drug for me. It’s easy for me to do."

Back when you were using and drinking a lot it felt from the outside that you’d resigned yourself to dying. Did you think that you would sooner die than get clean?

DG: "I think so, yeah. Towards the end of that time and stuff you could see . . . A lot of my friends – and I’m talking about using addicts – were saying to me ‘You’ve got to get clean.’ And when this comes from someone else who you’re sitting with getting high, you’re a bit like ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ But it came true at that point. It was inevitable. The outcome was inevitable – I was going to die. I kind of resigned myself to that and it was OK, it didn’t really matter to me. Selfish of course."

Weren’t you afraid?

DG: "I really wasn’t. Well, not until right near the end. There was a period of time that I spent in Los Angeles. The house that I was living in was completely wrecked. There were a bunch of people living there. I left there and rented this little place, this little flat in Santa Monica, and there it really got progressively . . . bad. I was isolated. And then I really did start getting afraid. I found myself in that place and I was thinking to myself ‘Fuck. How did this happen?’ You know what I’m talking about. Then the biggest thing was kind of going ‘Alright, you’re right. I need some help! How do I do that?’ Because by that point I’d lost the ability of caring. I no longer had the ability to care about friends, to care about family to care about anything."

What do you think when you see young people like Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty fulfilling these roles, taking part in this obviously self destructive wish fulfilment?

DG: "Well, you know, they’re young ain’t they? [laughter] Well, you know I got some wise words from Pete Townsend once to use yet another cliché. But he collared me in a hallway of some awful German TV show one time and he gave me that knowing look of like . . . it was just a glance and this was way, way before I’d even thought of giving up booze and drugs. He gave me that look and now I know that look. He smiled at me as if to say ‘Been there, done that. Thank God I don’t have to do that anymore.’ That kind of thing and underneath all of it is when that stuff’s working it’s working and you have fun with it – let’s be honest. Let’s have a drink or whatever. Even drugs can be useful in this world. So if you want to go down that road that’s up to you."

I think it’s fair enough to say that Depeche Mode live is a very different beast to how it is on record? How do you know where the line is? Are there some hardcore fans, say, who find your live show too much like an arena rock show where all the songs have been messed about with, different unplugged versions, audience participation. For example your live version of ‘Shake The Disease’. How do you know when enough is enough?

MG: "I think the fans who have been with us for the longest probably like how we are live. I think we know in the studio when we’re crossing lines that we shouldn’t. Like when we’re going too rock. We don’t want to be an out and out rock band. But when we play live I think we can be a little bit more flexible, we’ve got a live drummer which makes it a bit more spontaneous. He does slightly different things each time. We’re an anomaly in that we’re an electronic band who have a drummer who probably has the biggest drum kit in the world." [laughs]

I’m going to let my professionalism crack here a little. I’ve been a Depeche Mode fan since I bought ‘Shake The Disease’ on 7” in 1985. If I were in Depeche Mode and some luddite chancers in cagoules like Oasis were stealing my thunder, getting more coverage, getting more magazine covers I’d be pretty fucking furious. Especially given that Depeche Mode are the better band and have sold twice the amount of records. Is there any extent to which you’re angry about the fact that you’ve never really been given the kudos you deserve by the press, in most quarters. Especially in the country you come from.

MG: "To be honest it really doesn’t bother me too much because it really is just an English phenomenon. We go over to Europe and it’s just incredible how much respect we get. We actually get journalists turning up to interviews shaking because they’re so nervous about meeting us. I think we kind of got over that."

AF: "It does grate a little bit. It’s slightly annoying really. I feel that the media, the radio hasn’t really given us much of a chance really. But we have got a lot of fans here really which is great. We don’t win awards and things like that which is slightly grating but we’re also very lucky because a lot of British bands aren’t big outside of Britain and we’re lucky that we’re big in South America, Europe, the States, all around the world basically. So we can live without not being treated particularly well where we come from."

DG: "It really does piss me off to be honest! I certainly don’t think we’ve deserved the flack we’ve had in this country over the years. And having not lived in this country for several years it’s like ‘Come on man – haven’t we earned some respect? We’re a pretty good export aren’t we?! We’ve done better than New Labour, let’s face it! Oasis, let’s face it, the first couple of records were fucking great. Certainly everything about the first record – it was like the Pistols all over again just in its attitude. But I don’t quite understand the attitude of the British press though. We’ve been consistently making good records, provoking interest and growing but for some reason we’ve never been able to break the impression of that’s what Depeche Mode is in this country. I get it. We’re not really a beer boy band. I think we’ve actually got a lot more in common with a band like Pink Floyd to be honest. I would put us alongside them rather than Oasis."

A different version of this feature appears in the current edition of Stool Pigeon along with features on Doom, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, Patrick Wolf, Pet Shop Boys, Lady Sov, Bat For lashes and SunnO))). Visit the website for a list of stockists.

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