The Bottom Line: Martin Gore Interviewed

Ned Raggett speaks to Martin Gore on the eve of the release of MG his first solo album of original material

Theoretically, Martin Gore doesn’t have to do anything but relax. Depeche Mode have comfortably ascended and settled into the realm of occasionally recording and touring arena-level act, now into something like a third generation of fans or more. He could just chill in his Santa Barbara home each night and ponder the fates. But in much the same way as his bandmate Dave Gahan, there’s always something else to try musically, and over the years that’s included covers collections, DJing and, last time Depeche went on break, a crackling collection of aggressive techno, VCMG, done with Depeche’s original founder Vince Clarke.

On MG, Gore’s first full album of solo originals, he takes another slightly unexpected turn, eschewing VCMG‘s hyperactive blast for moodier, shorter pieces. Like VCMG it’s all instrumental, his familiar vibrato that underscores the band’s emotional extremes completely absent, but putting the focus entirely on the music brings out a more underrated element to his work. It’s often been the stereotype that Gore creates Depeche’s music but the band or its producers flesh it out in a specific form that hearing so many carefully arranged pieces here immediately call to mind the many interludes and short bridge pieces that have appeared on a number of the band’s albums, not to mention any number of wholly instrumental B-sides and bonus tracks. And yet it’s not just simply Depeche redux, but its own enjoyable, self-contained listen, less bridging gaps than making its own distinct mark, all while showcasing Gore’s overarching love of a direct hook.

Reached by phone, Gore sounded at once effortlessly polite and quietly amused, his familiar laugh from any number of films and interviews always present while often pausing to search for the best words. Speaking as a long time Depeche and Gore fan, I had to admit – it was a total, unalloyed treat.

This is something I’ve just noticed as a listener: it seems to be a pattern of about four years or so between Depeche albums, and then the solo projects emerge in the time between. So I was almost not surprised when I heard word of MG coming out. Is there any sort of actual plan at work, or to things just happen as they do?

Martin Gore: Boy, it’s true that were are on a kind of four-year cycle, and it’s been happening like that for a while now. You know, we finish a tour, usually, and then there’s either a break period or a time when we start thinking about doing something in a solo context, and then there’s getting back to writing for the band, and then there’s the recording for the band, and then after the release, we go on a tour, and that usually takes up the four years. That’s just the way it is these days. It’s difficult — I don’t think we particularly want to speed that process up, because we all have families, and I think you need that kind of break anyway, if you’re going to keep up any kind of quality control.

First your deejaying stints, then VCMG, and now this: has it been the idea that you sort of felt with the solo work that you thought, "Okay, I’ve done the song side of it (with the Counterfeit covers collections), now it’s more exploring the textures, the music?" Or is it even that conscious?

MG: I think that it wasn’t that conscious. It was more the fact that I had five — I think there was like four or five tracks that I’d written during the songwriting period for Delta Machine, and we decided not to use them, because we had way too many songs, even the deluxe edition. So I just had them sitting there, and I didn’t want them to go to waste, and I got thinking that maybe it’s not such a bad idea for me to think about a solo instrumental album. The more I thought about that, the more I liked the idea, because it was something new and different, something I’d never done before. I did the project with Vince; that was very, very different. That was purely a techno album where this is kind of atmospheric and filmic.

That leads into my next question: in the press release, you mentioned that, talking about the idea of soundtracks. The images in my head for a song like ‘Spiral’ are almost modern buildings or futuristic buildings or strange things in the shadows. Do you have preferred images in mind, or is it something more?

MG: I think that after I had a few tracks written, it was more that they fit into this kind of sci fi realm for me, and I quite liked that kind of template. And I think I had that in mind when I then carried on writing for the rest of the album.

What were the initial songs that were recorded, and did they stay that way? Or did you go back and revisit?

MG: The songs that were written during Delta Machine were ‘Elk’, ‘Brink’, ‘Featherlight’ and ‘Elk’ I didn’t really change too much, because it was very simple, and just worked. But ‘Featherlight’ I worked on a bit, because it just felt too cluttered and full, and it just needed to be thinned out a bit. It was really different for each track. I mean, some of them I worked on a bit. Obviously I worked on all of them a tiny bit! But most of them were more than just skeletons; they were kind of finished demos.

Many of the songs have a very key, specific, direct core element. It could be a melody or it could be a bass or percussive part, and then the arrangements around them have this flowing variety. There will be things that maybe recur, but other elements that’ll step in and out. Is that core element always the first thing and then everything just emerges after the fact?

MG: I think it’s different from track to track, but I think it is quite minimal, and there are — I suppose — themes on each track that will be different from track to track, but that are central and core to them. Maybe there is an element of truth to that.

I take it the album was mostly recorded in your Santa Barbara home studio setup?

MG: Yes.

A friend of mine who just recently moved to Santa Barbara talks about how absolutely lovely it is — the area and the landscape, and I know that myself from past visits. Does music in general, given where you live and work, affect your songwriting? Or is it something you consciously set aside when you’re working on music?

MG: I don’t think where I live in the world particularly influences my songwriting too much. I think that songwriting comes from somewhere far deeper. It comes from your inner core and your soul, and everything that’s going on around you is kind of superficial to that. So I don’t think that, if I was writing in Siberia or writing in Santa Barbara, the end result would be that different. I think that a lot of importance was placed on the fact that we did a lot of recording in Berlin during the eighties before the Wall came down. And it was a very special atmosphere, and some of our seminal albums were recorded there, like Black Celebration and stuff. But I don’t know how much that had an influence on the end result. That could have probably been recorded and finished in London and been exactly the same.

In the press announcement for MG, you noted something about  the power of words. That made me think of that longstanding intensity, for lack of a better word, that so many feel and have felt towards your Depeche vocal and lyrical work in particular. Since there are no lyrics at all on the album, it struck me that the song titles might be very telling. A song like ‘Exalt’ really stood out for me, since it had a certain feeling of exaltation to it. What logic went into the song titles? Is this something you spent a lot of time over?

MG: Some of the titles come very easy; some of them don’t come quite so easily. There’s usually some logic that makes sense to me. I think it wouldn’t necessarily make much sense to an outsider. But somehow, I’m sure that even if it only makes sense to me, it must have some kind of interest value that makes sense to the song for a listener.

In describing the songs to myself, I was thinking, “How do I put words to something that is wordless? How do I translate a certain feeling into something that makes sense?” Listening to MG, the images almost felt stronger, the feelings, more than certain concrete ways of putting it. Sorry, that’s not really a question; it’s more just sort of an observation, a translation of feeling.

This may be very random and not related at all, but last night I actually watched a documentary called Alive Inside, which is about the power of music, really. It’s about dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, and how music is the one thing that seems to suddenly connect them and make them come really alive. It made so much sense to me how music affects us in different ways than everything else, and comes into our brains in different ways than everything else.

Let me ask something more on a technical level. I recall that you, in interviews and band interviews around the time of Sounds Of The Universe, had some talk about getting in a lot of, or a new interest on your part in, older synth gear and repurposing and reusing it, which is one thing I thought was really particularly striking about that album. Do you have preferred instruments or software that you use, new or old, or is it always catch as catch can — new pieces in, new pieces out, seeing what works?

MG: The majority of the sounds, I would say, on this album were created with a Eurorack modular system, and the modules are all being made today. They’re current. There are so many manufacturers now making stuff, and it’s all very inspiring, and it’s just flourishing. There are modules being released on a daily basis, virtually. So that’s where I made a lot of the sounds, but apart from that, of course I used some older, vintage polyphonic synths for some of the tracks, and other various instruments. But the main thing that I should mention is the Eurorack system.

Is there any guitar on the album? There are one or two points I thought it might be, but it struck me as strictly electronic.

MG: It was purely electronic. That was something that I definitely wanted to stick with. Because it had, for me, a kind of sci fi feel, I really wanted to keep it an electronic purist album. The moment you start putting guitar on something, it really takes it out of that sci fi realm. It’s got too many reference points.

You had Q (American electronic musician, also known as Überzone) do the mixing on the album, and since he had worked on VCMG,  my sense of what he brings to it is that there’s a crunch and grain in the sound. It’s not pristine. There’s something almost visceral to it.

MG: Q brings quite a lot. I was very impressed with what he did to the VCMG project. And he does bring out some kind of aggression where it’s needed, but more than that I think it’s detail and depth and width, and power, maybe. Maybe it’s power, without over-compressing, and without going into a loudness war.

A friend of mine who has written on that very topic a few times will be very pleased to hear that! Is deciding what to put on an album and then sequencing that album hard or easy? You mentioned, of course, you already had a certain amount of key tracks. Did the album just come together very swiftly, or was it one of those things you were sort of like, "Well, maybe this, maybe that," over time?

MG: Once I had the four or five tracks, I started working on it as soon as I came back from the Delta Machine tour, which was in March. And I was finished with the actual recording process by the end of November. So it was a fairly quick process, but when you talk about the sequencing of the album, I don’t know if you mean the actual track sequencing.

Yes, the order of tracks.

MG: I had a chat with Daniel Miller at one point, and he thought that the track listing was going to be a very crucial element with this record, because it’s so diverse. And when it came to actually doing it, I made one order and it just worked. So I have no idea if that is true or not [laughs].

It just happened!

MG: It’s the only order that worked, and I just hit it the first time.

Cannot go wrong with that. Two last quick questions. First: any plans for any live dates for this, or will this just be a studio-only project?

MG: Yeah, I can’t imagine any live dates at all for this. It’s not the sort of thing that would be very interesting or visual — I mean, I’m sure that people will try and talk me into doing a DJ set around it or something, but it’s not DJ music, so I’ll be playing something completely different.

Finally, a quick personal question. Your kids, or at least your older kids, have certainly learned more over time about what Dad does. Are they all, "Yeah, Dad, we love your music"? Or more, "Okay, whatever, Dad, you do your own thing and we’ll just listen to what we want to"?

MG: [laughs] It’s a tough question to answer, to be honest. They’re not very vocal about what I do, and their thoughts on it, really. But I was quite surprised and honored a few years ago when one of my daughters — because they all sing and they all play guitar and they all play piano — one of my daughters played a local bar here in Santa Barbara when she was home visiting once, and she chose to play one of my songs, a song called ‘The Bottom Line’ (from 1997’s Ultra).

I love that song.

MG: And I had no idea she was doing it, so that was a complete surprise. But beyond that, she’s never spoken about it [laughs].

MG is out on April 27 via Mute

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