Depeche Mode in mature mode
challenges both internal and external, the veteran group stands strong with a new album
and tour ready to go.
By Chris Lee reporting from London
6:20 PM PDT, March 28, 2009
overwhelming majority of Depeche Mode's storied three-decade ascension from disposable New
Romantic heartthrobs to chart-topping rock stars who could fill stadiums, the division
of labor between bandmates was never a question. ¶ Dave Gahan was the group's focal
point: its preening figurehead, a leather-clad baritone and unrepentant hedonist with a
lust for life (well, women, drugs and booze) that famously killed him for a few minutes in
1996. Martin Gore, meanwhile, was the brains of the operation. From 1981 onward, the
soft-spoken multi-instrumentalist took the reins as primary songwriter and is most
responsible for casting Depeche Mode's sonic template of brooding synthesizer soundscapes
and danceable industrial dissonance.
FOR THE RECORD:
Depeche Mode: In today's Arts & Books, an article about Depeche Mode and an
accompanying photo caption say that the band will perform three shows at the Hollywood
Bowl in August. It will perform two shows at the Bowl and a third show at the Honda Center
Until one day in 2005, at the outset of recording the British group's 11th studio album,
"Playing the Angel," Gahan got fed up with the status quo. "I said, 'I
contributed to everything you've done all these years. I want some back now,' " Gahan
recalled, dragging on a cigarillo in a swanky hotel suite. "I said, 'Let's shake it
up a bit. I'm going to bring in my stuff.' Martin said, 'Well . . . how many songs? How
much?' OK, I get it. It was perceived as a threat."
Never mind that Gore's lyrics -- meditations on consumerist greed, sexual politicking and
exasperated spirituality, among other existential howls from the void -- elevated Depeche
Mode beyond its shiny, happy New
Wave roots and helped the group be taken seriously by critics, not to mention sell
more than 100 million albums worldwide.
In a separate suite on the other side of the hotel, Gore remembered his negotiation with
Gahan somewhat differently.
"Dave came to that project with a lot of bravado," Gore said. "He wanted to
write half the album! We were all a little cautious of that. He had just put out his first
solo album ['Paper Monsters'] and had really only just started writing."
"So there was a bit of friction," admitted Gahan.
It might have been the impasse to end Depeche Mode's quarter-century run crafting such
exquisite cyber-pop hits as "Personal Jesus," "Strangelove" and
"Master and Servant." But instead, it seems that Gore and Gahan's jockeying for
position on "Playing the Angel" gave way to a happy bipartisanship on Depeche
Mode's new album, "Sounds of the Universe," which hits retail April 21. Its
propulsive lead single, "Wrong," cracked Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks' Top
20 last month and a disturbing video
for the song -- which follows a mysterious masked man piloting an out-of-control car
through the streets of downtown Los Angeles -- was the most viewed clip on YouTube for two
days following its posting.
Not only are the bandmates getting along better than ever these days (the group's third
remaining member, keyboard player Andrew Fletcher, has never rocked that boat), their
late-inning burst of creativity resulted in enough new material for two albums. Writing
for a year on his own, Gore came into the studio with 17 demo tracks; Gahan, having
tempered his expectations after "Playing the Angel," arrived with five. Owing to
Gahan's abhorrence of the double-CD format, "Sounds of the Universe" was culled
down from more than 20 tracks to a concise 13 -- three of them written by the singer.
"For the first time during the completion of a Depeche record, I felt
satisfied," Gahan said. "Not only with my participation, but our involvement
together. I felt like Martin and I were on the same page in the studio quite often. It was
something you didn't even have to talk about. That felt really great."
The band members separately agree that Gahan's two solo albums, "Paper Monsters"
(2003) and "Hourglass" (2007), have allowed the singer a certain hard-won
acceptance of his role in Depeche Mode. "Before, he was just a frontman who sang
someone else's lyrics," said Fletcher. "He was a bit uncomfortable. Now, he's
writing and doing solo albums, he feels more part of the group."
Producer Ben Hillier worked on both "Playing the Angel" and "Sounds of the
Universe" and helped Gahan modulate his output for the new album. "Martin has
been writing hits for 30 years," Hillier said. "Before his solo albums, Dave
hadn't done any writing. Out of all the songwriters in the world to be in competition
with, Martin is not the one to choose. So to rock up with a load of songs and expect to
get them all on was a little bit hopeful."
While the new music still recalls the dark synth-pop of DM's landmark 1991 album
"Violator," it signals a shift into an era of emotional maturity for the band.
Many of the songs on "Sounds of the Universe" grasp at themes of cosmic
interconnectivity, spirituality and self-acceptance. On "Peace," written by
Gore, Gahan sings: "I'm leaving my bitterness behind. . . . There is no space for
regrets. . . . I'm giving all the positivity that I possess."
It's hardly the same Depeche Mode that on 1984's "Blasphemous Rumours" lays out
the manifesto: "I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors / But I think that God's
got a sick sense of humor / And when I die, I expect to find him laughing."
"I think I am more spiritually connected now," said Gore, 47. "More a part
of the universe, no pun intended. I feel like I'm more in touch with my emotions. The
biggest change in my life is that I stopped drinking three years ago. I feel like a
different person and that helps the atmosphere in the band. There's a reason why we're a
happier unit now."
That puts the multi-instrumentalist on the same sobriety page as Gahan, 46, who famously
gave up drugs and alcohol 12 years ago. No discussion of Depeche Mode is complete without
mention of how the singer overdosed on a speedball of cocaine and heroin in Los Angeles in
1996 and was pronounced clinically dead for two minutes in the ambulance on the way to
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center before he was revived.
Suddenly self-conscious, Gore caught himself. He added: "You have to be careful when
you talk about spirituality and stopping drinking in the same breath. You start sounding a
bit holier than thou. That's the last thing I want to do -- come across as some new-age
guru." He threw his head back and laughed.
Hillier calls Gore's decision to give up booze a "breakthrough" for the band.
"Dave has struggled with sobriety for quite some time and now there's a certain
kinship developed through similar experience," the producer said. "And Martin
was 100% dedicated. In the evenings, he wasn't going to go off partying."
Much more Mode
Come late April, a virtual flood of Depeche Mode content awaits the group's faithful. In
addition to the album rollout, there's a CD-DVD set and a deluxe box-set -- a blunderbuss
that will include bonus tracks, remixes and an "exclusive collection of demos"
that includes a number of songs that didn't make the cut for "Sounds of the
Universe" in addition to not one but two 84-page hardback books featuring
lyrics and photos. As well, fans can subscribe to the iTunes Pass: for a flat fee of
$18.99, listeners get the album and exclusive content -- new songs, remixes, videos -- for
15 weeks, a first-time deal offer from Apple's download platform.
"It's one way around illegal downloads," said Fletcher. "We've tried to
give the fans proper content. They'll pay for something if it's really good."
Then there is Depeche Mode's road show. Time was when stadium shows were the exclusive
province of monster rock acts -- say, Led Zeppelin or Genesis -- but never guys with
synthesizers, drum machines and expensively asymmetrical haircuts. Depeche Mode shattered
that glass ceiling in 1988 when it played to a sold-out crowd of more than 80,000 people
at Pasadena's Rose Bowl at the close of the group's "Music for the Masses" tour.
In May, Depeche Mode's well-oiled industrial complex clanks into gear, and the group will
set off on a world tour. After touching down in Israel, the Baltic states, Scandinavia,
Western Europe, Canada and the Eastern Seaboard, the group's "Tour of the
Universe" arrives in Los Angeles for two gigs in August at the Hollywood Bowl and a
third at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
"This band is still to this day one of the biggest bands in Southern
California," said Lisa Worden, music director of KROQ-FM (106.7). "That they can
sell out two Hollywood Bowl shows as soon as tickets became available is a testament to
how big they are." (The third show was added in response to that overwhelming
Having both lived and died in L.A., however, Gahan remains conflicted about his past here.
"For a while, it was very difficult for me to go back to L.A.," Gahan said.
"There were too many ghosts. At the same time, I've always been drawn to L.A. I lived
there for six years. I fell in love there, got married there. And then I fell in love with
the wrong stuff. That relationship fell apart."
Moreover, with "Tour of the Universe," the band is poised to again upset
conventional wisdom about synth-pop and arena-sized venues. "We've done a lot of
touring for a so-called 'electronic band,' and we've proven that electronic music works in
a live format and in a huge live format," Gore said. "In a way, what we're going
to do now is a landmark like the Rose Bowl gig. We're going out to play our first stadium
tour. There's not another electronic band that has gone out to play a stadium tour."
It is one of pop music's few remaining summits for Depeche Mode to crest. Which brings up
the question: How much longer does the group plan to go on?
"Look at the age we're at," said Fletcher, 47. "It's hard to know how far
you can go, into Stones territory. It's moment to moment. With this album, I think our
music is still relevant."
Gore put Depeche Mode's future prospects in finite terms: "When we're playing, you
look in the front row and there's a lot of younger kids as well as the older audience.
People are coming to hear the new record as well as songs we made 20 years ago.
"Obviously, we are the worst people to have any subjectivity on the matter, but we
are really aware of our legacy and not repeating ourselves. The day we start making music
and don't think we're achieving something -- or stop enjoying it -- we'll stop."