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Times Online

Heroes of their degeneration

By Stephen Dalton
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,266-1803416,00.html
Friday, September 30, 2005


Heroes of their degeneration
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,266-1803416,00.html
By Stephen Dalton
Depeche Mode, the band that gained the world and lost their souls, tell all
A saga of Essex, drugs and rock’n’roll, the tortuous history of Depeche Mode is one of pop’s great long-running soap operas. But in person, it is difficult to reconcile the cheery normality of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher with their melodramatic past and equally dramatic, doom-laden music. After 25 years together, the Basildon trio are turning into one of Britpop’s oddest survival stories.

Many critics still dismiss Depeche Mode as naff electropop nerds, but their albums routinely outsell rock’s premier league. They receive patchy support from radio and television, but retain one of the coolest and most devoted fanbases on the planet. Increasingly they function less like a working band and more like a religious cult. Even so, as people they seem surprisingly anonymous. Despite having sold more than 50 million albums they can walk down most streets unmolested.

“I live in New York and no one really gives a s*** there,” Gahan shrugs. “I walk down the street and pass Lou Reed walking his little dog, and nobody cares. LA, now that’s a whole different story.”

Indeed. Los Angeles is where Gahan overdosed on fame — and everything else — for much of the 1990s. Naturally, LA is also where he confronted the cult of Depeche Mode at its most deranged. “I actually had to get a restraining order on this particular girl who would literally camp outside my house,” he recalls. “She somehow felt she was living with me and was my wife. It was really psycho.”

But not as psycho as Roy, a middle-aged male stalker who kept all-night vigils outside Gahan’s Hollywood home. “You’d look out the window at four in the morning and Roy would still be standing there,” the singer laughs incredulously. “I ended up assaulting him — well, I headbutted him and broke his nose. And I actually got sued! He sued me for $500,000 and he ended up getting $40,000. He claimed I gave him brain damage, but he was pretty f***ed up to start with.”

The cult surrounding Depeche Mode is now a free-floating force, operating independently of the band. Every few weeks, in Berlin or Barcelona or Buenos Aires, armies of kohl-eyed devotees gather in clubs for Depeche nights. “It’s very weird,” grins Fletcher, “but great for us.”

Fletcher felt the full surreal effect of this virtual fame when he was booked for a DJ set in Barcelona recently. After playing to a “reasonably full” upstairs room, he went to the club’s main hall to discover 5,000 teenagers having a Depeche Mode party. It was a humbling experience, being upstaged by his own back catalogue.

Countries with high suicide rates, former military dictatorships and repressive religious regimes tend to breed the most rabid fans, they find. “It used to be really difficult for us to walk around the streets in Budapest or Warsaw,” says Gore. “They’d be chasing us, trying to grab pieces of us. It was very similar in Argentina.”

Sometimes the cult of Depeche Mode has overwhelmed the band themselves. A decade ago they almost imploded into bitter acrimony and suicidal self-destruction. Disgusted with their pop-friendly image and sound, Gahan was the most visible victim, a hollow-eyed junkie who overdosed countless times on heroin and cocaine cocktails. At his lowest ebb he became a paranoid ghost with a serious death wish, sleeping in a coffin and randomly shooting holes in his apartment walls.

Less publicly, Gore’s excessive drink and drug intake resulted in seizures, blackouts and hospital visits. Meanwhile, Fletcher almost quit during a sustained barrage of depression and band friction. A spell in the Priory, years before it became a byword for celebrity rehab, offered only a temporary respite. “It was horrible,” he recalls. “That’s the only way to describe it. Things were spiralling out of control, the excess got worse and worse. All of us had quite big personal problems for a long time. But in some ways all bands need to have that tension.”

Although Gahan has been drug-free for almost a decade, the power struggles and self-esteem issues that fuelled his selfdestructive behaviour are only now being resolved. Having broken away from Depeche Mode with his first solo album in 2003, he seriously considered leaving for good. During initial discussions for the band’s excellent new album, Playing the Angel, he demanded an equal share of songwriting credits with Gore. After much delicate backstage negotiation, he finally settled for three songs out of 12.

“It was a question of having to accept that or not carrying on with the band,” Gore says. “I wouldn’t call it an ultimatum, but it was obvious to everyone involved that if Dave wasn’t going to be contributing then he probably wouldn’t be interested in carrying on.”

This creative conflict may be pure Spinal Tap, but there is also something touchingly innocent when Gahan reports that Gore recently complimented his songwriting skills in an interview. For multimillion-selling rock stars, Depeche Mode often appear oddly childlike and vulnerable. “You’ve got to get vulnerable if you’re creating something,” Gahan insists. “I did that by trying to slowly destroy myself over those years, and that didn’t work. But thank God I’ve turned that around, and I feel very confident and happy about my position not only in Depeche Mode but in my life in general.”

Maybe being faceless superstars is not such a burden after all. Perhaps, thanks to the cult of Depeche Mode, the original Essex geezers have finally become cool rock gods? “Of course not,” Gahan laughs. “We are getting better at it, but we’re still a bunch of nerds. We’re the guys who got beat up in Basildon. But, you know, revenge has been sweet.”

Depeche Mode’s new single Precious is out next week. Playing the Angel is released on Oct 17


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