The Life And Loves Of Depeche Mode
Dave Gahan has reinvented himself as Michael Hutchence on Depeche Mode's world tour
Document par Michael Fuchs-Gambock | I-D | 1993 | 19895 caractères. Temps de lecture : 14 min 56 sec
Dave Gahan is less than a centimetre tall. There are about 15,000 people standing between me and him, and as he launches into the chorus of I Feel You, I decide to find out if I can get close enough to see what he actually looks like in the flesh these days. After heaving through a hundred yards of black-clad shoulders, dodging the wayward flames of raised cigarette lighters, Gahan has increased in size. He’s now nearly an inch tall.
As pop stars get bigger, they tend to get smaller. Further away, that is. If this is true, judging by the indications on this mild Saturday night in Crystal Palace’s football stadium, Depeche Mode are a very large phenomenon indeed. Some 35,000 people, or ‘Devotees’ as the band’s latest T-shirts would have it, have gathered in the twilight for the first UK appearance of the Songs Of Faith And Devotion tour.
Depeche Mode have become a pop paradox: a band whose lyrics concentrate on the introverted individual, on anomie and alienation, but who attract a community of fans who mouth every memorised word in chorus.
Gahan’s bellowed exhortations of «come on!» and «make some fucking noise!» also disrupt the introspective trance that the music creates, while Gahan himself offers the incongruous spectacle of a macho-camp Rock God in leather trousers, tattoos and tresses fronting intense songs about pain and isolation.
It all comes together for the final encore. Gahan, the high priest, allows his fans to sing the last few choruses of Everything Counts acapella, ending the show in an expression of communal celebration: from alienation to togetherness.
This is all good stuff. Depeche Mode are, undoubtedly, part of a modern tradition of Great British Pop. Like other superlative white electronic pop groups - the Pet Shop Boys, New order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Human League, The Beloved - they have never let their intellectual baggage or pretensions to artiness get in the way of a good tune or a catchy chorus. Like most of these bands, their lyrics exude a painful naivete that’s almost embarrassing in its untutored frankness. This is what has turned a lot of rock press writers off and resulted in the acres of bad reviews they’ve had in the UK over the past 13 years. But it’s this same English gawkiness that appeals to their fans: they find it endearing, they relate to it, as if the lyrics were about their lives.
And this is where Depeche win again. As with New Order, the vagueness of their songs means you can project your own personality into them, replay your feelings and fears over their soundtrack. Their lyrics are a mirror which reflects anything you want to put in front of it. Never Let Me Down, for example, with phrases like «I’m taking a ride with my best friend» and «we’re flying high, watching the world pass us by never want to come down», could be about taking hallucinogenic drugs. It could be about sub-dom sex. It could, however, just be about a drive in the country with a mate. It’s up to you what you want to think, and Depeche, of course, aren’t saying; they know that being too specific ruins the mystery that’s at the heart of great pop music.
Depeche Mode’s is a career mapped out in a set of beautiful pop ‘moments’ - New Life, Just Can’t Get Enough, Everything Counts, Stripped; each one a soundtrack to a memory, a snapshot of youth past. Up until 1987’s Music For The Masses, it was the singles that counted. The albums were often patchy affairs, rich in ideas and concepts, though cemented with filler. If the story of Depeche Mode is one of suburban lads growing up, it’s also the story of a singles band becoming an albums band: in commercial terms, considering albums are where the real money is, it’s a story of success. (Since their first single, Dreaming Of Me, in 1981, their fame has spread outwards through Europe and the Americas. The last album, Violator, sold over six million copies globally.)
Music For The Masses was a superb record, the one on which the sweeping orchestral arrangements that they have been developing finally gelled. Pure and electronic, the whole thing moved along like a giant, menacing juggernaut of perfectly integrated noise. Any sweetness and light had evaporated, to be replaced by this awesome, brooding thing. 1990’s Violator, their darkest hour, went further, splicing ambient interludes in between the ambiguously threatening songs (it should be noted here that Depeche Mode’s Alan Wilder has recorded two excellent albums under the name Recoil - the first in 1988, years before the current ambient boom). Personal Jesus, the anthemic rock-out hit, marked the start of Depeche’s affair with the guitar riff, one which would continue on this year’s Songs Of Faith And Devotion. Faith And Devotion is perhaps their most daring record: the final step in the three-album journey from uncertainty through darkness to redemption. This time, as well as almost becoming a Rock Band, the group have employed a gospel choir, string section and Irish uillean bagpipes to further deepen their sonic textures.
«I think we started off very closed-minded, we had tunnel vision like most rock musicians have - they think that rock is the only way,» admits Martin Gore. «We believed that rock music had stagnated, and computers and electronics were the way forward for music. And gradually we’ve realised that we shouldn’t be as closed-minded as the rock musicians who don’t consider electronic music. We’re more open now, not limiting ourselves through our instrumentation.»
Songs like Condemnation and Walking In My Shoes are both melancholy and messianic, truly epic in their proportions. Gahan acts as both sinner and confessor, interpreting Gore’s lyrics with total belief, as if he’d lived them. The album also demonstrates how his voice has matured from the androgynous teenage wisp of the early ‘80s to a full-bodied masculine groan.
But the step forward wasn’t taken without trepidation. Even Gore wasn’t sure about using the gospel choir at first. It was their producer, Flood, who also works with U2, who convinced him. «I was very cagey about it - we’ve been going for 13 years now and we’ve never used another musician on any of our records. I always had this theory that if you do it yourselves, it doesn’t matter if you do it badly, you do it more passionately than bringing in outside musicians, because they just come in, they get paid for the day and they do their job, but at the end of the day there’ll be more passion in it if you do it yourself.
«We got the choir in and I was just sitting at the back thinking ‘this isn’t going to work, I don’t know why we’re trying this’, I was really nervous about the whole thing. But the moment they started singing, for me, it lifted the track onto another level, it was just up there somewhere, and so then I decided I shouldn’t be so closed-minded about the whole thing.»
Depeche Mode have been clever about their career. They’ve constantly strived to avoid descending into self-parody. «With every album we push ourselves to do things differently,» insists Gore. Examples abound: the adoption of industrial noise in 1983 on Construction Time Again, when, influenced by contemporary and industrial metal-bashing groups like Einsturzende Neubaten, Test Department and SPK, they went around the streets tape-recording building site noises for use as samples. The flirtation with edge sexuality and tainted religion which started on 1984’s Some Great Reward. The recent embracing of rock guitars (perhaps prompted by harder labelmates Nitzer Ebb and the screaming tekno-metal of Ministry?).
The image overhauls and costume changes are part of it too, though the band would rather play those down. «I really think that too much emphasis is put on image and I don’t like that,» says Gore. «We wear a lot of black because we feel comfortable wearing black.» But certainly, they are now taking more control over how they are seen. They are only photographed by one man, Dutch auteur Anton Corbijn (who - again - also works for U2). He directs their videos and art-directs their record sleeves, too. It’s as if they were so pissed off at being portrayed as fools in leather skirts by the music press, they decided to grab back their image and recreate it for themselves.
«In 1981, when Speak And Spell, our first album, came out, we were 18 years old; we were young, we were naïve, we didn’t have a clue! From one day to the next, we were being thrust on TV, we were being put into the press, and at that time we thought we should do every interview that came along, and we didn’t particularly care about our image; we were just kids, y’know?» Gore confirms. «It took us a long time to get to grips with what was actually happening, how to take control of our image and the things that we put out to the world.»
In Germany, the music press has just woken up to the fact that Depeche haven’t been a teen-pop sensation for a very long time, and are suddenly treating Dave Gahan as if he was Keith Richards or some other raddled rock roué: «They’re writing these stories at the moment that Dave has AIDS or he’s dying or he’s on heavy drugs, and it’s so funny because it doesn’t actually do us any harm, it sells more records,» Gore laughs. «Anyone reading it must think ‘that sounds really interesting, I’ve got to go and buy that’!»
Perhaps it’s not surprising that unlikely stories abound. Depeche have developed some sort of bunker mentality - it’s them against the world (or rather, the media). In interviews they have tended to close themselves off, keep their guards up, be vague about specifics and hesitant to commit to anything, mainly because they hate the idea of their lives being scrutinised. Naturally, cynical pundits have asked whether they’ve got something to hide. Unsubstantiated tales of on-the-road excess have been compounded by Gahan’s confessions about his alcohol and relationship problems. The interview situation is never one they’ve felt comfortable with, as Gahan admitted to the Melody Maker a couple of years back.  Even here, ensconced in the cosy confines of a London hotel, Martin Gore is holding a lot back. Chatty, cheery, but impeccably circumspect.
One thing he is direct about is that Depeche Mode are in no way the ‘godfathers of techno’. This story has long since passed into the realm of media cliché.  True, their supple, undulating rhythms came direct from Kraftwerk and were blueprinted during Britain’s last genuine groundswell of technologically-led music in the early ‘80s. Certainly, remixes by American maestros like Francois Kevorkian and Shep Pettibone have (in the States at least) gained them an audience in dance clubs. But despite their stated love of «any club which serves alcohol» and sightings of Martin Gore at London’s industrial-techno mecca, Hardclub, Depeche Mode do not belong to dance music in the way that, say, The Beloved do. Their roots and intentions are elsewhere.
«The dance aspect is not that important,» says Gore. «Half of every album is slow, atmospheric ballads. We’ve been labelled a dance band throughout our whole career, and I find that very funny, because I would like to see somebody dance to half our records - you can’t do it!» he laughs. «I like to dance and I like dance music; we always try to use interesting people to do remixes of singles, but to me it’s not the most important thing.» As if by way of illustration, the remixes of the first single of 1993, I Feel You, were completed by Brian Eno. His ambient textures and weather-static noises accentuate the brooding emotion in what is perhaps the most successful remodelling of a pop song this year. 
Songs Of Faith And Devotion was three years coming. After finishing the Violator tour, the band took a year off. Gahan got divorced and remarried, moved to Los Angeles, and started listening to Neil Young, Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden. Wilder produced another Recoil solo album, Bloodline, using the vocals of Moby and Curve’s Toni Halliday amongst others. Gore chilled out. «I had a daughter in that year off, and that had a really positive effect on me. The new album has a very uplifting feel to it and I’m sure that is due to my daughter. You see a life being born and growing, it’s just wonderful, it moves you.»
He also indulged himself in his record collection. «I’m not passionate about anything other than music. I bore my friends to death with music! I often invite friends to come and stay with me, and I get drunk and I play then every one of my favourite records. At the end of the night, everybody is crawling to bed, and I’m still left saying, ‘But you have to listen to this one!’»
Did those boozy hi-fi sessions show up in Songs Of Faith And Devotion? «We don’t analyse things a lot; I think that’s the best way. People who analyse a lot come to conclusions before they make the first step, and that’s wrong. You should do things more naturally. Things that we listen to just come out in our music subtly. Personal Jesus, when we recorded that, it wasn’t until we finished it I realised the obvious influences that were there. I’ve always liked glam rock, and there were obvious connotations of glam rock in there. But also I really like blues music, and I realised after we’d finished it that the main riff was pure John Lee Hooker.
«Over the last few years, I’ve listened to a lot of gospel music, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to ‘go more gospel’ on this album, it’s just something that came out naturally because it’s what I listen to. Blues and gospel are probably my two main influences, but also thrown in the bag is glam rock, dance music I like virtually every sort of music, everything except jazz. I don’t like jazz, I’ve tried, but I don’t get it!»
It turns out that the genesis of Depeche Mode is in this thirst for musical discovery, the quest for tunes. «When I was ten or 11, I discovered my mother’s old rock’n’roll singles in the cupboard, stuff like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Del Shannon, and I played those records over and over again, and I realised than that that was the only thing I was really interested in, and it went on from there,» Gore recalls. «We formed a band as a hobby. If we hadn’t become successful, I’m sure I’d just be doing a job somewhere but playing a gig somewhere every Saturday night because that’s what I believe in.»
The exact opposite of Andrew Fletcher, the non-musician who appears on stage but plays nothing, acting as the band’s business ‘sorter’. «Andy should have been a sportsman. He’s so funny. He pulls the rest of us back down to earth, because he comes in as a layman, he knows nothing!» Gore laughs raucously. «I think the last record he bought was Mr Blue Sky by ELO! If the rest of us get carried away, if we’re all sitting around the computer or something going ‘oh that’s really great’, he’ll come in and go ‘that’s terrible, I don’t get that’! He’s no worse at music than your average fan, so if he doesn’t get it, no-one’s going to get it.»
Dave Gahan has said that Songs Of Faith And Devotion is all about trying to take people to a higher level, above the depression and detritus of contemporary society. Do you agree?
«The world is always in a sorry state. I don’t think you can change that through music, but you can lift people and you can make people think. A lot of people find our music depressing and moody, but they’ve missed the point. Our music always offers something uplifting. I am a positive person and I hate negative music. What is the point of negative music?
«Our music is not happy music, our music is realistic. The realism is that it’s not going to be happy all the time, it’s going to be depressing, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel.»
Does this yearning for the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ explain your interest in religious imagery, which has become more marked as the albums go by?
«I have a fascination with religion, but I’ve never found a religion to follow. I really like the idea of belief. I want to believe. But I’ve never found something to believe in. Maybe it’s very naïve, but the only religion for me is love. I believe in love. So that’s why the songs touch on love, sex and religion; for me they’re the same thing.»
How does this translate into lyrics?
«I don’t have a solution, I’m still searching. My confusion is put out in the music. As I say, the only answers I have are love and sex. I don’t sit down and write a song and say ‘this is the message I want to give to the people’. I don’t even know why I write songs, I don’t know what I want to say, but I do want to move people.»
The songs you write veer wildly between optimism and pessimism. One minute you are offering doom, the next minute hope.
«On the new album, I say ‘I will have faith in man’. Because if you don’t have faith in man, give up. But at the same time, I realise man has an inherent evilness, and things like the Third Reich and the Nazis fascinate me because they make you realise how evil man can be. Especially the average man - he can be so evil. But you have to believe that he will come through.
«Two or three years ago when the Wall came down and there was an end to communism, it looked like the world was suddenly going to be a happy place. It looked like we were all getting on. But then you get Yugoslavia it will always happen; man is inherently evil, but you have to have faith in him.
«I actually think that the world never changes. If you think that everything’s going well, it’s not; in part of the world things will be going bad. In a way, it’s like music. Sometimes I look at the charts and I think the charts have just gone downhill so much, they are so crap, what is happening? And Andy, the layman, once said to me, ‘Well, when was music really good, then?’ And I said, ‘When I was growing up, 1972, 1973 - Gary Glitter, The Sweet, that was an excellent time.’ But then we got the chart for 1972 and we looked back - and it was crap then! It was crap then, it’s crap now - the world doesn’t change!»
But Depeche Mode have changed a lot. Developed. Achieved. Matured. But it would be wrong to say that, after 13 years, they have ‘grown up’. They are still growing.
An EP featuring remixes of Condemnation, Death’s Door and Rush is out now on Mute. Depeche Mode play Birmingham NEC on December 14, Manchester G-Mex on December 17, Sheffield Arena on December 18 and London Wembley Arena on December 20.