Songs Of Innocence & Experience
By Danny Eccleston ~
For 25 years, Depeche Mode have dragged soul-scouring pop out of synthesizers, battling the ogres of smack and Basildon to emerge vindicated. Now if they could only learn to talk to each other.
In 1996 Anton Corbijn, rock photographer to the stars, received a phone call from one of his clients. The content of the conversation was immediately “It was Michael Stripe,” recalls Corbijn. “He said he’d just met Dave Gahan in a bar in L.A. And that Dave was in a terrible state. And could I do something about it?”
Corbijn’s relationship with Depeche Mode went back to 1986, when he directed the promo clip for A Question Of Time, a single off their fifth album, Black Celebration. But it was the first Corbijn had heard of the Depeche Mode singer’s violent narcotic descent.
He wasn’t the only one in the dark. In 2005, as Gahan relives his life as an addict, he describes the decadence, deceit and black hole of self-hate: “I lived in this place on Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. I called it the Purple Palace, because so many people turned blue there.”
The anecdotes are uglier than in any of the rock’n’roll biographies Gahan likes to devour. Between 1991 and 1996 ho shot smack diligently, in partnership with then-wife Theresa Conway – previously shacked up with notorious Guns N’ Roses drug mule Steven Adler. He OD’d regularly, and clinically died on May 28th, 1996 having shot a speedball at LA’s rock hostel, the Sunset Marquis. He was once discovered by his mother and his eldest son on the floor of his Santa Monica apartment, with his arms bleeding, scrabbling through bin bags in search of his works. But none of these things made him quit.
“I swore to myself every morning… er, afternoon, when I came to, that I would stop,” he told me two years ago. “Classic drug addict stuff – actually believing that the adrenaline that run through me when I was heading off to cop, that feeling of purpose, actually meant something. A drug addict’s life is repeating the same thing every day and expecting a different result. It’s the dictionary of insanity.”
Today clean for nine years, Gahan will admit that part of him sought entrance to the mythic rock valhalla that membership of a geeky synth combo from Basildon appeared to deny him. Another part was making up for a youth marked by abandonment: the death of a stepfather at the age of 9, and the brief return then inexplicable exit of his birth father when he was 11. Yet another sought distraction from his increasing sense of estrangement from the band that, since early 1980, had become his life.
“From Violator  onwards, I’ve not been comfortable. I’ve been saying we’ve got to push harder. We’ve got to almost destroy what we’ve done to create something new. Until the end of Violator, I was happy to go along and do my thing and be part of Depeche Mode as it was then, but then it changed and I changed and somehow I was looking for something else…”
This month, Depeche Mode’s 11th studio album is released. Entitled Playing The Angel, it is the first to feature songs written (or as Martin Gore will accurately, if unchivalrousy insist, co-written) by Gahan. It’s a new phase for a band who, since the shock departure in 1981 of original songwriter and driving force Vince Clarke, have been defined by the monomania of songwriter Gore, and secretly scarred by a system of internal non-communication perhaps unique among bands. “Let’s just say,” relates Anton Corbijn, “that if, of all bands I’ve worked with, U2 have the most, and longest band meetings, Depeche have the least, and the shortest.”
According to Gahan, Playing The Angel producer Ben Hillier had another word for it. “He said that we’re by far the weirdest band he’s ever worked with.”
As Depeche Mode congregate for MOJO’s photo shoot in a nondescript West Hollywood neighborhood, black-clad in the blistering August heat, “weird” is not a adjective that leaps mind. ‘Fletch’ Fletcher – former bass guitar player, Chelsea fan – smokes and scribbles in a pocket-sized Sudoku compendium. Martin Gore, scrambled-egg hair balancing atop tiny head, hides his shyness behind a ready display of ultra-white teeth. Gahan, having left behind the puffy-eyed, post-drug aura that surrounded him throughout the late ’90s, and indeed the unkempt “I am rock” look of his guitar-laden 2003 solo album, Paper Monsters, looks tip-top in a slick quaff and “wife-beater” vest. As if in compensation for the low-key wariness of Gore (leavened by the occasional, alarmingly frog-like chuckle) or perhaps to make up for the pre-therapy and pre-solo album years of blocked expression, he raps a mile-a-minute, his vowels contorting under the effort to assimilate Southern Californian into Estuary English.
Gore lives 78 miles up the coast in sleepy Santa Barbara, Gahan in New York’s West Village, Fletch in Maida Vale north-west London. Gore is working on his first divorce, Gahan on his third marriage. Rather like R.E.M., that other unlikely trio, they prefer to interview separately and appear to have chosen to live as far away from each other as feasible without moving to the North Pole, that Marianas trench and the moon.
They banter, strip and change shirts with the ease of men who’ve shared minuscule dressing rooms for 25 years. Everyone around them – manager Jonathan Kessler, label boss Daniel Miller – is calling their latest album the least ever, but it could easily have gone the other way. Gahan made it clear after Paper Monsters there would not be another Depeche Mode album made under previous conditions, but Gore didn’t immediately embrace the idea of another writer in the band. “At first it got pretty icy response,” says Gahan. “But I expected that. It’s been Martin’s role, and my guess is that he would feel that it was something being taken away from him rather than something that was being given.”
Gore things Gahan could have been more diplomatic… “During the press for his solo record, he went a bit too far, saying stuff like he felt like a puppet and I was a dictator, and he felt he had a right to contribute. I realized during that period that if the band were going to continue that I would have to (pause) allow that to happen up to a point. But I didn’t think it was right that after 25 years he should step in and write 50 per cent of the songs.”
Gahan: “Martin said, (adopts pinched, E.L. Wisty-type voice) ‘I think it’s going to be very hard for Depeche Mode fans to take this.’ I was like Bull-shit!”
It doesn’t take a Sigmund Freud to see Depeche Mode’s story as one of deferred conflicts, ignored crises and unexpressed emotions. When pushed on the topic Gore and Fletcher get defensive, but Gahan embraces the theme. “The only way I’ll know what Martin really thinks is when I read this,” he says. “I used to think that it was something to do with me, but it’s just the way he operates.”
What the three of them have always shared in Basildon, the Essex new town that, in Fletch’s words, “went wrong”. Conceived in the utopian honeymoon of post-war urban design, it foundered on ghetto planning, a “problem” families from London’s East End were poured into the newer estates that ringed the original ones.
“As the factories closed down and unemployment grew in the ’70s it became a violent town,” says Fletcher. “I think one of the reasons we’re still around today is our work ethic, which came from the feeling that we didn’t want to go back there.”
Having schooled together since year dot, Fletcher and Gore can’t remember the first time they met; Gore vaguely recalls the former “as the annoying one down the front Geography who put his hand up to answer every question.” The two would also meet at a Christian Fellowship group which Fletcher – a veteran of Boy’s Brigade and a born-again Christian since the age of 12 – attended with Vince Clarke. All somewhat peculiar in their way – Clarke is typically described as “a loner”; Gore claims he self-consciously “gave up drinking between the ages of 16 and 18” – the three became music-obsessed, fixated at first with Bolan and Bowie, then quickly embracing the new directions in electronic pop advanced by The Human League and John Foxx-era Ultravox!.
It’s tempting to draw parallels between their environment – the dystopic modernism of Basildon – and their enthusiasm for futurist sound-scapes, but Fletcher, ever the pragmatist, isn’t having any of it. “(Empatically) No. It was timing, really. After punk, people were looking for the next thing. Some people became rockabillies, some went down the Kraftwerk/Bowie/Futurist route. And there was the sudden availability of monophonic synthesizers, coming on the market for £199, even £150. Like the Moog Prodigy. This wasn’t a massive Rick Wakeman thing. This was something you could take out of a suitcase and plug straight into a PA system.”
Fletcher, Clarke and Gore did time in various, absurdly-named bands: No Romance In China; Norman & The Worms. Gahan – a local face with form for a car theft and cool contacts on the club scene in London and Southend – was “discovered” at a rehearsal with Gore’s band The French Look. Meant to be operating the drum machine, he found himself on the mike, singing Bowie’s “Heroes”. A star was born.
“It was Vince who said we should go totally electronic,” continues Fletcher. “Vince was so driven back then. It was his aim to make money and drive a Rolls-Royce through the center of Basildon. He used to work in a yoghurt factory and earn £30 a week, of which he’d save £29.50. Without Vince’s drive Depeche Mode wouldn’t have happened.”
Under the provisional title of Composition Of Sound, Fletcher, Clarke, Gore and Gahan worked the Essex nightspots: pale versions of New Romantic nights at Blitz in London and its seamier Futurist equivalent, Billy’s, where DJ ‘Stevo’ spun Gary Numan, Gina X and Throbbing Gristle. Playing Clarke originals and the odd cover (Mouldy Old Dough a specialty), Depeche headlined Croc’s Glamour Club in nearby Rayleigh every Saturday, resplendent in DIY approximations of Blitz garb (Fletcher in bedroom slippers painted black and a purple blouse run up by Vince Clarke’s mum).
Meanwhile Clarke and Gore hustled demos in London, buttonholing Geoff Travis at his Rough Trade Shop. It was here, in September 1980, that they first ran into Mute Records head Daniel Miller – already the nascent indie scene’s godfather of pervtronica since notorious releases by The Normal and Silicon Teens (both Miller noms de synth) – but Miller was anything but impressed: “I hated new romantics. And they looked like fake new romantics.”
By midnight on November 12th, Miller had revised his opinion 100 per cent, as the renamed Depeche Mode alchemised Spector and Kraftwerk as support to Mute act Fat Gadget at Canning Town’s erstwhile Oi! stronghold, The Bridge House. “I wasn’t really going to watch,” he recalls today. “I was going to go out and get a burger with [Fat Gadget mainman] Frank Tovey. But this band came on, each with a mono-synth on beer crates, and Dave stood stock still with kind of a light box that he’d made shining underneath to make him look kind of gothy. I thought, This song’s really good, but it’s just their first song, I’m sure they play their best sing first. But it just went on and on and on, these incredibly arranged pop songs. They were kids, and kids weren’t doing electronic music at that time. It was people who’d been to art school mainly, but Depeche weren’t processed by that aesthetic at all. They weren’t doing just pop music on synthesizers. And it worked incredibly well.”
By the end of the year, Depeche were a mute band. Within 12 months they’d had the label’s first three hit singles and released an album, Speak & Spell, that defined how commercial pop music could be harmonized with the technological avant-garde. Then just as the future beckoned, their sole songwriter told them he was leaving. Never adequately explained (even Miller, who continued to put out Clarke’s records – first Yazoo, then Erasure – allows that “his deep reasons for leaving Depeche Mode have never been clear”), Clarke’s departure would set the tone for all future Depeche crises: brushed over uncofronted.
“I was the one person Vince didn’t tell,” says Gore. “He went round and knocked on Andy’s door, knocked on Dave’s door. He said he would continue with the tour he’d committed to with us, but basically after that he’d be leaving. But he never had that conversation with me. Andy phoned me.”
“I definitely felt betrayed,” Gahan told me in 2003. “But in retrospect I see why he left. What Vince saw was that being in a band, you kind of have to listen to each other. You all have ideas, but Vince didn’t want that. Martin can have a tendency to be like that too- only his ideas are good. He disregards anyone else. He won’t even say ‘That’s shit’ or ‘I really don’t like that’ He’ll kind of recoil. And this is the guy who writes the songs… You kind of have to guess what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Asked to dredge his memory for a possible source for Clarke’s whimsical flirt, Gore conjures the following: “I remember us having a rehearsal. Vince turned up with three new songs. We were all learning our parts, and then he had to go to the bathroom. The moment he left, we all turned to each other and said, These are shit! We can’t record these! And when he came back we told him. That may have been the turning point.”
Hindsight reveals that there could not have been a better outcome for the remaining members of Depeche Mode. Clarke’s specific überpop aesthetic would prove unwavering and parochial, and although the band’s slight second album – A Broken Frame (1982) – boded ill for the Martin Gore era, the remainder of the decade saw his songwriting develop and territories fall. Along the way, Construction Time Again (1983) and Some Great Reward (1984) embraced embryonic sampling technology to synthesize advances in industrial music and Germanic avant-electropop, Einstürzende Neubauten and Der Plan. Meanwhile, a new recruit, classically trained former Korgi Alan Wilder, brought conventional musicianship into the mix and strengthened Gahan’s hand in disputes with the Fletcher-Gore axis.
Depeche Mode grew darker and harder, driving themselves batty in their commitment to never using a single sound twice. Miller, their producer since their first single, Dreaming Of Me, relinquished the role after the conflict-driven Black Celebration (1986) ended with himself, Wilder and engineer Gareth Jones finishing the album while Gore, Gahan and Fletcher flounced off on holiday. “I was very influenced by Werner Herzog,” Miller explains. “I thought we should try and make a record in the same way he made his films.”
So you were dragging a ship through a jungle? “We were dragging a ship through the jungle and threatening each other with guns, and people were actually dying around us (laughs). It was that kind of thing.”
Four years later, as Violator debuted with a riot at a singing at LA’s Wherehouse music store (there were helicopters, hospitalizations), Depeche Mode were one of the biggest bands in the world. Still their greatest record, with a beautiful stillness at its heart and a defining single in the daringly skeletal, pounding industrial blues of Personal Jesus, to the band it smacked of vindication. What they didn’t know was that the wheels were about to fall off.
“It began during the making of Violator,” recalls David Gahan, “when I was doubting that marriage was for me. You know, the big house in the country with a couple of cars in the drive and a dog running round. Playing happy families, in between this thing… this Depeche Mode thing. I felt fraudulent in that situation. I was scared and the best thing I could think of was to run away.”
He left his wife, Joanne, and young son Jack, and moved to Los Angeles. Fletch blames Theresa Conway – “Dave tends to adopt the personality of the person he’s with” Theresa liked drug-ravaged skinny men with tattoos, so he became that person… – but Gahan is inclined to fish for deeper lying causes. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this shield between me and life. As a teenager it was music. Then it was Depeche – that was my identity. Then that identity stopped working and the drugs and booze really kicked in as a new identity. I became so lost I was really unsure whether I could find my way out.”
By mid-1992, when Depeche Mode convened in a villa in Madrid to record their next album, Gahan was a junkie, Since this was Depeche Mode, no one noticed. “Through the making of Songs Of Faith And Devotion I was oblivious to the fact that he was even doing drugs,” marvels Gore. “All I knew was we weren’t seeing him for days on end. I should have put two and two together, but… we were all out partying. Getting in at eight in the morning and getting up for work at 12 or one, we didn’t know what day of the week it was let alone where Dave was.”
Miller called time on the sessions after visiting the studio to find the engineer asleep with his feet on the desk, Gore and Fletcher leafing through the tabloids, and Gahan and Alan Wilder locked in their rooms, painting and playing the drums respectively. To Miller, it was obvious what was going on.
“Dave’s a brilliant mimic, and he used to do this great impersonation of a junkie rock start – kind of based on Mick Jagger in his druggy days. But this time I realized it was for real. His body language, the way he talked – he was just a different person.”
After a snooping Wilder discovered Gahan’s works and forced a confrontation, Depeche decamped to Hamburg, concluding the “rockier” album that Gahan – sprouting hair and tattoos at a rate of knots – had craved. The subsequent tour would prove the band’s nadir, if not necessarily Gahan’s. “Again, I was oblivious,” says Gore, “thought I’m assured Dave was doing drugs for the whole of the tour. I remember the last gig, in Indianapolis. Dave dived off the stage into the audience, but he didn’t quite make the audience and landed on the barrier and broke his ribs. It was only when he was on the plane home that he stated to feel the pain.”
With the group at their commercial peak, the individuals’ health and relationships were plummeting. Fletcher left the tour with a full-on nervous breakdown before the final leg, what Miller describes as the “football match of excess” with support band Primal Scream. Wilder would quit – “feeling undervalued” says Miller – before the recording of Ultra started. Sessions for the later proved more tortuous still, as Gahan’s lifestyle took its toll on his voice, and vocal sessions in New York came and went with nothing laid down. According to Gahan, Gore rang him in LA and threatened to finish the album on his own; then came the near-fatal speedball OD and a bust for possession of cocaine and needless that did what good intensions could not.
“I said, I give up,” says Gahan. “I’ll do what you say. I went into a treatment centre and I came out and was court mandated to go on this two-year urine-testing thing. I was allowed to leave LA to go to work. The rest of the time I lived in a Sober Living place with a bunch of other guys.”
But getting sober was just the beginning of Gahan’s journey. He settled in New York, married again (to Jennifer) and started a new family, while rebuilding himself as a father to Jack. Against the odds, Ultra (1997) turned out to be excellent, but the supine, fashionably chilled-out Exciter (2001) – the first Depeche record Gahan had made sober since Violator – didn’t excite him (“It’s like a band that’s almost copying Depeche Mode”).
Eager to express himself for once, instead of merely channeling Gore, ho fought with Miller for the cash to make a solo album and caught the writing bug.
Two years later, three songs on the new Depeche Mode record may look like victory for Gahan, but he describes it only as “a start”. For the moment, Depeche Mode have got the balance right, and the great majority of what Gore describes as the “grudges and resentments” are in check. “The last storm-out I remember was in meeting with the video director for the [latest single] Precious, Uwe Fläder,” says Gore. “He was just going through the concept of the video, and what he wanted us to be playing in this futuristic ballroom. And Dave said, ‘Well if it’s a ballroom, Andy, I think you should play a piano,’ and Andy said, ‘Well if it’s a futuristic ballroom maybe it would look better if I play an old synth.’ Suddenly Dave’s shouting, ‘Well I only want what’s best for the band!’ and he’s stormed out.”
Ten minutes later Gahan re-emerged, contrite, acknowledging that perhaps his outburst had nothing to do with the kind of keyboard Fletch wanted to play. Clearly, there are still “issues” here, not least the ones emerging in Gahan’s songs – like Suffer Well and its bracing first line, “Where were you when I fell from grace?” Did Gahan perhaps have his bandmates in mind?
“It was definitely a little dig at them. I didn’t write it like that but when I sang it, I did picture Martin. It was, Why didn’t you understand that I needed you the most then. Where was the fuckin’ answers when I needed them most? When I finally hit a wall, of crawling across the floor of that apartment in Santa Monica, I felt myself dying. I felt my soul had gone and inside I was screaming, Where the fuck are you?!”
Gore, it should be said, had troubles of his own. During Songs Of Faith And Devotion, through Ultra, it was the drink. Long-term, it’s been carrying Depeche Mode single-handedly with his songs: wounded, melancholy things, preoccupied with sin and guilt, glimpses into the Gore heart that have remained consistently raw whether the backdrop has been the gothic bombast of Black Celebration or the minimal, analogue squelch and twitter of Playing The Angel. Typically, he doesn’t like talking about them much.
“I’ve been accused of being closed, emotionally,” he concedes, “and it’s true up to a point. Sometimes I find it difficult, dealing with life in general. Music helps me there. It’s kind of therapy.” But where’s all the sin and guilt coming from? “There are obviously things I feel guilty about in my life,” he murmurs. “I’m in the middle of a divorce at the moment. I’ve got three children. I feel like I’ve failed in my marriage. I feel guilty about that because of the children. Maybe the marriage was partly a charade for a while anyway. Maybe I felt guilty about that for… I don’t know how many years.”
Gore looks startled. That’s a little more that he meant to reveal. Then he flashes those teeth, as if relieved to discover that the world hasn’t ended. It’s a small chink in his armour; but don’t expect Camp Depeche Mode to become a touchy-feely emotional throwdown overnight.
“We’re a very non-talkative band,” Gore concludes. “I think, deep down, we all want the same thing, but it only takes one person to say something slightly off the beaten track for someone to take it wrongly and for it all to go off. But why not look at it another way? We’ve been together 25 years, so we must be doing something right.”
He pauses, pondering. “Perhaps we’re just a really good band…”