Soulsavers & Dave Gahan: ‘We Were On The Same Page Very Quickly’
Huw Oliver chats to Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan and Soulsavers’ Rich Machin.
Currently holed up in an LA studio recording Depeche Mode’s thirteenth album, Dave Gahan is evidently eager to continue the legendary synth-pop band’s tireless three-decade career. Earlier this year, however, he dropped a poignant collaboration album with Soulsavers – in lieu of previous guest vocalists, which in the past included the likes of Mark Lanegan, Richard Hawley and Jason Pierce. Following a recording process which was apparently effortless, almost therapeutic, DIY had a chat with a garrulous Dave, alongside Rich from Soulsavers, about their partnership, Depeche Mode’s new LP and their joint plans for the future.
First of all – very simply – Soulsavers supported Depeche Mode way back in 2009. Was that the first time you met each other?
Rich: No, we’d met Dave once before that – a couple of years before.
So, what provided the impetus for a potential collaboration?
Dave: Erm, it’s like I looked into a crystal ball. I just had a feeling something was going to happen. I had no idea before the tour, to be honest, who exactly Soulsavers were, in terms of the members of the band. Was it a band? Or was it one guy? [laughs] I was a fan of the records, especially ‘It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land’, which I discovered through listening to (Mark) Lanegan. I’d been into Lanegan and his records for years. So, someone suggested I should check out Soulsavers. Mark did a collaboration with them, and I fell in love with that record. It became my record of the year, that particular year. I often do that – I have a record which I hang on to, I start playing and then it becomes like my bible for the rest of the year. Then a friend of mine, who has worked with me on solo stuff and who I’ve known for years – Martyn LeNoble – he was doing some session work with them in a studio in LA, and I just happened to call him up for a chat on that day, and it happened that he was in the studio with them. Rich was in the background and yelled out “you should take us on tour!” I said to Martyn “Is he serious? Does he really want to go on the road with Depeche Mode”, because, you know, it’d be a little bit difficult opening for Depeche Mode. You never know which way it’s going to go: whether you’re going to get rocks thrown at you, or something else, I don’t know. It’s a difficult opener, but he was totally into it, and so I talked to Martyn about it, and he liked the record too. So, we took them on tour.
On that tour, it was just one of those things where we were backstage before a show, in the hallway, chatting. Rich said “maybe we could do some writing together”. We talked about writing – I think it was myself, Mark and Rich – that kind of process of writing. We had that conversation, and it turned out that we all had similar experience in the way that we liked to work. So, Rich said “I’ll send you a few guitar lines, some organ lines, chords or something” and I said “yeah, you know, whatever”. Often, with those kinds of conversations with friends from bands, nothing ever really comes of it, but a couple of months after the tour, Rich sent me some things. I had no intention of doing anything, really, after that tour – The Sounds of the Universe Tour. I had medical issues and stuff like that. I was taking care of myself, and I talked to my wife about it. I really wanted to take care of myself and spend time with the family, but Rich started sending me these lines, and I started writing too. It felt very natural, and I started sending things back to him. I would complete an idea, work out some melodies… the words sort of played off what Rich was giving me, and I’d go into the studio with a friend of mine, and we’d lay down some vocals and send them off to Rich. Basically, Rich would then start to build the instrumentation around what I was doing. He’d send something back and I’d be, like, “Oh, wow”. We’d build these kinds of settings for whatever it was I was doing, using various musicians.
It starts out as something that Rich and Ian do on their own at first, and then he has this vision of how he wants to use the key musicians to build the song. I think he’s just getting better and better at that – the more records he makes, and the more experience he has. He’s really finding his way like that. I mean, they started out very electronic, in the way they made music. Now, it’s pretty much all very much about trying to get the right take, which is very different to the way I make music with my band of course [laughs]. It was just one of those things – it wasn’t forced at all. There was no pre-conceived idea, and I think that’s what made what we did together feel very special, and feel very direct and honest. There wasn’t anyone breathing down our necks and telling us “oh well, where’s the single?” – the usual kind of stuff you get from record companies. That wasn’t something that either of us were interested in doing anyway.
R:Yeah, we were doing that tour; we became friends and started talking about stuff. We realised that we were both coming from a very similar place. So, towards the end of it, you know, we just started throwing the idea out. It came about like that, really. That can happen pretty often, and you very rarely follow up on it.
Did you immediately find you had similar writing styles?
R: Yeah, we did. We clicked from the off, really. It was pretty effortless. At no point did either of us have to be like “I’m not so sure about that”, or anything else. The whole process was very prompt and there was nothing that he did where I’d say “No, I would’ve done it like this”, or anything like that. And he certainly never came to me asking me to change stuff around. We were both on the same page very quickly.
Dave, you remarked that it was completely different working within Soulsavers, as opposed to your three decades with Depeche Mode. What particularly grabbed you about working in this novel environment?
D: Well, I find that over the last ten years, as I’ve been making music with various different musicians, it’s really making me enjoy what I do with Depeche a lot more, to be honest. I come back with a fresh approach. Martin (Gore) had that same approach doing something with Vince Clarke, in between making Depeche Mode records. He seems invigorated and very keen to try new things. That’s what it does for me, as well, but the experience is totally different because I mean… I’m in the studio in California right now. I’m in the studio with my band; we’re in our third session of making a record.
It’s all different kinds of things – on the scale of making a Depeche Mode record – we’ve had months and months and months to do that. Once again, we’re not tied to a record company, but Mute has been a record company for years. We’re not signed to any label, so there’s nobody breathing down our neck. So, there’s a sort of similarity. There, we make the records ourselves, we finance it, and then we decide what we going to do with it after that. There’s a bigger team: Ben Hillier’s producing; we’ve got Chris Berg from Fever Ray, who’s working on the record with us as well – we took him on as a programmer but he’s much more than that, really; of course, Martin and myself; it goes on. It’s a big team. It’s much more of a big team effort, but that’s not to say that that’s not what Soulsavers is as well, it’s just Rich never came back to me to say “Dave, I’m not really sure about this one. I don’t know what you’re doing here”; I basically gave him back exactly what I did, and he built the music around my melody and words.
We didn’t have conversations about that, there wasn’t any deep analysis going on all the time. We had to just get on with it – we didn’t have that luxury of just being able to go in the studio and spend a year making a record. It’s a very different thing, and it doesn’t really compare in a lot of ways. But I’m certainly extremely proud of the Soulsavers record; personally, I feel like it’s the best contribution that I have done – my part of it, the writing and stuff. And I’m definitely growing as a writer; to me, I feel so good about that. It definitely goes into what I do with the band now, as well.
You know, Martin and I, we collaborated on a song recently. He did what Rich does actually – he gave me a piece of music and said “have you got any ideas? I don’t really know what to do with it from this point…” And I took it away, and hopefully it will end up as something on the record. Depeche is different: we’ve got about twenty songs on the go at the moment, and we’ll keep going to a certain point. We’ll look at them and decide which ones will end up on the record. Flood’s going to be mixing the album as well. There’s a plan with it. With Soulsavers, there was no real plan.
Rich, you chose to call the record ‘The Light The Dead See’. Why is that?
R: Why is it called that? Well, it had to be called something. Towards the end, to be honest, we just read the Frank Stanford work of the same name. I think I just kind of pulled it straight from that. I remember texting Dave on the train: “Hey, we’ve gotta call it something, how about this?”, and he said it was perfect; it felt like exactly the right thing.
Given your geographical separation, I’d imagine it was quite tricky to mesh your music and his lyrics together.
R: It was really quite simple. There was no effort to do that at all; it just came really naturally. The stuff he does just fits perfectly with what I do, so it didn’t really require a lot of work to put it all together. It’s very, very rare that you find someone who you work with, but it was effortless as a process. It made the job of doing that very simple for me.
There are a few more epic, orchestral arrangements on this album. Do you think this change went hand in hand with Dave’s arrival as the new vocalist?
R: Not really. I don’t think the album’s a million miles away from the last couple we’ve done. I’d say it’s a bit more orchestral than previous ones because every time we’ve made a record, I’ve become more able to do that stuff. You know, I’m not classically trained and I can’t read or write music. I’d always used programmed strings up till Broken, the last record. Then I got introduced to the string arranger Daniele Luppi, who I worked with on that. At the same time, he really taught me a lot about what you can achieve, and how to do it. I’d go to him with the parts, and then referencing these to other people’s music: “I’d like this to sound like that”, that kind of thing. He’d often laugh at me and say “that was a 50 piece orchestra”. He really took the time to help me understand all that stuff, and maybe there’s a bit more of that stuff on this record because my learning curve has much approved. I’m now able to do that stuff much better than I did before. But, to be honest, I just think what Dave does naturally fits what we do. Again, it wasn’t one of those times where we had to change our way of going about things. We didn’t do anything like that. One of the reasons I think we enjoyed it so much was that it wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t hard work. It was really fun and easy to do.
On the topic of sounding ‘natural’, in the past you’ve said that you were conscious to include mistakes to create a somewhat rawer sound. What was behind that thinking?
R: Well, that’s how all my favourite records used to be done. You listen to old Ray Charles recordings and stuff like that: they make these whole records in like a day. They get a great band together and play. I think it makes it sound more real, you know. You leave little mistakes in there, because mistakes happen; the band is playing live. Sometimes you make mistakes, and sometimes you don’t. It gives it a very natural feeling, whereas if you sit there with it all up on a grid on ProTools, doing it one bar at a time, it becomes very digital, cold and lifeless. It just doesn’t feel the same way all the old records used to feel. It’s just a case of not being afraid to leave those little flaws in there.
So, do you think there’s too much focus on perfection in contemporary pop?
R: Oh, definitely. And even people who I know, who consciously wouldn’t do that, over time and with the facilities in the studio now, eventually they’ll say “Oh, I’ll just fix that… and then I’ll fix that.” After years of it now, it’s just become a natural thing: everything having to be perfect. Because you can do it, it has to be done. I think – like everything – if you over-work it, then you’re taking away from it, not adding to it.
D: In this day and age, with technology, you can really faff around with it for a long time. You can try to perfect something that you think you can make better. With certain types of music, that does work. I would say that – with Depeche Mode for instance – it’s more about experimentation all the time, and the more we kind of play around with things and ideas. It’s a really different thing. It’s not like there’s a bunch of musicians jamming together. That’s not the way Depeche Mode makes a record. But it was very important for Rich and I – the one thing we actually did talk about, when I first threw back a couple of ideas to Rich on the phone, and he was really pleased with what I sent back, was “listen, if we continue to do this, to write, it’s important to me that we do is completely different to what I do in my band.” That way, I’m going to be doing the best performance that I possibly can, and I don’t really want you to mess around with it.[laughs]. You know, unless you really hate it, then you need to tell me. Otherwise, I don’t want a load of ProTools in… editing… It is what it is, and if there are parts of that which sound a bit clumsy, or there’s a line or word which is a little bit off, tuning wise, but the performance is good, let’s just leave it like that. For me, I have a yearning to hear records like that. For example, I really like the Jack White record that came out – I mean, I like his records anyway, and I think there’s something very special about what he does. He’s a very talented guy, and he’s very retro-sounding, but he does it so well. It feels to me like he’s making records where he’s like “this is record I’m making right now”, and of course there’ll be another record but “I’m making this record right now. These are the songs I’ve got and I’m going to put them out”. It takes a lot of guts, and I like that.
On the other hand, I really like the new Spiritualized record at the moment, which is lush. It’s got a lot going on, but I feel like that also has a quality of feeling very fresh. I’m sure it wasn’t a band all playing together at any one time, but it feels like that. I guess it’s becoming more important to me, as I get older, as I have more confidence in what I do in the studio and in my part of what I bring to whatever I’m working on, to feel confident in what I’m handing over.
So yeah, with the records that I listen to, I listen to the voices. Whether it’s Johnny Cash or Billie Holliday, I have to believe the voice. I’m listening if they’re singing to me, you know. It’s got to feel like they’re singing to me; that’s what’s important to me. Music is still one of the places for me where I feel like I can identify and belong to it. Technology has taken us into amazing places, and you can call me old-fashioned in the way I’m still looking for something which emotionally touches me, whether it’s film or music. Those are two media which still move me.
I’d say that the Soulsavers record is an album which you could say “belongs to you”. It’s quite an emotional sounding album; what kind of emotions do you think you tried to include?
D: Yeah, thanks for saying that. That’s really what I was trying to achieve. I know sometimes people might find that… basically, you’ve got to be careful because there’s a fine-line between ‘cringey’, ‘preachy’, and what I was trying to achieve. What I was trying to achieve was a pureness and honesty. That was the word that came into my head. That’s the one I was going to sing, and to try to make it work in a phase. That stuff came quite naturally. In the past, I might have said “Uhh, I’ve got to make this line work with this line.” You know, it has to make sense. I was trying to avoid making it too complicated, and I wanted it just to have a sort of honest emotion. But I knew that, if I was feeling it, that other people when they listened to it would feel it as well. And I’ll be honest now, it’s not a record for everybody. For me, it’s funny – I find the record very emotionally uplifting. Although, lyrically, it’s quite heavy in places, I tried to make it feel, melodically at least, uplifting. To be honest, the music that I find most uplifting, someone else might find rather morose [laughs]. And I find this record very inspirational. Quite honestly, it’s probably one of the records I’ve been involved in that I’ve played more than any other, after it’s been completed. And I find new things in it all the time. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the last couple of weeks, because we’re doing a studio performance in the Studio 1, Capitol Studio next week. It’s being filmed and stuff; I’m really excited about that. But I don’t listen to the songs it and think “ah, that could have been better”, or “I could have done this like that”. I’ve sort of left it alone, which is quite unusual.
Were there any recordings that you didn’t use on the album?
R: There was one track that we just didn’t have time to finish. We were at that point of delivering the album to the record company, all kind of finished, and that song maybe wasn’t quite as good as it could be. It would have done more harm than good to put it on there. I think we got the perfect record the way it was.
Do you think there’s any chance of a Soulsavers and Dave Gahan tour?
R: I’d like to think so. I really enjoyed working with Dave. We’ve already started kicking some ideas around for a new record. It’s a very nice thing that we do, so I think doing a new record and doing a proper tour would make sense. I’m definitely coming more around to that idea than I maybe was earlier on. He’s a great guy and I love spending time with him as well. We had a good laugh, which is the most important thing when you go and do that.
Finally – Dave – sonically, do you think your work with Soulsavers or Martin’s work as VCMG will have, or is currently having, an influence on the new Depeche material?
D: I do. Each record that you make definitely has an influence on the next, so the simple answer to that question is yes, I think it does. I believe that this record we’re making now is the 13th studio album. That’s a lot of records. We’ve all got a really good feeling about it – everyone who’s heard tracks that we’ve recorded so far has come back with, you know, “this is going to be a good record”. It’s got a good feeling about it, and as long as we don’t fuck around with it too much, which is what we’re doing right now – that’s the indulgence of having too much time – I think it will have a quality to it, a rawness to it and something that we missed out on the last album, which was very lushly produced and detailed. I hope this album is going to be less detailed and hit a bit more of a raw nerve, in terms of the production. It feels like that, but it’s still early days. But I do think the new songs are of a higher quality, somehow. They’re different, there’s something about them. Martin is writing from a different place and the songs that I’ve written are too. It just feels like we’re coming together. There’s something good happening.
Soulsavers new album ‘The Light The Dead See’ is available now via Cooperative Music/V2 Records.