Still Fresh After All These Years

November, 17, 2005 / 0 comments

By Steve Hochman ~

Martin Gore, the musical architect and primary songwriter of pioneering English electro-pop group Depeche Mode, recounts a surprise that happened to band mate Andy Fletcher last year.

“Andy has been deejaying in clubs a lot, as have I, and he was playing upstairs at a club in Europe somewhere with about 400 people,” Gore says. “And after, he went downstairs – and there was a Depeche Mode convention going on with 5,000 people!”

The surprise was not that there was a convention attracting that many people, just that there was one in the same building with Fletcher and he didn’t know about it. Depeche Mode’s popularity is as strong as ever, especially in Europe, where such gatherings happen on pretty much a monthly basis in one city or another. And in the U.S. the group still has a large, devoted following as well, manifest in a current arena tour, which includes three sold-out Southland shows next week.

That may be surprising to those who think of Depeche Mode as an ’80s relic, a band whose navigations of the existential void spoke to a specific generation going through personal turmoil particular to the Reagan-Thatcher era. In Southern California, the group held particular sway in those years as a core act on influential KROQ-FM (106.7).

Gore is gratified to see fans now ranging into their 50s still embracing the music – as well as a new generation of teens that has discovered the band.

“Obviously there are a lot of memories for people around our age who got into the music when they were youngsters,” says Gore, 44. “Some of the people seem to be even older than me, and that’s getting on now.”

But it’s not all nostalgia. In the shows, Depeche Mode is proudly spotlighting more than half the songs from its new ‘Playing The Angel’ album, a collection that ranks with its ’80s best.

There, perhaps, is the biggest surprise. A quarter of a century into its existence, a point when most pop artists seem to have settled into comfortable mediocrity, Depeche Mode has made an album that stands with the group’s best, expanding its emotional and sonic range well beyond the expected dark musings while remaining true to the aesthetics that made it an iconic presence in the first place.

A four-star review in England’s Mojo magazine lauds the “brilliant journeys into a world of the fragile and the dysfunctional,” while All Music Guide raves, “It is not the kind of album a 25-year-old band is supposed to make.”

Don’t expect Gore to take any credit, though. Don’t even expect him to take a compliment.

Ask him how he managed to keep his creativity at a high level, and he talks about the strong relationship with the band’s label – Depeche Mode has been the flagship act for English independent company Mute Records throughout each other’s existence. (Warner Bros. Records distributes the band in the U.S.).

“We’ve been able to move at our own pace,” he says.

Press the issue, and he talks about others’ contributions, particularly those of producer Ben Hillier, who worked with the band for the first time after having squired Blur and Doves albums, among others.

Ask him again, and he turns the spotlight on singer Dave Gahan, who after gaining songwriting experience with a 2003 solo album made more contributions to this album than he has to any of the group’s previous 10.

“Dave wrote three of the songs,” Gore says. “I think he feels a far more fulfilled member of the band now, which helps the atmosphere. ”Only reluctantly does Gore acknowledge his own role.

“The songs come into it,” he finally relents, with a deflecting laugh. “I don’t mean that in a braggy sense. But you need to write good songs. I think my songs have been universal in a way. People seem to be able to write them into their own lives. That’s part of the attraction.”

There are a few specifics that played into the focus of the new album. “I’ve been in the middle of a divorce, which obviously has affected the album in some ways,” says Gore, who has lived in Santa Barbara for the last five years. “There are songs, like the single, ‘Precious’, that are references to that.”

But he cautions fans against reading too much into lyrics. Much has been made over the last decade about supposed tension within the band, especially between Gore and Gahan, whose troubles with a near-fatal drug overdose, subsequent legal consequences and successful recovery treatment were well chronicled.

“Obviously there have been struggles,” he says. “But there’s never been a time where it got so bad we wanted to call it a day.”

But a key factor, he says, is the relationship with the audience.

“We’ve never had to deal with failure, really,” he says. “The moment your record sales start to decline and you start playing to arenas half full, everyone gets disheartened and it leads to the inevitable breakup. We’ve been lucky.”

Will he take at least some credit for that?

Pressed one last time, he simply says, “It’s a team effort.”

Source: Los Angeles Times