Depeche Mode dances with longevity
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer
Very few bands have endured thirty years, let alone remained relevant throughout the majority of its tenure together, but Depeche Mode is unquestionably one of the anomalies to land in that elite category. Sure, the electronic innovators landed under a handful of dark clouds since debuting in the early 1980s (including a few dips in chart action and even a brush with death for front man Dave Gahan in the late 1990s), but the band’s bounced back from all the blunders and just turned in Sounds of the Universe (Mute/Capitol/Virgin), which could quite possibly be the perfect equilibrium between the band’s retro dance roots and current club compositions.
“I’m not sure it it’s the next Violator [like many critics have suggested], but perhaps Black Celebration,” suggests keyboardist Andy “Fletch” Fletcher phoning in from Spain on a day off from the subsequent Tour of the Universe (which headlines Lollapalooza in Grant Park on Friday, August 7). “But yeah, it’s a bit of a throwback and on this album we’re using a lot less guitars, so in some ways, it’s a bit more like our electronic albums…I’d call the tone retro futuristic.”
Perhaps that last line is the ideal description of the disc, which successfully straddles the fine line between recalling yesterday and still being tastemakers of today. Much of the motivation stemmed from the jovial mood amongst Fletcher, front man Dave Gahan and guitarist/keyboardist Martin Gore following 2005’s comeback album of sorts Playing the Angel, which spawned the smash single “Precious” and led to the cross continental Touring the Angel trek.
“The mood in the group after last tour was very good, though the mood in Depeche Mode is generally very good, so it was sort of a natural thing really,” continues Fletcher. “We took some time off, and during that time, Martin was writing very prolifically and Dave was writing as well, so we got to a stage where there were quite a number of songs and we thought we should go in the studio.”
Those closely following the writing credits in Depeche Mode’s camp will notice Sounds of the Universe finds Gore slowly letting go of the songwriting reigns to make way for some of Gahan’s ideas, who’s clearly grown as a tunesmith since his lukewarm 2003 solo CD Paper Monsters and even the last Depeche disc. Though the shift in power could’ve caused friction considering Gore’s primarily writing formula was set in stone since Vince Clarke left for Yaz (and later Erasure) in 1981, Fletcher feels it provided lively competition for both camps.
“I think it’s a healthy thing to do your own thing every now and then as you can learn from it, but we haven’t gone crazy with solo records like some bands,” he reasons. “Even now and then we’ll do it, but now I think Dave’s writing gives Martin a kick up the ass. He’s got to compete with Dave and Dave is a younger songwriter in comparison to Martin, but his songs are getting better than better, so again, it’s all part of the healthy atmosphere within Depeche Mode. It’s made things a lot better and I think Dave felt a bit secluded before. He’s a front man who [for a long time] didn’t write lyrics, which is pretty rare. I can think of Roger Daltrey [from The Who] and a couple other people that happens with, but now that he’s [contributing some lyrics] I think he feels a lot more included.”
Though there’s honestly no negative tension within Depeche Mode these days, it’s impossible to look at group’s history and not recall Gahan’s personal problems that nearly ended the band and almost took his life. Though all was smooth sailing after finding worldwide acclaim with 1990’s Violator (responsible for “Personal Jesus,” “Policy of Truth,” “World In My Eyes,” “Enjoy the Silence”) and 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion (“I Feel You,” “Walking In My Shoes,” “Condemnation”), the celebrity attention and cycle of global touring soon took its toll on the famed leader. Come the sessions for 1997’s Ultra, Gahan was a frequent no show in the studio, and when he did attend, proved to be so inebriated that his productivity was extremely limited.
“There was only one time and that’s when Dave was in a really bad way,” Fletcher admits of the sole suggestion of calling it quits. “He went to New York for six weeks to do vocals and we ended up with hardly any vocals done. We were all wondering if we’re going to actually complete the album and if the band would be over, but that wasn’t to be. Dave had his near fatal overdose, went into rehab, came out of rehab, did all the vocals and he hasn’t looked back.”
Since then, the fellas have engaged in a much healthier lifestyle than the party-infused rocket ride to fame, which is certainly smart considering the previously addictive personality of its charismatic leader. “We work out and we don’t indulge ourselves as much anymore,” promises the keyboard player. “We just sort of put our heads down and try to put everything into the performance. Dave doesn’t drink of course and Martin now doesn’t drink and hasn’t for a few years. It’s quite a sober tour and we just knuckle down really. The consistency of concerts at the moment really is at all time high, so it’s good.”
However, fans following the group’s tour schedule earlier this summer would have reason to question Depeche Mode’s reliability once again, though this time for a freak health scare from its singer completely unrelated to overindulgence. Just as Tour of the Universe began in May throughout Europe, Gahan faced a severe spell of gastroenteritis, resulting in having a malignant tumor removed from his bladder.
“When we came back to do first show, he sort of said to me he’d probably only be able to give it 75%, but then the first show he was giving 125%, so he’s really been performing absolutely amazingly,” follows Fletcher. “He realizes how lucky he was and that they found this through an accident really, so they were able to treat it very early on. It’s an amazing prognosis for pancreatic cancer if you get it early enough and I think he’s lucky.”
Now that the tour is officially up and running again, the trio can ponder more pertinent matters like shaping the set list, which is an increasingly difficult task given the group’s beginnings dating back to 1980 and global sales of over 100 million albums. Though initial internet reports are chocked full of hits (including goth staples like “Master and Servant” and “Never Let Me Down Again”), this isn’t a nostalgia trip by any means, with prominent attention being placed on the new project. The group’s latest ominous outpouring “Wrong” is obviously in order, along with the electric/electronic blend of “Hole To Feed” and the pulsating power ballad “Peace.”
“Though I told you the album itself was very easy for us to make, the actual set list is always really hard,” confesses Fletcher. “With so many songs to choose from and so many classics and so many people’s favorites, it becomes very difficult. Plus we’ve got different generations of fans now, from fans who have just gotten into us because of recent albums, to those in the middle, to those who’ve been with us since the beginning. Obviously it will be more interesting for us to bring out some of the old songs, but in theory, we should play for four hours, which we sure are unable to do. I could do that being a keyboard player, but I’m sure Dave running around and belting out couldn’t do that.”
Nonetheless, the band can promise an unabbreviated, two hour set at Lollapalooza, complete with all the towering production and spectacle that’s since become the threesome’s forte. In fact, that’s an especially remarkable feat for a band that started out in intimate clubs and theatres, making Depeche Mode quite possibly the only dance-derived act to ever truly transition to the massive performance level.
“We’ve been in Europe playing big stadiums every night and playing in Chicago won’t be too difficult for us,” he jests. “Over the years we’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago- some very lively nights- but as I say we’re a bit different now. It will be nice to get out and have a walk around the lake, plus we’ve got lots of friends there and it’s always great to hook up. We’re looking forward to playing [Lollapalooza] and seeing the bill makes us very excited. It’s a toss up between [playing our own show] and a festival because the opportunity at a festival means you’re getting across to more people.”
Considering countless acts on the bill have been influenced by the band (from co-headliners The Killers and even Jane’s Addiction to a certain extent), not to mention just about every other alternative dance act today, Depeche Mode could very well be considered the scene’s elder statesmen. It’s somewhat of an ironic position to be in after getting flack in the early days for spearheading the electronic boom, which stood in stark contrast to the guitar-charged landscape of the time.
“There are lots of reasons why we might influence people, but we feel vindicated to a certain extent because when we were an electronic band in the mid-1980s amidst a rock atmosphere, a lot of journalists [gave us a hard time] and it was a bit of a battle. Obviously to be here now and still be really popular after almost thirty years does make us feel vindicated because the way we made music and electronic music in general is now accepted.”
Though veterans rode the electronic tidal wave to the top, the scene inevitably fizzled out by the latter half of the ‘90s, leading to somewhat faltering footing with the aforementioned Ultra and 2001’s overlooked Exciter. But as the second half of this decade rolled around, so did a full-fledged genre resurgence that once again finds Depeche Mode in the driver’s seat.
“I think that’s the same with all musical trends isn’t it?,” poses a rhetorical Fletcher. “The media’s got a lot to do with it as well, following the latest trends and then next day’s trends and then next latest trend after that. These things come in and come back and we’re very pleased at moment so many bands cite us as influence, but I don’t think those that cite us really sound like us too much or directly copy us. We try and keep out of trends ourselves and just make music in the way we know and can.”
If there’s an apt descriptor for Depeche Mode’s catalogue thus far, it can generally be deemed timeless, especially now that every album prior to 2005 has been remastered in deluxe editions bundled with a bonus DVD of footage mirroring each era. The entire catalogue facelift marked the group’s last major endeavor with longtime Stateside record label Sire (part of the Warner Brothers family), which was a pleasing process to the players, despite the breakdown of the longtime partnership.
“The quality of the sound and the whole package is really excellent and I think sometimes now with [the internet] and things like that, the whole quality of music is not really thought of so much anymore because people are used to listening to things that are very poor quality,” follows Fletcher. “In the States, we’ve always been on Sire, but we’re still on Mute as well and we’ve been on EMI in the rest of the world including now. It’s obviously sad because we had such a long history with Warner, but now we feel like everything is unified.”
Joining the American EMI umbrella did extend Depeche Mode’s forward-thinking marketing collaborations into a whole new stratosphere via the first ever iTunes Pass program for fans. Those that pre-ordered the project via the leading download site scored a complete MP3 edition of the album fleshed out with two exclusive tracks, plus various video and remix content delivered to their libraries leading up to the street date earlier this summer.
“The idea came from our team and iTunes really to try to get fans more involved in the whole purchase over a longer period of time rather than just clicking that one button,” Fletcher asserts. “It gave them a chance to look out for things and have things sent to them, which made things a bit more interesting. [Since we started, the industry] has really changed a lot. It seems like these days whenever we release a record so much more has changed and things are moving really fast, so it’s hard sometimes to keep up. But on the other hand, it gives you the opportunity to market your records in different ways.”
Keeping up with changing technology doesn’t make the guys feel old, but the wear and tear is becoming increasingly (though not unbearably) taxing. “On tour at the moment, you feel old because everything’s slightly harder,” he lets out with a laugh. “But no, [we don’t feel old] overall because I feel we were lucky having our first single out as teenagers, which has given us a [three decade career] even though I’m 48. That’s not young, but it’s not a bad age and we feel good as a band. We feel we’re performing really well and still making good records.”
Of course, a conversation with a co-founding member in the wake of reflection can’t be complete without asking about his favorite Depeche Mode albums and songs of all time, which is a discussion die-hards have debated since day one. While a concentrated niche still gravitates towards the early underground era, the majority of listeners fawn mostly over the mainstream years, though Fletcher finds himself somewhere in the middle.
“I think Violator is obviously one that’s hard to beat, but I’m also very attached to Black Celebration as well,” he unveils. “‘World In My Eyes’ off Violator is probably my favorite song because I think it tells the story of Depeche Mode. We’ve got this huge popularity all over world and it’s a great sort of electronic/dance tune with fantastic lyrics.”
Like many electronic acts, Depeche Mode’s always been a very visual band as well, with several DVD compilations dedicated solely to its music video clips. That’s an area where Fletcher feels the most vulnerable, especially considering the group rose to fame during MTV’s genesis when the lines between compelling and kitsch were a lot more blurred than today’s blatant differentiations. Though the quality certainly improved as time went on (thanks in part to Anton Corbijn, also a frequent U2 collaborator), the band most appreciated the brand new clip behind “Wrong,” if only because of its minimal involvement.
“We’ve always hated making videos because we’re musicians and not actors, but that one was wonderful and only took about an hour,” he echoes of the mostly narrative scene played by proper actors. “We were actually about when videos first started, so lots of directors experimented on us and sometimes that meant the result wasn’t good. ‘Leave in Silence’ was embarrassing and so was ‘See You,’ along with a lot of the really early videos. But no one really knew what to do then because that’s when videos just started as a format and no one really knew what was cool and what wasn’t cool.”
Fitting into today’s hipster contingent and setting the latest fashion trends doesn’t seem to be a priority for Depeche Mode circa 2009, despite its ongoing popularity and continued audience expansion comprised of people half its age. At the end of the day, Fletcher feels confident in the group’s wealth of musical contributions, which despite an occasional misstep or overindulgence, has allowed the veterans to survive, if not wholeheartedly thrive, practically unscathed.
But rather than being remembered for a complete body of work or specific hit song, he hopes Depeche Mode will go down in the history books for a far greater accomplishment. “I think establishing electronic music in the mainstream is probably our biggest legacy,” he sums up. “And as long as we remain relevant in some way, we’re quite happy to keep going.”
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