The Noisey Guide to Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode

The Noisey Guide to Depeche Mode

We talked to the synth-pop originators about their storied history and their politically charged new LP 'Spirit.'
March 17, 2017, 5:44pm

Even if you've never listened to Depeche Mode, you probably still know that the Essex band are the pioneers of electronic pop music. And even if you don't own a single one of their albums (or singles), you'll have heard—and maybe even sung or danced along to—one of their songs. Maybe it was the spritely, up-tempo, feel-good, slightly camp synth-pop of "Just Can't Get Enough," or the sinister retro-futuristic chug of "Personal Jesus." Perhaps you know Johnny Cash's stripped down cover of that song, or Marilyn Manson's grotesque and revved-up version. You've probably even found yourself, as I once did, mouthing along the words to "Enjoy the Silence" without even realizing. You may have sung along to "It's No Good" without paying attention to just how damn dark and creepy the lyrics are. You'd probably recognize vocalist Dave Gahan's moody tones even if you didn't know his name. That's all because they're one of those bands who transcend their genre—largely because they created the whole damn thing—and the era they formed in. Since forming in 1980 when they were still teenagers, their dark synths and moody electro-pop/rock have not just pushed boundaries but helped them sell over 100 million records. In those 37 years, the band, now a trio completed by Andy 'Fletch' Fletcher and lead songwriter Martin Gore, have continued to evolve, despite the ineluctable pressures of fame and fortune, and an occasionally turbulent history. New album Spirit, which was produced by Simian Mobile Disco's James Ford, is their 14th studio album and it's another bold step forward for the band, so it made sense to talk to Gore and Fletcher in order to really get to know them—now and then.

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SPIRIT IS THE MOST POLITICAL ALBUM OF THE BAND'S CAREER

Let's start in the present. The first single from Spirit is called "Where's The Revolution?" It's a typically ominous song that's more of a challenge to overturn the established order than a rhetorical question. While the majority of the record's songs were written before Trump assumed office, it's a record that takes a stand against what's happening in the USA—where both Gore and Gahan have lived, in New York and Santa Barbara respectively, for years—as well as England, where Fletch resides, and the rest of the world. It is, frankly, an incredibly important album, and one that a band of Depeche Mode's stature needed to make. "Interestingly enough," says Fletch, "the songs were written a couple of years ago, so it's not as if Trump was elected and we scribbled something down."

"I think that the world has been in a mess for a while now," adds Gore, "but the timing couldn't have been better in some ways because everything that he's doing is so dreadful. But there's been so much that's happening in the last few years. I think it would have been relevant whoever won the election or if it had been released six months ago. The Syria thing has been going on and the whole Middle East has pretty much collapsed. I kind of blame Bush for taking out Saddam Hussein for that—I know Saddam was evil, but creating a vacuum in Iraq was not a good idea. The whole region now is a complete mess, which has caused the refugee crisis. And over here, what's happened since the civil rights movement? Not much, really. It's getting worse.

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"During the writing process is when black people were getting killed on a weekly basis. At one point, it seemed like every week there was someone new getting shot and videos of them with their hands held high. And it's the massive divide between the rich and the poor over here—and everywhere, but over here at the moment especially—it's at the root of a lot of the problems."

Nevertheless, Gore insists the band aren't prepping themselves to be voice of the resistance. "For me I think the album was really trying to point out to people that we've lost our way and we need to somehow find it again," he explains. "We're not politicians, but we're getting people to think. This has definitely come at the right time to prod people a little bit. That's always the big question: can music achieve very much? I don't know if we'll ever answer that question other than I think it can make people think. I wouldn't expect all our fans to start having all of the same views as us. But we do have some crazy fans and if we can motivate them to think…."

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING THAT THEY'RE OBVIOUSLY NOT THE OFFICIAL BAND OF THE ALT RIGHT

A few weeks before the release of Spirit, white supremacist/alt-right fuckwit Richard Spencer joked that Depeche Mode were the "official band of the alt-right." Gahan's response was incredibly (but justifiably) impolite, calling Spencer "a cunt" in an interview with Billboard. Gore is equally perplexed by Spencer's claim, but slightly more courteous with his insults.
"He's obviously crazy," says Gore. "I think it's as simple as that. He claims he's a big Depeche Mode fan, which is fine—if he wants to be a Depeche Mode fan that's up to him—but I pointed out in another interview recently that when I was 31, I found out my biological father was black. So if he reads that, will he still be a fan? It's an interesting question."

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THINGS COULD HAVE BEEN VERY DIFFERENT

Depeche Mode's music is renowned for its gloomy darkness, but it wasn't necessarily always going to be that way. The band were originally a four-piece and Vince Clarke was their main songwriter. He left the band in November 1981, a month or so after the release of debut album Speak & Spell, and formed Erasure a few years later, whose music was much lighter and poppy in tone than Depeche Mode even at that stage of their career. Instead of finding a replacement, Gore took up the songwriting mantle for 1982's follow-up, A Broken Frame.

"Our main songwriter had left the band," remembers Fletch. "To most bands that would have been a big blow, but we didn't consider it a big blow. It just meant Martin had to do the writing! It was interesting because there were some tracks on there that were a clue as to what was coming, while half the album was still trying to keep the pop element that was garnered during Speak & Spell. So it was a real interim album. Some songs Martin had written when he was 15 or something, but it was the other type of song that was the real clue as to what Depeche Mode would become."

Adds Gore: "Vince left the band before he told us he was leaving. We just went into the studio and carried on. We didn't even think about it."

CONSTRUCTION TIME AGAIN IS THE BAND'S FIRST REAL ALBUM

Released in August 1983, both Gore and, to a slightly lesser extent, Fletch, consider third record Construction Time Again the true beginnings of the band. Alan Wilder had replaced Clarke on keyboards after the recording of A Broken Frame, so this was the first time that this incarnation of Depeche Mode—which would last for a decade, until Wilder left in 1995—wrote an album together. But that's not the only reason. "This is really the first Depeche Mode album," says Fletch. "It also came at a time of huge technological improvements. Samplers were around for the first time so it was fantastic, and it was real first album where Martin was writing particularly for one album. That makes it very special."

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IT TOOK A RIOT FOR THEM TO REALLY BREAK AMERICA

Depeche Mode were already big when 1987's sixth album, Music for the Masses was released, and it was an album that made them more popular in the USA than they'd been before. The 101st gig of the album tour took place on June 18, 1988 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Dubbed the "concert for the masses," the show has gone down in Depeche Mode history as one of the band's best ever performances. But even though the band played to 65,000 people that night, they don't consider that the tipping point for breaking the USA. That came in 1990. "We'd been fairly successful, but had never gone over the edge in America," says Gore. "We did a signing in LA at Wherehouse Records which turned into a riot when the police shut it down. That became national news. That was obviously before things like social media and the internet, so if you got on national news, that was big."

VIOLATOR AND SONGS OF FAITH AND DEVOTION ARE STILL THE BENCHMARKS FOR THE BAND…

"If people are just discovering Depeche Mode," says Gore, "I suppose they should start with Violator and Songs Of Faith and Devotion. They're probably what are generally considered to be the height of our career." "Violator is the perfect album," agrees Fletch. "I still believe that now. It had everything. Every song was great and the sound was amazing. It was mixed by François Kevorkian and produced by Flood—you can't two better people. Everything about it—we were just on top of the world. Songs… was quite strange, because Dave had been living in California and was part of the grunge scene. So he persuaded us to not make Violator 2, but Songs of Faith and Devotion 1, which was much rockier. We could have easily made Violator 2. But to make a completely different sounding album that I don't think anybody expected was very good – and the songs were very strong."

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…BUT THERE'S A SPECIAL PLACE FOR THE ALBUM THAT NEARLY KILLED THEM

In April 1997, Depeche Mode released Ultra, their ninth album. But it nearly didn't happen. Wilder had left the band two years prior, and Gahan had been battling with drugs and nearly died in 1996 from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. But he—and the band—survived. Twenty years later, they're all large fans of that record, not least because it represents a triumph over abject adversity. "This is one of my favorites," says Fletch. "It's the album that nearly didn't get made. We went to New York to do Dave's vocals for six weeks and we came away with no vocals done. Me and Martin were like 'What are we going to do? Is this the end of the band?' But then Dave amazingly got arrested, overdosed and then sorted himself out, so we got to make Ultra. It was just such a joy to get that album out. I think it's very beautiful."

"I really love this record," agrees Gore, and it's obviously quite dark, because it was almost the end of us. None of us were in a good healthy state back then, but sometimes great art comes out of that."

THEY'RE NOT DAUNTED IN THE SLIGHTEST ABOUT PLAYING THEIR FIRST UK STADIUM SHOW IN 23 YEARS

On June 3rd, 2017, the band will play their first UK stadium show in 23 years. Despite nerves about the size of the venue, it all went according to plan… so far. "We were worried about it going on sale and not doing very well," says Fletch, "but that's changed now because we've sold all the tickets. It's weird that in our own country where we lived that we're the least popular, which is nice for me because it means I get to walk to around! But I think people will be flying from all over Europe for it. It could be like Brexit as it wasn't, as it was supposed to be."

Spirit is out via Columbia Records today.

Mischa Pearlman is a huge DM fan and unlike everyone else in the world, he's not on Twitter.