Carsten Nicolai recalls his Depeche Moment
Carsten Nicolai is a musician, designer and artist based in Berlin who is perhaps best known for his work produced under the alva noto guise. In the ’90s he founded the experimental label Raster-Noton alongside Olaf Bender (Byetone) and Frank Bretschneider. You can watch an interview with Nicolai taken from Slices issue 4-09 at the bottom of the page.
I bought my very first Depeche Mode record in Budapest, I believe it was A Broken Frame. From what I know, Depeche Mode had a very strong following in East Germany—and in Hungary as well. Still, buying a record in Hungary at that time was very expensive, by comparison, in today’s money it would have been around 150 euros. I remember I had enough money at the time to either spend another week there or buy the record, so I made my choice.
I’ve thought about what it was that made people react so strongly to Depeche Mode, what gave them such a loyal following. Of course, there were many other bands at the time making good music too; even when I bought that record in Hungary, I was thinking that I might purchase a Public Image Ltd record instead. I think what made Depeche Mode stand out was this element of the post-punk sound, but also a pop appeal—electronic and very clean. The music felt well designed and possessed a sense of control, from the covers to the outfits. Yes, they were a little bit artificial, not as much as Kraftwerk perhaps but there was a definite boy band aspect. What’s more they were very young, their following was very young, and I think this was one of the keys to their success: that they defined a generation dedicated to their youth, and to the experiencing of this youth.
When the band became popular there was this feeling that something new was arriving. Socialism started fading, and everyone was very hungry for fresh ideas from outside the system. In a strange way, Depeche Mode represented Western culture for us Eastern Germans. We were very interested in existential bands, because we had a lot of existential pressure in our society—there was always very heavy life topics being discussed. From a West German’s point of view you would say that we were quite ‘underground oriented’, Einstürzende Neubauten for example were very popular, but Depeche Mode was not underground for us. They were something new, a band with very stylish punk outfits, kind of existentialist with their black clothes. Their music was pop mixed with electronic with industrial elements, flirting with punk without actually being punk. I think this kind of pop was somewhat an expression of a new society. Admittedly I dropped out of listening to Depeche quite early, I think around the time “People Are People” was released. They’d just become so big in the East that I stopped and I sold all my records—I’m that kind of listener, I never want to feel like I’m following a trend. But when Exciter came out, I started listening again simply because it was produced by Mark Bell, and I realized that I still loved the way they write and perform songs.
The first time I came across Depeche Mode in a close way was when Daniel Miller of Mute and Raster-Noton were curating London’s Short Circuit festival in 2011. I met him at Heathrow Airport, and he wanted to build a bridge together, to make something symbolic. We proposed to collect many different samples from my label Raster-Noton and from Mute and create an ambient, super-long set, which we’d play in between the sets throughout the night—like a sound-halo, something that fills the space even if its early and nobody has shown up yet. A lot of Mute artists delivered, and Martin Gore was one who sent over stuff as well which surprised me—that he still feels so close to the history of the label. He was at the event as well, he and Vince Clarke, and I met them for the first time. When you meet someone in that circumstance you just see them as a person, you don’t have this star posturing or attitude. Of course, I know who Martin is and he has this history, but the moment you talk to someone you forget about all that. You’re just standing backstage, having a drink and chatting, enjoying this moment of destiny.~
Photo: Luci Lux
Published March 20, 2013. Words by Carsten Nicolai.