“The Beatles never had to sell aging”: Chris Bohn and Max Dax on Depeche Mode’s Delta Machine
With the release of their 13th album Delta Machine, Depeche Mode have sustained a successful career for over three decades. Electronic Beats’ editor-in-chief Max Dax and Chris Bohn, editor of the revered British music magazine The Wire and a former writer for NME when Depeche Mode released their first records, contemplate the new album together.
Max Dax: What I always found very interesting about Depeche Mode was that they’re basically one of the few continuums in pop or rock music, like U2 or The Rolling Stones: even if they do a bad record, they seem to be untouchable. Since you are a bit older than me and you have seen The Grateful Dead, I wonder how do you see the significance and relevance of Depeche Mode?
Chris Bohn: Most pop groups are not supposed to last more than, I don’t know, 18 months, but Depeche Mode arrived in the immediate post-punk period; New Romantic, futurism, all these new trends cropping up every few minutes within within the UK music scene. You wouldn’t have immediately thought of them of having a long life, especially when their songwriter Vince Clarke left just as the first album was coming out.
But I remember when I was at New Musical Express writing about Depeche—I think I chose their first three records as records one, two, and three of the year [laughs]. The simplicity of everything, the melody, voice, rhythm, everything was perfectly in sync—and all being done with electronics. As a group, their early hits really touched something, and something about them has always stuck.
For people who’ve been around as long as me, those of us who saw Depeche way back when they began, 33 years down the line you treat the whole body of work as a thing in itself. Yes, they go through phases when it’s not so interesting, but you hang in there, because like any group with a long history, their songs are bound up with your life. Maybe the best and worst aspect of popular music is when the whole human side, the personal side of things, becomes public knowledge because of various problems, the addictions, or the arguments within the groups. Somehow the fact that Depeche Mode came through and still stand side by side, remaining much closer than the likes of, say, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards—where it seems to be a total hate relationship but bound together by emotion and financials and success. After however many years you’ve followed somebody, you kind of do know them, and you even get concerned when they almost die, like Dave Gahan did.
MD: At least he lives, John Lennon was shot. DM have been going over 30 years now, and it’s a truly new dimension of growing old with people. Have you seen the video for “Heaven”? What I liked about it is it shows the band ageing. You see David Gahan an old man, you see the white beard, you see wrinkles; basically they’re not hiding anything. The video’s not a masterpiece, but it’s honest.
And it draws a thread to the gothic movement. Basically, it says, “Yes, we are gothic,” even though real goths probably would say they were never gothic. So, they reconnect to the early ’80s, both genre-wise but also as a message to their fans: “We are aging, you are aging, let’s do this together.” And The Beatles never had to sell aging. Paul McCartney, probably, but moreso The Rolling Stones. And I wonder if we are facing an era where the chasm between a group that stands for being young and a group that stands for openly aging blurs? Because I think the sounds that Depeche Mode use on their new album are very much influenced and addressed by modern, contemporary music—taking “Angel”, the first track that leaked from the album, or the opening track “Welcome to My World” as examples. These are very dark, slow, ballad-ish tracks, but they still sounds much fresher than many young bands.
CB: Because they came to attention via Mute, whose founder Daniel Miller was sort of their spiritual father—Daniel had this idea which he expressed through Silicon Teens of a group that came into the world at a time of electronics, so they picked up synthesizers rather than guitars. And Depeche Mode were the living embodiment of that—they obviously weren’t Silicon Teens, I don’t think Daniel would ever see them as that, but they lived Daniel’s dream for him in a way. But through Daniel, they had really good connections. They would be in Berlin in the early ’80s, they recorded with Gareth Jones and Gareth would be bringing in sounds from Einstürzende Neubauten, etc. The kind of people they were falling in with back then, none of their contemporaries were anywhere near so interested or well connected.
MD: You’re touching a point that I also noted about this new album. I think Depeche were always really important when they were able to basically transfer underground or vanguard ideas into the mainstream. If you take records like Violator or Exciter, but also their first few albums, I think due to success they had the mandate to try out things, and if my memory serves, “Master and Servant” was the kind of song that nobody had heard of except for the few people who were digging in the underground, who were listening to Fad Gadget or Neubauten—who weren’t as big back then as they are now. I think they kept on pursuing this tradition; it’s like a curve that they follow.
CB: I agree, I think the very opening track of this record really takes you in there. The first thing I thought of: somehow—maybe by osmosis if not through direct contact—they’d picked up from Carsten Nicolai and the Raster-Noton types. Rather than digital, it sounds like electricity switching on and off, almost. The dirt, the grit, the dust in the system. By pulling that straight away, it immediately takes the album into the present time. But takes it out of time, too, because of the nature of the sound. Somebody within Depeche Mode or something about Depeche Mode is very much of the present moment, in the present time, pulling in what’s around them. It’s the way they are, it’s in their nature to just listen. But that’s rare for a group that’s been around 33 years, I think.
MD: Yeah, exactly. And rumor goes that they have invited a respected Raster-Noton act to be support act for some of their upcoming concerts. It’s a rumor, but it’s something that totally makes sense. And I think they actually always behaved like promoters of the music they really liked. When you consider the brilliant remixes Depeche Mode, over the decades, presented to their fans, it was always like they tried to educate, that they said, “Look, you might like us, but there’s also Justus Köhncke, alva noto, Uwe Schmidt, and all these other people.”
CB: And before that Underground Resistance, UR did some remix stuff back in the early ’90s. And I think Richie Hawtin was invited to do remixes in the very early days.
MD: Talking about German electronic music, I found it very refreshing to hear obvious audio quotes on Delta Machine. On “Soft Touch”, I hear Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” motif, totally obvious. And on “Secret to the End” I clearly hear Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft, “Der Mussolini”. It’s so obvious that they put it in as if it was an experiment to see how people would react.
CB: Totally. I felt the DAF element, and maybe Chrislo Haas from Liaisons Dangereuses. With “Secret to the End”, at first hearing, yes you’re right, it is a direct hit on “Der Mussolini”, it’s a total DAF thing. Again, Daniel Miller was introducing them to this music way back in the early days, but I think they’re a little resentful that Daniel always gets the credit for anything odd or innovative in their music. They might have got there anyway. But maybe Daniel, as a conduit, brought them much closer to it. What’s good about it is that you can hear these references to now maybe 30 years of their own loves of music in various ways. But what I really like about this record is that it doesn’t feel forced, it feels very open. It doesn’t feel like they’re worried, or panicky, or controlled. It doesn’t feel honed, like they’ve chiselled this stuff away. It feels like they’ve just pulled this stuff in. It sounds like they’re using a fair amount of analogue…
MD: They definitely are, it’s modular synths. And they’re very proud of it. When they did the Paris press conference, a small promo snippet video—which later turned out to be the song “Angel”—showed Martin Lee Gore putting cables into synthesizers, and he was literally standing in front of a wall of modular synths.
CB: The record runs through quite a series of different styles yet it always feels very much like the work of one group.
MD: It’s cohesive. But for me, the even more interesting reference is, as a British band, they basically combine Delta blues and German electronics and give it a pop touch. It has a pop understanding that I think only a British band can develop. Because pop music is basically a British industry and therefore also a way of life for the people who work in that field, and in Germany it’s a vanguard thing that people do or do not.
But the way they embrace blues, it perfectly fits the tragedies of Dave Gahan. Don’t laugh, but I sometimes feel reminded of Robert Johnson. They embrace blues and quote it heavily on the new album, as well as in the lyrics. They refer to drug addiction and being dependent on a kick that they cannot get anymore, because they’re sober. I mean, replace heroin with turpentine and here we go!
CB: Yes, after 33 years, the drugs don’t do the same thing anymore, do they? So, there’s that taste of it that one is trying to recover, the thrill of the high. But I have to say, in response to what you’re saying, I like what Dave Gahan said in a recent interview in Mojo: “I wouldn’t dare say that this is a blues record, as Fletch has said a couple of times. That’s insulting to blues musicians on so many levels.” That’s Dave talking.
MD: [laughs] No, no, I get the point. Delta Machine, of course, is not blues, but it’s referencing the blues, and it’s referencing the blues in a much more honest way than, say, Eric Clapton is. I interviewed Martin Lee Gore ten years ago—it was at the time of Counterfeit², where he had “In My Time of Dying” on the album or “I Cast a Lonesome Shadow”. So, basically he really tried to incorporate blues melodies, blues structures, blues storytelling—and I’m talking about Martin, not Dave—and when I was talking with him, he showed a deep and profound knowledge about early 1920s and ’30s gramophone records of Delta blues. So I would say that even when they call the album Delta Machine, which is obviously a Mississippi reference, that I think there is an honesty to it, even if you couldn’t call it a blues record.
CB: Do you like the more bluesy rock tracks on it?
MD: Yeah, and there are bluesy grooves on it. But I was wondering, listening to Delta Machine, what I’m most interested in, when Nine Inch Nails released Ghosts, you know that big piece of instrumental music, I’m wondering about all these blues pieces they tried out and didn’t put on the record—what all these instrumental things probably would sound like. Because I think this record is a very richly textured record when it comes to sounds.
CB: I agree. Also, Dave Gahan’s voice has got richer and deeper.
MD: So, would you agree that it’s actually quite a good album?
CB: I would say it’s a very good album. I would always listen with interest to a Depeche Mode album when it’s there, but I missed the last couple.
MD: You haven’t missed that much, since Exciter. Delta Machine is their best achievement in more than a decade.~
Published April 08, 2013. Words by Chris Bohn & Max Dax.