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“It’s almost too personal”: Daniel Miller contemplates the Depeche Mode catalogue

Daniel Miller is the founder and chairman of Mute Records, who released all of Depeche Mode’s albums with the exception of the new one, Delta Machine. Miller released Depeche Mode’s first single in 1981, co-produced their first five albums, and continues to act as a sounding board for their albums to this day, making his relationship with the band their most enduring—which is why he is often referred to as their invisible member. In his own words, he contemplates all 13 of their albums, offering key insights and anecdotes along the way. Interview by Lisa Blanning. Photo by Erika Wall.

Speak & Spell (1981)

It was the first time we’d spent a lot of time in the studio together, and that’s when I really started to appreciate the depth of their talent—when I saw how they were putting the tracks together. At the time, Vince [Clarke] was leader of the band. Dave [Gahan] was the frontman, but Vince wrote the songs, Vince did the arrangements. Martin [Gore] did a lot of the melodies, but it was really Vince’s band in that he was the driving force behind it all. I think Fletch [Andrew Fletcher] and Martin enjoyed doing it, but I don’t think they really took it seriously as a full-time thing until a bit later. Dave was the new guy in the band because he was auditioned; the other three all knew each other beforehand, so watching them at work was amazing. We all learned a lot during the making of that record, we had a lot of fun and we did it really quickly. It was the only record that Vince did with them, so it’s got his signature on it as well.

A Broken Frame (1982)

Vince had just left, and momentum dictated that we were going to carry on. They knew that Martin could write songs because Martin had written songs for previous bands they’d been in. It was almost like a blank sheet of paper, the songs were recorded in a different way because Vince had a very specific idea of what the song was going to end up sounding like, and Martin didn’t really have that. It was more like, “Here’s the words, here’s the melody. Let’s figure it out.” It was a very different way of recording, because in those days when there was no MIDI and no polyphonic, you did every track separately, so you had to start somewhere. Also, I think some of the more experimental elements of the band came out in A Broken Frame, which I enjoyed. They were making pop records, but they, especially Martin, were into experimental music and that started to feed into tracks like “Monument”.

I remember Martin was reading some weird book during the making of the record, a book of prophecies or something and he looked up his birthdate and it said, “Nothing to fear.” So that actually ended up being a track title, and it made him very optimistic about the future. A Broken Frame was a transitional record and while it’s not their best record, it’s hugely important in terms of how it was made and how it and gave everybody confidence. It’s when people really started believing in the future of the band.

Construction Time Again (1983)

This record was a massive leap forward. We’d been working in the same studio up to that point, Blackwing Studios in Borough in southeast London, which was a great studio with a great couple of engineers. Still, we felt we wanted to make a change of studio, just to get into a different environment. We ended up working in John Foxx’s studio, which is called The Garden—it’s only just closed down recently, sadly. That studio was in Shoreditch, which is now one of the trendiest parts of London, but back then was a derelict area. We met Gareth Jones, who became a long-term collaborator, through John Foxx because he’d worked with him on Metamatic, his debut solo record. Once we had Gareth on board, it became the team for the next four albums.

It was during the making of that record that we discovered sampling, which was a huge part of the sound of the records going forward. We weren’t sampling records, we were sampling found sounds or toy instruments. Martin would turn up with some toy or some other weird instrument and we just started recording it, sampling it, doing shit with it. Just as importantly, it was the first time that we ended up finishing the record and mixing it in Hansa Studio, Berlin. This happened because Gareth had moved to Berlin and was working there, he invited us over and we thought, “Why not?” Construction Time Again represents a period where there were a lot of new things going on.

At some point, during the making, Martin met a German girl and he ended up moving to Berlin for a while to live with her. This brought us closer to Berlin and we became more part of the scene there, I suppose.

Some Great Reward (1984)

This record was very much a continuation in terms of process from Construction Time Again. It was more about developing many of the ideas that we had for that record, rather than starting on something new: a lot of the big changes that we’d made for Construction Time Again were amplified for Some Great Reward—we were using the technology similarly but experimenting more with it.

We did “People Are People” as an interim single in March ’84, before the release of Some Great Reward. We went over to Berlin to do that specifically as a single, as a one-off thing, and in America that became a breakthrough track for the band. They’d had lots of these sort of KROQ hits, like “Just Can’t Get Enough”, but “People Are People” was a breakthrough Top 40 track for them, so that was a very important moment.

Black Celebration (1986)

Even at the beginning of Black Celebration sessions, I was concerned that we were falling into repeating ourselves, not so much musically, but in our working methods. I was a bit frustrated because I couldn’t get the guys to think about working in different ways. As a producer, that was part of my role, and I didn’t manage to do it as much as I would have liked to. I kind of dictated to a certain extent—I’m a big fan of the German film director Werner Herzog and his working methods. I loosely knew about his working methods and applied those to making a record. I suppose what I was trying to do was live the album. We didn’t have any days off—this could have been a mistake. Every moment of our waking hours was making the record, there was nothing else going on. We might go and have a beer before we went to sleep, but that was it.

I wanted a kind of intensity, I suppose, which I felt we were losing. We had a lot of it on Speak and Spell because we made it really quickly, and Construction Time Again was intense because there were so many new things going on. Some Great Reward felt like things were getting a bit, not slack, but I didn’t feel it was as focused. Although the record ended up sounding great, the process didn’t feel quite as satisfying. By the end everybody was very, very tired and exhausted; the album ended up running over.

I’m really happy with the album, but it wasn’t a happy experience—but it wasn’t supposed to be a happy experience! It was the point that we all decided that they needed to find somebody else to work with in the studio because we’d run our course. There aren’t very many teams that work together on five albums, so I was glad to do it. Of course, Mute had been successful because we had Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Nick Cave and then Erasure, but I hadn’t really signed any new artists. I was feeling a little bit like I wanted to get on with the label, and the band needed a change so at that point the label took some big steps too. It was a good thing that we did that, but I still continued to work with them, and that’s continued until now.

Music For the Masses (1987)

We picked the producer, Dave Bascombe, together because we really liked the sound he got with Tears For Fears and other things he’d done. We picked the studio—we wanted to get away from Berlin, but we didn’t want to do London, so we found a really nice studio in Paris.

I went there for the first couple of days to make sure everybody was comfortable and it was all working okay; I remember the feeling of an incredible weight off my shoulders knowing I wasn’t going to be in the studio with them for the next six months! I remember walking out of the studio, it was a sunny day, I thought, “They’re going to make a record, I’m not going to be there, and it’s going a much better record for it and I’m going to feel much better for it, as well.”

The songs were great, and while Alan [Wilder] wasn’t involved with A Broken Frame, he was involved from Construction Time… onwards, up until he left the band. His input was very important, he was a technology head and was technically the best musician as well and it was Music For the Masses that he came into his own. Martin was very much the songwriter, but he didn’t really enjoy sitting in the studio for hours fine-tuning things. Dave was very much focused on vocals and Fletch always provided a good perspective on the material that none of the others had. They all had a very specific role. Dave Bascombe was very good at translating the ideas into reality, so they made a good team. Alan loved being in the studio, he liked the kind of things that I liked, fine-tuning sounds, messing around, experimenting, so he was very much present in those records

Violator (1990)

It’s produced by Flood and mixed by François Kevorkian, which was a brilliant combination, I’m still very proud of that. François had just mixed Kraftwerk’s Electric Cafe and I also knew him because he had done some remixes for us. Flood I’d worked with a lot before; he produced Erasure, Nick Cave, Fad Gadget, and he was a mate. I just thought it needed another perspective and Flood is technically very good, very musical, and very open. He’s not one of these, “This is the way it has to be.” It’s more like, “How can we do it differently?” He was in sync with the band’s mentality—and my own.

We did “Personal Jesus” first in Milan—that track had to get done early; we did it as a kind of experiment. It was a great song from the beginning. There was a bit of discussion amongst the band about whether it should be the first track. For me, that was definitely the track, there was no question about it. Firstly, because it was a bit controversial, secondly because it was really different from anything they’d done before, with that bluesy feel. I think some of the band were a bit nervous about the lyrics and how that might go down, but that was the choice.

“Enjoy the Silence” was originally a slow track, a ballad almost, as a demo but I think Alan and Flood really believed that there was something else to get out of that track as an uptempo number. Martin was definitely against the idea because it was his song and that’s how he’d heard it, but he said, “Okay, you do it and we’ll see.” I remember coming to visit them in the studio and Fletch and Martin being very excited, saying, “Dan, we’ve got to play you this track!” We went to one of the little rooms to the side of the studio, they played me “Enjoy the Silence”, which was half-finished and I just went, “This is going to be huge.” It was just a perfect pop song, absolutely great. This was the version, by the way, that Martin had written and Alan and Flood had worked on to make it what it was.

Then François mixed the record in London—he’s a great guy, I love him, and he’s one of the most intense people I know. He would work for 18 hours a day and I think he got through at least three different engineers because they couldn’t take it. He’s so obsessive and so brilliant, and made a great record in Violator.

The only thing about that was that, while the record was great, I wasn’t happy with “Enjoy the Silence” as it was. I had real demo-itis about it. I’d heard this rough version which they’d done, and in my head, that’s how it had to sound. So I said, “Look, I love the album, but I’m not feeling the way “Enjoy the Silence” is at the moment. Can I go off and mix it with somebody else just to try it?” So, I went off with a guy called Phil Legg, who was an engineer I’d worked with, and did it the way I’d always heard it. I think they were so burned out by the end—it took a long time making that record—that they said, “Okay, whatever you say,” and they used that version.

Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)

This is the tricky record. When you’ve gone from selling two or three million worldwide to ten million, whether you like it or not—it certainly didn’t come from me or any of the people around them—there’s this pressure. A lot of things happened to the individuals in the band during and after the Violator tour, before Songs of Faith and Devotion. They never changed as people, they were always very down to earth in a way, but they’d been elevated into superstars and that does have an effect on people. It has a different effect on different people and Dave had a lot of problems at the time. They came to Songs of Faith and Devotion with songs, but not necessarily a very clear idea of how it was going to be, plus all this pressure.

Following the theme of trying to record in different countries, we decided on Spain, but we couldn’t find a studio that we liked, so we rented a big house in a posh, gated community in Madrid and built the studio there. I remember I turned up after a couple of weeks, but the vibe was terrible. They were definitely not working together as a band. You had Martin and Fletch taking up their normal pose on the sofa reading the tabloids; Alan was in another room practicing drums; one of the engineers had his feet up on the desk asleep; Dave was up in his room, all the curtains drawn, painting. Flood was trying to get some kind of sound. It was a horrible, poisonous atmosphere; I really felt nothing much was happening. And nothing was happening—they didn’t really know what they were doing or where they were going.

Despite being a tricky record to make, it ultimately became a lot of people’s favorite Depeche Mode album. Still, that whole Spanish episode, I think we kept almost nothing from that. Afterwards they went to Hamburg and became more constructive and mixed in London, by Spike, Mark Stent, who was an up and coming mixer at the time. He’s a huge mixer now.

Ultra (1997)

Ultra saw Dave’s issues continue, which is well documented. What we decided to do was take a tentative step into making another record. We said, “Let’s not make an album, let’s make it as an EP,” because to go in and make it as an album at that point was too much pressure for everybody. We decided to work with Tim Simenon, someone who had been an artist on a Mute label when he was Bomb the Bass, and who was also a friend of the band and a massive fan. He’s a very talented producer but quite a lot younger than the band.

Everybody was feeling fragile and nervous, but we wanted to move on. Somehow it became an album, I don’t know at what point. I think it was just a psychological thing, I think it was just an easier way of beginning the process, by calling it an EP. I think it had some great tracks on it but I don’t think it’s their best album. I think again, like A Broken Frame, it was a very transitional record. The band were certainly in transition in their personal lives, no question. Musically speaking, Alan had left and his influence up to and including Songs… was very big, so there was a bit of a vacuum. It meant that Martin had to be more focused on being in the studio. For so many different reasons, it was a transitional record.

Exciter (2001)

I think the band were very much more back together again as a unit. Things were a lot clearer. We worked with Mark Bell who’s a great techno producer [LFO]. The band had different influences, but Martin obviously is the musical driver of the band, so the things that influence him tend to come out on record a lot as well. Especially, at that point when he was writing all of the songs. Now, Dave writes some of the songs, so it’s slightly different. It was informed by a lot of the electronic music, kind of experimental, techno music that was going on at the time to a certain extent, which is why we wanted Mark Bell involved. I just felt like we were back on track again, as a band.

Playing the Angel (2005)

The thing I remember most about the recording of Playing the Angel was that 7/7 [July 7, 2005, bombings in London] happened. The band were recording in the West End, in the center of it all. I said, “Do you want to take a couple of days off?” They just said, “No, let’s get on with it.”

I think it was a really important record for the band—not necessarily because it had the big hits on it. Playing the Angel was the first record they worked on with Ben Hillier, who’s subsequently done the last three records with them, and that has proved a really productive experience—for Martin, and for me. With Martin, some of the best things he’s done come when he’s pushed—things like the guitar riff in “Enjoy the Silence” came at the last minute. I wanted someone in the studio to push him, to get the very best out of him, and I think Ben has done and has continued to do a great job with that. It’s very important, because if Martin is allowed to drift, he’ll disengage a little from the process. Not so much now, but at that time. He’ll do the bit that he enjoys doing, which is the song, but when it came to just getting that extra five per cent out of the track, he needs to be pushed. And that was my goal for that record, was to get somebody to do that.

Sounds of the Universe (2009)

I think of the last three albums, that’s probably the one that I’m least satisfied with. Sounds of the Universe is a really good record, but I don’t think it’s as good as Playing the Angel or Delta Machine.

Delta Machine (2013)

One of the key things that’s happened over the last couple of albums is this process of Alan leaving and Martin taking responsibility for the sound of the records. When I listened to the demos for Delta Machine I said, “Well, they already sound great.” Before that, his demos were kind of sketchy. They were good, but they were about the song, not necessarily the sound of the record. There might have been a couple of things that informed the sound, but with Delta Machine, his demos really defined the sound of the album, which I loved, and I was kind of keen that we really stick to that. It was pretty minimalistic, very analogue synth, kind of warm, and that blues feeling with it, too. The distillation of a lot of ideas that they’ve had in the past have come together on this record.

I find it quite hard to listen to the records from a purely objective point of view, because every song has a story. Particularly the first five albums—the ones I worked on. I remember everything about those records. When I hear them, I think, “Oh God, that was that sound, I remember…” I have a different relationship to the records and because of this I don’t know what my favorite record is. I love Delta Machine because it’s new and fresh, and we really achieved what we set out to achieve. I listen to A Broken Frame and I think there’s great moments—they all have great moments. It’s almost too personal.~

Published March 26, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.