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An Intimate Conversation with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan

It’s been a while since we caught up with Dave Gahan. In the two years since we chatted with the Depeche Mode staple for our print magazine and sent Max Dax to record a video interview with him, Gahan has returned to the studio with UK songwriting duo Soulsavers to create a new album. Angels & Ghosts will appear in stores on October 23. The accompanying tour started on October 19 in Los Angeles. That’s where he was stationed when Max Dax (who also recently spoke to Gahan’s Depeche Mode partner Martin Gore) gave him a call to look back at the past and reflect on how far he’s come.

Max Dax: Mr. Gahan, how are you? It’s midnight in Berlin, the autumn rain is falling, I’m sitting in my kitchen and the city is asleep.

Dave Gahan: I’m in Los Angeles right now. It’s 3 p.m. here.

Are you still living in Manhattan? Or have you moved to L.A.?

I live in New York, but I used to live in Los Angeles for about seven or eight years. I moved here in 1989. In 1997 I relocated to New York, and I’ve been there ever since.

You own a studio in Lower Manhattan.

Yes. I mean, it’s rather more a small working room. But in New York you gotta get what you can in terms of space. And in that sense I’m very fortunate to have a space there and to have Kurt Uenala, with whom I collaborate. He’s pretty much there all the time, and that’s where we write songs together. We’ve actually recorded a lot of stuff there, a lot of vocals, especially for the last couple of Depeche Mode records. And, of course, we also recorded the last two Soulsavers albums there.

In other words, you feel comfortable there, within your own four walls.

Absolutely. And I especially love to record with Kurt. He’s recorded most of my vocals for the last seven or eight years now. When you’re working with your voice, it’s always very important to feel comfortable. Otherwise you can’t feel inspired or free to do things that you might not usually do. I like to be able to experiment with my voice. I like to try out different types of microphones and pre-amps, and Kurt’s very good at setting that up for me so that I can literally walk into my room at any time I feel inspired and to be able to record ideas.

There’s a reason why I asked you about New York and Los Angeles: you’ve lived in American cities, but you were born and raised in England. America has such a strong musical tradition, and it’s deeply rooted in Irish and the Scottish traditional ballads as well as the African-American heritage of the blues and gospel. How do you adapt to that?

I find blues and gospel—and let’s not forget jazz—very inspiring. All this music comes from America, and New York City really represents that in many ways. When I moved to Manhattan, I finally could really understand the music of John Coltrane, for example. “A Love Supreme” suddenly made more sense to me musically. It’s the sound of New York, you know? Jazz is the sound of New York. And apart from that, blues and gospel music, to me, is where everything began. Combining these musical influences in what we do with Soulsavers, and even in what we do with Depeche Mode, feels like a natural conclusion.

In addition to downbeat blues and gospel, I hear a third strong influence on your new record: a David Lynch kind of Twin Peaks twang.

That’s very intuitive of you. Your question confronts me with the visual aspect of the music I’m doing. The music I do with the Soulsavers is very visual, if not filmic, and it touches this aspect of America that most of us don’t get to see that much. Many people don’t get to see that much of America besides New York and Los Angeles, but there’s a big, huge Americana that exists in between these two cities! These landscapes and these amazing, large areas of land that seem to go on forever. I’m inspired by that. Sometimes I have an empty feeling as well. Visual emptiness and sometimes very beautiful silence—that’s where the inspiration really comes from.

Did you travel the hinterlands of Americana to feel what you’re describing?

Well, of course, over the years I’ve crossed the U.S. many times with Depeche Mode. But I’ve also done a little bit of traveling myself. I just feel very inspired by the visual side of what you can hear in American music. When we talk about my music, we have to talk about influences that express feelings that’re deep within your soul. And these feelings ask questions about who we are, or “Who am I?” Especially when you consider that you face what’s going on around in the world around you. You ask yourself, “What does it all mean to me?”

So you’re basically reckoning with the human condition on your new songs.

I believe so, yes.

Let’s focus for a moment on a new song that you’ve recorded. It’s called “One Thing”.

Why did you pick that particular one?

“Just lay down next to me / And we can watch these tasteless shows on our TV”. That’s genuinely evocative songwriting to me.

Thank you for saying that. In this song in particular I’m trying to show some vulnerability and how I feel about life and the world that surrounds us. I wanted to show that particular balance between vulnerability and beauty. To me, the beauty comes in the melodies and in their reflection in the lyrics.

In the song you also quote David Bowie’s famous line “Is there life on Mars?”

Of course I am referring to that Bowie song. It still means a lot to me. I can still play that song and I can still hear a person who’s lost. But at the same time, I can see this beautiful landscape he’s lost in, and how we desperately try to find things to numb ourselves from the way we feel. And today, of course, television is what we find ourselves sitting in front of and watching addictively for no apparent reason, other than to numb us from our real feelings. Having said that, music really enables me to dig deep into my soul, and with this record I think I really have allowed myself for the first time to just appear, rather than edit it too much or push it too far in a certain direction or for you, as the listener, to be steered in any particular direction. I wanted to contrast a lot of things in the new songs — the beauty of melody and the open space of introspection. This may have led to, I guess, some dark lyrics. But such is life, isn’t it?



You’re basically saying that, in our digital present, we’re losing our spirituality.

That’s so true.

But you have an answer ready. In the chorus of “One Thing” you sing, “You need just one thing: love.”

It’s weird because at some point a song takes on a life of its own. All of a sudden the song becomes much bigger than any idea you ever had about it when you started writing it. It leads you into a melody, or in this case a word—love—that maybe is something that I’m still desperately trying to find. I know that’s the truth. I know that word encapsulates everything we really should be. But sometimes I feel so far away from that, you know? We’re all here on this planet together, and you can’t possibly be unaffected by what goes on. I feel fortunate that I can put these feelings into music and I feel very privileged to have a partner like Rich Machin, who melodically, structurally and song-wise is on the same page as me.

“One Thing” seems to embrace the world with empathy. We’re all getting older. Would you say that you’re now looking at the world as an adult person?

You know, on one hand that’s true, and getting older is a fact to me. But also the truth is that I sometimes feel that I’m just not there. But I want to be. And my hope is that the listener can reflect on that feeling. When was the last time that you asked yourself, “How do I feel about love? Do I feel love? Do I love people? Do I give the best I can? Am I kind?” You know, all these things. More often than not, I’m not so sure about myself. But I am sure about it when I’m lost in a song like that. I’m just a small part of it, as the song itself has become so much greater eventually. Love is like that. You have to hang in there and you have to believe it. At the end of the day, all this destruction that we cause around us and within us ultimately is all that we are left with. Love is the only thing that holds us together. I’m getting older and I have younger children, and hopefully they will have children too. But what kind of world are we bringing them into? I don’t know. For me, music has always been the key to feeling as though I belong, and it continues to do that.

Would you say you’ve become more empathetic over the years?

I think so. You get beaten down. I beat myself down pretty hard for a while and then I gave up on that habit. I’ve been fortunate enough in the last 20 years. I feel like I’m slowly sobering.

But you don’t regret the experiences of having beaten yourself pretty hard—or do you?

No, I wouldn’t like to miss anything, of course. This is my life.

It was a life in the limelight almost from the beginning.

Everything was public from the beginning. When Alan Wilder left Depeche Mode, it was basically Martin and me. Martin and I had to become something together, and we’re still becoming that. That’s still a work in progress. Yes, we’re making music together and then we perform that music. And we’re very much aware of how much the music has touched people. We see it in the concerts and we feel it onstage. But I think Martin and I still have this thing between us. It’s still two people coming together with music, but at the same time we’ve also always been very separate—even musically. But that’s also what makes Depeche Mode so interesting, musically. It’s that struggle between us, I believe.

You could call it a struggle, or you could call it yin and yang.

I would be interested how it’d sound if you actually mashed our last two records together. Martin did an album called MG. Like me, Martin is a big fan of blues and gospel music. But he’s also a big fan of turning something inside out, taking those elements and then doing something completely different with them musically, simply to make it interesting for himself. But within the band, of course, these two elements come together. This has always been a challenge for whomever we work with. On Delta Machine, for instance, it was Christoffer Berg, who’s most known for his work with Fever Ray. It turned out to be a great collaboration because Chris brought an excitement and enthusiasm to the recording sessions that I think wouldn’t have been there otherwise. And certainly he and Martin became like a sort of partnership, having fun and creating with their electronics. I think I brought in an element of soulfulness or a feeling of human vulnerability to this organized backdrop. Actually, a lot of life is like that. We try and organize everything perfectly so that we can have the perfect day, but of course it’s totally disorganized. It’s total chaos. Depeche Mode’s music has always pushed the envelope of what pop music “should” sound like. We’ve always kind of been on the outside of pop somehow.

As compared to Depeche Mode, how was working with the Soulsavers?

Well, it’s a collaboration, and that’s the only similar thing. When Rich and I write together, I might have melodies in my head or a particular phrase or a vocal line—something that’s buzzing around in my head. And Rich will send me these guitar lines or organ parts that he puts in an atmospheric ambience. They’re always very sparse and loosely arranged, and for some reason the sound of it inspires me. From there I live with these guitar and organ lines and try to listen to whatever words or shapes pop up into my head. And then I try to combine it all by singing these words onto the music. I often find that the song begins to write itself. Working with the Soulsavers is much less structured than working with Depeche Mode. When I wrote with Kurt Uenala on Delta Machine, everything was a lot more organized in terms of structure.

Why is that the case?

Maybe because I have an idea of what I think a song presented to Depeche Mode should sound like, whereas I don’t feel that pressure with the Soulsavers. You have to present something to the producer and to Martin and whoever is working on the record. They are all there to hear this finished idea before you even discuss it being recorded for Depeche Mode. With Soulsavers, I can present sketches and ideas because I know that my song will develop over the course of time, and all I have to do is to follow it. I really don’t know how a song is going to sound until it’s finished.

And now you’re going on tour with the Soulsavers.

I can’t wait to be onstage again.

The tour schedule reads like the ultimate rock star tour: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Milan. Only Tokyo is missing.

Yeah, that would have been the world in a week. But in all honesty, the reasons for keeping this tour short were mainly practical. First of all, I don’t wanted to spend another six months just touring around the world. This record feels maybe too personal. So we came up with this idea to play these small but interesting venues and theaters and to put together a band. There will be ten musicians onstage including myself and three gospel singers.

So, it’s quite a big production.

Ten people is a big band, but it’s not a big production with visuals, films, lasers or a fancy light show. It’s really just about the music. We will play the songs from the two records that we’ve made together. There will also be a few little surprises at the end of the show, if we feel that way. But it’s more or less about showcasing the two records that we’re very proud of. The idea of leaving home for another year or so just doesn’t appeal to me at all at the moment. It terrifies me. At the moment, this is the best I can do.

You wouldn’t see your children.

Exactly. They’re growing up fast. Being away from home for months can be crucial. I have two sons who have left home, but I have also a daughter who just turned 16, and she’s still at home. There’s not much time left until she goes to college, so I really want to be around. I’ve spent a lot of time in their lives away from them. And when I’m not on tour I can also continue to work on other stuff. Doing only six shows is quite expensive, and we have to still rehearse like we’d go on tour for a year. But that’s the price I gotta pay, I guess.

Buy tickets to Dave Gahan and Soulsavers’ tour dates on Gahan’s website, and enter to win tickets to the sold-out Berlin gig here.

Published October 19, 2015.