In our final report from Depeche Mode’s summer 2013 European tour, Agata Pyzik, author of the forthcoming book Poor But Sexy—on the cultural clashes between the East and West during the cold war—ponders their enduring appeal. All photos by Maciej Paluchowski.
“This is the closest I’m ever going to get to seeing The Rolling Stones,” says my partner after the Depeche Mode gig ends. It’s true—the same kind of ritual going on, the same complete synchronization between the band’s behavior and the reaction of fans, the same ecstatic worship, the same songs rehearsed thousands of times at thousands of stadium gigs. Live, Depeche Mode are incredibly rocky, male, heavy and sweaty, they look like the most macho band alive—and mostly due to Gahan, whose every blink from a mascara-heavy eye, every movement of his body, every shake of his bum is the most self-aware camp construction I’ve ever seen.
But the audience they appeal to is very different. There’s no mystery why the band attracted a cult following especially in Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia: they were always pressing all our buttons. Coming to us during the cold war, they offered a sexy taste of the West, while making numerous references to the toil of the Eastern man. But the instant appeal was also due to the conscious simplicity, absolute sincerity and their famously basic lyrics, which anybody could understand or memorize. In Poland they attracted en masse students of technical schools and youth with working class backgrounds, for the fact they were truly a ‘no BS’ band: everything was there, in the open, with a strong image, with the years evolving from playful & kinky to muscular, sweaty and macho. The haircut “a la Depeche” from the 80s, with the shaved sides, is still a frequent demand in Warsaw’s hairdresser’s salons, and the discipline of the DM fans is legendary—at 6pm a stream of black-clad folk was already streaming by the Poniatowski bridge towards the National Stadium, proudly presenting a collection of DM t-shirts with all the band’s iconography, making them unusually elegant.
So even if the gig opens with several songs from Delta Machine, which the public don’t know so well yet, it doesn’t matter, because we all know the hits will soon follow. Squirming and doing his little ‘Dave dance’, wearing an unbuttoned waistcoat on a heavily tattooed, muscular and tanned torso, Gahan is the most over the top, queered-up of performers, even if his every move is calculated. Depeche have mastered the incredible art of turning a stadium concert for 50,000 people into a seemingly intimate experience—you always think he sings just for you. Music for the masses, but with a personal Jesus. In the late ’80s/’90s they hit gold with the combination of sex, sin, guilt and sacrifice, all this “pain that I’m used to” in any number of combinations—a mathematics of suffering. And even if they try to keep the balance with playing a bit from every period, they’re at their best from the mature ’90s, marked by Gahan’s clinical death among other things, with an exceptionally ferocious performance of “Barrel of a Gun” from the brilliant Ultra.
They weren’t always these sweaty masochists. They started out after all as a jolly synthpop group, with the saccharine, ecstatic “Just Can’t get Enough”, which gets played as an encore, the one song from this neglected early period. Then they recorded by the Berlin Wall, and took abundantly from lesser known, more pioneering and outré bands. They took metaphors of the relation between S&M and society and the black leather from DAF, they took seedy metropolitan sleaziness from Soft Cell, and finally, borrowed found objects and concrete sounds from Einstürzende Neubauten, perfecting this image on Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward. The cold war atmosphere they were immersed in was simplified into incredibly catchy tunes. They were also incredibly good-looking. So they became massive in the way their counterparts never did. In the ’80s they were knowingly appealing to both East and West (i.e. America), playing upon the themes of capitalism vs socialism, teasing us in their videos with Potemkinesque battleships, Red Army uniforms and heavy industry. But funnily enough, when “Halo”, from 1990’s Violator, gets played tonight, speaking of some “walls coming tumbling down,” with a big image of the Reichstag on the screen, it sounds forced and insincere—they were better at referencing the Wall when it actually stood.
But around Music for the Masses they achieved their trademark anthemic, grandiose style, perfected on songs like “Stripped” or “Never Let Me Down Again”, and then the tortured, synthetic, smoky blues of “Personal Jesus” and “I Feel You”. That’s why when the audience hears the intro to “Enjoy the Silence” in particular, the excitement reaches zenith—in Warsaw it’s palpable. It’s also their manifesto, the famous lyrics are DM in a nutshell: “words are very unnecessary”, “feelings are intense, words are trivial.” They based the rest of their career solely on the intensification of this, while endlessly vaguely dwelling on the dialectics of sex, sin, atonement and the final release. That’s also the reason they’re a tough writerly topic—how long we can focus on the endless permutations of violence, sex and punishment? Writing on Depeche, one is challenged to participate in this collective emotion.
And after all, live they’re everything one could demand. They have complete mastery over the public, perform with the utmost ferocity and don’t spare themselves, playing for over two hours. Speaking of individual performances, despite the absolute rule of Gahan’s ego over the stage, it’s Martin Gore—as we know, the actual author of most of the songs and words—who pulls the strings silently, a realization driven home especially when he gets to sing, as on the acoustic version of “Shake the Disease”. Although originally sung by Gahan, we know, not only from Martin’s appearance in the song’s video, that it comes straight from Gore’s experiences: this tortured confession of a wayward lover, consumed by unspeakable perversions, yet still hoping and yearning for forgiveness and understanding from his inamorata, couldn’t belong to anyone else.
So often heavy-handed, literal, simplistic—even didactic, given how often the crime must immediately meet its punishment, the lyrics of Martin Gore always hit upon something, always move. The band retain a pure mystique: how come this deadly serious, completely devoid of any sense of irony shtick works so well and for so many years? You never know what is really behind those deadpan confessions of sin, guilt, pain, perversions, redemption, heaven and hell—but it doesn’t really seem to matter.~
Following the announcement of EB and Depeche Mode’s team-up for their European tour, our editor-in-chief Max Dax met the DM’s vocalist last November in Paris for an exclusive interview which we present in its entirety in both video and text.
Last time we met we were talking about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and you were referencing how important the music was for you. I don’t hear any influence of them in Depeche Mode’s music. How come?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I think there’s plenty of influence in there in terms of experimentation. The use of modern day instrumentation and experimenting with it, and putting it into a format known as popular music. So, to me, that’s where the influence is. And also the freedom that’s in jazz and blues—I hope there are some of those influences that go into what we do when we produce a Depeche Mode record. Certainly it does when I’m writing. I don’t like to be restricted to a format, really. It’s difficult with popular music because a lot of popular music confines itself to particular structures, but I would say the music that we’re making now definitely has some strong blues influences to it. Lyrically as well as musically.
You said, “How can you listen to a John Coltrane record without the cover?” We were talking about records in the wake of iPods. Now big companies like Telekom announce partnerships with Spotify, streaming is supposed to be the new thing. How do you see it as a musician and artist?
It’s very difficult, it’s a good question.Technology has changed so much in the last 20 years and certainly in the last ten years it’s just become so accessible to be able to find and get whatever music you want, and then to have it immediately put onto a device to listen to. It wasn’t so easy when I was a teenager. I think there’s room for everything, I think that’s very useful but I think we’re losing the ability to take time to actually take something in. Technology is great when you use it, but it’s not so great when it uses you.
By having Anton Corbijn, I think it shows you put much effort into having a visual aspect that stands for the band. Do you think you can stop certain trends or is it not a contradiction?
I think that Anton Corbijn over the years, certainly in the last 20 years, has become an integral part of the development of Depeche Mode visually. We work hand in hand and he enhances what we do music-wise with his visuals. That can be a photograph, that can be a film that we use onstage to enhance a particular song or a moment in a particular performance. I think Anton understands our music, and I think for a while we were lost in the early days looking for something that was visual to latch onto. Anton really was the key that unlocked that door for us.
At the same time, the challenge is always to change it up and to do something different and to create a different image or a different visual that will enhance that particular record or that particular live performance and we hope that we’re able to do that. One of the challenges of making music is to constantly change. You’re only as good as the people you work with as well and the people you introduce into the project, and that will enhance the songs you are working on, have ideas that will take them down different roads. Sometimes, quite often, roads you don’t want to go down but you have to follow the experiment and see where it takes you and keep an open mind. That can be scary sometimes. You mentioned Miles Davis early on and I remember reading a quote of his that said, “You’re only as good a musician as the people you put around you.” Because he, of course, was a fantastic musician but he was also smart enough to know that he had to challenge himself all the time with other artists, other people that he respected or he felt were as good as him, or that could bring something different to his production and to put his instrument in a different setting.
That’s what you have to do; you can’t rely on past successes to enhance you as an artist so that you grow. The only way you can do that is to try different things. For me, personally, it’s become apparent that I’m a much better artist when I go outside of Depeche Mode and work with different people that I wouldn’t necessarily feel was within my comfort zone. Last year I was lucky enough to make a record with Soulsavers and we wrote and recorded a bunch of songs together and I enjoyed that so much and it definitely influenced my writing for this particular Depeche Mode record.
So you say you have to rely on new people, people you didn’t know before. How is it with technology, everyone has a iPhone, I’ve seen you have one, too. Everyone uses apps, what about apps like the Kraftwerk app where you can generate your own music? Do you use these little things to jot down ideas?
I do. An app that I use a lot is the voice memo on the iPhone which I find very useful. In my house in New York, I have a small setup where I have a microphone and some speakers and a small PA system in a room so that I can immediately, if I have an idea, play some kind of melody line or chords from a piano. I can play those down and then perform live and stick my iPhone in the background and switch it on VoiceMemo and I’ll have a reference immediately. Then I’ll immediately be on my computer through iCloud, so I have backup of that. My engineer noticed recently when he was backing up my iPhone to save things that I had 16 hours of ideas on my phone and I said “Oh really? I’ll have to look back at some of those!” Some of which are definitely ideas of things that developed into songs that are on this new record and things that, in the last year, that became Soulsavers songs.
Did you notice, using the camera with your cellphone, that it changes the way you perceive time, that you memorize things because you basically have your visual diary on your phone?
I actually use the camera on my phone a lot in all kinds of situations, could be document something that I need to remember, pictures of friends that are going to be calling me, and also just a library, as you say, a library of photographs and memories and short films that I now have on this device that I can look back at any time. That’s the kind of technology that I think is really enhancing, but then again you’ve got to be careful of all this stuff, you’ve got to remember to look up sometimes when you’re walking down the street staring at your device or texting a friend or opening an email. I have to take time to always remember to take a look around me because that’s where the ideas come from, they don’t really come from this thing. I can use this device to help enhance ideas but it’s the world and friends and family and situations that inspire me.
In 32 years Depeche Mode have, to my knowledge, never ever done a big partnership with a corporation like Telekom, how come you changed your mind? How come it becomes possible? Is it because of the difficulties with record companies?
I think that, with us, the use of technology goes hand in hand. We’ve always used technology to our advantage and like I said earlier, as long as you don’t let the technology use you… Our partnership with Telekom, for instance, enables us to first of all couple up with technology, modern day technology, and also at the same time to have our music heard by a larger audience, quite possibly. Times have changed in the music business—there’s many, many ways for people to hear music; our attention spans for taking something in, I think, have become shorter, so you have to get clever and use different possibilities to introduce people to your music and new ways to find new people to listen to your music. If you confine yourself to one area, that’s all you’re going to get. Using technology actually is, I think, a great way for us to introduce people to the new music that we’re making.
I was surprised how soon you get acquainted to these things, when we were streaming your press conference yesterday it seemed so normal that these things are happening now when two years ago it wasn’t normal at all. At the same time you could see a wall of snapshots taken with cellphones, so it brought it all together.
Using—when we did the press conference yesterday—this idea that came through my manager and his assistant Alex to create this wall of interactive photographs that was a count down of an announcement of when we were going to go tour. So already we were engaging people in the world of the internet, if they wanted to or were interested, to be interactive with what we were doing. And it came off really well, I mean to be able to sit there in front at a press conference and have a film made as well, quickly uploaded, put onto a screen—these kinds of things, even five years ago, may or may not have come off. Immediately it was broadcast over the internet, through our website, through Google, people were immediately texting me, “Ah, I saw this, I saw you on your thing, I see you’re going on tour again.” This is how you have to use technology nowadays if you want people to know about what you’re doing because not so many people are picking up a magazine or listening to the radio. That’s not to say that they’re not doing that at all, but you have to be smart about how you let people know that you’re doing something.
Many people do this via Twitter. Depeche Mode now have 1.2 million followers, Lady Gaga has 30 million. Are you envious of Lady Gaga?
No, it seems like it’s a lot of hard work being Lady Gaga. She can do that, she’s good at doing it. The outfits alone, to put on that kind of show every day, an exhibition, let’s see how long she can keep that up. I’m very comfortable with the way my band has grown over the years, the work that we do, our place in music. I feel that we do have a place, I feel that we’ve been influential over other artists and people that like our music. We couldn’t really want for anything more. I don’t know how many more bands there will be who can sustain 30 years of a career, if you like, of making music together because the world has changed and music has changed and the way that we listen to music has changed. I think it’s much harder for artists these days to develop something slowly and with some mystique still involved and some mystery, because everything is so instant, we want to see everything immediately.
Celebrity has become more important than the content on some levels, which is kind of sad to me, but I think that as well is almost running its course. I know that my children, for instance, are looking for content always in whatever interests them. My son sits there, he can be playing a video game, he has his laptop, he’s watching a TV show, in one corner he’s talking to some friends, in another corner he’s listening to music while he’s playing a videogame. It’s mindboggling to me, sometimes I come home from the studio and I’m like, “What are you doing?” He’s doing everything. At the same time. It’s crazy.
I had a chat with Daniel Miller yesterday and we were talking about loyalty and he said this nice sentence: “Loyalty breeds loyalty.” I think you have some of the most loyal fans in the world and I think you can be proud of that. One of the things in this partnership is that we are doing this crowdsourced fan art exhibition. What do you expect from involving the fans?
I think you’re going to be overwhelmed by the participation—of how much our fans will participate in what you’re offering them because they like to get involved, they do get involved. If you’ve been to a Depeche Mode concert you’ll know that you don’t go there to stand and watch, you go there to be part of it. Also, in terms of loyalty, our fans have been loyal to us and, like Daniel Miller says, loyalty breeds loyalty, and we’ve constantly tried to make quality music to the highest of our ability and I think that’s why we’re still able to do that.
One last question, about the new album. You gave us an interesting insight into the sound of the new album, it’s very sparse, I think it’s a nocturnal thing, it sounds like it was recorded at night.
The new record is… and when I say sparse I mean it’s direct and less fuss going on, it’s going to be song, song, song, song, song. Martin and I were discussing this before we left New York; we sat down with a producer and we mapped out 12 songs from all the songs we’ve recorded that we felt should be on the record. They can’t all be on the record but hopefully there’ll be later versions of the record that will include everything, because everything could be on there but it would just be too long. It’s like going to see a long movie or long play, after about an hour you start fidgeting and it’s like, ok, where’s this going? The record has to work from start to finish and it has to take you on a small journey. Hopefully this does that.~
As their European tour winds down, our Prague correspondent Lucia Udvardyova reports from an especially memorable occasion. All photos by Markus Nass.
Most of the events I’ve been going to in the last few years have had 100 people tops attending. In the age of diminishing audiences, a sold-out stadium comprising of 35,000 people chanting, singing, screaming and engaging in a interpersonal frenzy all for one band, is something that I haven’t and probably won’t ever see again. The sweltering Tuesday night in a football stadium in Prague welcomed the Essex band with open arms. No wonder, since Depeche Mode fans in former Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe count among the most enthusiastic. I remember listening to Black Celebration as a child in my dad’s car during the ’80s, my black-clad cousin and everybody else doing the same. You were either a long-haired “metal-head” or a “DM head” back then, nothing in-between. The numerous DM revival posters that you still get to see around the city only reinforces the immortality of the band’s appeal.
Prague is a strong and faithful host of Depeche Mode, and tonight’s gig, supported by CHVRCHES, coincides with a rather special occasion, Martin Gore’s 52nd birthday. The moment Gore, the suave songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, delves into his melancholic, romantic delivery— his eyes closed, embracing the moment of sonic crowd communion—hundreds of white signs emblazoned with birthday wishes rise up in the air. As the obligatory “Happy Birthday” is sung— Gore is visibly moved—Dave Gahan swiftly runs from the side of the stage and surprises him with a birthday kiss.
This year has seen the release of DM’s 13th album Delta Machine, which is incorporated into the first half of their show. Obviously, most of the people here are here for live—often amended— renditions of “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy the Silence”, and as one of the most popular bands of the last 30 years, they probably will have to get used to playing the songs of the yesteryear to a sea of incredibly devoted, ecstatic fans. When the old hits get to the fore, the day’s light turns into a dimly-lit evening, and a full moon rises above the walls of the sports amphitheatre. The swirling hands and bodies caressed by colorful lighting conjure an almost psychedelic optical effect.
The svelte Gahan, now in his 50s, is in top form, teasing the audience, jumping, twisting and turning. The baritone vocalist is smooth and natural, like a lion on his turf, commanding the stage as if he was born on it. Watching the quirky, self-conscious performance of “New Life” from 1983, Gahan dressed in a suit like a smart bank clerk, the transformation into a tattooed swarthy frontman of a group that can easily sell out stadiums with music that’s neither saccharine pop or rock, is one of the pop-cultural phenomenons of 20-21st century music. The electronics give way to live instrumentation, sometimes even venturing into blues rock territory.
As the evening draws to a close, I wonder how will they bid farewell, how to bring the town-sized crowd to an apex and let them go. After two and a half hours, it is not Delta Machine‘s “Goodbye” but the classic “Never Let Me Down Again” from Music for the Masses, the final song and the mass of people leave the temporary musical habitat. “Dressed in Black”, it’s been a “Pleasure, Little Treasure”.~
In our ongoing series assessing the impact of Depeche Mode through personal narratives, the songwriter behind one of Germany’s most successful and polarizing pop groups enjoys the sonic violence.
My interest in Depeche Mode developed over time. When I was younger and growing up with songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough”, I actually wasn’t really that into them. Back in those days I was listening to other music. I first discovered my passion for their music when I was a bit older and started going to clubs where they would play new wave and stuff like that. Suddenly, Depeche Mode’s music took on another dimension for me. I remember that the song “Enjoy the Silence” left a major impression on me. The sonic violence of this song and the killer production really blew me away, particularly the way that fading in and out was used with the refrain and the mood that this created. Dave Gahan’s vocals are amazing in that song. The sound that they were able to create by using filters and envelope curves on samples was really groundbreaking at that time. We tried to imitate some of those sounds to use them in the Scooter context but never managed to!
Depeche Mode have certainly influenced me as a producer and I think that their sonic innovations have subtly worked their way into our sound. We even once covered “Stripped”, where we did a version with a proper orchestra arrangement. I would say that we were more drawn to the transcendent and ceremonial elements of their sound, rather than the more morbid elements. There are, of course, many differences between our approach and that of Depeche Mode. Whereas their sound features Martin Gore’s guitar we are more heavily focused on singing. We aren’t really classic songwriters in that sense, but rather producers or directors, people who make something big out of something small. Maybe the biggest similarity between Scooter’s sound and Depeche Mode lies in our attitude, this drive to ensure that all the sonic elements come together and work equally well in a stadium as well as on recordings.~
Read more Depeche Moments here.
In the latest instalment of our series assessing the impact of Depeche Mode through personal narratives, Texan techno savant, bandleader and, for the Düsseldorf leg of the Delta Machine Tour, Depeche Mode opening act, Matthew Dear talks about what it feels like to share a stage with band he first saw live in 1993. Photo by Thomas Fähnrich.
The first time our paths crossed officially was when I did a remix of “Heaven” from Delta Machine, but back in 2007 we saw them play in Detroit. We didn’t have any connections then, we were just fans. We ended up sitting pretty close to the stage, and right before they started playing they had their soundtrack music come on. The first track was from Audion, one of my other projects, and we just started looking at each other. We knew then that Martin was kind of a fan. It was always hovering, this idea that one day something could happen, and then the remix kicked it off. They asked us to open for them in Düsseldorf.
I think 90 percent of the people in the audience weren’t familiar with my work, but there were definitely one or two die-hard Depeche fans near the front going, “Aw yeah! I heard the remix this guy did for them”, so that’s good to hear. The way I look at it is that you shouldn’t get in the way; the fans are there to see Depeche Mode. This is their night to connect with their favorite band, and it’s my job to give them what Depeche Mode wanted me to say. By selecting me they’re telling the fans, “Check out this stuff that we like.” So we did a nice little set, played our hearts out, and hopefully got a few converts. You don’t want to offend anyone in a situation like that. I think it was one of the largest crowds we ever played for. We played in Kiev a few days ago and that was 42,000 tickets sold and that was amazing. It was an open stadium so it felt more festive, and the crowd was looser. I think the people in Germany are a bit more hardcore about Depeche Mode, whereas there I think they were just excited in general. The Germans were definitely more judgmental toward us, but in a good way. We had to earn their applause, and we fed off that.
It’s funny, actually, how big a piece of my career Depeche Mode are. My brother flew in from Texas for these two shows, and my first experience with the band was through him. He’s nine years older than I am; his first introduction to music was Yaz, and it sucked him up into the world of new wave. We were always kind of baffled how, growing up in East Texas, he got access to the kinds of music he did. He actually used to travel to record stores that were miles and miles away just to buy music and talk to the guys who worked there about new stuff. Music For the Masses was one of the first CDs I ever really got into. I was about eight at the time; I remember seeing that big cardboard box that all CDs used to come in back then, and the album cover became so iconic for me. I’d go into my brother’s room and grab all his maxi-CDs with all the remixes and just sit and play them. I loved it, loved anything with synthetic sounds actually.
Fast forward a few years. It’s 1993, I’m 14 years old and about to go to high school, and my brother decides that it’s time to go to a concert. So he takes me to see Depeche Mode on their Songs of Faith & Devotion tour. I was this wide-eyed kid in a huge amphitheater, surrounded by people and knowing all the words to the songs. It was a revelation. I’d started getting into making music, and as I sat there seeing it all I said to myself, “This is what I want to do.” Now I’m opening for Depeche Mode, which is mind-blowing. Now my brother is here, and it’s this perfect full-circle moment.
For more Depeche Moments, click here.