“Through That Darkness You’ll Find the Light”: A.J. Samuels interviews Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan
This feature is the cover story of our upcoming Spring 2013 Electronic Beats print magazine, available from March 21st. Photo: © Luci Lux / Electronic Beats
With Delta Machine, Depeche Mode have once again decided to use experimental electronics as a vehicle to transport themselves deep into redemptive blues-pop territory. Or is pop structure the vehicle and the territory experimental? With a band whose influence has touched so many disparate genres over its thirty-year history, it’s hard to say. What’s clear, however, is Depeche Mode’s thirteenth LP is a veritable orgy of modular synthesis, unconventionally manipulated to shade the classic songwriting of Martin Gore and Dave Gahan even blacker than usual. Indeed, in the shadows is where the band, and especially frontman Dave Gahan, dwell most comfortably these days. Though Gahan has been clean since 1997, Delta Machine finds the unmistakable baritone articulating his thoughts on pain, addiction, and salvation as if they were a reoccurring dream. “In the darkness is where I find all my ideas of redemption, knowing and understanding,” Gahan recently told A.J. Samuels in New York City. Musically and visually, this translates into nothing less than a proclamation of the band’s ur-goth identity, as the recent video for “Heaven” proudly parades.
Dave, I know you’re currently in the process of prepping for Depeche Mode’s upcoming tour. What does that involve?
Well, it starts out with putting together a list of songs that we want to play, particularly from other albums like Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, and Ultra—all of which ultimately should fit with Delta Machine. Which is to say it all has this strong combination of blues and electronics. Also, we’re thinking about reviving songs that we never really played that much, like “Barrel of a Gun”. Naturally you have to throw things in the fans want to hear. With us it’s a constant debate: “Should we do ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’?”—“I don’t know, should we?” You’ve got to look at it as a song that means a lot to a lot of hardcore fans, but when you do something from thirty years ago, it can be like putting on a pair of pants from thirty years ago: they don’t quite fit anymore, you know? You might really, really like them, but they might not, uh, work.
I know you’re opening up this tour again in Israel. Have you caught shit for playing there and has it affected you at all?
We probably have, but why should it? Music is universal. It’s the one thing that actually brings people together and crosses political boundaries. And politics doesn’t really come into music for us. We’ve always gone to places where we’ve been told not to or whatever. For us it’s an opportunity to play somewhere with a lot of people who’ve been listening to our music for a long time. And when we played there for the first time in front of forty or fifty thousand people, we could feel that they’ve been waiting for this to happen. It was the day after my birthday and I hadn’t even given it a thought until the entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday”, which Martin started. I have an MP3 of it.
Depeche Mode has straddled the line between pop and something more experimental from the very beginning, particularly in the use of sampling and sound design. It’s allowed you to have one foot firmly planted in the world of mass appeal while maintaining a more progressive musical vision. How do you understand the band’s relationship to the musical avant-garde, or at least less pop?
I would say our influences have dictated that relationship since before the band started. We were always drawn in both directions. Growing up, at about the age of fifteen and sixteen, I started getting serious about music. A few years before that in England at the particular time, glam rock and glam pop were also straddling that very line, with Bowie, Roxy Music, T. Rex and Slade. That’s what was being played on the radio. Well, not so much Bowie, but the others. Either way: there is a long history of that flirtation with things that were avant-garde by bands we loved. On the other hand, with twelve or thirteen we were always buying forty-fives and what not, because we didn’t have the money to afford entire albums. And that influenced the way we heard music too; the way it captured our imagination in regards to pop structure. As we got older and punk came out, we were still hearing short, sharp pop songs, but with an edge. I think the real change in terms of deepening our listening habits came with music from Germany, when we formed Depeche Mode at around age seventeen. Things like Kraftwerk and Neu! were available for those who really, really searched. It wasn’t everywhere, you know. So when somebody had a copy of Man-Machine, they shared it. Or they traded amongst friends for something else. Music was a world unto itself. And especially with music that was really out of this world, I always found myself singing along. Like with the world—or worlds—of David Bowie: that’s where I wanted to go. Growing up in this little town east of London, which was really shitty, I always dreamed about being out in space, like Bowie. I wanted to find out where that was.
So more than anything else, music was your form of escape?
Yes. Music has allowed me to escape from a lot of things. I didn’t really fit in. I was just one of those kids… I mean, I tried to fit in with lots of different groups of friends but I was just different; an odd kid. In a way, you could say I was a bit nerdy even though I was hanging out with street kids who were getting in trouble and all that. But that wasn’t really my bag. It wasn’t the person I was. I was more into things I wouldn’t talk to some of my friends about. Like with David Bowie, who was just so androgynous and flamboyant and transported me somewhere else every time I saw him on TV. I can’t overemphasize the importance of that because we didn’t have a lot of money. My mother raised four kids on her own pretty much, worked two jobs and raised us in a really little house. I remember I had a small radio that I would go to bed with. My two little brothers and me shared a small bedroom. I was on a mattress on the floor in a sleeping bag, while they were in the bunk bed. I had this little earpiece thing which I would use to listen late at night to John Peel or whatever weird music that wasn’t on daytime radio or TV, which was another important part of my musical upbringing.
Depeche Mode did a Peel session early on, didn’t you?
Hmmm… I think so. Actually, I don’t know if we did Peel. We certainly did other BBC sessions, and if we did do Peel it’s probably surfaced by now. With technology today, there’s nothing too secret anymore. I find that’s actually one of the challenges of making music today: creating something that has a real mystique to it. It is for me, anyway. And as a listener, I love still discovering things. But recommendations are still the best.
What was the last good recommendation you got?
The last one that really affected me was Sigur Rós’ first record, which I heard somewhere in between Exciter and Paper Monsters. I knew then that I wanted Paper Monsters to be a real rock record with cinematic quality, with atmosphere and depth. Mark Lanegan was also a big discovery for me, which is how I came to Soulsavers, with whom I made their last record. We also ended up touring with them after I discussed it with Martin. You have to be open to ideas, which is why I’ve stepped out of Depeche Mode a lot over the last ten years. I’ve discovered that it makes it much more exciting for me to come back to the band with different ideas and a different outlook on recording and songwriting.
Songwriting is at the core of Depeche Mode, but some of the most important musicians who’ve claimed you as an influence make music that has little to do with classic pop song structure. In an article from The Face that documented the band’s trip to Detroit in 1989 with Derrick May, Martin claimed that Depeche Mode “couldn’t make dance music if we tried.” What’s your take on the band’s influence on electronic music as a whole and functional music in particular?
Well, in the beginning, with Vince [Clarke], dance music is exactly what we wanted to do. I had a little group of friends, a gang, with whom I went to London to all these clubs that extended from the punk scene. And Vince was very smart with getting me on board because I was with the so-called “in crowd” in London and in Essex at the time where I grew up. We would always take the train to these exclusive little clubs in London where they’d be playing Kraftwerk and Berlin-era Bowie—Low, Station to Station—and it ended up being a little scene. It was one to two hundred people tops, and a lot of them were my friends, so Vince saw that we had an in to these places. Naturally, when Depeche Mode started out, my friends would always come. There was a ready-made following of around fifty people who would always be there. And we wanted to make music that we heard in clubs where we danced, you know? We wanted to make music that our friends could dance to that wasn’t disco.
How do you recall your trip to Detroit? And what role did the constant remixes play in popularizing Depeche Mode in clubs?
Well, it was kind of bizarre for us, to be honest. Derrick May was kind of a hipster at the time in the early dance-electronic-techno scene or whatever. Apparently a mix of “Get the Balance Right!” had been a hit in some of these underground clubs in Detroit and elsewhere. You know, that wasn’t a surprise for us because our early following in the U.S. around ’80 or ’81 was very underground. There was no radio play, it was all underground in a club setting. It was all mystery. Nobody knew or cared what we looked like. There were just our records—12-inch remixes and extended versions, which we did from the very beginning. We had an extended “Schizo Mix” of “Just Can’t Get Enough”, for instance. And back then, four-to-the-floor was either Giorgio Moroder and disco, or it was something stranger and deeper—Detroit, Suicide… stuff that was punky and raw, but not perfect. And that’s where we fit in. So we were flattered because at the time The Face was a really trendy magazine in England and we weren’t trendy there at all. We were very misunderstood at the time. You know, it was difficult for any magazine or newspaper to put us into a category and we did a lot of damage ourselves in the early days. We had no manager back then, and if somebody asked us to be on TV, we just did it, and it was inevitably some crappy, poppy, Saturday morning show that was really uncool to do. But we were, like, just trying to get our music out. We certainly weren’t trying to cultivate any kind of following and we got criticized for that. We’ve never really gotten over that in England. It’s one of our least successful markets. Out of all the places in the world… it’s weird.
But nowadays you guys get name-checked as influences by everybody and their cousin. New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones has claimed that you were the last significant British influence on American music. Does the rest of the world’s fawning reassessment of Depeche Mode neutralize the British music press’s past rejections for you?
Well, it makes sense to me that the British press turned their noses up in the beginning because for the first four years we were simply overdoing it with promotion. In England, whatever you do first is never forgotten. But keep in mind we still have a really strong following there and we do really well. We just sold out two O2 arenas, each with a twenty-thousand-person capacity. At any given time, we’re the band that’s had the most Top Forty singles. But in terms of sales, a band like Oasis will sell a million and we won’t sell that much.
OK, but in terms of influence, Oasis is kind of negligible compared to Depeche Mode. And they never got big in America—although it sounds like you don’t take much solace in that.
Well, Oasis are very English. I think we made it in other places because of this underground thing we had going for us, which, outside of the U.K., built very slowly. Our fans are extremely loyal and it just builds and builds and builds. Germany especially has also been really important for us. Last year, we played for the most people we’ve ever played for over there and all together that tour we played for over three million people. That’s really uncommon, especially for bands that have been together for over thirty years. U2 does it, The Rolling Stones do it… but we’re different. We’re a band that’s kind of odd. We don’t fit into that category. We are the alternative. We’re the other side. We mix rock and pop and electronics and dance music and imagery. It’s an artistic form that we’ve created and can use in different ways. We can have remixes done of our music that are drastically different from the original. The Stones can’t really do that. I mean, they can but it’s probably too far left for their fan base. And they probably wouldn’t want to do it either.
You mention your following in Germany, which is known for being obsessive. It was featured prominently and in all its eccentric glory in the documentary about your worldwide fan base The Posters Came from the Walls. Daniel Miller bankrolled the film, but according to Jeremy Deller, who we spoke with last issue, you guys weren’t crazy about how it portrayed you. Why?
First of all, no disrespect to Jeremy Deller. He made an extremely good documentary film about this band that’s pretty accurate in terms of how important we are to some of our fans: in their growth, in their lives, in their beings. When people come up to me on the street, it’s not usually like, “Whoa! It’s the guy!” Rather, most people look me straight in the eye and say: “Thank you so much for the music. It’s truly helped me.” That’s an amazing thing. But what I felt about the film was, and I can’t speak for Martin and Fletch, the whole thing was just too sycophantic, almost to a point of being comedic. And not in a good way. It didn’t show the diversity of our fans and focused in one area. However, that’s also why it was a really good documentary, a really good film. I just felt like us putting it out and putting our name behind it said, “Look how important we are.” It was just self-promotion. Which is OK, it’s what we do. It’s what we’re doing now…
Well, not only.
That’s true. Anyhow, I’d have to see it again. But I’ve already watched it twice. The whole drum corps and the Russian girl with the drawings of us, and of course the German family… it wasn’t objective enough for me. Even if it was well done. And the timing was weird, much too focused on what was and not what is today.
Back to today, you guys left Mute to release Delta Machine, though Mute has always been, amongst other things, an anchor of coolness for you guys in terms of association. Why the label change?
It’s kind of complicated. Daniel’s certainly been very involved in the making of this record—with the process of recording and lots of the choices made throughout the whole journey. What happened was around the time of Exciter, Daniel, with our blessing, signed Mute to EMI. And he gave over a lot of control to them. He retained complete artistic control, but right before we were set to record Delta Machine, there were rumors about EMI folding. We didn’t want to be stuck in limbo and have this thing stuck in the courts, because you hear about this stuff happening. Now Daniel still owns Mute Artists, but not Mute Records, which he tried to buy back after he sold it, without success. He got outbid and was very upset, which I only found out recently. He wanted to take it all back, but we basically told him, “Dan, we’ve got to move on.” And we don’t want to be the lynchpin that holds it all together. We had to ask ourselves, “Where is Mute? What is Mute? Who’s distributing it?” So we decided to shop around and Sony came up with the best offer to make sure Daniel is still around for us, and to make sure we were able to gain control of what we’re doing. Most importantly, in 2015, we’ll be able to get control of our entire catalogue. We’ll own it. It won’t be in limbo. After Delta Machine, we’ll be in real control. For us, Daniel’s one of the most important parts of what we do. He’s a constant and we want to keep it that way.
In his recent biography, Simon Spence described the band as purveyors of a particularly British electronic blues, based in the hardship and working class background of Basildon…
But it seems to me that somewhere around Violator, the band’s blues have changed to something much more spiritual and classically American—which is especially apparent on Delta Machine. Much of the record deals with traditional blues tropes of battling the devil and exorcising demons. To what extent do drugs and addiction continue to be your main demon?
Well, certainly the music has become very Americana. We were these kids from this little town who were influenced by the hell that we lived in and wanted to get out. Music was a way to get out and see the world and we were all very ambitious to do that. We loved to travel, to record in Berlin or Spain or Denmark or wherever. The kids where I grew up didn’t leave town, and at a very young age I was looking for something else. That’s probably why drugs played such a big role in my life. They took me to a place that was not in this body. I’m much more comfortable with that now, and that comes with age and experience of life. I was talking to my wife about it last night, because a friend of ours has gone through something extremely traumatic about a year ago, really bad stuff. I was just telling her that I really have nothing to complain about and all the things I thought were so horrible about life seem, from my perspective now, not so bad.
Along with music, you also started getting high at a young age. When was the first time you took heroin and what was the experience like?
It was actually a kind of mistake, and I was a lot younger—around eighteen or nineteen years old. I remember it was at a gig in London and I thought the heroin was amphetamines, so I took a bunch and then I got violently ill. I missed the whole gig and came to in the corner of the club. It wasn’t something I was so interested in so it didn’t surface again until the late eighties—’88 or ’89. And even then it was sporadic. But in my experience it all starts with being way too high on cocaine and then somebody’s like, “You should smoke a little of this, it’ll bring you back down.” For some reason when that happened, I took to it like a duck to water. The key fit the lock. I was like, “Wow, this really works for me.” Over the next few years after moving to Los Angeles, I used that drug a lot. I loved it. It was the first thing I really felt in love with. Addicts are a weird bunch; we’re always looking for something to get out of ourselves. I’m aware of the fact that I generally overindulge, but today it’s in other things. Even the way I perform onstage, I have to go 110% and Martin always says I’m too hard on myself and tells me to chill out. My body’s getting older and I can’t do the things I did when I was twenty-five. I don’t recover so quickly. It’s been fifteen years since I drank anything or did any drugs, but at the time when I was in my late twenties, it took over everything because it worked for me. I’m not going to sit here and put it down. I was able to function with it and do what I wanted to do… Until it didn’t work anymore and I was sick all the time. Once you’ve gone to a place like that, it’s in your soul, it’s in your spirit. It’s there. I had that experience. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, in terms of where it goes, but I really felt at that age that I could deal with it. I could take it or leave it. People would always warn me not to take it more than a few days, and I guess I should have listened. Especially when I moved to L.A. at the time it was a very trendy drug. The music scene and the Hollywood scene—or should I say the “darker” Hollywood scene that I hung out with—was getting high. So it just fit. And the drug gave me a break from myself. It was the first drug I used that allowed me to escape from my thoughts and get my head to stop spinning.
Do you still consider yourself a recovering addict?
That’s a good question. I like going to meetings. I don’t have to go to so many any more, but I have lots of friends who are recovering addicts who I can talk to.
The title Delta Machine references the album’s mix of blues and technology. Have you noticed a change in DM’s sound with the introduction of new technology and digital production tools? The in-the-studio video for “Angel” certainly shows you guys more in the midst of analog gear revelry, even though I couldn’t totally detect that.
I would say the album’s sound is very much influenced by modular synthesis, and there is actually very little use of plug-ins. Our producer Ben Hillier interviewed all sorts of musicians to work on this record, and they all said “Oh yeah, we know electronics.” But what they meant was that they knew how to program software and things on the computer. They didn’t know really how to use the massive modular hardware systems—ARP gear and all that. The thing is that Martin actually collects this stuff and has entire rooms full of modular set-ups, so we did quite a bit of experimenting. For example, Martin might come up with a guitar riff, but we’ll send it through an ARP 2600 and get something very different out of it in the end. We wanted to keep this album truly moving and breathing, get it off the grid. We were constantly asking ourselves how we could make an electronic record and not be tied down by quantization. With modular stuff you get a sound the way you want it and then you’ll be like “Ok, that’s good, that’s good, don’t touch it, it’s just right!” And then with the next run of it the filter sounds different or the release is shorter or something… there are things that are always changing and so many parameters being tweaked. The unpredictability is exciting.
Using modular synthesis to make pop songs instead of experimental electronics is a very Depeche Mode thing to do.
You have to be extremely patient to work these things and Martin really knows how to do it. There were days where I would get bored out of my mind, trust me. We had this studio in downtown Santa Barbara. Martin would be in there fiddling around and after hours of patching I would be like, “Am I going to sing today?” All you would hear was [imitates far out mod synth sounds], and I’d be like “Jesus Christ!” Christoffer Berg and Martin were just this perfect couple, walking around all day, plugging in and out of these giant machines with cables around their necks. I’ve got loads of pictures of it.
Depeche Mode always had a reputation for being sonic futurists, while the songwriting was always very classical. Delta Machine seems to really home in on this dichotomy.
Martin is a futurist. I’m not. And that’s why it works. I’m the one who’s always trying to bring in this really human element, if you like. Martin’s songs, like mine, are written in a more “regular” format, if you will. The demos are usually a lot warmer. When I first heard the ones for Delta Machine at his house I said, “I don’t think we should be doing a lot to this stuff.” What struck me is that even though it was really electronic and he used a lot of plug-ins to make the demos, it moved. It didn’t feel changed or transferred. It just sounded progressive, like with “Angel” or “Welcome to My World”. It was all very visual. I could see myself onstage performing these songs. That’s where I go when I write. Martin does it differently. At the end of the album, after we worked on “Long Time Lie” together, Martin asked me “Would you be interested in me sending you things to write to?” And I was like, “If it’s as abstract as just sending me interesting sounds or chords and atmosphere, then yeah, I’ll come up with the rest.” I can sit down and work out songs and chords, but I prefer bouncing ideas off someone else. I think it was Martin’s way of complementing me that I’m a good enough songwriter now. That after ten years he feels like we’re on the same kind of page.
I recently rewatched D.A. Pennebaker’s 101 and then got to thinking about his famous Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. For me, one of the most fascinating scenes is when Donovan and Dylan meet in Dylan’s hotel room, and Donovan plays him some really mediocre song, and then Dylan shows him up with, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. It’s almost painful to watch. Were there ever awkward or uncomfortable moments collaborating or meeting other artists outside of Depeche Mode? What about the competitive spirit in the band?
As a songwriter I constantly hear things where I wonder, “Why didn’t I write that?” There have been moments meeting people where it’s like, “I know you. I know what you’re getting at. I know the person who writes that song. Maybe I don’t know you, but I know the person you’re talking about is in your soul.” I think there’s definitely been a healthy competition with Martin since I started writing—not because I was a better songwriter, but because I was jumping in on his turf. That’s really changed. I can now feel a mutual admiration. I’ve really come to respect Martin’s amazing work and discipline. Songs like “Heaven” are what got me excited about making this album.
The video for “Heaven” seemed to me like an overt avowal of Depeche Mode’s goth identity.
That’s where I dwell! In the shadows and in the darkness is where I find all my ideas of redemption, knowing and understanding. Through that darkness you’ll find the light. And I can’t go any other way. Music does that, you know? All that stuff I was afraid of and trying to escape in the late eighties—that constant noise—I can escape by writing songs. And it used to be only through drugs. You can’t think your way into doing the right thing. You have to act your way into it. Sitting on my couch getting high, was not going to change my spirit. But crawling off my couch and writing music did. ~
Published March 11, 2013. Words by A.J. Samuels.