They still can't get enough
Despite being one of the world’s biggest bands, Depeche Mode remain as driven and as indie as ever. And they wouldn’t have it any other way, they tell BRIAN BOYD
DEPECHE MODE still refer to themselves as a “cult” band. This is despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary: the Essex band – who have been going now for close on 30 years – have sold in the region of 100 million records worldwide, their last tour achieved ticket sales of about three million, and their influence is massive.
Pet Shop Boys, Kanye West, The Killers and Coldplay are just a few who have paid tribute to them, either by covering one of their songs or by citing them as one of the reasons they got involved in music.
Yet, in a stuffy London hotel, two-thirds of Depeche Mode – chief songwriter Martin Gore and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher – are still insisting on the “cult” adjective. “Just take a look at what U2 are doing this week,” says Fletcher.
“They’re all over the BBC – on all the programmes, the same sort of programmes we never get asked to do. Don’t get me wrong. We’re friends with U2 and really respect them, but we’re not that far off them in total album sales. And still, we don’t seem to get the same recognition by the media.”
“It was funny watching the Brits – and hearing Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys mention us as an influence in his speech for some achievement award they got,” says Gore.
“We just don’t get considered for those sort of awards. On the other hand, we do get Coldplay covering one of our songs; we get The Killers and Kanye West singing our praises and we get all these heavy metal bands citing us as an influence. Which is fine by me.
“I think the reason we get overlooked for awards is that we’re still signed to the same small independent label all this time. I think a lot of those awards are probably carved up by the bigger labels – so we just don’t figure in the running.” They signed to that small indie, Mute Records, back in 1981 when they were a four-piece (Vince Clarke left the band shortly after to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet, before moving on to Erasure) who specialised in bouncy pop music – their first big hit was the ever-popular anthem Just Can’t Get Enough.
“Vince wrote Just Can’t Get Enoughand all our early hits,” says Gore. “So when he left, I had to take on that role – but that was okay for me, because I had been writing songs anyway. And one of my first songs, See You, was a big hit for us, so that steadied things”.
Twelve albums down the line and Depeche Mode have mutated into a goth-industrial, alt-rock global monster which, musically and visually, is unrecognisable from the Just Can’t Get Enoughdays. “It probably looks like that from the outside,” says Fletcher. “But we didn’t just go from one point to a very different point; it was more of a curved journey. Plus, we are on our 12th album now – so there is bound to be a change.”
Gore puts it down to tours and travel. “We were just kids from this small provincial town called Basildon. When we started having some success and touring around the world, we got a very quick lesson in growing up. We soaked it all up like a sponge. And all those experiences were always going to come out in the music.”
On albums such as Violatorand Songs of Faith and Devotion(both from the early 1990s), the band took on a darker hue, both musically and personally. The three members weren’t on speaking terms (it was all separate limos and separate dressing rooms on tour) and all were battling demons. Lead singer Dave Gahan had a debilitating heroin addiction and clinically “died” twice. Martin Gore had a series of alcohol-related seizures and Andrew Fletcher had a nervous breakdown.
“It’s so long ago and we were very different people then,” says Fletcher. “It was a small period of our lives – and this is over a 30-year career – but we got over it. And we’re working better because of it. Instead of Martin writing all the songs now, Dave Gahan also writes and has three songs on this new album. And the three of us working together is now fun – whereas it hasn’t always been. On this new album, Sounds of the Universe, we actually had 22 songs written upfront before even entering the studio – so that made the whole process a lot smoother.”
“But still the major part of the process for us happens in the studio,” says Gore. “The demos I have are just the skeleton; sometimes we just keep those basic chords and the vocal melodies, but everything else is built upon.”
The songs on Sounds of the Universereveal a more balanced band – both Gore and Fletcher wince a bit when the word “happier” is used – but it’s a very accessible and almost pop-inflected affair, with the odd up-beat moment.
“I suppose we’ve just made it easier on ourselves this time,” says Fletcher, “and that does come through on the songs.” The first single off the album, Wrong, with its pop swagger, sums up the album’s tone.
Given the album will be one of this year’s biggest sellers, extreme measures were taken to ensure that the songs didn’t leak out before the official release date later this month.
“We’ve had playbacks of the album for the president of the label and all of these personnel and they were all frisked electronically before they were allowed in,” says Gore. “It sounds extreme but those are the measures you have to take these days. Some of this has already been leaked – but the material wasn’t finished anyway, the songs were still in a rough state – so that didn’t bother anyone too much.”
Given that most bands now give away something free in advance of a new album release, Depeche Mode are working with Apple’s iTunes to provide a special “iTune Pass”.
“It’s the first time this has been tried; what it means is you buy a pass on iTunes for about the price of an album in the shops and for two weeks before the album’s release you get a series of exclusive tracks sent to you,” says Gore. “Then you get the album itself and every two weeks after, for a month or two, you get remixes, early demos of our music going back over a number of years and DVDs. It’s a really great idea, but for some silly legal reason, we can only make this available in the US – but we’re trying to work around that.”
The ensuing live tour will be one of this year’s most in-demand live musical events. The band almost seem regretful of their stadium superstar status. “People are always asking us to play in smaller venues or visit the countries that aren’t normally included, but there’s a very big fan base there and if we were to play everywhere we wanted to and in the venues we wanted to, we would be on tour for 10 years,” says Gore.
“It also frustrates us that, for a number of years now, we have really wanted to write some film music, but we just don’t get the chance. What Depeche Mode has become controls our lives – for good or bad.”
Sounds Of The Universeis released on April 17. Depeche Mode play Dublin’s O2 on December 10