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Fashion Victims

After a decade of near-faceless (and guitar-less) superstardom, Depeche Mode strives to get personal with the new Songs of Faith and Devotion.

By Marc Weidenbaum

(Though this article is dated May 1, 1993, it was added to this website on August 22, 2012. More details: “Depeche Mode, Circa 1993.”)

Depeche Mode don’t get any respect. Just ask lead singer David Gahan — that is, if you can single him out of the quartet’s lineup. To this day, he is approached by purportedly devout vans who mistake him for the group’s songwriter and ever-so-infrequently contributing vocalist, Martin Gore. Gahan recently traded sanitary synth-pop couture for biker chic — shoulder-length black hair, an emaciated frame embroidered with tattoos — a change than should help distinguish him from his impish, goldilocked compatriot.

Or ask Gore, who says people concentrate too much on Depeche Mode’s synth-pop instrumentation and not enough on its songs. Sure, he appreciates all the recent revisionist critical attention lavished on the band. After a decade-plus of guitar-less devotion to the hi-tech trinity — synthesizer, sequencer, sampler — the group’s 11-album and innumerable-single/remix catalog is being revisited in light of the pop-cultural explosion of rave, techno, and other machine-fueled dance musics. He is likewise thankful that Depeche Mode is no longer pigeonholed with Spandau Ballet, OMD, and other MIA British “new romantic” bands of the early 1980s. But all things said, the songwriter would rather be remembered as a songwriter — and not be credited with “the demise of the song,” which is how he sums up the result of rave’s jubilant fetishization of mindlessness, fad, and surface pleasure.

Or ask Alan Wilder, who remains to all but the most loyal fan the group’s anonymous newcomer, though he joined Depeche Mode more than a decade ago. The rest of the band call him Musical Director, which still understates his almost single-handed responsibility for the band’s sound. Abetted by producer Flood, Wilder constructed virtually everything that the group’s new album, Songs of Faith and Devotion (Sire/Mute/Reprise), pumps through your stereo speakers, aside from Gahan’s sad-eyed baritone and Gore’s occasional boy tenor and tremulous, Curtis Mayfield–flavored guitar. “People have no conception of the detailed work that goes into making a record these days,” Wilder says at Olympic Studios in Barnes, just a brief cab ride southwest of central London. “All this technology is designed to give you an emotional reaction, and that’s why it annoys me when people say, ‘Isn’t your music robotic because you use synthesizers?’ Because we go to such lengths to make sure that the technology gives you some kind of feeling.”

Or ask fourth and final Depeche member Andrew Fletcher. Long since having relinquished any musical input, he oversees the group’s business operations (the band is entirely self-managed). In the group’s collective cockney, Fletcher (or “Fletch,” as the others call him) can readily quote market research, publicity strategies, and sales figures, both past and projected. “In essence, we’re a packet of cornflakes,” Fletcher states flatly in a small pub across the street from Olympic Studios, where Wilder is finishing remixes on the new album’s second single (“Walking in My Shoes”) and Gore is absorbed by a televised soccer match. (Gahan spends much of his time with his second wife, an American, in Los Angeles, where he was interviewed a week after the other three quarters of his band convened in Barnes; each was interviewed separately). “We’re a product,” says Fletcher, “and we appeal to a certain type of person. But we try not to let that bother us at all. We just really try and concentrate on making a good record.” Yet for all his detailed knowledge of audience demographics, Fletcher still can’t comprehend how Depeche Mode acquired its gloom-merchant reputation. “Obviously, compared to Kylie Minogue, we are doomy,” he concedes.

The mistaken identities, unflattering idolatry from this year’s pop models, and a reputation for mechanical, sullen music certainly have not hurt the band. In support of its last album, 1990’s Violator, Depeche Mode toured to 1.2 million faces, the last 75,000 of whom attended a single concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. An album-signing appearance at a Wherehouse record store in Los Angeles required more than 130 police officers to disperse at least 10,000 fans. Of course, Southern California has always been a Depeche stronghold (“We were long considered a West Coast act in America,” says Fletcher of the early days. “Not bad for a group from Basildon”), but multi-platinum album sales have established the band’s global stature.

Even pop culture’s intelligentsia have caught the bug. Producer Brian Eno, whose 1992 Nerve Net album shows him to be more comfortable than Gore with the “Godfather of Rave” title, contributed two resoundingly ambient remixes of the otherwise pile-driving “I Feel You,” the first single off the new album. And last year, film director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire), who has worked previously with Depeche Mode’s fellow Mute Records compatriots Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, struggled for months to tempt the band from a year’s sabbatical to contribute a song to his movie Until the End of the World. He received “Death’s Door,” one of the band’s best, a Kurt Weill–ish dirge whose bluesy flavor and acoustic sensibility heralded the band’s new direction on Songs of Faith and Devotion, with its hallmark gospel, blues, and swaggering guitars.

Not bad, indeed. Certainly not for a band whose leader and primary songwriter dropped out after a single album. From the start, back in 1980, Depeche Mode (French for “fast fashion”) was one man’s idea. That man was neither Gahan, Gore, Wilder, nor Fletcher but Vince Clarke, who departed after releasing Speak & Spell and its hit single, a bit of keyboard-driven disco called “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

Though Depeche Mode clearly has survived the loss, and Clarke’s later success with Yaz and Erasure seems more an odd footnote than anything else, Fletcher reflects the entire group’s sentiment (all are in their early 30s) when he says, “Vince was important to the concept of the band. Without him, we wouldn’t have known where we were going. He was the driving force. It’s weird, really. I don’t think he ever regretted leaving. I think he felt he could do it all by himself, and it’s true — he could.”

So could Depeche Mode.

A so-called “quiet period” followed the highly successful debut, when the three remaining members, Gahan, Gore, and Fletcher, issued A Broken Frame. But 1983’s Construction Time Again announced the arrivals of Alan Wilder and freelance sample-innovator Gareth Jones, who later worked with industrial heavy Einstürzende Neubauten. Recalls Gahan (pronounced “Gone”), “We were experimenting with sampling for the first time. We were going out on the streets, kicking things, smashing things, and getting really into it.” The album marked the sonic inventiveness that would both buttress later weak efforts, such as 1986’s Black Celebration, and push Gore’s best compositions (“People Are People,” “Master & Servant,” “Clean”) over the top. Wilder flirted with songwriting, but soon retired to the shadows of the studio, leaving those instincts to his solo projects, under the name Recoil. Three singles packages targeted the band’s growing audience around the time of the Some Great Reward studio album (1984). 1987’s Music for the Masses showed the band changing orientation, from scattered singles to coherent albums. 1989 brought Depeche Mode 101, an unusually frank tour film documentary, directed by D.A. Pennebaker of Monterey Pop fame, and 101, a live double-album.

Violator arrived exactly a decade after the band signed with its English label, Mute, and for the first time introduced a guitar into the mix, with the lead single, “Personal Jesus,” the band’s hardest-driving song yet. “People still miss that,” says Gore. “The main point of that song is the guitar riff. People still consider us an electronic band. And it was followed by ‘Enjoy the Silence.’ The main riff on that, again, was guitar. Half of that song was guitar,” he trails off, somewhat incredulous.

Well, you can’t miss the guitar on Songs of Faith and Devotion. “Walking in My Shoes” sets a Johnny Marr nod over a hip-hop beat. “Mercy in You” rocks à la U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky,” no doubt thanks to Flood, who assisted on the Irish band’s Achtung Baby sessions (his album-production credits include Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails). And the bottleneck-riddled “I Feel You” one-ups “Personal Jesus.” From the opening tire screech through the rousing chorus of closer “Higher Love,” the album is permeated with Martin Gore’s aggressive six-string.

“I’m convinced that we wouldn’t be here today if we had signed to a major label,” Martin Gore states succinctly. “After the initial success of Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame was a very quiet period for us. It didn’t do nothing, but it didn’t do anything astounding, and I think we would have fallen into second-album syndrome and would have been dropped by our third album.”

Signed to Sire in the U.S., Depeche Mode remains with its initial label, Mute, in England. The last of the original post-punk U.K. independents — Rough Trade (the Smiths, the Fall) and Factory (New Order, Happy Mondays) having folded in the past two years — Mute is headed by Daniel Miller who, after a stint in the Normal (best known for “Warm Leatherette,” covered by Grace Jones), built his label around industrial and synth-pop bands. “It’s a miracle that we were actually able to turn down all of this money that was being offered,” says Gore of their choice to sign with Mute over suitors like CBS (now Sony Music), “and it’s obviously turned out in our favor. We’ve always had lots of freedom to do whatever we want.” The band only recently signed its first contract with Miller; says Fletcher, “It really only covers what happens if Daniel dies.”

Miller has production credit on the band’s early efforts, but proved as laissez-faire in the studio as he was in the office. The presence of producer Flood on Depeche Mode’s Violator and, now, Songs of Faith and Devotion no doubt explains the increasing coherence, the sense of sounds meshing, that eluded previous records. But the band’s haphazard history is the welcome price paid for a manger-free existence: no svengali, no guru, no master, just some scraped knees up the pop-music hill. Says Fletcher, “I suppose if we’d just said, ‘Ask the manager’ all along, we wouldn’t have learned as much as we have.” (Integral to Depeche Mode’s satellite team, photographer Anton Corbijn first directed a video for the band in 1986. Known for his countless Spin covers and prevalent work with U2 and R.E.M., he now coordinates all the band’s visuals. Says Fletcher of Corbijn’s high profile, “It is a concern. We have to work hard with him to try and make our stuff different, because it’s very easy for him to lapse.” The sleeve for Songs of Faith and Devotion, the band’s first studio album to feature their faces on the cover, does smack of Achtung Baby.)

Gahan quotes Flood on the subject of the band’s unorthodox hierarchy: “He said to me that Al is sort of the craftsman, Martin’s the idea man, and I am the attitude.”

Which leaves us with Fletcher. “Well, Andy isn’t musical at all,” says Gore, clearly a bit more comfortable with the subject than the other members. “He has absolutely no interest in music. He’s never bought a record to my knowledge. He’s not only not interested in learning to play an instrument, he doesn’t have interest in actually wanting to listen to music. So, being in a band and having no interest in music meant that he had to have interests elsewhere, so he tries to deflect all the flack of the business side away from the rest of us, and allow us to concentrate on making a record. And if decisions have to be made, he has to” — he pauses — “he’ll comes to us and say, ‘Look, they want us to do this, what do you think?’ And we’ll have a discussion about it.”

Fletcher responds to the obvious question: “Why am I in a band? It was accidental right from the beginning. I was actually forced to be in the band. I played the guitar and I had a bass; it was a question of them roping me in. I was never really that interested. Even when the band got going, I was just there for the social bit of it. And all of a sudden we started doing well. It was, rather than sort of making myself into a superb muso, I tried to go in a different direction.”

Asked if he ever sees Fletcher retiring from performing, Gore responds, laughing, “Maybe we should set a fax machine up for him on stage.”

Fletcher’s non-musicality remains the second oddest facet of Depeche Mode, the first being the fact that Martin Gore rarely sings his own songs (just twice on the new album: “One Caress,” backed by a large string ensemble, and “Judas,” with Middle Eastern echoes of Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ score). Gahan sings everything else, having written not a single syllable of what are often highly personal lyrics. Yes, the arrangement is only unusual in pop music since the rise of the singer-songwriter. And even then there are precedents, like the Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry, and Rush’s Neil Peart and Geddy Lee. But with Depeche Mode, the situation is compounded by Gore’s single-minded thematic agenda and deeply emotional content.

“It is weird,” admits Gahan. “It’s really strange. I suppose, when I sing his songs, I feel they’re mine. I really get into the words. Martin writes from experience, especially his experience with the band. And because we spend a lot of time together, you’ll experience it as well. So lots of times I feel really close, actually, to Martin’s lyrics, and especially the last two albums, this one and Violator.

“It’s either religion or sex with Martin, pretty much, or somewhere in between the two. But they’re pretty close anyway, let’s face it.”

True enough. Having long since dropped the subjects of society’s ills (“New Dress,” “Everything Counts”) and overt religious criticism (“Blasphemous Rumours,” “Nothing”), Gore has focused more closely with each record on interpersonal relations; themes of absolution through love and obsessive, sadomasochistic sexual longing pervade Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion. What keeps the material fresh on the new album is its infusion of gospel and blues, natural elements further amplified by Wilder’s live drumming and the ubiquitous ringing of guitars. “I’ve always been fascinated by religion,” Gore says, by way of agreement, “which has come out in my songs anyway. I just haven’t tried to make the music be so obviously religious before.” (As for the album’s relatively upbeat mood, Gore credits the birth of his first child, now a year and a half old.)

The gospel elevates Gore’s lyrics, especially on “Get Right With Me,” complete with backing chorus. (Along with the “One Caress” string section and the uilleann pipes on “Judas,” this is the first time the band has commissioned outside musicians.) The chain-gang-flavored “Condemnation” is the new record’s best cut, marrying its most inventive sounds (rattling chains, resonant backing vocals) and far and away Gahan’s best singing. The work compares favorably with Aretha Franklin–fan George Michael’s few sterling pop achievements, like “Freedom 90,” “I Want Your Sex,” and “Father Figure.”

Gore’s fixation with gospel does leave him wide open to criticism of pastiche: yet another white musician co-opting sacred black music. “We always put a stamp on what we do,” he answers. “And anyway, I think it’s wrong to show too much respect for religion as it is generally perceived. I don’t really have much respect for organized church. I believe in God in some form. I don’t think anyone could ever be accused of doing something wrong for just trying to spread a message of love.”

Alan Wilder is the “muso” Fletcher opted not to be. Open to discussion of all aspects of the band, he only really gets excited when speaking about the music. The mention of a sampled brushed snare, heard on both the Weill-ish “Death’s Door” and Violator’s “Sweetest Perfection,” serves as a launch pad for his ideas about music production. “I played that myself,” says Wilder of the snare, “but it was sampled off and then sequenced. The idea of lots of bits of performance re-sequenced and restructured really appeals to be, because it’s what we do all the time. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s all the human performance, all the dynamics of the performance, all the emotion that goes into performance, but then it’s restructured in such a way that you could never do if you tried to play the whole thing from start to finish. The technology suggests to you to do it a different way, a more original way, perhaps. Just to take loops of bits of performance and really treat them very unusually, stick them through amps and whatever, just gives the whole thing a new twist. And I really like that approach.”

In yet another facet of the deeply human nature of Songs of Faith and Devotion, Wilder has discovered that there’s no greater fountain of sample-able material than the human voice. “If you think about it,” he says, “the degree of possibilities from the human voice is so great, and just a slight change of mouth movement can create a different sound. It offers you so much more control. I suppose the voice is one generation closer to generating a sound: you don’t have to go through your body to another instrument.

“And there’s so many sounds [on the album] that are created from the voice that you wouldn’t know were taken from the voice, like rhythm sounds. The number of times I’ve been sitting in the studio and said, ‘I wish I could get a bass that would just go [mimics wet, thick hip-hop bass-drum sound].’ Then I think, ‘Why can’t I just go [repeats noise] into a mic and sample it?” It’s obvious; you spend all day trying to get a synthesizer to try and create this sound but you just go [repeats noise] and you’ve got it, so you might as well do it. Then you can send it through some other device after that, and you’ve got something that sounds absolutely nothing like a voice, but the source was a voice. So, yes, it is a very interesting process.”

(For a peek at a nascent Depeche Mode blues effort, check out “Electro Blues for Bukka White” on Alan Wilder’s 1988 Recoil album Bloodline, for which Wilder stripped a White record of its instrumentation and set the down-home vocal over an inventive synth track.)

One of the great potentials of pop music, and pop culture in general, is that it speaks directly to the masses. For decades, errant professorial types and media-lab researchers have produced volumes of computer music and seen little acknowledgement by the population at large. Bands like Depeche Mode and New Order, however, have ridden the subtle suggestion of the computer-as-musical-instrument straight into the mass mind, aloft on a series of catchy tunes.

Admits Wilder, “In a way we are kind of conning people, by giving them the things the recognize — like a good strong melody — which draws them in, and then they start to notice the approach. That’s something we’re aware of, and something that we do try consciously to do, without getting too pretentious about it all. It’s really a personal thing, actually, a way to keep yourself interested in what you’re doing by challenging yourself.”

Martin Gore has not quite come to grips with the fact that sometimes his band’s sound overshadows his songwriting, that rave musicians could claim as an influence a band whose sole mantra is “The song comes first.” Says Gore, “I feel sad to be a songwriter that’s caused the demise of the song. People who make house music and techno music these days feel the need to release a record within a week of buying their first computer and their first sampler. And unfortunately what the world has to suffer most of the time is very unlistenable and very boring. And I think [the guitar on Songs of Faith and Devotion] is a subconscious reaction to that, like we’ve almost gone full circle to the very thing we reacted against in 1980.”

Depeche Mode has come a long way since the Casio pre-set days of “Just Can’t Get Enough”; guitars, drums, and a deep acoustic ambience are now part and parcel of its sound. Given the band’s newfound performance sensibility, from the new album’s gospel intonations to its rich-toned, static-laced electric guitar, MTV Unplugged seems a natural outlet. “We are considering it,” says Gore. “‘Unplugged’ is such a vague term, though. You see some people go on there and they play their normal concert, with electric guitars. If we go on ‘unplugged,’ all you’re going to hear is the keys clicking.”

The above article is a slightly edited version of the piece that appeared in the May 1993 issue of the magazine Pulse!

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