Black Celebration

You wouldn’t recognize them on the street, but there’s no mistaking the soul in Depeche Mode’s synth-driven sound. Story by J.D. Considine

It’s a bright Thursday afternoon, and Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore is walking me through Notting Hill to the Rough Trade record shop on Talbot Street. In the Seventies and early Eighties, Rough Trade was a punk rock mecca, its bins bursting with underground LOPS and obscure indie singles. Times change, though, and while the shop’s walls are still papers with posters for the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the stock itself is mostly given over to 12-inch dance singles and CDs of obscure electronica.

That’s just fine as far as Gore is concerned, though. "I love the underground electronic stuff now, because it has a real alternative feel to it," he says. "Much more than alt-rock. It almost goes back to the punk ethic, where people who are making the records will be happy to sell five copies." He laughs, "Whereas everyone who has been signed by an alternative label these days wants to be the biggest band in the world."

Gore is a voracious listener and usually does his CD shopping via the Internet. But at the moment, he and the rest of Depeche Mode are ensconced in a studio just a few blocks away from the Rough Trade shop, and the temptation was too great to ignore. "I went in there yesterday and spent £400 on modern stuff," he says, almost guiltily. "Real abstract electronic music."

As we cross the street, a pair of West Indian youths come ambling down Westbourne Park Road. We barely take notice, but apparently one of the lads doesn’t like the look of us. "Wot are you lookin’ at?" he bellows. Wot the fuck are you lookin’ at?" Gore, eyes widened in alarm, pulls his head down into his jacket and picks up his pace. Unfortunately, this only convinces the young tough that Gore had been giving him the evil eye. "I’m not playin’ that game anymore," the youth rages incoherently. "That game’s over you hear? It’s fuckin over!" And with that, he runs up and plants a foot squarely in Gore’s back – not hard enough to knock the rocker over, but with sufficient vehemence to send the two of us scurrying across the street.

Gore, fortunately, is more rattled than hurt. "We’re lucky," he says, clearly shaken. "He could have had a knife. We’re really lucky he didn’t have a knife." Half an hour later, he’s back at the recording studio where Depeche Mode – which at this point consists of Gore, singer David Gahan, and keyboardist Andy Fletcher – is putting the final touches on Exciter with producer Mark Bell. As they stand among the computers and keyboard scattered about the main room, Gore, who recently traded the dank cold of London for the sunnier climes of California, describes walking back from the record shop, desperately hoping that his assailants wouldn’t be lurking about, eager for round two.

Gahan, who moved to Manhattan some years ago is flabbergasted. "I’ve never had anything like that happen in New York," he says, thinking England should be safer. Only Fletcher, the groups last reaming Londoner, remains unsurprised. "Notting Hill (which looked so safe when Hugh Grant was romancing Julia Roberts in the movies) is eroding, he says, and the neighbourhood is seeing more "dodgy types" like Gore’s attacker.

But the strangest thing about the incident goes utterly unremarked. Here’s Depeche Mode, the most successful and enduring of all England’s electro-pop acts, about to complete its 14th release. The group has sold millions of albums in the U.S. and Europe, has had singles in the Top 10 and videos in heavy rotation on MTV, and has been packing houses on the arena circuit since the late Eighties. And yet, its members wander about as if they were just average Joes, without giving off the slightest hint of wealth, importance, or rock star arrogance. So even as Gore goes on about whether his attacker might return, no one even considers suggesting he get a bodyguard or a limo.

But that’s Depeche Mode for you.

"Take an average guy on the street, who’s bought Ultra or some of our other stuff," says Fletcher later. "if I was sitting in a bar, I’d bet 90 percent of them would never put two and two together and recognize me. Because we’ve always made big efforts not to publicize our faces. It’s a bit like Pink Floyd, in a sense. If one of Pink Floyd was over there, you wouldn’t know it was him, necessarily. Everybody knows the name, but they don’t necessarily know the people in the group."

As if to underscore his point, Fletcher is attracting no attention whatsoever as he sits in a neighbourhood bar, sipping beer. Granted, the tall, casually dressed musician looks pretty much like any other 40-ish beer drinker in the joint. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Fletcher is absolutely right – there’s almost nothing the average rock fan knows about Depeche Mode.

Except, of course, the music.

Depeche Mode started out in the 1980’s, trying hard to stand out in a British scene dominated by punk. "I was never a punk," says Gore. "I used to love the music, but I never dressed as a punk." Gahan did, but it wasn’t like he was wedded to the fashion. "It was a chance to escape," the singer says. He loved the energy of punk and was especially drawn to the opportunities afforded by the scene’s do-it-yourself aesthetic. "It was something that I knew I was destined to do, and it was just a matter of finding the right place."

Actually, the place found him. Gore and Fletcher, along with Vince Clarke, had formed Depeche Mode in 1980. Although it was initially a standard rock ensemble, with only Gore on synth, it quickly went all electronic as Gore and Clark sought to forge a new sound. Only one piece was missing, a singer. "Someone who could stand in front and make this thing happen. It was the key," says Gahan. Eventually, the band approached Gahan, who was rehearsing with a punk band in the same studio space. "I was like, ‘You got any gigs?’ And they had a couple of gigs. So, that was it. I joined these guys."

Like most of the bands that bubbled in the early Eighties’ electro boom, Depeche Mode started off as a synthpop act, with the emphasis on the "pop". Its early singles, in part reflecting Clarke’s sensibility, were upbeat and pop-friendly, with several – most memorably the breathless "Just Can’t Get Enough" – cracking the English Top 10. That changed when Clarke left and Gore became the sole tunesmith. Beginning with "Everything Counts" in 1983, Depeche Mode’s sound became darker and more distinctive, touching on the clangor of industrial music, but leaving its austere textures with easily digested hooks.

It was a sound unlike anything else on the scene, but it didn’t take long for listeners to catch on. Within two years, "People Are People," a quietly pointed plea for tolerance and understanding, had caught enough ears to creep up to No. 13 on the U.S. pop charts. And though the band only cracked the U.S. top 10 once, with the endearingly mournful, "Enjoy the Silence" in 1990, its audience grew steadily, until Depeche Mode was regularly going Platinum.

"I think we got very tired of the pop thing we were doing," Gore says of the shift in direction. "There was the advent of new technology, as well. "Everything Counts" was the first time we ever used a sampler which has been one of our major tools ever since."

That Gore would focus on the gear is typical. He was, after all, the group’s first synth player, and even today seems to revel in the minutiae of programming and tweaking the sound of electronic instruments. "It can be very mind-numbingly boring to sit around," says Gahan, as Gore and Bell fine-tune a track in another room. "For me, anyway. There’s a lot of what we like to call "screwdriver work" that goes on – hours and hours and hours of it. And they’re working very hard at it. But for me, sitting there, sometimes it can feel like this is not making music. You know? This is not like sitting and playing with somebody."

In fairness, Gore’s input isn’t entirely devoted to screwdriver work. True he’s largely responsible for the interwoven synths that click and sputter beneath Gahan’s vocal on the group’s current single, "Dream On." But Gore also provides the itchy acoustic guitar line whose sly syncopations lubricate the clockwork synth pulse. And contrary to what you might think, the electronics didn’t come first. "When I wrote ‘Dream On,’ I just played it on the acoustic guitar first," says Gore. Once he had the basic melody and structure down, he loaded the song into a computer and began adding electronics. "We were going to take off somewhere totally different, with different kinds of electronics happening. We were only about five days into recording and we just said, ‘Why don’t we just pull up the guitar, and see what it sounds like.’ It worked out really well, because the recording was totally electronics and the last thing you expected to hear was an acoustic guitar."

Maybe so, but that underlying sense of humanity amidst technology has long been the hallmark of the band. It isn’t just a matter of instrumental texture, though the guitar-and-synth blend has been a staple of the band’s sound since Gore’s Duane Eddy licks drove "Personal Jesus" up the charts. Nor is it as simple as the onstage contrast between Gahan’s manic activity and the passivity of the players behind him.

No, what ultimately makes the difference are the songs themselves. Listen to the past carefully programmed synths, and there’s a deep sense of rock and roll roots in the songs of Exciter. Not only is there a sly use of the blues vocabulary in "Dream On" and "The Sweetest Condition" but the melodic ideas in "Breath" and "Goodnight Lovers" draw quite explicitly from the pop styles of the Fifties and Sixties. There’s even a hint of doo-wop to the backing vocals in "Goodnight Lovers."

"That was my earliest influence," says Gore, explaining his the oldies fixation. "When I was 10, I discovered a bag of records in my mother’s cupboard, and it was all early Elvis, Del Shannon, and Chuck Berry, and some early Sixties stuff. That’s what made me fall passionately in love with music." Yet as much as Gore might draw inspiration and comfort from this music – and according to Fletcher, Gore does a killer Elvis impression – there’s never a sense of anything secondhand in Depeche Mode’s sound. "We make it sound very comtemporary. I think that’s one of the great things about this record – it does sound really cutting edge. Because it’s just so weird."

There has always been something slightly odd about Depeche Mode. For instance, when the band was touring behind its biggest album, the triple-Platinum 1990 release Violator, its sets reeked of industrial chic, with massive platforms for the synths that loomed ominously over the audience. Nor were the musicians any more inviting, decked out as they were in black leather and bondage gear. In all, the look was ominous and off-putting – yet nonetheless had teenage girls (and even college coeds) screaming and wetting their pants.

"At the time, we probably thought we looked very tough," says Gahan, laughing.

It helped, adds Fletcher, that the band was British. "Everyone was looking to Britain then," he says. "There wasn’t much for teenagers to really get excited over. And so they turned to us."

Especially in America, which came as an enormous surprise to the band. "Until 1985, we honestly felt that we never had a hope in hell of doing well in America," he says. "We felt our music sounded ridiculously too European, and our look was too European. Hence we didn’t do any work in America for three years. Then out of no where, we announced a tour, and it sold out immediately." The members of Depeche Mode weren’t the only ones who were puzzled by the outpouring of enthusiasm from American fans. Journalists, judging the band by its lyrics, dismissed DM as doomy and gloomy, and berated its audience for being insufficiently rock and roll. "Well I think one thing to not underestimate is the ambiguity of our audience," says Fletcher. "Twenty percent of our audience is gay. Which I think is really an achievement, because we are not a gay band ourselves."

Still, despite the group’s stateside success and the fact that two of the three members reside this side of the Atlantic, Fletcher hesitates to describe Depeche Mode as an American band. "Well, Martin is half-American," he allows. "You must know the story."

For those who don’t, Gore was 13 when his mother first told him that the man he called "Dad" wasn’t really his father. But it wasn’t until after the birth of his first child, when Gore was 31, that he learned the whole truth. "Actually his dad is American, and he’s black and lives in Virginia," says Fletcher. "since then, Martin met his dad… He looks the spitting image of Martin."

Knowing that Gore is himself half African-American, it’s tempting to try to make something big of the chorus to the last song on Exciter, "Goodnight Lovers." As the synths shimmer softly, Gahan croons, "When you’re born a lover, you’re born to suffer/ Like all soul sisters and soul brothers." It seems a poignant comment on racial identity – until, that is, Gahan weighs in "For me, it was like I was singing a lullaby to my daughter," he says. "I wanted to get the feeling across of holding the baby and trying to shush her to sleep -- a close, real feeling."

So which is it then? Racial lament or tender lullaby? Truth is, could as easily be either, and that’s the genius of Depeche Mode. Because by keeping the detritus of their private lives neatly hidden from view, Gahan, Gore and Fletcher don’t ask the listener to filter each song through a mesh of gossip and personality profiles. Instead, we’re left to hear what we want in the music, to let it resonate with our own experiences.

Which, funnily enough, is also the way it works for Gahan. Even though the words he sings belong to Gore, he finds it very easy to bring a deep level of self-expression to the songs. "Sometimes Martin’s words are creepily, totally in tune with something that I happen to be going through," he says. "It tears it up inside of me when I’m singing them. And I know that sometimes I am singing a song from a completely gut-level different place then where Martin wrote it.

"But it doesn’t really matter. Basically, it doesn’t really matter."