Interview: Depeche Mode

After almost 30 years, the flame that started Depeche Mode’s career is still burning brighter than a comet tails. Name-checked by everyone who’s anyone, their list of fans include The Killers, MGMT, Coldplay, Pet Shop Boys and Marilyn Manson. Depeche Mode belongs to a select league of supergroups – alongside U2, REM, New Order and The Cure – who have survived the 80s. Their recently released 12th studio album Sounds of the Universe is a forward-thinking masterpiece and a Violator for the 21st century. JUICE catches up with the British electronic kings for the buzz on the new album and to find out what keeps a good band going.

Why call the album Sounds of the Universe?
Martin Gore: It was a name that came up quite early on which is a bit 50/50 with us. Sometimes we get album titles quite early on and we stick with them. It seems to keep everybody happy … we just felt that it summed up the eclectic nature of the songs and the sounds on the album.
Dave Gahan: I think the songs on this record have more of a positive spin on them, more open, spiritual, for want of a better word, in its content … and sort of looking outwards a lot more. You know I think our music has always been – we try to make it anyway – atmospheric and visual and it’s great. Sounds of the Universe just sounds right, and I like the arrogance of it.
Andrew Fletcher: Also the word “universe” has come up a few times in the lyrics for the new songs and you know we think it’s quite pompous which it is, and slightly witty so we thought it was a good title.

Are there any themes on the new record?
Dave: I always find it difficult to pinpoint any themes that sort of go along with the lyrical content and musical content but they seem to develop during the recording. I mean there are definitely themes there within the songs and I would say that they’re loosely tied together.
Martin: I think that there’s quite a broad variety really, there’s not really a theme to the record other than all the themes that I always write about I suppose. I keep joking about it, that I keep writing the same songs over and over again.
Dave: I interpret them as looking at my part in situations. They can be everyday situations or situations that are happening in the world and quite often how I feel about that is how I use my voice. You know I kind of want to draw you into the song.
Andrew: Depeche Mode normally write songs about life, the world we live in and life in general, that’s one of our sayings and musically we’ve maybe gone a bit more electronic on this album. Martin’s had this obsession with buying new … (corrects himself) old synthesisers on Ebay and that’s been quite interesting. I think the main thing about the album which is different. Martin’s really become quite prolific in the last couple of years so we’ve got a lot more songs than we normally have.

How long did the record take to make?
Andrew: I think in the end it will have taken about 5-6 months which is sort of usual time for us and we’ve recorded most of it in New York and some of it in Santa Barbara.

Has the integration between band members changed on this record?
Dave: I think that the interaction for me personally with Martin has changed quite a bit. I feel more confident about my ideas and I also feel like those ideas are really heard and you know quite often I’ve witnessed them coming to life. That always feels good.
Andrew: It’s been a very good vibe and we seem to be getting on very well together and I’d say the atmosphere has been really quite stable … just very creative and it couldn’t be better to be honest.
Martin: I think the atmosphere within the band has just been improving with time. We’re quite famous for not getting on at various points in our history and I think it really has become a thing of the past.

Songwriting process?
Dave: The techniques that Martin and I use are quite different. Martin’s much more traditional in the way that he will sit down with a guitar and develop an idea or sit at the piano and develop the notes, where he wants to go with them, and he’s a way more accomplished musician I would say than I am.
Martin: I don’t think you can really tell when the songs are back to back that a song’s mine or Dave’s because it does go through the whole Depeche process and Ben’s production. Once Dave’s sung the vocal and I’ve put backing vocals on it and played guitar on it, it ends up sounding like us.
Andrew: We tend to treat each song differently. The idea is to try and create for that song the best possible atmosphere. Like I say its been quite interesting, Martin’s addiction to vintage synthesisers and drum machines, because it has made it quite creative in the studio.
Martin: I think all the songs on the album sound very different but the fact that I’ve been buying so much stuff, old analogue drum machines and synthesisers on eBay, has helped to shape the record in some ways. Packages were turning up daily and we were using them as they arrived and that obviously had an impact on the record.
Andrew: There are differences between Martin’s songwriting and Dave’s songwriting. All songs are really treated in the same way when it comes to the actual recording. Dave’s been really improving, especially from his last solo album he’s very confident now in the studio. Really at the end of the day I think it would be quite hard to distinguish which was a Martin song and which was a Dave song.

What are your favourite tracks on the album?
I do have my favourite tracks on the album at the moment and they change all the time. I think my favourite is actually ‘Come Back’, which is a song that I wrote with Andrew and Christian which has really come a long way from the demo. ‘In Chains’ is another one which I really like which I think is a classic soul song. It’s got that kind of feel about it, that it could have been something that Marvin Gaye performed.
Martin: With this album we’ve got so many tracks that it’s really difficult for me to actually choose a favourite. I really like probably 14 or 15 of the tracks a lot…
Andrew: I suppose every musician would always say they like their new album. If you start to say you don’t like so many songs, its pretty weird. But there’s a lot of good songs on this album and quite a few of my favourites: ‘Perfect’, ‘In Sympathy’, ‘Wrong’, ‘Fragile Tension’…

First single?
Martin: We unanimously without even really talking about it chose ‘Wrong’ as the first single just because we felt it was more of a statement. It was very different for us. There are other tracks like ‘In Sympathy’ which is maybe more classic Depeche Mode. And I’m sure at some point that may come out as single, whatever a single is these days whatever a single means these days, as maybe a promotion tool for the record at some point. We always like to do something different as a first single just to announce that we’re back.
Dave: It’s sort of an unconventional pop song if you like. It’s almost more of a rap or rant or something and its groove is a little different too in that way. And I think we didn’t choose it because we felt it was the best song, we chose it because we felt that it was striking and that it was a good song to choose for the next chapter of what it is we’re doing.

New destinations on tour?
Dave: Well the first show is in Tel Aviv in Israel which is very exciting because it was the show that – well it’s a different venue – but it’s the place that we were supposed to finish the last tour with and unfortunately we couldn’t play there for various reasons but mostly because there was a war beginning there. Not that there hasn’t been a war there for a long long long long time, but this was actually happening in the backyard if you like and it just would have been irresponsible for us to expect a large number of people to be in a park with all this stuff going off.

Favourite live destinations?
There are obviously key territories for us where we do extremely well and there are lots of places that we enjoy playing as well. We do really well in Germany, we do really well in the old Eastern Bloc countries in particular, you know we generally do well in Europe.
Dave: Europe’s been really great to us for many years, France and Germany, a lot of Scandinavia, a huge part of Eastern Europe, most of which is not Eastern Europe anymore but Russia, Spain, Italy’s always fantastic.
Martin: We’ve often tried to analyse why we do so well in Germany and the old Eastern Bloc countries and we haven’t really got a definitive answer on that. We’re not sure if our music’s dark and that’s what they like or is it the fact that we went to the old eastern bloc countries before the fall of communism when a lot of bands didn’t do that and that made an impact over there. But we were huge and we still are quite huge in Russia and we never went to Russia before the fall of communism. We sort of went all around the peripheries of it but maybe news got to Russia that we were playing Poland and the Czech Republic and East Germany and Hungary and all those places.
Andrew: Well, we’re starting the tour with Israel which will be for the first time. We were supposed to play there on the last tour but there was a war going on between Lebanon and the guerrillas and Israel so we had to cancel the concert. So we decided this tour we’d play Israel first and most of the cities we’ve played before, and there’s just a couple of new ones, Belgrade I think we’re playing for the first time. I think we enjoy playing everywhere really, we’re very lucky that our crowd is quite universal and tends to be pretty much the same all over.

Hopes for the record?
You know our fans show up for us and the rest of it you never know what’s going to happen. I think we’re making a record that is the best record that we’ve made in a long time and of course everybody says that and it sounds totally clichéd to say it, but I’ve enjoyed making this record with the guys and I think we’ve had fun doing it. You can’t really ask for more at this stage. We’ve had a hugely successful career up until this point, there’s not really much more you can ask for. I think that people will be pleasantly surprised.
Martin: With the success of the record I don’t know what we’re expecting really because its really hard to gauge what it means in this market place. Even if the record sold half what the last one did maybe that’s good, who knows.
Andrew: The media reaction’s important for our egos and sales reaction is good as well. You obviously want to be seen as recorded something that’s decent and good and you want it to do well. But we don’t have ambitions to go in the stratosphere regarding our popularity. We’re quite comfortable with how popular we are at the moment.

How does this record compare with previous Depeche records?
I think that this record is different to all of our other records and maybe they’re all slightly different. I think some maybe have a bit more of a twin feel or something but not really. I think they all have an identity and I think that this one just fits in neatly with the history of the rest of the stuff that we’ve done.
Andrew: You can’t really tell that until the few years after. We’re so immersed in all this at the moment. All we know is the songs are really good and I think the sounds are really good so we’re hoping it’s going to stand up to the albums of the past.

Being in Depeche Mode?
It’s my job and it’s a really good one. Again you know it sounds really cliché to say but you know this… who knew like almost 30 years down the line that there’s still the opportunity to make the kind of music that you want to make.
Martin: I’m very happy being in Depeche. I’ve said a lot that we’re getting on very well, the atmosphere is always good these days. There aren’t many days when we’ve got a meeting and you come in dreading it or there’s real contentious issues going on between band members. It’s a joy to be part of the whole thing and I think that we’re making a great album and that already ticket sales seem to be doing amazingly well, so everything’s looking positive for us.
Andrew: To be in Depeche Mode right now is really good because the vibes between the band is really good. We feel we’re making a good record and it’s a good time.

Text + Image Warner Music