Earlier this month, the three core members of Depeche Mode — Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher — stepped onto the stage at the Austin Convention Center for their first-ever appearance at the South by Southwest Music Festival. It wasn't a performance — one would come later in the week, at a club that holds fewer than 1,000 in the audience — but a long discussion of the group's career with KCRW's Music Director, Jason Bentley. Still, excitement for the event was high enough that, for the first couple of minutes of the interview, the sound of camera shutters snapping in the audience almost drowned out the band members' voices.
This week, Depeche Mode will release its 13th studio album, the brooding, controlled Delta Machine. Over the 30-plus years since the group put out its debut album, Speak & Spell, this has become Depeche Mode's trademark: songs like "Strangelove" and "Policy of Truth" pair seductive pop hooks with darkly romantic content. It's a remarkable run of productivity — the group has never gone more than a few years between albums — that disguises the personal turmoil the band has endured, which includes near-fatal drug addiction and narrowly avoided breakups. Gore, Gahan and Fletcher spoke with Bentley about taking time off to work on other projects, how they approach the recording and promotion of a new album after 30 years together and whether or not Gahan remembers meeting Bentley more than 15 years ago when he was at a personal low point.
Jason Bentley: Why South by Southwest? Is it just a matter of timing for this album? Is it the stature of the conference these days?
Andy Fletcher: We were told it was somewhere we had to go. So here we are.
Martin Gore: I think, though, for the first time in our career we actually listened and decided to do promotion maybe in the correct way, like, before the album comes out.
Dave Gahan: We actually rehearsed.
Fletcher: Yeah. We're actually ready to — we could actually probably go on and play for two hours at the moment but very woefully. But we can play a 45 minute set, you know, fairly well at this point.
Bentley: Now, the show on Friday is considerably smaller in scale from the stadiums that you'll be playing at across North America and Europe through the springtime. What do you have in store on Friday? Do you enjoy these smaller club shows versus the stadiums?
Fletcher: I always find the smaller the place gets the scarier it is. It's just, like, you know, the closer people are, it just becomes a little bit more intense. If they're miles away, you don't really worry too much about it. They can't really see what's going on.
Bentley: And how about the production for the tour? Have you gotten into that whole creative process? You must have at this point.
Gahan: Yeah. I mean, that started way back, actually, and Anton Corbijn is involved in that again. He's kind of like our other member. He's sort of been our eyes and visuals for many, many years now. We did a lot of filming down in New Orleans a couple months ago. Stuff that's going to be used during the show, some film that he's been doing. And, you know, he's involved in the whole production, really. And works closely with our line designer and stuff, (inaudible). We haven't seen anything yet, but got some ideas of what's going on.
Fletcher: Vague. Very vague ideas.
Gahan: Yeah, vague ideas. Yeah. We'll be there for sure.
Bentley: In terms of a set list, is that something that can change night to night? How do you strike the balance with a catalog as significant as yours between the new album and the older music?
Gahan: We thought we'd do something a little different time. We're just going to go and shout out and ask people what they want us to play and then just roll with that.
[Audience member shouts]: "Policy!"
Gahan: We'll be doing that one.
Fletcher: Another option would be for us to play for 10 hours. Which I don't think is going to happen.
Gahan: Good luck with that.
Fletcher: It is difficult. It is difficult because, you know, there's so many tracks and so many classics. I think we've whittled it down to a really good set in the moment. I think people are going to be surprised and delighted.
Bentley: You know, it's funny because the other day someone interviewed me about interviewing you. That's how famous you are. And I got a question of what my favorite Depeche Mode album is and I said, "Well, this one." And even though that may have been the easy answer, there is a significance there because it's always about now for me with Depeche Mode. You've been able to, with each album, be very current and cutting edge. That's sort of such a part of your process. So let's talk a little bit about Delta Machine and coming in to the writing and recording.
[Gahan pulls a wad of bills out of his wallet and hands it to Bentley.]
Bentley: You keep a stack of cash in your wallet?
Gahan: Only ones. In case I get robbed.
Bentley: So talking about, you know, coming into the recording of this album, did you have a very clear sense of purpose? When did you know it was right to get together and start working on this album?
Gore: I think there's always a time that just feels right, really. Obviously we're all — we don't keep in constant touch after the end of a tour. You know, we might only speak to each other every, like, four or six months or whatever, but we're all in touch with our manager. And, you know, Dave's writing. I'm writing. So he gets more of an overall picture of when, you know, it might be the right time for us to start talking about scheduling recording sessions. And then when that time comes we have a meeting and start playing tracks.
Fletcher: We've been in a sort of quite nice schedule the last four albums, where we record, we do a certain amount for a tour then we have a break, you know, to see our families and things like that. And it's quite a nice schedule.
Bentley: Now, Martin, you co-produced this album. Is that right?
Gore: No. That was the original plan.
Gahan: That was sort of original idea. Well, the truth is when we first did get together, like, this last January, we went to Martin's place and, you know, listened to the songs. You know, I came, did a few demos and Martin did these demos and we'd just kind of sit and we'd listen. And Martin's demos were so well produced. He'd really worked hard and they were so well crafted and everything. It was just kind of like, "I'll go sing on them." You know, do a bit of mixing. But what struck us, I think, most — I speak for Fletcher as well — was there was a feel about the demos that was — it really kind of was exciting and felt fresh and not so kind of — not cluttered. The songs really, like, came out. And we didn't want to mess with that too much. So once we decided that we wanted to get [producer] Ben Hillier involved again, it seemed logical. And then he just kind of took over. As usual.
Fletcher: The one other thing I think is great about the album is and it's in the title as well, Delta Machine, is this sort of mix of blues and electronics, which we've dabbled with before in, say, "Personal Jesus." And I think it works really well with this album.
Bentley: Do you try to create a narrative conceptually with an album as a listen?
Gore: Do you mean lyrically?
Gore: I mean, that's — I was watching a Nick Cave interview the other day where he was saying that, you know, there's only three sort — there's only three topics. Which, you know, is sort of true when you boil it down, you know. When you can talk about love in various ways, maybe you can talk about religion. What else can you talk about?
Gahan: There is one other favorite. We can't remember it right now.
Gore: Death maybe.
Gahan: Yeah, death. We're closer to that.
Gore: But, you know, I think that a lot of my songs — I think you [Gahan] once said that, you know, I've written the same song over and over and over again.
Gahan: But he does it really well.
Bentley: Well, since Sounds of the Universe, in 2009, you two took time with other projects — Soulsavers and VCMG — and I wonder how that helped your process as it relates to Depeche Mode.
Gahan: Well, it helps me immensely. I mean, I didn't expect that project to happen. It wasn't something that was really planned and it just kind of happened. And I didn't intend to write nor anything. We finished the Sounds of the Universe tour and, you know, we were all exhausted. Went home. And I'd kind of made a choice, like, I'm not going to do anything work-wise for a long time. And then about a month later I started writing some stuff with Rich [Machin] from Soulsavers. And really, we'd no idea where that was going to go but it definitely, for me, it led me into writing with Kurt, you know, and a friend of mine in New York who had been recording vocals with me for Soulsavers. We started actually collaborating on stuff in between doing Soulsavers stuff. And then those demos became songs that are now on this record. So I find that working with other people is, just for me, outside as well, in between has strengthened my kind of like wanting to come back with Depeche stuff and use my voice in a different way. Or just — it really helps me. I don't know about Martin.
Bentley: We'll also give a little background on VCMG, because this is [Martin] collaborating with Vince Clarke, an original member of Depeche Mode.
Gore: Yeah. It was quite a surprise for me, the whole project. Because I hadn't seen Vince for ages. We weren't particularly close. It's funny because he tweets all the time and everyone thinks he's really, really talkative and really, you know — he's not. And I just got a really short email that said, "Thinking of making a techno album. Interested in collaborating? Vince."
Gahan: After 25 years, you know, you expect a little more, but ...
Gore: So I felt, I mean, I like techno. It might be quite an interesting thing to do. So I said, "Yes. Martin."
Bentley: The song "My Little Universe" on the new album, you know, hints of perhaps that collaboration because it has a sensibility of more purist techno, down tempos, certainly, but those elements. So were there things you were able to kind of draw out of that experience and apply to this album?
Fletcher: That was full accident, really, wasn't it?
Gore: Yeah. Funnily enough, I think that out of all of my songs on the album, thats the one that changed dramatically. You know, for ages we were thinking that it wasn't going to go on the album because it somehow didn't quite fit. It was too fiddly. There were, you know, chord changes in it that it didn't need. So, you know, we stripped it right back. And I think our programmer, Christopher Berg, should take a lot of credit for that. You know, he was the one who kind of started stripping it back and started it on that path. So it really didn't have much to do with VCMG. But for me, doing the VCMG project meant that I was focused on doing something completely different for a long period. Which meant that when I actually came back to writing songs I felt more inspired.
Bentley: Speaking of, can you talk about the song "Always" on the album, which I like a lot and was just curious on, you know, how you approached that particular song.
Gore: Quite a lot of the songs on this record have a lot of modular synths involved. That was something that I really got into for the making of this record. And I think that really helped to shape the sound. I think it does have a particular sound and I think it's quite different to our other records. And funnily enough, "Heaven," the lead single, is not very representative for the rest of the sound. So for a lot of them I would start off with like, you know, like a bass line and then create some drums and some effects with the modulars and start from there, really, and then just start singing along. That's what I do. I'm sorry. And when I sing along, I don't sing along like, you know, little pretend words. When I sing, then sort of words just come out.
Bentley: So it starts with a kind of a vocalization and then becomes a word?
Gore: No, no. No. It starts with words. A lot of people do that, you know, like, singing, you know, strange languages or whatever. But I always just start singing...
Gahan: I do. I sing gibberish sometimes but then I'm a long way behind Martin as a songwriter. So I'm still into the la-la-la phase of writing. But I'd say I really know what you're talking about. The first time it ever happened to me was during the Soulsavers thing. Like, words came out. And at first I was afraid of the words because I didn't know why they were coming out. And then I just decided to go with it and always be ready to record as soon as I heard, say, some chords that had been sent to me or a piece of something. I was ready to record it because something was going to happen. Something about getting yourself out of the way.
Bentley: The song "Happens All the Time" is a personal favorite on the album and I wonder if you have a little background on that song.
Gore: Did you only listen to a deluxe disc?
Bentley: Oh, that should be on the album proper. Is it not?
Gahan: It got relegated.
Bentley: That's a shame.
Gahan: No. I mean, look. It was very difficult with this record because we actually were really spoiled for — we recorded a lot of songs and then, you know, we sort of sit and we have to make it work. It has to work as a body of work and it has to work from start to finish. So right from the beginning we pretty much knew that "Welcome to My World" was going to start and "Good-Bye" was going to end. So then it's like building everything inside of it. And it was just, you know, sometimes it's just too many songs. It's like when you go see a movie and they've got these extra 20 minutes. No one really wants the extra 20 minutes, you know. You've seen the end. You know, you're out of popcorn. It's, like, time to go. And, you know, records and performances are like that. You know, you feel it. You know it's not right. But we didn't want to just, you know, they were great songs and we felt very happy about the recording of those songs. But they didn't quite fit in what we call the, you know, "proper" album.
Bentley: Well, then, let me recommend the deluxe edition for the bonus material.
Fletcher: More money.
Bentley: So Dave, you are one of the great front men of rock n' roll. You just --
Gahan: I gave you all my money already.
Bentley: No. You are. You are. It's undeniable. I mean, you just own the stage and it's so terrific to watch. You've just got it. Whatever it is, you've got it.
Gahan: Thanks. Thank you.
Bentley: But I first met you in 1997 around the time of Ultra.
Gahan: Oh, dear.
Gore: Where's this one going?
Bentley: I was friends with your producer Tim Simenon. And I met you — I was in a hotel room at the Sunset Marquis and you burst into the room and you were a hot mess.
Bentley: So you'll never remember meeting me, but for me it was like meeting Keith Moon or something. It was truly a rock 'n' roll icon had just come into the room. Anyway, you also were a disaster at that time. And in a very bad place. And I have this sense that you maybe needed to go to the edge creatively or personally in order to kind of mount the energy or whatever it took, even the expectations of being who you are as a rock star.
Bentley: You're much healthier now. We're very happy that you survived. But I wonder how you did manage to come back from that point and get away from those demons.
Gahan: Wow. Well, that's a lot but, you know, I don't know, really, why. It was quite a whirlwind up until that point, everything in my life, really. So it just kind of — it was an obvious means to end, or something. And as for sort of getting better, it's just a lot of help and friends and people and support. And it's slow. You know, you've got to want to change, haven't you, if you're in a place that's not working for you, and it certainly wasn't working for me. I mean, I'm glad you got a thrill out of it. But that particular time I really don't — I have very little memory, fortunately, of some of those experiences. I really do. But in the last, I don't know, 15 years or something, my life has just progressively got better. I feel like I participate in it in a very different way. And I love the challenge of working and being a dad and a husband and all the normal stuff that goes along with that. But really, like, this, sitting here, celebrating our 13th record together and, 30-plus years, that in itself is ...
Fletcher: And you've still got hair as well.
Gahan: Yeah. I've still got hair. I'm so surprised. You know, that's really what it's all about. And all those experiences as well. Everybody goes through different things, and that record that we managed to finish somehow at that point, which was Ultra, was a very important record to finish in retrospect. You know, we didn't tour with that record. That was probably the best decision that we made. Probably the only studio record that we ever didn't tour with, actually.
Gore: Did we actually make that decision?
Gahan: I don't know.
Fletcher: Yeah, we did, didn't we?
Gahan: Yeah. I seem to remember sitting in a meeting and everybody's going ...
Gore: I think when we couldn't answer I think they took it as a no.
Gahan: Yeah. And I might've gotten arrested again or something like that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.