It’s fair to say that Depeche Mode are not in the same place they were when they got together, tapping at their Moogs in Basildon in 1980.
A lot has changed since we heard the sparkling, synth pop brightness of their 1981 debut album, Speak & Spell. Original band member Vince Clarke went on to form Yazoo and Erasure; Clarke’s replacement Alan Wilder quit in 1995, causing unfounded speculation of the band’s demise; and then there were the other well-documented dark periods which we have all heard about in the media, which would be too tedious and unnecessary to touch upon again.
My point is that Depeche Mode have been through a lot since their beginnings as teens (and one twenty-year-old), experimenting with electro pop when other kids in music weren’t doing it. Like a lot of bands, they have evolved, learnt from previous experiences (both at work and in private), and progressed to a different place that might, in many ways, seem light years from where they started.
Despite the feel-good, pure pop aesthetics of their roots, the darkness has always been evident. A few minutes into their debut long-player, after succumbing to the twinkling melodies of ‘New Life’, we were thrust into ‘I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead’, a tune which, ironically, sounded brightly optimistic. With its misleading title we were only lightly touching the somber depths this pop band would visit in later years.
I need not mention the brooding Black Celebration album which, cliche aside, was a firm favourite with my goth mates at art school; or the disconcerting ‘Barrel Of A Gun’ from 1997’s Ultra album.
This twisted, tortured mess/ This bed of sinfulness / Who’s longing for some rest / And feeling numb
But perhaps the most striking of all is how quickly the band advanced from the life-affirming joy of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ to Some Great Reward’s powerfully tragic ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ within the space of just a few years.
Much like another favourite band of mine, The Cure, I have embraced the light and dark shades of Depeche Mode’s work in equal measures. But fifteen minutes? This was going to be a tight squeeze. So many questions.
The band’s latest album, Spirit, was recorded with a new producer, James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco), who clearly understands the band’s vision. Collectively they have produced one of their most sonically astute and atmospheric albums to date. It’s a record that forcefully sums up the mood of the moment, too.
“Spirit is an album about humanity and about our place in it, and we’re not doing very well!” Dave laughs, through gritted teeth. “That’s why we led with ‘Going Backwards’, as much as we do feel like we are going forwards and new doors are being opened.
“I’ve lived in America for almost twenty seven years. Things have changed there since I moved, and things are changing again, but not for the good it seems. We’ve got to see how this evolves in the next few years. Hopefully people will come out and shout about things they’re not happy with. The one good thing about America is that you can do that without being thrown in prison! In some countries where there are other dictators, if you are outspoken, or you’re the wrong colour, or you’re gay – you disappear.
“The way I feel about life is everybody should lead the life that they want to lead. They shouldn’t be told otherwise. Politicians always unnerve me. They’re all full of shit on one level or another. What I’ve been witnessing in American over the last couple of years has been quite shocking.
“A lot of Spirit was made during the time of the campaigning. The songs were written mostly just before, and during, the campaign. Some people have listened to the album and have related it directly to Donald Trump or Brexit. But it’s all of those things and more.”
My favourite track on Spirit is the 5-minute epic, ‘Cover Me’, which Gahan co-wrote with long-time Depeche Mode collaborators Peter Gordeno (who was also the musical leader on George Michael’s ‘Miss Sarajevo’) and Christian Eigner (who co-wrote and co-produced Gahan’s 2007 solo album, Hourglass).
The song acts as the album’s midway point where Gahan sings of being up with the Northern Lights – Gahan’s choice of metaphor for his own personal retelling. It has a hypnotic, woozy, surreal quality which builds to such an exhilerating climax, it actually sounds like a human heart is pounding.
You know we’re sinking / We could fade away / I’m not going down / Not today / The air is so cold here / Too cold to see / We have to take cover / Cover me
“I wanted it to be very cinematic with this idea of us finally destroying this beautiful planet that we live on. There are so many things that we take for granted.”
For a band that clearly prefers to be forward-looking, I wonder how Gahan feels when looking back, particularly at a time when BBC4 have been re-running the Top Of The Pops shows from 1982 and 1983, which Depeche Mode have featured strongly in. It’s a memory that he finds difficult, but maintains a sense of humour with when remembering certain details, especially the image.
“Oh dear!” he laughs.
“I find it a little awkward. When I first got with the band I was eighteen years old. A lot of time has passed since then. So when I watch these old clips, the first thing that goes through my mind is, ‘What was I wearing?’
“Phil, my brother, often sends me photographs that he finds on the internet. ‘Remember this?’
“It’s all part of growing up, and living part of your life in public, and you’ve got to pay the price.
• An uncut version of Marriott Meets : Dave Gahan is available to download on The Phil Marriott Podcast on iTunes.