Depeche Mode have been making music for the masses. No, honest. It's the name of the new album, out in the Autumn. Jon Lewin inquired of two Mode-ish types, the ways and wherefores of their keyboards and concepts. Grahame Tucker just told them to look at the camera.
"We're not like a normal band." This is Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode talking. "There's all kinds of other aspects — things that are not so much to do with the recording process, but because we manage ourselves."
Alan (Al) is the dark haired one in the pic; also in on the interview is tall red-haired Andy Fletcher (Fletch). The absent third and fourth members of Depeche Mode are singer Dave Gahan, and Martin Gore, the cheeky looking chap with the blond perm. So what do they all do?
"We all have different roles," said Fletch. "Al's the main musician..."
"I'm the most technically proficient, but that doesn't necessarily mean a lot."
"...and I take a back seat generally. Usually on the sofa."
Alan and Andy simplified for me the involved democracy that seems to rule Depeche Mode. Martin handles melodies and lyrics, plus some vocals, and Alan takes responsibility for the rhythm and sound of each track. "Fletch," Alan says, "is not quite so involved from the point of actually playing a part and recording it onto a tape — but he has equally important roles in other areas." Dave doesn't play an instrument, but is the main vocalist.
"I think we're still a little bit hung up about Dave having to sing because he's the singer, though we've always tried to treat the voice as if it was another instrument. Dave's voice is harder sounding, and is more suited to harder, faster songs, while Martin's generally speaking works better for slower, more soulful songs."
Mute Records boss Daniel Miller has often been described as the fifth member of Depeche Mode, but it seems that he's less involved at the moment.
"We're basically producing ourselves," Al said, "though Dan's doing the singles — he can't trust us to make singles. I still think he has an important role as an overseer... he does have a very good overall perspective." His contribution as an analogue synth programmer has been missed, as Fletch explained. "Whenever we had a problem, we'd say 'Dan — Analogue Corner', now it's 'Us — Analogue Corner', and the end results aren't always as good."
As you might guess from Depeche Mode's ten month chart absence, they've been working on a new LP, to be called "Music For The Masses", due out in the autumn. When I spoke to them, they'd already done two months work at Studio Guillaume Tell in Paris, and were taking a mid-way break for Martin Gore to do some more writing, and to shoot a video for their single, 'Strange Love' (b/w 'Pimpf'). They went back into the studio in May, and they're due to mix in Denmark in June.
Alan explained why they'd taken the unusual course of having a break in the middle of recording. "Every time you go in the studio, the first couple of weeks are the most enthusiastic — by the end of a longish period, everyone's edgy, and you get less done. Last week in Paris, everyone was fed up and wanted to get home.
"But I do have a feeling that by splitting it up and elongating the process, it might work against us as well. We'll get some advantage from the break, but I think we'll also find the whole thing dragging on, and I'm a bit worried about that."
Alan wasn't particularly happy with Guillaume Tell, either. "From the point of view of facilities it was just about adequate. But the control room was dingy, and it just got boring after six weeks or so. Most do..."
"I think we're the sort of band that pushes technology, and we should be going for the optimum, even if it's 30 per cent more expensive."
So why use it in preference to somewhere closer to home? Fletch explained. "We chose Paris for both studio and environment. We work to a rigid schedule: get in at one in the afternoon and work through, with an hour's break for dinner, till one or later in the morning. And when we come out at one in the morning, we're hyperactive. In London, you have to go home to your flat and brood, but in Paris you can at least go for a drink. So you can relax."
"Music For The Masses" is going to be the first digitally recorded Depeche Mode LP. As Alan says, "I think we're the sort of band that pushes technology, and we should be going for the optimum, even if it is 30 per cent more expensive. We push our limits on everything else — the type of equipment we use — and we're perfectionist about the way we record, so it seems logical to use the best possible medium of getting it onto tape."
"As long as we can afford it," concluded Fletch.
Although Depeche Mode are rightfully identified with the newest gear possible, they still use old equipment as well, such creaky seventies impedimenta as an ARP2600, Minimoogs, a Kobol (which they've had since "Speak & Spell" days), the Roland 100M System, and an AKS suitcase synth: "That's really old, and it comes in a briefcase, like a businessman's case. It's Daniel's. It looks amazing, really James Bond. It's a noise machine really."
"There's an old Moog modular system that I've been after for a while," said Alan.
"People get rid of those things after they've lost interest in them, but they can produce brilliant sounds, very unique sounds. We've got an old ARP sequencer that produces a sound all of its own as well. Basically, you can get anything converted to accept MIDI or CV & Gate. We've got a little MIDI to CV converter box, which brings all those analogue boxes into use as far as sending programmed parts to them goes.
"Daniel and us are really interested in buying old synths, so if anyone reads this..."
The older more esoteric gear is left at home when Depeche Mode go on tour, though their sounds are still available through the array of samplers and keyboards on stage, such as Prophet 2000, Emulator 2, PPG, DX7, Korg, Akai sampler... Even so, they still suffer from breakdowns, as Andy explained. "Equipment is unreliable, basically. We have to have a spare for everything. It's expensive, but when you're doing shows all over the world, playing to 15-20,000 people, you've gotta be responsible about the whole thing — they're paying a lot of money to see you."
"We have a constant battle against equipment, and it is a bit nerve wracking," added Alan. "What do you do if you're doing a piano number and the Emulator breaks down? You can't play a piano part on an ordinary synth. But the PPGs are the worst..."
In spite of these difficulties, Depeche still have an excellent live reputation, with Dave Gahan in particular coming into his own as frontman — check their "Live In Hamburg" video for the evidence. Fletch reckons it's a matter of attitude. "Most electronic bands are boring on stage. We're a bit like a rock 'n' roll band, in that we just go for it, not standing aloof at the back posing with our synths."
Martin Gore does almost all of Depeche's song writing. I asked Alan if he felt that was a problem. "The main danger is a drying up of things to write about. There's a lot of repetition in this business, and there is a danger that, given your lifestyle, you run out of subjects you can write about. And Martin's songs... he does repeat himself quite a lot."
"I think Dave has aspirations to write, but feels a bit unconfident about putting anything forward, because if he did it would be in a very basic form as he can't really play any instruments. I think he has ideas about words and lyrics. I have written stuff, but I've not been happy with any of it. The only reason I wrote songs is because I felt I ought to — but I am happy writing instrumental music, and may well do more of that."
"A big drawback is Martin, as his standards are very high, and he hates working with people... Vince Clarke was very much like that, too," said Andy.
Apart from Depeche Mode and their new LP, the members do have occasional extracurricular activities underway — Alan has already released one of his instrumental demos on Mute under the name Recoil, while Martin apparently has aspirations towards doing a cover album. As Andy said, "He's really into old songs, fifties' stuff, a cappella, Gary Glitter, Abba... he does lots of demos like that when he's writing. Maybe he'll do an album one day. But not at the moment..."
Interview by Jon Lewin
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