Modes of Operation
After five years at the top of the electropop tree, Basildon boys Martin Gore and Alan Wilder talk tech with Paul Tingen.
Depeche Mode, with five albums and a long, successful pop career behind them, remain one of the few all-synth bands to stick to their hi-tech ideals while continuing to keep their audience guessing. We speak to two of the Basildon boys.
"UMI is good because it's so flexible. The Synclavier is OK, but it isn't very practical because once you've programmed a song, it's very hard to change the structure."
'And as far as drum and sequencing go, our stuff is not dead on time. We do actually play around with timing to get a certain feel. We might use speeding up or slowing down, or push the snare part slightly ahead of the bass drum. But obviously it's all gonna be very tight.'
So Wilder, a tall, shy man in black leather who scarcely looks me in the face as we talk, clearly doesn't believe in the myth of mechanical-sounding technology. And after listening to Black Celebration, I'm more inclined to believe him. Between another round of touring, recording and TV appearances, I coax another Depeche interview out of Mute, this time with Martin Gore. With huge, staring eyes and blond flowerpot coiffure, Gore is a more open interviewee than Wilder. In a series of keen, fragmentary sentences, he reveals some of the reasons why Black Celebration is so markedly different in mood from its predecessors.
'Partly, the album reflects us being a year farther on in our career, and having a year's more experience, which we used trying to find new samples and searching for new ways of arranging.
On the other hand, the songs mostly determine the kind of sounds we search for, and the songs on this album are much softer and gentler.
'So we got some very rich, very warm sounds like the ones on 'A Question of Lust' and 'World Full of Nothing'. There are four tracks on the album without any drums whatsoever, so it was easy to make them flow more, make them less jerky.
'We spent more time on the arrangements this time. We spent a month at Worldwide International, a small studio owned by Daniel (Miller), just programming the album. We were able to work more on the song structures and arrangements, whereas before we just programmed as we went. With Some Great Reward, for instance, the recording process had already started while we were still programming the songs.'
IN ADDITION TO SPENDING MORE TIME on pre-production, the Modes have also altered their equipment setup to offer them a more flexible approach to their arrangements and song structures. Their new nerve centre, effectively replacing the Synclavier of old, is nothing more than a BBC Micro with UMI 2B interface and sequencing software.
'The UMI is very good for programming song structures'. Gore explains, 'because it's so flexible. The Synclavier is OK, but it isn't very practical because once you've programmed a song, it's very hard to change the structure. It's a bit rigid. So instead we used the Emulator II for most of the sampling work, and connected the UMI and all the other synths to it via MIDI. We even used some Akai S612 samplers, because they're very easy to use and the quality isn't bad. The Synclavier is now used mainly for drums, because you do get a good, powerful sound from it. Most of the drum sounds on the album are Synclavier, though apart from the middle-eight, all the drum sounds on 'New Dress' are analogue ones from an ARP 2600.'
Aside from the 2600, Depeche are hanging on to a number of ageing analogue synths, even though their popular image among musicians is one of having an up-to-the-minute sound.
An RSF Kobol, a Roland 100M modular system, a Syrinx and even a suitcase Synthi AKS still find a place in the Depeche equipment list. Live, however, the band depend on more recent instrumentation, notably a Roland Jupiter 8, an Oberheim OBX, and a Yamaha DX7. And for Black Celebration, they used a PPG Wave 2.3 for the first time.
Wilder: 'When we want something that sounds definitely non-acoustic, something that doesn't really reflect or imitate a known instrument, we usually go for an analogue synth, often the ARP 2600. If we want something that does sound like another instrument, we turn to the digital or sampling machines.'
"When we want something that sounds non-acoustic, something that doesn't reflect or imitate a known instrument, we go for an analogue synth, often the ARP 2600."
More than most bands of their generation, Depeche Mode have embraced the technique of sampling as an important contemporary music tool. No factory disks for the Basildon boys — with the help of Miller and long-time engineer Gareth Jones, the foursome have continually searched for new sound samples and new ways of manipulating them.
'Usually we spend two or three days before recording just sampling sounds', says Gore. 'Then we sample as we go. If somebody has a good idea, we just stop recording and do some sampling.
'Sometimes we use old favourites — like one sample which we first used on 'People Are People'. It's a Hank Marvin-type guitar sound, an acoustic guitar plucked with a 50-pfennig piece. We've used that three or four times now.
'Then there's the mandolin-like part on 'Here is the House'. That was an acoustic guitar sampled twice — once on a down-stroke and once on an upstroke. We used them on alternate notes, so every other note was a down-stroke and all the in-between notes were up-strokes. It sounded very funny — almost like a real player.
'There's a Black & Decker drill in the opening of 'Fly on the Windscreen', and the rhythm of 'Stripped' was made up of the sound of an idling motorbike played half-an-octave down from its original pitch.'
Gore admits to being particularly proud of one Black Celebration sample. 'It's not that audible, though. It's a sample from a record called 'She Wants to Mambo', an old doo-wop disc. At the end of each verse, the woman who sings sort of moans. We sampled this moan and played it up a few notes, which made it sound like a girl moaning. We used it on the chorus section of 'A Question of Time'.'
"People say we're pessimistic or manic depressive, but we don't see it like that. We're just trying to get feeling, warmth and realism across in our songs."
Gore: 'I still largely write my songs on guitar, just to get the basic chord structure. Then I move on to electronic equipment to demo the songs. I use an Emulator II, a DX7, and an MC4 Microcomposer to sequence the stuff.
I don't pay too much attention to the sounds at that stage, because you can end up putting months of work into that, and it's something everybody needs to work on later anyway.
'When it comes to production I tend to take a back seat. If Daniel and Alan and the others are doing something which I really don't like, I'll obviously say something. But I'm prepared to step back because if I were to take over completely, there's be no point in us being a band. It's good to get some new enthusiasm for the songs because I've already worked on them for maybe a month or two, while the rest of the band are really fresh, and are more likely to come up with new and inspiring ideas.
'We're all programming and finding samples. Even David is now joining in with that, which is good because he used to be just "the singer". On Black Celebration I'm in turn singing four of the tracks — 'A Question of Lust', 'Sometimes', 'It Doesn't Matter Two' and 'World Full of Nothing' — because we've noticed over the years that my voice is more suited to the slower and softer songs than Dave's. Basically, we're a band without roles.'
Still, it's Wilder and Miller who are clearly the most heavily involved in the more technical side. Daniel Miller's role, especially, is an intriguing one.
'He's a technical wizard when it comes to synths', says Gore. 'He also has a lot of good production ideas concerning song structures, especially on a commercial level. He might say, for instance: "This middle-eight is very good, perhaps we should start the song with it".
'And he's very good at building sounds. We might start off a song with a single sound on a sequencer and as it progresses, bring in more sounds just to make it richer. We did that a lot on this album — making layers of sounds all play the same part to get a full and warm effect. We could do that because we went 48-track for the first time. Before we used 24-track, which meant that we sometimes had to put three or four sounds on one track. This time we could minimise that, which made things a lot easier when it came to mixing.'
Engineer (and now co-producer) Gareth Jones is the man who 'puts it all together' in the studio, according to Gore.
'Gareth is great at getting the sounds which we find transferred to tape without any loss of character. This time we tried not to put too many effects on at an early stage. We put a lot of parts down very, very dry, and then worked on the effects when it came to mixing.'
SO MUCH FOR RECORDING. What about one of the dilemmas mentioned earlier, the one about playing sequencer-based music live? Well, one thing's for sure: the Basildon boys are no more enamoured of keyboard-playing skill now than they were when they first put fingers to synthesiser keys five years ago. Of the four of them, Alan Wilder is probably the most gifted player, and that's only because he's had a vestige of formal training.
'I had some piano lessons when I was young, but that doesn't come into it a great deal', he says. 'The whole idea of being musically competent is irrelevant to me. I'm not interested in being a great piano player any more. There are loads of good musicians around, all far better than me. If I'd auditioned for another band, they probably wouldn't let me in. But for me, it's shaping songs and sounds which is important.'
"We're all programming and finding samples. Even Dave is doing that now, and he used to be just 'the singer'. Basically, we're a band without roles."
In practical terms, the result of this attitude is that Depeche Mode have to resort to machines to re-create their sound live. A TEAC eight-track tape recorder plays most of the drum tracks, some basslines and a few other parts which are either too hard to play or can't be reproduced for technical reasons.
Wilder: 'We never use sequencers live because they go wrong too often. So what we do is take the studio tapes and re-edit them. Sometimes we'll change the structure of songs, or shorten or lengthen various parts because we might think something works better that way live. Then we'll play the different fill-in parts as it comes. We have no labour division there.'
In fact, Depeche use two tape recorders because their set is simply too long to fit on one tape. And which song do they have programmed into a sequencer to fill in the gap caused by the tape change? You've guessed: 'It Doesn't Matter Two', complete with the slowing-down at the end.
Gore: 'Programming that was a real nightmare, because the Emulator sequencer is all at one speed. What we had to do was write in unjustified measures, because otherwise the sequencer would auto-correct the slight tempo deviations which we put in. But then, the sequencer is high-resolution so it's never totally unjustified. In the end we made it, but don't ask me how.'
But isn't it all a bit boring, standing there tied to a tape recorder, reproducing the same, easy-play parts, night after night? Martin Gore, in the third month of a world tour and facing several more months gigging in the States, replies tentatively.
'It's a bit of a dilemma, because when you're in your fifth month of touring you can't enjoy every night any more. It's getting to the point already now where I can almost go through the motions half-asleep. Now I automatically change disks at the right moment, without even thinking about it. It is quite boring, but we owe it to the fans to play live because the concerts always go down really well. The audiences love it.'
Alan Wilder has a similar story. 'I'm not looking for musical excitement live, because I know what it's going to sound like before I go on stage. Live playing is only about reproducing our music in a very tight and good way. My main enjoyment comes from the contact with the public.
'And we do put on a good live performance. We're one of the most exciting bands around. First, we always get a very good sound, because everything goes directly into the PA system. Second, we have a lot of vocal harmonies, which make a very big vocal sound. And third, we take a lot of trouble over the stage set and a good light show. Dave has also become a very good frontman over the years: he manages to communicate very well with an audience.'
WHICH IS ALL FAIR ENOUGH, REALLY. Depeche Mode's live performances are usually very successful, wherever in the world they may take place. But that leaves the question of the band's diminishing success on their home territory. The Basildon boys are spending a lot of time abroad, and in their absence, the last couple of singles haven't done too well in the UK charts. Is the public getting disinterested, or is the band itself losing some of its charisma?
Gore: 'It's difficult to say, but it isn't bothering us that much. At the moment things are looking very healthy for us in Europe and the USA. If Britain wants to remain ignorant, it can. We've been pretty successful at home for five or six years. I think people might lose enthusiasm because they might be temporarily satiated.'
And Gore isn't tempted to write another 'See You' just to get back to the top of the tree. As far as he's concerned, Depeche's current dark image stays.
'We just let things happen', he says. 'I work on my songs and see what comes out of them, without pursuing any planned result. And I know people in England say we're really pessimistic or manic depressive. We don't see it like that. We're just trying to get some feeling, warmth and realism across in our songs. We like to think our songs are more reflective of life than most of the music that's around in the charts these days. A lot of it is just up, up, up all the way. That's the sort of thing the radio likes to play and people like to buy. When people have a choice between buying 'Sunshine' by Imagination and a record by a group that's labelled manic depressive, what do they buy? (laughs)
'What we try to do is present a different kind of pop music to the masses. So we go through the routine of glossy magazines and TV shows. But that doesn't mean our music has to be like everyone else's music.'
A brave way of looking at things, I'd say. Why all the pessimism? Gore blushes and looks away nervously before answering: 'You do get more cynical as you get older, don't you?' And how old is Gore, exactly? 'Nearly 25 now'.
Guess it'll be interesting, hearing what Depeche Mode have to say when they're 50.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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