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.
OPINION IS CERTAINLY DIVIDED ABOUT DEPECHE MODE. 'Teeny-bopper band making awful synth music', some would say. 'Inspiring and innovative pop', others might put it. A couple of years ago, somebody wrote that Depeche were 'the perfect marriage of pure and applied synthesis... with money'. And the editor of this magazine, reviewing the band's latest long-player, Black Celebration, referred to them as 'easily the strongest-willed and most deeply, hearteningly talented of the all-synth bands that made it big in '82' (E&MM May).
But to separate objective achievement from subjective comment, the fact is that Depeche Mode have come a long way since they started out in 1980 as a fairly conventional trio based in Basildon, Essex. Martin Gore played synthesiser, Andrew Fletcher bass, and Vince Clarke guitar. When singer Dave Gahan joined in 1981, the band shifted its instrumentation to an all-electronic line-up, and had an instant success with 'Dreaming of Me', a Clarke-penned pop ditty that steamed its way to the top of the indie charts under the wing of Daniel Miller's innovative Mute label. That single and the album it spawned — Speak and Spell — set the tone for a generation of melodic, tight-tempo electronic pop bands. The Basildon boys had proved, perhaps unwittingly, that a drum machine and three synths could sound as spontaneous, as rootsy, and as 'fun' as guitar, bass and drums. And they also proved, with a bit more self-conscious effort, that musicians with little or no playing dexterity could write better melodies than the classically-trained brigade, and make money out of them, too.
Late in 1981, Clarke left the band to pursue a career with Alf Moyet in Yazoo (see separate story elsewhere this issue), leaving room for Martin Gore to explore his own songwriting talents, subtly different to — though no less inspiring than — those of Clarke. It was Gore who put pen to paper to craft 'See You', the band's biggest hit to date when it was released in January '82. Another album — A Broken Frame — followed soon after, an early sign that Depeche were not a band to shirk their artistic responsibilities in favour of swimming pools, fast cars, and women. It was also a sign that the band were drifting into an era of post-Clarke melancholy, in which the relentless beat box rhythms began to take a back seat to slower, more considered synth-wash ballads.
With Alan Wilder installed as third synth player at the start of '83, Construction Time Again saw the Modes' music take another unexpected turn — this time in the direction of industrial noise and metallic percussion, courtesy of producer Miller's Synclavier II and its sampling capabilities. Lyrically, Construction had a stronger political stance than before, with the single 'Everything Counts' proffering a cynical overview of big business, and 'Pipeline' — with its compelling arrangement of Oriental percussion, synth arpeggios and funereal backing chants — taking a much-deserved swipe at the exploitation of Third World countries by multi-national corporations.
And still the hits kept coming. The band's most committed flirtation with industrial sound, 'People Are People', made it to number four in the UK singles charts, while signalling another lyrical shift for Gore.
For if Construction Time Again was political, its follow-up, Some Great Reward was social in its commentary. Gore and company turning their attention to the problems of love, lust, and marriage in the mid-1980s. The pensive, mesmerising love ballad, 'Somebody', with its haunting piano and heartbeat backing, was a highlight in a rather mixed album of clever touches but generally unfulfilled potential.
Yet throughout this time, Depeche continued to find time for the jerky, mechanical rhythms (electronic headbanging?) that had been their musical trademark since Day One. Couple that with a sprinkling of arrangements that have been too unlikely to succeed, and Gahan's occasionally monotonous vocal, and you have the reasons for the critics' ambivalence, my own included.
Now Depeche Mode are based in London, and there's Black Celebration. On it, we hear some impressively coherent arrangements (just listen to the title-track), a new-found and very welcome symphonic touch featuring deeper, warmer synth textures, some strong, considered drum programming ('New Dress'), and just the one headbanging track ('Here is the House') sandwiched between softer, gentler songs. Gone are the simplicity and directness of the Modes' pop past (with the notable exception of 'A Question of Lust'), which goes some way to explaining the band's comparative lack of recent chart success. And as for the cynics, they'd probably say the band's huge leap forward in arranging skill doesn't camouflage an underlying inspirational infirmity, a sad state of inertia in the Tunes 'n' Rhythms department.
Then again, carving a long and successful career out of an all-electronic line-up takes a lot of courage, more than most acts in Depeche Mode's position are capable of displaying. Limit yourself to synths and samplers, and you have no tradition to fall back on — other than the traditions of songwriting. And there are a whole host of dilemmas to work your way around. If everybody plays the same instrument, what role divisions are there between the members of the band? How do you get pieces together, and how do you present sequencer-based music to a live audience? And most important of all, how do you keep your music alive and vibrant, when the machines you're working with force you to use your head, not your body, to give an idea musical form?
The sleeve artwork of the last two Depeche albums has symbolised the humanity-versus-technology struggle. On Some Great Reward, a couple in wedding outfits are surrounded by industrial architecture; on Black Celebration, tulips break up the dark patterns of steel and glass.
ALAN WILDER, WHO I GET A CHANCE TO MEET before the release of Black Celebration, sees my point about the sleeve of the previous album. 'Yeah, it did occur to us, too. But that cover was actually inspired by what we felt to be the lyrical content of the record: a romantic couple facing the real world.
'What you say is a kind of struggle, because people tend to think that technology is very cold, which it doesn't have to be at all. To me, our music has always been quite warm in a lot of ways, in its lyrical content, in its melodies and so on. People are always saying that electronic stuff can never have the same feeling as guitars and bass, but that's rubbish. You use whatever technology is available, and it's you that makes it cold or warm, not the machines.
'We always take a lot of care over the sounds we use. In them we try to catch the atmosphere of the song, and often, that does involve a lot of hard searching.
"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'.'
And then, of course, there are the industrial sounds and treated vocals of 'It Doesn't Matter Two', where a sequenced vocal pattern gives the song a distinct systems music character. Ingenious use of a Friend Chip SMPTE controller enabled the band to slow the song right down at its end without encountering any pitch problems, but musically, the piece is painfully reminiscent of Philip Glass, almost to the point of plagiarism.
'Probably we were remotely inspired by Glass', concedes Gore, 'though I hardly ever listen to that kind of music. But it wasn't a piss-take or something. It was serious.'
Tracing the path of an embryo piece of music through the Depeche Mode songwriting process is not an easy task. It starts with Gore, or occasionally Wilder, writing songs at home, making demo versions of them, and submitting the finished tapes to the band.
'Martin and I compose in totally different ways', says Wilder. 'Martin works on guitar and I on keyboards. Yet we present our songs to the band in a similar form. We work on our songs on a four-track machine, and basically get a demo to the point where there's a bassline, a rough rhythm track, most of the melodies and all the lyrics. That's what the band gets to hear.
'Then we all sit down with Daniel, pick the songs we want to put on the album, and talk over the good and the bad points — whether we need to change the structure or add or take out bits here and there.'
"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.