The Basildon Bond
Will Mowat donned his boiler suit only to find that the 'Controlled Dirt' of Depeche Mode smells of success.
No, no a thousand times no! My screams rang through the night, heralding yet another bloodbath twixt muggins here and the cruel, tone-deaf editorship of these hallowed pages. Depeche Mode? Why not defenestration instead?
Actually, I had to be seen to put up a fight. You see, it doesn't do in certain circles to be known as an approver or condoner of certain bands. And any band such as Depeche whose business sense could be termed 'suspect', whose musicality could be called 'questionable' and whose level-headedness just has to be unhealthy, must be a candidate for the big 'E' from street-credible hacks.
Well, you're all techno-fans, and old enough for a home truth or two: Depeche Mode are moving in directions where, if we had a grain of honesty in us, we would love to go too: the perfect marriage of pure and applied synthesis... with money.
The band is moving on, weary of our close identification of them with a teeny-bopper image. Maturity comes easy to a close-knit group whose no-fewer-than three years in the charts have seen them tour the world, issue ten singles and three albums, all of which have gone gold.
I caught them at Aosis Studios, recording the 'B'-side of their present single People Are People. In between stints in the Control Room and interviews with television companies, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, David Gahan and Alan Wilder spilled the conceptual beans of Depeche's raison d'être. Was there, I wondered, a reason why Depeche Mode was a band, when within the band there is no defined role playing? Why does the sun shine, countered Martin. "The band aspect is Four People With Ideas". "We had defined roles when we started," explained Andy, "in that I mainly played bass guitar and bass synth, Martin lead rhythm guitar and Vince Clarke rhythm keyboards. David handled vocals in a shy way, hugging the mike for comfort in the glare of the Bridge House lights". Was that Vince Clarke's name I heard? He of Yazoo and now the Assembly? Vince was in the band until after the first album Speak and Spell, whereupon his own ideas took him along a divergent path with Depeche, sharing the same roots (Basildon) and the same nourishing soil (Mute Records) as his former colleagues, but displaying a different kind of foliage. "Both he and we are incredibly busy," explained Martin, "but we meet now and again and beat each other up... only joking!"
I did not sense a feeling of regret that Vince had decided to remove himself from the band aspect; of course, time and experience consolidates all things with hindsight, but it did seem clear to me that when Depeche and Vince observe each other, they are in a way looking into a mirrored reflection of themselves, Depeche prefering the fertile cross-pollination of belonging to a band to the more ascetic style of composition of Vince Clarke. Alan Wilder stepped into the space left by Vince, chosen by the band for his facility with keyboard playing; and the fact that he wasn't a fan helped his chances, but it wasn't until the second album, Broken Frame, that he joined full time; until then he was on continuous assessment: "I mean, he wasn't even from Basildon. You don't know what he might have picked up!", submitted David. Of the whole episode, it is enough to know that the departure of Depeche's famous son did not in any tangible way alter the direction of the by now momentously famous group. And what was this direction? "Our first album," remarked Andy, "was a high spirited, low technology affair. It was a case of recording a drum machine and then taking it in turn to go in and laying down our respective synthesizers, all in real-time with one or two sequencers. The changeover from a gigging band in East London to the Studio was very quick, as a result of which things got thrown together. Studio technique was new to us and it was Daniel Miller (the Man who is Mute) who in a way fathered Depeche, and nurtured the sound to what it is today."
This was all getting very involved, what with Vince Clarke leaving, Danny Miller fathering, and Alan arriving, all against a background of soaring popularity and confusion. So I decided to go for a little chronology with David Gahan. Did I manage to get a word in edgeways? In truth, he doesn't talk as much as people make out; it's just that in comparison to the well-chosen words of the others, his chat is a positive flow of easy confidence.
"We started," (with Vince, without Alan, remember) "in a church in Basildon some three and a half years ago. We were doing various gigs in the area and in London, notably the Bridge House, whose landlord, Terry, turned out to be the only one who would give us a gig in the end. None of us moved on stage — not so much the Gary Numan syndrome as pure stage fright. We built up a really good following and one night during the Winter of 80/81 we supported Fad 'Gag' Gadget. Fad was already with Daniel, who would act as his soundman in the pubs, and after the gig, Daniel came in and said that he really liked our act, blah blah blah, and he wanted to see us again."
Hold it there, David. Let me explain what the background was to this offer they couldn't refuse. Firstly, Daniel, already then, was always on the edge of exploding. A shy man, not used to the ways of machiavellian business, a reformed Monk from Zermatt, he was and still is a great fan of music of all types; Mute is his professional hobby. But this retiring schoolmasterly figure can become a seething cauldron of passion and ferment when crossed. And the story gives that Vince and David had already been to a room when Daniel burst in, a seething cauldron etc (see above) crying blue murder about Fad Gadget records not getting into the shops. And then he burst out without according to our two heroes so much as a second glance. So when Daniel met them again at the gig, the band gave him the cold shoulder; besides, hadn't they been attracting a lot of big label interests?
"There we were, a band who within six months had attracted a large popular following. Big labels started following us around offering money for clothes and equipment and things. They found out our home addresses and started wooing us there. We were being offered five year deals, ten year deals, big advances. They were playing with points so we got wise and played them off against each other; but it was all a laugh on our side: we just didn't know what they were all on about."
And then came Daniel Miller: he had nothing to offer in the way of money points and contracts, but he did have commitment, enthusiasm and a willingness to get stuck into the nuts and bolts of the recording business.
"He was most upfront, he was nervous like us, and we didn't feel he wanted to tie us up in a long-term deal. So we did our first single in February 1981 called Dreaming of Me, at Blackwing". And what happened?
What happened! This single, on an independent label, distributed by Rough Trade, also independent, by an as yet nationally unknown band, got to 52 in the charts. This roused the majors into a frenzy of passionate courtship; if this band could do that on an independent, what could it not do on a major! The climax came at a Japanese meal; Depeche and Daniel were guests of Ph... you know who. "Towards the end of the meal the boss said: 'Well, how about it?' And we turned round and said: 'Sorry, but we're sticking with Daniel and our second single is about to come out.' I shall never forget the picture and sound of beanshoots falling from gaping mouths and chopsticks clattering to the table in wide-eyed bewilderment."
So the fortunes of Mute and Depeche were set on a course helping to make Mute one of the two most successful independent labels in show biz, and Depeche one of the leading lights in commercial music. But don't you think it rather weird that they didn't sign to a major?
What is so wrong about signing a five-year deal? By now the band could in all probability have taken the States by storm, be driven around in limousines with business managers and make-up girls dancing attendance, and have possibly greater world-wide sales. This seeming eccentricity, this bizarre 'modus operandi' is the trademark of the band. Once you perceive the collective behaviour of Depeche Mode, you begin to glimpse a repeating pattern of similar reactions through out the life of the band. You could call it the Mode Sidestep: When placed in a situation whose outcome should be blindingly obvious... they take one step sideways and avoid the obvious.
"It means more to us to be top of the independent charts than the Gallup. Doing what we enjoy, in front of people who enjoy us, is for us what it's all about. Mute is the ideal vehicle for this concept." And in a way, I believe them, especially after learning that they aren't even signed to Mute! There is not the slightest contractual reason for staying together. They like each other's company.
So much for interpersonal relationships (file under 'ongoing'); what about the equally intriguing affinity between man and machine? "We are spoiled," observed Alan. "In the early days it was Yamaha CS5's, Moog Rogues and Kawai unmentionables" (ie he didn't mention the model). "We moved through Roland Jupiter 8's, PPG Wave 2's, Yamaha DX7's, Emulators, and now we have a machine that inspires awe both in us and in those who appreciate the sounds we are producing: the Synclavier". I asked why he used the word 'spoiled'. "For us, the Synclavier is the first synthesizer/sampler you can honestly called 'limitless'. Without exaggeration, you are limited, quite literally, only by your imagination; we have the 100-second sampling facility at full bandwidth, and we have the funds now to update this computer so it never lags behind in technology. We are spoiled in that we remember what it was like being limited to using a Roland Jupiter; a good instrument for the money, and versatile and all that, but, as we are a band which is committed to opening new vistas of sound, analogues have become rather pale next to the digitals, and especially, of course, the Synclavier. It was logical to use the Synclavier as soon as we could, and by so doing, we freed ourselves of the fascism of hardware."
Steady on! My wife (those of you with keen memories will recall that she it is who prefers being hit repeatedly round the neck with a wet fish to hearing synthesizers) made the comment after seeing Depeche Mode at Hammersmith on their British Tour that machinery had taken over, what with indescribable sounds and a backing tape. Where was the humanity in the process? The sweat?
"There are lots of ways of countering those points," said Dave. "Firstly, there's a vast area of validity encompassing, say, the Smiths (whom we really like) on one side, and us on the other; all we've done is to change the conventions. It's not rock'n'roll in the purists's sense of the term but the songs still stand up on their own, whatever the treatment. The main thing we retain is the melody: it's what lasts. Second, despite all our 'machinery', the gig still comes down to the conventional winning over of the audience; I enjoy the stagework — such a feeling of power for those few minutes that you're up there! We were really spoiled on our last tour: places like Belfast were so excited that an English band had gone over, that we didn't have to win them over. Even Fletch was upfront, singing away. And he's so shy!"
And it was Fletch who came up with the third point. "If we had to play guitars, we don't think we could be as good as, say, the Big Country, honestly. We're at our best doing what we're doing." Yes, but is synthesis and pulse time as 'valid' as rock'n'roll? Martin came up with a fitting riposte. "Whatever instrument you use, you still need the ideas. What makes a band is the corporate ideas that come up, not the hardware that you use to put them over. You're just as badly off with a synthesizer as you are with a guitar if you haven't got the ideas." Shot down in flames.
The wife, that is, not me!
Daniel Miller is really quite an extraordinary figure. A workaholic, he likes nothing better than programming his Synclavier by the light of the silvery moon. I asked no one in particular where he stood in the outfit. In several places, came the reply. For a start, he sets the tone for Mute; Mute has taken on his unconventional approach to the commercial music business.
"This is what at the outset attracted us. He also introduced us to purer synthesis than we were using, and it was through him that we discovered sound and its generation as a valid, commercial alternative to guitars. The use of sequencers suited us fine since we all except Alan have this one strong weakness (sic!): we are none of us as strong musicians, and an ordinary band may well have turned us down, including Vince." That was another reason for coming together as a band in the first place. Andy also suggested that there was no virtue in musicianship in a commercial world where it's probably anything but musicianship that gets you in: "Musical rivalry doesn't exist with us."
Daniel leaves all aspects of songwriting entirely to the band. He's got lots of ideas but he's no musician, and he becomes involved for two main tasks; one, to program the Synclavier and associated hardware; two, to provide the detached co-production of a finished song. But the nature of programming being what it is, he is able to introduce sounds to the band they didn't know existed: the Synclavier is on one side a super-powerful synthesizer, in that it uses algorithms of sine waves to conjure up complex waveforms (remember that the Yamaha DX range's FM system is under licence from New England Digital, the inventors of the Synclavier), and on the other side it can sample sounds with absolute clarity. It is such a complicated task to program it that even Alan prefers at the moment leaving it to Daniel since "the details can bog you down. We write, or hope we write, catchy melodies, and intriguing lyrics underpinned by the use of sound and rhythm. But eventually Martin and I will master the machine and make ourselves perhaps more self-sufficient." Martin took over from Vince as the main songwriter in the band. It was only after Vince had left (in the period following Just Can't Get Enough) that they realised just how important Martin's role had been: so far as publishing was concerned, Vince had composed the songs on Speak and Spell and that was that. But the reality was something else. Depeche Modes' songwriting, before they get to touch a synthesizer, is perhaps their most lasting quality, and they aim for songs which could stand up on their own, without the clothing of sampled sound. Vince and Martin have songs coming out of their ears: Vince's approach was through the tune and song construction, and Martin's tends to be through lyrics. Vince wasn't fussed about the sound — he's quite happy to use the same keyboard throughout a song.
David: "I have a feeling that the importance of the lyrics has grown partly through what Martin has experienced in the band, and partly through our huge successes in Germany, where lyric content is the most important part of a song. I become involved in a new song at an early strage, to understand the lyrics and suggest improvements from my point of view as lead singer."
"Vocally, we're all strong," explained Andy. "Harmonies have been a feature of Depeche songs since after the first album. So when Martin takes over the lead in Pipeline on the last album Construction Time Again, it's no surprise. "On this album, Alan also had a couple of tracks of his, and he took me through the writing process of the 'B'-side they were currently recording, his Place it in Your Memory.
"I wrote this song using a Jupiter 8 and Drumulator recorded onto the Teac Portastudio. The bass riff was hand played because sequencers waste so much time on demos. Then came the melody line and other little bits. By the time I've finished all the instrumentation I've usually got the lyrics and then the song is put to the band." Where this writing differs from perhaps more conventional writing is that chord changes are far less important than you would have thought: the use of sound changes takes their place to produce atmosphere, and the attention is on lyrics, melody and sound. This particular song was accepted as the 'B'-side to People are People, and so the next stage was the recording. Alan reprogrammed the Drumulator with the exact pattern he wanted, although they no longer use the Drumulator's sounds; the Roland MC4 microcomposer, which was the composition tool of Danny's before the Synclavier came along, was then linked to the drum computer, and the MC4's sync tone was then recorded onto the 24-track at exactly the right speed. After that, all operations were synch-ed off tape via the MC4: first the drumulator's individual sounds triggered specific sampled drums in the Synclavier: the snare was recorded at Hansa in Berlin, their favourite recording spot; the bassdrum is a sampled composite of a metal pipe being struck followed by the natural decay of an acoustic bassdrum, and so on. Then Alan played the bass riff on the Jupiter by hand(!) into the Synclavier, in time with the drums; the computer quantised Alan's playing to pulse time, and the notes were then used to trigger that mainstay of Depeche's sound down the years, the ARP 2600. After that came triggered sequences on the ARP via the ARP analogue sequencer, hand-played Emulator choirs, random synthesised 'bells' in the Synclavier. Oh yes, and David Gahan's vocals, of course!
"When we do a single like this last one," remarked Alan, "we mix for radio rather than for hi-fi. Danny bought a little gadget which we're evaluating called the Ear Opener — it's supposed to reproduce exactly the compression and re-equalization you have on radio. So we constantly cross-reference what we hear in the Control Room with what comes out of this little modified transistor radio: previously we were finding that our mixes weren't sounding all that great on medium-wave; one thing we've learned is that you have to go way over the top with ambience and reverb to get the same effect on radio as you would hear on a hi-Fi system — that's why Hansa is so good, 'cos you can pass your most computer-like sounds through amps and even huge PA stacks in their large halls, mike them up, gate them to hell and come up with the most incredible and powerful sounds. That's how we did People Are People: I suppose you could call it Controlled Dirt." Using that technique, it's possible to play down the pulse time technique of Depeche, to make it sound less calculated than those famous Yazoo songs. And there is also the trick of very slightly vari-speeding each individual track to give that slight push to the song.
Hardware, Software. And Adultwear: "We have never 'sold out' commercially. We're not just a numbered catalogue number, a product pushed by a multinational label: we are probably the most successful independently-distributed independent act. Our enthusiasm on stage is still genuine, and though we don't splash ourselves around the teeny market anymore, we haven't become rock stars. We and the audience, we're all in it together."
That was David.
And if you look at the facts, there seems to be more than a fair measure of historicity in what he says. They are unconventional in their use of instruments and the use they put them to; their line-up (if you can call it that) is unorthodox; their continuing relationship with Mute records could be seen by the hard-nosed to be somewhat commercially eccentric; and their involvement with Daniel Miller as mentor and co-producer is exotic. I just find the whole thing exhilarating. Hope you do, too.
Interview by Will Mowat
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