Martin and Andy plot "It's Called A Heart" 45
Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher from Depeche Mode tell Tony Bacon the story of the making of their new single, "It's Called A Heart"
Martin: "'It's Called A Heart' was one of a batch of songs I wrote from about April to June this year. We usually put aside specific periods for writing. The ideas occur to me at any time. On tour, say, where I can't actually work on it because I don't take any equipment to my hotel room and I don't have the actual time to work on songs. So maybe I'll write some words down in a book and then work on it in my next writing period."
In the case of 'It's Called A Heart', Martin's idea was a pretty vague one to begin with: merely the intention to write a song "about a heart". The beat began.
The equipment Martin uses at home for demoing he describes as simple, and indeed this is his primary concern — to keep it straightforward. At this stage, anyway.
"You've got room for experimentation afterwards," he explains. "If you work things out too much on a demo then I find you get bored very quickly, and by the time you get to record it in the studio all your ideas are exhausted."
This is contrary to the method of the other writer in the group, Alan Wilder, who tends to demo to "quite a finished state". Martin will get a sound that suits, and bash things down. But using what?
Principle machine is the tried and trusted Roland MC4, the smaller brother of the MC8 which brought the concept of computer-controlled synthesiser composition to a largely uninterested world in the late 1970s. Depeche Mode, with producer Daniel Miller, seized this "music-by-numbers" method of song construction and, at first, almost made it their own.
Martin's MC4 at home drives various synths: an unsurprising DX7, an Emulator, a JP8. He does admit to adding some hand-played bits after the MC4's machinations, and insists that his Drumatix drum machine aids the quest for simple feels. It all goes down on to a Portastudio.
The demo of 'It's Called A Heart' was, initially, the least popular when it came to choosing a single from the batch of new songs the group had to consider. Martin gives each member of group — and Daniel Miller — a cassette, along with cover versions of current faves and, as Andy Fletcher describes it, "a DJ tape".
Andy continues: "Martin had written about six or seven songs, and as he's a good songwriter they were all good. So it was a difficult decision. Each person had their own favourite. Which was awkward. The demo of 'It's Called A Heart' was almost a pastiche, almost rock'n'roll."
Martin's not so sure: "No, it wasn't exactly rock'n'roll — but that's how some members of the group saw it."
So when the demos are delivered the, er, discussions commence? "Then the arguments, start," laughs Martin.
'It's Called A Heart' won the demo race principally for its pace: the group felt that they've recently had a number of slow-ish singles, so it was time for a faster 45. "And a bit more of an optimistic one," adds Andy.
And so to Daniel Miller's tiny studio at the Rough Trade building in London's seedy King's Cross. This is where the interim production of the Depeche single takes place, the programming.
"There's a lot of work you could end up doing in an expensive studio that you don't need to do there — we go into this small place and do the basic structural changes and shape," says Andy.
Usually this has involved the natural successor to the group's older MC composition method, the Synclavier. For 'It's Called A Heart', however, they used the UMI system with the BBC micro for the first time. What's all that about, then?
Martin: "With the UMI, we started by programming lines in as they were on the demo, then we programmed in more parts and started changing things around. It's easier to move things around than it was with the Synclavier. On the UMI, you have to give each section of the song a different number, each 'motif'. Then you go through, writing into different channels — channel A might be the bass line, channel B a melody line, and so on.
"For example, the opening four bars of bass line we gave number 11, and then on the melody line the section corresponding to that was number 21. We did that across the channels as the sections changed — 31, 41, and so on for the opening. Then if you want to change the structure, all the numbers of a particular section correspond on the different channels, so you know exactly what you're moving around."
Andy: "The other advantage we found with the UMI is that you can use lots of different keyboards off it. We tended to use the Synclavier itself for all the sounds when we used it for programming. With the UMI we used Emulator, DX7, Akai... it wasn't so limiting on sounds."
The four or five days of programming resulted in a virtually complete structure for 'It's Called A Heart'. The group also decided on a few of the sounds for the bass part, and sorted out a sizeable portion of the drum pattern (this was still sampled, on Synclavier). Time well spent.
mid to end June
Two-and-a-half weeks at Genetic studio, Martin Rushent's rural hideaway near Reading. This is slightly quicker than the recent DM singles have taken, and was partly a let's-get-this-thing-done reaction to 'Shake The Disease', which ended up being mixed in the group's absence (the first time this had happened). In retrospect, still a good mix, they feel, but frustrating at the time.
With a lot of the structure and some of the sounds already sorted out, "recording" for Depeche means getting the quality and relationship of the sounds finalised. Martin reckons they completed one or two sounds a day, roughly. "When you consider the number of sounds on the record, and the fact that three or four days were spent totally on vocals, you can see how we spent the time."
In fact, of the Genetic time, two weeks were spent on the A-side and about four days on the B-side ("Flies On The Windscreen"). Why so seemingly unbalanced? "Our B-sides are often a lot more relaxed affairs," says Andy. "On the A-side, every sound seems vital, but for the B-side it's quick — and often it turns out a lot fresher for that."
But on with the job in hand: the UMI programs were run, and gradually the layers began to form, over and above the structured agreements from King's Cross. A lot of time is spent considering the creation of the correct atmosphere, and from a technical point of view many of the sounds end up as combinations of different instruments and samples.
For example, the first sound to go down and be finalised was the bass: a combination of sampled bass guitar, a little DX7 bassiness, and, er... And? "Possibly another sound," offers Martin. "But I used a lot of 'vocal' sounds on it."
Is this a theory we see before us? It sure is. "I had this theory that if there was a voice somewhere within a sound, in the combination, then the audience would warm to it, they'd recognise it as a human sound," explains Martin. "Sometimes it was very subliminal. If we had a melody line, for example, we'd find roughly the middle note of the line, go in and sing that note against a tuner for guidance, sample it, and put that into the sequencer to move around till you get the right notes."
And it worked? "Well, we'll see..."
This is the time for making final decisions, isn't it? "Yeah, but a lot of groups don't have a say in the mix," laments Andy, "it's just the big producer comes in and they have to go with what he says. With us we're always in on the mix."
For 'It's Called A Heart', it was up to Livingstone studio in north London for five days — again, a relatively short time for the mix by normal DM single standards. The seven and 12in mixes were done in this time.
Bearing in mind their time problem on 'Shake The Disease', for 'It's Called A Heart' Daniel and Dave Gahan started at Livingstone a few days before the rest of the group — they'd just returned from playing some European festivals — and did some initial setting up.
Then it's a case of streamlining openings, firming up the middle, and underlining the end. "Quite often we get to the mix and we don't have the start sorted out — generally we've just got everything going on the multitrack at the beginning, a real mess until the first chorus. So we decide what sounds good together for that section, make a start for it, and move through the song in that way," says Martin.
At the mix, Depeche also worry about what the song's going to sound like on the radio. But also on the hi-fi. A sort of compromise emerges. For this new single they used a box called an Earopener. It's like a small transistor radio, with built-in compression just like Radio One. You can run your mix through it and see what radio listeners are going to get.
"It's dangerous just using that," emphasises Andy. "I think we have overused it at times, so that for general hi-fis things end up sounding not as good as they could."
Like 'Master And Servant', suggests Martin. "Go to a club and that can sound really weedy, even though it sounded good on the radio."
But for the 12in mix, it's definitely a case of putting it up on the big monitors. "Try to get a club atmosphere," grins Martin. "'Test the danceability', that's one of our sayings." And did it pass? "Yes," they chorus.
This is the least important stage at which to be present, say our Depechers. And for 'It's Called A Heart', they weren't. "Daniel knows," Martin says. "He always goes along."
The group always try to have enough time to spare for a re-cut, in case it's necessary. They'd listened to the test pressings of this newest single when we met, and agree that it's "one of the better ones".
On a few occasions in the past they have rejected test pressings, mostly for background noise. But since they moved to cutting at CBS, things seem to have improved. It's rarely the cut that's at fault anyway, says Andy. It's more likely to be a problem at the pressing plant.
"But these days record manufacturers have to be good," continues Andy. "There's just so much competition: CDs, high-quality cassettes. They have to be as good as possible."
Now, lots of people go out and buy the single. "Maybe," says Martin. But I know he's more sure than that, because the single's scheduled to appear on Depeche Mode's "greatest hits" compilation LP due out next month. It's called a certainty, surely?
Interview by Tony Bacon
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