THE GUARDIAN / Alexis Petridis
As Dave Gahan happily admits, there was a moment when he thought there would never be another Depeche Mode album. Actually, he says, there were two. The first came as a result of the pandemic, when he underwent a rock star equivalent of the Great Resignation, the phenomenon in which people stuck at home started reconsidering their priorities. He had tried to gig with his other band, Soulsavers, at the end of 2020, between the first and second lockdowns (“Wonderful shows, but the whole thing was a constant state of anxiety – are you fit to fly? What’s happening tomorrow?”), but spent most of the time at home in the US. It was the longest he had ever spent off the road.
“Not making a record; spending time with my family, friends, my fucking cat,” he says. “I thought: I want to stay here. I was quite happy listening to records, watching the Knicks lose at basketball, plugging in my guitar and playing along to someone else’s music, not really interested in making new music.” He smiles. “I was 18 when Depeche Mode started. I thought: it’s enough. I’ve had a good run. So when our manager called and said ‘It’s time’, I honestly said: ‘Jonathan, I don’t know if I want to do this any more.’”
Gahan was eventually persuaded back, energised by the new songs sent by his bandmate Martin Gore. Depeche Mode’s last album, 2017’s Spirit, was stridently political, which was perhaps just as well: a month before its release, American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer attempted to claim them as “the official band of the alt-right”. (“He’s a cunt,” offered Gahan, with winning bluntness, in response.) In contrast, these were songs that hit what the Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey once called the “horny, morbid sweet spot” central to Depeche Mode’s appeal: songs about sex, about addiction, about information overload and, especially, about death, the latter perhaps the inevitable result of writing during a global pandemic.
In fact, there were so many songs about death that Gore suggested they call the album Memento Mori. Gahan looked forward to working on them in the studio, “making the songs more colourful, elevating them, getting them to the point where Fletch would say” – he imitates bandmate Andy Fletcher’s gruff Essex accent – “‘Let’s leave this alone, we’ve got it, what are you guys doing, don’t over-fucking-complicate it!’ The enjoyable part of making an album.” He employed a trainer – “sports therapist, trains American footballers, doesn’t fuck about” – to get him in shape for another tour: “I’m 60, and I’m not going to half-arse it up there.”
Six weeks before the recording sessions for Depeche Mode’s 15th album, Fletcher died, suddenly, at his London home, of an aortic dissection. The reaction among fans was one of stunned disbelief. He was only 60, and moreover, Fletch was the band’s rock: the least affected by their global fame, the one who kept his head during the early 90s, when Gahan succumbed to a heroin addiction that nearly killed him, Gore was in the grip of alcoholism, and keyboard player and songwriter Alan Wilder quit. It was, says Gahan, a reaction mirrored within the band. “What?” he says, shaking his head. “Alan used to say it: ‘He’ll outlive us all the way we’re all going.’ Fletch was always the steady one.”
He was so stunned, Gahan says, that Fletcher’s death only fully hit him at the funeral, when he saw Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records: the man who signed Depeche Mode as teenagers and maintained his faith in them when their chief songwriter, Vince Clarke, left after their debut album; who, says Gore, “let us experiment and grow at our own pace” and who still contributes ideas to their albums. “He walked in with his wife, and Martin and I stood up and kind of fell into him, and he put his arms around us and all of us were just … I was sobbing. It was just the three of us. I can’t explain it, but that’s when I totally lost it. He pointed it out: when he met me and my band, I was a teenager, just about to turn 19. I thought about that. It’s been 40-odd years. My entire adult life.”
In the wake of Fletcher’s death, Gahan says that “for a minute” he was convinced once again that Depeche Mode was over. “But Martin and I had a conversation. I was just calling up to see how he was doing and he was like, ‘We’re moving on, right?’ I said, yeah. I didn’t miss a beat.”
For his part, Gore says he never really considered the band ending. “I did question for a second whether it was a good idea to carry on with the schedule we had,” he says, “because we were due to start in the studio six weeks after he died, and I wondered if we should put that back a little bit. But we decided it was probably best for us to focus on the album, on the music, something we know, something to take our minds off Andy’s death.”
Recording went remarkably smoothly: certainly smoother than some of the famously fractious sessions for previous albums. “I think that the one thing that’s come out of Andy’s dying that’s possibly, you know, positive,” Gore says, before his voice trails off and he reconsiders. “There’s nothing positive about it. But you know, the one good thing is that it’s brought me and Dave closer. We have to make decisions as the two of us, so we talk things out, we talk a lot more on the phone, even FaceTime sometimes. That’s something we just never did before.”
Certainly, meeting them separately, each in their own rooms in a luxurious London hotel, it’s hard not to be struck by their differences. Gahan is friendly and garrulous and very much a rock star, charismatic and blessed with his ability to look supremely cool while wearing clothes that would make anyone who wasn’t a rock star look ridiculous: leathers, purple-tinted sunglasses, tight trousers (slightly flared), his all-black ensemble rounded off with a pair of bright red snakeskin pointed boots.
Gore, meanwhile, looks exactly like Martin Gore: even at 61, the biker jacket and shock of curly blond hair, shaved at the sides, are immediately recognisable from the pages of 80s Smash Hits. He is friendly but businesslike and less expansive: as Gahan suggests, Gore is “not one to wear his feelings on his sleeve, he always wears his feelings in his songs”. Gore says he never considered changing the album title or dropping its songs about death following Fletcher’s passing. “For me, when Andy died it cemented the idea that we had to carry on with these songs and the title. The idea that we should all be making the most of our time on Earth and it’s very limited – it’s kind of an important message. And it’s even more important now Andy’s gone.”
Nevertheless, Gore concedes, it is a slightly odd situation: releasing an album full of intimations of mortality less than a year after a co-founder’s death. “I don’t want to sound too new age-y about this, but sometimes you wonder when you write songs, if there’s something out there in the ether that you tap into. Sometimes I’ll sit down and write something and it comes naturally and flows and I don’t really know where the words come from. When I look at it, I think: Oh, it’s about that.”
But then, as both Gore and Gahan point out, Depeche Mode have almost always been in an odd position. On YouTube, you can find a clip from a 1981 ITV documentary, shot just as their first big hit, New Life, breached the Top 20. They are filmed doing the kind of things that “futurist” bands did: playing monophonic synthesisers with one finger, eschewing old-fashioned entertainment for a Space Invaders-style arcade game, earnestly discussing the new romantic movement. On one level, it’s very of its time, but on another, what’s striking is how detached Depeche Mode seem from the scene they’re supposed to represent. The denizens of the Blitz club think they’re a bit non-U: they aren’t hip London scene-makers, but kids from the distinctly unfashionable environ of Basildon, and they aren’t terribly arty, at least by the standards of the time.
They enthusiastically discuss their love of disco and pop and their videos look very British and provincial – shot in tacky nightclubs and branches of Woolworths – rather than meaningful and serious and mitteleuropäisch. They subsequently became huge, but that was odd, too. Their peers became globally successful with big pop hits or by switching to a more traditional, guitar-based approach; Depeche Mode did it while sticking fast to electronics and getting weirder and more experimental (they are, perhaps, the only band in history ever to break the US shortly after launching a new musical direction heavily influenced by metal-banging Berlin experimentalists Einstürzende Neubauten).
By the early 90s, when most of their peers’ careers had waned, Depeche Mode were selling millions of albums and exercising a staggering global reach: even Gore admits to being taken aback when the 2019 documentary Spirits in the Forest revealed the band had fans in Outer Mongolia. Thirty years after their biggest-selling album, 1990’s Violator, they could still call themselves the biggest cult band in the world without much fear of contradiction: as Gore points out, the tour they’re about to embark on “will probably be the biggest tour we’ve ever done, and the tour before that was the biggest we’d ever done. Every time we go out, we seem to play to more people.”
And yet, something of the outsider clings to them. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the end of 2020 (their acceptance speech, via Zoom, was the last time Gahan and Gore appeared in public with Fletcher), but even so, Gahan says he felt oddly out of place. “I’d heard a few years before, when we were first nominated, that someone on the panel had said something about us being dull ‘eyeliner-wearing weirdos’.” He laughs. “I loved that. Let’s just go down the line of eyeliner-wearing fucking weirdos: Prince, Mick Jagger, Dave Vanian from the Damned. I’m happy to join that club.”
He is, understandably, delighted with Memento Mori, an album that offers a perfect blend of ominous mood, electronic textures that range from intense to ethereal and a classic Depeche Mode way with a melancholy but nagging melody. He compares the single Ghosts Again to Enjoy the Silence, “one of those songs that to me are key anchors for Depeche”. It’s another song about the fleeting and fragile nature of life: “Everybody says goodbye … whisper we’ll be ghosts again.”
It is a subject that Gahan is uniquely placed to sing about, not because of Fletcher’s passing, but because he has technically died himself, in the days when he was, as he puts it, “following the rock-star thing in way that was beyond cliche”. His heart stopped beating for two minutes after he took an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 1996, an incident that ultimately led him to get clean. “There was complete blackness and this feeling I’ve never felt before of utter terror. No sound in the room, nothing, but the blackness felt close to you.
“I had the thing that people talk about, the out-of-body-experience, and then the next thing I know I’m sat up in the back of an ambulance being brought around. In that particular time the only real thought I had, which was terrifying, was that I don’t get to decide what happens. I thought I did. I was hellbent on the idea of ‘if I’m going out, I’m going out with a bang’, having what I thought was a good time, surrounded by other fucking sycophantic losers. It’s coming to all of us, but you don’t really know when.”
Which starts Gahan talking about Fletch again, about how weird it is doing things without him for the first time: interviews, TV appearances, photoshoots with long-term collaborator Anton Corbijn. He gestures towards the next-door balcony. “I keep expecting to hear him outside my room,” he says. “Or smell him lighting a cigarette. ‘Put that fucking thing out, Fletch! I’ve got to sing later!’”
People always asked what Fletch did in the band, he says, because Fletch always used to run his own contribution down, telling an interviewer in the 1989 documentary 101 that while the others dealt with the music, he “bummed around”.
“To me that was kind of offensive. His personality was huge. He was the voice of reason if we were going too far out with a song. We’ve been doing this a long time – me, Martin, Fletch. So this is a monumental change. Not a monumental musical change, he didn’t do masterful things on the records, but what Fletch represented within the band was identity.”
He says it is going to be odd without him on stage; Fletcher always looked so excited to be there: “Depeche Mode’s biggest supporter” performing with the band. “My job is to perform. It’s about creating something that’s larger than any existence you could possibly have had. Martin’s like the gunslinger by my side. And Fletch was the superfan.”
He pauses and grins at me, as if he’s recalling why he decided to come back to Depeche Mode despite his initial doubts. “He knew it’s the best job in the world. You know, you’ve won the lottery a thousand fucking times.”
Memento Mori is released on 24 March on Columbia Records. Depeche Mode play Malahide Castle, Dublin, on 14 June and Twickenham Stadium, London, on 17 June.