So what do you do if you're part of a massively successful pop band in which the main songwriter is often battling a notorious case of writer's block? Well, if you're Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode (DM), you take matters into your own hands.
As the frontman of DM, Gahan has spent the better part of his career in a rather odd position: Although he's the principal vocalist and the obvious media focal point, it wasn't until the band's most recent album, Playing the Angel (Sire/Reprise/Mute, 2005), that he finally scored some proper writing credits — the culmination of a long-brewing power struggle between Gahan and primary songwriter Martin L. Gore. But DM isn't Gahan's only creative outlet. Making the most of the long breaks between band obligations, Gahan has emerged as an artist in his own right, releasing two solo records: Paper Monsters (Reprise, 2003) and, most recently, Hourglass (Mute/Virgin, 2007).
“I had in the back of my mind that there were maybe a few songs from [before Playing the Angel] that I'd want to revisit, but we never did,” says Gahan regarding the conception of Hourglass. “We just started writing fresh. Very quickly, after just two weeks, it was very obvious that we were working on a body of work. And to be honest, we couldn't find those old demos anyway. [Laughs]”
Gahan maintains a personal studio near his home in New York City that would make all but the most well-heeled producer jealous. Together with DM's touring drummer, Christian Eigner, and longtime programmer/engineer, Andrew Philpot, the multiroom space — which includes a live room, a control room and a lounge — served as the perfect creative environment.
“There was this feeling of being free,” Gahan says. “It was just writing, and it turned into recording. After just a few weeks, Daniel Miller from Mute came and took a listen, and he was blown away. He said, ‘It looks like you're producing it yourselves.’ So we got the thumbs-up, and we just carried on. It definitely gave us a boost.”
The writing process comprised Gahan, Philpot and Eigner passing ideas back and forth between Apple Logic Pro and Digidesign Pro Tools sessions. “Christian was in one room and I was in the other room with the main rig,” Philpot explains. “I would start programming sounds and building a basic backing track, and then I would hand it over to Christian and he would write a little more, and then I'd start working on another idea. We just kept it circulating like that.”
One main characteristic that distances this album from Gahan's previous solo work — and DM as a whole — is the use of live drums over sequenced percussion, all of which Eigner played. “Andrew and Christian have been part of the Depeche family for years, so we have a relationship,” Gahan says. “We definitely wanted the songs to be driven by acoustic playing, and Christian plays like a machine anyway. All he needs is a couple of takes. He's really on the ball.”
From a hardware and software standpoint, Philpot kept things minimal. “Dave doesn't have a lot of gear of his own, so Christian and I brought our setups from Europe,” he says. “We had two Logic setups, a Pro Tools|HD setup, a whole rack of Chandler and Avalon and API preamps, and this — I don't what you'd call it — it's like a 12-channel SSL sidecar. It looks like someone chainsawed the end off an SSL. We used it mostly as a summing mixer from Logic [into] Pro Tools.
“Every single [synth] sound on that album is pretty much [Native Instruments] Massive,” Philpot continues. “I'd start from the default setting, which is a saw wave, and it was a lot of work. A lot of the sounds that I made for the album were made with gating and sidechain compression. I set up all of these crazy things where I'd have, like, four drum machines going in Logic with different patterns on each of them, which I'd bus into the gates and compressors.”
While the trio experimented with electronics, guitars and live drums, Gahan insists that they didn't want to overdo it. “We were all very concerned about it being very minimal. If the power of the song was headed in a certain direction, we'd try and enhance that with atmosphere rather than trying to pump it up with, say, more guitars or more electronics and trying to fill up the holes.”