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The Long Ride Home - EMusician

The Long Ride Home

If the standard pop band is the result of years of evolution and natural selection whereby the most well-adapted species rise to the top of the entertainment
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If the standard pop band is the result of years of evolution and natural selection whereby the most well-adapted species rise to the top of the entertainment food chain, Depeche Mode is one of those rare experiments that no one can either fully explain or duplicate. Musically, the band has carved a unique niche that touches on everything from dancefloor anthems to moody, goth-tinged ballads to the band's own take on American rock and blues. And at the heart of it all is some of the strangest band chemistry in popular music. Where most acts generally rise and fall on the back of a central figure, the story of Depeche Mode is really the story of Martin Gore and Dave Gahan — with Gore often cast as the shy genius and Gahan the two-dimensional focal point. Suffice it to say, if there has ever been a formula for a dysfunctional relationship, this is it.

Despite the issues brewing under the surface, the band saw nearly unparalleled success through most of the '80s and into the mid-'90s. Ironically, it was at the peak of its career, while still promoting Songs of Faith and Devotion (Sire, 1993), that the band saw the departure of longtime keyboardist and collaborator Alan Wilder, and Gahan's own substance-abuse problems became impossible to ignore. Following a long period of rebuilding, the band has been regaining its momentum through releasing albums and mounting ambitious arena tours. And even though the group's popularity on the road has remained intact, neither Ultra (Reprise, 1997) nor Exciter (Mute/Reprise, 2001) managed to generate the same level of excitement as the Mode's previous works.

When the band finished touring behind Exciter, Gore, Gahan and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher each decided to take an extended break and concentrate on their own projects. Gore released his second album of covers, Counterfeit2 (Mute/Reprise, 2003), and Fletcher started his own record label, Toast Hawaii. For Gahan, the break enabled him to finally try his hand at songwriting on a massive scale, resulting in his first solo album, Paper Monsters (Mute/Reprise, 2003). The experience would prove to have a profound impact on the future of the band — and its new album, Playing the Angel (Mute/Reprise, 2005).

“Once we'd finished Paper Monsters, I just continued the process of writing,” Gahan explains. “And to be honest, I went into this Depeche record like, ‘I've got 15 songs demoed here, and I'm either going to do another solo record or we're going to do this Depeche thing.’ And if we do this Depeche thing, at first I was like, ‘I want half the songs.’ And, of course, that went down like a ton of bricks. Martin was having a real hard time getting his head around that. Depeche has always been like, ‘This is what you do, and this is what I do.’ And that's half the problem for me. It's like I want to break that mold. If we're going to make another record, I think we need to stretch ourselves, and this could be the beginning of something rather than looking at it as something being taken away. So I kept pushing, and we ended up agreeing that I would have three songs.”

For Gore, the idea of sharing the songwriting duties wasn't a completely unexpected turn of events. And his reservations weren't based on his own vanity; rather, he was concerned about tampering with what had always been a successful formula. “Well, I knew it was coming because Dave put out his solo record,” Gore says. “He's obviously gotten into the writing process. So it didn't seem that unnatural to me that he wanted to contribute something to this album. I thought it was wrong for him to be pushing for 50 percent, because we've had something that has worked for 25 years. But I didn't think it was unreasonable for him to ask to write two or three songs on the record. It's also not without precedent. When Alan was in the band, he wrote a couple of songs on Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward, going back awhile. I haven't written every song since Vince [Clarke] left.”

THE JOHN AND PAUL SYNDROME

When it came time to start penning tracks, Gore decided to break with his decades-old tradition of starting songs on piano or guitar and instead chose to start working on the electronic elements right from the start. “I think the majority of the songs on this record I started on the computer with keyboards,” he says. “I'd get atmospheres going and then start singing along or playing along to that. And that's something that I've always shied away from in the past because I always thought that that was sort of dangerous because you can get carried away with the sounds that you're creating, and maybe the song behind it is not necessarily as good as you think it is.”

Gahan's songwriting process, on the other hand, was quite different. Instead of working alone, he brought in Depeche Mode touring drummer Christian Eigner and longtime programmer Andrew Phillpott. “Well, I like to write with someone else,” Gahan explains. “And [for this record] it started out where Christian had sent me these sort of atmospheric, instrumental bits, and a couple of them I really liked and felt inspired to do something with. But he sent them to me right at the end of the Paper Monsters tour, so I kind of shelved them. When I finished that tour, I was still very excited about writing, and I wanted to continue writing. So shortly after that, I invited Christian and Andrew out to my little studio in New York, and we basically sat down together and sort of started from scratch. I have a little Pro Tools rig — a little Digi 002 — and we just started playing around.

“I go to my studio every day,” he continues, “I get up, do whatever and hang out a bit and then go to work. Most of the time, nothing happens, and I end up watching TV or listening to records. But I'll try stuff out. It might be something that Christian sent me, or I'm just playing around with the Pro Tools stuff that I have that I'm really not very good with. I'm not patient. That's my problem. And I forget stuff really quickly. I have this guy in New York who helps me out, and he has lists for me everywhere of like, ‘This is how you record a vocal,’ ‘This is how you set up your mic,’ or ‘This is how you access the keyboard.’ I've got all these lists everywhere, and I still manage to fuck it up. Christian and especially Andrew are a lot more technical, and I kind of leave that up to somebody else so I can just kind of be free and go wherever I want to go with the song or with the melody. And I'm finding that I have something to offer there.”

With some of the writing completed, the band decided to test the waters and book some time at Santa Barbara Sound Design, near Gore's home in Southern California. DM also brought in producer Bill Hillier, who, in addition to production duties, received the task of choosing which of Gahan's demos would work on the new album. “We're not very good at communicating, so we'll just generally decide to get together for a specific period and just see how things go,” Gore explains. “And, obviously, after a four-year break, you kind of don't know what the dynamic of the band is going to be like and if we've chosen the right producer or not. So we decided to do a five-week trial period, and during that five weeks, we amazingly got 11 songs going — which is really unusual for us — and a direction started to form.”

“I said to Ben, ‘You choose,’” Gahan adds. “‘You pick what you think is going work with the album.’ At that point, Martin had maybe written five songs, and I had, like, 15. That kind of became the catalyst to make Martin write more songs, because he wanted to have more songs on the album. And there was one point where I was like, ‘You need to write some more songs, or we're going to have to use mine.’ It wasn't a thing that Martin didn't like the songs, it was much more a thing of, ‘Can Depeche Mode fans handle this big of a change?’ which was kind of ridiculous to me.”

“I thought it was good for both Dave and Martin,” Hillier adds. “I mean, Dave was very brave in it because, obviously, Martin had been writing songs for 25 years, at least, and he's one of the most accomplished songwriters that I know. He's consistently written hit singles on every record they've ever done. So for Dave, who has only been writing for three or four years, really, to step into that sort of arena and try to compete, if you like, is very hard. And I thought he did well. On Martin's side, having another songwriter is all of a sudden a pressure he's not used to at all. It was great to sort of have an added pressure to drive him on and to help him to create more.”

TRYING IT LIVE

The formal production stage for the record encompassed three different phases: The band tracked for several months in both Santa Barbara and New York before eventually traveling to London to mix. Throughout the tracking phase, Hillier utilized multiple Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 rigs in various rooms at each studio, which allowed the band and the production team to work on different elements in tandem. Sonically, Hillier and DM looked to make the most of their combined collections of analog synths, outboard processors and anything else they could get their hands on.

“We kind of brought a whole range of stuff with us,” Hillier explains. “I also brought loads of stompbox guitar pedals. I didn't really want to set any rules like, ‘We must use analog synths,’ or ‘We must use digital synths.’ It was more like, ‘We're going to fuck around with the sounds regardless of where they come from to get what we want.’ If we were going to record a guitar, we'd probably run it though three different analog synths. And if we were recording a synth, it would probably go through three amps before we were done. There was a lot of turning things on their heads and messing about and stuff like that. That seemed to be the way that we could get everything to sit together the right way: by treating them in a slightly severe way.

“We had one of the largest collections of ARP 2600s that I'd ever seen,” he continues. “We had five at one point and three sequencers. Martin has got a rack of three 2600s, which we were using as the best drum machine in the world because you could program a kick sound in one, a snare sound in the other and then a hi-hat sound in the third one — and then trigger that with the sequencer to create the drums with the great feel of the ARP sequencer and really great drum sounds. You could toy with the sounds while you were putting it down, so it was really good.”

During the tracking process, Hillier also pushed the band to improvise as much as possible. And though it may say seem a tad strange for a group like Depeche Mode, the band actually came to embrace in-studio jam sessions as an important way to flesh out ideas. “Ben would quite often get on the drums,” Gahan says. “We had a drum kit set up with all of these old Russian transducer mics, and it never really sounded like a drum kit. A good example is ‘Lilian,’ the second-to-last track. It's got, like, this pumping sound, which is kind of what the room made, but it was also these mics. Ben would kind of bash down a beat, and Martin would play, and I'd be singing, and it would get us going in this direction that really isn't what Depeche does. But that was a good thing because it would send us off somewhere, and then we'd have to reel it in and sort of dismantle it.

“It was sort of like we were jamming,” Gahan continues. “I mean, as close as it ever gets for Depeche Mode. We would sort of look at each other, and it would be this cross between T. Rex and Kraftwerk, which is not a bad thing, but a little too much down that path. Even Fletch played some bass on one part. Martin wasn't there one day, and we needed a bass, so Ben was like, ‘You played bass, right?’ And Fletch was like, ‘I haven't played bass in 20 years.’ But it was okay; it was fun to change it up a bit.”

Gore also decided, during the course of the record, to finally get up to speed with Pro Tools. Hillier thought the best way for Gore to learn a new piece of software was to just dive in and start writing with it, and the result was one of Playing the Angel's standout tracks, “John the Revelator.” “Martin had always used Logic before,” Hillier explains. “He'd spoken to me about Pro Tools, and I'm a big fan of Pro Tools, and I quite enjoy using it. I said to him, ‘You should try using it and see how you get on.’ So he was kind of getting to grips with it and learning how to use it, and he had started writing this kind of bluesy song. We'd been listening to a lot of old '30s recordings of blues and old gospel stuff, and he had kind of written a take on that. Martin usually presents his songs in a finished form, but I kind of lifted this one off of him before he was finished. It was quite exciting because that one was much more of an open book, and I got to start from nowhere with it, which was really fun. And Dave came along and sang the line that Martin had been singing in such a totally different way. It was really exciting because he put this real rock 'n' roll spin on it, which really kind of kicked it off.”

“I wasn't even sure what I was doing,” Gore confesses. “I had this out-of-tune guitar. All the strings were tuned to the same note, but they were all slightly off. So I just started playing a riff on that and put a drumbeat to it and added a few keyboard sounds. I wasn't even sure if it was any good, and then Ben came into the room and said that this was really interesting. So I carried on for another day, and it just seemed like it had this old gospel thing to it. So I just started singing the old traditional song ‘John the Revelator,’ which gave me the idea to add a different melody and different words, and it basically got to a point when Ben really liked it, and he kept saying we should really work on it as a team. And then it goes into the whole Depeche Mode blender, where everybody gets involved, and we're all on various things just trying stuff out, just adding to the picture.”

A TOUCH OF CLASS

One of the most striking things about Playing the Angel is that the album manages to reference classic elements of the band's sound without sounding like an exercise in repetition. “A lot of people are talking about it sort of referring back to somewhere between Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion and having some of both of those things,” Gahan says. “You've got all of the electronics and the textures and the layers, but it's also even harping by the mid-'80s stuff.”

“I wanted to make a record that had some of the pop elements that I thought were Depeche Mode,” Hillier explains. “My knowledge of the band was that they wrote really good, really powerful pop songs that were really well-crafted and had great sounds — and they were exciting to listen to. I wanted to make an album that had that kind of energy to it.”

“I think it's ironic that this album does reference older Depeche Mode, because Ben wasn't really a big fan of the band,” Gore concludes. “I'm not saying he didn't like us, but he wasn't a trainspotter who knew every album and every B-side that we've ever put out. He claims that he bought ‘New Life’ when it came out, but that was about it. He probably heard our songs on the radio, but I don't really think he owns any of our albums. We had to get a box of our releases sent over to the studio so he could see what we've been up to for the last 25 years. It's just funny that working with him has brought out this almost traditional-sounding Depeche Mode.”

JUST CAN'T GET ENOUGH

DEPECHE MODE AND BEN HILLIER SELECTED GEAR

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:

Apple Logic Pro 7 software, Mac G5/dual 2.5GHz computers (4)
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel systems (4), 192 I/Os (4)

Effects units:

Boss SYB-3 Bass Synthesizer
Crowther Audio Prunes & Custard
Electro-Harmonix Attack Equalizer, Deluxe Memory Man
Frantone Auto-Looper, Peachfuzz
HAZ Mu-Tron III+
Ibanez CD-5 Soundtank Cyberdrive
Lovetone Big Cheese, Brown Source, Doppleganger, Meatball, Ring Stinger, Wobulator
MXR DynaComp, Phase 100
Sovtek Big Muff
Z.Vex FuzzProbe, Ooh Wah

Microphones:

Lomo 19A4, 19A18, 19A19s (2)
Neumann CMV-563, U 47
Oktava ML-17, ML-219s (2)
RTT MKL-101s (2)
Shure 520D, Beta 91
STC 4037, 4105

Monitors:

Genelec 1031As
Yamaha NS10s

Outboard processors:

Korg Kaoss Pad
Roland RE-301
Sherman Filterbank

Software, plug-ins:

Ableton Live 4, Operator
Native Instruments Absynth 3, Akoustik Piano, B4, Battery, Elektrik Piano, FM7, Guitar Rig, Intakt, Kontakt 2, Pro-53, Reaktor 4, Vokator
Propellerhead Reason 3.0
Sonic Charge µTonic
Way Out Ware TimewARP 2600

Synths, samplers:

Access Virus Indigo synth
Akai MPC2000 sampling workstation, S3000 rackmount sampler
ARP 2600 synths (5), Axxe synth, 1613 sequencers (3)
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
EMS Synthi AKS, VCS3 synths; Vocoder 2000
E-mu SP-1200 drum machine/sampler
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Korg MS-20 monosynth, SQ10 sequencer, MS-2000 synth
Kurzweil K2500R rack synth/sampler
Octave Plateau Voyetra 8 synth
Roland JD-800, JP-8000, Juno-6, Juno-106, RS-09 synths
Sequential Circuits Pro One synth
Studio Electronics Midimoog synths (2)
Yamaha CS-5, CS-30 synths