DAVID GAHAN: Solo disc has been percolating for years.

It's just after 1 p.m. on the first really hot day of the season, but it's comfortably cool inside the darkened North Hollywood studio where the lithe, shadowy figure of Dave Gahan is putting his new band through its paces one last time.

Within 24 hours, the Depeche Mode frontman will be on a plane to Cologne, Germany, after which he'll head to Paris for an in-store appearance, then rejoin his mates in Zurich, Switzerland, for the start of his first solo tour - in support of his first solo album, "Paper Monsters," the release of which is just four days away. (It arrived Tuesday.)

Already things are looking up. The British press has weighed in positively, and the European trek is sold out. But that's to be expected; recent trends notwithstanding, Europeans always have taken to electro-pop more than Americans, and audiences here are more likely to thumb their noses at the idea of Gahan stepping out on his own as a songwriter after 22 years of exclusively singing fellow Moder Martin Gore's songs.

They are in for a surprise.

I arrive 15 minutes early, sneak in quietly and manage to catch most of Gahan's set from a leather couch a few feet in front of the makeshift stage. The only other people in the "audience" are his publicists and two friends. I've missed his snaky, very DeMode-like single, "Dirty Sticky Floor," and another cut or two. Yet right away it's clear this will be nothing like his new album.

Produced by Ken Thomas, known for his work with Icelandic atmospheric outfit Sigur Růs, "Paper Monsters" probably will strike many fans as a logical extension of Depeche Mode's later work; essentially, it's the lusher electronic feel of "Ultra" and "Exciter" married to the demon-grappling of "Songs of Faith and Devotion." The Englishman now living in New York knew to write from experience, which in several instances led him back to the sorrow and self-loathing that once propelled him into a near-fatal heroin addiction.

Gahan doesn't prove to be a significant wordsmith on his first batch of tunes, but he's no slouch, either - certainly Gore's equal in terms of imagery and melody. Collaborating with guitarist and sometime Psychedelic Fur Knox Chandler, he places his patented brood within expectedly sensual sounds yet also indulges in moments of Ute Lemper- like cabaret and explores the sort of ambient passageways he and fans often have visited.

On record, anyway. Live, well, this becomes a different beast. What's immediately noticeable at this rehearsal: no computer banks. Apart from Vincent Jones hiding behind a small stack of keyboards, nothing suggests this is anything but a band about to rock.

And no sooner does that thought arrive than the group tears into the seemingly autobiographical "Bottle Living," a piece of T. Rex swagger that slides into a roaring version of "Personal Jesus," one of Depeche's biggest hits. For once, it sounds like the bloozy roof- raiser it always should have been. Later on, they will do likewise to others: "I Feel You," "Walking in My Shoes," "Never Let Me Down Again."

In his tank top and sweat pants, Gahan struts like Jagger, spins his mike stand wildly, whoops and hollers and cajoles his outfit to play harder, fiercer, eventually leading them to a James Brown-like finale. His drummer shouts out "Dave Ga-han! Dave Ga-han!" - as if someone's about to walk him away draped in a cape.

"Personal Jesus" comes to a crashing finish. There's palpable excitement in the room. This is most unexpected - big, sweaty rock. Nothing at all like Depeche Mode.

"Me band got chops!" Gahan declares.

"Where did that come from?" I ask him later, as we lounge in the studio's lobby.

"Well, it's been brewing for a while," he says excitedly. "I always imagined it being more like this. We did some of that stuff in the studio as well, but I knew it would go up a notch once we got on stage."

He knows how to make that happen, of course; it's been his role in Depeche all along, breathing humanity into otherwise chilly, inorganic music.

But Gahan, still baby-faced at 40 though with graying temples, candidly admits that Depeche has been drifting apart for some time. He notes that during the unfocused sessions for "Exciter," perhaps the group's least interesting effort since its robotic formative works, he had to force himself to get enthusiastic about the project.

"To be honest with you, since Alan (Wilder) left the band, musically it really is just about Martin and me and we've gotten to a point where we're limiting ourselves too much - limiting ourselves to what we think we're supposed to sound like. We've gone off in different ways."

There hasn't been a falling out with Gore, per se, just an absence of creative spark - and an unwillingness on the part of the Depeche camp to let Gahan contribute ideas. That tension dates back to the "Ultra" sessions, during which Gahan offered his first composition, "The Ocean Song."

"I plucked up enough courage to play it for Martin, and he said, 'Great! Means that's one less I have to write.' But a few days later we had a powwow and it was decided that the song didn't fit with the theme of the album. Which at the time really hurt me because, first of all, we'd only recorded two songs, and Martin had only written three.

"I couldn't voice how (ticked) off I was, that I felt let down. But I was also going through my own personal problems then, so I just recoiled into the old I'm-not- good-enough thing and forgot about it for a year or two."

He kept on writing, often jotting down lyrics, but "it was that point when I realized if I was going to do anything of my own, it would have to be without Depeche Mode. There's been so many rules and regulations set within the band - Martin's the songwriter, Dave's the singer and performer and Fletch (Andrew Fletcher) hangs out, encourages Martin, though they're not as close as they used to be, either."

Friends had put it to Gahan as early as 1990's "Violator" that he should do a solo album, but at the time he was content to be Martin's mouthpiece, letting his self-doubt fester. Only now, he says, does it feel like the right time.

"If anything, I left it painfully lingering as long as I could before I really I don't know, maybe grew in confidence? I've changed a lot - tried to, anyway - in the last five years. Certainly I've changed my whole lifestyle."

As has Gore, he points out, having relocated to Los Angeles and revived his solo career with the recent covers collection "Counterfeit2." Yet ironically it's Gahan, the face of Depeche Mode, who stands a better chance of a career beyond the band.

Naturally, such developments may leave fans wondering if the group will record again. Gahan seems neither hopeful nor dismissive of the possibility. He only knows some things would have to change for that to happen.

"Look, I don't know what the future of Depeche Mode is. When it gets to the beginning of next year, we'll talk about it, like we always do. If we feel there's something worth doing together, then we will. All I know is I've opened a door with writing and working with other musicians and enjoying that freedom, and I want to continue doing that."

Orange County
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