FASHION VICTIMS - Depeche Mode Discovers Guitars

After a decade of near-faceless (and guitar-less) superstardom, Depeche Mode strives to get personal with the new Songs of Faith and Devotion

Depeche Mode does'nt get any respect. Just ask lead singer David Gahan that is, if you can single him out of the quartet'“s lineup. To this day, he is approached bu purportedly devout fans who mistake him for the group'“s songwriter and ever-so-infrequently contributing vocalist, Marting Gore. Gahan recently traded sanitary synth-pop couture for biker chic-shoulder-length black hair, an emaciated frame embroidered with tattoos- a change that should help distinguich him fomr his impish, goldilocked compatriot.

Or ask Gore, who says people concentrate too much on the Depeche Mode'“s synth-pop instrumentation and not enough on its songs. Sure, he appreciates all the recent revisionist critical attention lavished on his band. After a decade-plus of guitar less devotion to the hi-tech trinity- synthesizer, sequencer, sampler - the group'“s 11-album and innumerable-single / remix catalog is being revisted in light of the pop-culture explosion of rave, techno and other machine-flued dance musics. He is likewise thankful that Depeche Mode no longer is pigeonholed with Spandau Ballet, OMD and other MIA British '—New Romanitc'‘ bands of the early '—80'“s. But all things said, the song-writer would rather be remembered as a songwriter- and not be credited with '”the demise of the song,'‘ which is how he sums up the resultof rave'“s jubilant fetishization of mundlessness, fad and surface pleasure.

Or ask Alan Wilder, who remains to all but the most loyal fan the group'“s anonymous newcomer, though he joined Depeche Mode more than a decade ago. The rest of the band call him Musical Dierctor, which still understates his almost single-handed responsability for the band'“s sound. Abetted by producer Flood, Wilder costructed virtually everything that the group'“s new album, Songs of Faith and Devotion, pumps through your stereo speakers, aside from Gahan'“s sad-eyed baritone and Gore'“s occasional boy-tenor and tremendous Curtis Mayfield-flavored Guitar. '”People have no conception of the detailed work that goes into making a record these days,'‘ Wilder says at Olympic Studios in Barnes, just a brief cab ride southwest of central London. '”All this technology is designed to give you an emotional reaction, and that'“s why it annoys me when people say, Isn'“t your music robotic because you use synthesizers?'‘ Because we go to such lengths to make sure that the technology gives you some kind of feeling.'‘

Or ask fourth and final Depeche Mode member Andrew Fletcher. Long since having relinquished any musical input, he oversees the group'“s business cockney, Fletcher or '”Fletch, as the others call him, can readily quote market research, publicity strategies and sales figures, both past and projected. '”In essence, we'“re apacket of cornflakes, '”Fletcher states flatly in a small pub across the street from Olympic Studios, where Wilder is finishingremixes on the new album'“s second single '”Walking in my Shoes'‘ and Gore is absorbed by a televised soccer match. (Gahan spends much of his time with his second wife, an American in Los Angeles, where he was interviewed separately.) '”We'“re a product'‘, says Fletcher, '”and we appeal to certain type of person, But we try not let that bother us at all. We just realy try and concentrate on making a good record.'‘ Yet for all his detailed knowledge of audince demographics, Fletcher still can;t comprehend haw Depeche Mode acquired its gloome-merchant reputation. '”Obiously, compared to Kylie Minogue, we are doomy,'‘ he concedes.

The mistaken identities, unflattering idolatry from this year'“s pop models, and a reputation for mechanical, sullen music certainly have not hurt the band. In support of its las album, 1990'“s Violator, Depeche Mode toured to 1.2 million faces, the last 75,000 of whom attended a single concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. An album-signing appearance at a Wherehouse record store in Los Angeles required more than 130 police officers to disperse at least 10,000 fans.. Of course, Southern California has always been a Depeche Mode stronghold ('”We were long considered a Sest Coast act in America,'‘ says Fletcher of the early days, '”not bad for a group from Basildon'‘), but multi-platinum album sales have established the band'“s global stature.

Even pop-culture'“s intelligentsia have caught the bug. Producer Brian Eno, whose '—92 Never Net album shows him to be more comfortable than Gore with the '”Godfather of Rave'‘ title, contributed two resoundingly ambient remixes of the otherwise pile-driving '”I feel you,'‘ the first single off the new album. And last year, film director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire), who had worked previously with Depeche Mode fellow Mute Records compatriots Nike Cave and Bliza Bargeld, struggled for months to tempt the band from a year'“s sabbatical to contribute a song to his movie, Until the End of The World. He received '”Death'“s Door,'‘ one of the band'“s best, a Kurt Weill-flavord firge whose bluesy flavor and acoustic sensibility heralded the band'“s new direction on Songs of Faith and Devotion, with its hallmark gospel, blues and swaggering guitars.

Not bad, indeed, Certainly not for a boand whose leader and primary songwriter dropped out after a single album. From the start, back in 1980, Depeche Mode (French for '”Fast Fashion'‘) was one man'“s idea, that man was neither Gahan, Gore, Wilder nor fletcher but Vince Clark, who departed ofter releasing Speak & Spell and its hit single, a bit of keyboard-driven disco called '”Just Can'“t Get Enough.'‘

Though Depeche Mode clearly has survived the loss, and Clarke'“s later success wiht Yaz and Ereausre seems more an odd footnote than anything else, Fletcher reflects the entire group'“s sentiment (all are in their early 30s when he says, '”Vince was important to the concept of the band. Without him, we wouldn'“t have know where we were going. He was the driving force. It'“s weird, really. Idon'“t think he ever regretted leaving. I think he felt he could do it all by himself, and it'“s true-he could.'‘ So could Depeche Mode .

A so-called '”quiet period'‘ followed the highly successful debuut, when the tree remaining members, Gahan, Gore and Fletcher, issued A Broken Frame. But 1983'“s Construction Time Again announced the arrivals of Alan Wilder and free-lance sample-innovator Gareth Jones, who later worked with industrial heavy Einsturzende Neubauten. Recalls Gahan, '”We were experimenting with sampling for the first time. We were going out on the streets, kicking things, smashing things and getting really into it. '”The album marked the sonic inventiveness that would both butress later weak efforts, such as 1986'“s Black Celebration, and push Gore'“s best compositions ('”People Are People, Master and Servant ,Clean') over the top.

Wilder flirted with wongwriting, but soon retired to the shadows of the studio, leaving those instincts to his solo proyects, under the name Recoil. Three singles packages targeted the band's growing audience around the time of the Some Great Reward sturio album (1984) 1987's Music For the Mases showed the band changing orientation, from scattered singles to coherent albums. 1989 brought Depeche Mode 101, an unusually frank tour fil documentary, directed by D.A. Pennebaker of Monterey Pop fame, and 101, a live double-album.

Violator arrived exactly a decade after the band signed with its English label, Mute, and for the first time introduced a guitar into the mix, with the lead single, "Personal Jesus," the band's hardest-driving song yet. "People still miss that," says Gore. "The main point of that song is the guitar riff. People still consider us an electronic band. And it was followed bu "Enjoy the Silence." The main riff on that, again, was guitar. Half of that song was guitar," he trails off, somewhat incredulously.

Well, you can't miss the guitar on Songs of Faith and Devotion. "Walking in My Shoes" sets a Johnny Marr nod over a hip-hop beat. "Mercy in You" rocks a la U2's "Bullet the blue Sky", no doubt thanks to flood, who assisted the Irich band's Achtung Baby sessions this new album-production credits include Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails. And the bottleneck-riddled "I Feel You" one-ups "Personal Jesus". >From the opening tire screech through the reousing chorus of closer "Higher Love," the album is permeated by Martin Gore agressive six - string.

"I'm convinced that we wouldn't be today if we has signed to a major label," Marin Gore states succinictly. "After the initial succes of Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame was a very quiet period for us. It didn't do nothing, but it didn't do anything astoundig, and think we would have fallen into second-album syndrome and would have been dropped bu our third album."

Signed to Sire in the U.S. Depeche Mode remains with its initial label, Mute, in England. The last of the original post-punk U.K. independents- Rough Trade (The Smiths, the Fall) and Factory (New Order, Happy Mondays) having folded in the past two years- Mute is headed by Daniel Miller who, after a stint in the Normal (best known for "Warm Leatherette," covered by Grace Jones), bult his label around industrial and synthpop bands. "It's a miracle that we were actually able to turn down all of this money that was being offered." Says Gore of their choice to sign with Mute over suitors like CBS (now Sony Music), "and it's obviously turned out in our favor. We've always had lots of freedom to do whatever we want." The Band only recently signed its first contract with Miller; says Fletcher, "It only really covers what happens if Daniel dies."

Miller has production credit on the band's early efforts, but proved as laissez-faire in the studio as he was in the office. The presence of producer flood on Depeche's Violator and now, Songs of Faith and Devotion no doubt explains the increasing coherence, the sense of sounds meshing, that eluded previous records. But the band's haphazard history is the welcome price paid for a managerfree existence: no svengali, no guru, no master, just some scraped knees up the pop-music hill. Says Fletcher, "I suppose if we'd just said, 'Ask the manager' all along, we wouldn't have actually learned as much as we have." (Integral to the Depeche Mode's satelite team, photographer Anton Corbijn [pronounced "Kor-ben"] first directed a video for the band in 1986. Known for his countless Spin covers and prevalent work with U@ and R.E.M., he now coordinates all the band's visuals. Says Fletcher of Corbijn's high profile, "It is a concern. We have to work hard with him to try and make our stuff different, because it's very easy for him to lapse." The sleeve for Songs of Faith and Devotion, the band's first studio album to feature their faces on the cover, does smack of Achtung Baby) Gahan quotes Flood on the subject of the band's unorthodox hierarchy, "He said to me that Al is sort of the craftsman, Martin's the idea man and I am the Attitude."

Whisch leaves us with Fletcher. "Well, Andy isn't musical at all," says Gore, clearly a bit more confortable with the subject than the other members. "He has absolutely no interest inmusic. He's never bought a record to my knowledge. He's not only not interested in learning to play an instrument, he doesn't have interest in actually wanting to listen to music. So, being in a band and having no interest in music meant that he had to have interest elsewhere, so he tries to deflect all the flack of the business side away from the rest of us, and allow us to concentrate on making a record. And if decisions have to be made, he has to" -he pauses- " He'll come to us and say, 'Look, they wandt us to do this, what do you think?' And we'll have a discussion about it."

Fletcher responds to the obvious question: "Why am I in a band? It was accidental right from the begining. I was actually forced to be in the band. I played the guitar and I had a bass; it was a question of them roping me in. I was never really that interested. Even when the band got going, I was just there for the social bit of it. And all of a sudden we started to do well. It was, rather than sort of making myself into a superb muso [British slang for overly dedicated musician], I tried to go in a different direction." Asked if he ever sees Fletcher retiring from performing, Gore responds, laughing, "Maybe we shouldl set a fax machine up for him on stage."

Fletcher's non-musicality remains the second-oddest facet of Depeche Mode , the first being the fact that Martin Gore rarely sings his own songs (just twice on the new album: "One Cares, and "Judas" with middle-eastern echoes of Peter Gabriel's Last temptation of Christ score). Gahan sings everything else, having written not a single sylable of what are ofthen hihgly personal lyrics. Yes the arrengment in only unusual in pop music since the rise of the singer-songwriter. And even then there are precedents, like the Whos' Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and Rush's Neil Peart and Geddy Lee. But with Depeche Mode, the situation is compounded by Gore's single-minded thematic agenda and deeply emotional content.

"IT is weird," admits Gahan. "It's really strange. I suppose, when I sing the songs, I feel they're mine. I really get into the words. Martin writes from experience, especially his experiences with the band. And becausewe spend a lot of time together, you'll experience it as well. So lots of times I feel really close, actually, to Martin's lyrics, and especially the last two albums, this one and Violator.

"It's either religion or sex with Martin, pretty much, or somewhere in between the two. But they're pretty close anyway, let's faceit"

True enough. Having long since dropped the subjects of society's ills ("New Dress," "Everything Counts") and overt religious criticism ("Blasphemous Rumours, " "Nothing"), Gore has focused closer with each record on interpersonal relations; themes of absolution through love and obsesive, sadomasochistic sexual longing pervade Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion. What keeps the material fresh on the new album is its infusion with gospel abnd blues, natural elements further amplified by Wilder's live drumming and the ubiquitous ringing of guitars. "I've always been fascinated by religion," Gore says, by way of agreement, "Which has come out of my songs anyway. I just haven't tried to make the music be so obviously religious before." (Ad for the album's relatively upbeat mood, Gore credits the birth of his first child, now a year and a half old.)

The gospel elecates Gore's lyrics, especially on "Get Right Me," complete with backng chorus. (Along with the "One Caress" string section and the Uilleann pipes on "Judas," this is the first time the band has commissiones outside musicians). The chain-gang-flavored "Condemnation" is the new record's best cutmarrying its most inventive sounds (Rattling chains, resonant block backing vocals) and far and away Gahan's best singing. The work compares favorably with Aretha Franklin Fan George Michael's fwe sterling pop achievements, "Freedom 90," "Iwant your sex" and "Father

© BEYOND words 2003 - 2005