The departure of keyboardist Alan Wilder in 1995, coupled with frontman David Gahan's near-death antics a year later, almost drove a stake through the heart of Depeche Mode. But to many a Modehead's amazement, the remaining members (Gore, Fletcher, and Gahan) managed to pick up the pieces and carry on. With Tim "Bomb the Bass" Simenon and his production team in tow, the band locked themselves into the studio and emerged 15 months later with a remarkable record.

Ultra (Mute Records) is Depeche Mode's 12th full-length release, and while down-tempo is the name of the game this time around (the swiftest track tops out a turtile like 100 bpm), the CD is an ear magnet. "Barrel of a Gun," the first track out of the gate, is one of the most riveting Mode singles yet -- replete with throbbing synths, liquid bass, slappy precussion, sci-fi bleeps, and tortured vocals. And there's plenty more where that came from. Stay tuned for a slew of Mode singles, videos,and remixes in the cue.

We rolled tape with songwriter Martin Gore recently, and were able to fire of a dozen questions in the alloted time, appropirate, perhaps, since Ultra is the band's 12th album. For some additional insight, however, be sure to check out the in-studio sidebar on page 68

When Alan left the band, did it feel like the end?
As bad as things were, I don't think any of us felt that we wanted to split the band up and finish. I think the low point of the band was when Dave had his (personal) problems. At that time, for me, it seemed like there wasn't really any point in continuing. But fortunately Dave decided to make a change in his life, and since then, everything has been quite easy.

How did the new balance affect the making of Ultra?
This time around it was much mor a team effort. I had an idea to work with Tim Simenon 'cause we'd known him for years, and he'd done a couple of remixes of us in the past. But we were totally unaware of the way he worked: He always works with the same team, which includes a programmer, a musician, and an engineer. In a way, Tim and his team helped to fill Alan's shoes. Alan was always the so-called musician in the band; the one who was classically trained. But it went far better (with Tim) than we ever could have imagined. We went into the studio to try out a couple of tracks just to see how things were, how we were getting on, how it would work with Tim as producer, and to test his team out. We didn't set ourselves any large goals. It was a question of trying out a few tracks, and maybe getting a single out of it, and if things were going really well, then we could carry on and maybe make an album. So after the first recording session, about six weeks, it became very apparent that things were going well, and we decided to carry on with the whole project and make it into an album.

How did you write this batch of songs?
I think I still write pretty much the same way as before. I always start on guitar or piano, and get the basis of a song together before I move on to computers, keyboards, smaplers, or whatever. I feel it's important to know that the song is strong before you get carried away with technology, because sometimes you fool yourslef. You might think you've got a great song going, but in actual fact, what you're really liking is a synth sound or bass line. We've always been about songs -- marrying songs with technology -- and I think sometimes that point gets lost. We often get cited as an influence by a lot of bands and producers, but it's more because we were an early electronic band, and more because of the way we created music as opposed to the acutual songs.

Is melody usually the first element you focus on when writing?
Yeah, I think it is about melody, but it's also about emotion. If at that moment I sit down and write something and it moves me, I realize that there's a fairly good chance I might be able to move somebody else.

So after the initial piano/guitar writing phase, you sequence your song ideas.
Yeah. At home I've got a basic setup of demos. I've got (Hybrid Arts) ADAM machines for the recording, and I program onn (Steinberg) Cubase. I use an Akai CD3000, a (Roland) JD-800, and c (Clavia) Nord Lead. The Nord is a very interesting synthesizer -- the fact that you can record all your movements real time into computer, wave sweeps and everthing. I like it. I've also got three ARP 2600's and two Minimoogs. But I tend to keep things very basic at that stage.

How do your home versions translate to the studio sessions?
I made tapes and sent them out to Tim and the rest of the band, and then we went into the studio. It was a very different process for us this time. Sometimes there were three or four different things going on at once in the studio. There was a programmer, a musician, Tim, me, Dave practicing his vocals, I might be doing something with Tim, the programmer might be working on a rhythm track, and the musician migh be off working on a totally different track.

Did any of your demo tracks end up on the record, or were they all re-recorded?
It really different from song to song. Sometimes the essence of what actually came out, what was released, was actually on the demo. But sometimes we totally pulled a song a part. If we felt that the basic song was good, bu the direction of the demo wasn't quite right, we'd pull it apart and maybe reconstruct it three or four times before we were happy with it.

Taking a song like "Barrel of a Gun," for example, how similar was the final mix compared to the demo?
"BoaG" was one that remained very similar to the original demo. All the parts were basically there, so it was just a question of bettering the sounds and making it a bit harder. but that was probably one of the most similar demos to the finished version.

The opening drum sequence is a real attention-getter. Is that a loop?
I think we originally started off with loops, and then tried to recreate them. It's very hard sometimes because a loop has an immediate atmosphere, but you don't always want to use a loop. So in this case it was a matter of recreating it by cutting up various loop to get snares and bass drum sounds.

Ultra is a down-tempo record. Any particular reason you kept everything under 100 bpm?
It's the area that interests me the most at the moment. I find it emotional and moving at that tempo: 80 to 100 bpm. When I try writing anthing faster than that, it just loses emotion for. Maybe it's just a phase I'm going through {laughs}.

Will the band be touring?
No, this is the first time ever that we've actually decided not to tour after finishing an album. We've toured on the back of every singe album, and the last one was so long...we go to the end of it and were totally exhausted, mentally and physically. We had total communication breakdown problems within the band. We all hated each other. You know, that was the main reason Alan left. And so we don't want to repeat that again. We've just been in and out of the studio for 15 months, and the thought of going out on tour for a year is just too much to handle. We're considering, possibly playing some live TV, but were really trying to keep this year very stress-free. It's all questionable at the moment.

What's your take on the current resurgence of electronic music in the States?
We've been through quite a few electronic trends during our carrer, and one of the things we laugh about is the fact that it has absolutely no relevance to our record sales. Whether electronic music is in or not has no relevance to us. And I think it's because we created our own niche at a very early stage.

Solid record sales, sold-out shows, critical praise and industry awards are all signsposts of a successful band. But having a tribute record made in your that's something to write home about.

Add Depeche Mode to the growing number list of tributees. Twice over.

Last year saw the release of TranceMode Express 1.01, an all-trance compilation from Hypnotic Records. Sales of that disc put a smile on bean-counters' faces, and thus inspired TranceMode Express II -- due in record stores this summer. If you're interested in hearing you favorite Mode tracks turned inside out and sped up to bejeezus, then put these discs on your shopping list.

When Tim "Bomb the Bass" Simenon signed on to produce the new Depeche Mode record, he came loaded...with ideas and people, that is. Dave Clayton is one of Simenon's synth men, and has a fat track record-record onstage and in the studio with the likes of ABC, Bob Marley, George Michael, Take That, and U2. Needless to say, he was an obvious target for our interview michrophone.

"Initially I dot a demo tape from Martin," says Clayton, of his early involvement in the Ultra project. "It was a pretty basic format--the essence of the songs was there--but he gave us rough pointers of where to go. So we started assembling the songs from there." Clayton and Kerry Hopwood handled keyboard and drum programming work, respectively.

Using "Barrel of Gun" as an example Clayton explains the process: "that one started off with a very strong melody, and the lyrics were there. He (gore) had a little loop on the demo, a bass, a pad, and a couple of guitar lines. It was very sparse. Even though we basically started over from scratch, we tried not to lose the essence of the demo"

Using Gore's tape as a guide, the team began rebuilding the song from the bottom up. the infectious drum pattern was "a combination of a cut-up loop," says Clayton, "just the top end of it, and single shots of bass drum, snare, and so forth. It's not a loop, per se. It's a pattern, but I think it has a feel of a loop."

Sequencing was done on "an old Atari with Notator. I've tried everything else, but the ST seems to have the best feel." The signature space warbles came from a combination patch made on a Waldorf Wave, and a Korg Trinity Plus and M1R. "A lot of people thinks it's just a preset synth," he says of teh latter, "but once you get into it, there's a lot to be had."

The slippery "Barrel" bass line was recorded on a PPG Wave 2.3, bu twhen the synth took a nose-dive a few weeks into the session, and prior to printing the keyboard parts to tape, Clayton feared the patch was lost forever. "Fortunately, I got it back, but it gave me quite a sare." Other synths exhumed from Clayton's vaultfor the sessions were EMS Synthi, Oberheim Four-Voice, ARP 2600, and Roland JD-800 and Jupiter-8.

Reflecting back on the project, Clayton claims that "it wasn't just lke another keyboard session for me, at all. Even though I was brought in as a session man, I was given loads of freedom. For days and days I'd sit at my rig and experiment. They gave me a few pointers, but the overall attitude was, 'Hey do whatever the hell you feel.' So I switched the stuff on and created like mad."

Keyboard Magazine, July 1997 issue

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