Taken from Keyboard, May 1993. Written by Robert L. Doerschuk.
An interview with Alan Wilder
What is the appeal of Depeche Mode? The don't rakishly sling guitars
waist-high. The don't moon-walk or crotch-grab. They don't even dress
that spectacularly; moody, art-student black seems to be their motif.
That leaves us with the music. (A band known mainly for it's music?
What a concept!)
But the mystery remains. Though originally and upbeat, hand-clappy,
proto-synth rock band, Depeche Mode has cultivated a sound that manages
to be both depressing and catchy ever since Vince Clarke bailed out from
the group to start Erasure. It's not dance music, especially when
measured against records currently lumped into that category. It's not
large-scale, ambitious, arty stuff. Neither is it commercial; after 11
years, their sound remains as paradoxical as ever---paradoxical because,
despite all the muffled drums, the peculiar combinations of percussion
sounds in their drum tracks, the groaning vocals, alternately menacing
and vaguely bored, Depeche Mode strikes a chord.
Maybe their endurance has something to do with it. Long after the
Human League, OMD, Simple Minds, and the other pioneering synth rock
groups sequenced their last synth bleeps, Alan Wilder, Martin Gore,
David Gahan, and Andrew Fletcher are still at it. From their first
post-Clarke project, _A Broken Frame_, through this year's release,
_Songs of Faith and Devotion_, they've devoted ample time to perfecting
whatever it is that defines their style. With U2's longtime producer,
Flood, presiding, the _Songs_ sessions added up to eight months of
meticulous recording, mixing, and tweaking. As a result, we now have an
album on which their sound is---paradox again---more fully developed yet
more enigmatic than ever.
For which producer Flood can take a lot of credit. His main clients,
the guys in U2, seem to have melted under his direction into a single
bloblike noise, from which chiming guitars and desperate singing only
occasionally escape. So it is on _Songs_: You can pick out most of the
parts, but the mix encourages you to absorb the music as a whole. "This
is the dawning of our love," the key line on the first single, "I Feel
You," comes at you as part of a welter of throbbing bass, crashing
cymbals, ear-piercing guitar overtones, and squealing general
electronica. But while details may have been clearer on some of their
previous releases, the sound is still unmistakably theirs.
The crucial element in this sound is Alan Wilder, unabashedly
identified in the band's PR as their "musician." Wilder spent more time
with Flood than his collegues doing what he calls the "screwdriver"
work. Shortly before flying back to England to rehearse for their tour,
which opens during May in Europe and moves to the States late this
summer, he took time out to reflect on _Songs_ and ponder the enduring
enigma of Depeche Mode.
Q: Do you feel that in terms of sound, _SOFAD_ differs from previous
Depeche Mode albums?
A: It certainly does represent something quite different, which was our
objective. We wanted to try and change as many things about our approach
to making music as we possibly could, mainly to keep ourselves interested
in what we're doing and to challenge ourselves. We were very aware of
getting caught in easy routines and becoming bored. I suppose the
emphasis is much more on performing on this record. But once that
performance was created, we applied all the technology we've come to know
and love over the years to put it together in a way that's still uniquely
Q: In what respect does performance play a bigger role than usual? Are
you sequencing fewer parts?
A: We still sequence quite a lot of the performance, but we're using the
sequencer to restructure what we do. When we just go in and play
together, we end up sounding like a pub rock band. That's the problem:
We're not capable of going into a room, playing together, and coming up
with some magical piece of music. We have to apply all that technology
to make it sound more spontaneous and human. One of the things I felt
before we started this record was that the last album, good as it was,
had a slight rigidity. We wanted to make this record much looser, less
programmed. I think we achieved that objective.
Q: What's an example of how the performance element comes through on _Songs_?
A: Let's take "I Feel You." All the drums on there are played. Most of
them were sampled and then sequenced in the form of drum loops That's
not to say that they don't change as the song goes on. There's a series
of loops, which are sequenced together, using Steinberg Cubase, in a
different structure from how they were originally performed.
Q: In the past, you might have programmed the rhythm without any
A: Exactly. In this case, we're applying the technology to a performance
to make sure that you get all the dynamics of a human performance, all
those slight timing changes that make something feel human. On "Walking
in My Shoes," for example, there are different loops in the verse, an
additional loop comes in on the bridge, and the chorus brings in a
complete change of drum sound and rhythm. Plus there are different drum
fills, hi-hat patterns, and top percussion parts in each section. The
combination of all that gives you the impression of the rhythm changing
all the time.
Q: To my ears, many of the parts played by the band sound more obscured
on this record than on the previous Depeche Mode albums.
A: Perhaps, to a degree. I would like to think that there's enough
clarity within the sound that you can pick out the parts. But I suppose
you should always go for a blend. That's what you try to create with
your mix. A good mix should stop you from thinking about the mix. If
you start analyzing all the details within a mix, you're not really
experiencing the music as a whole. To get specific about it, people
sometimes mix drums too loudly. Certainly, a lot of dance music is very
rhythm-oriented. We place a lot of importance on rhythm as well, but
sometimes loud drums aren't warranted. It can be very hard to mix drums
quietly, because we're all brainwashed into hearing them right up
front. As soon as you mix them quietly, you think it must be wrong.
Q: The changes in the rhythm patterns and the placement of the drums in
the mix on "In Your Room" were the most dynamic element in that song.
A: That song was quite difficult. We recorded the song three of four
different ways One was entirely as you hear it in the second verse, with
the smaller drum kit and the "groovy" bass line. But the whole song with
that rhythm wasn't strong enough; it didn't go anywhere. We had the song
structure from a fairly early stage. We knew where we wanted the verses,
choruses, and middle eights. So much as I did with "I Feel You," I went
in and played drums along with the track in one particular style, then
did it again in a funkier style, and so on.
Q: The drum sounds themselves seemed to change from one section to the next.
A: We recorded those drums at a villa we had rented in Madrid. We set up
a studio in the basement. The two drum kits, the smaller one and the
larger one, were recorded in different spaces, which gave each a
different kind of edge. Plus they were played in very different ways.
The smaller drum kit, which comes in during the second verse, has quite
an interesting loop going around it; it's another drum kit that's reduced
by being put through a synthesizer and then distorted. That turns it
into weird percussion sound, which is then looped to offset against the
real drums and form an unusually funky groove. We often do things like
that. We'll record a drum kit fairly straightforwardly, balance it
together, and put the whole thing through a synthesizer. At the
beginning of "I Feel you," for example, the drum kit is played, sampled,
put through a synth, distorted, and then reduced to half-level.
Q: What kind of synth would you typically use on drum sounds?
A: It could be anything. We've used a Roland 700 modular system. We've
also used distortion boxes, filter sections. Often we use guitar effects
processors. We're quite fond of the Zoom; it has great distortion and
Q: At the height of the crescendo in "In Your Room," we get the line
"your eyes cause flames to arise." That's the one part of the album
where you underscored a single word, with a cymbal roll behind "flames."
A: That was a late addition. Since that's such an up part of the song,
it felt necessary to add something at that point. We put it in at the
mix. It's often not until you get to the mix stage that it becomes
obvious that another part is required. When you're in the recording
precess, you've never got it sounding good enough to tell. So quite a
few of those embellishments get put on at the mix stage, like backwards
Q: What attracts you to reversed sounds? There are plenty of them on
this record, and on previous Depeche Mode albums too.
A: I'm not quite sure, but I'm nearly always the one who suggests those
sounds, so it must have something to do with me. I suppose it's the
strange psychedelic effect. Having taken psychedelic drugs in my youth,
it reminds me of listening to music in that state of mind: Everything
sounds backwards. So when I hear something backwards, it takes me off
into a sort of trippy mood. You can also use backwards sounds to lead
from one section to another, or form weird fills from a verse into a chorus.
Q: There's a backwards episode at the end of "Mercy in You."
A: That's a backwards high piano. And the beginning of "Judas" has
Uillean pipes recorded straight, with backwards reverb mixed in. The
nice thing about backwards reverb is that it adds space to a sound
without making it washy. I'm against using a lot of reverb most of the
time, because I can't stand the distancing effect it makes. But I do
often want to hear sounds in a space, or try to keep all the clarity of a
sound while still trying to put it somewhere. Backwards reverb can do
exactly that. There's a part in the middle of "Rush," the sort of
progressive rock track near the end of the album, where the voice has
lots of backwards reverb; that really sets to vocal part off.
Q: Do you also subject your piano sounds to a lot of processing?
A: Quite often we do. The piano part at the beginning of "Walking in my
Shoes" was put through a guitar processor, which distorted it and made it
more edgy. We added a harpsichord sample on top of that. And on
"Condemnation," we put the piano through some kind of wobbly
pitch-shifter. The idea of that track was to enhance the gospel feel
that the song originally had without going into pastiche, and to try to
create the effect of it being played in a room, in a space. So we began
by getting all four members of the group to do one thing each in the same
space. Fletcher was bashing a flight case with a pole, Flood and Dave
were clapping, I was playing a drum, and Martin was playing an organ. We
listened back to it. it was embryonic, but it gave us an idea for a
Q: There's a lot of guitar on this album, nut it's never played in a
cliched, blues/metal style. It seems as if the kinds of samples and
synth sounds you use dictate just how you can use it.
A: We have a very strong aversion to typical rock guitar playing.
Something has to be said about the intensity that rock records have, but
we would like to recreate that intensity in our own way, without
resorting to those tactics. The idea of a high, screaming guitar part
might translate into radio frequency waves, for example. Our guitar
parts, on the other hand, tend to go quite weird. We run them through
Leslies and other devices that make them less and less guitar-like while
still keeping some of the power of the instrument.
Q: Have you added much new equipment since the last album?
A: Not really. The only change is that we're using more acoustic
instruments, especially for writing. When we're working out the songs
together we usually play guitar, piano, bass, and drums. They're the
most fun instruments to play, really. Each one is so dynamically
pleasing. The only problem is that the sound of the piano can sometimes
dictate what you write. It seems to be helpful to compose on instruments
that give you lots of dynamic response. But then we'll transfer what
we've written to a sound that's completely different, and the riff takes
on a new quality.
Q: Your electronic setup hasn't changed much in recent years?
A: We've still got the same selection of sampler--Akais and (E-mu)
Emulators. And lots of rack-mounted and modular synths: a Minimoog,
Oberheims, the Roland 700 system, ARP 2600s. There are fewer modern
synthesizers than ever before--no DX7s, PPGs, or things like that.
Q: Is it a question of sound or limited programmability that steers you
away from newer gear?
A: It's sound. If we felt that the DX7 had great sounds, we'd use it all
the time. The older synthesizers have an organic quality, a roundness
and grittiness, that you just don't hear on digital things. But the
flexibility is important too. You've got so much flexibility of routing
the sound on the older gear; you can create your own patches without
adapting somebody's factory sample. The DX7 did initially impress me,
because it had bell-like sounds that weren't readily available at that
time. But you were fucked if you wanted to change those sounds, unless
you had a very thorough understanding of algorithms. Nobody I know could
get their head 'round that. I certainly couldn't.
Q: As a member of Depeche Mode, you've got an inside perspective in
assessing the impact of electronic technology on pop music over the past
decade. How do you feel about how bands typically use this equipment?
A: I'm mainly disappointed. It's a shame to see electronics really being
utilized only in the dance area. But, you know, though we're cited as
being so instrumental in developing electronic dance music, we're trying
to move as far away from that as we can. That's purely because the
emphasis of what we do is on songs. Everything has to enhance the song,
to create the right atmosphere. I do love dance music and Kraftwerk and
techno; you're always going to see that side of us come through. But
you've got to apply it to the song. And sometimes rigid electronics
don't apply to songs that are more warm and emotional.
Q: What do you think about changing tastes in synthesizer sound?
A: There's good and bad. A lot of people in rap music are using the
technology in an interesting way to make their records sound dirty. So
much of pop music is so clean and pristine, and there's an awful lot of
bollocks because of it. I like to try and capture both sounds, to make
it clear, with a full frequency range across the board, but also to have
a lot of grit. Take "Mercy in You," for example. We were going for this
rap-like drum loop. If you listen to that track with just the rhythm and
one of two other elements going, it sounds fuckin' great. You can whack
out all kinds of low-end distortion on the bass drum. But as soon as you
start introducing other instruments over the top, it begins to sound
wooly and waffly down in the low end, and you've got to start
compromising your rhythm sounds in order to fit on all the other parts.
As soon as you do that, you can start to lose all the drive. That was
really a difficult song to mix.
Q: Do you intentionally use low-bit samplers to maintain a grunge element
in your sounds?
A: There's definitely something to be said for that. The first Emulator
sounds great because it's such a bad quality. It's the same with analog
tape; that hiss can be brilliant.
Q: What sampler do you use for your drum sounds?
A: Generally the Akai S1100, not so much for its sound quality, which is
fine, but because it triggers much tighter than the Emulator. And the
way it assigns outputs has so many advantages over the Emulator, although
I think the sound of the Emulator is slightly better.
Q: What keyboard will you be using onstage in the tour?
A: Possibly the (E-mu) Emaxes, because they're convenient and
roadworthy. It would be useful to have something that has an extra
octave on it, though, because we have to assign so many sounds across the
keyboard for each song.
Q: Will you carry extra musicians?
A: Possibly, perhaps singers. All I know is that I'm going to be playing
some live drums, and Martin will almost certainly be playing more guitar.
I suppose we'll be leaning more toward being a "rock band," but I
certainly hope we won't be creating that general effect.