“Where’s the revolution? Come on people, you’re letting me down!” croons Dave Gahan, eyes shut, wiry frame swaying, as if addressing an angry mob inside his own mind. Synthesisers fill the claustrophobic, wood panelled rehearsal studio in Manhattan with a fizzing, bubbling, brain melting wall of sci-fi sound.
His band mates are all focussed on their own instruments, whilst road crew peer into laptops, as Gahan clambers higher on his imaginary soap box. “You’ve been kept down, you’ve been pushed round, you’ve been lied to, you’ve been fed truths,” he sings.
With pencil moustache and goatee, dressed like a 1930s gigolo and swishing his behind with rock star flamboyance, the Depeche Mode frontman makes an unlikely rabble-rouser. But there is simply no denying the battering ram power as the British electronic group blast through their latest single in rehearsal for a summer stadium tour. “Who’s making your decisions?” Gahan demands. “You or your religion? Your government? Your country? You patriotic junkies!”
Depeche Mode’s 14th album, Spirit, is the most overtly political of their 37-year career, a post-Trump, post-Brexit howl of synth powered outrage. It features songs about violent racism (The Worst Crime), rampant corporate greed (Poorman), sociopathic selfishness (Scum) and mankind’s self-destructive tendencies (Backwards, Fail).
It was an odd time, then, for controversial American white nationalist Richard Spencer to claim in an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC that “Depeche Mode is the official band of the alt-right.” He also tweeted that the band “have written all the anthems that the alt right needs.”
“Honestly, I don’t know where he gets that from. Does he even listen to our lyrics? It’s the polar opposite, if anything,” says multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore, the band’s chief songwriter. “You know, we can’t stop people from being fans. But that doesn’t mean that we back him in any way.”
Gore has lived in Santa Barbara, California for 17 years (with his second wife and baby daughter, he also has three children from his first marriage). “I have been quite down and depressed about events in the world for the last few years, and I felt we had to address it. I’ve never seen America more divided than it is now. The polarizing effect of Trump is crazy. Calling for a revolution in a pop song is a little bit tongue-in-cheek but I think we are going to see more and more mass protest, and that is a kind of revolution.”
When Spencer’s remarks hit the American news media on February 23, Gore admits he was utterly incredulous. “It was one of those days when you feel like you might be living in a computer simulation and there’s an alien throwing things at you just to see what happens,” he says, as if this was a more reasonable notion than Nazis admiring his band.
Dave Gahan expresses his distaste for the whole episode with even less amusement. “He’s a dangerous person promoting hate and fear,” he says of Spencer, who was notoriously attacked by a bystander whilst giving a TV interview at the inauguration of President Trump. “I saw the video of him getting punched. He deserved it.”
It is a bitterly cold March day in New York, where Gahan has lived since 1997, with his third wife Jennifer, daughter Stella Rose (17) and adopted son Jimmy. Gahan also has a son, Jack (29) from his first marriage (who lives in Britain). “These are interesting times we’re living in. It’s all getting a bit negative, especially in this city. All people seem to talk about is the weather or Donald Trump. Well, the weather is harsh and unpredictable … and so is f______ Trump.”
Nevertheless, Gahan is reluctant to define the new Depeche album in terms of its politics. As he points out, it was written before Brexit and recorded before Trump’s election. “It’s a bit apocalyptic. It seems to fit the mood of the moment. But I wouldn’t want listeners to be entirely engulfed by doom and gloom. There’s levity, sarcasm, love. To me, this is about the same kind of things that all our records have been about: humanity. You can’t lose hope. I’m a testament to that.”
Depeche Mode are the biggest electronic band in the world, the scale of their success eclipsing pioneers like Kraftwerk, and contemporaries like OMD, Gary Numan and Pet Shop Boys. They have sold over 100 million albums across four decades, evolving from a fizzy Eighties synth pop band from Basildon, Essex to a dark, dangerous Goth electro-rock monster with a bold sound meshing the futuristic machine pulse of synthesisers with the epic swagger of anthemic guitar rock.
In June, they play the London Olympic Stadium, their biggest ever British concert, a triumphant homecoming to a country that has not always treated them with respect (Depeche are far more critically admired in America and Europe than back home). But it is a journey that has taken its toll.
Gore gave up alcohol 11 years ago this month (he can recall the exact day), in the middle of a tour. “I don’t think I would have lived very long if I carried on,” he admits. “I was out of control.” Gahan’s excesses were more notorious, heroin and cocaine addiction that reached a peak in the mid-Nineties, leading to divorce from his second wife, a brutal suicide attempt in 1995 and several overdoses.
In May 1996, he was arrested following a cocaine induced heart-attack in a Los Angeles hotel. Finally facing up to his demons (with a suspended two year jail sentence as an added spur) Gahan has been sober for 20 years. During that time, his singing has grown more confident and nuanced, and he has started writing songs, contributing four to the new album.
Not as overtly political as Gore’s, songs like Poison Heart and Cover Me tend to chip away at his own failings. “A lot of darkness is self-inflicted. If you are going to point the finger, maybe you have to point it at yourself first.”
Gahan is a compelling character, extremely animated and gregarious where Gore seems far more cautious and nervous in interviews. The singer has definitely matured since I last encountered him, in 1998, at the start of his sobriety, when he was affecting a rather chipper sense of denial about the damage wrought on himself and others.
“I do dwell in the darkness quite often, I just don’t stay there as long as I used to,” he says, trying to explain the appeal of the dark subject matter that runs through most of Depeche Mode’s work. “I find it a creative space. It’s more truthful somehow. There is more to be found about my place in the scheme of things. What’s interesting to me is that I don’t need anything to get there now. I don’t need booze or drugs. I just need life. I can go there, and come back.”
During rehearsals, the five piece band (comprising three original Depeche members, Gahan, Gore and keyboard player Andy Fletcher, plus two long serving session musicians, drummer Christian Eigner and keyboard player Peter Gordeno) dive into a version of David Bowie’s Heroes. Gahan becomes utterly immersed in his performance, tears glistening as he brings the full weight of his gritty baritone to bear.
Afterwards, his band mates nod and smile, congratulating him. This was the very song that Gore, Fletcher and founding member Vince Clarke (who left in 1981 to form Yazoo and Erasure) heard Gahan sing in a Basildon rehearsal room in 1980, subsequently inviting him to join their band.
“I got a little choked up,” he admits, afterwards. “I feel like I’m carrying a song that’s important to all of us. The one thing we’ve had in common from the very beginning was loving Bowie. He is probably the reason why we all wanted to make music.”
Gahan admits he wept when he heard Bowie had died in January last year. His daughter attended The Little Red School House in Greenwich Village with Bowie’s daughter Lexi, so the ex-pat rock stars would occasionally run into each other at school functions. “I regret not telling him how important his music was to me. I’m sure he knew. I was a bit in awe of him but he was the nicest guy. He kind of got me, somehow, he talked to me like ‘I know you’. I don’t think it was just about the music, it was this feeling of being a little bit odd in the world. Bowie’s music was something that really carried me when I was young. His death was much more huge to me than I would have ever imagined.”
It has been another reminder of his own mortality. “I’m getting older, and things start creeping up. Everything gets a little bit harder, and hurts a little bit more. I’m surprised I’m as intact as I am.” He had an operation to remove a cancerous tumour on his bladder in 2009, and still has to undergo regular intrusive checks.
“I’ve had a few brushes with the Grim Reaper. It is what it is. I’m OK with it, I really am.” He is looking forward to getting back on tour. “It’s a bit daunting at first. You feel like you’re carrying the whole thing as the front guy, and that can be nerve wracking. But when the voice is working and the body’s moving right, it’s like a sportsman, you start to get into the zone, and then I have a ball with it.”
Gore, too, proclaims himself excited to bring the new songs on the road, with the Global Spirit Tour kicking off in Europe in May. “I can’t wait to get out of this country, to be honest,” he laughs. “You know, most of these songs were written over 18 months ago. Everything started to take on a different meaning after Brexit. We finished the album by August last year. I remember having a funny conversation with Daniel Miller (head of their record label, Mute). He said ‘What if the world fixes itself before it’s released?’ And we looked at each other and both kind of laughed and said, ‘Very slim chance of that happening.’”
Depeche Mode: Spirit (Mute) out now. The band play the London Stadium on June 3