#DepecheMode ‘took a psychiatrist & a drug dealer on the road.The shrink was sacked but the dealer stayed on’ #Exciter #MarkBell Article Q Magazine by D.Lynskey 6|2001
MANY SMACK.FREE RETURNS
Once, they took a psychiatrist and a drug dealer on the road.The shrink was sacked but the dealer stayed on. Then their singer eagerly sought a hat-trick of heroin addiction, divorce and suicide. But Depeche Mode have made it to their 2oth anniversary fit and happy. How the hell did that happen? ponders Dorian Lynskey. Photos by Spiros Politis.
IN summer 1994, the Dave Gahan diet went something like this. After regaining consciousness at some point in the afternoon in a hotel room in America, he would start the day with two glasses of vodka. His throat so ravaged he couldn’t speak, the singer would call Jerry, his minder, and communicate by tapping on the phone in code. Then he would get into his limo to the airport, stopping en route to grab a McDonalds, his sole meal of the day. On the plane, it was time for a couple of Valium and a blackout.
When he arrived at the venue, the tour doctors gave him steroids for his throat and painkillers for everything else. “I was a garbage can,” he ruefully recalls.
By the time he got on stage, the cocktail of chemicals, spiked with a giant jolt of adrenalin, tended to create an equilibrium so that he’d feel strangely fine, strutting and whooping as if nothing was wrong. Afterwards, though, he would retreat to his hotel room, never once talking to his bandmates, and spend the rest of the night injecting heroin alone. Repeat to fade.
By the end of Depeche Mode’s 14-month, 158-date Songs Of Faith And Devotion tour, Dave Gahan weighed just 100 pounds and looked as pale and thin as a chalkmark.
Unbelievably, the next two years were worse still, a gruesome object lesson in Why Heroin Is A Bad Thing. In between abortive spells in rehab, Gahan’s life unravelled at terrifying speed - his second wife left him, his first barred him from seeing their young son, Jack, and his house in Los Angeles was ransacked by burglars. He also wound up in hospital emergency rooms so many times that West Hollywood paramedics nicknamed him The Cat. On one occasion, he swallowed wine and valium and slashed his wrists in a suicide attempt. Notoriously, he overdosed on a cocaine and heroin speedball in his room at the Sunset Marquis, suffered a cardiac arrest and was technically dead for two minutes.
Gahan’s excesses may have been the most spectacular, but he wasn’t the only one in Depeche Mode with problems. During the same tour, fresh-faced songwriter Martin Gore was drinking at least two bottles of wine before every show, convinced that if he tried to perform sober then he would forget how to play. Keyboardist Andy ‘Fletch’ Fletcher didn’t even make it to those final US dates, bailing out in Hawaii after a nervous breakdown. Studio wizard Alan Wilder was hopelessly alienated from his bandmates, and within a year he had left for good.
“You mustn’t have this impression that there was one guy having all the problems and causing the whole ship to sink,” Andy Fletcher insists, with a strange kind of pride. “There were many holes in the boat.”
Behold Depeche Mode, then: the band who never knew when, or how, to stop.
Depeche Mode released their first single, Dreaming of Me, on 20 February 1981, and the fact that they’re alive and well 20 years later with their tenth studio album, Exciter, is a small miracle. A British electronic band with the hedonist appetites of American rock pigs, Depeche Mode started partying so hard in the early '80s, and carried on for so long, the wonder is it took them until 1994 to come to the brink of falling apart.
When Dave Gahan’s problems became public, they buried the long-running perception of the band as a faintly ludicrous, faux-doomy pop act with a penchant for black leather. Maybe it’s their sartorial quirks over the years, or their preference for synthesizers over guitars, but Britain has always had problems taking Depeche Mode seriously.
Happily, they couldn’t care less. They’re the most enduring and internationally successful British band of their era. Throughout death, drugs, depression and departing members, they have always had an ear for innovation and a good tune, and have never made a rotten album. In America, they are the acme of Anglophile hip - the band that made musings on death, God and S&M seem at home both in stadiums and on dancefloors. Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Slipknot, Korn, Deftones, DJ Shadow and Detroit techno producers have all doffed caps in their direction.
“I was reading Prozac Nation and I think it’s us and The Smiths that she [author Elizabeth Wurtzel] accuses of being 'miserable chic’,” guffaws Gore, one of those rare people whose laugh sounds exactly like “ha ha ha”. “But we just tried to bring some element of reality into pop music.”
Today, Depeche Mode are holding court at London’s Home House, an extravagantly plush private members’ club where the only non-antique item in each room is the telephone. Now approaching 40 but not - Gore insists with a grimace - 'grown up’, they aren’t yet showing their age. Gore, sporting a ski-hat and peculiar patchwork leather jacket, is bright and boyish, while the sensibly dressed, bespectacled Fletcher still looks like the world’s least likely rock star. The fact that they can hire out rooms in a place dripping with money and yet turn considerably fewer heads than EastEnders’ Tamzin Outhwaite, the afternoon’s other resident celebrity, says a great deal. They are perhaps the biggest cult band in the world.
Alone, in a room down the hall, is Dave Gahan. The first thing he says is, “Come here, I won’t bite you. Despite what you may have heard.” A wolfish grin spreads across his chops, which are clean-shaven and glowing with health again. Even his haircut is back to its late-'80s model and he’s clad in sleek black from head to toe, bar the pale blue socks peeping out from beneath his leather trousers. In his hand smoulders a slow-burning cigarillo, his sole remaining vice. Only the tattoos and scar tissue on his pale, bare arms map out the contours of the dark times. Sometimes, he trails off in mid sentence, but mostly he is whip-smart, open and intensely engaging as he retraces Depeche Mode’s twisted path over the past two decades.
“They defy the laws of gravity,” opines Daniel Miller, the Mute label founder who signed and mentored them. “No, they redefine the laws of gravity.”
IF THERE’S ONE thing that everybody knows about Depeche Mode, it’s where they’re from. Basildon has been tarred as a joke town, but the band’s memories are of unemployment and chucking-out time aggro. It wasn’t a cozy place for four working-class teenagers to spend the late '70s.
While Gore, Fletcher and their friend Vince Clarke were shy church-goers (though Gore denies he was ever a believer), Dave Gahan was in juvenile court at 14 for vandalism and stealing cars. When he switched his attentions to amphetamines, punk and clubbing in London, he became the ideal charismatic frontman for the other three’s new synth group, Composition of Sound. “When I first met these guys I got the feeling they had led very sheltered lives,” Gahan admits, an Essex swagger still in his voice.
Clarke’s jaunty, minimalist hits and the band’s hopelessly unformed image cast the rechristened Depeche Mode (a name Gahan plucked from the cover of a French fashion magazine) as teen-pop naifs, an image that lingered. When Clarke left (to form Yazoo and later Erasure) after the release of 1981’s debut disc, Speak And Spell, self-confessed pessimist Gore took up songwriting duties. Alan Wilder, a middle-class West Londoner, was recruited as a studio replacement. Gore insists there was friendship of sorts (“Maybe it’s false intimacy when it’s all based on partying, but I think Alan would have to admit that he had fun with us at times,”) but even early on Gore and Fletcher constituted one faction, Wilder and Gahan the other.
The recurrent tensions clearly didn’t do too much damage. Their refusal to use preset keyboard sounds or to sample melodies from other records made them unique amongst electronic bands. Third album, Construction Time Again (1983) ventured into pipe-banging industrial sampling and toytown socialism, while the following year’s Some Great Reward, containing breakthrough US hit People Are People, introduced perv-pop and cynical wit. “Suddenly we’d turned into a proper band,” says Gahan. “Totally by accident, I think.”
Both albums were partly recorded in Berlin, where Gore had moved after splitting up with his devout Christian girlfriend. A shy teenager, he had immersed himself in the club scene - fans of bizarre rock clobber will fondly recall his leather skirts and bondage straps. For a long time afterwards, his lyrics laid out a kind of manifesto for hedonism as a defence against the boredom and disappointment of everyday life. As he wrote in the lyrics to 1987’s Strangelove, “I give in to sin/Because you have to make life liveable.” If it wasn’t for his candy-floss hair and impish grin, people might have believed him earlier.
Gahan, meanwhile, had settled down with his soon-to-be-wife Joanne. But in Berlin, where the bars opened late and Depeche Mode were celebrities, temptation winked. “I’d already had these wild years and I guess I did have a longing to have some kind of normality in my life on a personal level. But, to be honest, I was fooling myself.”
With the inclination towards excess already there, only the funds and opportunities were lacking. But not for long. With 1986’s dark, claustrophobic Black Celebration and the following year’s anthemic Music For The Masses the band made giant career leaps as much as creative ones, proving that electronic music could sound expansive and powerful enough to fill arenas. Simultaneously, Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn became their longstanding designer and video director, moulding four disparate individuals into a stylish unit. When Martin Gore named Music For The Masses, he was making a sly joke about always being on the verge of global success without ever quite getting there. As it turned out, it was no joke at all.
IN Depeche Mode’s 1989 tour film, 101, there is a fine Spinal Tap moment. It is the triumphant final night of the Music For The Masses tour and Dave Gahan is pacing his dressing room at the Pasadena Rosebowl, agonising over whether to shout “Hello Pasadena!” or “Hello Rosebowl!” When the tour manager suggests he says, “Good evening, welcome to the concert for the masses,” Gahan retorts, “I’m not fucking Wordsworth, you know!”
The fact that Gahan had the opportunity to shout anything at all to 60,000 Americans seemed remarkable to British viewers. But watching him wiggle and prance and shout “Hey!” at every opportunity while the other three prodded their keyboards, it was clear what an unexpectedly thrilling live proposition they had become: Kraftwerk fronted by Rod Stewart.
“After that film came out, suddenly we were this 'stadium band’, which wasn’t actually true - we’d played onestadium - but the perception really changed,” says Gahan. “We started to get bigger than I’d ever imagined we’d be.”
After 101, everything was primed for Depeche Mode to deliver their best album, so that’s what they did. With producer Mark Ellis, aka Flood, they decamped to Milan, where their clubbing exploits helped inspire the lean, gleaming sound of Violator, a record that also contained some of Gore’s best songs. When they announced dates for the World Violation tour, every single ticket sold out in advance, and the tour became one long lap of victory, fuelled by cocaine and E.
“We hit a point during the Violator tour where everything was just great,” reminisces Gahan. “But I think I overdid it even then. Every night, after coming off stage, we’d all get on one and go out…If you can imagine going out on tour for a year and a half and you’re like this circus and then you finish all that and come back to the reality of your life. The longer those tours got, the less satisfied I became with normal life. For me that was the last time the partying side of it was fun.”
Radiohead flirted with madness during the OK Computer tour, Oasis have problems spending any extended time on the road without a punch-up, and most other recent British bands have never had the worldwide popularity necessary to find out what month after month of arenas can do to people not psychologically equipped for it. Perhaps if Depeche Mode hadn’t been so lousy at communicating with one another they might have realised they were walking on glass. Or if they had let their indulgences affect their work then somebody else might have intervened. But, at the time, there seemed no reason to stop having fun, so they didn’t.
One legacy of World Violation was Gahan’s love affair with their Californian PR girl, Teresa Conway, and the disintegration of his ailing marriage to Joanne. “It was nothing to do with my first wife,” he contends. “I was yearning, I think, for some sense of adventure again.”
Gore and Fletcher, meanwhile, were becoming fathers for the first time, and Wilder had just married his long-term girlfriend. Gahan’s enthusiasm for going out with the rest of the band had waned anyway, so he decided to relocate to Hollywood with Conway. (He hasn’t lived in Britain since but still has an endearing habit of hastily correcting his Americanisms: 'ass’ to 'arse’.) After living like a rock star on tour, Gahan wanted to look like one, albeit a cartoonish version. With Conway’s encouragement, he grew his hair long, got tattoos and started going to gigs again - they even got married in front of an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas.
“A lot’s been said about that image, but also during the whole of the '80s, that wasn’t me either,” Gahan elaborates. “I felt I wasn’t having to lie anymore and pretend I’m some clean-cut guy, when really during the '80s we were out drinking and tooting it up, like everybody was doing. I actually felt like I was living more honestly. I didn’t realise how quickly I was spiralling cos I was living like that every day. It didn’t have to be a gig or anything, it was always that kind of drama attached to my life in Los Angeles.”
Part of the “drama”, although Gahan never calls it by name, was heroin. But when he talks about his first months in LA, it’s with rogueish amusement rather than regret. Properly wealthy for the first time in the wake of the world-conquering Violator, experiencing a second adolescence surrounded by a loving new wife and people impressed by his fame, he clearly enjoyed himself, for a short while at least.
HALFWAY through 1992, Depeche Mode convened in Madrid to start work on the next album and realised that, in their 18 months apart, everything had changed. “I was excited and I really wanted to bring that sense of enthusiasm back and, to my dismay, once I walked into the studio I realised that nobody else was on the same page,” remembers Gahan. “I think the band were pretty scared of me. I was definitely off my rocker.”
“I don’t think we’d seen pictures,” agrees Gore. “It was a real shock to see him with long hair, covered in tattoos, even dressed in different clothes. I think when we first got together in Madrid it became obvious that there wasn’t a real feeling of band unity.”
Producer Flood had the wheeze of getting the whole band to live together during the recording process, but it did no good. Perhaps it was down to English reserve, but they evaded their problems rather than dealing with them. Talking about it now, the defiantly non-confrontational Gore seems contrite.
“I don’t think I was aware of it as much as I should have been,” he admits. “I remember when I didn’t like the direction that certain songs were going in I would sulk for a few days, and maybe that caused tension. Dave wasn’t really driving it as it was during his honeymoon period with heroin. Although we had a row of bedrooms next to each other, he would disappear for three or four days at a time.”
It’s to Gore and Fletcher’s credit that they don’t pin the blame on Gahan or the increasingly disgruntled Wilder, who felt his contribution wasn’t appreciated. The precarious interpersonal architecture that had held them together was falling apart, and nobody was in a position to prop it up. Fletcher was struggling with depression and was hospitalised during the final album sessions in Hamburg: “I was too busy worrying about myself, let alone worrying about Dave. And also we felt slightly hypocritical because we were doing our own things as well.”
Gore, meanwhile, was out clubbing most nights and drinking heavily. “At the time I never felt it was necessarily a problem,” he says, marvelling at his capacity for self-delusion. “I just drank too much. I had a couple of seizures and I was told by doctors that it’s when your body goes into withdrawal. So sometimes I woke up after a heavy night, started having a panic attack, then I’d immediately think, Well if I go to the pub and have a drink I’ll be OK.” Gore didn’t even realise that Gahan was using heroin until a meeting at Alan Wilder’s house on their return to Britain: “To be honest I was really ignorant, but once the pieces of the puzzle had been put together for me then it all made sense.”
If Songs Of Faith And Devotion had been as bad as the atmosphere surrounding its gestation, the subsequent tour wouldn’t have been so destructively long. Against the odds, however, it was one of their best, most adventurous records (it remains Gahan’s favourite). And so, on 19 May 1993 they played their first date in Lille, France. Nobody had mended their ways, although Gahan impressively managed to juggle his heroin habit with intense workouts and an hour-and-a-half of yoga a day.
“Since Violator’s success, I think we felt that we were indestructible,” Fletcher reasons. “We were very naive.”
“We still managed to have fun,” Gore insists. “It was just never-ending.” Fletcher reckons they were the first band to go on the road with a psychiatrist and a drug dealer - the psychiatrist was laid off but the dealer stayed. “The bigger the tours get, the easier it is to party,” label-boss Miller contends. “It’s a bubble in which anything can happen as long as you perform on stage. I went out on the tour and thought it was horrible. I remember being introduced to the official drug dealer and at that point I thought, Fuck this, there’s nothing I can do.”
The addition of the second American leg was a major bone of contention, but Wilder and Gahan argued that with scaled-down production costs it would make them millions, so on it rolled, with the barely talking members travelling in separate cars. Gahan’s choice of support act didn’t help either. “Primal fucking Scream,” in Miller’s words. The results were gruesome. In LA, Gore had a seizure, brought on by alcohol and stress, while Gahan overdosed after a show in New Orleans. Yet still they kept on, and Gahan showed no signs of calming down on stage or off. “I realise today how much I’m carried, how much I’m taken care of,” he reflects, with the semi-religious language of many a converted addict.
“Sometimes I don’t know how I really did survive that. Everything’s been said about the insanity of that tour but itwas. It was that, and more.”
Alan Wilder officially resigned from Depeche Mode a year later. Daniel Miller firmly believes that if he hadn’t, the band would have collapsed. “It was so obvious that those four people could not make another record together.”
Fletcher’s less charitable about Wilder’s motives. “I think he felt the band would split up, what with the state Dave was in. I think he wanted to be the first one to jump ship.”
Ultra, Depeche Mode’s ninth album, was thus recorded as a three-piece, with producer Tim Simenon shouldering much of the weight. In May 1996, halfway through recording, Gahan overdosed, but even then it took an intervention from his friend Jonathan Kessler, the band’s accountant-turned-manager, to convince him to check into the Exodus Recovery Centre. He was court-mandated to live in a sober-living house with other recovering addicts (“the closest friends I’ve ever had in my life”), then moved to New York with his new girlfriend, Jennifer. He hasn’t had anything stronger than a cigarette since.
WHEN DAVE GAHAN talks about what he calls “all that bollocks”, he alternates devastating honesty with awkward pauses, perhaps mindful of the fact that Ultra’s musical qualities were overshadowed by his soul-baring confessions to the press. As a faint silver lining, even cynics had to admit that there was a kernel of truth in Gore’s recurrent lyrical obsessions with extremity, sin, guilt and absolution after all, although Gore maintains, as always, that “I never think of Dave when I’m writing the songs.”
“I don’t actually believe that, to be honest,” Gahan counters. “I think he has a deeper sense, and knows that some of the things he writes about are what’s going on all around us. That’s how I feel connected with him. We don’t talk much.”
Depeche Mode put their recovery to the test with a worldwide trek to support their second hits collection, Singles 86>98. On a typical day they would sightsee in cities they had only previously glimpsed through car windows and an alcoholic fug. Where once there was a drug dealer now there was a masseur, and Gore’s pre-show two bottles of wine had become two small glasses.
The result of their rejuvenation is Exciter, recorded over the past year with producer Mark Bell (LFO, Bjork) in London, New York and Santa Barbara, where Fletcher, Gahan and Gore respectively live. “I wake up every day and I see sunshine and I see amazing mountain views and I do feel a bit more in touch with God, whatever God is,” beams the songwriter.
Blame it on the sunshine, or the settled wife-and-kids lives of all three members, but Exciter is the most optimistic record the band have made in 20 years. There are still some dark shadows and intimations of perversity, but there are also unapologetic love songs, Freelove and Goodnight Lovers, with Gahan’s voice warm and intimate. Yet the distance between Gahan and his bandmates remains. Now that he has channelled his energies into music rather than narcotics, he is antsy about the friction between Gore’s perfectionism and his own looser, more organic tastes, and plans to release a solo album in that vein next year.
“I have a feeling that he respects me as much as I respect him but he has an inability to actually acknowledge it,” Gahan frowns. “Martin’s not the sort of person who turns around and pats you on the back and goes, That’s fantastic. To be honest, I wouldn’t know what to do with that anyway.”
Depeche Mode are clearly not the last gang in town, and not one of them can explain why they have kept on going. Daniel Miller has a theory though. “A lot of the arguments that they have now are identical to ones they had 20 years ago. Fletch and Martin have always been mates but Alan was always the outsider and even Dave didn’t grow up with them. If they’d all been big mates at the beginning and then grew apart, that would have been different, but relationships haven’t changed that much. Who knows? If you start trying to define it, it falls apart.”
Gahan, for one, wouldn’t even try. He has endured such self-induced horrors that the fate of Depeche Mode is no longer his top priority. The interview finally over, he looks suddenly drained and starts talking about how much he misses Jennifer, now his third wife, and his baby daughter Stella. “I really have a life now,” he reflects. “I have a life separate from Depeche Mode. It’s the first time I’ve had that in years and I’m determined not to fuck it up. I still make mistakes but I’m there for it. I’m not running away any more. I’m right here.”