Masters & Servants
The Basildon Activists
article magazine 1984:
Melody Maker, 22|9|84 (By M.Jenkins)
With a major tour coming up and a new album, ‘Some Great Reward’, wrapped and ready to go, DEPECHE MODE are back in the limelight. Mark Jenkins plays quizmaster while Tom Sheehan takes pictures.
DEPECHE Mode have a problem. It’s not enough to be big in Britain any more - they have to think about being big everywhere at once. That makes considerations like having a single banned by the BBC fade into insignificance, although there’s a good chance that will happen if the choose to follow up “Master and Servant” with the closing track of “Some Great Reward”, their new album.
“ ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ is really not an anti-religious song,” insists Dave Gahan. “Of course it’s a personal statement on Martin’s part” (Martin Gore’s writing again dominates the album) “but at the same time it’s a statement of how everybody must feel at one time or another. We all had a bit of a religious upbringing, Andy particularly, and I went to church regularly for a year or so when I was about 18, so there’s obviously a bit of a rebellion against that. It’s just that – some of the things we noticed, like there’d always be a prayer list for certain people and the one at the top always died. Things like that…
“My mother’s side of the family were always religious, involved with the Salvation Army and so on, but she lived through so much tragedy… I don’t know how I’d feel by now, but then I’ve never been religious although she stuck to her beliefs. I used to go down to Sunday School with my sister on our bikes and instead of going in we’d just ride around for a couple of hours, and when we got back we’d say it was great.”
The others agree that it’s not religion itself but having religion (or politics or any other belief) forced onto you that they dislike.
“People get too much preaching – even around the town in Basildon, you know? People cling to religion through fear of death,” offers Martin. “It’s not a bad thing to be religious, in fact I think I’d be happier if I did believe.”
“I turned away from religion because I found I was leading a really boring life,” says Andy. “I wanted to live life to the full but I was trapped, and I thought ‘if I die tomorrow that’ll be it’… it’s a shame that Christianity is perverted and hyped so much, because it does have something to offer.”
It turns out that Dave Gahan’s first public appearances were singing carols with the Salvation Army around the age of eight, something he couldn’t think of going back to because “so many unhappy things have happened that I just feel it can’t all be true.” But “Blasphemous Rumours” is a strong (as well as catchy) song and needs a strong place on the album, BBC or no BBC.
“You have to take risks… you can’t be safe all the time, even if the kind of people you might offend are just the sort to kick up a fuss and start petitions and that sort of thing. They’re still a minority; we even had problems with ‘Master And Servant’ when the BBC called for a copy of the lyrics to check them out, but only one guy thought they were obscene, and he was away on holiday when the final decision was taken! The girl who took the decision agreed with us that it’s about love and life, which of course it is.”
Pressured into making some comparison with Frankie, Dave goes thus far and no further. “ ‘Master And Servant’ is a bit more subtle than ‘Relax’ but then it’s got a very different point to make. Frankie’s records sound good – but we don’t like to make a lot of comments about other bands…”
WRITERS like to sum up albums at a stroke, whether the artists want to make it that easy or not. Suggesting that “Some Great Reward” is dominated by “anti-love” songs brings a considered but emphatic “No” from Martin.
“ ‘Lie To Me’ isn’t an anti-love song… it’s about a situation of paranoia which anybody could find themselves in. ‘Somebody’ is pretty much a straightforward ‘I love you’ song if you like, certainly not an anti-love song. The album’s about all sorts of things apart from love through… power, religion, life.”
“Some Great Reward” has once again been produced by the band, engineer Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller, the man behind Mute, The Silicon Teens and The Normal. But Miller’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t see himself as a producer…
“It’s a co-production. Daniel takes ideas from the band as well as giving them, but it’s difficult to explain what goes on over a period of four months. It’s all quite diplomatic, and he won’t make us use anything we don’t like, but every team works in a particular way that’s very hard to explain. We need an outside view or we wouldn’t take so much care over the songs and the sounds – if it wasn’t for Daniel we’d have a lot more arguments too!”
The band feel that their standards have gone up on this album, and swear that the backing tapes from the “Speak And Spell” tour now sound horribly sloppy to their newly-trained ears.
“We spent days doing just one or two sounds or rhythms this time – we went over the top really and it cost us a few bob, but it’s paid off because this is the first album we’re all really proud of. Not that we don’t like the others, it’s just that this one is so much better in terms of sound quality.”
On the subject of backing tapes, was there any desire to try to play a completely live set on the forthcoming tour?
“We’re aware of the limitations of using a backing tape, it takes away a lot of the spontaneity, but we can’t see ourselves playing with a live drummer at this stage. Nobody could play precisely enough or give us all the sounds we’ve used in the studio, but we’ve found other ways to make things a bit more visual.
"We’ve got a moving set with lots of scaffolding, slide screens and so on to match the album sleeve – Jane who worked with us last time wanted to take some of the ideas a bit further – but we don’t think there’s any danger of being compared to industrial bands like Einsturzende Neubaten.
"Granted, we use a lot of metallic sounds, but so do a lot of people from Bowie onwards, and in any case we’re using those ideas in the context of pop songs. Hitting bits of metal is very visual, and you can’t get away from the fact that some of our old TV appearances with three pairs of hands playing keyboards were just boring!
"You need something else, and when we’ve got something more visual we look more confident – that’s why we do things like playing the shawm (a Chinese oboe) on the ‘Everything Counts’ video, even though it was just another keyboard sound. Some people wrote to us to say they felt cheated that we hadn’t spent three months learning to play a shawm, but I don’t see that at all…”
Dave’s main pleasure in the band is still live work, despite the feeling that they’ve taken on a lot in the new gig schedule.
“The fewer gigs you do on a tour the more you enjoy yourself. I love the audience contact, it gives me a big kick that you can’t get in the studio or on TV – I always feel a great deal of power when I can make 6,000 people do what I want. We’re about to embark on a huge tour, though – more dates than we wanted to do really, ending towards Christmas and taking in Germany, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland.
"There are a few days off, but the gigs are mostly back to back – when we get a day off it’s always a Sunday in Hanley. Have you ever been in Hanley on a Sunday? You look at a couple of antique shops, you wander about thinking ‘what the hell can I do?’, you go back to the hotel and watch a couple of videos. It’s awful.
"After this lot most of us will be wanting a holiday. The last German tour finished right before Christmas and by that time it had got very difficult to do something different every night. My mind used to drift sometimes and I’d forget the words – it’s even worse for the others because they’re going to be stuck behind two Emulators, and there’s no way you can move them around, but a lot of the audiences don’t seem to notice that we don’t move much. I like moving about the stage now – at one time I used to keep still and just clutch the mike stand – but now I go to different parts of the audience and play up to them.”
One song on the album which shows a complete departure from the electro-dance style is “Somebody”, which features a rare performance on piano from Alan. Martin takes the vocal, and says the song’s simplicity “is based on a sort of Jonathan Richman back-to-basics theory. It’s performed all together – it just needed three takes, mainly to get the sound okay – and really uses the bare essentials.
"In fact I sang it completely naked in the cellar of the studio which we use for ambience, and the others sent the female tape op downstairs while I was doing it to ‘check the connections’.”
Dave recounts how they stood with baited breath until a small Germanic scream tipped them off – he mimics Martin’s (possible) reaction, and goes on to say that if every song on the album had been done as quickly they’d stand a better chance of making some money out of it.
COST is an increasing preoccupation in the band’s considerations while recording, but working in the German Hansa studio rather than London’s Music Works at least means fewer interruptions, although it still demanded a month of recording time. The first album cost around £8,000, which was cheap for the time, but now the band are much more satisfied with the results even if they’ve had to pay the price.
Dave comments: “I’m very pleased with the vocal sound on this one – it’s a lot to do with having confidence and a lot to do with being comfortable with the engineer. Also, I took a couple of lessons with Tona deBrett, scales and things, and I didn’t see much application to singing pop songs but I wanted to do more for the breathing control.
"Sometimes when I’m running across the stage and singing I get very out of breath. On this album we took more care on the vocals – if you like, it’s our ‘together’ album which is why a line from one of the songs is quoted on the sleeve, ‘the world we live in and life in general’.”
“Some Great Reward” seems a more personal album than “Construction Time Again”, which the band agree could be called a “political” album “but only for want of a better word”.
“It’s not as if we’ve suddenly returned to playing pop,” says Martin, “it’s just a more mature album. We feel 100 per cent confident about it, and a good few of our friends have been pleasantly shocked when we played it to them – they couldn’t believe that we could record something like this. A lot’s changed since Vince left three years ago, and the people who gave us less positive reactions in the past when we deserved them aren’t afraid to tell us now that they like what we’re doing.
"That’s really good – through being with Mute we were given a chance to develop in our own time without being manipulated into giving away posters or free singles or anything like that. When we do a remix of a single we make sure it is something really different that gives value for money – Daniel’s against a lot of fancy packaging anyway – but we’ve been lucky in that the real fans have always bought the singles. In four albums and 10 or 11 singles we’ve never really had a low period, the fans have been very loyal, and if we did put out ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ and it got banned they’d still be buying it.”
The band are totally involved with sleeve design and set design and pity others who don’t share this enviable position (“after a while you realise how much some other bands are manipulated…”). They’re doubly lucky in that Mute owns all the computer equipment they need to record, since it’s also used by other acts on the label.
The gear lets them exploit ideas from all the different types of music with which they come into contact (“Systems music – Steve Reich – Philip Glass – Gamelan orchestras – all sorts of things!”) and have infinite flexibility as to who plays what and how each sound is created.
Some of the sounds on “Master And Servant” – such as the whip effect – are based on Daniel Miller standing in the studio hissing and spitting (“we tried to sample a real whip but it was hopeless”). Anything that’s impossible to play live ends up on the backing tape for stage purposes, although Dave, Martin and Andy have a healthy respect for the potential of Alan’s more developed keyboard skills.
Since so many “real” sounds are creeping into the music, are we likely to see Depeche Mode assuming rockist guitar poses again in the near future? Martin thinks not – “I played an acoustic guitar on stage last time, and we mime to some of the drum parts on ‘Master And Servant’, but I don’t feel too happy about it. We use samples of guitar sounds if we like them but we don’t think about whether they come from guitars or not, we just want a new sound.
"We don’t think about being ‘anti-guitar’, but a lot of the old electronic bands are going back to guitars, and if we did that just for the visual effect or so that we could move around a bit, we’d end up being blander instead – looking just like anybody else. We’re prepared to do things for TV to make it look a bit more exciting though!”
DESPITE their willingness to play up to the cameras, the band are convincing in their insistence that “the new album is 100 per cent sincere. We’d like people to see in it passion, intensity and sincerity. The last one got good reviews so we expect a few iffy ones this time – usually your enemies slag it off and your friends are so positive that they don’t tell you anything really. A lot of people still tend to write us off, but we think ‘Construction Time Again’ was a turning point and a lot of new people now know what we can do.”
And as for the image (or lack of one)?
“It’s really as unified as it’ll ever get now. We’re misfits – we don’t fit into an area, although other companies might have pushed us into one. In the long run it’s a benefit, but we do find people can’t put faces to our music even now.”
Dave adds, “… and that’s a good thing – we’re on the edge now, between commercial and non-commercial music, and I think that’s a good place to be.”
Questioned on the expected reception of “Some Great Reward”, Dave offers: “I took a lot of time getting to know all the songs on this one and I think we deserve a lot. ‘People Are People’ was a German Number One and ‘Master And Servant’ is at 15 in Germany, so it ought to do well, but some of the reviews can be very negative.
"One guy who slagged us last time told us he only listened to half the album at four in the morning and that he’d got to like it since, but by then the damage had been done – when you’ve spent three months recording an album that sort of thing is really disgusting.
"A lot of people are going to be expecting ‘Construction Time Again Part Two’, because they liked the ‘political’ content of the last one, but that’s not what ‘Some Great Reward’ is all about and we might get slagged for that.
"We hope that everybody will see it as our best yet, but journalists can be unpredictable. Then again, so can we…”