underground magazine

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MASS APPEAL ‘8|87 Underground Mag

’Depeche Mode bloody good at what they do and getting classier all the time Don’t forget it’

From Sgt. Peppers to Music For The Masses, Depeche Mode tread a filmic journey through contemporary music keeping their integrity intact and sticking strictly independent.
Story by Carole Linfield. Pictures by Ronnie Randall.

The flickering TV set in the corner is desperately trying to pick up the dim signals of a BBC documentary. Through the resulting snow on the set, images of McCartney and co. dissect and examine the “LP of the century”, and Sgt Pepper marches out again. Here we are, sitting in a studio, watching TV footage of a studio…It’s like the picture of a tin which has a picture of a tin on it. Does it go on for infinity? Oh, but it was 20 years ago today…

Twenty years ago today, everyone in this recording studio was more worried about bubblegum cards and Batman comics than pop art. Twenty years on, and Depeche Mode are looking forward, not back.

“I wonder if anyone will make a documentary about the making of this album?” muses David Gahan, chasing a piece of pasta round his plate. In the background, there’s the incessant jingle of the video machine, and the soft clunk of cue upon snooker ball. Ah, the gentle art of recording a new LP.

“It’s going to be called Music For The Masses,” explains Martin Gore, “Which is a bit of a joke really, when you consider how much a lot of people hate us.” I bet you were even thinking that yourselves. Depeche Mode? Don’t they belong in glossy pop rags, talking about their haircuts or their favourite teddy bear?

Well, let’s have a little look at the evidence we can put forward on Depeche Mode’s behalf. Arguably, Depeche Mode are the blueprint for commercial success while remaining in the independent machine. They produced innovative music at their outset in 1981, even though The Human League went before them - they were the first true pop band to augment the synth and later the sampler. They don’t have a manager, and never have had. They turned down big offers from majors in favour of remaining on Mute, and, whenever the singles have charted, they’ve never resorted to a nauseating round of self-promotion in order to cash in on it. To some extent, they helped pave the way for other bands to cross over, from The Smiths to the Mary Chain. So why all this vitriol?

“I dunno” says Dave. “You wouldn’t think it was possible to hate a band so much as the way some people hate us…!”

“I think,” muses Martin, “our music never crosses over to the general public, hence the album title, it’s a joke. It’s only the fans who buy our stuff.”

“Also, people have branded us as a sampler band, which is OK in itself, but so many bands use samplers badly. They don’t give it enough thought. We spend ages trying out different sounds and trying to make sure we never use the same ideas twice, even if, because David’s got such a distinctive voice or whatever there is obviously a very definite Depeche sound.”

And despite what you might think, it’s not that easy even for Depeche to get radio play and the like.

“We’re in a bit of a dilemma because most of our music doesn’t fit in and doesn’t get played as much as others, though fortunately it does elsewhere in the world,” says Martin. “And if we find it difficult, and we think we’re quite commercial, it must be impossible if you’re in a really alternative band.”

So how do you overcome that?

Andrew: “We were lucky, when we started it was at a time when there was a flourishing live scene, so we built it up that way, but there’s not even decent places to play any more.”

So why did you decide early on not to sign to a major?

Martin: “It was quite tempting. Looking back, I can’t imagine why we didn’t go with them, it was just a stroke of luck we didn’t. I mean, can you imagine four 18 year old boys with no cash being offered sums of money like £200,000? But it was the best decision we ever made.”

David: “There was a gut feeling at the time…although the real reason is probably that we were so indecisive it passed us by. Daniel Miller was advising us too, although he never pushed us to stay with him. He did say that whatever they offered, he would do his best to match, and if we wanted singles in the charts, he’d do his best to get that for us, too.”

Martin: “I think the reason we’ve stayed around so long is because we’re on Mute. We’ve been given the freedom to do what we want by being on Mute. We’re not pushed in any particular direction, and Daniel isn’t like a record company boss, he comes down to the studio and helps us out. He’s more like a friend.”

In the long run, of course, it’s made the Deps a lot richer…

Andrew: “We went for points, percentage of the profits, there’s no way a major would have given us the points deal we’ve got with Mute. We had to go for the first two years without much money, because we didn’t get a huge advance.”

So would you advise young bands to take the same course?

Martin: “It’s difficult when bands come up and tell us they’ve been offered a major deal or whatever, because you want to say go for an independent, but we were very lucky in our case, because our first single was a hit. It has to be said that it’s much easier to fail on an independent.”

Andrew: “Some 99 per cent of new bands will fail, even if they’re signed to a major, so at least that way maybe they’ll come away with a bit of money. I’d like to advise people to go for an independent, but you’ve got to be careful. Bear in mind we only know one label, too; that doesn’t indicate what the others are like.”

Alan: “And if you need to buy equipment, you’re going to need to go for the big advance.”

What advantages have there been, apart from the money?

Alan: “A major would have pushed for us to have hits, but we’ve been allowed to go along at our own pace. Also there’s a certain amount of rubbing off of each other…”

There’s a certain amount of schoolboy tittering at that one.

“What I mean is, the standard of music on Mute is very high and that rubs off on the group.”

From the glimpses we had of the new LP, the Depeche which is re-emerging is a harder, more classic construction than before. The vocal is still surging, but underneath there’s a…well, filmic quality lurking about. Not melodramatic, but assured.

So it’s not surprising, then, that individually all the members of the band have expressed an interest in scoring films.

“We have been offered some dodgy sci-fi B Movie stuff, where they’ve asked us to drop in words like ‘Venus’ and 'Jupiter’ here and there,“ laughs Martin.

"I’d prefer something along the lines of Ry Cooder’s stuff, like in Southern Comfort,” adds Dave.

Andrew: “The thing is, I bet a lot of people wouldn’t know it was us. We could get round a lot of preconceptions that way.”

Preconceptions which have been built around the teenie following they initially commanded.

Martin: “We went through a stage around '81, '82 when our image was very teen oriented. We didn’t know what we were doing, I mean our clothes and everything…even we find it embarrassing to look back on and think it’s really sickly, so I can quite understand how it put some people off.”

Andrew: “I think the teen audience can be one of the best, especially when they develop with you. They’re really enthusiastic. It’s only like The Smiths’ audience, except theirs is more male dominated, but that’s 16, 17 year old boys.”

Isn’t that kind of audience generally a lot less critical, though?

Andrew: “Perhaps, but then again I think they’re more critical because they give everything you do a listen and really think about what you’re doing. That gives us a responsibility.”

David: “People think that just because an audience is 13, 14, they haven’t got a mind, but that’s not true. They may be more up on what’s going on and than the 25 year olds who are going out and buying Dire Straits records.

"Besides which, a large proportion of our audience has matured and grown up with us.”

The Deps are planning to head out on tour with the LP, but whether the uninitiated people will grit their teeth and give the album a try, I couldn’t say. All I know is, I bet given a blind taste test, many of them would give it the thumbs up. Meanwhile, the rest of the world as so often happens in these cases, is already converted to the faith.

You said, don’t sell out. Don’t let the big wigs get it all their own way. You got Fad Gadget, you got New Order, you got The Smiths, and you respected them for it. You got Depeche Mode, bloody good at what they do and getting classier all the time. Don’t forget it.