Dave Gahan: Depeche Mode And Songs About Leaving The Planet
Photo: Michael Campanella/Redferns
By: Monica Molinaro & Steve Baltin
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Beverly Hills, CA and iconic Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan is a vision in black, casually sitting in the Four Seasons hotel room with GRAMMYS. The discussion comes on the heels of the release of Depeche Mode’s latest work and 14th studio album, Spirit. Though the message Spirit communicates is generally urgent and forbidding, it is not one without hope or love. Depeche Mode takes on the role of whistleblower, speaking to the world to wake up and restore the spirit in humanity.
In our extended conversation, Gahan openly explains his way of thinking and the interplay between he and Martin Gore, which have undoubtedly influenced these latest writings. Gahan touches on the importance of being genuinely present, both onstage and off, on fearlessly refusing to hold nothing back, and the ever unifying power of music. He begins the conversation with a story set in Glasgow, at one of their recent performances:
Dave Gahan: We’ve all been in Europe for a while, for a few weeks, and in New York, too. It’s interesting because we’ve been doing these little performances where we get to play a show, like short shows for just an hour. We did one in Scotland up in Glasgow. It’s funny, one of the guys from Primal Scream over there, Bobby [Gillespie], watched the show (it was broadcast on TV) and he said, “I saw the show, and it was great. It was perfect; perfect time, like 50 minutes. It’s like, the perfect show.” Remember those? You play for 45-50 minutes and you’re still on stage and have boundless energy.
You are known as a tireless performer. How do you wind down after a show and where does your pride come from?
Usually after a show, just get me back to the hotel room, I’ll just sit there and literally stare at the wall for probably three hours and then try and move. But you certainly don’t tell people; you can’t show that. Afterward you go collapse, but out there, there’s people that pay good money to come see you, so you’d better work your ass off. That’s the way I feel about it. My mum would smack me around the back of the head, “You get your ass back out there.”
As I’m performing, I’m fully aware of what’s going on. I pride myself on being extremely present. And I want to feel what happens emotionally. And you can’t really dictate that. I used to think I could make the show go where I wanted it to, but you can’t, you know. If you allow it to kind of develop, something amazing quite often happens that’s beyond you. And you feel it from the audience, you feel it certainly from the music, and between each other. And then you don’t talk about it really. Suddenly you get it rolling back like a big wave from the audience where they feel it, too. When that happens in a show… that’s why we do this. That’s why [Bruce] Springsteen gets up there, you know, because he lives and breathes it. He loves to do it. You’ve gotta love it.
At what point in your life or your career did that concept really strike you?
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have that happen to me quite a few times. I’ve gone years as well when I haven’t felt that and I’ve just been coasting somehow. I mean, I still put everything I’ve got into a show, but I’m not necessarily feeling it. And when I say that, I mean, like, the only word I can use to describe it, and it sounds a bit hokey, is that it’s a spiritual experience. It’s something that’s incredibly moving, and it’s not just about you. It’s about the whole thing collectively, music and what that does to people, and how it can move you and how it can bring people together. I still hang on to that idea being really important, and I still hang on to the idea that I actually have some kind of responsibility to be part of it.
I would burst into tears on stage I think…
I have. I have done that. I’ve done that a few times. There have been a few moments I can particularly remember where that happened to me and it was so overwhelming that I couldn’t hang on to it. I couldn’t handle it. There have been a couple of outdoor shows when the rain has luckily saved me from looking like a complete idiot, where I’ve allowed that just to wash over me and move past it.
It’s an interesting thing as an artist, how do you balance this vulnerability while keeping a private life at the same time?
I’m known for wearing my feelings on my sleeve—as they say quite often—and I’ve found that, for me, that works because I don’t want to bottle them up like that. I don’t think that’s good for anybody. It’s certainly not good for me because I tried doing that for years. I tried smashing down at the way I felt about everything with booze and drugs and that didn’t really work out very well. I mean, it works for a time, and then it doesn’t. Like George [Michael] who lost his way, I’m sure that had a lot to do with it as well. There are points where you lose people or things happen, and they could be strangers, but they sometimes have a profound effect.
I think Bowie had a profound effect on people, people that even didn’t know that he had a profound effect on them. And his passing kind of proved that, because you know, he was one of those guys, as well as an artist, that even though he was hugely successful and hugely famous, he still kind of remained in the shadows, and always kind of appealed to that other part of yourself that we all have that we just all kind of try to smash down. So [David] Bowie, for me, allowed me to be the person I could be, the artist I could be, the performer I could be, because I saw what he could do with stuff.
It’s hard to describe this, but when you’re performing, if you're going to be genuine about it, whether you're Bruce Springsteen or your David Bowie, you’ve got to go there. Wherever it is that you think you’re trying to pull from, you’ve got to be that, and do that, and give that, because if you don’t, people know. And I think it’s one of the reasons why Depeche Mode has been as successful as we have for so many years, even in what I would still call a cult underground level, I still feel like we’re a cult band. It’s misunderstood.
I read this little quote from somebody, we were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing this year and then passed over (which we expected), but what was interesting was someone’s comment. I remember reading something where someone commented, “yeah well, those weird, masochistic, singing, eyeliner-wearing guys, you know, those weirdos.” And I was like, yeah, that’s exactly how we are! Well, that’s rock and roll. That’s rock and roll, that’s Little Richard, that’s like everything that I love about rock and roll that rubs people the wrong way a little bit. It’s supposed to not be conformative. It’s supposed to appeal to something in you that is a bit more primal, and pull that out of you and allow you to have the freedom to express that. To me, that’s what music does, it does for me, and I don’t know what I would have done without certain records over the years that have been by my side and still remain there. They’re my go-to things.
Speaking of go-to records which appeal to something in you, you look at a song like John Lennon’s “In My Life” and it is the simplest sentiment, but only he thought to put it down and write it.
Also, what he was incredibly cool at doing was just taking away the fluff. I’ve read a lot of stuff about him and seen a lot of documentaries and things and even the making of the album Imagine, where he always is saying to the musicians, “Don’t play too many notes,” because we get carried away with filling up the space and space is where you get to fill an emotion. I say this to my band all the time. When I do Soul Savers stuff, it’s one of those things where Rich and I, with Soul Savers, are both very identical about keeping the space and not filling up holes. If there’s an ambience there that’s barely there, let it go where it’s gonna go.
I’m lucky I get to do both, but I’ve learned a lot these last few years making these Soul Savers records as well, because it’s what I’m looking for and I think it’s where the magic is. It’s in being fearless about openness, whether it’s lyrically or musically. If there’s an instrument that’s doing something and it moves you, then let’s hear that. We don’t have to fill it up with other things. Engineers and producers often have this idea the more stuff you throw on something the better it’s going to be, it’s not the case. And I think coming back to John Lennon, he was really the master of doing that, of just taking stuff away.
How far did you let yourselves go with the songwriting in Spirit?
The studio domain for Depeche Mode is, in the writing, still very much Martin [Gore]’s domain and he made that very clear to me on this record (laughs). And that’s okay, we kind of had it out in the middle of the record. I came in the studio with a bunch of demos, he had a bunch of demos and he’d written some fantastic songs. And, to be fair, there was a good ten of Martin’s songs; eight, nine, ten songs that I thought I could really get my teeth into. So that, for me, was immediately, “Which one of your own are you not gonna do?” At first, there were a few songs of mine, and I managed to get a few songs of mine in there. “Poison Heart” and “Cover Me” were two songs I felt very strongly about being on this record because I felt they were important politically and spiritually. They needed to be on there because there was… it was weird. Martin and I write separately, but quite often thematically, we seem to join parts somehow. I don’t know what that’s about. Sometimes it happens musically, but sometimes it happens lyrically. Martin’s songs were more directly about the things he felt were happening on this planet now, and mine were more about getting off this planet and finding a new one (cracks up).
We’ve done a pretty s****y job with this one.
And then we have the audacity to think we can go and f***ing do it somewhere else as well. That’s humans.