“We’re living in a time of real change,” says Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan, a vision of intensity dressed head-to-toe in black. “As I get older, the things going on in the world affect me more. I think about my kids and what they’re growing up into. My daughter, Rosie, was deeply affected by the election last year… She just sobbed, and I was like, ‘Wow.'”
It’s an overcast mid-January day, and the singer, 54, is picking at some tagliatelle in a corner hotel restaurant located in downtown Manhattan, where he’s lived for about a decade. Despite sharing his alarm about the state of the world, he’s in bright spirits and can look at himself objectively. “Martin [Gore] and I both live in America, so we’re both very affected by what goes on,” he says. “Martin said to me, ‘I know to some people, this will come off as rich rock stars living in their big houses in Santa Barbara with not a care in the world, and it’s true that we’re very fortunate. But that doesn’t mean you stop caring about what’s going on in the world. It’s really affecting me.’ And I said, ‘I understand. I feel the same.'”
That sense of worry informed Gahan and his Depeche Mode bandmates while writing their upcoming album, Spirit, which is due out March 17th, as many of the LP’s 12 songs deal directly with the general Weltschmerz circulating the planet lately. Although Depeche Mode became megastars to a legion of black-clad, disaffected malcontents with serious songs about universal compassion (“People Are People”) and more personal revelations (“Enjoy the Silence,” “I Feel You”), the new tracks seem like a different chapter for the group. “I wouldn’t call this a political album,” Gahan says, “because I don’t listen to music in a political way. But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”
He sings of bigots “turning back our history” on “Backwards,” cheekily calls for change in “Where’s the Revolution?” (“Who’s making your decisions,” he sings, “you or your religion?”) and looks inward on the brooding “Poison Heart.” Musically, these songs are dark-hued with complex textures that are both icy and warm sounding, harkening back to the group’s Violator era while still sounding musically like an extension of their last album, 2013’s Delta Machine.
The realization that Gahan and Gore were on the same page with regard to world events came early when they regrouped last year with bandmate Andy Fletcher to begin work on the album. When they looked at everything they’d brought to the table, they saw a through-line. “We called the album Spirit, because it’s like, ‘Where’s the spirit gone?’ or ‘Where’s the spirit in humanity?'” Gahan says. “We considered calling it Maelstrom – that was a bit too heavy metal.”
They brought in producer James Ford, whose work with Florence and the Machine, Arctic Monkeys and Simian Mobile Disco had impressed the group, and he helped get the musicians get back on the same page. Other than a few disagreements between Gahan and Gore that Ford settled (“We really had it out,” Gahan says with a laugh, “It got pretty emotional”), the recording process went relatively quickly and easily, with sessions in Gore’s Santa Barbara studio and in New York.
Now the group is releasing the record’s first single, the Gore-penned “Where’s the Revolution?” The slow-building number, which features fuzzy synths, serves as a call-to-arms, on which Gahan sings, “The train is coming/Get on board,” along with the title question. “Martin wrote it in a very sarcastic, English way,” Gahan says.
It’s a mood that continues in another Spirit song “Backwards.” It opens with Gahan singing, “We are the bigots/We have not allowed/We have no respect/We have lost control.” It goes on to lambaste some people’s “caveman mentality” and how others “feel nothing inside,” amid jabbing keyboards and pounding rhythms and complete with Gore’s backing vocals. “If we want things to change, a revolution, we need to talk about it and about caring about what goes on in the world,” Gahan says. “It doesn’t seem the way things are in London. We seem to be going in another direction, and I think Martin felt like he needed to express that.”
That theme also resounds in another song written by Gore, “So Much Love,” a more upbeat, electronics-driven number about realising that everyone has love inside. “It’s like we have so much love here, we really do, but we’re afraid to use it and access it,” Gahan says. “It’s the old John Lennon thing, like, ‘love and peace, man.'”
But while Gahan sees a connection to the Beatles, the tune sounds nothing like the Fab Four with its dense, noisy pastiche of keyboards, drum machine and an eerie guitar line. Gahan says that the song, musically, has more in common with Depeche Mode in their earliest days.
“Back in ’79 or 1980, we would play these 25-minute sets where I would write the little dots on the drum machine and shift it up and down to make it go faster or slower,” Gahan recalls. “It was a wall of sound. We’d plug these three keyboards into the drum machine, and three microphones – Vince [Clarke], Martin and myself – so it was three-part harmonies and a very distorted drum machine. … [‘So Much Love’] also reminds me of early electronic stuff, like Tuxedomoon and Cabaret Voltaire, who did kind of punky, distorted songs.”
It’s the exact opposite sound of the ballad “Poison Heart,” a particularly catchy and euphonious number Gahan concocted with the group’s drummer, Christian Eigner, and keyboardist, Peter Gordeno. “They sent me this guitar line, and it had a bit of a Muscle Shoals vibe,” Gahan says. “It was a very different feel and I got this melody in my head.” It opens with a slow, funeral march in the vein of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and builds to an almost Beatles-like bridge with only a smidgen of noisy guitar. Gore, whom Gahan says is “not a man of many words when it comes to others’ songs,” called “Poison Heart” the best song Gahan had ever written.
“You have poison in your heart,” he croons outright at the beginning of the song. And later, he sings, “You know it’s time to break up/You’ll always be alone,” but Gahan says it’s not intended to be a breakup song.
“I was watching the news on TV and I was writing through my own inability to really relate to another human being,” he says. “There must be something wrong with me, poison in my heart or whatever. So it was fun to play with that imagery, and it became more worldly – greed and lust and wanting what you want when you want it and nothing else matters. So I was breaking up with myself – trying to evolve, trying to break up with old ideas that I think are working for me but are not in actuality. Fortunately, that’s not my relationship with my wife.”
He laughs, picking at his pasta, and says that “Poison Heart” complements another song on the album, which wasn’t played for Rolling Stone, called “Worst Crime.” “The lyrics to ‘Poison Heart’ are more of an internal dialogue, but ‘Worst Crime’ is looking outward,” he says. “It’s bringing about the change. You’ve got to do something different or act differently. We can all talk about whatever is going on until we’re blue in the face but you have to take real action, and sometimes we don’t know what that looks like. Individually, I believe people are inherently good, but we’re really distorted by the information we get and we act out on that information out of fear.”
Another way he expressed that opinion on the album is in a song called “Cover Me,” which he describes as a story song. “It’s about a person who travels to another planet only to find that, much to his dismay, it’s exactly the same as earth,” Gahan says. “It’s a different planet but the same. He really can’t get away from himself. If he wants things to change, he’s going to have to implement it.”
If that premise sounds like pure Bowie, it’s only because the Starman loomed large as an influence on Gahan and Gore throughout their career. “When Bowie died, we both didn’t know what to do with it,” Gahan says. “There was a personal connection there. It was a huge loss.”
Gahan recalls sobbing last January when he heard that Bowie had died. He had gotten used to seeing Bowie in surprisingly normal social settings – Gahan and Bowie’s daughters are about the same age and attend the same school – and Gahan would sometimes chat with Bowie at school functions. “It was very different to the Bowie that I grew up adoring and living vicariously through,” he says. He’d become a fan as a young teen watching Top of the Pops and latched onto Bowie’s androgyny because his mother didn’t like it. When he turned 16, he scrounged together some money (“I’m sure I stole something and sold it,” he says) to see Bowie perform at London’s Earl’s Court in 1978, and he calls the double live album, Stage, which was recorded on that tour, “some kind of pacifier” for him, his go-to Bowie.
“I had seen the news but it wasn’t until my wife told me he had died that I just broke down in tears,” Gahan says. “My daughter came out and they were both hugging me. It really affected me. I felt a huge gap. One of the things I was most regrettable about was that I had never really gone up to him at any time I’d seen him in passing and said, ‘You know, David, I bump into you every once in a while, but I’ve never told you how much your music has meant to me and continues to mean to me.'”
To right this, Depeche Mode paid tribute to Bowie at a special concert they recently recorded at New York City’s High Line public park. They filmed the performance – which they did without an audience and which included several songs from Spirit – with just a drum machine and Gore on guitar, and they capped it with a cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.” “I was so moved, I barely held it together, to be honest,” Gahan says. “Martin listened to ‘Heroes’ once it was mixed and randomly told me, ‘Wow, that was really fucking good.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?'”
Although Depeche Mode have not yet decided how they will release this film, Gahan is eager for people to see the whole thing and especially “Heroes.” In the meantime, he’s getting back into the headspace of performing live, and spreading the band’s new message of world awareness to audiences. By his estimation, the band has already sold over a million tickets to a few dozen stadium European stadium shows later this year, and the group is still finalising plans for a U.S. tour; rehearsals begin in mid-February.
But it’s the early interest in the upcoming European leg that Gahan is most excited about, since many venues were nearly sold out before the release of the new single. “We spent a lot of years just fighting to be heard and to be respected,” he says. “One or two reviews of our past albums over the years have been pretty harsh. And you go, ‘Oh, those people really don’t get us, they don’t get it.'”
But over the last nearly four decades, Depeche Mode have amassed a dedicated fan base, something that resonated with Gahan recently when he was working on a side project with the cinematic production team Soulsavers. One of the members of that group, Rich Machin, told him that Depeche Mode records like Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion were among his favorites when he was 13.
“They were like what Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust were to me, those albums where you sit in your bedroom wondering why you don’t fit in with the rest of the world,” Gahan says. “That’s what I was doing with David Bowie at that age. I had found somebody in him that I could understand, where I felt I was part of his world, when I felt alienated. And I think that’s why Depeche Mode appeals to a lot of people. Somehow it’s comforting, like, ‘You’re not alone.’ You’re not, of course. None of us are. But music is the thing that crosses all boundaries and brings odd people together.”
It’s a sentiment that also echoed last year when it was announced that Depeche Mode were nominated for the first time to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but ultimately didn’t make it. “We’re not just part of the fabric, and I’m proud of that,” he says. “We stick out as being something that’s a little bit odd. We knew we weren’t going to get up there with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but someone wrote something like, ‘They’re a band wearing eyeliner, writing pervy songs about twisted, weird, depressing subjects.’
“I took that as a massive compliment,” he continues. “Because we are a little odd, and we’ve always appealed to the odd out there, the odd in the world. Our fans and the people like ourselves are a squad that maybe didn’t quite feel right hanging out with others. We’re a little awkward, a little nerdy, a little different. We found each other and it became a gang.” He laughs, looking proud. “And it’s a pretty big gang now.”