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The Spin Interview: Dave Gahan

Lead singer of the English electronic band Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan, performs at the 43rd Paleo music festival on July 17, 2018 in Nyon, western Switzerland. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Dave Gahan is worried about time. Not just right now, but in general. After working all day on his second solo album, appropriately titled Hourglass, the frontman for synth-pop legends Depeche Mode sits on the edge of a couch and lights the first of several cigarillos. “I have this sense that I want to be somewhere that I’m not yet,” he confesses. “I feel like I’m racing against a clock.” That the 45-year-old singer is experiencing this urgency now, after nearly three decades with a band that has sold more than 72 million albums worldwide, is not totally surprising, considering how the Englishman (from the London suburb of Basildon) spent much of the ’90s: addicted to heroin, estranged from his bandmates, and, much to their dismay, living in Los Angeles. Back then, as Depeche were peaking in popularity, Gahan was essentially willing the clock to stop. In 1995 he slit his wrists in a Hollywood hotel room; the following year an overdose of heroin and cocaine left him clinically dead for two minutes.

But a decade later, in the comfortable confines of his Manhattan recording studio, where large black-and-white photos of his wife and three children decorate the walls, and tiny boxes painted with the likenesses of the other Depeche Mode members clutter the shelves, Gahan’s joie de vivre is unmistakable. He won’t even say a bad word about bandmate Martin Gore, whose reluctance to share songwriting duties has led to constant bickering over the years and drove Gahan to first seek solo satisfaction on 2003’s coolly received Paper Monsters. He’d rather discuss his excitement over Hourglass and the difficulty of organizing its track list. “I know it starts here and it ends here, but what goes on in between is the confusing part,” he says, cueing up the album’s hypnotic, doomy opener, “Saw Something.” Then, with a smirk: “But that’s kind of a metaphor for my life.”

You seem really enthusiastic about the new album. How does it compare with the last?
It’s totally different. With Paper Monsters, I was like, “I’ve got something to prove.” I had created this character to perform in, and it was getting old. I didn’t feel that pressure this time. Recording a few [of my own] songs for Depeche [on 2005’s Playing the Angel] gave me confidence. I owe a lot of that to Martin, because, over the years, singing his stuff has rubbed off on me: how to develop a song, how to create an atmosphere, how to put myself in it. I’ve really started to find my own voice. I’m not saying it’s the best record I’m ever gonna make, but it’s definitely where I’m supposed to be, and I feel comfortable with that — certainly more so than I was with Paper Monsters.

In the past you and Martin have used the press to air your issues with one another, but you sound pretty fond of him right now.
We got over a hump, I think. The last tour was great; we got along really well. I felt him there by my side all the time. I realize the position he’s been in for 27 years and the pressure he’s been under. It must be hard to write songs and have someone else sing them for you. I can see now that the problem was my frustrations with my own limitations. And I can’t play the victim anymore. I think there’s a competitiveness that’s always been there, and it’s key to what Depeche Mode is.

In the 1989 documentary Depeche Mode 101, you said you were happier stocking shelves at a supermarket than being in a band. Is that true?
Uh, no. I think that was one of those flippant comments made at the end of the tour. It’s funny, we watched a building go up in front of my studio. It went up so fast, and these guys are working away out there — really working, like a real job — and quite often, when we were stuck on something or bitching or whatever, we thought, “That’s really hard work out there.” And making music? It’s fun.

As a die-hard rock’n’roll fan, do you ever find it odd that you are the frontman for the world’s most famous synth-pop band?
I’ve always had that issue, and it’s always been sort of a thorn in the other guys’ sides. Growing up in a band is weird — you get stuck hanging on to what it is you think you are. But what I took into Depeche was that punk ethic, that you don’t have to be accomplished to be a musician. If you’ve got ideas, you can do this. Even though we use synthesizers, we still have that kind of ethic, because we can just pick up our stuff, go plug in our gear, and play.

Around the time of Songs of Faith and Devotion, you underwent something of a grunge makeover. You got tattoos, grew your hair out, got a serious drug habit. What inspired that transformation?
I became a parody of myself. I don’t think it was really a transformation that happened overnight. To be quite honest, I’m just your garden-variety junkie alcoholic. Maybe at some point I thought I was something different or special, and certainly during the Songs of Faith and Devotion period I rode that train to the end of the line. It was a lot of fun, and then it wasn’t. The tour ended and I went home with a big habit, and that was all I was left with.

That tour also took a toll on Alan Wilder, who left the band, and Andy Fletcher, who reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. What happened?
We reached a peak of self-indulgence. It was too long, it was the biggest you could possibly have it: the airplanes, the limousines, the fancy hotels, the personal assistants. There were little areas backstage for each member of the band, individual dressing rooms, as well as a band dressing room. In retrospect, it was set up so that everybody could isolate themselves in their own world. Backstage, you would have seen a lot of different parties in different rooms. It’s an old story, but it’s true. We were all casualties of that tour.

When you slit your wrists in 1995, did you expect the other members of the band to support you more than they did?
No. I think if I had asked directly for something, I would have gotten it. It was just my inability to really vocalize or ask for what it was I wanted or needed, because I didn’t really know what that was.

That incident, coupled with the drug overdose a year later, is reminiscent of Kurt Cobain. At the time, were you thinking that death was a way to achieve a legacy?
No. In the early to mid-’90s, everywhere I turned, someone had died. It wasn’t just people in bands. It was the people I was hanging out with. At some point, I thought, “I may be heading down that road.” There wasn’t any conscious effort to destroy myself, but I certainly didn’t want to be here. It had nothing to do with being in the band. In fact, that was the last thing I was worried about. I remember Martin ringing me up during the making of Ultra. I had gone off the deep end and ended up busted and in court, and he says, “Are we going to finish this record? Or am I going to finish it on my own?” And I remember saying to him, “I don’t give a fuck about it. I’m in big trouble.”

Your heart stopped for two minutes. When you were revived, did you recall seeing God or a white light?
All I came back with was the knowledge that I may think I have some kind of control over my life, but I don’t, really. I wouldn’t choose that road for anybody else, but for me, it was the right one. I needed to take myself that far to find out that’s not what I wanted.

What’s your biggest vice now?
Probably TV. TV and chocolate.

Speaking of TV, would you consider being in a reality series if you were asked?
Well, actually, I have been asked, and I got kind of insulted. A couple of years back, there was some kind of show in England, and the request came to go live in some house for a month. I was like, “You know what? I’m not that desperate. Forget it.” And I yelled at my manager. There was another time when I was asked to do something in New York at my house, but there’s no way in hell I would ever do anything like that. There’s one show on now that my son and I caught a bit of the other day with the guy from Poison [Bret Michaels’ Rock of Love]. And I can’t stop watching it! But I’m like, “What is he thinking?” I hope he doesn’t take himself as seriously as he does on the show. For me, it destroys any mystery about music.

Do you think Depeche Mode would have been as successful if original member Vince Clarke hadn’t left in 1981 to eventually form Yaz?
That’s a really difficult question, but the honest answer is no. At the time, it was obviously a big blow. But if Vince hadn’t left, Martin, knowing the way Martin is, would not have been forced to write — he was really thrown into the deep end. He had one song for the [second] album, written when he was 13 years old or something, so we recorded that and pretty much made up the rest of it in the studio. But if Vince had stayed on, I can’t imagine we could have gone much further. I haven’t spoken to him for, I don’t know, 15 years. Maybe longer.

Depeche took a darker turn after he left. Would you say that certain songs — like “Master and Servant” — made S&M more accessible to the mainstream?
Probably. It’s something that we’ve always played with. I’ve certainly played with it as a performer. There’s that side of me that wants to be the loving, caring father, and there’s the other side of me that’s just a dirty animal. If I don’t let that out, I go nuts. And it definitely comes out a couple of times on Hourglass, in “Use You” and “Deeper and Deeper.”

Martin really played that up with his leather suspenders and shirtless outfits. Were you ever baffled by his wardrobe choices?
Constantly. Not so much anymore; I like the way that he dresses up now. I like the [centurion] hat. In the early days, Alan and I would often hide his hats because we didn’t want to be seen with him.

What era or moment in Depeche Mode history makes you cringe?
There’s loads. Just go to YouTube and type in “Depeche Mode” — which I’ve done — and there’s plenty. I look at stuff from when I was 19, and I am horrified at how young I was. And with the Internet, all that stuff I thought had been forgotten is dragged up again.

What do you find most irritating about pop culture these days?
That there are no limits anymore to the amount of exposure any one person can get. Whether it’s Anna Nicole or Brad and Angelina — how many more things can we read about Britney Spears? I can’t help but pick those [magazines] up when I’m on the queue at the market, and at the same time, it absolutely repulses me. And then you find yourself talking about it to people! It’s like, what am I doing? I’m wasting my life here.

Whose career would you not want to have right now?
George Bush’s. Though I am kind of fascinated by him. But he’s created a real problem. When I travel around Europe, I get that “Oh, you live in America” attitude. That’s sad to me. It should be the other way around. We should be leading the way.

You said “we.” You’ve lived in America for about 15 years now. Do you miss England?
I miss a good bag of fish-and-chips. People tell me I’ve become very Americanized, which I’m fine with, because that always appealed to me. Growing up in England, I was constantly told I would amount to nothing. America, to me, was somewhere where ideas were embraced and encouraged. Lately, though, I am more patriotic than I ever was. If I get into a discussion, and I often do, with my son about America versus England, I’m always the first to go, “Well, come on, it doesn’t even compare. We’ve got the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode!”

Have you ever confirmed the rumor that the band KMFDM’s name really stands for “Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode”?
All I know is that I think it’s true. They come out of Germany, right? Yeah, so as many people that love us there, I’m sure there’s just as many that hate us.

Whose cover of “Personal Jesus” do you prefer, Marilyn Manson’s or Johnny Cash’s?
Oh, Johnny Cash! I know no better compliment. It’s a great version, stripped to its barest form. It always seems to get better and better, that song.

Is it gratifying when you hear newer bands that are obviously influenced by Depeche Mode?
Not really. I mean, we’re complimented all the time by a lot of bands we see, and it’s flattering. But I don’t really listen to popular music that much. Recent records that I’ve really enjoyed are pretty far away from what I’m doing — like the White Stripes.

Even after 27 years of being in a band with Martin and Andy, there’s always speculation after every record that it might be your last. Why will nobody say, “Yes, we’re staying together, and there will be another record”?
Well, after we finish a tour, we all go our separate ways and at some point come back together and discuss [the future]. It’s always been like that — there’s no plan for world domination or anything. But, yes, I’m pretty sure there will be another record.

Read on for exclusive interview content with Dave Gahan

For many years, you were bitter about not being allowed to write any songs for Depeche Mode. Why did you wait until 2003 to start a solo career?
I think there’s a really good reason, I just don’t know what it is. It had to do with how comfortable I was with the position that I was in. And who wouldn’t be? I’m singing songs written by one of the best songwriters of my time. But I’d created this character to perform in and it was getting old. I wasn’t inspired and I couldn’t go around blaming anyone else for that anymore. I had to sit down and say, “Ok, what can I do about this?” And one day I bumped into [session guitarist/ Depeche collaborator] Knox Chandler here in New York and I just kind of blurted out, “I’ve got some ideas for songs. I haven’t really developed them. Can we sit down together and see what happens?” From there we created Paper Monsters.

Was Martin receptive to your contributions to Playing the Angel?
There was definitely some caution on the side of Mart and Fletch [Andrew Fletcher] about how that was going to be. Fletch was way more vocal about his support. Martin’s not one that comes forward and talks much about anything at all. We’d listen to all the songs and he’d be like, “I kind of like that stuff a little.” That’s as good as it’s gonna get. But that’s okay for me. It felt like we were a team and that is more important than anything else.

For more on Dave Gahan:
Stream the “Kingdom (K10K Extended Mix)”