With his glass-cut jawline, gleaming black leather, and thousand-yard stare, Dave Gahan looks like a man it would be a mistake to mess with: part gothic rock star, part dark-arts assassin sent through the Matrix to take down music journalists who ask dumb questions.
But when he comes to the door of his Manhattan hotel room - the Essex, England native has lived in New York City for years, though his record label has rented a suite for a press day - he dispels the dark cloud with a wide, disarming smile and a warm handshake. After nearly four decades fronting synth-rock godheads Depeche Mode, the singer, 54, seemed happy to settle in and look back on some of the group’s best-known songs, from their early-’80s postpunk experiments to the politically charged lead single from their 14th studio album, Spirit, out now. Read on for his recollections of throwing pans down stairwells, saying yes to Johnny Cash, and censoring rogue horse tails.
“Just Can’t Get Enough” (1981)
DAVE GAHAN: I was maybe 18, almost 19. The punk thing had just kind of ended, but there were still a few people who were hanging out in the clubs in London, who were trying to play music that you could dance to a bit more that wasn’t so violent, and “Just Can’t Get Enough” became one of those. We had a group of friends at the time who would go to these different clubs, dressed like we were in the video, sort of leather-y stuff.
EW: Was that your first real music video? It’s hard to tell if those are your real girl friends, or just good casting.
DG: I think it was, yeah. The girls, one was Budgie’s girlfriend from Siouxsie and the Banshees, then a couple were models, and they were a little older than us, so it was kind of exciting to have them dance around us. The video leaves a lot to be desired. When I look at it I’m like, [covering his eyes] “Oh my God.” But that’s kind of what videos were then - low budget. And the little performance parts are kind of cool. The acting stuff’s terrible of course. [Laughs]
EW: How did you feel when the Gap used the song for that ad in the late ’90s?
DG: The thing is, the song is written by Vince Clarke, who was in the band for like five minutes, and went on to be part of Yaz and Erasure. But that album [Speak & Spell] was very much a Vince Clarke album, and he owns the rights to that song of course, so it’s been in so many commercials and it pops up. I remember we went to his publisher’s at the time and they sat us all down and they said, “You know, Vince, you’re going to be driving a Rolls Royce when these lot are still on a tandem,” pointing to me and [bandmates] Martin [Gore] and Fletch [Andy Fletcher]. And it probably was true! I think that song has kept him in cornflakes for many years. [Laughs]
“People Are People” (1984)
DG: This was the first song of ours that made a dent, really, into popular radio. We were using all these tape loops to create rhythms and the technology was quite advanced, but it wasn’t anything like it is today, the things that you can do. We used to go into studios, and the first thing we’d do, we’d ask where the kitchen was - literally for pots and pans and things that we could throw down the stairs, and record the rhythms they would make crashing around, and then make it into loops.
It’s not one of Martin’s particular favorites, this one, and I don’t think we’ve done it live since the mid ’80s. It’s quite literal, very poppy, all major cords - something Martin doesn’t like so much these days [laughs]. But the song really propelled us into a new cosmos at that particular time. We supported Elton John at a number of big stadium shows. And Rod Stewart, which was bizarre, but the song became a no. 1 hit in a lot of countries in Europe, and it allowed us to then go off and create the music that we wanted to create.
We were growing up, and it was all happening in the spotlight. I mean, I have a son now who’s about to turn 30, one who’s about to turn 24, and a daughter who’s about to turn 18, which blows my mind when I think that’s how young we were when we were traveling the world and doing these things, having a lot of fun. Too much fun, actually [laughs].
“Enjoy the Silence” (1990)
EW: This was the first big blast from Violator, an album that really turned you into superstars.
DG: With [1987’s] Music for the Masses, we were being pretty arrogant. We weren’t actually making music for the masses, but suddenly we were playing to sold-out arenas in Texas and weird places that we thought we’d never sell records. It was like a cult following. [Legendary documentarian D.A.] Pennabaker, who made [our 1988] concert film, described it as almost like a Grateful Dead experience - people that were as rabid about Depeche Mode as fans of the Dead were about the Dead. We spoke to people that felt a little different, the ones with way too much eyeliner, the ones in schools that were bullied or had to run home. We were the odd ones and we embraced that, because that’s kind of who we were as well, growing up.
EW: It seemed like you were also really starting to cement your relationship with Anton Corbijn as a director around then.
DG: He became like the visual side of what we did. He really got the music, the landscape-y part of it, and the film noir-y part of it and the darkness, the sexuality. Everything that was in there that other video directors up until that point hadn’t really got, and we weren’t in any position to tell them what to do.
[For “Silence,”] Anton came to me - he’s Dutch you know - and said [in clipped Dutch accent] “So Dave, I have an idea. You’re gonna wear a crown. You’re this king walking everywhere, and you’re gonna carry a deck chair” And I didn’t get it at all. But once we started and he showed me the footage I got what he was doing: The man who has everything, but really feels nothing. And we were in such remote places - like, five miles up in the Alps walking in the snow, in the Algarve in Portugal on these remote beaches, at Balmoral in Scotland, where we could walk for days and days and not see anyone.
Funny enough, when Martin first came up with a demo for “Silence,” it was kind of half a song. Just a piano and these very slow, ballad-y couple of verses. And Alan [Wilder] and Flood, who was producing the album, had this idea to put a beat to it. They said, “Get out of the studio and come back in two days.” When we came back, Flood said to Martin, “I need you to come up with a guitar line,” so Martin started to play this riff, and that was it. Then he said “Dave, go sing,” and I did. We literally recorded it in a couple of days. Then we started messing with the song, trying to make it more than it was, and it never needed more. We put it out like that, and I think we knew between us that there was something very special about it, but we had no idea what a huge hit it was going to be.
“Policy of Truth” (1990)
EW: Is it true that this is the only Depeche single that did better in the U.S. than the U.K.?
DG: I think so. England is our home country and we’ve had continued success there - to a limit. We’ve had a few big hits now and then, and we’ve had probably 50 top-30 songs, but we’ve never become a huge band like say, U2 or Coldplay or Oasis.
We’ve always remained sort of a cult thing, although that’s changed a bit with this new record. Violator was one of those moments too, but I think it’s because it was the country where “Just Can’t Get Enough” and those songs first made a dent. And Brits are weird, they don’t really forgive you for those early shortcomings [laughs].
“Personal Jesus” (1989)
EW: The story has always been that Martin Gore got the title from Priscilla Presley’s memoir. Is that just a legend?
DG: I do think that particular phrase was inspired by something Martin read in her book, where she talked about Elvis being [Southern-belle accent] “her own personal Jesus,” and I think that struck a chord with him. It’s a great line! It’s got a humor in it too as well, and there’s always this weird dark humor within a lot of Depeche Mode songs that people miss, tongue-in-cheek and also very British, but it was in that song for sure.
EW: John Lennon famously caused a firestorm when he said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Was there any blowback from you taking the Lord’s name in vain, so to speak?
DG: There was definitely some mutterings of complaint. I think it was more when we put out the video, which was shot in this sort of spaghetti-Western town, a very Ennio Morricone-type Clint Eastwood film setting. There were some parts in the video where a horse’s tail is switching and you see its butt, and they were like, “You can’t use that!” And we were like,”Where are your minds at? You talk about us being weird - this sexual suggestion of a horse’s ass” [laughs]. I don’t know what they were thinking. There were some shots that were removed, but some of them stayed.
DG: I was in the studio recording a solo album, Hourglass, and Martin rang me because he’d heard news that Johnny Cash wanted to cover it, and he was kind of umming and ahhing about it, whether to give permission, and I was like “What are you, crazy? That’s like Elvis asking, of course you let him do it!” And he was like [mumbles] “Oh yes, well, I guess,” in his very Martin sort of way. And it’s a great version, just fantastic. But it really propelled the song to another dimension, and so did Manson’s version of it. Our version is our version, and it always changes a little bit live, the way it swings, what you do with it. And you can do a lot with it, because it’s a great rock & roll song.
“Barrel of a Gun” (1997)
DG: This was a weird time for me. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident during the making of Ultra, and I had some rough times during it. In the middle of making it we stopped completely, and I had to go into a treatment place to get taken care of. I also got arrested during the course of that album, busted in Los Angeles, and then I was in real trouble. That was kind of the beginning of the end for me. I was still dabbling in the idea that I could play that game and also still continue my life, but the gig was up.
I was actually grateful for being arrested, for the judge that promised me that I would go to prison if I didn’t stay clean, because I listened to him and something clicked. Those two years when we were making that album and I had to go back and forth to court to prove to the judge that I’d stayed clean, it gave me this time to suddenly realize, “Oh, I can do this, I can crawl my way back, I can get better. And I do want to be here.”
But that record is one of my favorites, “Barrel of a Gun” in particular, because I think Martin was also playing with this imagery as well, sort of pointing the finger at me. When I perform that song now, it really describes the way I felt at that time: This creature that was barely existing, but somehow still thought he had it going on [laughs]. Martin was spot-on with his lyrics. I mean, I don’t even know if the song was written about me, or for me, or poking at me to say “For fk’s sake, get your st together!” But it worked. I liked it.
We didn’t go on tour with that album, thank God. I think I would have died. At that point I was struggling just to sing. I couldn’t stand up in front of a microphone for longer than 10 minutes without literally lying on the floor, I was that weak. So I was allowed that time to get it together, and I’m grateful for that. I also moved to New York, and that was very cathartic for me, being part of life again. You can’t live in New York without being part of it.
“Dream On” (2001)
DG: I was getting much healthier, and I was in good shape when we made this album. I was also writing a lot of my own songs, which shortly after this album became Paper Monsters, but it was made very clear to me that they weren’t going to become part of Exciter and I was okay with that. On “Dream On,” I was experimenting a lot with my voice, learning how to do different things in the studio.
Mark Bell who produced that record - he actually died a couple of years ago, he’s not with us anymore, unfortunately - but he taught me some interesting things about using my voice because he had been working with Björk before that, and he brought in a lot of the things she was doing with her voice into the studio. I learned how to [whispering] sing very quietly and very close to the microphone, to use all the noises in my voice to be able to create this creature, this thing, and “Dream On” was one of those songs lyrically where it was a character that I was becoming, that I could be without all the misery. I could step into it, and step out.
EW: This was a no. 1 dance hit, but there’s a great lyric - “I dissolve in trust/ I will sing with joy/I will end up dust” - that feels so spiritual, almost like a religious ecstasy.
DG: It’s a great phrase. The line really spoke to me. That’s what it is: Enjoy what you have here. You’re not going to be here forever, but the songs stay forever. For me, it’s like Bowie songs - they carry me, and they continue to, even though he’s gone.
“Where’s the Revolution” (2016)
EW: This one is pretty overtly political. You’re saying to the listener, “Come on people, you’re letting me down” and calling them “patriotic junkies.”
DG: We live very wonderful, privileged lives, and we’re very lucky and fortunate, but it doesn’t mean we stop caring. With Brexit and everything, and then Donald Trump running for president, of course, we were like, “Is this really happening? No, of course not, it’s never gonna happen.” These songs were written a while ago, but they were written with the backdrop of all this stuff going on, and it’s impossible to not affected by the craziness of the world.
We seem to be in a really interesting time, a time of weird change and values and choices, and “Who are you really? Where’s the revolution, and what does it mean to you? What are your choices?” To me, America is built on all these immigrants-everybody coming here and making America “Great,” as Donald Trump would say. And that’s what New York is, a melting pot for all these different races and religions. We all live on this little island together and somehow get on, some days. But most of the time it’s proven to have worked, right? So I don’t know what the fk he’s talking about.
I feel a little bit of shame as well. I mean this morning, I was going into the grocery store very early, and there was this woman who was struggling with a bunch of bags. She was a Muslim lady, and she looked at me a little bit - I mean, I’m a bit intimidating, I’m sure [laughs] - and she sort of stopped. Was I going to help her? Of course I’m going to help her! And then she smiled at me. It was just a little moment but it was like, f-, I felt so ashamed, that she would even be thinking maybe, possibly [I wouldn’t be kind to her]. I see it on the subway, too. It’s just shameful to me. And of course the majority of people are all feeling the same. Especially New Yorkers. I don’t see that kind of hatred or racial intimidation. But you have to call it what it is, and not paint it as something else.