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Devoted

Photo by Anton Corbijn
When concert spotlights last bathed our dearest friends Depeche Mode, during Songs of Faith and Devotion­era 1993, things were undeniably different. Though celebrated for their moody, dark compositions, the band had fallen into a rut, albeit one well suited to their music. Drugged-up and gangly beneath a greasy mane of tar-black hair, vocalist Dave Gahan spun dervishly like the archetypal rock star he'd yearned to embody, shedding health, friends and relationships. Meanwhile, keyboardist Alan Wilder, feeling undercredited for his hand in producing Mode's output, stewed in his own juices, planning an egress once the accursed, life-sapping world tour wrapped. Both ended up walking -- Wilder away, and Gahan into sobriety. Now, one year following the reconstituted Mode's brooding Ultra and a singular Los Angeles performance soon thereafter, the remaining trio is back on the road again, supporting a double CD, The Singles '86­'98, which teems with Mode opuses including "A Question of Lust," "Personal Jesus," "I Feel You" and a fresh cut, the serpentine "Only When I Lose Myself."

Manhattan's Essex House, 1998: It's almost shocking how buoyant and young Gahan appears, much like his tidy, short-haired '80s incarnation. You'd think that a sojourn in junkieland, a much-publicized near-fatal overdose and unsuccessful wrist-slicing suicide attempt would leave one at least slightly leathery. (Then again, Boy George was looking pretty swanky this summer, and he was quite the walking pharmacy circa the late '80s.) Also present, and equally Ziploc-fresh, are songwriter/
multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore and his trademark dollop of unnaturally blond hair, and keyboardist Andy Fletcher (the tall guy), who kick back on a couch and lounge chair respectively.

Fun fact: The three interact entirely like brothers (Hanson Mode?), playfully scurrilous and sincerely bolstering, intermingling opinions, clarifying or correcting each other's statements, and sometimes deliberating a moment when the threatening specter of independence from their mates arises. Probing Gahan's venture into songwriting is mildly awkward ("Maybe a couple of songs a year, and I keep them, I have them, but I haven't yet recorded anything . . . I don't know if I want to expose myself that much . . . not like I haven't exposed myself quite a bit!"). And when Fletcher's desire to warble a track is questioned, he's modest . . . kinda. "My voice is very bluesy. Very deep. I don't think it's in the style of our music." Cautiously scanning the room for responses -- Gahan is midyawn, Gore is beaming -- Fletcher adds, "But I honestly feel like I've got a voice. For some reason Alan, Martin and Dave thought I don't, so I'm outvoted."

One item the group has also voted on is a spate of near-insufferable Depeche tribute albums, many of which seem to come from Sweden. Gore and Fletcher confess to having heard many of them, and the possibility of recording a tribute to their own musical heroes has been hashed about. After all, Gore did one back in the '80s -- the Counterfeit EP.

"I've actually thought about that before," he says, "because it is a nice thing to do, like the one Siouxsie and the Banshees did a few years ago. It's interesting to show your influences, but I think it'll be very diverse. With Siouxsie, they probably had at least a core of songs they generally liked, but we all have such different tastes that I don't quite know how we'd do Deep Purple!"

Gahan explains his own approach to interpretation: "When I'm singing, I want to move people with my voice. I want to feel moved myself. When I listen to Marvin Gaye, on an album like What's Going On, the whole album is like he's really in some kind of place there. You can't help but be moved by it. I wouldn't say [Gore's songs] are 'my' songs, but there are a lot of songs over the course of the last 18 years that I've really felt part of."

Gore, of course, writes the songs (that make the whole world, or at least all depressed adolescents, sing), and even trills some himself. "There's generally a couple of songs I sing on each record," he says. "Obviously, we sit down and talk about it, but it's usually blatant in the demos which songs will suit David's voice. I have a much softer voice that sometimes . . ."

". . . Some songs are more personal to you as well," says Fletcher, nodding knowledgeably.

Gore shoots him a tart glare. "I don't think it's a question of being personal, because all the songs are personal! It's really a question of 'That song suits my voice maybe better than Dave's,' and the majority of them don't."

Unquashed, Fletcher says, "I think in the past it might have been a question of any song under a certain number of BPM, but they're all under a certain number of BPM these days. We have to reconsider."

While the trio rattles off answers, it's hard to resist studying Gahan's tattooed arms for concealment of scars. Caught in the act, I ask him whether he's formulated a "plan" to keep those jeopardous days -- the ones he'd sooner I not address -- at bay. "I have a plan to protect myself, yeah. I try and keep a better perspective of myself and my place in life. I got carried away with the other side of stuff, what I thought was fun, 'rock & roll,' 'party party' all the time.

"If I want to sing, if I want to perform, if I want to be part of something I enjoy an awful lot, I've got to take very good care of myself. For a long time people told me, 'You're dying,' and it didn't mean anything to me other than start me off and saying, 'Fuck off, get out, I don't need you,' and the more times you do that, after a while there isn't anybody there, and it's a pretty lonely place to be. It feels like it's a long time ago, but at the same time it's very close. Probably because we're about to have another tour and a lot of stuff gets kicked up."

A recent New York engagement featured an energized, prancing, charismatic Gahan ruling the stage just as adroitly as the fucked-up Gahan ever did, so for now he'll keep the kibosh on that fellow. "There I was, 110 pounds, hanging off anybody who would stand next to me. Recently I saw a picture in an issue of Q magazine of me around the time of Devotion's tour, and I was really horrified. I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'Omigod, look at this,' and she looked at it and said, 'Who's that?' Completely different person. But I know that sometimes that person's still inside."

Gahan's about reconstruction, and so is Depeche Mode. Each member has augmented his place within the ranks since Wilder skedaddled. ("We get paid more now," jokes Fletcher.) "It's kind of opened us up," contends Gahan. "By the time we finished recording SOFAD, it got too much like 'These are the roles.' We weren't going to be able to make another record working that way." The Singles' touring incarnation includes an additional keyboard player and live drummer, allowing for not only a fuller sound but a newfound ability to improvise. And the current Anton Corbijn­designed stage is a comparatively restrained affair: Instruments surround a three-screened pagoda, exhibiting video delights such as Gore's face morphing into a naked woman's chest, and the Modes campily strutting along a catwalk, attired as their idols during "Walking in My Shoes."

"I've realized that I can't write songs, nor am I a good singer, but I'm happy in the role I got," proudly exclaims Fletcher, who relishes the band's continued evolution. "I see myself as a backup to these two, and try to hold things together a bit. I think they value my opinion a lot higher now, too!"

Again Gore glares tartly. "You didn't know that a rhyming dictionary existed until the other day, so things could change."

 

Depeche Mode appears at the Great Western Forum on Friday and Saturday, December 18 and 19, and at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Sunday and Tuesday, December 20 and 22.