Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan is having a wistful moment of gratitude, gazing out the picturesque window of his Beverly Hills hotel room at the sunshine that radiates like a golden blanket over steadily swaying palm trees and dreamy, magazine-ready homes in the hills beyond.
“L.A. has been there for us from day one, really,” he says of his band's Angeleno fan base. “We were playing smaller places, but there was a cult aspect to the way people came to our shows and knew our music, before they even knew who the band was.”
It's late April, and Gahan and his longtime partner in Depeche, Martin Gore, are doing interviews in their rooms at the Four Seasons as they gear up for a secret fan show at Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Masonic Lodge, a warm-up gig for an international tour in support of their latest album, Spirit. (The band's third member, Andy Fletcher, was not present.) Both speak enthusiastically about their love of L.A. and their fervent fan base here, which helped them sell out a record-breaking four nights at the Hollywood Bowl, something no other group has ever done.
Much has been made of L.A.'s Morrissey obsession, but it could be argued that Depeche Mode, who play those sold-out Bowl shows starting this week, enjoy an even more fanatical following here. There are club nights devoted to them and a popular DM convention held here every year, and the band's hits have never left rotation on L.A. radio, not just KROQ (where they got their first airplay) but mainstream pop stations as well.
Many Angelenos who came of age in the '80s and '90s feel a kinship with Depeche Mode and their songs' themes of sorrow and struggle, shameless romance and eternal outsider-dom. It's the same reason the goth scene is so popular here. Depeche Mode's music speaks to those of us who have always felt that the stereotypical image of sunny SoCal — wherein everyone is blond and beachy — is false and at odds with our true depth and dark proclivities. In an ironic way, dark music like Depeche's connects in L.A. more than anywhere else in the world. And you can dance to it.
Gore's ability to write emotive yet edgy songs with infectious hooks, and Gahan's visceral interpretations of them, have made them one of the most potent pairs in music. Personality-wise they could hardly be more different — Gahan the outgoing, dramatic frontman, Gore the quiet, sensitive songwriter. But they have much in common, too, including an obvious fondness for L.A. Gore lives with his wife and two baby daughters not far away in Santa Barbara. Gahan, who resides in New York, says his 18-year-old daughter, at the time of our interview, was considering attending USC. Still, their connection to L.A. runs even deeper than most people know.
Gore recalls the band being more of an underground phenomenon when they first came to L.A. during the “Just Can't Get Enough” era circa 1982, and how the crowds swelled when they returned around '85. “That was when it blew up,” he says. “It seemed like alternative radio had taken hold of the country, but especially here in L.A. … We went from playing small theaters to big ones, playing to 15,000 people. That was incredible for us at the time.”
“L.A. has been there for us from day one
Gahan has a soft spot for early days, too, recalling the smaller shows when they were unknowns playing the Roxy and the now-shuttered Perkins Palace. He peers intently out his window once again, this time as if he's looking for something. “When I first came here, I was like, 'I wanna live here!'?” he says, pointing at the skyline.
He ended up doing just that after the band had become a household name with 1987's Music for the Masses, playing bigger venues and wrapping up that tour right here with a now-iconic show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, captured by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker in the documentary Depeche Mode: 101; the film last month had a 30th-anniversary screening at the stadium.
In 1989, Gahan left his first wife and moved in with the band's PR director, Teresa Conroy, whom he later married. His second wife is a big link to Gahan's L.A. story, one that many fans don't know much about. (Full disclosure: I have been friends with Conroy since 2008, after I profiled her in L.A. Weekly's 2008 People issue. Gahan brought her up during our interview unprompted.) What little they do know has, for the most part, been negative, with stories painting her as the scapegoat for Gahan's well-documented drug problems. With our conversation spotlighting L.A. and its influence on the band, the frontman seems eager to set the record straight.
“I fell in love with her during tour,” he says. “We just connected and at the end, I told my wife in England I was not coming back. … I showed up on Teresa's doorstep on Sweetzer and Fountain Avenue with my little suitcase and said, 'Hey!'
“We ended up getting married. We lived near Santa Monica, in Nichols Canyon and Benedict Canyon for a while. We moved around, but what brought that all down for me was I just wanted …”
He pauses for a long moment. “Substances?” I ask.
“Yes. That's what I liked to do most,” he admits, “and it tore us apart, so that was the end of it. I moved to New York around '97 and changed my life. My behavior was not gonna change in L.A.
“Some of what people thought about her might have been my doing, just blabbing my mouth off. I realized after being clean 10 years later, it was like, wow … at the time, as long as I had what I needed, I didn't give a fuck about anybody else. And I didn't think I was that person, but I was that person.”
Gahan, now 55 and married to his third wife for 18 years, has been clean and sober for more than two decades. He looks healthy and trim in a black T-shirt and dark-rimmed glasses, with hints of gray on his chin and temples. But back then, he nearly died a few times from heroin overdoses, once at the Sunset Marquis where the band rented a villa on a frequent basis. Today, however, he seems to associate L.A. and his second marriage not so much with his addiction but with inspiration.
“I haven't talked about it enough, but that time in L.A. was wonderful. The few years I did spend here when we were just hanging out and I didn't work for a couple of years, there were all these great bands playing, like Jane's Addiction, Guns N' Roses. Going to clubs like Cathouse. There was this great music coming out of L.A. There was an energy in some of the new music coming up that I was feeling and seeing here.”
Gahan's personal style at the time was influenced by the L.A. rock scene (more tattoos, longer hair, leather), and he sought to steer Depeche's music that way, too. When he went back into the studio to make Songs of Faith and Devotion after 1990's Violator, the career-changing album that included worldwide hits “Personal Jesus,” “Policy of Truth” and “Enjoy the Silence,” Gahan says, “I was like, 'Guys, we've gotta change it up! This is just too clean, too neat!'?” But Gore and the rest of the band “didn't like at all where I was coming from.”
Gore, the band's primary songwriter, was the more provocative dresser in Depeche's early days. He fancied lots of guyliner and became a fan of bondage getups — often purchased, he says, at Trashy Lingerie, not far from the Four Seasons. It gave the band an androgynous edge that “the girls seemed to like,” and complemented Gore's sensitive lyrics and rhythm-driven compositions. Depeche were huge after Violator, so it's no surprise that Gore didn't want to change the winning formula, even if music in general was having a heavier moment.
Looking tan and content during our conversation (the bondage attire is long gone, replaced by a fitted black ensemble not unlike Gahan's), Gore, 56, concedes that letting go of creative control has always been something of a challenge. He describes how the early dynamics of the band evolved, putting him “behind the wheel” in terms of writing the songs and shaping the band's sound.
“When we first started we were 18 and 19, and the main driving force behind the band was Vince Clarke. He was the main songwriter, and we were just along for the ride, really,” Gore says. “And then he announced to us that he was leaving before the first album was released. So because we were young and didn't really think too much about anything, we just booked some studio time and went in and carried on laying down with a three-piece, as you would at 19 and 20. We never expected it to be a huge commercial success, especially at the time. But then we grew up a little bit.”
With Clarke moving on to other projects (notably Yazoo with Alison Moyet and Erasure with Andy Bell), Gore just naturally took the reins, and his talent for songwriting grew as he did. “By the time we got to the third album, we'd traveled the world quite a lot and seen a lot more,” he says. “I started to get, not exactly dark by the third album [Construction Time Again], but a little bit more worldly, maybe.”
Though Gahan felt like he “wanted to take it to another level,” after his time in L.A. in the '90s, he didn't officially contribute to actual Depeche songwriting until 2005's Playing the Angel. Still, the edgier aesthetics and more visceral performance style Gahan honed did steer the band into grittier territory, which fans (particularly female fans) found dramatic and sexy.
Both Gore and Gahan admit their relationship has had its tempestuous and trying moments over the years. But Gore says that after working on their latest, highly political album, Spirit, it's “as good as it's ever been.”
For this tour and the Hollywood Bowl shows, Gore promises to take lead vocals on the tender numbers fans have come to expect from him, plus lots of groove-driven guitar work on songs both old and new. Depeche's massive catalog of memorable, emotionally charged music aside, their live show is why they continue to sell out stadiums at this point in their career.
I was lucky enough to attend both a rehearsal at SIR Studios in Hollywood before our interviews and the warm-up “secret” show at Hollywood Forever, and the band are as good as they've ever been onstage. With stellar production (including visuals by famed photographer and video director Anton Corbijn) and support from a solid backing band, Depeche Mode are almost certain to deliver the transcendent experience their fans expect. The Global Spirit Tour is aptly named, and Gore and Gahan hold nothing back, complementing each other in the kind of caustic yet comfortable way that only the most iconic duos do.
“Sometimes a band needs to have a bit of friction. … The best stuff sometimes comes out of this need to be heard,” Gahan explains. “Creatively we're old enough to realize that we respect each other's differences, and we know that we need each other. That's what Depeche Mode is. It's a weirdness between the two of us.”
DEPECHE MODE: GLOBAL SPIRIT TOUR | Hollywood Bowl | 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood | Thu., Oct. 12; Sat., Oct. 14; Mon., Oct. 16; Wed., Oct. 18; 7:30 p.m. all shows | $45 and up | hollywoodbowl.com
[Correction: Language in an earlier version of this article falsely implied than prior to 2005, Martin Gore wrote all of Depeche Mode's songs after the departure of founding member Vince Clarke. In fact, former band member Alan Wilder wrote or co-wrote several songs on the band's 1980s albums. We regret the error.]