Depeche Mode singer Dave Gahan couldn’t believe it when David Bowie asked him backstage to say hi after a show. But when you’re the man who sung ‘Personal Jesus’, shouldn’t you take these things in your stride?
Dave Gahan looks every inch the iconic elder statesman of stadium electro when we meet at The in Kensington. Wearing a box-fresh tailored suit and coming across as charm incarnate, the man we meet is a long way from the troubled soul who was rushed to hospital for a heroin overdose back in 1995. He is clean, serene and keen to talk about his second solo album ‘Hourglass’ which he recorded this summer with Depeche Mode touring band Christian Eigner and Andrew Philpott. But lets not miss one crucial thing: the Dave we meet today is bordering on cheery. What happened? Now living in New York with his wife Jen and two young children, we talk for a good hour about his life, his art and the questions that trouble a man whose band has sold over 72 million albums in their 25-year career.
Younger readers may wonder why a man of middle youth is on the pages of Mixmag, but the reasons are multitude. Last year, the Ricardo Villalobos remix of ‘The Sinner In Me’ was the biggest vocal anthem at DC10 and Cocoon and almost every artist in our crazy mixed up world reveres the band for their groundbreaking work. David Guetta played ‘Enjoy The Silence’ at Bestival; Felix Da Housecat drops ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ in every set he plays and Ali Dubfire doesn’t hesitate to play ‘Everything Counts’ at every opportunity. In fact, any mention the Depeche interview to our DJ friends is met with awe and jealousy. “That’s insane,” said Dubfire on email as he put the finishing touches to this month’s covermount. “Tell Dave I think he’s bad-ass!”
What’s it like living in New York? Have you ever bumped into Bowie?
“I see him quite often actually. He has a daughter that goes to the same school as my daughter. I bump into all those guys. I see Lou Reed walking around with his little dog. It’ all my heroes but I see them going about their everyday life. And that’s kind of cool too. Bowie did a performance at Roseland where he performed all of ‘Low’ from start to finish and I got to meet him afterwards – but it was weird. Before the show I was told that David would really like to meet me. And I was like, ‘what do you mean, how does he know me?’ To me, he’s an iconic figure so for him to even be aware of me was kind of weird, To start with I said no, but my wife convined me to go back so I did and he was great. He came walking out, his wife was there and a whole bunch of people were wandering around and suddenly he picked me out and said ‘I KNOW YOU!’ Bowie has constantly grown. You have to try out new places and new avenues and if you do that you will succeed in what it is that you’re doing.”
On your new single, you talk about looking for trouble - what kind exactly?
“Well, if I’m looking on the outside and looking for something that will make me feel better, I’m going to get myself into trouble. No matter what that is - TV, food, alcohol, drugs, sex - whatever it is, I’ve got to have that and I’ve got to have that now. I refer on this album to that part of myself where I still have this tendency to find something that will make me feel better about myself. But it doesn’t work anymore. So when I produced this body of work, it felt refreshing to put all that stuff down. And it’s something inside, that voice that we all hear when we know we’re on the right path. And the one that I chose, many times, to veer off of!”
Who are you addressing on this record? Yourself?
“Yeah, a 45 year old man! With a 25 year old mind. And there’s definitely a part of me that’s starting to feel like I won’t be here forever. I’m on the second part of my life. And that becomes really irritating. Sometimes I feel fifteen. My wife says ‘stop competing with your teenage son!’ In what sense? Mentally. I’m always trying to win, trying to be right, trying to prove my point.”
Do you still have crazy fans?
“Definitely, there were a couple stalking me at Berlin airport yesterday. I was shoving a sandwich in and I could suddenly see this kid with a camera filming me. And I was like, ‘give it up’. You know what, it’s not that bad. I can’t imagine how bad it can be on the celebrity scene. It actually bothers me on some level because I don’t take that much notice of it anymore.”
But you totally courted it for a while there
“It’s something that I have to deal with but.. that kind of adulation I don’t quite understand. But I’m OK with it. I embraced it… and then I recoiled from it completely. And yes, I courted for a long time, I thought the attention was going to make me feel better about myself and of course that obviously didn’t work. I’ve come to a point in my life where it really is about work that I produce.”
The Depeche DVD I always direct people to is the DA Pennebaker-directed ‘101’ – a rock show where EVERYTHING clicked
“The show itself was an amazing thing. The performance wasn’t that great, I had problems with my mic and feedback and stuff like that but the whole event was so immense that the technical problems didn’t matter. I remember during the show feeling an overwhelming feeling that this had gone way beyond anything I could possibly imagine. And afterwards I felt completely and utterly empty that it was over, that it was finished. For me, it was a key moment in the life of Depeche Mode, where I felt we had completed something and we were going to have to reinvent ourselves.”
During the show, there’s a scene where the merchandising and ticket money is cut with ‘Everything Counts’
“All of a sudden, the money started coming in - beyond anything you could imagine. It’s funny, all that stuff, without sounding gratuitous, when you get all that stuff, it’s great but it took a long time to realise that it wasn’t going to make me feel better about myself. So I feel in a really good place. I’m in one of the surviving bands of the last 25 years and I’m starting to carve out a little thing of my own.”
Not every 80s artist has been so lucky. Paul Young stooped to Celebrity Hells Kitchen for example
“I would rather go and be a workman in a yard than do that. It’s unfortunate but that’s got a lot to do with the artist. Unfortunately, you are supported in the rise and as soon as it peaks and falters, a lot of that attention is removed. And the people pumping you up also disappear and you have to learn to roll with that. Luckily with Depeche Mode, we’ve been able to keep it like a family affair and we’ve consistently challenged. And Mute Records have had a big part to play in that. Also, we’ve grown. I’m beginning to grow as a writer but I had to put myself in a place with people who encouraged that.
‘Enjoy The Silence’ is still the quintessential Depeche record. What is it about exactly?
“Silence can be really hard can’t it? You know, there’s a song on Hourglass called ‘Endless’, which is on a similar tip. ‘Enjoy’ was in my mind a lot when I was writing the lyrics to that. It’s about being still and just being OK with that with nothing going on. I don’t know about you but for me, that’s a difficult thing to do. In interviews, you feel like you’ve got to SHOW UP and PERFORM to a certain extent. I’m sure it’s the same for you too. But it’s sometimes in that silence that you get the answer.”
Are there still tensions in DM?
“No, I don’t think so - we’ve got over a hump. There was tensions when I stepped out of the fold to make a solo record…”
That happened in Metallica – and James Hetfield sacked their bassist as a result!
“Really? Well, that comes from fear of it being better than what you’re doing. It’s really weird, that. You can’t own something. You can’t own that thing you’ve created. Once you’ve made music and put it out, it’s not yours anymore. Its work that you’ve done but you have to let go.”
Do you think Martin Gore writes the songs with your voice in his head?
“Mart writes for himself and what I do is I take the song and I try and make it my own. Martin has given me untold lessons in how to put that together and how to work on an arrangement and how it should rise or go off in another direction. A lot of good dance music has got blues in it. You start with something that is continuous throughout the song like in a blues track. It all starts with one idea and then there’s improvisation that continues builds like a John Lee Hooker song. “
What excites you?
“Making music. It was really exciting making this record. Doing the last tour and feeling like I was a bigger part of the band and writing songs for the album was a big step forward for me. What excites me is my life. The possibilities are endless.”
Who do you feel are your peers?
“I have my favourite artists of the moment. The last few records I liked were Keren Ann, The Grinderman record which was really great concept album about the death of a rock star, the White Stripes record… and I thought the Digitalism record was cool… Andrew had that album in the studio when we were making the album.”
Do you see yourself as a dance act?
“I think that first and foremost. DM is a pop band that creates songs. And then what we do is we mix dance, blues, gospel, rock n roll all those things - Elvis, Kraftwerk, John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash all come into what we do. But appealed to Daniel at Mute was that were bringing pop music to the now and using technology to get that where it needs to be.
You also worked with Francois Kevorkian on ‘Violator’
“Yes and he’s been SCALDING it. He knows how to turn something around. I like it when a DJ takes a song and puts some of his own personality into it. To reconstruct something and put it into a different atmosphere – that’s great.”
Which brings us neatly to Sinner In Me. Have you heard the remix?
“I heard it. I know that we rejected it. (Takes i-pod and listens to track) It’s like what I was talking about with the blues. It’s improvising on an idea. Sometimes it works for me, like that and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s a good thing that it’s not coming out – that keeps it underground. Do I like it? I never heard the song like that, it’s completely unlike what the song was like before. To me, if it makes people interested in exploring in the origins of where the song came from, that’s exciting to me. Like I said, once you finish something, with technology, it’s out of your control and you’ve got to let go of it.”