When Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was the assistant editor of Smash Hits, he made the following observation:
Dave Gahan has become an accomplished bum wiggler on stage, as well as shaking his pelvis in a very suggestive way. If you think that Depeche Mode are a bunch of solemn, synthesiser-programming boffins, you’d be amazed at the waves of screaming that they arouse. A lot of the credit must be taken by Dave whose energetic performance is one of the most sexy to be seen on a stage anywhere.
Tennant’s words might not have helped the cause of a band roundly mocked by the so-called serious music press and trapped in a world of suburban, teenage, sticky-floor synthpop. But he put a finger on something about the man the critics once called Plain Dave from Basildon. He was sexy, but he hadn’t always been.
Gahan sits in the windowless conference room of a Knightsbridge hotel, elbows on the table, his flexible wrists sprouting out of his leather jacket and whirling about like two little trees in a strong wind. He has silver chains, hair like a spiv, and eyes creased by years of chemical abuse and sudden, explosive smiling. Somewhere under his singlet there is a giant tattoo of angel wings which took ten hours to complete. There are piercings on him, too, not visible. One goes through his “guiche”, or perineum; he once said he had so many holes in his male apparatus that he weed like a watering can. Gahan has nearly died three times. The first was a heart attack on stage in 1993. As he was stretchered off, his bandmates finished the encore.
Two nights before we met, the accomplished bum wiggler, bathed in blue light and wearing a leather waistcoat over his naked torso, played a special gig at Glasgow Barrowlands, Depeche Mode’s smallest, most exclusive crowd in thirty years. He instinctively scanned the front row for a particular fan he sees at fifty European shows a year, and eventually spotted him. “My sight!” he mourns. “All my sunglasses are prescription. I can see the stars at night but nothing else. We have a house way out on Long Island, and in the summer you can lay in the garden and the stars are just – bang.” His fingers flash in a re-creation of astral beauty.
He speaks and thinks at the accelerated pace of an ex-addict, and his Essex accent is spiced with American Rs. Across London, his bandmates Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher do a joint interview at a different hotel. Because Depeche Mode and Dave Gahan don’t get on.
No one could have known, when Tennant wrote his ode, that the band would outgrow Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Culture Club. Today, Gore and Gahan live on opposite sides of America. They meet only when they have to – coming together to roll out their vast electronic rock show around the world, playing to stadium crowds of 60,000 a time.
Depeche Mode fans aren’t like Coldplay’s. They are a race, a diaspora: a Gothic mass of supporters viewed by the band with a mixture of gratitude, obligation and fear. There are more people wanting to see Depeche Mode live now than there ever were before – and no one is quite sure why.
A successful band is a life sentence. The human animal is a different creature at 18, 25, 40 and 70, but rock stars pass their lives together and, to a certain extent, are contractually obliged not to change. They are frozen at the age at which they began their strange journey. I ask Gahan – 55 years old, three times married, three times almost dead – whether going to a different school from his bandmates was part of the problem.
“They’ve definitely got that,” he says. “Fletch and Martin definitely have some strange pact that I have often tried to bash my way into.” He waves to imaginary colleagues. “Hey, I’m here, too! Just not feeling the love right now! But I don’t yearn for that any more. It’s taken a long time – but I am fully aware of my place.”
Gore, chief songwriter, and Fletcher the synth player attended the James Hornsby School in Basildon. Alison Moyet was a classmate; she was, Fletcher once said, the best fighter in the school. They had a band with their friend Vince Clarke, who left to form Erasure and Yazoo. Fletcher and Clarke were Christians; they didn’t know Gahan, who was a pupil at the Barstable School three miles away – periodically, spending his weekends at an attendance centre in Romford as payback for joyriding and theft. He eventually gained a certificate from Southend Technical College that qualified him for window dressing.
Gahan was spotted by Clarke while performing David Bowie’s “Heroes” at a jam session, and joined the band “because I had absolutely f*** all else going on”. As a child, he had done Jagger impersonations on Top of the Pops nights for the benefit of his aunts.
Depeche Mode were signed to one indie label – Mute Records – for three decades. Mute’s founder, Daniel Miller, called them futurists, but Bananarama called them wimps. As Don Watson wrote in the NME: “Describe a member of Depeche Mode? Well, one of them’s got a blonde fringe, but then so have I . . .”
“Oh, they hated us!” Gahan cries. “They hated us. We were a joke. But we were also misunderstood.”
In 1992 Gahan travelled to meet Gore and Fletcher at a studio session in Spain. He had not seen them for nearly two years; he’d been living in Los Angeles, where he’d moved from England, leaving behind a wife and son. He tells me his bandmates were surprised by what they saw. He had grown his hair long and was bearded and covered in piercings. He was talking about American rock music – Jane’s Addiction and Alice in Chains. His weight had dropped to nine stone, and he had developed a heroin habit.
Gahan says brightly: “Although I was withering away, I was really empowered. I was cocksure. Our manager looked right at me and said, ‘Great. This is what we need!’ I said, ‘Guys, everything’s changing. We’ve got to step it up.’ When I think about it now it must have been quite shocking. All of a sudden I was throwing my weight around. Sporadically, mind you.”
In America, Basildon didn’t mean anything. Depeche Mode were not small-town boys: in 1988 they had played to 60,000 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. They had a huge Goth following, and were mobbed by clubbers in Detroit.
In the sanctuary of the Spanish villa where the band and engineers would live together to work on a new album, Songs of Faith and Devotion, the thin new Gahan let his dark vision percolate. The only problem was, he wouldn’t come out of his room. The photographer Anton Corbijn, hired by the band to record their changing image, would go to check on him. When he wasn’t in a heroin stupor, his creativity was being applied in directions other than music.
“I started oil painting!” he says. “Mostly portrait-type things. Anton come into my room once, and I was painting this portrait of my cat at the time. The cat was just kind of floating in space. It was all purples and greens on this big canvas. [Photos remain on the internet.] Anton said: ‘I can’t paint – that’s why I take photographs.’ He admired my painting. He would say: ‘You’ve been up here a few days. They really want you to come down and maybe do some singing.’ [He giggles.] And I would come down. I think they hated me, but I really didn’t care. There was something really freeing about being hated.”
Down in the studio, Gore was writing new songs – stark electronica produced with a rougher, industrial rock sound. Corbijn’s intense black-and-white videos lifted Depeche Mode into the cool hierarchy of European electronic music – in Sweden and Finland today, you’d think they were the biggest band in the world. And in Gahan’s bedroom, the biggest part of the transformation was taking place.
For an entire generation, the new-look Gahan was all they knew. In suburban living rooms, on The ITV Chart Show, a strung-out character with black pools for eyes was wringing his hands against desert backdrops or following dodgy women down darkened corridors. At the back of the adolescent mind, there was a dawning knowledge that the story was real, somehow – that the man who sang “Personal Jesus” was undergoing his own strange process of self-flagellation. The little news bulletins on the ITV Chart Show flashed: Depeche Mode’s lead singer was rushed to hospital last week after a suicide attempt.
Suddenly the rock press, which loves nothing better than someone who appears to embody their art, couldn’t get enough of Plain Dave. He was given lengthy features in all the titles that had mocked Depeche Mode in their early years; and, for news lines or therapy, he talked – a lot.
In 1997 he told the NME, in an article headlined “Dead man talking”, that the self-abuse had all been part of a master plan:
“I consciously thought, there’s no f***ing rock stars out there any more. There is no one willing to go the whole way to do this. So I created a monster . . . and I dragged my body through the mud, to show that I could do it.”
The way he describes it, it was a human experiment – a kind of rock-star Method acting. “I was that guy you saw in those songs. I was living that life, and it was working. I felt empowered, I really did. So it was cool, and suddenly I felt cool, too. I felt like I was king of the castle.”
The problem was, it was an experiment he could not control. One of the most memorable stories from the time is the rumour – during a 1993 tour that Rolling Stone called “the most debauched of all time”– that Gahan had bitten the British journalist Andrew Perry on the neck, like a vampire. Depeche Mode were touring with Primal Scream, also heavily involved in heroin; their entourage included both a drug dealer and a psychiatrist. I called Perry at home in Kingston Upon Thames; he told me of a backstage scene where Gahan, amid groupies and bondage folk, was brought in on a purple throne and placed in the centre of the room. The attack on the neck was “really more of love bite”. Months later the two met again and Gahan said, “You know, you were the only person that night who thought to ask me if I was OK.”
If Gahan hadn’t been able to score, he would inject water. In 1994, his mother and son Jack, visiting from England, found him on the floor in the bathroom with his works round his arm; he said he was injecting steroids, for his voice. In August 1995, he called his mother and, as they talked, he slit his wrists, returned to the sofa and sat down, allowing himself to bleed. At the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles he overdosed on a speedball – cocaine and heroin – and his heart stopped for two minutes.
I have been told before our interview that memories of those days are painful but Gahan brings them up almost immediately, in his own, strange way.
“I had a lot of fun in LA, I tell you,” he says, eyes twinkling. “My second wife, who I married there, Teresa, we had a great time. There was nothing wrong with us – it was just me: I was really a mess. And she divorced me, rightly so. And I knew if I stayed there I was probably going to die.”
He left LA shortly after his overdose and moved to New York, where he had one friend, the actress Jennifer Sklias, now his wife of twenty years.
“I sort of went there and latched on to her, really,” he says, almost apologetically. “She liked Billie Holiday and John Coltrane. All of a sudden I realised I needed to be around people who couldn’t care less about being around Dave Gahan.”
When Gahan was ten years old, he came home from school to find a man sitting at the kitchen table who, his mother told him, was his father. The person he thought was his father had died a year earlier. The man at the table took him and his sister out for the day – “bought us a gift; I think he bought me a sweater” – and didn’t come back.
The man, a bus driver called Len Callcott, of Malaysian ancestry, had left the family when Gahan was six months old. “I am told I sort of knew about this?” he says, with an upward inflection. He later found out that Len used to call a neighbour, Mrs Clarke, one of the few people in the neighbourhood who had a phone, and ask after him. The messages were not relayed by his mother. “I could have done with that information, probably!” he laughs. “But everyone has these stories, don’t they? My mum was raised by an aunt she thought was her mum. It was a generational thing. And Martin has a similar story.” Martin Gore discovered, as an adult, that his father was a black
The only other thing he and Gore have in common, Gahan says, is a love of David Bowie and peas. Recording sessions for their new album, Spirit, were the “spikiest” yet, and involved a mysterious kind of intervention, organised by producer James Ford, in which Gore and Gahan sat down and had it out with each other in some way. Gore, he says, is not confrontational, “whereas I am like this” – he raises his hands like a bear and growls.
The arguments, even after all these years, usually revolve around Gahan’s desire to be taken seriously as a songwriter. “I said, ‘Martin, I need to be your partner in the studio. I can no longer just be the guy who sings the songs – a very overpaid vocalist for you.’”
Gahan co-wrote a song on the new record called “Cover Me”. He becomes very intense talking about the track, which is about a man who has the opportunity to go and find another planet. When he gets to his new planet, he finds it’s exactly the same – he just failed to appreciate the beauty of the old one.
“It’s about that dread of realising it’s not them, it’s me,” he says. “It’s about the beauty of communication, of wanting to be understood and loved. I’ve spent most of my life trying to get that. But sometimes when I get it, I don’t know what to do with it. When I feel that side of me that is yearning for connection, I try to get it – and then it goes away again.”
He took the song to Gore who, he says, didn’t understand the metaphor.
“I’m like, ‘What the f*** do you know?’” he cries. “‘I never question your songs, Martin, I just sing them!’”
Sometimes, when you’re watching Gahan on stage, you think to yourself: this shouldn’t work, but it does. His metrosexual moves are swollen to cartoon proportions to hit the back of huge stadiums. Traces remain of the Personal Jesus, his arms thrown out, the holes that once peppered them now healed into scars. There is a pout as big as Freddie Mercury’s, an arse looser than Jagger’s and a huge, deep baritone voice that always felt at odds with his compact, sinewy frame.
He may chase artistic integrity but he is a frontman in the classic sense: in the service of something, in need of love, tricky, trapped – and fully aware of his place.
“It horrifies me to think that I might be on stage at 70 years old,” he says. “It really horrifies me. I’ve got the idea of me walking on some remote beach somewhere, hopefully still with Jennifer, and a couple of dogs [“dawgs”], and a beard that’s down to here.”
When I ask if this is just a fantasy, a little surge of energy goes through him. “I feel like I’m getting close to the point where I will actually have to stop doing this,” he says. And then, not for the first time in our conversation, one thought seems to bring about its opposite.
“There is a sort of . . . calling with Depeche Mode,” he says. “It’s different. And Martin and I have this relationship that has been strange for years and years and years. The stage is the only place where I don’t feel my age. We have so many songs, I see them in different blocks, for each era, and they’re all different senses for me. They are all different colours and feelings. But I guess
music’s like that for everyone, isn’t it?”
He says it took him ten years to become the singer he wanted to be – around the early Nineties, then, when he ran his own human experiment. “I wanted to get to the place where even someone else’s songs would become mine if I sang them.” Gore has always enjoyed that kind of personal satisfaction, Gahan says, “because he found himself through his songwriting.”
“I’ve been married three times. I’m the one that ups and leaves. And Depeche Mode is the only thing that I haven’t left.”
Why is that?
“Because I haven’t really understood it yet. I don’t understand it, and I probably never will.”
Does Gore understand Depeche Mode?
“Yes, I think he does. I think he understands it very clearly. And he made that very clear to me.”
I ask him if there are any bands that actually get on.
“I can’t imagine there are, if they’re being truthful in any way,” he says. “We all have huge egos. The trick is to work out: are those egos destroying what could be magnificent, or are they creating it?”
As our interview ends he gets up, silver chains jangling, and beckons me in for an quick little platonic, leathery hug. On my way out he asks for another and says, “I’m sorry – it’s what I do!”
Depeche Mode play London Stadium on Saturday 3 June
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning