Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, Dave Gahan, and Andrew Fletcher are laughing. The tension of a long day of glad-handing on behalf of their new disc, "Exciter" (Mute/Reprise, May 15), has been broken by a

Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, Dave Gahan, and Andrew Fletcher are laughing. The tension of a long day of glad-handing on behalf of their new disc, "Exciter" (Mute/Reprise, May 15), has been broken by a spate of playful jibes and jokes.

Ensconced within the sunny, plush setting of L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel, the band exudes a warm, almost familial air that seems uncharacteristic for an act that has amassed a 20-year catalog of songs about life's darker edges.

"We've seen each other through enough twists and turns over the past 20 years that we are a family," Gore says, referring to a headline-grabbing history that includes various band members' bouts of drug addiction, alcoholism, and near-suicidal depression. "We've invested as much in each other as blood relations."

The laughter that fills their hotel suite indicates that they've come out on the healing side of the personal drama. "There were days in the not-so-distant past when I wondered if I was going to be able to proceed with this band," Gahan admits. "To be in a place where we're sitting here -- feeling happy and healthy -- and talking about a new record is extraordinary. It's quite humbling, actually."

The members of Depeche Mode may be happier in their personal lives, but "Exciter" shows the band in classic musical form. Their first collection of new tunes since 1997's "Ultra" (between sets, they issued 1998's "The Singles: '86-'98," a best-of compilation) is typically moody, always introspective, and often literate. Gahan continues to be the compelling vocal embodiment of Gore's hypersensitive, often haunting words.

If there's any significant sign of growth within Depeche Mode's music, it's in the instrumentation. Although the band is wisely continuing to mine the searing synth-pop sound that sparked a string of hits ("Just Can't Get Enough," "People Are People," and "Personal Jesus") and helped to shape the electronica movement, it is now adding elements of traditional blues, retro funk, progressive rock, and orchestral pop to its arrangements.

For example, "Dream On," the first single, is distinguished by nicely detailed guitar work as well as skittling, staccato beats, while "The Sweetest Condition," a strong single option, layers languid slide guitar lines into a mix of industrialized keyboards and swaying rhythms.

Produced by Mark Bell, "Exciter" also benefits from such potent tracks as "When the Body Speaks," on which a quietly rumbling beat supports delicate guitar lines and an intimate, almost whispered vocal by Gahan; "I Am You," wherein futuristic instrumentation is offset by a hypnotic chorus chant of the words, "I am you/And you are me" and further enhanced by a sweet midsong symphonic interlude; and "Goodnight Lovers," a gospel-spiked ballad that closes the album on a pensive, meditative note.

"After 20 years, making a Depeche Mode record can be quite a challenge," Fletcher says. "You have to feed the monster, if you will, that demands very specific sounds and stylistic elements. But you also have to feed yourself. You have to feel like you're doing more than merely painting by numbers."

Gore, who remains the band's primary tunesmith, agrees. Yet growth didn't come easily this time, as he admits to hitting a dry spell while writing material for "Exciter." "I started working on songs about a year and a half ago, and I struggled. I spent the first six months doing nothing. I couldn't get motivated. I couldn't come up with an idea that worked for me. It was actually quite frightening."

Then Gore decided to break his typically solitary writing parameters and invited Bell and the other band members into his process "just to bounce ideas off," he says. "Having people there provided the pressure I needed to get rolling. It also pushed me to consider different ideas as I was writing, which was great -- if not a little tension inducing at times. I'm a naturally shy person about my music, so it was a challenge to let my ideas flow freely in such a raw state."

In the end, though, Gore notes that this batch of songs has greatly revitalized his interest in Depeche Mode. "Some of my favorite songs of the past 10 years are on this album. I'm extremely proud of what we've accomplished this time."

For Gahan, "Exciter" is a chance to prove that he's still "got the goods." He says, "Let's face it, when you've reached the unfortunate point where you've nearly ended your life -- and the world's been watching the entire time -- there comes a minor need to establish and affirm, if only to yourself, that you can still get the job done."

If anything, Gahan says he is at a point where he's "never felt stronger or more creatively alive." And, after years of performing Gore's material, he feels that it's "just about time to write and record some of my own songs." He adds that the forum for his creative expression is still being formulated and that it's not likely to surface until after Depeche Mode has put its latest project to bed.

And "Exciter" is not likely to be put to bed anytime in the near future. "Dream On" is building a solid radio audience in the States. The track is also a bona fide smash in Europe, where it's already topped the charts in Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Germany. It's also reached the top-10 on charts in the U.K., Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Austria.

Among the choice bits of international promotion for the project is a special two-hour radio documentary on the band for BBC London Live. The show aired May 7, and it's now available in streaming form on the band's Web site (depechemode.com).

Depeche Mode will hit the road for a five-month, 24-country tour this summer. The trek will begin June 15 in Montreal and finish Oct. 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. Tickets for the tour went on sale in late March, and sales have been brisk.

This is the band's first road jaunt since 1998's The Singles tour, where it played to more than 1 million fans in 18 countries, according to the label. "That was a scary tour for me," Gahan notes. "The pressure was high. But this one is going to be great."

Fans can expect a typically elaborate show, with longtime artistic collaborator Anton Corbijn on board to provide stage designs. "Anton is almost like a member of the band," Fletcher says. "He interprets and dissects our music in a way that is staggering. He's full of brilliant surprises and lots of fun."

Right now, a round of brilliant surprises and a lot of fun is precisely what the members of Depeche Mode are hankering for. "We're ready for anything," Gore says with a smile. "This time, we're all going to remember every moment, every step of the way -- and that's the most brilliant part of it all."