The Landscape Is Changing: Depeche Mode Singer Dave Gahan on the Band's World-Weary, Pissed-Off New Album 'Spirit'
Over their nearly four decades together as a band, British synth-rock icons Depeche Mode have released 13 albums, topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, toured the world countless times, and garnered enough acclaim and influence to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But with all they've accomplished, it's still safe to say they've never done anything quite like Spirit before.
The band's 14th album, due out this Friday (Mar. 17th) on Columbia Records, sees them bracing the current political landscape in an unprecedentedly direct manner. Lead single "Where's the Revolution?" calls out the government's reliance on fear for public suppression ("And closer "Fail" reaches the simple conclusion: "
Despite originally hailing from the U.K., both primary songwriter Martin Gore and lead singer Dave Gahan currently live in the U.S. -- "I’ve lived [in New York] for 20 years, I’ve lived in America longer that I’ve lived in England," explains Gahan -- and have found themselves not only overwhelmingly affected by the country's political climate, but indirectly involved within it. The group found themselves in headlines they could never have imagined in February when Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist, quipped about them being "the official band of the alt-right" -- an extreme misappropriation of Depeche Mode's music, considering the obvious message of universal empathy the group has expressed in singles like "People are People" and "Condemnation" over the years.
Billboard caught up with Gahan at his Manhattan hotel to discuss the band's virulent new album, the role music plays in public protest in 2017, and why the singer still doesn't think of music in a political way.
So should we start with the Richard Spencer question to kind of get it out of the way? Obviously he doesn’t speak for you guys, but I am curious -- is it something that happens to Depeche Mode a lot over the years, where you find both your music and your message misinterpreted or taken out of context and used for purposes you couldn’t even imagine?
Yeah. I mean, this guy gets way too much publicity already. What’s dangerous about someone like Richard Spencer is, first of all, he’s a c--t -- and he’s a very educated c--t, and that’s the scariest kind of all. I think over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted -- either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.
If anything, there’s a way more sort of socialist -- working class, if you like -- industrial-sounding aesthetic to what we do. That’s where we come from. We come from the council estates of Essex, which is a really s---ty place, just 30 minutes east of London, where they stuck everybody when London was getting too overpopulated in the late '60s. So I don’t quite get what he was [saying].
I think it was one of those things he threw out there for whatever. But he’s not that type of guy -- not like the other guy, the Milo [Yiannopoulos], an attention seeker, a bit crazy obviously. I saw [Milo] on Bill Maher and I was just like, “Wow, he really is a nut job.” Those people to me aren’t so dangerous, but this guy's [Spencer] got some weight behind him. I don’t like that, and certainly he had absolutely no right to... [Pauses.] well, he has every right. He lives in a free country, and he can say what he likes. But at the same time, it was a bit disturbing. I haven’t had as many phone calls or texts from people over something like that -- friends here and in the city, and other artists who were kind of shocked and like, “What’s this?”
When you see something like that happen, are you scared, “Oh my god, people are actually going to believe this guy and think this is a thing?”
Well, my son Jimmy, who is 24, he was kind of shocked by it... He was one of the first to say, “You got to make a response immediately.” Because people read s--t -- unfortunately, as we know -- and they interpret it as being real. It’s hard these days, because you really do have to search what you’re reading and where that information came from.
I still read The New York Times every day, my son got my a subscription to The Atlantic because he said I should read that, too... On the other hand, I watch a lot of TV and I watch a lot of news, and I’m shocked quite often at how flippantly s--t is thrown out there. The cause and effect doesn’t seem to be... you watch Bill O'Reilly for 30 minutes and he says some things that make sense, and then he'll just... I don’t know. They got a lot of responsibility. They got a lot of power. And now we have a president who seems to respond to a lot of this stuff and tweet about it. It’s f--king crazy, the world we’re living in right now.
Is this the craziest political climate that you can remember living through?
Not really. It was just as crazy when I was a teenager and [Margaret] Thatcher came into power. That was the time when to me, music was way more poignant to me, and was way more important than anything I was hearing in school. It was why I walked out when I was 15 and started following The Clash and The Damned around the country. That’s what I did, with a group of friends, we went up and down the country and we would end up in these cities, and hopefully one of the bands that we latched onto were playing that night. The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees...
The music spoke to me as a 14, 15-year-old kid who’s told in school you’re going to amount to nothing, quite literally. I walked out of school -- I was asked to leave school and I did, and it was music that saved my life.
Do you feel like the musical climate now is reminding you of what it was like in those days?
No. Media is way more powerful [now]. I believe that media is way more powerful than music, which is a little sad to me. I still rely on music by far, to inform me. And I don’t mean necessarily lyrically, but just to inform me of how I feel.
Media is really powerful when it’s got big responsibility. And I think what’s interesting about right now is... journalists that are out there, who are really hanging on by their skin of their teeth, because what’s happening especially here with our political climate, and what’s being fed to us -- they've got a real responsibility, real opportunity to actually rise up and actually find the truth. Speak the truth, and go really out of their way to make sure we’re reading it and hearing it and having the choice to listen to it. Because the truth is, we’re spoiled with information, and most of it is s--t.
I find myself watching TV and news and stuff, and I become kind of a zombie watching it. It’s numbing. And you kind of go, “Why the f--k am I watching this? Why am I reading this? Who even wrote this? Where’s the source"? I’m looking at the journalist, and I follow it back, and I find out where that journalist is from, is he independent, where’s he come from, who’s he written for before. I kind of follow the source now, because I have to, because I don’t trust it, sadly. But you can trust your own instinct. That’s the only thing you've really got.
This morning, I was walking out of the grocery store and there was this lady struggling with some bags. She was, I believe, an Indian woman, with the full headdress on, and she kind of looked at me like, am I going to help her, and she didn’t really want to make eye contact. Of course, I helped her. I probably looked a bit intimidating. And she just smiled at me with this smile that was like a smile of relief, and... I just felt this horrible feeling of shame and guilt came over me, I don’t even know why. She was a little afraid, and I’m guessing there’s a lot of people in this city, in the world, that are feeling that [fear] right now.
I grew up in the '70s in London and it was when the IRA was really prominent, and doing a lot of damage, and used to be on the news every night. Letter bomb went of here, this went off there, for the cause. So I grew up in that stuff a bit and at that time of Thatcherism and conservatism, the working class were pushed aside. It’s a very similar atmosphere of fear, and at the same time anger... A lot of people in the country are obviously feeling that.
I’m sure you recorded and wrote most of the album before the election…
It was way before. We recorded during the campaign. We were recording during the time when Brexit was happening and when we finally got the news. A lot of change, a lot of "Really?"-type stuff happening. But it’s been going all around the world, and this separatism, "I've got to keep mine, and get out of my way," and all the stuff we've been hearing for years about the one percent -- "When are we going to see it trickle down?" It comes up in “Poorman” on this album.
It’s an album that is reflecting a sign of the times. And it comes across in a very social way. I don’t think of songs in a political way.
You said something similar about not listening to music in a political way in Rolling Stone. I wanted to ask you what you meant by that.
It was a bit misquoted in there, slightly. Of course, some of the songs [on Spirit] have a political content lyrically, but I don’t listen to music like that. Music informs me. So if it informs you to do something or to raise a question or to check your own position about how you feel about something, great. But at the same time, it’s music and it’s there to entertain you.
So you shouldn’t have to necessarily have to subscribe to the message to be able to enjoy it?
You can interpret it in any way you like. There are songs that are quite literal on the album. “Scum” for instance, it was a lot of fun recording that song and singing it. Great lyric. But to me, I internalize that: “Hey scum, hey scum, what have you ever done for anyone?" I immediately take that in, and I ask myself that question. That’s how I perform that song... really, it’s from my own fear, like, "What the f--k have I ever done? And what am I doing? Am I really helping those around me that are less fortunate? Do I really care?" I don’t know.
Do you think the album would've had any kind of different meaning if things had gone a different way in November?
I think, yeah, it definitely would. Immediately when “Where’s the Revolution” came out, I had a few people call me, “Oh, so you’re a big Bernie supporter?” Or “Obviously the song's about Trump, right?” No, I don’t think it was written about Trump. But if that’s how you want to interpret it, go ahead, be my guest. For me, the revolution -- it’s asking the question, first of all. It could be asking the question to yourself or asking the question to those around you or the world. "What are we doing to our planet? Why are we ignoring what’s obviously happening to the environment?" All that kind of stuff.
John Lennon talked about this a long time ago within a song, with the Beatles. He was being sarcastic, because it had to happen within the people, within yourselves, from yourself. And he was being sarcastic, because it was happening to him, and he was all about love and peace. And of course that’s what we all want and we all internally want to have that, both those things. We want to feel at peace with ourselves and we want to be loved.
Obviously, Depeche Mode hadn’t been an explicitly political band over the years, but you have had music that made fans feel like you're kind of speaking for them. I was curious when the first time in Depeche Mode's career where you felt, "These kids are actually projecting themselves onto us, and they feel like we’re speaking for them?"
Well there were songs like “People Are People,” which was way back in 1984, which was very political. We were making songs on [1983's] Construction Time Again -- which was a very socially, almost commie album, with some of its content. “Everything counts in large amounts. The grabbing hands, grab all they can.” But to put it in a pop format though, that is palatable and sing-a-long, is kind of interesting to us, and has always been kind of interesting to do. It doesn’t always have to be gloom and doom. Sometimes the most political content is hidden.
Do you think that rock or pop music has a responsibility to reflect the times that it's made in?
I think it just does. If you’re making good art, it reflects what’s going on around you. I just think with music, it’s easier to do.