In a room in New York’s Greenwich Hotel, Dave Gahan is sitting erect in a straight-backed chair, immune to the wind outside that’s blowing garbage cans down the street.
Gahan, the lead singer for Depeche Mode, is a rock star and he dresses the part, in all black. He folds one ringed hand gently over the other and speaks in thoughtful, measured, complete sentences. Onstage, Gahan can be a shirtless, sweaty beast. Right now, though — months before the April release of his group’s new album, “Sounds of the Universe” — he’s as composed as bandmate Martin Gore’s lyrics.
“We’re all very individual, but I’ve always loved a good melancholy song,” Gahan says. “Not necessarily in tempo, but some sort of cynical, lyrical content matched with a beautiful melody can really do it for me. Because I identify with that sentiment, wanting to lift yourself from this place.”
That contrast between melody and melancholy is perhaps why, after 30 years, Depeche Mode is still a force to be reckoned with. Together, Gahan, Gore and bassist/collaborator Andy “Fletch” Fletcher have almost broken up, almost died and almost been declared obsolete. Along the way, they’ve sold more than 100 million records worldwide, according to record label estimates. And they remain one of the world’s biggest live acts, reaching 2.8 million people in 31 countries on their last tour alone.
“Sounds of the Universe” (Mute/EMI), due April 21, is the band’s 12th album and is reminiscent of its “Violator” heyday of catchy dance beats with a hint of darkness. The accompanying world tour — called, with a certain dark glee, Tour of the Universe — is already selling out stadiums in difficult markets like Eastern Europe.
“Even at the very beginning, they seemed to connect to the audience much better than other bands,” says Mute chairman Daniel Miller. “It was never an ‘us and them,’ it was very much a one-to-one.”
The four-month, 57-date Tour of the Universe kicks off May 10 in Tel Aviv and closes September 5 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The band’s first all-arena trek includes eight dates in Germany and two at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, plus unusual stops like Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and Latvia, all of which are nearly sold out.
The nostalgia factor certainly seems to help the band’s touring in North America. According to Billboard Boxscore, total attendance at Depeche Mode concerts has increased during the past 10 years. 1998’s Singles ’86-’98 tour saw an attendance of 270,000; 2001’s Exciter tour attracted 350,000, and 2005-06’s Touring the Angel tour had 410,000 attendees.
Overseas, the touring numbers expand into the millions — the kind of attendance that rivals U2, kings of the stadium tour. The 37 shows of the European leg of the Universe tour are expected to attract 1.4 million concertgoers.
For Miller, the consistency of the band’s artistic output is a big factor in its continued popularity. “The mainstream pop kids tend to jump from one thing to another, from one artist to another,” he says. “Then they get married and they give up. They might buy two albums a year. I think Depeche fans are very different than that. There are those in their 40s who’ve grown up with the band — but there are a lot of people who have joined along the way and have become very loyal.”
Those fans may find that the band is brightening up a bit on the new album, as Gore says — despite a disturbing video for “Wrong” that involves victims of violent crime. Recorded very democratically in New York (home to Gahan) and Santa Barbara, California (Gore), “Sounds of the Universe” marks the first time the band has had too much material for an album, and that artistic abundance shines through the set.
“There are periods during the making of a record sometimes when you’ve got five or six songs recorded and you really need something else to stimulate the feel of it,” Gahan says. “It’s not there yet, and you have to wait until it comes, and it has to be worked at sometimes.”
Not so on “Universe”: The sessions yielded more than 20 finished tracks, some of which the group used for extras on a deluxe boxed-set version of the album. The ones that made the cut range from the soulful yearning of opener “In Chains” to the melodic swell of “In Sympathy.”
“I’ve always had this big argument with Martin’s wanting to put these sort of amazing tracks at the end (of albums),” Fletcher says. “I’ve said, ‘Well no, you can’t, you can’t.’ But with this album, there’s no choice really. The songs that were going to be last and second from last were going to be good too.”
LIGHT AND DARK
Gore says that the core tracks of “Universe” are “Peace” and “Little Soul,” both of which concern liberation, light and freedom. “I wrote them back to back, and the flow of the album started to make more sense. I really felt they had a spirituality to them. That somehow set a cornerstone for the rest of the writing.”
Any 30-year relationship is bound to have its rough patches, and the band has argued about roles and responsibilities. “It’s really hard for us to gauge how dark anything is,” Gore says, every bit as earnest and awkward as Gahan is cool and collected. “With every record, I think we get less dark. Sometimes Andy tries to keep me in check, he tries to put me in perspective. He says, ‘But we’re not mainstream, we’re still really left-field.’ Even if we think we’ve gone a lot lighter, it’s probably not going to be noticed by most people.”
For now, though, Depeche More is at peace with themselves and, increasingly, with one another. “I think Dave’s songwriting is giving him the feeling of being a part of more, and more secure,” says the band’s manager, Jonathan Kessler. (Gahan wrote two tracks on “Universe,” “Hole to Feed” and “Come Back.”) “There’s definitely a maturity, like, ‘Hey, we’ve done this enough. It’s better that all of us get along than not.'”
And though Kessler characterizes that harmony as “fragile,” perhaps the band’s personal dissonance helps make it what it is. “Fletch has a bit more of a pop head on him, Martin’s a bit more left-field, Dave’s a bit more rock, and it all fits together,” Mute’s Miller says. “You can’t completely reinvent yourselves; you’re the same people. But with all Depeche Mode records, there’s always great songs, that unmistakable voice and then some experimentations. Those cards can fall in lots of different ways. But they’re always moving forward.”