Music a la Mode

Depeche Mode have just released possibly their finest album. But, asks, Glyn Brown, are the band any happier?
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Being the singing, dancing front man, Dave Gahan likes to describe himself as the "entertainer" of Depeche Mode; over the last few months - if you wanted to be cruel, you could say years - he has proved his point. Dave has entertained his friends and enemies, vindictive exes, journalists and those who read the media (but not the rest of his band) in a startling way. It's all about lethal drug cocktails followed by botched suicide attempts and, perhaps in an effort at purging but maybe because he can't stop, Dave has opened his veins in print in graphic, almost nauseating, detail. At first it's horrific; then it seems self-indulgent. Finally, it's appallingly sad. He got the chance to do it because Depeche Mode are advancing their phenomenal career apace with a new LP, Ultra and press is a necessary hazard. The band's PR company is presumably considering gagging Gahan; certainly, a condition of this interview was that we didn't speak about drugs. But talking to Depeche Mode without mentioning excess is like trying to question a sheep while avoiding the subject of wool.

It's been quite a flight path for the Mode, dating back to late-1970s Basildon, where New Wave was giving way to New Romance. Amid this dandified flourish, the inaugural Mode members selected the best of what they heard at Rayleigh's Crocs disco (early electro, Northern soul, Kraftwerk's Teutonic industrialism and the Human League's sardonic passion) to produce clever, synth-lead pop. Following the dippy "Just Can't Get Enough", writer Vince Clarke departed, claiming exhaustion with the rock lifestyle (though he next formed Yazoo and then Erasure). Martin Gore, a bedraggled Shirley Temple with a peroxide perm, took up songwriting duties. In his hands, the anthems grew darker as Gore worked through his obsessions with religion, politics, S&M domination and death - and the darker the lyrics became, the more albums were sold. With 1991's Violator (worldwide sales of six million) and follow-up Songs of Faith and Devotion, continents fell at their feet.

In the private arena, however, things were far from fine. Gahan, a slight, fresh-faced pretty boy who had nevertheless always had a speed habit and a penchant for tattoos, used the Violator tour as an opportunity to turn himself into a grotesque caricature. Leaving his first wife and son, Jack, he began a relationship with promoter Teresa Conway - a heroin user and friend of arch-debauchees Jane's Addiction. She was the perfect consort - "a partner I could play with, in all sorts of ways, without being judged". They married in Las Vegas. Conway at least had the presence of mind not to inject her drugs, and, says Gahan, "We made a pact early on that I'd never use intravenously; but, of course, being a junkie and a liar, it didn't take long." He let his neat flat-top become greasy locks, acquired a goatee and subjected himself to 10 hours of pain to achieve tattooed wings on his back. By the time Songs of Faith and Devotion appeared in 1993, his voice was a hoarse, hollow moan, which helped make the record a riveting grunge success.

The Faith and Devotion tour, an epic 180-show affair, became the definition of hell. Depeche Mode - down to Gore, Gahan and Andrew Fletcher - were barely on speaking terms, using separate limos and dressing rooms. The smack-blasted vocalist required cortisone shots just to perform, borderline alcoholic Gore suffered two stress-induced seizures, and Andrew Fletcher's deepening depression resulted, in the summer of 1994, in a full nervous breakdown.

Gore and Fletcher returned home to recuperate. Gahan, ensconced in LA, continued downhill. By 1995, he was in paranoid, narcotic oblivion, living alone in a rented Santa Monica shack with the curtains taped shut spending half his time in the wardrobe - Syd Barrett gone supernova. "Mostly it was my own shadows I was chasing around in that apartment," he says now. "I imprisoned myself, became comfortable in my prison, or I thought I was comfortable."

What was he hiding from? "Myself, and what I was doing to myself. I could see it in people's faces. By this time, too, everyone had disappeared, even Teresa. Once the party was over, they were gone. So I was completely on my own; I had made it that way." In August, 1995, during a phone call to his mum, he excused himself, went to the bathroom and slashed his wrists, then bandaged them in towels and finished the call. It was one of several efforts to have done with things. In May, 1996, the rest of Depeche Mode were already working with Tim Simenon on Ultra, delaying the vocal recording until the last moment; Gahan was in Hollywood, fantasising about "shooting the big speedball to heaven - I just wanted to stop living in this body". On May 28, a syringe packed with heroin and cocaine stopped his heart for two minutes. He was arrested, charged and released on bail.

At this point, the sympathy vote expired. The band's promoter recruited an "intervention specialist" used to working with addicts in the entertainment business, and Gahan was dispatched to the Exodus Recovery Centre in Marina Del Rey where, between seizures, he gradually, painfully, detoxed.

"We were very compassionate for a very long time," explains Martin Gore simply. Hesitant, almost self-effacing, he couldn't be more different to the garrulous Gahan, but perhaps he sees a need for a certain defensiveness. The Exodus clinic has a prison-like reputation; Gore helped get the singer admitted so that Ultra could be completed. "Of course, we were worried about Dave's health. One of the main considerations for me was whether it would be better for Dave if we ended the band, because the trappings - access to whatever he wanted - were obviously not doing him much good." Gore readjusts his shades. "But, as soon as he sorted himself out, it really didn't hold us up too much."

Depeche Mode are pulling together to promote what is, perhaps, their best album; still, Gore and Gahan request separate interviews. We're speaking on a sunny day, between Top of the Pops rehearsals at the BBC's Elstree studios; beyond the window, birds sing joyously in the blossom-filled boughs. At 35, Gahan looks unlined, almost unnaturally youthful. He has remained clean, and is evangelical about it, with the demeanour of one reborn. He recounts pillow fights with his son, who is learning to trust him for the first time in five years. He seems, at last, to be grappling with emotional hurdles the rest of us confront in our twenties. "I didn't get sober just not to pick up drugs - I got sober and I go to NA meetings because I want to learn more about myself and how I can deal with things in life I haven't really got the tools to deal with. I've denied myself that by medicating every feeling I've had for years."

So where does this put Depeche Mode? Gore's lyrics often mirror Gahan's tormented existence, and Ultra is no exception - from the single, "Barrel of a Gun" ("This twisted, tortured mess/ this bed of sinfulness/ who's longing for some rest") to the poignant "Home" ("Here is a page/ From the emptiest stage/ A cage or the heaviest cross ever made"). It has been suggested that Gahan's role is one of rather expensive inspiration, and although Gore denies it - "I'm not writing the soundtrack to Dave's life. The Who had a similar situation, I'm sure they got asked the same queston" - Gahan is considering his options.

"I really believe that the more distractions and fixes I remove from my life, the better I'll feel about myself. The biggest of those is Depeche Mode. It's the one marriage that survived, but I'm not sure it works - for me, anyway. Jumping on a plane to go somewhere else and be told how wonderful I am doesn't feel good any more. It's not that I don't appreciate the attention to the work I do - I just don't appreciate the 'importance' of it."

For better or worse, Gahan's tragedy has a foetid glamour that must feed into Depeche Mode's kudos, into the threatening, yearning throb of the sound. Martin Gore, an earnest, thoughtful career musician, prefers to see it differently. "Glamour? I'm not sure it's that. Glamour attracts people, and the press we've received around this album isn't gonna attract anyone." He sighs, genuinely weary. "It's a tired story for me now"

'Ultra' is on Mute records

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