For a man who, by his own admission, should be dead, Dave Gahan is in surprisingly good shape. Sitting in his London hotel room - tanned, impeccably turned out in pinstripe trousers and crisp white shirt - the 41-year-old Depeche Mode singer agrees that he's been lucky. The only signs of the epic toxic abuse that culminated in two heart attacks are the scars on his arms. "I know that if I get high again, I won't survive it," he shrugs. "It's as simple as that."
Talking in a curious blend of New York and Essex vowel sounds, Gahan is unnervingly forthcoming about the past, even though his 15-year-old son is in the room. "You've heard it all before, haven't you, Jack?" says Gahan. "Yeah," replies Jack, rolling his eyes in feigned boredom before plugging into his PlayStation.
Depeche Mode's role in directing the course of popular music can hardly be overstated. As well as being hugely influential on the late-Eighties acid-house and techno scene, the synth-pop quartet were also the dark precursors to the industrial rock sound of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Now, 22 years after they first scaled the charts with the single "New Life", the singer has completed his first solo album, Paper Monsters. Gahan, who until now has always sung songs written by the Depeche Mode keyboardist, Martin Gore, says he reached a stage where he needed to do something for himself.
"After we finished the Singles tour in 1998, I was moping around the house, feeling that I ought to be doing something more significant," he explains. "It would have been easy to stay put in Depeche Mode and just accept things the way they were. But finally my wife encouraged me to ring up a friend and see if he was interested in collaborating on some songs. I just wanted to experience writing with someone and see what I was made of. All I had was a few words and a few ideas; I didn't know where I was going to go with them."
Once he began writing in earnest, Gahan discovered in himself a confidence and ability to articulate that he didn't know existed. "I was writing about my feelings, the way I felt about my life and my frustrations," he says. "Was I fearful? Absolutely, but I knew I had to confront that fear just like I've had to confront all the other fears I've had in my life. It's all part of the learning process."
Gahan is clearly accustomed to talking of himself in confessional terms. The word "learn" crops up a lot. With the help of rehab clinics and a series of expensive New York therapists, he says, he's discovered how to be a proper father and a husband, and has learnt to take responsibility for his past. "I even had to learn that to be a part of something, you have to show up, that you can't sit at home on the couch waiting for someone to tell you what your next move should be. It was a pathetic state to be in."
Paper Monsters was recorded in a tiny studio in New York with the multi-instrumentalist Knox Chandler, formerly of the Psychedelic Furs. With Chandler's help, Gahan fashioned 10 songs that chronicle his precarious journey from junkie rock star to clean-living and compassionate adult. "Bitter Apple" is about his emotional regeneration and relationship with his wife, Jennifer, while in "Dirty Sticky Floors" he tackles the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of drug addiction, comically sending up his evil alter ego. The sense is of a man coming clean, not just from the drugs and alcohol but also from the insecurities and frustrations of being the frontman of a multimillion-selling rock band.
"The first thing I said to Knox when we sat down to do it was, 'I don't want to make a Depeche Mode record,' " he says. "For a long time, I've felt that the band needed to move forward. If we couldn't do that as a band, then I would have to do it by myself."
Asked whether he has felt creatively stunted in Depeche Mode, he pauses, evidently searching for a diplomatic answer. "I thought for years I was a frustrated guitar-player, but in fact I've been a frustrated songwriter," he laughs. "It took me a while to figure that out. When we were making Ultra , I actually played Martin a demo of a song. He really liked it and for a few days we were going to record it. But suddenly we had this meeting about the direction of the record, and it was brought up that that type of song didn't fit with the album's theme. I was, like, 'What theme? We've only recorded two songs.' What I took from that was that they didn't want to give me support but I had to support them. I felt really hurt."
Gahan spent much of his childhood plotting his escape from the Essex town of Basildon, a place he calls "the land of little opportunity". His stepfather, to whom he was very close, died when he was nine, after which he was introduced to his real father, who had left years earlier. "When you're that young, it's hard to get your head around something like that," he says. "You develop a distrust for everybody and everything."
By his early teens, Gahan had gone off the rails: his extracurricular activities included stealing cars, joy-riding and spray-painting walls. "I learnt very quickly that the way to get attention was to be destructive. I put my mum through hell, always going in and out of juvenile courts. I don't think I was a bad boy at heart. Much as I tried to be one of the lads, I realised I wasn't very good at it. Depeche Mode was definitely the bus to get out of town."
The band, named after a French fashion magazine, formed in 1980. With Gahan, the early line-up featured the songwriter Vince Clarke and two school chums, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher. After their early success with the single "Just Can't Get Enough" and their debut album Speak & Spell, Clarke quit, claiming that he was unsuited to the pop-star lifestyle (ironically, he stormed the charts with his subsequent bands Yazoo and Erasure), after which Gore took over the songwriting duties.
While Depeche Mode were enjoying commercial success, they found themselves dismissed by the British critics as lightweight. "We got grouped in with all these other bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet because of the way we looked," says Gahan, still stung. "We didn't sound like them at all and we certainly didn't have the same budgets from our record company. We weren't spoilt. We had to work hard and get out there and tour. In America we were this underground English band and were really cool, but here it was a different story. In England, once you get a stigma attached, two generations later it still comes up. I still get cabbies shouting at me, 'Just can't get enough, eh?' We didn't play that song for about 10 years, as Martin hated it. He said he always had to live that song down."
Though their reception was warmer across the Atlantic, it wasn't until 1987's aptly titled Music for the Masses that they became fully fledged stars. Suddenly, Depeche Mode had become a stadium band with all the attendant pressures. Fletcher was the first to crack, suffering a nervous breakdown during the recording of their 1990 album Violator, while Gahan sought relief in drink and drugs.
"Drinking was definitely a big thing earlier on. It was about conquering every town that we went to. When you're 20 or 25 years old, you can handle it, but by the time you get to 30, it starts getting really difficult. Your body catches up with you, and you start searching for something stronger. It got to the point where the only way I could sustain it was to get high on a daily basis."
By the mid-Nineties, communications within the band had broken down and their lifestyles had reached Spinal Tap levels of ludicrousness. The band famously employed a psychiatrist and a drug dealer to accompany them on their world tour, while Gahan built himself a special toilet known as the Blue Room, where he could take drugs in relative peace. In 1993 the singer was taken off stage on a stretcher after having a heart attack at a show in New Orleans. Three years later, after a heroin and cocaine binge, his heart gave out again, this time stopping for two minutes. Gahan was revived by paramedics and, after his recovery, was jailed for two days for drugs possession. "The doctors were saying to me, 'Look, your heart stopped for two minutes. You can't do this to yourself any more', but it didn't sink in. As soon as I got out, I was getting high again."
It took several more months for Gahan to check into a rehab clinic. The decision had been made for him by the Los Angeles police. "I was facing charges of possession. It was a case of: clean up or go to jail." Seven years later, he's still clean - his only vice is smoking - and he now gets his kicks from jogging around Central Park in the mornings. "The first few years was really difficult," he reflects. "I kept thinking, 'Maybe just one more time. Just a drink, perhaps.' Now it's not part of my life and I'm proud of that. I love feeling fit and healthy."
Despite having released only one album in the past six years, Depeche Mode live on. Even with all the unresolved issues and divisions that exist within the band, Gahan insists they have a future. "It's knowing that something's worth doing but not really knowing why. If it feels right when the time comes, then why not?"
'Paper Monsters' is released on Monday on MuteReuse content