The Demon Days Are Done: Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan On Soulsavers and the Stage as a Sacred Space
With Gahan at the helm again, Soulsavers' new record explores catharsis, redemption, and embracing life in all its madness.
Dave Gahan talks a lot. A lot. Sitting in a hotel room in New York’s Meatpacking district—a city he’s lived in for 18 years—the 53 year old digresses frequently, his words almost trying to catch up his thoughts as they form, one after another after another. But then again, he has a lot to talk about: having fronted new wave/electronic rock behemoths Depeche Mode for over three decades, the band regularly crop up in conversation. Today he’s discussing Angels & Ghosts, the second album he’s made with UK remix/production duo Soulsavers, Ian Glover and Rich Machin, who I speak to on the phone from England the following day (they have a further three LPs under their belt without Gahan). In the flesh, Gahan’s passion is evident, and he’s so visibly enthused about this new collection that he often starts answering questions before they’ve finished being asked. He’s much more affable and open than his trademark dark, glowering vocals would suggest—but he owes a lot to his music. As he explains, it’s been the saving grace in his life. Over the years it’s not only got him through drug addiction (and an infamous overdose in 1996 from cocaine and heroin when his heart stopped beating for two minutes), but seen him through emotional, philosophical, and spiritual quandaries. Just nine songs long, Angels & Ghosts continues that journey and shivers with that same sense of urgency, its blues-and-gospel tinged songs shimmering with the kind of redemption that only comes from being at the very bottom and, somehow, picking yourself back up again.
NOISEY: How difficult was it to orchestrate the making of this record, what with you being across the Atlantic from each other?
Dave Gahan: Well, we have that thing now where if we're going to get on the phone, I'm the one who has to get up early in the morning. But to be honest, it's fine. I'm one of those people that no matter what time my head hits the pillow, I'm up at like 6 AM, which is a pain in the arse, really. I'd love to be one of those rock stars that sleeps in till four in the afternoon, but I'm not that and I've never been that—no matter how hungover. But Rich and I, during the making and the writing of the songs, we communicate very little. We just communicate really through what he's giving me and then what I'm doing with it. And once I'm sure about the idea I'm going to send back to him—I have a little studio here in the city and I go in with a mate of mine [Kurt Uenala] and I'll throw the ideas down on top of whatever Rich has given me. Once I've formulated my idea, I'll send it back to him with a little note and then Rich begins to build something around that using various musicians along the way until we've finally finished. We just really hit it off and we don't really question it too much. It just seems to work and it's like, “I wonder how long this is going to last.” That's really the question that pops up.
Do you think these albums would be different if you’d been working together in the same room? Or would you make the same album anyway?
Rich Machin: I think they’d end up fairly similar. And I think sometimes being made across the seas is something taken a little bit out of context. The records with Mark, for example, all those we actually did in a room together. This first record we did with Dave, I mean he’s got a great home studio so we did a lot of that in the way you’re talking about, but this time around we did stuff all over the place. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about. It’s a really interesting question. Maybe they would be different actually! They are what they are I suppose.
This is the second record you've made together. Was it easier this time? Were you more comfortable with each other?
Rich: It was a lot easier. Not to say that things were always super simple, but we’d been writing with each other a lot longer at that point in time, so you instinctively know what kind of thing is going to suit somebody better. It came together much quicker than I expected. It’s not just because it’s the second record. We definitely have a really good chemistry when it comes to writing and I click quite quickly into the kind of stuff I know Dave is going to vibe off and sound good on, and he instinctively knows what’s best for the song. We kind of kept writing when we finished the last one.
Dave: It slowed down, because I began doing a project with Depeche Mode, which became Delta Machine. That went on for a while, and then we toured for a year and a bit, but we stayed in communication. I told him not to send me anything new, to be honest, because once I started focusing on writing with Depeche, it works in a different way. I know when I'm writing with that, that whatever my idea is, that's not going to be the end. [Laughs.] You're going to go into the studio with producers and programmers and everybody and Martin [Gore] and we come together and suddenly what you thought was your song has just gone off somewhere else. And sometimes it's horrific what's happening and then you go “Wait!” I wrote a lot of stuff for the last album with Kurt. I always record all my vocals with him. I trust him and he knows what I like to do when I'm singing, so I brought him into the studio and he was there experiencing Martin, for instance, tear apart the songs that we had written together, and Kurt's face... I could feel him just think “What's happening to my melodies?!” And I'd go to him, “Kurt, you've got to just wait—this is going to evolve. We're doing this for six months.” That's not happened with Soulsavers. It's a different thing. We seem to both be on the same page. We both seem to know where we want to go with it without necessarily talking about it. Maybe that comes from the fact that we both seem to have the same influences gospel-wise and blues-wise, and the same interests in exploring that music and seeing what we can do with it with a modern record.
I was going to say “Shine” is very much a gospel…
Dave: Yeah. And that wouldn't be out of place on something like Songs of Faith and Devotion, to be honest. The lyric and top melody line, I had the idea buzzing around my head for a long time. It was after a concert I did with my band in Berlin. It was this huge stadium we played and it was one of those nights where, one in every 20 gigs, you hit this spot that I guess a basketball player would call being in the zone, and you just look at each other and you know you're there and you don't talk about it and it's part of the whole thing and you're aware of it and it's amazing. I came away from there that night and this thing was floating around in my head, so I kind of threw it into my iPhone. At some point, I got this slide guitar part from Rich and I was like [clicks fingers twice] "That's that!" and the song came together with ease.
I knew it was going to be the lead song on the record and begin this album, but it was one of those songs where we talked about redoing parts of it, but it pretty much almost stayed like the demo. With my band, we might have the tendency to tear that apart, go down some different avenues with it and you end up sometimes coming back to where it was. But the difference with working on something with Depeche is we'd have the luxury of all this studio time and all these toys to play with, and sometimes with that stuff you kind of crawl up your own arse a bit. One of my biggest gripes about being in the studio with Depeche is that we waste too much time, because we have it. With Soulsavers, we don't have that luxury.
That said, this album seems more assured and confident than the first one. Would you say that's true?
Rich: One of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is being over confident about something. The first one we went into it with that natural kind of thing—“Will this work? Won’t it work? Who knows?” But this time around we went into it going well we know it works. We just need to do it better. And that comes with the time of doing things together. When you have all these ideas in your head, rough sketches that you’ve made, and you go into a real studio with a real band and real singers and they start to bring those ideas, it’s pretty amazing. Me and Dave sat there at Electric Lady, where we did all the gospel stuff and it was just great. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to sit back and watch these people take it to the next level.
Dave: I do feel like this album is definitely quite a progression on from the last album. My wife listened to both albums, of course, and she found the first album quite depressing. She was like, “I really like it, but it's very dark.” I didn't see that at all at the time, but now comparing the two albums I sort of see that. It's just different. I think the last album was a bit more introspective and this is a little more looking outwards somehow. It's a bit more worldly. Subconsciously—or consciously—you can't ignore the things that are happening in the world. It kind of comes into the songs somehow, through your own interpretation of whatever's going on in my life personally. If you allow it, music reflects outwardly to what's going on in the world. I hear it in the music.
With that in mind, what would you say inspired this record the most? Obviously, a title like Angels & Ghosts seems to suggest…
Dave: To me, angels are past and present relationships I have with people—friends, family, whatever, and also complete strangers, or just what goes on for me in my day to day life in New York City. That definitely influences me and I hold onto that and I listen to it more, much more than I used to. I find I get really informed by it and it goes into the songs. Ghosts, for me, are memories. They're past and present as well, and I feel like memories definitely come into the songs—moments, places, times I've spent. I sing a line in “The Last Time” about Jesus coming from downtown LA and to me that's quite comical because I'm talking about an experience there that I had this is as humorous as I get in lyrics. I say “Have you ever followed Jesus? He lives in downtown LA,” and I sort of chuckle at that to myself. It’s obviously about religion, but when I lived in Los Angeles for a period of time in my life, my world was tiny. I went from my house to downtown LA and that was it, and my best friend was Jesus and he was a guy that worked a little corner there on St Andrews and whatever and he was definitely the person or the thing that I most relied on. So to me now, that's quite humorous. At the time it wasn't, but now there's quite a difference between the time I lived in Los Angeles and now having been in New York for the last 18 years. I have loads of really great memories from LA, but when I left there I was just “I've got to get out of here.”
That’s how I felt when I moved from England to New York.
Dave: I was the same. When I moved to LA from England, I was just, “I can't stay here anymore.’ It's so claustrophobic and my life at the time… I'd set myself up with a family and a life, I lived in this house in the country and it all looked really nice on the outside, but I was terrified, a young 20-something year-old guy and I was like “I've got to go.” That's been a lot of my life, and I'm not running away from it anymore. I'm right here and I'm trying to reflect on who I am through music. It's a great place to be and I feel really confident about that and I think this album has a confident feel about it. Rich and I both say it's like we've been working together for years. We're making very accomplished-sounding music.
Yet despite that confidence, the person inside them still seems a little bit lost, like he’s stuck floating between these opposites of light and dark, life and death.
Dave: Oh yeah.
Unlike Depeche Mode, you wrote all the lyrics, so is this more cathartic for you? Is this more you working out who you are than when playing in Depeche Mode?
Dave: I think Martin always touches on that same kind of subject matter, and it’s that question of faith and love and lust and the difference between them all. We dance between them all, don’t we? I do, and I think Martin does. I’ve always said Martin only writes about three subjects…
Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Dave: Exactly. And I kind of do the same thing. It’s these questions of what do I have faith in, what do I care about, what really moves me and how do I get in there? How do I be part of that? Music helps me to do that. But I do dance between all those things. I don’t know if it comes with age, but I’m more aware of it than I used to be. It was sort of terrifying to me as a young teenager, then going into my 20s, and even my 30s—it was “How do I get away from that? How do I stop that noise in my head?” It’s still there, but it isn’t as raging as it was and I can tame it by working it out through music and through performing. The most sacred place still for me to work out all my demons is onstage. And through songs. It’s amazing and very cathartic.
It’s obviously always been present in your songs, but how do you think your relationship with spirituality has changed over the years?
Dave: It’s always been with me since I was a kid, to be honest. I’ve always been fascinated by and drawn to various different sort of self-imposed morals, if you like. I don’t know if that came from being forced to go to church as a kid and hearing this scary stuff, but this search for wanting to fit in and belong and all that stuff you do as a teenager—I think I’ve carried that through my adult life too. I don’t struggle with it so much anymore. I just like to use it. I like to play with it. The imagery, as well, is very visual and that fine line between this demon inside of me and this guy that wants to just shed a good thing and put it out there, which is what happens to me onstage. It’s very cathartic and full of redemption as well. I no longer struggle with where I’m at—it’s “What can I do with it? How can I best portray that to you artistically?”
There’s a line in “The Last Time” about waiting to be saved. You’ve had your share of scares, with the cancer and near death experiences from overdoses—is that desire to be saved something you encountered when you were going through those things?
Dave: Yeah. It’s a calling out to say, “OK, I’m still waiting to hear from you” and be a part of whatever this is that we all try desperately to be part of. At the same time, I have that struggle that I don’t want to be part of it. I don’t think that’s that unusual, but standing here waiting to be saved is not that dissimilar to a line that was in “Take Me Back Home” from the last [Soulsavers] album. That was a time where I was struggling with this idea “I got cancer? What do you mean I got cancer?” Like, I understand a self-inflicted wound, but now I’ve got to deal with this? Which is life. So yeah, looking for the answer is still something that’s out there. I find it in lots of things, to be honest. I could be standing on the beach looking at the ocean out there in Montauk and I’m just overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean and I can’t possibly believe any of my whining has got anything to do with this! I’m in awe of it. And these weather conditions that are enormous inform me a lot more than anything else about my little place in this world.
I’m not really a spiritual person, but sometimes I find it hard to believe there isn’t maybe something out there.
Dave: I do too. I can’t find it in any religion or books I’ve read, but otherwise it all does seem absolutely ridiculous to me. I talk about it in the song “One Thing” when I sing “Come lay here next to me / Let’s watch those tasteless shows on TV.” Because we all do it to escape from something and it’s wasting time, watching something that you know is ridiculous, and sort of vicariously living through some other people’s ridiculous lives. So I have to believe there’s something more than that, otherwise it does all seem a bit pointless. But I enjoy my life today. That’s the difference. I struggled with my life for a long time. I seemed to be bashing my head against a wall. But now I try and embrace it more.
It seems though there’s a bit more resilience on the first album and a bit more resignation on this one. With that first record, there’s a hope that you can push through whatever you’re going through, but with this one, it’s like, “Maybe there isn’t any hope. I’m praying, but nothing’s coming to me.”
Dave: That’s interesting. That’s a good interpretation, but actually it’s where I am and it’s OK —I’m more optimistic about what’s coming next rather than there is no hope. I think there’s a lot of hope. I just need to find it! And it’s more than this little struggle I believe I’m having right here, now. I’ve got to open the doors and let life in. If you want things to change, you’ve got to allow it in. That’s the part I’m singing about really—recognizing it, seeing it, knowing it’s good for me, and wanting to be part of it.
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