The Exquisite Darkness of Depeche Mode
Dave Gahan and Martin Gore are back with the group’s 15th album. But after losing the bandmate Andy Fletcher last year, their return was anything but certain.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Martin Gore, who is now 50 percent of Depeche Mode, works in a studio on a low hill near Santa Barbara, hidden behind jungle-green foliage and fragrant flowering shrubs.
On a Tuesday morning in January, he sat at a console in the center of the control room, which was spacious and orderly and full of California winter sunshine — a clean, well-lighted place to make songs about power, desire, faith and a world spinning ever further off its axis.
Gore wore black clothes and spotless black boots. He looked like an Englishman who’s spent decades in California — vibrant tan, straight white teeth. He had the haircut you’d get if you asked a knowledgeable barber to give you “the Martin Gore”: high and tight, with several inches of unruly tuft up top.
Two summers ago Gore turned 60, and it “really slapped me in the face,” he said with a morbid chuckle. “I don’t particularly feel like I’m 60, but you have to accept the facts. It feels like you’ve got one toe in the grave, at least.”
On Friday Depeche Mode will release its 15th album, mostly recorded in this studio, by a pandemic-era skeleton crew: Gore, the vocalist Dave Gahan, the producer James Ford (Florence + the Machine, Arctic Monkeys) and an engineer/co-producer, Marta Salogni. As always, the sound is foreboding and sleek, sardonic yet soulful — music for lovers in black-leather-upholstered bullet-train compartments, racing toward ominous destinations.
The title is “Memento Mori,” and the dominant theme is mortality — which isn’t, in itself, a departure. “Death is everywhere,” Gore wrote years ago, in a song called “Fly on the Windscreen,” whose narrator goes on to beckon, “Come here, kiss me, now,” because you never know.
“Memento Mori,” though, is death-obsessed even by Depeche standards, with lyrics full of ghosts, angels and funeral flowers. Gore said that his own mortality had been on his mind, along with Covid-19, which was still cutting a swath through the world’s population as he wrote in 2020.
But Gore knows the album and its title are destined to be read through a different lens. In May 2022, Andy Fletcher, known as Fletch, died at 60, suddenly and quickly, of an aortic dissection. Fletcher was a founding member of Depeche Mode; he and Gore had been friends since grade school.
Nominally a keyboardist, Fletch’s true role in the band was nebulous, yet spiritually indispensable — somewhere between manager, quality-control supervisor and designated superfan.
“Without Andy, there would be no Depeche Mode,” the longtime radio broadcaster and Depeche fan Richard Blade said in a video interview. “He was not the one composing the music, but he was the one pulling them together.”
Gore saw Fletcher in person for the last time in 2019, at a wedding in England. He died just weeks before the band was scheduled to begin recording “Memento Mori,” the first collection of Depeche Mode songs he will never hear.
Gore and Gahan say they both questioned whether they could or should continue without him. But Depeche Mode has survived potentially band-extinguishing events before — beginning with the departure of Vince Clarke, a founding member who left the group in 1981 after the release of its debut album, “Speak & Spell,” on which he’d been the principal songwriter.
In the ’90s the band weathered the rise of grunge — which rendered synthesizers and drum machines temporarily taboo — as well as the departure of the keyboardist Alan Wilder and Gahan’s struggle with heroin addiction. (Technically, Gahan is the first member of Depeche Mode to die; in 1996, after an overdose, he said he flatlined for two minutes before paramedics revived him. He’s been clean and sober since.)
Derided early on by the British rock press, Depeche Mode made converts in America, particularly in Southern California, where the band’s champions included Blade, then an influential D.J. at KROQ-FM. Its breakthrough in the U.S. came with the platinum album “Some Great Reward” in 1984 and the single “People Are People,” an uncharacteristically strident anti-prejudice lament that became a pop-radio hit as well as a gay club anthem.
The gay community was only one of many disparate subcultures from which Depeche Mode built a fan base. On the West Coast, Blade said, the band made converts among “the white kids who would go surfing” but also connected with Latino listeners who heard a reflection of their own experience in Depeche Mode’s misfit anthems. “They might have been third-generation Americans, but a lot of people looked at them and said ‘No, you’re not one of us,’” Blade said.
Gore agreed that the band had become common ground for those who felt like they didn’t belong: “I think humanity is made up of a lot of outsiders, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve managed to do so well.”
By 1988, the group was big enough to pack the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a show documented in the director D.A. Pennebaker’s film “Depeche Mode 101”; the triple-platinum album “Violator,” released two years later, yielded hit singles like “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence,” which pulsed like techno but brought guitars to the front of the mix for the first time.
That album was the band’s commercial peak in America; minus a 2005 singles collection, no new Depeche Mode album has been certified gold in the U.S. in 22 years. But as long as there are new teenagers, there will always be new Depeche Mode fans, primed to respond to lyrics like “It all seems so stupid it makes me want to give up/But why should I give up when it all seems so stupid?”
And the band’s fans, Gore points out, “don’t turn 30 and then decide, ‘Oh, I don’t like that anymore.’” If you have ever been between 15 and 17 years old, alienated, and a little bit in love with your own sadness, a part of you will never stop being that way; no one who goes through a Depeche Mode phase ever quite outgrows it.
This means the band remains a powerful draw; its latest worldwide arena tour begins on Thursday. Against all odds, Gore and Gahan’s group has become a legacy act, and an influence on musicians who’ve become veterans themselves.
As frontman of the venerable Sacramento alternative-metal band Deftones, Chino Moreno has covered Depeche Mode songs like “Sweetest Perfection” and “To Have and to Hold”; his keyboard-driven side project Crosses openly channels his heroes’ stylish gloom. In a video interview, Moreno described his first Depeche Mode concert — a 1988 show at what was then the Cal Expo Amphitheater in Sacramento — as a life-changing moment.
“I was pretty claustrophobic growing up,” he said, “but I just fought my way through all those feelings, and made my way to the front barricade. And they came out, and I was just captivated by them. Dave in particular — just his stage presence. I can loosely credit me wanting to sing, and be in a group and make music, to that experience. It was larger than life for me.”
In the HBO series “The Last of Us,” people are still listening to Depeche Mode’s music after a fungal outbreak kills or zombifies much of the world’s population; survivors signal one another by blasting “Never Let Me Down.” Given their real-life endurance, the idea of Depeche Mode persisting even after the apocalypse, still helping people feel less alone, does not seem totally implausible.
But Gahan said that even before Fletcher’s sudden death, he wasn’t sure he’d ever make another Depeche Mode album.
In a video interview from New York, where he’s lived since the late ’90s, Gahan appeared onscreen against what appeared to be a red-velvet wall. It resembled the lining of a coffin, which prompted a question about the rumor that Gahan slept in one during Depeche Mode’s reportedly bacchanalian Devotional Tour in 1993. (Not true, Gahan said — although he did own a casket-shaped bed around that time, and once took a nap in an actual coffin a carpenter left backstage for him. But only once.)
In 2019, Gahan and his band Soulsavers recorded “Imposter,” a collection of 12 high-drama covers of songs made famous by artists including Nat King Cole and Cat Power, performed by Gahan in a manner evocative of both Tom Jones and Nick Cave. Shelved during the pandemic, the album finally dropped in November 2021. The following month, when Gahan played the songs at a few shows in Europe, it felt like the end of something; he spent that Christmas wondering if he’d continue making music at all.
During Covid, he said, he’d enjoyed being at home, surrounded by family and friends, finally spending time at a Montauk vacation house that he’d barely gotten to use. “I can walk along the beach in winter. You don’t see another soul,” he said. “I’m out there playing my guitar along to Stones records. I’m like, ‘I like my life right now. Why would I want to disrupt all this, to jump into a Depeche Mode record, which will take me out of that for the next three years?’”
The recording sessions for the previous Depeche Mode album, “Spirit,” had been contentious. Ever since Clarke’s exit, there’d been a clear division of labor in the band. Gore wrote virtually all the lyrics, and Gahan sang Gore’s words. But in the early 2000s, Gahan started making solo albums, and began bringing his own songs into Depeche Mode sessions as well.
As Gahan sees it, he’s always been the Depeche Mode member who’s pushed the band outside its comfort zone. After Nirvana broke out in the early ’90s, it was Gahan who showed up to record “Songs of Faith and Devotion” with hair down to his shoulders, advocating for a grittier sound. Without him, you might never have heard live drums or a gospel choir on a Depeche Mode track. “All those things were considered threats,” Gahan said.
But when Gahan pushed, it was traditionally Fletcher who pushed back. “He would always stand up for Martin,” Gahan said. “If there was a vote, I would lose.”
At the “Spirit” sessions in 2016, those creative tensions reached what Gahan called a “boiling point.”
“Martin wasn’t really keen on some of Dave’s songs,” the “Spirit” producer Ford said, “and Dave was pushing really hard for them to be on the record. It was very, very difficult.”
Ford said he was told by Depeche’s management that the project was in jeopardy. His solution was to banish everyone except Gahan and Gore from the studio — including Fletcher, their traditional buffer. “Fletch did not like this,” Gahan said. “I think in the end our manager Jonathan had to literally, physically get him out.”
Ford said the following day resembled a marriage-counseling session. Gahan recalled the confrontation “was really hard. After all those years — he said some stuff. I said some stuff.”
They cleared the air enough to finish “Spirit,” released in 2017. And Gahan said any reservations he had about making the next album disappeared the moment he heard Gore’s demo for the song “Ghosts Again.” “I was like, ‘I can’t wait to sing this song.’”
Then it was May, and suddenly Andy Fletcher was dead.
“I felt, immediately, very supportive of Martin,” Gahan said. “Like, ‘I’ve got to take care of him — this is really much harder on Martin than it is on me.’”
They decided to go ahead with “Memento Mori” — and according to both Gore and Gahan, Fletcher’s passing fostered an intimacy they’d never experienced in 40 years as bandmates.
“Every decision that has to be made has to be made by the two of us now,” Gore said. “So we kind of have to talk things out when we disagree. I don’t think I’ve ever had a FaceTime with Dave before. Now we FaceTime.”
Privately, Gahan said, Gore described their dynamic to him in more profound terms. “At one point — I always say too much, I’ll regret it later when I read this — he said to me, ‘It’s kind of like we’re long-lost brothers, isn’t it?’”
Salogni, an Italian producer and engineer who’s worked with Björk, Frank Ocean and the xx — and the rare woman in this very male orbit — said it was “wonderful” to witness Gore and Gahan’s flourishing friendship, and the creativity it engendered. “With Andy being a filter — after he passed, the filter unfortunately disappeared, and suddenly the curtain dropped and they were there to face each other,” she said. “Honesty comes to the forefront, and you just face what you perhaps haven’t faced before.”
The mood at the sessions, Ford said, “was very somber.” But there was also a lot of reminiscing — Fletcher stories told over long lunches. “It was honestly a really lovely, beautiful experience,” he said.
Depeche Mode, Gahan suggested, has always survived by evolving. “Sometimes we’ve changed naturally, and sometimes change has been forced upon us,” he said, “and I think that’s what’s happening now. We lost an integral part of Depeche Mode, who’s irreplaceable. Circumstances forced us to be different, to think of each other in a different way. We need each other in a different way.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.