Depeche Mode "Playing the Angel" Interview Disc
AF = Andrew Fletcher
MG = Martin Gore
DG = Dave Gahan
Q1 - When did you start recording the new album, 'Playing the Angel'?
AF - We started recording the album in January of this year in California. Martin and Dave had been writing songs the previous few months for the album and then we did a five week session, where we amazingly started eleven songs, which is a world record for Depeche Mode.
Q2 - How did you choose the locations for the album recording?
MG - The only reason we chose Santa Barbara, London and New York for recording was that's where the three members of the band live.
So it's just, you know, trying to keep everybody happy. Everybody's got families and everybody has their lives, so, you know, it's just... yeah, keeping everybody happy.
Q3 - Do you collectively talk about the direction of a new Depeche Mode album before you start the actual recording?
AF - Depeche, you know, never have a big master plan before the studio, before we start a new album. It happens quite naturally. With regards to this album, I think the sound started to define itself after sort of a couple of weeks and started to lean against the digital sound of the previous couple of albums towards perhaps an older Depeche - more analogue synthesisers, mixed with guitar and that was the direction it was starting to lead in, which we were quite happy with.
I don't know why we went in that direction. It was a natural progression. Also our producer, Ben Hillier was really into analogue synthesizers and brought quite a collection of analogue synthesisers and with our own collection, [it] just seemed to be the right way to go and also the opposite of the last albums.
Q4 - Was it hard getting started on the album after a four year gap?
MG - Yeah, I think it's always, for me... It's a scary prospect thinking about the whole album, you know. How many tracks are going to be on it? At first we didn't know how many songs exactly would be written by Dave, but even, you know, the thought of having to write 9 songs or whatever, 9, 10 songs is always, you know, a bit scary.
Q5 - Were any of the songs finished when you went into the studio for the first time?
AF - Martin and Dave had written quite a few demos, which I think most of them have been... would be unrecognisable now. Some of them are pretty similar, but they were finished songs in the sense that they had words, they had melodies and chord structures, etc etc.
Q6 - Were you looking forward to making the new album or were you feeling sceptical about going back into the studio?
AF - You know, you've been thrown out of your lovely individual lives, back into... you know, basically, over a two year period, where you work hard and there's a lot ahead of you and a big challenge and obviously there's the fear of, you know, "Can we still do this? You know, can we create something that's exciting, interesting and new, etc? Can we still go on tour for a year?" and... but actually it's been very enjoyable, the making of the album, perhaps one of the most enjoyable since probably "Violator" or pre-"Violator".
Q7 - All three band members have just completed solo projects, Dave and Martin with their albums and Fletch with his label. Do you think you've learnt anything from this experience?
AF - To be honest, I think every person involved, Dave and Martin and myself, we did learn a lot, which is interesting that coming together, you know, would the fact that we've learnt a lot and been our own bosses for a couple of years, would that cause problems, but actually it's been the reverse effect with everyone really into it.
Q8 - You worked with Ben Hillier on 'Playing The Angel'. How was he chosen to produce the album?
MG - This time we really wanted someone to oversee the project and we were saying, you know, we really need someone like [a] Headmaster, Headteacher kind of thing, controlling us and making sure we were going in the right direction.
AF - Daniel Miller, basically, was left with the task of, as he normally does, of finding a producer. Obviously Daniel knows what type of producers work well with us and we had a few names and Ben was one of those names and again we met all the producers and met Ben and we thought he was the right person for us. I thought he was young, hungry, up and coming, but it wasn't really the music he'd done before. I don't think we were big fans of much of the music he'd done. It was more his attitude and his approach to making music and it turned out that he was a very, very big electronic fan - electronic music fan - and it's worked really, really well and as I keep saying, we're very pleased with the sound and very pleased with the production team that have helped us produce the album.
The last couple of producers - Tim Simenon and Mark Bell - you could say were very big Depeche Mode fans. Ben Hillier likes Depeche Mode, but wouldn't be deemed a massive fan, which was also quite nice for us, because he had no sort of conceptions of what he had to do, you know. It was really, "These are the songs, let's get a sound going," and there wasn't any past record that he had to think of.
Q9 - What was Ben Hillier's role in the studio and the recording process for the new album?
MG - We were really unsure as to what Ben's role would really be, because he was suggested to us by Daniel along with another two or three other people that we interviewed and we just really liked him as a person, at first. It's really hard, I think, to judge producers on previous work that they've done, because the other bands that they've worked on are so different to us and you never know quite what their role is anyway, you know, because they work with teams and obviously there's the bands themselves so, you know, going into the first session, it was really like going into a void, kind of thing, not knowing what was going to happen and you know, Ben, what really surprised us about Ben was how into electronics he is. Most of the bands that he's worked with before have not been particularly electronic. He's on the internet every day hunting down old analogue synthesisers and he came with a whole array of synthesisers, so that was one of the things that I think helped define the sound of the record, the fact that we had bags of these things around us.
That's not the only things that we used on the record. We did use a lot of modern, you know, like soft synths, blended in, but the more predominant sound was from the analogue synths, which gave us a kind of direction and I think references old Depeche Mode stuff more, which is surprising, as Ben is definitely not a big fan of Depeche Mode, not that he's not a fan, but he didn't know a lot about us, put it that way.
Q10 - What would you say Ben Hillier's strengths were, as a producer?
MG - Ben's a very calm person and he's got that sort of aura around him and I think that helped us to get on, because you know, he never gets worked up about anything and that kind of like influences the whole atmosphere in the studio.
AF - I think he has a very, very good overall view. He listens to all of us and he's fair and a very good overseer of the whole project and very, very good with instruments and synthesisers and drums a bit, as well.
Q11 - Was there anybody else involved in the recording process?
AF - I mean, we had a team of people helping us, which was obviously Ben Hillier, being the main producer and then two very good programmer engineers - Dave McCracken, who's worked with Ian Brown and lots of other people and Rick Morris, who basically works with Ben a lot - but this time we didn't use any other musicians. The last few albums we've done we've enlisted the help of a few people, but this time it was all done by the team as such.
Q12 - Did you know what you wanted, musically, before you'd started recording the album?
MG - Not really. I mean, we had the original demos and sometimes the finished version turns out similar to the original demo, but more often than not it turned out something totally different and we started, in the first five weeks, on about eleven songs and I think it was about the fifth song or so that we realised that there was some kind of a direction appearing.
Q13 - Would you say there are any broad lyrical themes running throughout the album?
MG - Anything that appealed to dysfunctional people! No, I mean, when I say, "Anything that appealed to dysfuntional people," I am joking, but... you know, I mean a lot of our songs do deal with subjects that are not exactly typical pop themes and there is the joke that we're going to put on the back of the record, you know, in small writing, "Pain and suffering in various tempos", which made us laugh for a while and it's still making us smile. We think it's worth putting on the record.
I've never seen our music as being over-dark. I think that there is always an element of hope in our music and I've always said that and I think the overall feeling of the music, that comes through in the overall feeling of the music.
Q14 - Where did the album title 'Playing The Angel' come from?
MG - There are about four songs on the album that reference an angel or angels and "Playing the Angel" is part of a lyric from one of the songs called "The Darkest Star", so it... you know, it seemed to make some kind of reference to this angel theme that was going on.
Q15 - Does the theme of the title reverberate throughout the whole album?
DG - I don't think it directly says anything about the songs that are on the album... It sounded good. It's just a play on words that sounded good and like Mart said, it's part of a line from a song. We've done that often in the past as well, where we've been looking for an album title. Sometimes you just look through all the lyrics and stuff and something pops out and you just kind of like the way it sounds.
Q16 - The first single from the album is "Precious". Can you tell us something about this one?
MG - "Precious" is a song about my children, because I'm in the middle of a divorce at the moment and it's about them... what they must be going through...which sounds a bit Country. Obviously it's not done in a Country style. The music behind that is fairly upbeat. I think we feel that it's probably the most commercial, though who knows. I don't think we have a clue what commercial is any more. I don't know if we ever did! I think we've always lived somewhere outside of the mainstream, soÉ what's commercial for us, it's not necessarily commercial to the outside world.
Q17 Dave, could you tell us about your songs on the album?
DG - I think there is an underlying sort of feeling to the album and that always happens gradually as you start recording, no matter what you put into the pot, it becomes Depeche Mode and that definitely happened to the songs that I contributed to the album. I would say sort of coming into the studio, I didn't hear them like that at all. Maybe "Suffer Well", but "I Want It All" went in quite a different direction to what I imagined it would and pretty soon I started to really enjoy that, but I think you know those songs were sort of purposely chosen really by Ben once Martin had written a few more songs as well, we started to see that there was some kind of continuity there that he was trying to express as well, sort of within the feel of what was happening on the album and lyrically I think they work together as well and I think that's important to a record, to a whole body of work, that there is a tie there and for me it's always just like the question of... questioning yourself all the time - your place in life and the things that go on around you in life and you know, sort of being in the middle of your life or something, there's a lot of stuff that you kind of have to start taking responsibility for, whether you like it or not and you know, I think that comes out in [the] songs. It certainly came out in the songs that I contributed.
Q18 - Was there any heated debate about any particular tracks on the album?
DG - Not really. to be honest, Ben, works pretty fast and you know, there was a constant sort of... energy flowing in the studio, a lot more than actually the last couple of records that we've made and so there wasn't that much...I think he had an idea of where he wanted to go pretty quickly with stuff and you know, he uses a lot of instrument... like analogue stuff... old analogue synths and Mart always plays guitar and... but it's all kind of put through all this kind of mad sort of scientist like Ben Hillier type approach to his work. That's kind of what he's like, but he's got a great energy you know and he really brought a good vibe to the kind of like studio atmosphere.
Q19 - One of the many key tracks on the album is 'John The Revelator' - Can you tell us anything about this song?
DG - That was particularly fun, yeah. I think that that was one of the tracks that Martin worked on the song actually in between... when we were working in Santa Barbara, Mart went into the other room and started playing around with this idea and we could hear him kind of developing it a bit and so that was kind of exciting in the first place. We weren't sure where he was going, but when we started the next session we got into it and it just went... I mean, we've started out with some heavy drums on it. Ben gets on the drums and starts... Benny Bonham, we call him. Mart was playing, you know and it was fun and I get on the mic and Ben kind of likes to work like that. You know, I just get on sort of like a live mic in the studio and that was fun and then usually you sort of kind of start looking at it and tearing it apart, you know.
Q20 - Martin, do you feel that you're getting better as a songwriter?
MG - I can't tell. I'm really happy with most of the music that we've put out since 1986. "Violator" a lot of people cite as probably being the pinnacle, but I've really liked "Ultra" and "Exciter" after that and at the moment I like, I think, what we're making now and I hope it will stand up there as one of the good... one of the best records that we've made with those.
Q21 - How would you describe the sound of 'Playing The Angel' to anyone who hasn't heard the album?
MG - I think it's really hard. I mean, I think I said to you earlier that it's a lot faster, beatwise, than the last few records that we've made. You know, we've been talking about the whole you know analogue thing. There's a lot more of that going on than the last few records... I think Ben, one of the things that he really liked to do was to really push each song as far as it would go and then we'd realise when it had gone too far and then try pulling it back, you know.
Q22 - Would you describe 'Playing The Angel' as a more experimental Depeche Mode album?
AF - I'm not sure if it's an experimental Depeche Mode album. It's certainly a different sounding album to the last two and perhaps back to the sort of "Black Celebration" type, more "Music for the Masses" type period.
DG - Yeah. It's different and when we first sat down together I think, even though we didn't actually like physically really talk about it, I think we all felt that if we were going to make another record together, we had to sort of challenge ourselves and really the key to that was Ben, because he came to the table not really even being a fan of our music. You know, he knew a few songs and we had to actually get him the whole catalogue of music for him to listen to ...but he really had an idea, obviously of how he wanted to approach this and he was aggressive with that and I think we needed that and we knew that, you know, between us, I think.
Q23 - When you finish an album, are you normally pleased with the end result?
MG - I think, you know, I think we've always liked the music that we make, so... but we're always burnt at the end of a record, so it's always difficult to tell, really, how good it is and you know, whether you really like it or not. It usually takes a few months of being away from it before you can go back to it and listen to it and I'm sure this time it's the same. I mean, I say that we're happy with it, but I'm sure really we have no focus on it whatsoever at this point, because we've heard the songs so many times.
Q24 - Do you feel like you're heading towards making the perfect Depeche Mode album?
MG - I don't know. I really can't tell. I mean, I think everybody always thinks that when we put an album out that it's going to be our last album and our last tour. I keep getting fans that I bump into saying, "I'm sure this is going to be your last tour and you've never played this song or you've never played that song. Can you play it on this tour, it being your last one" and I don't know if they know something that I don't, but I don't know what makes them think that this will be the last record and tour, but maybe they're right. We've been saying the same thing since 1986, but, you know, it's never been a certainty and you know we keep somehow managing to carry on.
Q25 - Did you feel that you were lucky to be working together again? Did you feel that "Exciter" might have been the last album?
AF - I think you feel you know after every album it might be the last, you know and after every tour it might be the last, but there is obviously something going on and I think we're still making good records and still performing well, so I think it's quite natural that we've made another one, but you never know how much longer this is going on. We're getting old now.
DG - It is a big mountain that you climb together and it's an experience and it's like it's a big part of our lives, you know, so, you know, I always... to be honest, like I really felt like when we started this album or way before that that there was definitely unfinished business and it's always been like that. Like, you know, I get this feeling of... We've made some really, really good albums together and you know, this one or that one or that part of that one or this one but, you know, it's still that feeling of like still want to make the best record that we possibly can and still striving for that, so as long as that's still there, I think that that's what sort of drives you to sort of want to do it, you know. There's something that you haven't yet completed you know or something for some reason. I definitely have that feeling, anyway.
AF - We're very, very privileged 25 years on. We still think we're making great records. We still think we're a good group, you know, and it's a very privileged position to be in, so, you know, will there be more Depeche Mode albums? Probably.
Q26 - Were you surprised when Depeche Mode were cited as a major influence on dance culture and the Detroit techno scene of the late 80's?
AF - It was just very, very strange, because obviously I think we were seen by people as being the whitest of white groups from Basildon and it turns out we were influencing lots of different types of people.
Q27 - The band are about to embark on an extensive World tour. What are your thoughts on touring?
DG - You know, on tour now, my drive has been on tour, definitely the last two tours. I wake up and I remember everything that happened the night before. You know, I remember people's faces in the audience and I remember you know, like the way it felt, you know and I want to do that again and that's my drive. You know, I want to give the best I can while I can, you know, and I want to go out there and tear it up and you know, that's just kind of like the way I feel about it now. I feel like that something has been sort of freely given to me, so it's kind of like a duty to go out there and be on top form and like give the best I can. Going out on tour and performing every night is the opportunity that I will have to, you know, give what I can to the songs again and they will take on a new life.
Q28 - Depeche Mode are an incredibly successful group. Do you feel proud of what you've achieved?
DG - Oh, definitely, yeah. Just the sheer fact that we've managed to achieve as much as we have in the 25 years that we've known each other. We have sort of survived that, you know. I would have thought, out of all the kind of bands this would have been the one I'd have put money on not to still be around. We've probably got a lot more in common with bands like U2 and REM than we have of any of our peers that we came up [with], just with sheer longevity of... going into the studio and making another record together when you've done so much together, I think you really have to strive to find something new and the challenge has to be in the work, because it's no longer about anything else, you know. It's not about conquering this or conquering that.
Q29 - Where do you think Depeche Mode fit in musically in 2005?
DG - We don't fit in and we never have and that's one of the, I think, the real sort of... I've come to like actually really embrace that. There is no-one like Depeche Mode, you know, the way we work, everything, like the way we do things. It's kind of a unique experience and you have to kind of enjoy it, you know, and sort of throw yourself into it, because it is really different and that's one of I think the real strengths of Depeche Mode.