When Depeche Mode met Ladytron
When you meet someone famous for having taken the path to excess and tripped over on it a fair few times, you wonder if the demons can really have left them.
Meeting him now though, with his bandmates Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher, it's striking how astonishingly well Gahan looks, with his dapper pin-stripe suit and glowing bronzed skin. In fact, all three of them are looking remarkably healthy after three decades on the road. "There were always vitamin shots in the bum, but you can take that how you like, ha ha", Gahan says. "Life keeps changing, as always, but yeah, I do enjoy a lot of that fitness stuff. I get a kick out of it. I'm disciplined now". They are preparing to release their 11th album, Sounds of the Universe, and go on tour with a younger synth band, Ladytron, whose glacial keyboard pop sound is finally breaking through after several years of underground cult success.
The two bands are gathered together for a drink in London before their tour. They don't know each other really but there is obviously mutual interest, with lots of discussion about the equipment they use, how they verge between computer software and clunky real keyboards — and guitars too, since both bands feel able to use a broader sound than just electronic. This should be a good time for them all: synth music may have taken a back seat while indie guitar bands such as Kaiser Chiefs and the Kooks ruled the charts in recent years, but now it's back. While sexy strummers such as Razorlight see their sales plummet, new pop acts such as La Roux and Little Boots are bursting into the Radio 1 playlist with their 1980s-inspired synth-pop sounds.
Younger bands such as Ladytron look up to Depeche Mode as perhaps the founding fathers of that sound, yet both bands admit that they owe an awful lot to the German masters of the whole genre, Kraftwerk. And both turn out to have encountered disaster when Kraftwerk started taking an interest in them.
"But that happened to us too!" says Reuben Wu, from Ladytron: "One of the first gigs we played was in Paris at a bowling alley. We had only just started out, so we had keyboards borrowed off people, but they weren't plugged in, we really just had a backing tape. One of Kraftwerk was meant to be there so we needed to be amazing, but the gig was sponsored by Chupa Chups, massive plastic lollies everywhere, and people were still bowling while we were playing. We had to dodge the balls as we were walking on to the stage". Sharing these disasters seems to bring much mutual relief.
Wu tells Depeche Mode: "We've just heard your new album and I love the way it starts up, it's almost like an orchestra tuning up". The older band are pleased. "That was the idea", Gore agrees, "an electronic orchestra. I actually had a dream. Start with a synth orchestra tuning up like an orchestra tunes up".
Fletcher tells Ladytron: "I think it's very brave of you to use analogue keyboards live because early on in our career we had so many problems with them". "Like what?" asks Mira Aroyo. "Like being able to play 'em", Gahan smirks.
Depeche Mode are interested to hear about the nightclub that Wu runs in Liverpool, but they warn him not to let it turn into a Hacienda, referring to the legendary Manchester nightclub, which was managed so hopelessly by Factory records that it drained bands such as Joy Division/New Order of their profits.
Depeche Mode used to play a club in Southend called Crocs. "It changed its name to the Pink Toothbrush — but there were these actual crocodiles and there was always a big debate whether they were alive or not", Fletcher says. "I think one of them was dead", Gahan says, "or it just didn't move much. Yeah, we played there a few times". "A few times? We had a residency there!" Fletcher corrects him. "We did?!" Gahan is shocked. He admits that he can't remember large chunks of their past.
Back in 1995, after their fourth band member, Alan Wilder, left, things looked bleak for Depeche Mode. There were major doubts if the band would record again, especially since Gahan's overdose. (Scars on his arms are the legacy of two drug-induced heart attacks.) Gahan has said that it was that second chance, after nearly dying, that made him turn his life around, as well as setting up home in California and adopting a healthier way of life.
Still, he doesn't seem weighed down by regret. "I just liked getting high. It was fun for a long time. Drinking, getting loaded — that's how we did the first 15 or even 20 years of what we were doing. We toured Songs of Faith and Devotion for 18 months solid and Fletch didn't even finish that tour; he had a nervous breakdown".
"But I had to stay in America", Fletcher explains, "because it was our year off. Tax purposes". "Which is even more nuts when you think about it", Gahan adds. "A year into the tour our American manager told us that we were spending more than we were making, and had been for a whole year, so we would have to stay on the road for an extra six months to break even. It's crazy. But some of it was fun as well. Some of it wasn't! It went on and on. And even when the tour ends, you don't stop".
Ladytron agree that coming back down to earth after touring is a major feat. As Wu puts it: "I find it had to get to grips with reality when I get home. You want to call the tour manager asking them to feed you". Gahan nods, recalling one time he tried to reintegrate into normal life in a shop on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to buy cleaning products, "and there were way too many detergents, too many options, and I was like 'Waaargh'. This woman came over to help me and I was pathetic, I was like: 'Which one of them is good?'"
As for the music industry now, they have mixed views, though all agree that the actual record is no longer the main event. "Record sales are dwindling but we have to remember that music is popular. It's more popular. It's just that people don't buy it", Gahan says. He sees the changes through two sets of eyes, since his son Jack is working in music too. Having done work experience at a PR firm and in recording studios, Jack is now working for a tour promoter (though his dad suspects that he would like to make his own music eventually).
"The live scene is very good, there are still opportunities there, and I think things are going to get better. You do still spend a lot of money making the records but you make it back touring. Our strength for the past 20 years has been our touring income. But I always tell my son that it baffles me that people complain that CD prices are still too high but they think nothing about going into Starbucks and spending five quid on a cup of coffee. I just don't get it — that seems pretty ridiculous to me".
Depeche Mode's music continues to resonate. They didn't even know that Johnny Cash had covered their song "Personal Jesus". "I think when you're somebody of Johnny Cash's calibre", Gore says, "you don't ask for permission". They were, of course, thrilled. As were Ladytron when they came off stage after a recent Oxford gig and a nice young undergraduate started chatting to them about their Mini car they arrived in. "And after a while", Aroyo tells them, "she said: 'I don't mean to sound boastful but my dad is Brian Eno'". Next thing they knew, Eno himself was asking them to play with him at the Sydney Opera House, which was pretty exciting for a band who had named themselves after a Roxy Music song.
As for the resurgence of keyboard music, both bands insist that it's the songs that matter, not the instruments on which you play them. "You ask us the secret of our longevity, but we'd be nothing without good songs", Fletcher says. Gore adds that he has recently gone back to collecting old keyboards, but that the band also record in a high-tech studio where he once did his backing vocals through a plastic water bottle that was cut in half.
Technologies come and go but sometimes it's the simple things that work best.