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Cover Story: Dave Gahan & Soulsavers • “Depeche Mode’s vocalist under the covers”

| October 31, 2021 | 0 Comments

 

Dave Gahan & Soulsavers

After over 40 years together, British synth-rock trailblazer Depeche Mode has become such a huge, propulsive force that its three core members — vocalist Dave Gahan, multi-instrumentalists Martin Gore, and keyboardist Andy Fletcher — don’t even have to be officially working on any new music to remain in the news. Their name alone seems to stay aloft on momentum alone, as in three recent bluestreak-edition items.  This December, the band will be reissuing a hi-def, boxed-set edition of its landmark D.A. Pennebaker-filmed road documentary, 101, complete with new, previously-unreleased concert footage. Also, TV talk show hostess — and American Idol darling —Kelly Clarkson just revealed her adoration for the group via a heartfelt cover of its “Enjoy the Silence.” And, blues-loving ZZ Top mainstay Billy Gibbons just surprised fans by confessing how close the two outfits became back in the influential ‘80s and how he quietly took many musical cues from New Wave, in general. Who’d a thunk it?

But coming off the most significant bulletin — Depeche Mode finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Charlize Theron in 2020 (albeit by a surreal Zoom mashup session), Dave Gahan is happy to step into a much smaller spotlight with Imposter,” his brand-new collection of covers, recorded with his long time collaborator Rich Machin’s collective Soulsavers. The dozen decidedly Gothic-draped tracks were recorded live at Rick Rubin’s Malibu studio Shangri-La, and it’s a remarkably diverse assortment. It lets the resonant-toned crooner cut loose on everything from Elmore James blues (“Help My Baby Last Night”) to Charlie Chaplin whimsy (“Smile”), sleek ‘70s pop (“Always On My Mind”), tough-to-attempt Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet”), and modern alt-rock bastions like Cat Power (“Metal Heart”), Mark Lanegan (“Strange Religion”), and P.J. Harvey (“Desperate Kingdom of Love”). And after all the colorful reinterpretations of Depeche Mode’s catalog that have been logged over the years, it’s both unusual — and remarkably arresting — to hear Gahan finally offering his own moody take on other unexpected artists’ classics. It feels just as refreshing to him, as well.

“I’m feeling really excited about this record,” the New York-based chap shares. “I’m singing, and I’m getting ready to go to London and start some rehearsals with all these guys, the exact same band that played on the record.” He sighs with an unmistakable Covid-weariness, the same ennui that’s afflicted many acts over the past 18 spirit-trying months.

He needed some Soulsavers, indeed. “It’s been two years, two years since we started making this album,” he says. “But we had to sit on it, mainly because of Covid — we weren’t able to travel, release the record, or do anything meaningful in terms of performance with the record. It was just impossible.” But now Gahan, one of rock’s most genial, good-humored blokes, despite his shadowy profile, is ready to not only hit the road for some select Dave Gahan and Soulsavers dates but chew the proverbial fat about the project, too.

IE:  Were you stir crazy at home during the pandemic? You’ve said you picked up the guitar again and started playing along to albums like Exile on Main Street.

Dave Gahan:  Yeah, that’s right! And I’ve been talking about that a lot. And I guess that was one of my favorite go-to’s. But there were a few records that I kind of found myself jamming along to and having a lot of fun, and finding a tone and a place in the house where I could just make noise without annoying the rest of my family. And occasionally, I’d get a little nod either from my daughter or my wife, Jennifer, and they’d kind of look at me like, “Yes, you’re in the Stones. We can hear you’re in the Stones.” And I’d just sort of nod back, just for that moment, like, “I am! I am in the Stones!” But yeah, I’d get locked in there for hours!

IE:  Where did you go? Was there a special Dave Room?

DG:  Well, mostly, we stayed in Manhattan for the first six months of that lockdown, and we just made the choice to do that. We have a house out on Montauk, and we were gonna go out there. But we just decided to hunker down. And most of the time, I would just be in the bedroom, once everybody was up and about. But my son Jimmy was there, as well, and he’s a filmmaker, so he was writing and editing things he was doing. And my daughter’s a musician/artist, as well, so she was kind of working on writing songs and playing guitar in her bedroom, and my wife is an actor and writes, too, so everybody in their own way got kind of creative. It was either that or put CNN on at six o’clock and sit around and watch the orange man do his bit, you know? So that was kind of like the pattern of the day for quite some time. Because for everybody, especially over here in New York, it was pretty nuts. But somehow, we got through it. And I had this record that we had recorded in November of 2019, and we’d started doing preproduction work for it earlier that year. And we fully planned to release it. We mixed in London in January, and when I came back to New York from London, I spent a bit of time with my mother, actually, and my family there in England. But when I came back, it was like the whole world suddenly went nuts.

IE:  The last time we spoke, you had taken up jogging. Were you still able to run, or did you get a home gym?

DG:  No, not really. To be honest, I didn’t do any form of…, well, all of that stuff for me kind of went out the window. I didn’t do much at all, and I actually suffered because of that. And maybe six months later, I was like, “Oh, I should have kept moving, doing something!” And actually, later that year, once we did come out to Montauk, I was out just walking one day — and I did walk a lot; actually, I spent a lot of time walking — but I was out walking, and I turned my leg in a weird way, and I actually ended up having another surgery on my left knee. Which I was not expecting, and it was rough. But I think that happened because of my lack of exercise, my lack of movement. So then I did start moving again. And I wouldn’t say I’m old, but I’m turning 60 next year. And I guess there are certain things that I think I can do that just, well, they’re gonna cause me some problems.

IE:  Someone once told me years ago that once you hit 40, it’s all about maintenance.

DG:  Ha! I think there’s some truth in that, yeah! I certainly don’t feel my age, I guess. It’s funny — I was talking to my manager the other day, Jonathan Kessler, and we were talking about D.A. Pennebaker, Donn Pennebaker (born in Evanston), who made a movie with us thirty years ago called 101. And at that time, when we were making that film with him, he used to come on stage a lot with his 35-millimeter camera on his shoulder, be walking around and filming us, and filming people and doing things and stuff. And we used to be like, “Donn! Take it easy, man! You’re old — you’re gonna fall over and hurt yourself!” Because we were in our twenties, and Donn, we worked out, was probably in his late fifties, which we thought at that time was sooo old! He was like this old man, but he passed away just a couple of years ago, and he was in his eighties.

IE:  I remember when I was much younger and interviewing David Bowie for the first time. Mystified, I asked him, “You just turned 50 — what does it feel like?” And he said, “Well, you ask yourself two questions — how much time do I have left? And what the hell am I supposed to be doing with it anyway?”

DG:  There is a bit of that. And I think a bit of that kind of fell into place for me while making Imposter. There was some comfort in that feeling of, I’ve done a lot of stuff, made a lot of music with some really great people for many years, and I get to do this thing, as well, with these guys from Soulsavers — it’s now three records that we’ve done together. And, interestingly, you brought up Bowie because I got to know him a little bit — his daughter and my daughter went to the same school together in New York. And I always felt like with his music, and what he used to talk about, it was like the people that you put around you — the musicians, the producers, the programmers, whatever it is you put around you — it stretches you, it makes you step out of your comfort zone until you have to develop a new way of working. And I think that is true. And I think the more that you do that, the more it stays interesting. And you somehow still feel like you have things to do. Things to learn, I guess, as well, and more importantly.

IE:  Because you said that at the end of the last Depeche Mode tour, you kind of shrugged your shoulders and said, “That’s it. I’m done.” But all you needed was a little change of scenery, a new backdrop.

DG:  Yep. That’s right. And sometimes, that’s what it is. And over the years — and certainly in the last 20 years — when I’ve made other records, some solo albums, and now with Rich Machin and his Soulsavers band, it has given me this, this…yeah, definitely, it enables me to feel more excited about going back and making music Martin and what is Depeche Mode. It’s something that has made me enjoy that more in the last 20 years. And I always feel like that at the end of a Depeche Mode tour, because it’s long, and we do a lot of shows, and we spend a lot of time together. You know, we make the record, and we promote the record, then we go on tour, and all in all, that’s usually around three years. So by the time it’s over, it’s like, “Just get. The fuck. AWAY from me.” And I know we all feel the same — when you’re done, you’re done. And then we don’t usually communicate for quite some time. It was a little different last year because we kind of got together on Zoom to accept our Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It was really bizarre. But it was kind of funny — as soon as we got in the same room together, which in this case was Zoom, it was like when we first got together in our very first year. It was like the same jokes, the same rapport, and there’s a comfort in that, you know? It’s like, Wow! This family has survived together for 40 years somehow!

IE:  It’s weird because I was talking to Martin around Christmas for his latest instrumental EP, and I asked how you were, and he said he didn’t know and explained that you don’t really stay in touch without a new album in the pipeline.

DG:  Yeah. We do a lot through email and stuff, and sometimes we’ll text each other or whatever. But yeah, we go for months not communicating at all.

IE:  What other albums were you listening to during lockdown besides Exile?

DG:  Actually, I revisited some stuff. A lot of Bowie. A lot of Joy Division. And on albums, as well — I would sit and listen to albums, playing vinyl. And I would sometimes sit with my daughter, who makes music and is making a record right now. So she would sit and listen, too, and we’d listen through from start to finish, something like Stage from Bowie, plus a lot of old blues stuff. Billie Holiday was on a lot — she’s Jennifer, my wife’s favorite. So Billie Holiday always plays a lot. So there was always something playing, you know?

IE:  What does your daughter call herself? Or what name does she perform under?

DG:  Well, that’s gonna come. I’m not gonna give any of that away — she’s gonna do her own thing. But she’s pretty awesome, though. I’ve gotta say, she’s been working with his producer and some musicians out in California, and she recently played me seven pieces that they recorded together, not completely mixed yet. But it blew me away. And I actually did send a couple of tracks to Martin, and with one of them in particular, he was blown away, too. He said it was better than anything out there, and coming from Martin, believe me, that’s saying a lot.

IE:  Listening to Imposter reminded me of the continuity of a truly great song. One of my favorites of all time was always “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. And then, out of the blue — no pun intended — it suddenly gets resurrected in the closing scene of the Breaking Bad series finale. I couldn’t believe it. And of course, it became a huge downloaded hit the very next day, five decades on.

DG:  And that’s the beauty of this record, I think. Alongside Mark Lanegan (“Strange Religion”) and P.J. Harvey (“Desperate Kingdom of Love”), you’ve got James Carr (“The Dark End of the Street”), Gene Clark (“Where My Love Lies Asleep”), Elvis (“Always On My Mind,” originally popularized by Gwen McCrae in 1972), Neil Young (“A Man Needs a Maid”), and Cat Power (first single “Metal Heart”). There’s diversity in the choices, but they are songs and performers and artists for me that are still very relevant in whatever it is I’m doing today. And they have carried me through — these songs, in particular, have carried me through different times of my life and have seemed to be informing me of something. So the sequencing became pretty important.

IE:  Here’s another curious continuity footnote. I recently interviewed Elijah Hewson of the young Irish outfit Inhaler, which Joy Division heavily influences. And yes, he happens to be Bono’s son, but the pandemic achievement he was most proud of was finally mastering, or understanding, Bob Dylan. And he got into him via the Daniel Lanois-produced “Not Dark Yet” period, which he also cited as his mom’s favorite song. And now here it is again on Imposter. Spooky.

DG:  I’m a big believer in there being no coincidences that way, and when there’s something moving out there in the ether of music and song, it gets passed around. It’s a connection. And for me, this particular song from Time Out of Mind, which I think is one of Dylan’s finest albums, I think there’s a sense of longevity and wisdom in the song that I felt I could bring justice to.

IE:  You really get inside “The Dark End of the Street,” and there’s a great version in Alan Parker’s film **The Commitments, as well. But do you ever feel in touch with a bygone musical era?

DG:  I didn’t remember The Commitments. But that’s interesting. But I feel in touch through music, yeah. Back in the day, when I lived in Los Angeles, we tried a lot of different hocus-pocus methods, things that go along with that territory. We tried all kinds of ways to get in touch with people that are no longer with us like that, through weird stuff like that. I went through a period of doing that, but I found it a bit odd and unsettling. But with music, I’ve always felt that there is something truly informing me of what is going on in my life — where I’m going, where I’ve been, what I’m not doing, what I am doing. It’s sort of living vicariously through song. And there is definitely a feeling quite often for me that I’ve already been there and done that. There’s an identification. And singing these songs, the ones that ended up on the record — and, like I said, particularly in the order in which we sequenced the record —I feel like it plays out a whole kind of story.

IE:  You get Nick-Cave-dark on some of these cuts, like “Shut Me Down” and “Where My Love Lies Asleep,” which is, metaphorically speaking, death. And you have quite literally nearly died before.

DG:  Yeah. I’ve had a couple of close brushes. And there is something about that, that I am drawn to, like into the darkness, but coming out the other end, you know? There’s something about that journey that feels very, very familiar to me. I was talking to my wife Jennifer the other day, and we were talking about the afterlife and what people feel about it, and think about it, and write about it. And I said, “I dunno — for me, my only experience with that was complete darkness, and the fear that I felt being there was terrifying.” So I don’t know what that is — some kind of waiting room for nothing? I don’t know. My experience was not some bright light beckoning you. Maybe it was just around the corner, I dunno. But I wasn’t seeing it.

IE:  Like, “Take a number, please!” And you look down, and it’s 456! You haven’t died —you’re suddenly in the Squid Game!

DG:  Yeah! Exactly! I’m watching that, too, right now! Funnily enough, it was my daughter that turned me onto it, and at first, I was like, “Nooo, I don’t wanna watch this shit!” But it actually is really deep. It’s heavy.

IE:  You’ve probably had the good fortune over the years of actually meeting some of your music idols and sitting down with them and talking about your favorite songs, right?

DG:  Yeah, some of them. Years and years ago, in the early ‘90s, I did meet Neil Young once. And that was really nice — I sat with him and his then-wife Peggy. We were at some party; I can’t remember where — very much like the song says, “Don’t ask me where” — but he represented something to me that was…I dunno; maybe I’d had a few drinks, but I sat down in a booth with him, and we chatted for a while, and I just felt very comfortable. There’s something about the way Neil Young sings, as well — from the first time I heard his voice; I was like, “I need to hear this guy.” And there are a lot of similar artists on this record, where I’ve first heard their voice — whether it was Lanegan or Cat Power — but the first time I heard them, I believed them. James Carr, too. Or what we refer to as The Quiet Byrd, Gene Clark.

IE:  It’s interesting to note that some of the performers who sing the darkest, spookiest stuff — and I would include your Black Celebration in there, as well — often have the most uplifting outlook on life.

DG:  I feel the same. I feel that life is a wonderful, amazing thing. But it’s just sometimes very difficult to navigate into it. And somehow, as well, going to these places and taking my spirit through these songs; it enables me to release a part of me that maybe does dwell in the darkness a little bit too much. But it always feels victorious to me; singing a good song that somehow touches my soul? It enables me to move on.

IE:  Is there one song you attempted but just could not master? Or any you’re too scared to try?

DG:  Well, there was one song that we were going to record from “The Gun Club,” a Jeffrey Lee Pierce song. We were gonna do “Mother of Earth.” And we were kind of knocking it around, me and Rich before we went in to record, but I sort of couldn’t find a place in it. So we didn’t end up recording it. But just recently, it came back to me because this artist-singer Susie Stapleton  — she’s Australian, but she lives in Brighton — she’s got this project called “The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions.” And she asked me if I would do a song with her. And so a couple of months back, I said, “Well, funnily enough, I was gonna do ‘Mother of Earth’ for the record that I’m just about to release. Do you fancy doing that?” And so she sent me some parts, and we ended up doing it so that record is coming out next year. It’s called “The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions.” And it’s weird how things like that happen. Like you said, things just come ‘round; they’re out there. It’s like, once these ideas get put out there, who knows? It’s funny — I’ve heard that now Chan, or Cat Power, is putting out a record next year of all covers, which she’s been working on, as well. So we were kind of doing the same thing at the same time!

-Tom Lanham

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