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Depeche Mode in mature mode

Having handled challenges both internal and external, the veteran group stands strong with a new album and tour ready to go.

March 29, 2009|Chris Lee

LONDON — For the overwhelming majority of Depeche Mode's storied three-decade ascension from disposable New Romantic heartthrobs to chart-topping rock stars who could fill stadiums, the division of labor between bandmates was never a question.

Dave Gahan was the group's focal point: its preening figurehead, a leather-clad baritone and unrepentant hedonist with a lust for life (well, women, drugs and booze) that famously killed him for a few minutes in 1996. Martin Gore, meanwhile, was the brains of the operation. From 1981 onward, the soft-spoken multi-instrumentalist took the reins as primary songwriter and is most responsible for casting Depeche Mode's sonic template of brooding synthesizer soundscapes and danceable industrial dissonance.

Until one day in 2005, at the outset of recording the British group's 11th studio album, "Playing the Angel," Gahan got fed up with the status quo. "I said, 'I contributed to everything you've done all these years. I want some back now,' " Gahan recalled, dragging on a cigarillo in a swanky hotel suite. "I said, 'Let's shake it up a bit. I'm going to bring in my stuff.' Martin said, 'Well . . . how many songs? How much?' OK, I get it. It was perceived as a threat."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Depeche Mode: In today's Arts & Books, an article about Depeche Mode and an accompanying photo caption say that the band will perform three shows at the Hollywood Bowl in August. It will perform two shows at the Bowl and a third show at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 05, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Depeche Mode: An article and a photo caption last Sunday about Depeche Mode said that the band will perform three shows at the Hollywood Bowl in August. It will perform two shows at the Bowl and a third show at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

Never mind that Gore's lyrics -- meditations on consumerist greed, sexual politicking and exasperated spirituality, among other existential howls from the void -- elevated Depeche Mode beyond its shiny, happy New Wave roots and helped the group be taken seriously by critics, not to mention sell more than 100 million albums worldwide.

In a separate suite on the other side of the hotel, Gore remembered his negotiation with Gahan somewhat differently.

"Dave came to that project with a lot of bravado," Gore said. "He wanted to write half the album! We were all a little cautious of that. He had just put out his first solo album ['Paper Monsters'] and had really only just started writing."

"So there was a bit of friction," admitted Gahan.

It might have been the impasse to end Depeche Mode's quarter-century run crafting such exquisite cyber-pop hits as "Personal Jesus," "Strangelove" and "Master and Servant." But instead, it seems that Gore and Gahan's jockeying for position on "Playing the Angel" gave way to a happy bipartisanship on Depeche Mode's new album, "Sounds of the Universe," which hits retail April 21. Its propulsive lead single, "Wrong," cracked Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks' Top 20 last month and a disturbing video for the song -- which follows a mysterious masked man piloting an out-of-control car through the streets of downtown Los Angeles -- was the most viewed clip on YouTube for two days following its posting.

Not only are the bandmates getting along better than ever these days (the group's third remaining member, keyboard player Andrew Fletcher, has never rocked that boat), their late-inning burst of creativity resulted in enough new material for two albums. Writing for a year on his own, Gore came into the studio with 17 demo tracks; Gahan, having tempered his expectations after "Playing the Angel," arrived with five. Owing to Gahan's abhorrence of the double-CD format, "Sounds of the Universe" was culled down from more than 20 tracks to a concise 13 -- three of them written by the singer.

"For the first time during the completion of a Depeche record, I felt satisfied," Gahan said. "Not only with my participation, but our involvement together. I felt like Martin and I were on the same page in the studio quite often. It was something you didn't even have to talk about. That felt really great."

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New chemistry

The band members separately agree that Gahan's two solo albums, "Paper Monsters" (2003) and "Hourglass" (2007), have allowed the singer a certain hard-won acceptance of his role in Depeche Mode. "Before, he was just a frontman who sang someone else's lyrics," said Fletcher. "He was a bit uncomfortable. Now, he's writing and doing solo albums, he feels more part of the group."

Producer Ben Hillier worked on both "Playing the Angel" and "Sounds of the Universe" and helped Gahan modulate his output for the new album. "Martin has been writing hits for 30 years," Hillier said. "Before his solo albums, Dave hadn't done any writing. Out of all the songwriters in the world to be in competition with, Martin is not the one to choose. So to rock up with a load of songs and expect to get them all on was a little bit hopeful."

While the new music still recalls the dark synth-pop of DM's landmark 1991 album "Violator," it signals a shift into an era of emotional maturity for the band. Many of the songs on "Sounds of the Universe" grasp at themes of cosmic interconnectivity, spirituality and self-acceptance. On "Peace," written by Gore, Gahan sings: "I'm leaving my bitterness behind. . . . There is no space for regrets. . . . I'm giving all the positivity that I possess."

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