Words by Ken Scrudato
Recently, while immersed in the eerie drug-sex double entendre of “Never Let Me Down Again”, a friend commented to me, “What’s with Depeche Mode? They make self-destruction sound like you’re falling through the clouds.”
It would be difficult to fathom a more essence-perceiving appraisal of a band that has almost inconceivably spun a penchant for both futurism and perversion into more than ninety-million record sales (not a misprint) since being discovered by Mute’s Daniel Miller in a dinky Basildon nightclub in 1980. Indeed, one need only revisit the morbid, deviant pleasures of the likes of “Master and Servant”, “Fly On the Windscreen”, “Blasphemous Rumours” or “Barrel of a Gun”, for an edifying glimpse into the disquietingly sordid and harrowing weltanschaunng of Mssrs. Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher. Depeche has spent a career crafting Le Grand Guignol for the masses, and if those same masses didn’t quite always grasp the concepts (Like, why does Martin Gore always seem to be on stage in quasi bondage gear?), they were lured in by the colossal hooks and the seething sexuality and they devoured it all like piranhas at the feed.
Baudelaire, probably as much their spiritual forefather as anyone, would surely be awed.
Among their uncountable spawn, The Killers are a peculiar case. Since rocketing to fame with their urgent, explosive 2004 debut Hot Fuss, they’ve craftily mated the outré glitz of Duran Duran with the visceral earnestness of U2, all the while unapologetically reaching for nothing short of the mega-stardom of both those bands. And frontman Brandon Flowers, equally adorable and grandiose, maintains a contradiction to match any to which Depeche Mode can lay claim: he is a resolute Mormon, a religion not exactly known for turning out glamorous rock & rollers.
If the fascination of getting Flowers together for this first time with Depeche singer Gahan isn’t immediately evident, consider that the latter’s only significant rival in the rock-star-as-Christ-figure stakes is probably Bono. But while Dublin’s finest unwaveringly professes his faith in the only Son of God, Gahan, especially in the lyrics to the deliciously blaspheming “Personal Jesus” (“Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares”) has literally offered himself up as an Earthly substitute —a heresy you surely won’t find any of his worshipping public objecting to, whatever their quotidian religious affiliations.
Appropriately, Gahan also nearly saw to his own heroin-fueled crucifixion back in the 90’s–and quite literally rose from the dead in the back of a Los Angeles ambulance. Flowers, on the other hand, for all his cockiness and swagger, has been a model of responsible behavior. At just 27 years of age he’s already blissfully married and a father; and he doesn’t go anywhere near drugs, as you might have guessed.
Both bands are brandishing new records, as happens with bands. The Killers’ third, Day & Age, was released last November to significant critical acclaim. And with its stylistic ambition, sweeping atmospherics and grand lyrical gestures (Flowers actually took a bit of heat for the awkward philosophizing—“Are we human / Or are we dancer”—of the otherwise resplendently majestic hit single “Human”), it sounds like a band just a couple of rungs down from the top of the ladder of superstardom.
Depeche Mode, on the other hand, have decisively dispensed with the rulebook; virtually nothing on the enthralling new Sounds of the Universe relies on recycling their past. The thundering rhythms and industrial fervor of “Hole To Feed”’ make it come off like the soundtrack to some futuristic cannibal ritual; “Little Soul” appears like a quasi-gospel tune lost inside of a nightmare dreamscape; and “In Sympathy” is what Kraftwerk might sound like if they’d stop all the calculating and let themselves get a little sleazy. Gahan’s singing, the tormented undercurrents noticeably mitigated, increasingly exhibits a raw, bluesy sexuality, and is perhaps more fiery and captivating than its ever been.
On a recent winter evening, Dave Gahan was his usual charming and charismatic self, and Brandon Flowers, understandably, was a little starstruck.
Dave–you came to fame on a more measured path. Depeche Mode were very much outsiders in the beginning. But The Killers found fame almost instantly. How has fame affected each of you personally and artistically?
Brandon: “I’m still struggling with identifying any effects. I feel exactly the same. I think maybe because it happened so quickly for us, that I haven’t had much time to understand it. It’s all about just putting out our next record; we’ve got the fire burning, and we just go with it.”
Dave: “I tend to agree with Brandon, I’ve gotta say. In the beginning, it was really about doing the work, and the rest is thrust upon you. I certainly ran with it and had some fun…and then didn’t really. Playing the game of being the rock star was fun for a couple of years out in Los Angeles; but after awhile, being the celebrity sitting in the corner of the club wore a little thin. I mean, I live in New York now, I walk around, I don’t really get bothered, I like it here. My day is pretty normal. That whole idea of fame being something that’s going to fulfill you…I just don’t get that”
Brandon, do you want to talk about Depeche Mode’s influence?
Brandon: “Before I even thought of myself as a musician, I was affected by Depeche Mode as a person. I think about Some Great Reward or Songs of Faith and Devotion and they shaped me as an individual before I even wrote a song. So they meant a lot to me…(laughs) god, this is surreal.”
It’s interesting that you bring up Songs of Faith and Devotion. I’ve always seen Depeche Mode’s work as being a lot about exploring guilt and perversity and sexuality as reactions to society’s ideas about religion and morality and such. And Brandon–you have a special relationship with religion. Do you guys want to get into that?
Dave: “The three subject matters that you mentioned and that Depeche Mode write about…they really are the keys to wanting to be a part of something, and wanting to be able to be intimate, and ultimately having some kind of sense of peace within yourself. For me, you can’t get that from somebody or something else. You have to feel it within, that there’s something that the Universe is offering; but we often seem unable to grasp it.”
Brandon–there does seem to be a search for a moral grounding in your songs, for some kind of sense of it all. Are you okay with discussing that?
Brandon: “Yeah. You know, for me it’s been a constant struggle. I would say growing up in Las Vegas really prepared me for this. There’s so much that goes on there that’s taboo everywhere else, and it finds its way into our songs. I’m trying to come to terms with the reality that I’m a believer, and I’m getting more comfortable with it as I’m getting older. Sometimes it’s a weird contradiction with what I do, I know.”
Dave: “Not really. It takes a lot of courage nowadays to actually come out and say that. I think we all want to believe in something.”
Well, you dealt with that on your last solo record. (Note: The lyrics to the songs “Kingdom” and “Miracles” on Gahan’s record Hourglass dealt directly with the struggles on being a non-believer)
Dave: “Yeah, it’s a constant search for hope and faith that there is a higher power that has a better eye on things. Because obviously we’re not making a very good job of it.”
Well, the Killers’ “are we human” is a big, poignant, existential question.
Dave: “But I think through music you’re able to express that, whether lyrically or atmospherically. I hear it in the landscapes of the Killers’ songs, I can hear the search.”
I think it was Wagner who said that if you want to find God, look for Him in music.
Brandon: “They say that making your own music can be the closest thing to a religious experience, But for me, when I do go to church, the hymns are what always suck me in. I can be having a day of doubt, and as soon as I hear the right gospel song, it’s over. There’s no more doubt.”
Dave, you were part of destroying everything that the music industry had become comfortable with. It was punk, it was electronic music, all this shit which made the record companies just go, “What the fuck?” The BANDS did it. Now technology is changing things for the bands, rather than the bands being in control of the revolution. How are you both dealing with it?
Brandon: “For me, I’m paranoid all the time because of Youtube. (laughs) But I think the great thing about technology is that it now allows you to make an amazing sounding record in your kitchen.”
You could argue that Daniel Miller took the first step down that road. He has said that the most punk thing ever was a guy alone with his synthesizer. And he made this incredible club hit, “Warm Leatherette” (as The Normal), with just himself and his machine.
Dave: “Yeah, that was pretty radical at the time. We had that as our template for the kind of music we wanted to make. Coming out of the punk thing, we knew we weren’t going to blag our way through guitar, bass and drums. But we could just plug our three synthesizers into a PA, and we could play all these little clubs in London. At the time, it was considered not ‘real’ music.”
Brandon, I know you’ve derided the lack of ambition of the general music culture, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Like, how did four dull white guys who look like they just rolled out of bed and make music that never rises above the middling ever become the “new thing.” And with the latest Killers record, you do seem to be at that moment of reaching for grandiosity. U2 had The Unforgettable Fire, Depeche Mode had Music For The Masses. Are you consciously preparing for that next step?
Brandon: “Well, in talking about all the blandness, I think it’s a fear of just going for it. And all the bands I grew up listening to, they went for it. Now, we’re finally feeling comfortable enough, and we’re not going to be afraid of it.”
Dave: “That’s right. You have to go out there and embrace it. We just made another record with Ben Hillier producing, and he said to me that he’s never worked with a vocalist that works as hard as I do. But a lot of discipline goes into maintaining any kind of ongoing success and ongoing growth. It’s not something you just pull out of the air. And you have to believe in what you’re doing.”
And conversely, it’s interesting at this point in Depeche Mode’s career, you’ve already had the colossal success–and with this new record there does seem to be a radical new confidence; like you’re going fuck it, we’re just going to experiment.
Dave: “Yeah, we did do that. But we also did it with a lot more vigor. Martin showed up every day to work, and there was no, ‘Oh, what club are we going to go to tonight?’ I think it shows.”
What do you want to give people with your music?
Brandon: “There’s never been a song that we put out that I don’t want to sing. It’s inevitable that someone else is going to feel that same feeling that I have, that transcendence. For instance, no matter how dark a Depeche Mode song might be, there was always something uplifting about it to me.”
You’ve obviously never heard Black Celebration.
Dave: (laughs) “I agree with Brandon. I’ve never quite understood why people thought our music was so depressing. I see it as we’re making music that relates to life. I could be singing about hiding away within myself, but the music takes you to a higher place. It’s that human contradiction. There’s a lot of black comedy in our music that I don’t think people really get.”
Brandon: “The last song on Black Celebration, ‘But Not Tonight”… (sighs heavily in adoration). The line “My eyes have been so red I’ve been mistaken for dead / But not tonight”–those are the moments I’m talking about, in all the dark, there’s that optimism there.”
Dave: “And that’s life, and it’s why people relate to it.”