When you’re the lead singer of a legendary band that’s sold more than 72 million records worldwide and inspired generations of musicians, it’s not easy to break off and do your own thing. Critics can be harsh, fans even more so. When Dave Gahan, lead singer of Depeche Mode since the band formed in 1980, released Paper Monsters in 2003 — his first solo album — he found moderate success, but most saw the album as an extension of his work with his former band. But Hourglass, that album’s follow-up, released in October via Virgin/Mute, has impressed critics, delighted fans, and, most important, granted him the creative independence he’d craved for decades.
The last Depeche Mode tour finished near the end of 2006. Does that mean you jumped right into the studio to start working on Hourglass?
We finished around October of 2006. I went home and tried to get back in the swing of things. It’s always quite difficult after a tour — you’re kind of waiting for somebody to put a note under your door with what it is you’ve got to do that day [laughs]. You create new obsessions, like how to load the dishwasher correctly and stuff like that. After annoyed my family for about a month, it was suggested to me to do some work, so I called up Christian [Eigner] and Andrew [Philpott] and we planned to get together and do some writing. We didn’t properly start writing and recording until January or February of last year. Within a couple of weeks, we realized we seemed to be creating a body of work together that was beyond the usual demoing songs.
How did you first hook up with Andrew and Christian?
Christian has played drums with Depeche Mode for over ten years now, and Andrew has worked with us on and off over the years, doing programming and production, mostly for live performances. We’ve been friends for a long time, but we only started writing together shortly after the Paper Monsters tour. It’s been a relationship that’s been getting better and better in terms of writing.
I’m sure the creative process you went through for this record was a bit different from how you work with Depeche Mode. Do you find it easier or harder to work with Andrew and Christian?
I find it a lot easier. [laughs] First of all, with this record, there was no preconceived idea of what it was going to be for. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it, and we didn’t really discuss that. It was just doing the work, and we were pretty much left alone. Daniel Miller [from Mute Records] didn’t get involved until about halfway through the recording. He’d gotten wind that I was working on something with Andrew and Christian and was very keen to hear it, and of course he wanted to know what it was for. So he came to the studio, listened to maybe six songs that we’d worked on, and was very excited. He let us know that he would love to release it and that it sounded like it was becoming a Dave Gahan solo record. I didn’t really ever have the idea that maybe this or that song was more suitable for Depeche Mode. It was really obvious right from the get-go that we were producing something that was going to have to be tied together.
Sounds like a pretty organic process. Was there something specific you wanted to achieve with this record that you didn’t with Paper Monsters?
What I’m working toward in my life in general is a sense of freedom. I think that was something we definitely accomplished together [on Hourglass]. Like I said, there wasn’t really any restriction. To be able to do that — especially these days, in a business that seems to be crumbling as days go on — is quite a luxury, but one that I think I’ve worked hard toward being able to do.
The freedom in making music is something that’s really important to me. When you’re in a band, there are restrictions that you place upon yourselves in terms of your roles. You kind of set up these roles, and it’s hard to break down those boundaries once you’ve created them. Quite often a lot of the politics get in the way of the work — those “Well, that’s what I do and you don’t interfere with that part” kind of things. We’ve been lucky enough over the years to work with different producers that forced us in different directions and forced us to work together, but I’m looking for a sense of freedom. I’m looking for the ability to create ideas and do that on my own or with whoever I’m collaborating, but also to be able to go back to my band and feel fresh and excited about the work that we can possibly do together.
A Depeche Mode record is quite different, because there’s such a big expectation placed upon it in terms of the record company’s input and the input from ourselves. I think somehow we create this atmosphere that can sometimes be quite difficult to work in, because everybody’s expectations are a bit too high. Immediately people start going, “Okay, do we hear a single? Will it get played on the radio?” All that stuff, to me, is becoming really not that important anymore.
In terms of your solo work, what is more important to you: the opinions of the fans and critics or the creative release and your own opinion of it?
Well, the goal is to be able to do something and feel you can let go of it — you’ve done the work and you’re happy with it. But of course I’m just as human as the next person — a bad review is always the one that sticks in your mind, even if there are ten really good ones [laughs]. Someone told me a long time ago that if you believe the good ones, you’ve got to believe the bad ones.
I’ve been fortunate that this record has been incredibly well received. It’s interesting how I immediately look for the flaws even in the good reviews. I can’t help but read them — I try not to, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read them. I guess what’s frustrating more than anything else is the comparisons that are made to work that’s been done. All I know is that I seem to be showing up in my life at the moment to do whatever’s put in front of me, even quite often when I don’t know what that’s going to be.
The excitement of actually being in that process is way beyond anything else at the moment. I don’t know what that’s about or why that’s taken so long to happen. There certainly was that hunger in the first fifteen years of Depeche Mode that we all had together. When you’re young and you’re touring around the world and you’re seeing things grow in front of your eyes, it’s very exciting — but then after awhile it becomes, “What is it you’re really contributing to the sound?” So I think that’s what I’m looking for — a sense of something inside myself that I guess I’ve been trying to run away from for a long time.
The title Hourglass sounds like a reference to time running out. Do you feel pressure to reach goals you haven’t yet attained, or is it just a general sense of wanting to keep moving forward?
I think the latter part of what you said is probably more what it is. It’s kind of “wonder” that I am excited about and also at the same time terrified of. Like, What have I gotten myself into now? [laughs] It’s funny, the feeling of sort of completing a body of work, having a big part of myself involved in that. There’s a great sense of accomplishment, but also a kind of growing sense of grieving something: It’s finished, you did it, and there it is. When you’re in the work, it’s very exciting, but once you’ve finished, it’s not yours anymore somehow, and you kind of have to let go of it.
I was talking to Andrew just the other day, and he’s kind of going through that process. He went back home to Ireland, and he’s starting to miss doing the work and being together and being in that process. Not knowing what it is you’re really doing but somehow realizing that you’re right where you’re supposed to be. And I think that’s what Hourglass is fundamentally about — it’s about trying to be where you are rather than worrying too much about what it is you haven’t done or what it is that’s going to happen in the future, trying to sort of stay put.
Where does your inspiration come from these days?
My inspiration comes from the life that I have around me — you know, being part of a family and desperately trying to do better at that [laughs] and falling flat on my face most of the time. Having kids and trying to understand them and be there for them is not easy — any parent will tell you the same thing — but you find out what you’re made of, that’s for sure. What I found out about myself is that I can be incredibly controlling, but at the same time I kind of want to let go of that control and disappear, so I’m stuck in the middle somewhere.
And New York is a great place to feel inspired all the time. I quite often spend time walking around being among people here. The great thing about it is you can walk around people in New York and be around life, but you don’t really have to participate. There’s something about that I find very comfortable — a lot of people would find that kind of weird, but there’s so much that goes on all the time if you just keep your eyes open. I see myself in others quite often, and that’s where I find a lot of my inspiration. I often think I’m writing about somebody else, but it comes back to really wrestling with my own demons.
In both your solo efforts and your work with Depeche Mode, your songs are filled with references to spirituality, faith, and religion. What draws you to those themes?
As much as you try to avoid getting in touch with what it is that’s inside of yourself, you’re always looking on the outside for some kind of pat on the back or something to lift you out of yourself. I’m just like most other people — afraid of looking at what’s really inside and who it is I really am. To be honest, it’s not a choice for me anymore. When it comes to religion, it’s very confusing and always has been for thousands of years and probably will be for thousands of years more. I don’t know what it is I believe in, but I know that I feel a sense of some kind of higher power, for lack of better words. If I get quiet enough, the answer is always there for me. It’s trying to get quiet enough to actually listen that is a real chore.
I feel also very grateful in my life — I’ve had a very up-and-down process with that and struggling to escape from the reality of life seems to have been a theme in my life for a long time. None of it ever worked for me, so staying put and realizing that I can deal with most things that are put in front of me is kind of mind-blowing. Showing up is 90 percent of it, and I spent a lot of time trying to not show up! [laughs]
How do you think you’ve changed from the person who first joined Depeche Mode thirty or so years ago?
I don’t think I’m that different. I have a fifteen-year-old son who’s kind of struggling with himself, and I see myself in him so clearly that it’s scary. The difference between him and me is that he is able to voice his frustrations, and when I was that age I had no clue how to do that. From my own experiences in life, I’ve learned that I have a lot to be grateful for and life is whatever I make of it. I have a clear choice — sometimes too many [laughs]. I need direction a lot of the time. I feel most comfortable when I’m working. Making this record was definitely a part of that. It was almost a cathartic experience of feeling like, “Okay, I’ve got that lump of stuff off my shoulders, so where do we go now?”
Will you be taking Hourglass on the road? You did some really well-received sessions at the Apple Store in New York City in the fall.
I would love to. At the moment, it’s quite difficult to put the guys together I’d like to do that with. I’m not ruling it out — I’d certainly like to do some more performances. I put this little band together that we ended up calling the Jupiters. We had a lot of fun doing those sessions. We were kind of joking at the end of the week, “That’s it, that’s the end of the tour!” By the time we did the last session, we were starting to sound really good, the interpretations of the songs were working. It was a bit weird, almost like we just got started and then had to stop. We have talked about doing some one-off stuff, but the idea of going on a six- or eight-month tour does not appeal to me at all. I just did that [with Depeche Mode].
What have you been listening to these days?
I still listen to a lot of the same old stuff. I get exposed to a lot of the new things — like Digitalism and stuff like that, but I still listen to a lot of old blues stuff: Johnny Cash, Nick Cave. I’m always closely following Sigur Ros — there’s something about that band, I feel really at home with their music. I really liked the Grinderman record. I liked the White Stripes’ last record. I find interest or inspiration in very different genres of music. Really, what I’m always drawn to is the voice — PJ Harvey, Björk. If the voice interests me, then I’m interested to listen to what’s happening.
Your past struggle with drugs and alcohol has been well documented. What’s your biggest vice these days?
When I’m doing interviews I tend to smoke a lot, and when I was working with Andrew and Christian I smoked a lot more. They both smoke cigarettes a lot; the whole place was filled with a cloud of smoke most of the time. I suppose that my worst vice is TV — I can just sit and flick through TV all night long. I can be watching anything. It’s a form of escapism — there’s absolutely nothing on, let’s face it! [laughs] To be honest, I really enjoy some things I never thought I would, like quiet and not doing anything. There’s nothing I like better than just sitting around doing nothing, reading a book or whatever.
You’ve barely aged in the last twenty-five years. How do you stay in such great shape?
I go to the gym a few days a week. I enjoy doing that — that’s definitely a way I get a lot of my anxiety out. I find that if I stay on top of that, I’m much clearer to work with and I’m better to be around. If I don’t go to the gym for a few days, I’m a bit of a nightmare.
Will Depeche Mode be getting back in studio soon?
I’m sure we will. I know Martin [Gore of Depeche Mode] has been writing — we were communicating during the making of Hourglass, and I know he’s been working with a programmer out in California. Andrew and Christian are probably going to come over to write. The next thing that we’ll do will be a Depeche Mode record — but that’s always a long process and I can’t imagine you’ll see sight or sound of that probably till next year.