Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are firing on all cylinders for Delta Machine, their 13th album, conjuring the boldness and creativity that underpinned the success of Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion.
“We’ve been playing music together for half our lives,” explains Gore. “At this point we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and know we work very well together. We’ve had our well-documented ups and downs, but now we play to our strengths. We didn’t always.”
Those strengths were evident immediately when the threesome met at Gore’s Santa Barbara studio last April for Delta Machine.
“This was the first time ever that we listened to the demos and we liked the overall direction,” says Gore. “A lot of the time when we start an album we have a song and it might work quite well, but we want to take it in a different direction and make it better. We’ll try out 10 different approaches to it, and there’ll usually be one that’s reggae. Never works, but we always try it. But this time we didn’t need to do that."
Gahan’s songwriting further enriched the process. Although writing songs for the band since 2005, on Delta Machine he surpassed even his own expectations, contributing five of his own compositions and co-writing “Long Time Lie,” the first time he and Gore have worked together on a song.
“Martin is a great songwriter and Alan [Wilder] had written some songs. I felt like it was not something that I wanted to step into. I felt like I had enough on my shoulders being the front guy of the band, and I enjoyed that. But I kind of wore that out. I realized I was becoming very limited in what I was doing creatively and had to take the risk to try something different, which was stepping out of the band and writing with somebody else, and getting out of my comfort zone,” says Gahan.
Comfort zone is an understatement. Over their three-decade-plus career, these sonic trailblazers have sold in excess of 100 million records, sold out most of the world’s major stadiums, and charted more than 50 hits in the U.S. and U.K. alone. But sometimes the original inspiration that powered the rise to the top needs to be refreshed.
“After we finished the Sounds of the Universe tour," Gahan says, "I promised myself that I was going to take a break from everything. But I got sidetracked and ended up making a record with Soulsavers. The writing that I did with Soulsavers was so rewarding to me that it enriched my enthusiasm to want to continue writing and enabled me to go back to my band with a fresh outlook.
“I couldn’t get [these] songs down quickly enough. I didn’t have to force it. After I formulated a melody in my head, the words started spilling into that melody, and I would quickly record it. I just let it flow through me. I don’t sit and write words on a piece of paper. They are told to me by the music, if that makes any sense."
Remarkably, his songs fit seamlessly alongside Gore’s, so much that you’d be hard-pressed to determine who wrote what.
“We never talk about lyrical themes before we start. It just happens naturally,” explains Gore. “Because we work on the songs as a band in the studio, Dave’s songs tended to end up sounding very similar and fitting in very naturally with the rest of the album.”
Depeche Mode did take a slightly different direction for this record.
“We started throwing around ideas and waited until the songs started taking some kind of form before we attempted to give the album a name. This time, the form they were taking was strongly drawing on a blues influence, that Delta blues thing, sort of crawling and a bit sleazy, a bit dirty,” explains Gahan.
“I don’t want to claim we’re making a blues album,” counters Gore. “It’s our version of the blues. We’ve been working in our style of blues for quite a long time now. If you go back to Violator there’s quite a lot of songs on there that are very bluesy, and Songs of Faith and Devotion and Ultra as well. I think we’re just embracing that now and making it more obvious in the title.
“When we go into the studio we have a producer and a team that in the end that work on the record,” said Andy Fletcher. “The job of the team is to try and get the best out of a song. In the end, when we went to hear all of the songs, we were not only amazed by the quality of the tracks but particularly the direction.”
“As for the name, I like the idea of nature with machines. The organic with inorganic,” says Gore. But then he was Depeche’s first synth player, and tends to get sentimental about technology.
“The blues influences are definitely there,” says Gahan. "What connects all the songs is they’re crying out for help. That’s part of the blues as well. It’s kind of whining about your woes but somehow through the music you are redeemed."
This is evident in songs like the heat-inducing “Slow,” which Gore wrote about the time of Songs of Faith and Devotion but never recorded, and the edgy, anxious, hot-blooded “Goodbye,” Gahan’s own “Broken From The Start,” and “Heaven,” Delta Machine’s first single.
“‘Heaven’ is one of the reasons why I still make music,” enthuses Gahan. “Once in a while a song like that comes along — hopefully I’ll write one of those myself one day —that’s something I have to sing. It feels like I’m putting on a pair of boots that I’ve worn for years, that I love. It fits. It’s the linchpin of the album.
“The machine part of Delta Machine is what we do, how we create this, how we use machines,” continues Gahan. “We try and give the elements of songs and songwriting that come from the blues and mess it up. Led Zeppelin took the blues and turned it up, the Stones just made it cooler, and I think that we did our best to fuck it right up and take it into a difficult direction."
They had help. Once again, they called on Ben Hillier to produce. He was the force behind the last two albums, Playing the Angel and Sounds of the Universe.
“He knew how far we’d come, and we certainly couldn’t repeat ourselves. We had to be doing something that was challenging. So we chose Ben because we wanted to move forward and we wanted this album to be less filmatic, more direct,” says Gore.
Added Andy Fletcher, “Traditionally with Depeche Mode we’ve gone through a lot of producers, but when we all met up to decide about making the record, we thought that this album would suit Ben (Hiller). He came up with the idea of Flood to mix it and the results are absolutely wonderful.”
Delta Machine achieves that goal, establishing a fresh new path for one of the world's most-influential bands, one that has inspired artists from Shakira to Coldplay, the Killers to MGMT. They may have given themselves a name that implies the fleeting nature of fashion, but their three-decades-plus career and heightened creativity underscore that they are anything but an ephemeral fad.