Anton Corbijn on his new Depeche Mode film: “They’re the biggest cult band in the world”

As Depeche Mode's new film 'Spirits In The Forest' hits cinemas for one night only, director and iconic rock photographer Anton Corbijn talks to NME about the deep connection between the band and their fans – and a lifetime of visualising music

“Ah, the NME – I’ve got a lot of past here,” Anton Corbijn beams as we sit down for our interview in a plush West London hotel. “It was 40 years ago this week that I first came to England. That’s when I first knocked on the NME’s door.”

When it comes to music photography, there have been few others with as much influence or recognisable imagery as Corbijn. You’ll know him through his iconic shots of the likes of Joy Division, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Nick Cave, David Bowie, The Killers, R.E.M. and U2, if not for his work directing classic music videos or the renowned Ian Curtis biopic Control. From magazine covers to album sleeves, his talent for capturing an artist’s essence is unparalleled in rock history.


“Within my first two weeks of moving to England, I went to a Joy Division concert,” he continues. “They were my favourite band, and I persuaded them to let me do pictures the next day. No magazine liked the picture. I was photographing the music through the people making the music, and I don’t think that people were really doing that in England. It was after Ian [Curtis] died that NME published the pictures.”

Now, Corbijn is in town to tell us about his latest project with his most prolific collaborators, ’80s synth-pop legends Depeche Mode. SPIRITS In The Forest is part-feature-length documentary, part-concert film and dives into the “deeply emotional stories of six special Depeche Mode fans” and “weaves together exhilarating musical performances” filmed at the final shows of the band’s 2017-2018 Global Spirit Tour at Berlin’s Waldbühne. It’s a beautiful and stirring portrait, with intimate details of the fans’ lives played out on the grandest of stages.

We caught up with Corbijn to look back at his extraordinary career – and find out what sets Depeche Mode apart.

Depeche Mode live in 2019. Credit: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

What is it about the culture of British music that lends itself so well to your style of photography?

“I don’t know. I didn’t have a big plan to make my work fit here. I was less worried if anyone was a rocker or a mod or any of those kinds of things. I wasn’t really interested in how people dressed or street fashion – I didn’t know the first thing about it. I didn’t look at that, I was more interested in using the person to visualise the music. That was just my approach in general. My approach was to look at the man in an environment, so quite often the person was small in the picture.”

But there was something in the air in the late ’70s?

“It was a golden time when I came here. The Specials had just come out with their first album, Public Image Ltd had ‘Metal Box’ coming out, The Clash with ‘London Calling’ – in my first month I was like, ‘Wow’.”

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Joy Division were one of the main reasons I moved to London in oct 1979. Within two weeks of arriving in London I met them after a gig and despite my poor English at the time, persuaded them to meet me on Sunday morning Nov 11th 1979 at a tube station (Lancaster Gate), near my basement flat at the time, to do a photograph. We spent perhaps 10 minutes doing a few photos where I had the visual idea of JD going into a future of Unknown Pleasures. I thought it was great to use their bodies to symbolize their music but not a single magazine liked this photo/idea. Thankfully the band did. And of course when Ian passed away every magazine ‘loved’ the image and it became initially the cover of the NME. I’m still grateful to JD for entertaining this hapless foreign photographer’s idea. And I still love this image despite it being laden with austerity. #joydivision #unknown-pleasures #tunnelvision #london #1979

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What was it about the personalities of these artists that you were drawn to? Was there a common thread between them all?

“I veer towards people who I feel put a lot of themselves into the music in an all or nothing situation. You know, ‘If I don’t give this my everything then I’m back in my little council flat’. There was not much of a safety net here for people, and that made them give it all. I was the same. I had nothing else to do but take pictures. I lived here in a squat. It was not luxury, but I did everything to be here and take photographs. I felt that I connected to people who were similarly looking at the importance of their work for themselves.”

“I veer towards people who I felt put a lot of themselves into the music in an all or nothing situation”

What do you remember about your early encounters with Depeche Mode?

“My first encounter was 1981. They were supporting Fad Gadget. It was their new romantic phase. I photographed them that year for the NME for a cover in the summer. They were a very pop-y kind of band so I didn’t pay much attention to them. Mute Records asked me to photograph them again and I said no. Then a few years later they asked again and I said no. I was much more into the music of Echo And The Bunnymen and that kind of vibe. It wasn’t until 1986 that I said yes and they asked me to do a video, then there was another video and it grew organically. I started to realise that my visuals and their music went really well together. Then I did some live photos, and it eventually turned into designing the whole live set. That’s what I’ve been doing for them since 1993.”

What were the origins of the idea for the new movie?

“It’s just a different take on a live film, really. I don’t really like live films, but I need to with Depeche because I design everything so I want there to be a document of it. They were only interested if there was a different angle to it, so we decided to look at the reason for why Depeche Mode was still growing. They have all these fans and they’re the biggest cult band in the world. It’s unbelievable. They play the same places as U2 and the last tour was the most successful one that they’ve ever done.”

How did you choose these six fans for the film?

“The band know from a lot of Depeche fans that have written into the band, why they love them so much. They kept these letters and looked through them to find these six people. It was 30 years ago that they did a film with D. A. Pennebaker called 101 that was about fans in America travelling to their first gig. In a way, it’s in the DNA of Depeche to have these connection to their fans. There’s something unusual about it and the fans go to great lengths. 101 [1989 live album] was very much about young fans in leather and lipstick, but this is more about the deep reasons why people are into Depeche. They’re very emotional and often life-saving reasons. This is much more diverse too. Their music can speak to people in very different corners of the world.”

“There’s something unusual about it and the great lengths the fans go to.”

What was it like to focus on personal stories of fans rather than the artist?

“The ones we selected were the ones that the band felt needed to be emphasised. Those segments were filmed by someone else and gave it all to me, then I took care of everything else from the live show in Berlin onwards. They made beautiful little segments of the lives of these people in their environment. I love it.”

You marry the fans’ stories with Depeche Mode tracks so powerfully in the film – how did you go about fusing documentary with live footage?

“We did a full live film that you’ll see at some point next year, then we cut it down to this. We looked at what they talked about so we could find the connection to what the band were doing on stage. It ends up with an even divide between seeing the fans and watching the music. It’s important to have the base of their stories.”

I love that their cover of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is such a focal point too…

“I really wanted to have that in there because they didn’t do that every night. For them to do that song in Berlin was pretty amazing. A lot of musicians were affected by Bowie’s death. He was a very likeable man.”

What is it about Depeche Mode’s music that makes them so universal?

“It’s the lyrics – they’re about life, death, sex and religion, generally. For a lot of people, that gives them something in difficult situations. Depeche don’t do many interviews so the music does the talking and is always kept alive. Dave [Gahan]’s performance is incredible too. He’s in his late ‘50s. This film shows the last show of a 40 month tour and the guy looks like he’s fresh! It’s unbelievable. He was clinically dead in the ‘90s, so it’s not bad going. Then look at the way he moves – he’s macho, he’s camp, he’s Jagger, he’s all of these things.”

It seems that Dave [Gahan] has no inhibitions on stage whatsoever.

“No, he feels like the stage is his place. That’s what’s different to the 101 film of 30 years ago. That was the first time they were looking out to that many people. Now it’s just the norm. There’s a self-confidence now that wasn’t evident in the ‘80s.”

“Dave Gahan in his late ‘50s. This film shows the last show of a 40 month tour and the guy looks like he’s fresh! It’s unbelievable. He was clinically dead in the ‘90s, so it’s not bad going.”

Why do you think they’re not as much of a household name as U2?

“If you look at the Depeche audience; people bring their kids and their kids bring their kids. It’s always growing, but they’re not. U2 are household name but they’re a lot louder. Depeche don’t do that they just let the music do their thing. I noticed that from the day that I started working with them. They don’t like to have meetings, but U2 like meetings. If Depeche Mode aren’t working together then they don’t speak to each other.”

As a result of that, do you feel that Depeche Mode might not always get the credit they deserve?

“I mean it’s crazy that they’re not into the rock n’ roll Hall Of Fame yet. That I can’t understand. Apart from that, I don’t think they worry about it. Like The Cure, they just do their thing. Both bands have similar ideologies to performing. I saw that interview that Robert Smith did at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame earlier this year – it was very funny!”

Have you had many conversations with Depeche Mode about what they’re doing next and the new album?

“I have no idea. Hopefully there are some new songs, then there’s another year of writing and recording and then a year of touring. I’m doing a book on Depeche Mode next year. It will be the whole story, from the first pictures in 1981. I’ve photographed them so much and done all of their designs. There’s a lot of material.”

You directed the brilliant Ian Curtis biopic Control. Would you ever make a movie about Depeche Mode?

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be the person to make it, because I know them too well. If you make a Depeche Mode film, it would have to be in the 1980-81 period – then that’s it, stop there. When it was all camp or crazy in Essex.”

“I mean it’s crazy that Depeche Mode are not into the rock n’ roll Hall Of Fame yet. That I can’t understand.

Is there anyone else you’d consider making a biopic about?

“I don’t really work with a lot of musicians. I like to do film things because that’s an adventure for me. I like to photograph other people. I don’t want to repeat my life as if I was 18 and go after young bands. There are a lot of other photographers out there and it’s a different world in music now. I don’t think it had the significance it had when I was young. I don’t have the drive for it that I used to, and I think that’s healthy.  In music photography, there hasn’t been much development. Fashion is where there’s interesting photography going on.”

SPIRITS In The Forest is being shown in cinemas worldwide for one night only on November 21. For details and tickets, visit here.

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