“And then there were two,” came the text message to Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan from former bandmate Alan Wilder after he heard news of the sad passing of synth player and founding member Andy Fletcher back in May 2022. Aged just 60, Fletch was the unshakable foundation of the new wave pioneers; a constant presence and a peacemaker in a group that’s had its fare share of turmoil to navigate.
When they first emerged from Basildon in Essex 43 years ago, they were a brightly refined but squeaky clean boyband-esque affair. With the chart-bothering synthpop gems of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘New Life’ from frisky 1981 debut ‘Speak & Spell’, Depeche Mode embarked on a journey that few could have predicted.
Vince Clarke, then chief songwriter, exited the band the year their debut dropped (going on to form Yazoo and Erasure) and was replaced by Wilder before his exit in ‘95; synth player, guitarist and singer Martin Gore would then the lead on songwriting. Through that period and beyond, the band hit stadium-filling superstardom all while battling drama, hard drugs and hedonism.
They’ve broken ground in pop, rock, electro, blues and industrial metal, inspiring any band with a drum machine and a synth, or just a kink and a dark side. That’s everyone from Lady Gaga, The Killers and Chvrches to Deftones and Nine Inch Nails. What is it about Depeche that has that renewed appeal?
“It’s a ‘get up and do it yourself’ spirit,” frontman Dave Gahan tells NME, somewhat underplaying how some cute lads from Basildon became an iconically fearsome globe-conquering beast. “Do it your way and don’t be told how to. Eventually it will work out for you.”
But through all that leather-clad legend, there was the calming force of Fletch. When NME last met Gahan back in October to launch the band’s upcoming 15th album ‘Memento Mori’ in Berlin, he still had a lot to process. “Fletch was probably… let’s just say, the least of all of us in terms of excesses,” he told NME. “That was always the knowing joke – that Fletch was going to outlive all of us. ‘He’s still here, isn’t he?’ Now he’s not, and it still doesn’t feel real.”
After the launch, the band headed back to Santa Barbara, California to finish work on ‘Memento Mori’ – a title, which Gore explains in London today, translates from Latin to ‘Remember you must die’. “It’s a reminder to make the most of life,” he calmly smiles from his hotel room sofa, “and make the most of each day.”
It was the first of many “weird” experiences, as Gahan explains from another room down the hall. From studio time to photo shoots, promo tours and TV performances, “it was the first time that Martin and I were doing something without Fletch in the knowledge that he’d never be coming back”.
Gahan smiles and wafts his bejewelled hand towards the door. “I still feel like he’s about to walk in,” he admits before laying on a rough Essex accent to mimic his old pal. “‘Are you done yet Dave? Wanna get a curry later?’ But it doesn’t happen.”
The frontman likens the remaining elements of himself and Gore to the core of some of his heroes: The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. “You know: like Keith and Mick, or Page and Plant. With The Stones losing Charlie Watts, knowing about their longevity and how it’s fucking hard work to keep a band going for that long, you realise how it’s got to be losing an anchor. Fletch was part of what we knew as Depeche Mode for the last 40 years.”
Depeche Mode could have come to an end so many times before. Of course there are Gahan’s multiple heroin-induced near-misses with death (he once earned the nickname ‘The Cat’ from LA paramedics). In 1996, his heart stopped for two minutes after OD’ing on a speedball; he’s been through a lot. Ahead of the release of his 2021 covers album ‘Imposter’ with Soulsavers, Gahan told NME how “liberating” the record was having felt “done” with music after the troubled recording and gruelling tour for Depeche’s previous album, 2017’s politically-charged ‘Spirit’.
“For me, that was one of the toughest albums we ever made,” Gahan tells us today. “I didn’t really want to do that again. I remember thinking, ‘I have to find why I’m somehow the antagonist’. I was the person messing things up, and that was never my intention. It was fucking too much like hard work, and I didn’t join a band to do hard work!”
Both Gahan and Gore find solace in their side-projects, away from the vast machinery and expectations that come with being one of the biggest bands on the planet. “What we do with Depeche is just so huge,” Gore says. “There are so many people out there waiting for us to release music or to come and see us play. They always say that the sum is greater than its parts but, without wishing to make it sound crass, we’re like a brand and a cult – a cult brand.” Their 2023 stadium tour across Europe this summer sold-out in a flash and will be packed with the most feral of followers.
When the time came to get the Depeche wheels a’rollin’ again, Gahan – enjoying his cosy post-COVID homelife – took a little convincing. He was weary of not knowing what was on the table, what he could bring to it, and cautious of pushing the wrong buttons. On the understanding that the writing process would be much more collaborative and transparent, they got to work. Another reconfiguration would be forced upon them when they had to learn how to co-exist without Fletch.
“Martin suddenly doesn’t have his absolute all-time supporter,” says Gahan, brazenly honest in admitting: “No matter what, Fletch would lay down for Martin – not so much me!”
He continues: “After that, Martin described it as two long-lost brothers meeting for the first time and having to have a real conversation. There was no one there to buffer that, be the in-between or be Mart’s pal with me on the outside. At first it was about getting to know each other in a different way. Not that we don’t know each other well, but in terms of having a close friendship? That’s never really been the deal between Martin and I.”
Gore agrees: “Me and Dave never had any big issues or problems with each other, but we tended to be kind of distant. With there only being two of us left, that has led us to be closer and to talk more.”
Seeing them today – a pragmatic Gore looking cyber-punk in his black and white spats and the wistful rockstar Gahan in red leather boots – they’re very much two sides of the same coin. They were especially on the same page when it came to the character of what would become ‘Memento Mori’.
Despite its preoccupations with life and death, the songs were written before they lost their friend, with the first started before the pandemic. “It was a pretty scary time,” recalls Gore. “Watching the daily figures rise staggeringly just brought death to the forefront. Then in 2021, I hit 60. That was a really big slap in the face for me because my step-dad, who had been there and raised me, died at 61. My biological father died at 68.”
Despite being “made to face mortality”, Gore says he “still feels like quite a young soul”, feeding into the “experimental” and “fresh” vibe of ‘Memento Mori’. They had producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz) and experimentalist Marta Salogni (Björk) behind the desk, and four songs co-written by The Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler (a career first in sharing songwriting for Gore), all feeding into ‘Memeneto Mori’ as a future-facing accomplishment.
It’s an enthralling ride, as you may have gathered from lead single ‘Ghosts Again’ following in those bittersweet melancholy-meets-euphoria footsteps of ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and ‘Personal Jesus’. Beyond that, there’s the spacey post-rock opener of ‘My Cosmos Is Mine’, the electro menace of ‘My Favourite Stranger’ and the mechanical soul of ‘Caroline’s Monkey’. Gahan also has three writing credits on the record, peaking with the sombre farewell of ‘Speak To Me’ and the strutting Kraftwerk-esque gem ‘Wagging Tongue’.
“Dave’s writing gets better with each record we do,” says Gore, “and that’s interesting to see”. At peace and on top form with arguably the best Depeche Mode album of this century, ‘Memento Mori’ at least sounds like a band with so much more to give.
It seems quite fitting that Depeche Mode have also enjoyed a recent revival thanks to a show called The Last Of Us. Streams of their 1987 ‘Music For The Masses’ industrial goth-pop gem ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ saw a 220.5 per cent increase in streams in the US alone thanks to its inclusion in the closing sequence of the hit apocalyptic show’s pilot.
“That was nuts,” smiles Gahan with a raised eyebrow. “We didn’t expect that. It’s like it’s our time again and you can feel it in the air. It’s amusing to me, because we’ve fucking worked hard and we’re getting this weird recognition again of, ‘This band are important and cool and they deserve to be here’.”
Gore is still chuffed but typically more prosaic about the return of the pop culture spotlight. “It’s incredible that we got that boost,” he says. “We’re fortunate in that we seem to attract a young audience anyway. With each record there are 20-year-olds getting into it. But that’s just one track – I hope that anyone who discovered that song would be interested to get into everything else we’ve done.”
One would assume so, what with repeated generations of artists from the worlds of pop, electro and metal citing them as an influence. Gahan and Gore tell us of how they were up all night listening to new artists’ remixes of ‘Ghosts Again’ for an upcoming release, and each one of them was “fucking cool”. One new gen faithful is Kelly Lee Owens – the Welsh electronica genius and former NME cover star who has been hand-picked to open for the band on their upcoming US dates.
“We were given a massive list of potential support acts; some of them I knew, like Kelly Lee Owens who I actually really liked, and we decided she’d be a perfect fit,” says Gore. “What she does is very atmospheric and it never seems like there’s only one person playing – she really puts her soul into it.”
It’s a level of dedication required to be part of the touring Depeche Mode Cult. Their own standards of faith and devotion have tested the band themselves to the brink and beyond; but there’s something about this world they’ve created that thankfully keeps them a going concern. When pushed on the future, the two bandmates are understandably cautious.
“The most important thing is to be putting out good music and that people like it,” says Gore, settling for the right now rather than peeking over the horizon. “Once we finish this tour we’ll take a break, then we’ll see if and when we feel like doing it again. Up until now we always have. You never know, and I’m not saying that in a negative way. We just take each project as it comes.”
And to Gahan, who’s been so vocal about his frequent reluctance to start up to rejoin the Depeche circus – where does his compulsion come from?
“That is a good word,” he replies. “It was like that; I was compelled.” At this point, Gahan does his best Michael Corleone, falling back into mafia life in The Godfather 3. “Just when I thought I was out, they dragged me back in!”
Leaving Al Pacino behind, the frontman ends: “Losing Fletch made that feeling more real. Everything will come to an end. I don’t know when that is.
“After Fletch passed and we had to continue I said, ‘Try to enjoy what you’ve got to do here and do the best you can’. You really don’t know if you’re going to be doing it again.”
Depeche Mode release ‘Memento Mori’ on March 24, with their world tour kicking off in Sacramento on March 23.