Mode of the times

Depeche Mode are in their fifth decade of making music but have never made a record as political as their current one

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Thirty-four years ago this month, when Margaret Thatcher had just won her second general election and at a time of mass unemployment and increased racial tension in Britain, Depeche Mode were putting the finishing touches to their pivotal third studio album.

Released in August 1983, three months after a landslide Tory victory, Construction Time Again was the Basildon band’s first and, until recently, only real digression into politics, with songs like Everything Counts, The Landscape Is Changing and Two Minute Warning delivering a polemical attack on corporate greed, environmental destruction and impending nuclear apocalypse.

“When we first started out we were just a pure pop band,” recalls songwriter Martin Gore (pictured right), speaking to Big Issue North just before this year’s general election. “With our second album, we were trying to tread water and work out what we were doing after [co-founder] Vince Clarke left. By 1983, we’d grown up a little bit and done a lot of travelling, so we were more worldly. That was reflected in Construction Time Again.”

One hundred million album sales, countless trips around the globe and three and a half decades later, Depeche Mode once again have the political establishment firmly in their sights.

“I feel like we’re in a worse place now than we have been for as long as I can remember,” laments Gore, who channelled his frustration and fears into Spirit, the synth rock group’s fourteenth record, released earlier this year to widespread acclaim. “We decided to go down more of a social commentary/political route and that’s always a bit of a risk. You never know if you’re going to get slated for doing that, but for some crazy reason everyone loves it.”

“It’s angry but definitely not bleak,” offers co-founder and keyboardist Andy Fletcher (pictured left), popularly known as Fletch, in a separate phone conversation. “If you look around the world at the moment, it reflects what’s happening with Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Syria. We’re normally very ambiguous in the way that we write about politics and life in general, but Martin felt it was the right time to write songs about what was going on.”

“If we’d been on a big label we’d probably now be on the nostalgia tours.”

The record is a powerful commentary on global events, beginning with a vicious condemnation of society’s regression (Going Backwards) and culminating with the brutally sombre Fail, in which Gore gloomily intones: “Our consciences are bankrupt: we’re fucked.” In between, the three-piece – who also number singer Dave Gahan – rail against political apathy (Where’s The Revolution), inequality (Poorman), nuclear holocaust (Eternal) and duplicitous politicians. “Blame misinformation/Misguided leaders/Apathetic hesitation/Uneducated readers,” state the lyrics to The Worst Crime, seemingly referencing the ascension of Trump or – given the band’s pro-European sensibilities – last summer’s Brexit vote.

Gore, a chipper 55 year old who has lived in Santa Barbara for the past 15 years and wrote the bulk of Spirit before the EU referendum and the US election, won’t discuss what his lyrics refer to, but does say that the political landscape and Trump directly shaped the album.

“The American election process goes on for so long that the warning signs were there. Watching that whole debacle unfold and so many other horrific things happening in the world, I felt that I couldn’t just ignore them. Everywhere you looked there was something to write about. It felt like humanity had somehow strayed from its path and was going wrong.”

Brexit is the depressing icing on an already bitter tasting cake, he adds. “I haven’t necessarily always felt British. I’ve felt European and that’s about to be taken away.”

Fletch, who lives in London, is blunter in his assessment: “Brexit is an absolute disaster in the making,” he angrily snaps. Both members agree, however, that their despair over recent world events instilled a renewed sense of urgency and purpose in the band as they approach their fifth decade working together.

“The fact that we’re still around 37 years after forming and still making music that’s relevant and is being well received is amazing,” enthuses Gore. “At the moment, I would say life in the band is better than it’s ever been,” agrees Fletch, before adding a hesitant caveat. “That might not be the case in five years. That’s just the way it is at the moment.”

His caution is well founded. Formed in 1980 by Gore, Fletch, Gahan and original songwriter Clarke as part of the then blooming new romantic scene, the band were less than two years old and on the verge of a commercial breakthrough when Clarke quit, leaving Gore to steer the ship.

Clarke’s replacement Alan Wilder lasted until 1995, by which point the group had grown to become one of the biggest alternative acts in the world, releasing a string of classic singles – Just Can’t Get Enough, Personal Jesus, Enjoy the Silence – and acclaimed albums like Violator (1990) and Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993). Their success masked a dark truth and behind the scenes, the band was in disarray. In 1995, Gahan, who had been battling heroin addiction for several years, attempted suicide. A year later, he overdosed in a LA hotel, resulting in his heart stopping for two minutes.

“We were in our ways doing the same things as well, although not with heroin. I had a nervous breakdown. Martin was an alcoholic. But you get through these things and you become stronger people,” reflects Fletch, who says the mid-nineties were the closest the band ever came to ending.

“Dave was in a terrible situation. We went to New York to do six weeks of vocals and at the end of it we didn’t have any. Martin and I were thinking maybe this is it. Thankfully, Dave got his act together and he’s been sober ever since.”

Relations within the band have improved accordingly and although the trio live entirely separate lives outside Depeche Mode a tight bond exists between them. “We’re very close to each other. Our families are very close,” explains Fletch. “Martin’s the effeminate one. Dave is the macho frontman and I’m the average man on the street trying to appeal to everyone.”

“We’re fortunate that we don’t have to do the nostalgia circuit. When we started we had all the big labels chasing us – offering us tons of money. And we chose a guy [Mute’s Daniel Miller] who was offering us no money because we liked the musicians on his label. If we’d been on a big label, we’d probably now be on the nostalgia tours as well.”

Instead, the band will spend 2017 headlining stadiums around the world, promoting a modern-day protest record that poses as many questions as answers. “For every one of the band members the album title means something different,” says Gore. “I see it as more of a call to arms – to find our spirit again. For me, that is the hope in the album – that humanity can find some kind of spiritual path again and stop making bad decisions.

“But I hope that I don’t have to continue writing songs like this for the rest of my life. I hope the world becomes a better place in the next four years.”

Depeche Mode play Manchester Arena on 17 November. Spirit is out now 

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