Soulsavers Pt. 1: Rich Machin

"The chemistry was so instant..."
Soul Savers.jpg
They die but they live.
- Frank Stanford, 'The Light The Dead See', 1991

Rich Machin from Soulsavers is perturbed. "I am trying to tidy up my studio at the moment. I can't see the floor in here," he sighs. "It's a mess of wires, cables and other people's records. I've reached the point where I can't work in here. It troubles my mind to even look at the room." Not that you can really tell - as the polymath backbone of Soulsavers, his role comes across as somewhere between composer, musician, organiser, go-to guy and all-round linchpin; and yet, despite what seems like a frantic set of self-imposed responsibilities, he has one of the most relaxed, measured and laconic deliveries you'll ever hear. Imagine a hippie's laidback diction with a Midlands accent and you'll get somewhere close.

Soulsavers have just released 'The Light The Dead See', a collaboration with Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. Best known for their previous two albums (2007's 'It's Not How Far You Fall, It's The Way You Land' and 2009's 'Broken') which featured gravel-voiced troubadour Mark Lanegan and an impressive black book of assorted musicians and singers, 'The Light The Dead See' - which takes its name from a 1991 poem by Frank Stanford that Machin was reading during recording - is a work of grave majesty. The album which finds Gahan's voice nestled among poignant strings and complex arrangements, all of which are a sharp departure from the well-worn electronic sound of his day job in Depeche Mode.

'The Light The Dead See' began via a mutual friend, Porno For Pyros and Jane's Addiction bassist Martyn LeNoble; LeNoble had played bass as part of Gahan's touring band for his tentative first solo album, 2003's Paper Monsters, and he had appeared on Soulsavers' Broken. "Dave was a fan of the band and we'd met loosely in passing some time back," explains Machin. "He asked Martyn if we'd be up for going out on the road with them and that kind of linked it all together." Soulsavers would become Depeche Mode's support act for their fateful 2009 - 2010 tour, during which Gahan was diagnosed as having a cancerous tumour for which he needed surgery, forcing a number of shows to be postponed. Having Soulsavers on board for the tour would go on to provide the roots of the collaboration that became 'The Light The Dead See'. "It was really during the course of being out with them that we actually became friendly, and Dave and I just started talking about different things. It just got thrown out there one night. 'Hey, if you want to do something, just give me a shout.'"

If that feels like a glib, throwaway line shared between two musicians talking backstage over the rider, Machin is keen to impress that he felt it had more substance than that. "Dave is a really straight up, sincere guy. You do have a lot of bullshit, particularly at festivals, where people are like "we should do something" and it's very insincere. With Dave, as soon as we really talked about it I knew he was serious about it."

Machin gives a resigned chuckle. "As with everything else, I then did nothing about it for quite some time." After a few months, he finally found himself ready to send some ideas through to Gahan. "At that point we didn't even have the intention of making a record or anything like that. It was still just one or two tracks, but then it all came together so easily."

What began as a tentative, casual arrangement soon started to produce more substantial outputs. "The chemistry was so instant. Normally you'd spend years trying to get to know each other. This just felt super-good, super-quick and without even really discussing it, the next thing we knew we had over half a record sitting there." Machin laughs, still sounding vaguely surprised even though the record has been out for a couple of months. "We thought 'I suppose we should really make a whole record.'"

The result is a collection of songs that veer from introspective melancholy, regret and frustration through to tentative gospel optimism, Gahan's voice taking on a bluesy, soulful quality which has rarely surfaced in either his solo work or with Depeche Mode. It is an album that is best described as simultaneously uplifting and depressing. "I take that as a compliment," responds Machin. "That's what you always shoot for with that stuff, even when you're doing darker material. You're not trying to grind people down. Some people who are a bit more superficial don't get that, they just think it's dark and depressing. The stuff Dave wrote for it has a lot of very positive energy to it, and I think he was using a lot of it as a release from where he was at at that point in time." Gahan tells me separately that he wasn't really conscious at all of what he was writing, but the process clearly unlocked some deep inspiration in the singer.

"I gave him no kind of instruction as to what I wanted," Machin explains. "When I'd send him the music I left it completely open to his interpretation of where the music took him. Every single time he came back with something that exceeded my expectations. We never once had to have an awkward discussion or meeting. It's very, very rare to have such an instant chemistry with another songwriter, particularly someone you've not really known very long. It makes it incredibly enjoyable and exciting. It was 100% fifty-fifty," he laughs.

The process of recording 'The Light The Dead See' differed from Soulsavers' work with Mark Lanegan, most of which was recorded relatively conventionally in studios. For this album, the songs came together in a fashion closer to some of the distance collaborations that loiter in some of experimental electronic music's most challenging corners, with files and ideas being traded backward and forward between the contributors. While Gahan's New York home studio is probably significantly better equipped than a laptop in a bedroom, the more relaxed recording approach nevertheless clearly paid dividends.

"It worked for Dave not to have those time pressures of sitting in a studio with a clock ticking and money being burned. We weren't spending thousands of dollars just being locked in a room, and it was recorded predominantly in people's heads. We went into some studios but the bulk of it was done as home recordings and all of that really leant itself to the overall finished sound of the record."

Machin was initially not quite as taken with the set-up as Gahan. "It was kind of weird for me at first not being there but it totally worked, and I think when it's going well like that you don't want to interfere with it. If you had told me before that I was gonna do it like that I'd have argued with you that it would never work, but I was wrong and it worked great, and we just found a very good way to work with one another. I would do it again in a heartbeat, exactly the same way, as long as the results were the same."

While Machin says he'd be keen to work with Mark Lanegan again, a second project with Dave Gahan seems more of an immediate prospect. "We've already started writing songs for another record," he reveals. "We kind of got leant on toward the end to turn the record in. I think if people hadn't had got involved, we would still be working now. But the thing was it was working so well that the ideas were still kind of coming so we just kind of kept at it. Even though we finished the record we were still working on some stuff. The last idea that was going backward and forward was the best thing we've done. It wasn't something to me that felt like it had run out of steam, there's many more avenues for us to go down here." With Gahan now back in the studio with Depeche Mode and producer Ben Hillier, a second Soulsavers project may be some way off, but Machin is - in his own, casual, unhurried way - confident that it will happen.

"I love working with him. It feels like there's much more mileage in it than what we've done so far."

Words by Mat Smith

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Soulsavers will release new single 'Take Me Back Home' on August 20th.

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