Let's first dispel one big myth about Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, who is on the cusp of releasing a surprise instrumental electronic album, simply titled 'MG': despite having written some of the darkest, most introspective and searching songs of the past thirty-odd years, he's not a grumpy, miserable soul at all.
"I think that there are quite a few people who think that," he sighs from his home in Santa Barbara, suggesting he gets accused of that way too often. With his soft Essex accent - more Theydon Bois than Basildon these days - he's just about the mostly gently-spoken member of a major rock band you'll ever come across, with absolutely no trace of misery about him in the slightest.
Gore also finds it hard to know where the notion that his songwriting is universally bleak comes from. "It's difficult for me to put my finger on that essence," he laughs, somewhat flummoxed. "I think it's just something that comes out when I try to write something. I don't even think all of the tracks on 'MG' are dark. You couldn't say that. Maybe it's something about the chord changes, but quite a few of the tracks on this aren't really about chord changes."
As if to underline the point that he's not a born misanthrope, Gore offers up this a timely insight. "I watched a feel-good film last night," he says, conjuring up improbable images of sweatpant-wearing Gore settling down with some popcorn and a good rom-com. "It's called 'Alive Inside', and it's about people with Alzheimer's and dementia and a guy's quest to bring music to them."
"It's amazing," he enthuses. "They put a pair of headphones on people and they're told by family members what kind of music they used to listen to, and they just immediately come to life and become lucid when they hear the music, just through that connection to the music. Apparently music has a way of getting into different parts of the brain."
Talk of movies brings us quickly round to 'MG', Gore's new album. Instead of crafting a third volume of his sporadic 'Counterfeit' series of covers albums, Gore decided to create an entirely instrumental electronic record. His vision was to craft an album that could be heard as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie. It's something that's been done many, many times over by others, but it never ceases to be the source of inspiration for electronic musicians, even if the results are often questionable.
Consisting of sixteen tracks, Gore's 'MG' bears some similarities - as a hypothetical soundtrack - with Cliff Martinez's actual score for 'Drive', containing lots of dark energy but also levity in melodies that tie this effortlessly back to Gore's work in Depeche Mode.
Depeche Mode were, at least initially, every bit the classic 1981 synth pop band; tidy, good-looking, well-groomed and capable of delivering a form of captivating electronic music that spoke to audiences in a way that made other contemporary bands seem a bit of a novelty. As the 1980s progressed, the Mode sound became fuller, richer, more considered and more stadium-friendly, culminating in 1990's seminal 'Violator', by which time they were justifiably one of the world's biggest bands.
But they were also by then far from a pure electronic band: 'Personal Jesus' was the band's first foray into a form of guitar-driven music that would become more pronounced on 1993's mind-meltingly unexpected 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion'.
Guitars have become such a prominent feature of Depeche Mode's albums that to hear Gore stepping away from his bluesy riffs to craft purely electronic music again is both a welcome surprise but also something of a shock; over time it's felt like the Mode have become a bit embarrassed by their roots, but Gore is keen to refute this notion. "I do go into the studio most days of the week and do something at least," he says. "It doesn't always necessarily end in a track or even the germ of a track, or half a track. I'll just go in there and play with a synth and make a few sounds. It's what I enjoy doing."
"I do like instrumental music, and I do like instrumental albums," he continues. "One of my favourite albums of all time is 'Selected Ambient Works' by Aphex Twin - I like the first volume more, and I especially like the more atmospheric tracks on that album. I also really love the Geoff Barrow 'Drokk' album. That was meant to be a very, very sci-fi soundtrack, but also wasn't really a soundtrack."
If deciding not to deliver a third 'Counterfeit' album comes as a surprise, so does the fact that 'MG' isn't a techno album. In the wake of 'Ssss', the 2012 minimal techno album with his old mucker and fellow Depeche Mode founder Vince Clarke as VCMG (from whence he decided to stick with his initials for this release), or his DJ sets, or the pre-show music that Gore has selected for Mode concerts, it would have been too easy for Gore to go on autopilot and deliver a straightforward 4/4 album.
Aside from just one track, though, 'MG' is nothing of the sort. It sees Gore switching from brooding, melodic electronica to dirty, stalking pieces; consequently, its biggest success is manipulating the listener by not operating in any preconceived way or allowing tracks to become connected stylistically. "I think it is very different from track to track," he reflects. "Maybe there are some similarities and there are maybe one or two tracks that you could say are in a similar vein, but they're not completely the same style. 'Brink' is the closest you get to being able to a kind of techno, but after that it gets quite hard to pigeonhole each track. I think it's nice to keep people on their toes and also to keep me on my toes, by doing different things."
'MG's other remarkable achievement is that it sounds exactly like how you expect a Martin Gore album to sound, only without the lyrics or singing that make his contribution to Depeche Mode so immediately arresting and instantly recognisable. "Music is important," he says. "Words are important but music is important too. I did approach this record more as a purist. I just couldn't imagine putting a guitar on it. That just didn't seem right. And a few people have asked me why I didn't put vocals on it, but again it just wasn't right for this project."
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Instrumental music itself is not exactly alien in the Depeche Mode back catalogue. "There have been a lot of instrumentals released by the band over the years, going right back to the first album, 'Speak & Spell'," he recalls. "The track on the first album, 'Big Muff', was an uptempo, almost dance piece, and on the second album the instrumental was quite uptempo as well. We've done a lot of slow stuff too. In the early 1990s our Japanese label at the time released a boxset that included a whole disc of our instrumentals."
"Back in the day when singles came out there was quite often an instrumental as a B-side or when it got to CD as an extra track," he explains. "Every album up until the last one pretty much had some instrumental piece on it, whether it was an actual instrumental or an interlude."
The tracks that appear on 'MG', however, arose first and foremost from a much simpler place. "I think it's always nice to do something different and keep it interesting for yourself and for other people. When I was writing for the 'Delta Machine' project I had about four or five instrumentals written which we didn't use. We end up with such a huge batch of songs these days because Dave Gahan's now writing songs as well. We put quite a few tracks on the deluxe edition of the album, but even after that there were still tracks left over."
"So I had all these instrumentals without a home and that gave me the idea to continue in that vein and complete a whole instrumental album. I just thought that was a good concept, and something new for me, something I've never done."
Talk of Depeche Mode's last album inevitably brings us round to plans for the next stadium-bothering record from Gore's band, and in particular whether 'MG' offers any clues as to what a future Mode record might sound like. "We haven't even got as far as talking about any kind of concept or sound for the next Depeche Mode album," he insists, with one fell swoop crushing the dreams of legions of fans. "The most that we've done is talked to each other and talked to our manager about the possibility of a new Depeche Mode album, which we are all in favour of, but there's no timeline or anything. It's way too early to know anything about it just yet."
In the meantime, anyone looking to get their fix of the quintessential essence of Depeche Mode will just have to make do with the sixteen unpredictable tracks that comprise 'MG'. It may well be a venture into the unknown for Martin Gore, but for seasoned listeners it's just about the closest you'll get to looking inside at what makes him tick.
Words: Mat Smith
Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
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'MG' is out on April 27th.