The Third Chimpanzee: Clash Meets Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore

His new solo project, and why we should question everything...

Depeche Mode co-founder Martin Gore releases his new EP, ‘The Third Chimpanzee’, through Mute on January 29th.

Containing five tracks of rough, angular and surprising electronica, the EP bears little resemblance to either Martin’s day job in Depeche, his 2015 ‘MG’ solo album or the two volumes of his ‘Counterfeit’ covers series, and yet its plaintive melodic quality is immediately recognisable as his own.

Named after Jared Diamond’s anthropological text on the evolution of homo sapiens and its closest relative – the chimpanzee – at a time when most of us have been reduced to living like caged zoo animals, the titles of the tracks on the new EP are all named after different species of primates, with Martin even enlisting capuchin monkey artist Pockets Warhol to create the distinctive sleeve image.

Clash spoke to Martin at his Electric Ladyboy studio in Santa Barbara on the genesis of the EP, collecting electronic music equipment and the farm-to-table approach he took with every aspect of the record’s release.

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I feel very fortunate. I have a studio at home, Electric Ladyboy, that I can go in and work whenever I want. I don't just record endlessly, though, and I don’t have vaults of unreleased stuff. Even over the course of Depeche Mode’s history, I can only remember writing one or two songs that we never released, and there’s probably a very good reason why we didn't! I honestly don't have loads and loads of unreleased recordings. Even when I come into my home studio and work on my own, I decide quite quickly if I think something's working or not. If it's not, then I just bin it.  

I’m a bit of a gear addict. I still have equipment that dates back before Depeche Mode did ‘A Broken Frame’ in 1982. I have so much stuff that it's a little bit overwhelming when I come to work and think, “Okay, what am I gonna do today? What might inspire me today? What should I work with?” Maybe three quarters of the time I end up picking the wrong thing. I always used to say that by surrounding myself with musical instruments and musical gear in general that I would end up being more creative. I joke that it's probably gone beyond that point now and my creativity has gone the other way.

I recorded the demo for 'Howler’ before the pandemic. When we went into lockdown, and got stuck at home, I didn't feel very motivated to write lyrics. I don't know if being locked away, and not really seeing very many people, and not doing anything or going anywhere affects your psyche a little bit. Maybe you just don't have the stimulus to write words.

I felt differently about making music, however. Because I already had 'Howler', I thought that maybe I should work on some more instrumental tracks, and so I started working on what became ‘Mandrill’. I resynthesized my voice on both of those tracks, and I used warp delays and stuff on my vocal as well. ‘Mandrill’ and ‘Howler’ have both got quite a bit of my vocal on, really – it's just not words, and it doesn't really sound human.

At the point of finishing ‘Mandrill’, I hadn’t really decided to name everything after monkeys, but during the recording process of those two tracks, I thought that sort of vocal sound made quite a good concept for an EP.

I called the EP ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ after a book by Jared Diamond that I read sometime in the 90s. His book is about human behaviour and how that behaviour came from animals. I really liked the idea of blurring the lines between monkeys and humans. Sometimes I think we just feel that we're so evolved, and that we think we're so much better. I question that quite a lot.

There’s the virus, the pandemic, and there's also the whole political climate, which is completely crazy. You know, you've got so many people believing in conspiracy theories that are just so far out there. I mean, who could have ever thought we would be at this point? Talk about devolution! Without explicitly being political, I did feel like I was making some kind of point. I don't know if anyone will pick up on that. And if they do, they do. But if they don’t, it doesn't really matter. It's a nice concept.

I really liked the idea of getting a monkey, Pockets Warhol, to do the artwork as well. That blurs the line again for me. I was struggling to come up with a concept for the artwork, and then, one evening, I just suddenly remembered that I'd heard about monkeys who paint. So that sent me down a rabbit hole of Googling that. And eventually I stumbled across the capuchin monkey Pockets Warhol, who paints these amazing pictures. I found that he was in a sanctuary up in Canada, near Toronto.

So I went onto their website, sent an email to them and explained who I was and what I was doing, and asked if they would be interested in getting Pockets to do the artwork for me. And fortunately they were very interested. We decided to do some of them on black canvases, some of them on white canvases, and I was asked to choose a palette of colours to give to Pockets. He did five paintings for me in total, so I could choose. I think I think the result is absolutely stunning. I really love the artwork. I just saw the vinyl for the first time two days ago and it looks so good on a vinyl record.

I've never been so hands-on with a record and its artwork before. It’s different with Depeche Mode albums because we often use Anton Corbijn for our sleeves. I also used Anton for my second covers project, 'Counterfeit2’ in 2003. When it comes to a Depeche Mode album, then I usually bow to Anton, who has a lot more experience than me, and who knows how to come up with something really different to what you might expect.

'The Third Chimpanzee’ is coming out on Mute, which is back to our roots. I've known Daniel Miller, who runs Mute, for over 40 years, and he's a very close friend. I just like the whole Mute aesthetic. It just makes perfect sense for me to release this EP through them. I think that’s also a statement. I think I’m also saying that I understand that this is an indie release. I'm not going for worldwide domination with this.

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'The Third Chimpanzee' will be released on January 29th.

Interview: Mat Smith

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