When Depeche Mode released Sounds of the Universe in the spring of 2009, I got the chance to speak with Martin Gore (MG) and Andrew Fletcher (AF) about the band’s visual style over the last 30 years for this story. Tonight they’re playing Bergen, and here’s the interview in full, and in English.
ØH: It may seem planned, but I guess almost the opposite is true of your visual history. You didn’t start off with a master plan?
AF: In the beginning we wore what we wanted to wear, and our artwork was by Brian Griffin, who Daniel Miller of Mute Records knew. Then came the videos, and unfortunately for us videos startedwhen we started, so no-one knew what videos were about really. Really, up to the day we met Anton Corbijn, we were sometimes looking okay and sometimes looking terrible. We didn’t have a unified image really.
ØH: I’ve made a note of Depeche Mode B.AC. and A.AC., before and after Anton.
MG & AF: Hehehehehhe, hahahaha!
AF: One of our early images were our leather look, which was shown on the «Just Can’t Get Enough» video. If you see thatvideo we go into these dodgy zoot suits image. The good thing about it is that we weren’t trained in any way. It was all very natural stuff, it wasn’t conceived, like a lot of bands today – with stylists and all.
ØH: You started out at a confusing time in music history, both music- and fashionwise, with all the punks, new romantics, postpunks, and futurists of the early 80’s. It was a very visual age?
AF: Yeah, the late 70’s and the early 80’s, you can say that they were visual. They were at least quite bizarre.
ØH: It must have been hard to find your style even if you were not playing in a band?
AF: Yeah, people were different. Everyone was different. It was quite good.
ØH: But Dave Gahan was fashionable before he started in the band?
MG: Dave went to art college, and he actually had a job as a window dresser, dressing mannequins. He did have a sense of style, and I think that was one of the reasons why we recruited him as a band member. I think we recruited him because he was hanging out with a core crowd of people. He seemed to have a lot of friends, which gave us an instant audience. Hahaha!
AF: During the new romantic time, he looked amazing as a new romantic. Us generally, when we tried to become new romantics, we weren’t so successful, especially me.
MG: Much of the new romantic clothes weren’t designed for the oversized man. Hahaha!
AF: There were things that these Chinese slippers that every new romantic used to wear, but they didn’t have them in my size. So I bought a normal pair of slippes, and dyed them black with spray paint.
ØH: Dave was also designing clothes?
AF: I don’t think so
MG: I think he did some sort of stuff, because he had friends that were into designing, like Ivo and Stephen Linard? He did dabble a little bit with that.
ØH: I brought an early picture.
AF: That’s one of the better ones of our early age. Dave looks very sharp, kind of detective look, sort of Chicago detective. Me and Vince would be more straight, with the leather jackets.
ØH: It doesn’t look like you were playing in the same band?
AF: That was one of the problems really in our early career. Before we met Anton we didn’t really look like a united band, at all really, it was a bit of a mish-mash.
ØH: Did you feel it as a problem?
AF: Not really, no. It was just when we started working with Anton we suddenly started to look like a cool
ØH: In the long run this was maybe positive for you. You were not seen to be as rooted in the 80’s as many of your contemporaries.
AF: Can I say one thing? We are careful not to be seen as an 80’s band. We don’t allow our tracks on 80’s compilations or anything like that. We’ve always made an effort to look to the future anyway, and try to be contemporary and relevant today.
MG: The other big difference is the fact that we’ve been around since the 80’s till today without splitting up, where a lot of those bands broke up in the 80’s and there weren’t any pictures beyond that.
ØH: Was it a smart move to not have your picture on most of the album covers?
MG: In retrospect yes, we would’ve regretted it a lot.
AF: Yeah, we might not be here now.
ØH: Why didn’t you do it then?
AF: You mentioned punk, and when we were 14-16 years old when punk erupted. With Mute Records being an indie label we still had that feeling, those punk ideals. We thought putting a picture on was selling out a bit. Did we? Was that the reason?
MG: I think so, I mean we tried to..
AF: Daniel Miller didn’t necessarily think so. We were certainly not under pressure to do it.
MG: There was a small picture on the back of Speak & Spell, but it was so small that you couldn’t see what we were wearing. It was tiny. We always wanted to create something a bit more artistic with the covers, it seemed like an easy cop-out just to put our picture on the cover.
AF: Actually, talking about the covers, we had a nice coincidence recently. We did some film work with Anton on Monday, filming for the live tour. We actually met the girl in the bridal dress from the front cover of Some Great Reward. We wasn’t there for the cover, so that was quite nice. We haven’t met her before.
ØH: What does she do?
MG: She was a stylist, styling that room for the following day. Anton was using her as a stylist. It was just coincidence.
AF: It was more of a «hi, oh that’s great, nice to see you, what a coincidence» moment during our lunch break.
ØH: Okay, back to my story: Your early years was also the dawning of the music video. As a child I discovered bands like Depeche Mode, ZZ Top and a-Ha through their music videos.
AF: At that time videos was a whole new thing. The problem for us, because it was new, they really hadn’t decided what was supposed to be in a video. They thought we were actors, and directors were trying out their ideas on us. In the early days it was a bit of a lottery how the video turned out. It was kind of frustrating, because we felt we weren’t in control.
MG: That still applies today though. We just recently decided to make the video «Wrong» with Patrick Daughters, as opposed to Anton. It’s still a big risk for us to work with somebody new, because we got a level of trust with Anton now. When you put all this trust into somebody else, you have no idea what the end result is going to be. We were actually pleasantly surprised this time, we actually liked the video. But over the years, every now and again we decide to stray from Anton, and more often than not we’ve been disappointed.
AF: The problem is, first you see a script and talk to the director. But when the final video arrive, it’s his version of what we thought we saw in the script, and this can be vastly different.
ØH: In your early videos you put a lot of responsibility and trust with someone else, and end up being disappointed?
AF: We were really young, we really just did what they say. We didn’t have the power or the maturity to say «hang on a second, this is not a good idea». We had space hoppers in one video, and poor old Alan hated it. We really didn’t have the maturity to say this is awful and terrible
MG: Today, if Anton did a video and wanted us to go on spacehoppers we’d do it, because we would know he would make it look cool. And we’d know it’d be okay, but back then it definitely didn’t look cool.
AF: This monday we had to wear astronaut gear, like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. We do it for Anton, cause we trust him so much. But had it been some other bloke, we’d say «no way», because it would look stupid.
ØH: Tell me of Julian Temple’s early videos.
MG: We were particularly disappointed by his videos. We actually thought he was taking the piss, and going out of his way trying to make us look stupid. I don’t know if that’s the case, but that’s how it seemed to us. But we still did three videos with him, hahahaha!
AF: You have to look at this era. We weren’t trained, it was actually very natural everything that was’ going on. You made lots of good decisions and lots of bad decisions, but we also learned from the bad decisions eventually.
MG: What were the good decisions?
AF: I think musically… I don’t know, sometimes you have to go through bad times to get to the good times, don’t you?
ØH: Did your static live shows with three synthesizers on stage push you to to a head start in thinking about light and visuals in your stage shows?
AF: You could be right, in a way. Even Dave early on, when we had our synthesizers carried in suitcasesm he carried his white light in his suitcase, which he put in front of him to light up his face.
MG: I think that pushed Dave into becoming more of a frontman. Because for years, you were right, we were totally static behind our keyboard stands. He used a lot more of the stage, ran around and got the audience participating.
ØH: I’m finished with the B.AC. era now. So why did you start cooperating with Atnon Corbijn?
MG: We had been trying to work with Anton for quite a while, but he wasn’t interested in working with us, because he felt we were too much of a pop band, and he didn’t really like what we were doing. It was probably the third attempt when we sent him the single «A Question of Time», and asked him if he was interested in doing a video for it. And finally he actually liked something we were doing. There was also some coincidences going on as well, because Anton’s been really important for the visual output of the band. But we also did change drastically musically around 1986 anyway, and that’s why he decided to change and work with us.
ØH: Do you feel he helped you with making the transition from 80’s to 90’s in a way?
AF: A combination of Anton’s input into the artistic side, combined with the way the music was progressing. Before Anton, we made the decision to start wearing black.
MG: Did we actually make that decision?
AF: I think we did. At some point I think we did to unify our vision. The visuals were of course important, but the music was also went up a couple of notches.
MG: The thing that probably helped the transition from the 80’s to the 90’s quite elegantly was that we released Violator in 1990, which was our bestselling album.
ØH: You chose Anton Corbijn as both photographer and video director. Had he made a lot videos earlier?
MG: He had made a couple of videos, but not for really big artists.
AF: What was great about Anton was that he got our sense of humour. Some people think we don’t have a sense of humuor, but he really got our humour across in the visuals. And we also worked with him for the live shows, which he were designing, and he was instrumental in making our live shows so spectacular. He’s just a man we totally trust.
ØH: Anton Corbijn made Control, the Joy Division movie. Will he be making the Depeche Mode movie next?
AF: I Don’t think so. He’s a big Hollywood film director now.
MG: He’s got a couple of movies on the go. He’s trying to talk one of us into topping ourselves, and then he’ll think about it.
ØH: What did he do for Sounds of the Universe?
AF: He’s done the sleeve, the books, and the box set design. He’s done the stage show as well, both films and the design. It looks spectacular. He’s actually wanted to be the drummer in Depeche Mode, but Christian Eigner, our live drummer is a bit too good for him at the moment.