Underneath the gloom and doom, the members of Depeche Mode insist they’re actually lighthearted and funny.
“I’ve never quite understood that description,” frontman Dave Gahan said during a recent interview. “I understand that we’re dark, but there’s always been humor in there. It’s this cynical sarcasm about yourself.”
Gahan and his mates — guitarist Martin Gore and keyboardist Andy Fletcher — have spent close to 30 years mining a subtle black humor from their coupling of submission with dominance, love with hate, hope with regret.
And they do know how to have fun at their own expense: take a look at the 1997 video for their hit “It’s No Good,” which lampoons them as a has-been lounge act.
“I think people sometimes miss things that are humorous in our music,” said the soft-spoken Gore. “People seem to spend way too much time thinking about what exactly we’re trying to do and what exactly we mean.”
But one can’t deny that Depeche Mode — roughly translated from the French as “fast fashion” — have fashioned their seemingly unstoppable career by trolling the darker waters of human emotion, something that serves as the main draw for legions of black-clad fans worldwide.
“The surface of Depeche Mode is very dark and gloomy, but sometimes that does seem to be pushed so over the top that it edges into a kind of inside joke,” said music journalist Alan Light. “Though for some of their fans, the gloom and doom is precisely what is so appealing.”
Gahan, Gore and Fletcher are still wildly appealing to those fans. This week they released their 12th studio album, “Sounds of the Universe,” their most synth-heavy effort in 20 years.
Utilizing vintage analog keyboards and drum machines, the English trio rekindle their 1980s sound — one which still evokes a futuristic, outer space vibe — while lyrically again giving voice to their longtime obsession: The sadomasochistic elements of relationships and faith.
“Unlike a lot of the electro groups, who were groundbreaking in their use of technology but unable to translate that into sturdy songs, Depeche Mode feel like real writers who happen to use these sounds as their canvas,” Light said.
On the slowed-down “In Chains,” Gahan swoons over a woman he knows is bad for him but whom he can’t resist: “I know you knew on the day you were born/I know somehow I should’ve been warned/I know I walk every midnight to dawn in chains.”
Other standouts include “Fragile Tension” and “Corrupt,” and the Gahan-penned tracks “Hole to Feed” and “Come Back.” But the real gem is the buzzing lead single “Wrong,” with an in-your-face refrain that makes for the most eye-opening Mode song since “Personal Jesus.”
“(Wrong) wasn’t the obvious choice. I don’t think we picked it (as a single) because we felt it was the best song. We picked it because we thought it was the most innovative thing we had done that was challenging the sound of Depeche Mode,” Gahan.
With each member approaching 50, the Mode’s new material remains their focus.
“We would give up if we knew that people were only coming to see us because they wanted to hear songs that were made 20 years ago,” Gore said.
Appealing to new fans and maintaining a fresh sound is difficult for any artist — particularly those in the constantly fluctuating genre of electronica.
“I think one of the things that keeps us going is still trying to write that perfect song and not feeling like you’ve got there yet,” Gahan said. “It’s a drive. I mean, we’ve survived almost three decades now ... which is pretty scary.”
Longevity certainly wasn’t something they had in mind in the early 80s.
“It’s fantastic that we are so relevant and performing to big crowds and there’s lots of interest in our records when we release them,” said Fletcher. “It’s something we certainly didn’t expect when we started. We only expected to be around for a few years.”
Considering what some might call a rough beginning — critics bashed them unmercifully upon the release of their snappy 1981 hit “Just Can’t Get Enough” — and their setbacks, including Gahan’s very public battle with drugs (he’s been sober for years) and changes in the band’s personnel over the years, the worldwide iconic status they’ve gone on to achieve is remarkable.
“When you make music for a few decades, you start realizing that you have to create your own path,” Gahan said.
“You just have to do your own thing. And every now and then — it certainly has happened with us,” he laughs, “you become trendy again.”