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Uber drivers, studio visits, long Skype calls – memories from writing a Depeche Mode biography

The post below by Kevin is part of co-author David’s month-long Violator extravaganza. It originally appeared here.

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“What are your favourite things about Depeche Mode’s classic album Violator?” – it’s, inevitably, a question that I get asked quite a lot.

My answer has changed many times over three decades since its release…

For the vast majority of those 30 years, a response would probably range from the song that means the most to me (it’s always been Halo, unsurprisingly) to something about the videos or artwork or gigs or photographs from that period, 1989 to 1990.

Nowadays, since embarking on co-writing the biography of that era, such a question about Violator triggers a string of different emotions and memories – most of them being nothing to do with the album itself.

I was told fairly early in the process – by the band’s publicist in the UK and then (we journalists never give up on the first attempt) from a polite note from management itself – that Martin, Dave and Andy would not be able to contribute.

It turns out that they have never been keen on working with biographers or those wanting to dive into the background of a particular period in their history.

This might’ve been the end of the story about the creation of Halo the book.

But, thankfully, I wasn’t warned off from a project to document what I considered Depeche Mode’s crowning moment – in fact, many of those that I initially contacted about being involved, some of whom have connections to what has become over the years a fairly tight-knit inner circle, were urging me to carry on.

A few months later, after diving into the research and firing off dozens of messages, I had a growing list of people to talk to – a phase that was, without doubt, the most enjoyable part.

My day job (the editor of a publication about the travel industry) took me to Los Angeles for a conference in November of that year – a happy coincidence, it turned out, due to one of the potential interviewees living there.

Most of the interviews that had been scheduled so far were to take place over Skype or the phone. But Bruce Kirkland, the Australian but US-based architect of the infamous Wherehouse Records album-signing incident in March 1990, suggested to me because I was in the city that perhaps I’d like to go out to his office in the Silver Lake suburbs, late on a Monday afternoon, for our discussion.

kirkland, bruce 101114

I don’t believe in fate or anything that would suggest a hardened newshound can fall for the world of whimsy, but I’m always happy to marvel at how circumstances can throw up happy or poignant coincidences.

After sitting with and thoroughly enjoying the company of Kirkland for a few hours (funnily enough, in the same room that he had recorded his interviews for the bonus material that accompanied the remastered release of Violator a few years before), I found myself in the passenger seat of an Uber that was inevitably stuck in rush hour traffic as it headed back downtown to where I was staying for the rest of the week.

The driver, probably in his 60s, was telling me – as he looked for alternative routes to my hotel on his mobile phone and swigged from an enormous cup of coffee – that his daughter had been “Depeche Mode’s biggest fan” in their Playhouse neighbourhood of Pasadena.

After trying various alternatives to the clogged eastern end of Sunset Boulevard, the driver found a less congested route that took us alongside what appeared to be a large sports venue. “That’s the Dodger Stadium,” he said. “My girl saw them there.”

We then talked about the influential role of KROQ with British music in the US (“I didn’t like much of what they played!” he said) and how, not that long after the two gigs at the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dave Gahan made the city his home for a number of years, with almost tragic consequences (“the dude nearly died, right?”).

The driver knew his stuff.

This wouldn’t be the only time on that trip that a Los Angelino had a story to share about a band that clearly had an impact on many people in the region – many more than I’d ever experienced in the UK, even in Basildon where I had worked as a reporter in the early-2000s.

Despite years of being a fan, dozens of gigs in massive venues and knowing the words and musical nuances of their work, it took a conversation with an Uber driver in his 60s, stuck in Los Angeles traffic, to hit home just how genuinely big my favourite band had become.

Two weeks later, back in the UK, I’m standing by the River Thames in a leafy area of West London known as Hampton.

A few days earlier, I’d been swapping messages with Steve Lyon, the engineer brought in towards the end of the Violator studio sessions when the band had returned to London after stints at Logic in Milan and then a rural studio called Puk, in Denmark.

lyon, steve

Initially thinking I would do the interview over the phone, Lyon invited me to have our chat in-person at Panic Button Studios, his facility on an island in the middle of the river.

The temperature in Los Angeles in early-November had been perfect for a Brit already fed up with the grey and chilly autumn of home.

Back to reality In London, with the rain lashing down on the narrow footbridge that visitors must use to get over the river to Lyon’s studio – an oasis of sorts, miles away (physically and figuratively) from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

I’d worked in sound-proofed radio studios before but, similar to a wide-eyed kid on his first visit to a massive toy shop, sitting at the large desk of a recording studio and chatting over a cup of tea with an engineer involved in one of my favourite albums of all time, was a new and clearly rather surreal experience.

Lyon and I talked for over an hour (I learned that he’d earlier texted his mate Alan Wilder to make sure the former-band member was happy with us doing the interview), ahead of a session he was due to work on later that morning.

As I got ready to leave, gathering my notebook, coat and other things, I noticed on the wall a large, framed vinyl copy of Violator (and cassette!) presented to him when the album hit multi-platinum sales (2 million).

steve lyon studio 1

Similar to most of those involved in the production of Violator that I spoke with, Lyon was incredibly proud of his work on the record but, strikingly, it was just a job for a young engineer.

Over the course of speaking to many people that worked on various elements of the Violator era, I was repeatedly hit by this somewhat jarring reality, time and time again: fans consume, analyse and crave the creative output from the band but, for a key and small group of other people, helping create a masterpiece such as a Violator gives them a different feeling – professional and creative pride – that few can appreciate and none will ever replicate.

I discovered this when speaking with Violator’s mixer, Francois Kevorkian. The same again with Richard Bell, Anton Corbijn’s right-hand man behind the entire period’s visual output. And most of the other 20+ people that have contributed to HALO.

francois kevorkian halo

Every engineer or sleeve designer, publicist or producer, tour manager or fixer had the same style of feedback: we worked super-hard, we often partied hard, but everyone – band included – realised fairly early in the process that we were involved in something extremely special.

Uber rides and recording studio visits (I later met with Gareth Jones at his studio in London’s East End), very long interviews with the likes of Kevorkian and others behind the scenes, plus the goodwill and good nature of fans, have all contributed to what are, essentially, great memories of writing about the story of Violator.

gareth jones1

After getting through some dark times (a very serious mountain bike accident and job issues a few years ago) and coming out the other side with a project collaborator in David to greatly improve Halo (his enthusiasm is infectious; knowledge and curious mind both vital), has been another element of this project that will last long in the memory.

Violator is one of the very few albums of the last 30 years that is worth celebrating and documenting in such detail. I’m glad all the people involved in it and so many of the fans agree.

See below for some other random pictures from the last few years…

David and Kevin at the press screening for Spirits In The Forest:

press screening

Interviewing Logic studio engineer Pino Pischetola:

pino skype chat 2

Someone copied the book cover to create a wardrobe poster for sale on eBay (later removed!):

ebay poster

At the Barrowlands show, where David and I finally met up face-to-face:

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With Christian Eigner, after the gig:

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Berlin, July 2018:

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Berlin gig review: Depeche Mode bid farewell to something

BACKGROUND to this Berlin review:

David McElroy of the Almost Predictable Almost blog came up with a wonderful/crazy idea last year: to collect a review of every show on the Global Spirit Tour.

With a mixture of hard work, the generosity of fans, and good fortune in places, he’s managed to complete the 135-post project.

His enthusiasm is infectious – and he’s clearly very persuasive, given that over 100 people have written a review for him! – and I wanted to get involved, having (finally) met him at the Barrowlands show in early-2017.

At the same time as the Global Spirit Tour started, we collaborated on the Ultimate Depeche Mode Set List project for the London Stadium show. He’s one of the fanbase’s good guys – something demonstrated by how many fans have taken to wearing their Almost Predictable Almost t-shirts when attending gigs, perhaps as a calling card to other fans to come and say hello (it works, I can assure you – with a fan helping me out at a subway station after the New York show in June, when my ticket wouldn’t work!).

I’d written reviews of the Amsterdam and Paris shows for the project, during the first leg of the tour (he had kindly said that I could republish versions of them here afterwards), so was rather touched when he invited me to write some words for the penultimate gig in Berlin.

Whatever happens next for Depeche Mode, Berlin’s shows seemed to mark the end of something: touring on such a large and long scale; the “four-year cycle”; or perhaps the entire thing.

Anyone who was at the shows will agree that there was an element of change in the air.

So, below, is part 134 of the Global Spirit Tour project, first published on Almost Predictable Almost on the morning after the final show in Berlin.

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depeche mode berlin crowd

David’s introduction:

“Throughout this project I’ve not asked anyone to review a specific gig as I didn’t want to put pressure on people or ruin the show for them by making them feel they had to take notes etc.

“I made an exception to that rule however for this show as I really wanted Kevin May to review it. Not only are his reviews always excellent (this is his third for this blog) but, as Kevin wrote the second review of this thing for the Amsterdam show, him covering this show would given the whole project a nice shape.

“I asked and much to my delight Kevin said yes. Here’s his review then and I know you’ll love it. Thank you very much Kevin for the review, the pictures and for saying yes.”

*****

This review, perhaps rather cheekily, is written with the benefit of having a few days to both absorb the gig and knowing what took place at the final show in Berlin two days later (thanks, David, for the breathing space).

It makes sense, in a way, to have waited – so much emphasis has been placed on these last two dates as some kind of overall event on the tour, so neither can be taken in isolation.

This, therefore, is a review of the first show in Berlin, with a nod towards the Wednesday night extravaganza, written by David.

*****

Observers of the Global Spirit Tour specifically and Depeche Mode’s career generally will know that the closing months, weeks and days of a tour is a combination of excitement and concerns.

Excitement because it’s the last time that thousands of fans will get to see the band and, equally, concerns because it’s the last time that thousands of fans will get to see the band. See what I did there…

The four-year period of mourning that comes with such an occurrence is only heightened with each album and tour, as the band get older and creep up, ever-closer, to their sixties.

This time it’s more acute: the length of the tour, the celebratory nature of many of the shows, even the recent change in Dave Gahan’s farewell at the end of each gig – elements that have conspired to give many fans the idea that this is finally it. Or at least there is going to be a change to the four-year cycle.

It’s with all that conjecture in mind that I head to Berlin, unable to see both shows due to work and family commitments but with a sense of relief that I have a ticket for the first night.

Interestingly, despite the downbeat speculation littering the forums and fan pages over the last few months, there is no sense of foreboding in the air in Berlin.

On the contrary, in fact – perhaps a sign that the introduction and widespread use of social media has often only served to amplify the noise that surrounds a band of Depeche Mode’s size.

There are, in other words, thousands of fans who simply love going to see their band and have little time for the speculation.

Such a lack of doom and gloom is very welcome, feeling slightly worried before flying out that fans may treat the two nights as some kind of sad goodbye, rather than a party to commemorate a 38-year career.

Indeed, there is a particular feeling in the air throughout the time that I am in Berlin.

The day before the show, Sunday, for example, after wandering through the beautiful Berlin Tiergarten and listening to the extraordinary and massive Carillon tower (it has 68 bells, each connected to a keyboard some 42 metres feet high), a man and his partner stand beside me, decked in Depeche t-shirts.

I hear the man say: “I reckon Martin would love a go on that!” – they both chuckle to one another, see me smile, too, and then nod knowingly and say: “Enjoy the gigs!”.

Other moments include seeing a family, with fairly young children, all clad in black, climbing out of a van with Depeche flags and other paraphernalia on it. They’re all laughing and jostling around, messing about, on the morning of the gig, clearly excited about what lay ahead.

The vibe is everywhere – let’s have a (black) celebration, not a funeral.

The word on the Berlin streets is that “free seating” ticket holders (i.e. general entry) have a good chance of getting into the first block behind the standing area if they 1) arrive early, as there are only a limited number allowed in, and 2) head for a specific entrance gate.

With warm wine and beer (it’s a sweltering mid-afternoon) in bags, we head to the venue and find ourselves in a queue with several hundred other fans. We’re in the heart of the so-called Black Swarm.

depeche-mode-berlin-2

Strangely enough, this brief period of waiting is when the mood turns slightly low-key – the chants that were springing up as happy fans arrived from the various u-bahn and s-bahn stations have now stopped.

It’s not a stony silence – just a contemplative and more hushed tone in the conversations between friends and loved ones.

Once the gates open, the high spirits and high jinks return. The chanting resumes, the venue fills extremely quickly and early (it’s still only 5.30pm), the party atmosphere returns.

I have probably not experienced the energy from a crowd as those filling the steep sides of the Waldbuhne since the Royal Albert Hall in 2010 or the Crystal Palace gig of 1993.

It’s an extraordinary, perhaps slightly unworldly, feeling to be a part of it – something that the naysayers will snort at but deep down will know that there are very few moments when a collection of people can create such an uplifting environment.

And this is two hours before show time.

DAF, the support act, do a solid job in the Berlin early-evening dusk but I would suspect many members of the audience would be hard pressed to see the German band’s presence as no more than mildly tasty hors-d’oeuvres ahead of the main course.

It’s a shame, but probably to be expected.

There are a few factors about the night that will ensure anyone who attended the gig (or Wednesday’s climax) will remember it for a long time.

But it’s not the set-list. All but two of the songs – Strangelove and A Question Of Time – were played at the first show that I saw, in Amsterdam, in May 2017.

It’s not particularly the interactions onstage (they still outwardly appear to be enjoying themselves and one another a lot, 15 months in), or the always strong connection between the band – in particular, Dave – and the crowd.

Nor is it the near-perfect delivery of the material (apart from Dave’s slip-up on the opener, Going Backwards), in part probably knowing that Anton Corbijn and crew are in town to shoot the final two gigs.

Instead, consider elements such as the Waldbuhne location – it’s extraordinary and should be a template for outdoor venues across Europe, rather than often lifeless stadiums and arenas that change their brand name every few years.

Also, consider the energy of the crowd – creating enough goodwill and, dare I say it, love and adoration for their band, to ensure the intensity only increases as each song comes and goes.

This isn’t the festival crowds of the previous month or so – this is a crowd that cheers the start of each song with the same gusto as the previous one, rather than waiting for recognisable tracks. It must be a relief, somewhat, to be back in front of a “home crowd”.

Finally, consider that the party atmosphere that has been building for days and in the hours ahead of the show’s start has continued.

It’s almost as if the crowd suspects that this may be their last chance to experience the thrill of a Depeche Mode show, so they demand the highest standards of themselves in terms for providing an atmosphere that will then be felt by the band.

Some (myself included) have lamented the inclusion of I Feel You since, well, 1993 – yet tonight, for some reason, it doesn’t annoy me so much, if at all.

We forgive the boys on this one occasion.

A post shared by SmöreGöre (@giggles_fi) on

The crowd welcomes back the wonderfully seedy Corrupt, also the best live version of Wrong that the band have ever created.

Cover Me has become one of the strongest moments in a set for any new song in the last 20 years, and even the criminally bare version of Strangelove seems to work.

Still, one aspect of the Depeche Mode live experience that often gets overlooked is how sometimes the predictability works in a show’s favour.

For example, at end of Home, the entire crowd know when to sing unaccompanied (unlike in New York City a few weeks back) but they also know that this is the moment that it’s likely that Dave will lead a rendition of Happy Birthday in the direction of the 57-year-old, Martin Gore. It starts in a section of the crowd in front of me before Dave even comes on-stage. These fans know what to do.

It’s the familiarity with knowing that certain moves, lyrics, crowd chants, expressions, etc, are what make people feel good about themselves, which is therefore at the heart of the Depeche Mode experience.

There is a collective jump in the crowd when the first thumping bars of World In My Eyes strikeout, followed later in the song by the finger silhouettes of spectacles.

The audience knows the exact moment when to carry on the final refrains of Everything Counts, or start the wheat field arm-waving display during Never Let Me Down Again (it is particularly jaw-dropping in a bowl-like venue like the Waldbuhne).

These aren’t guilty pleasures, nor are they things to be scoffed at – there’s something to be said for thousands of people simply enjoying themselves, letting go and absorbing the energy that an experience like this can create.

A post shared by Oliverzwei (@oliverzwei2017) on

As Personal Jesus comes to a close, and the now continually cryptic “we’ll see you some other time” rings out, there is no obvious sadness still that this could be one of the band’s last ever shows.

There is a group of four people, two rows in front of me, hugging and crying – not through sorrow but I can hear them saying (they are British) what an amazing time they’ve had.

The crowd gradually climbs to the top of the Waldbuhne, and many people look back down towards the bottom of the bowl, perhaps their own moment of reflection that it may be the last glimpse of a Depeche Mode stage.

But then, as the audience drifts away to the various public transport areas, pockets of chants are heard everywhere – Home, Enjoy The Silence and, perhaps most beautifully, a gentle but long recital of the closing backing vocal of Waiting For The Night.

Sometimes, words are very unnecessary…

This is what Depeche Mode do/did to people. I guess we’ll find out how to structure that sentence properly some other time.

Footnote:

It was somewhat (perhaps unintentionally) poetic that David asked me to review the penultimate show of the tour in Berlin, with the blogmeister himself taking on the final gig.

He started the ball rolling on this mammoth project at the opener in Stockholm, and then I penned the review of the second show in Amsterdam. Our respective reviews have book-ended the entire project!

As someone who has edited newspapers, magazines and now online publications, I know about the tireless work that goes on behind the scenes to produce a body of work that readers will find valuable and enjoy reading.

It goes without saying that without his unbounded enthusiasm for the project and passion for Depeche Mode, this series of reviews of EVERY SINGLE SHOW on the tour (just let that sink in for a moment) would have never happened.

He’s edited every piece, been unfailingly polite with everyone who has contributed, and I’m sure has had a few hair-raising, frustrating and exhausting moments along the way. That’s what happens when you take on a project of this size.

I am thrilled and honoured to have been involved with it.

As this was the last review written by one of his contributors, I would like to – if my comrades will allow it – thank David on behalf of us all, for organising, hosting and connecting us, and for being an all-around top fella.

Cheers. Kev and the Gang