The New Cue #76 October 11: Dave Gahan

11 October, 2021

Good day there!

Thanks for popping along. Today in your favourite music newsletter, we have Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan telling us about his new solo record and Secretly Canadian founder Ben Swanson looks back on a career in music. All for free! Lucky you.

But, wait, we only said that so we could follow it up with this bit: we have more great #content coming this week, including a wonderful chat with Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes, but you will need to be a paying subscriber to receive that. It costs £5 a month - that’s right, it’s not a typo, what did you think we were trying to spell, moth? - and you’ll get two dedicated subscriber editions a week.

OK, sales chat over. Enjoy the edition!

Ted, Niall and Chris

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Start The Week With… Dave Gahan

Next month, Dave Gahan releases his latest collaborative album with Soulsavers. Titled Imposter, it’s a collection of covers, interpretations of songs that mean a lot to the Depeche Mode frontman and includes versions of Neil Young’s A Man Needs A Maid, Cat Power’s Metal Heart, Mark Lanegan’s Strange Religion, James Carr’s The Dark End Of The Street and more. It’s a very good record, there’s something dark and soothing about it at the same time.

It has its roots, Dave explains below, in the huge tour Depeche Mode did to support their Spirit album in 2017. I went on the road with them for a Q feature at the time (this is Niall, hello). I interviewed Dave in New York first whilst they were on a short break and he was lovely and chatty and charming but there was also a bit of a nervous edge to him, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When I joined the band on tour in Canada, taking in two dates in Toronto and Montreal, I didn’t see Dave at all (apart from onstage anyhow), despite spending lots of time backstage, speaking to his bandmates and loitering in corridors waiting for photoshoots to happen. This was Dave’s way on tour, apparently. He goes deep. He recalls the period below, saying that he went a little too method with his stage persona, a character he liked to call The Imposter. But a period of self-examination has led to some wonderful new music. I spoke to Dave about it over Zoom a few weeks ago. Here’s a playlist I’ve made of some of his best stuff away from Depeche, too…

Hi Dave, how’s it going?
I'm well. It's going alright, yeah. I’m in New York and things are relatively in a sort of place back to... I was gonna say back to normal, but it's not. It's not. People are out and about, still with the masks and stuff, which is a good thing. Everyone's getting vaccinated and trying to get on with their life a bit somehow.

I’m in your old stomping ground, Southend.
Are you really? Are you living in Southend?

Yeah, I live in Westcliff.
Oh, Westcliff is nice, yeah. I remember I used to go to a pub there called The Cliff. It used to be a gay pub and I guess it was ’79, 1980, something like that, they would let a bunch of us and our friends at the time have this space above the pub that we would use for a club where we could play music on a Friday night. We’d play Bowie and Kraftwerk and Roxy Music, sort of post-punk stuff. It was a cool pub, I remember getting on the train to go there.

How important was that phase for you?
Very important. Because at that time, finding somewhere that was a little bit different and somewhere… like now it's nothing to think about anything like that but even going to listen to the kind of music that you wanted to listen to in certain places, there wasn't places you'd go to hear music like that. So I think I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, especially post-punk and coming out of that and that being sort of my early teen years. Having that to hang on to and latch on to like, like The Damned and The Clash and the Banshees and having those couple of years of actually being able to be part of something felt very, very cool at that time. As a teenager, you need something like that.

The new record is great.
Thanks. Have you had a chance to listen to it a bit?

Yeah, I’ve been blasting it in the house whilst the kids are at school. Your voice is in very good nick on it.
Thank you. The songs definitely tell a story. When I listen to the record, I have to listen to it as a collection of songs. I can hear myself in there, singing them as part of it, you know, the imposter, kind of playing out the role, but then I hear how close to home lyrically and mood and feel-wise, they just kick up stuff for me. I don't know why… I mean, maybe because of the voices that originally sang them that have, throughout the course of the years that I've been listening to music and being a music fan, those songs spoke to me, whether it was Metal Heart from Cat Power, or A Man Needs A Maid by Neil Young, at different times of my life songs in general have carried me through.

It’s called Imposter. Did you feel like an imposter when Depeche Mode became huge or did it come naturally to you being a famous frontman?
I had imposter syndrome for a long time in Depeche. I mean, honestly, that's where the title for this record actually came from, the sort of final character, if you like, that I was using for myself to do that whole Spirit tour. You know, he was the ultimate imposter, kind of on the edge of being maybe too old to be doing this.

When I did the Q feature on that tour, you said it took you all day to get in the zone for a show.
A whole day, and then it got to the point where I just sort of stayed in it. And that often happens with performance, especially if you're on a tour. Over the years, I've found that doing these really large tours with my band, I have to be fully in. You do step out every now and then because you do certain legs of the tour and you might have, like, a month in between certain legs and it's always very difficult to make that transition to come back home for a month, see your mates, see your wife and your kids and kind of be like, ‘oh, what's happening?’ At some point, you kind of switch and you end up like, ‘I've just got to stay in this until it's over’. You know, it's a long time, you're doing it for on and off for the best part of a year and a half, two years, so you invest a lot of yourself in it. After this last big tour Depeche did, it took me a good while when I got back home. It was kind of pretty obvious to myself and to all those around me, including my wife, like, 'you've gotta reel it in, you're way out there, come back to Earth now Dave'. And it took me a while this time to be comfortable around my mates and life and stuff. So the idea for the title sort of popped in my head around that time.

You recorded Imposter at Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. How was that?
Every day was beautiful. Each day when we were going into record, we would do one track after the other and we recorded almost a track a day. I think we ended up with maybe 15 songs and throughout it, I suddenly realised that in a recording session, this was the most honest I'd felt in a weird way. It was odd, I felt really at home, really comfortable, I'd done a lot of prep before we went in, I really studied these songs and listened to the versions of the songs from various different artists that had covered them or whatever. And so I knew it was a tall order with some of the songs to be like, 'Okay, I'm going to have to somehow really make this be mine, like it's coming from me and it's not just a bunch of covers'. We've all heard those records, and some of them are good, and some are not so good and some work and some don't work.

What was the trick?
It had to be a complete piece of work that you could put a record on in the old sense of it and listen to a side of a record and go 'Okay, that's the end of the first side. I'm going to listen to the other side.'

I was surprised at how much the album feels like a Dave Gahan record and not just a playlist of cover versions.
Before I started recording the album and I was still at home, in my little studio I have a PA set up and I'd sing live over that. Rich from Soulsavers would work up a track with some sort of keyboard stuff or a bit of guitar and maybe a loose kind of drum idea or something and we were working out keys, tempos, arrangements, doing things before we went to Shangri-La, so there was a lot of preparation. Then I would get this loose idea of what the song could be in the studio and I would start to work up my voice. At some point during that, before we went out to Shangri-La, I hit this spot where I realized, ‘I'm not interpreting the songs as I've heard them before anymore, I'm singing them in my own voice and my own style and I feel comfortable and I'm moving around to it like I want to’. At that point, I even started to form what was loosely the sequencing, which  became really important to the way you hear and I hear the songs and the album.

It was the 40th anniversary earlier this year of the first Depeche Mode release. Did you guys do anything to mark the occasion?
We had a massive party! No, we didn't. I mean, we got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the most unlikely thing to happen to Depeche Mode and any music journalist who would have thought would have happened… that 40 years later we would not only still be making music, but actually be inducted into some so-called important thing. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the bizarre world of what Depeche Mode is and what it has been, and that we're still here and we’re still somehow together, managing to have fun and we laugh a lot together. We joke a lot together, we get deadly serious about shit sometimes, we fight together over things quietly and very passive aggressively. But, you know, I realise now after all this time, it's a very special thing. It's 40 years, I'm in my third marriage!

I was 40 this year too.
There you go!


Lost In Music

How music lovers became music lifers

Ben Swanson is one of the founders of the Secretly Group, an umbrella taking in some of the most influential labels in modern music: chief among them Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans. Recently, they’ve released brilliant records by Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, Phoebe Bridgers, Muna and more. The first two operations celebrate their 25th anniversary this year but amidst all the celebrations (a series of quarterly compilations for Jagjaguwar, a huge fundraiser for a local homeless charity in Bloomington, Indiana, where their US HQ is based, for Secretly Canadian), Swanson says he’s more excited about what they’ve got coming: new releases from Mitski, Sharon Van Etten, Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, Porridge Radio are on the way. In an email exchange with Niall, Ben looked back over his career in music.

If you’d like to listen to a playlist of some highlights released by the Secretly Group over the years while you read, well, lookee here. We’ve got you covered.

What was your first job in music?
I had an internship at a studio/production company in Fargo, North Dakota. I was 16 and in exchange for doing high speed dubs of instructional cassettes for a popular vacuum cleaner, the studio owner would let me mess around in the control room. They gave me very little instructions, just a 1/2 reel and time alone. I learned to cut tape, patch and mix a bit in there. All self-taught so I can’t say I was great at it but it opened a whole new world for me.

What's been your best job in music?
Oh man, definitely working at Secretly. I’d be pretty depressed if it wasn’t.

Which release are you most proud of and why?
It’s so hard to choose your babies, they’re all so different and have their own unique arcs. A recent one is the last Porridge Radio album that came out the week when everything shut down March 2020. First, the album is such a ripper. The band completely found their new gear which is always exciting. But I was also very proud of how our team was able to pivot quickly into unknown territory and how fearless the band was in navigating our new reality.

What's been the hardest lesson you've learned?
We come from a strong legacy of Midwest try-hards and cut our teeth at the dawn of the 90s DIY ethic. While I’m generally proud of that heritage, it’s sometimes important to be reminded that you don’t really have to try to do it all yourself. I’m continually reminded – usually the hard way – that it can make everyone’s lives so much better if you call in the experts.

What is your favourite Secretly-related anecdote to tell?
My older brother, by two and a half years, is also my business partner. As brothers do, we always fought and wrestled growing up despite being incredibly close. As the older brother though, Chris was always bigger and more importantly, he had the psychological edge. Our mom would always warn him to be careful as one day I would likely grow to be bigger than Chris and eventually “beat the hell out of him.” Even when my mom’s prediction came true, he still had that psychological edge and could always take me. It was a powerful force.

I’ll take a moment to say that our fights were never real; it was more tussling to work out whatever we disagreed about than actual serious fighting. Also, we’ve generally made our peace several years ago!

ANYWAY, I’m not proud of the fact that maybe once or twice a year way back when we’d get into pretty heated arguments. Once in a while those arguments would turn a little physical and we’d regress to our boyhood selves and start wrestling. We had shit to work out!

About 17 years ago (okay, exactly 17 years ago) we were arguing about something. It got pretty heated where we started wrestling. In the middle of the office. In front of the staff. A terrific look. Mom would be proud. Eventually, as now the larger brother, I was able to flip Chris on his back and pin him down. He jerked his shoulders to get out once. He jerked twice. He jerked a third time and then went totally limp and calmly said “you got me.”

It’s definitely not the proudest professional day of my life, but as a younger brother, it’s absolutely a Top Five.

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