Interview: Dave Gahan Illuminates on His Startling New Soulsavers Collab ‘Imposter’
Image by Spencer Ostander + Joe McGowan
The 1967 hit single ‘Dark End of the Street’, by the late, legendary soul singer James Carr, begins with a particularly disheartening lyric:
“At the dark end of the street
That’s where we always meet
Hiding in shadows where we don’t belong
Living in darkness to hide our wrong”
It was written, obviously, long before Depeche Mode were even a band. But it’s not at all difficult to imagine those lines coming from Dave Gahan – though as of November 12, one will no longer have to just wonder. Indeed, the DM singer’s newest collaboration with Soulsavers, fittingly titled Imposter, actually opens with a poignant update of the song; no surprise, he readily makes it his own (with no disrespect to Mr. Carr, of course).
It’s the third album he’s done with the Brit / American production duo of Rich Machin and Ian Glover – but it’s the most intentionally conceptual, as it’s a collection of quite unexpected covers, especially for the frontman of the most successful (mostly) electronic band in history. After all, it’s hardly a straight line that takes you from Depeche to Neil Young…or to Bob Dylan or Cat Power or The Byrds founder Gene Clark. But they strikingly reinvent the latter’s twangy-folky 1971 obscurity ‘Where My Love Lies Asleep’ as a haunted, Lynchian ballad.
Amongst the twelve tracks there’s amazingly not a single misstep. But a few truly spine-chilling moments stand apart: PJ Harvey‘s ‘Desperate Kingdom of Love’ becomes a metallic, fuzzed-out hymn; Gahan fave ‘Strange Religion’ (Mark Lanegan) is played pretty straight, but with an added layer of wistful longing; and though there’s still probably no topping the Pet Shop Boys‘ utterly exuberant version, here Gahan claims ‘Always On My Mind’ decisively for himself, and possibly invents gothic-gospel whilst doing it.
But surely most astonishing was the scope of their conceptual ambition, with all the tracks recorded live (at Rick Rubin’s studio in LA), then sequenced to create a kind of emotional narrative. It ends up nearly as much a theatrical work as a musical one, and is arguably the most perfectly realized covers album ever.
As fans wait for the official announcement of Depeche Mode 2022 tour dates, and Gahan + Machin prep for an intimate performance of Imposter at the London Coliseum December 5, we caught up with the beloved singer to discuss what it all means.
So, this record was actually done before everything went into lockdown?
Yeah, we recorded it in November 2019 at Rick Rubin’s studio. It was the first time all ten musicians were in the room at the same time – like we were on a stage. It was quite different to be doing my vocal tracks as we were working on the songs together. Having made two records already with most of these musicians, there’s a chemistry between some of us. But I didn’t imagine it would work as well as it did – especially with no overdubs. All the performances are live.
Actually, this is about as radical a departure for you…
It had to be done!
I’m sure there would be those who’d think you would do covers of Kraftwerk or Ultravox. And I always thought it would be great to hear you sing ‘Warm Leatherette.’
That probably would have fit somehow, we could have done a great rendition – with standup bass, weird guitar sounds, and a big old Hammond.
You sound very natural singing these tracks.
It’s interesting that you bring that up, because these are songs that have over the years traveled with me, or lived with me, and have changed the whole way I feel about something. And more importantly, informed me of where I am. When we started listing the songs that we would be interested in paying homage to, and also that would work for me as a singer…well, the song choices were really important, but also the sequencing. And I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a collection of covers, it had a…
It was a story?
It started to have a narrative to it, yes.
I remember when you released the single ‘Kingdom’ in 2007, and we talked about how you had reached a moment in your life where you were searching for meaning. And I was reminded of that when listening to the new album, like it’s taking you on an emotional journey.
Around the time I made Hourglass, I was listening to that Mark Lanegan album Bubblegum all the time – and the song ‘Strange Religion’ just stayed with me. Also, I believe these voices, because I think they’re telling me a story that’s true to life. I felt incredibly connected to them.
I think Martin Gore certainly, and also someone like Robert Smith have written songs that people can plug their own lives into.
I think that’s right. With ‘Condemnation,’ even though Martin had written it, it was immediately apparent in its meaning to me. But some songs do take years for that to happen.
I’ve long suspected that deep down inside there’s a gospel singer in you.
There’s definitely something about me that gets very churchy, especially around these great singers I’ve been working with, Wendy [Rose], Janet [Ramus] and TJ [Cole]. When I was young I was made to go to church and made to sing. And I felt very at home signing in church – so maybe there is some truth to what you say. But all the rest of it was absolutely terrifying.
Which of these songs had the most emotional resonance for you?
‘Desperate Kingdom of Love,’ ‘Held My Baby Last Night’… but ‘Dark End of the Street’ – I could have written that song. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Hourglass, or for that matter Songs of Faith and Devotion. But others, like ‘Smile’…that really got me. So did ‘Always on My Mind’.
I always thought the Pet Shop Boys version of that song was incredible. But you’ve done something completely different with it…it’s really raw and vulnerable.
When I listen to Elvis’ voice on the original, he sounds like he’s really asking for forgiveness, and looking for redemption.
So the concept was to present this record as if it were a performance?
When we made Songs of Faith of Devotion, what Flood was trying to achieve with us, was that we were going to try to make these “performances.” The band I would say was a little bit dysfunctional at that time…in many, many ways. But when I hear that record, I hear a lot of powerful performance. It was a complete 180 from Violator. So for me Imposter was about going back to…well, just trying to feel really, really moved in a soulful way, and to use my voice to express that.
You had to make a “set list” while recording?
During the recording I realized there was a narrative there. The sequencing was going to become the most important thing about the record. I saw myself on a stage, performing, singing these songs, and there had to be an arc to this piece of work – like a show.
It does kind of reveal itself a little at a time, like a story unfolding.
It’s ‘Impostor, the Show’, and I’m the singer.
Tell me, have you reached the moment where you might be preparing for the day that you wake up and think you can’t do these massive Depeche tours anymore? Are projects like these a part of working out where you want to be when you can comfortably make that decision?
I’ve definitely thought about it – I thought about it a lot during the last big tour I did with Depeche. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, I was having a blast up there. But I want to be able at some point to look at the band and just leave it there – we did these great performances, made these great records, and that all stands on its own merit. Look, I’m turning 60 next year – I know that’s not old these days. But there may be something to what you just said.
Yours is an extremely physical performance, which can’t be easy at any age. It must take a toll.
It takes a lot from me, actually, and it also takes a lot from my family, my wife, my friends, my own life. The life that I live off the road, I’ve tried very hard over the last twenty years to do right by that. These are both very important parts of myself…but I would never want one to destroy the other.