You will know Dave Gahan as the frontman of Depeche Mode, the British band that started as an ’80s synth outfit and then went on to conquer the US as stadium electro rockers.
Today, we meet Dave in London at the Hublot boutique, which makes more sense when you know that Hublot and Depeche Mode have been involved with one another for over a decade and have partnered on five different watch collections and initiatives, including the Big Bang Depeche Mode black ceramic watch. And at this point it is probably worth pointing out that, yes, black is his favourite colour: ‘I would say it probably is still; I mean, it’s where I go with a lot of stuff. Yeah, you can’t go wrong with black, OK?’ And if proof of this were needed, a quick description of his outfit will suffice: black T-shirt, black leather jacket, black trousers and black boots. The jewellery, however, is silver. You couldn’t wish for a better rock ‘n’ roll look.
The Hublot/Depeche Mode hook-up is part of an ongoing association formed to raise money for the band’s charitable activities – first for the Teenage Cancer Trust in 2009 and since, for Charity: Water. This brings clean drinking water to people in disadvantaged communities where this basic requirement for life is in short supply. Now Hublot is sponsoring Gahan’s new venture, a tour to promote his latest solo record, his third with his side-project band, Soulsavers. Imposter is an album of covers of songs that have a special meaning for the singer.
Fittingly for a conversation that is being hosted and facilitated by a watch company, our talk quickly turns to time, as I tell him that I remember seeing Depeche Mode on Top of the Pops back in the ’80s.
‘Well, that world has changed, hasn’t it?’ he says. ‘Today people are always online, and that’s where they get their music. So I’m grateful and fortunate that I actually went through so many years with my band behaving in the old way.’
Of course, there are some benefits to the evolution of the old order of things. Although Gahan jokes that rock ‘n’ roll is ‘a young people’s game’, he acknowledges that the digital age has allowed bands to achieve much more longevity. ‘It’s funny,’ he says, ‘I remember in my 20s being on some TV show in Germany somewhere, and having the pleasure of meeting Pete Townshend [of The Who]. It was the first time I met him and I had a little conversation with him in the hallway, he was a nice guy. And he was probably in his early 40s, maybe. And I just remember thinking that he was so old, and we were making fun of him, asking him why he was still doing this kind of stuff – playing on TV, you know? And he was just kind of chuckling, looking with a look of wisdom in his eyes that I will never forget. I brushed it off at the time, but I still remember it.’
Gahan, too, seems like a nice guy. A quick bit of research, however, shows you that he is also a man who has lived quite the rock ‘n’ roll life – from brushes with the law as a rebellious teenager growing up in Essex, more than a brush with stardom ever since and even several documented brushes with death. As we talk about his new record, you get the sense that this is a project that draws on all that experience; one he could only have undertaken at this point in his career.
‘One of the songs I do is Not Dark Yet by Bob Dylan. I felt that that album – Time Out of Mind – was kind of like Bob saying, “Hey, I’m still fucking here, you know? And very much so.” And that song in particular from that record really stuck out to me when I first heard it. I had no idea that in another 10 or 20 years I was going to be recording it myself. But it definitely has its place, and there’s a sense of time and wisdom to it that you have to build into that song. You know, you’ve got to earn that lyric. You can’t sing that unless you’ve been around for a while.’
The whole Imposter album is made up of songs that have resonance for Gahan. It wasn’t easy to decide on the playlist, he says. In this he was helped by Rich Machin who is his creative partner in the Soulsavers project: ‘He’s Soulsavers really,’ says Gahan, ‘and facilitates the whole thing and puts all the musicians together.’
The process was one of whittling down. ‘We have a similar taste in artists’ songs, bands, records that have stayed with us for years,’ says Gahan of Machin. ‘And so we started out with lists. I think it was the early part of 2019, and we got it down to about 30. We decided to make a plan to find a studio that would facilitate us. And it just so happened that Rick Rubin’s studio Shangri-La in Malibu, which is in this beautiful, idyllic setting, was available. You can’t imagine how beautiful it is.’
They made the Shangri-La their home for just under a month with a band they put together. The schedule was to record a song a day, which they stuck to. ‘About some weeks in I already had a pretty good idea of the ones that were going to make it, and it wasn’t just about the performances. It was starting to take this shape for me that was telling a story. And it was a story of the songs.’
It was also, he says, a story of the singers. ‘I’ve come back to these people again and again. It’s the voices as well. PJ Harvey, Cat Power. These singers and what they’ve meant to me. So the record was starting to take shape on its own; before we knew it, it was kind of making itself. We just had to put the right pieces of the puzzle in the right place.’
He says he knew pretty quickly that he wanted to start the record with The Dark End of The Street. ‘James Carr, brilliant voice; that song has been with me for many, many years.’ And he wanted to end with Always on My Mind. ‘Elvis’s rendition of that song; it was stuck in my mind. And I knew that Cat Power’s Metal Heart was going to end the first side and I knew that Shut Me Down by the late great Rowland S Howard was going to start the second side. So, I had those pins in the map, if you like, and then it started to just work its way out.’
The title of the record suggests that perhaps Gahan feels he is standing in the shoes – or more likely boots – of people he admires. ‘I think when we first started even talking about the idea, I had some trepidation. And I was thinking, “Well, hold on a minute.” Yes, there were certain songs and artists that to me are a bit untouchable.’ So he had to live these numbers. ‘I spent a good few months with these songs in my own studio in New York, kind of just singing them down as if I were rehearsing for a tour, and performing them until there was a point where I realised I was no longer mimicking the original version and I’d found my own voice.’
Ah, that voice. Gahan possesses a rich baritone that sits comfortably with a man in his 50s. Incidentally, I am reminded that it was another baritone who liked to wear black who covered the song that proved to be the breakthrough for Depeche Mode, Personal Jesus. If you haven’t heard Johnny Cash’s acoustic version, with John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on guitar, head to Spotify now.
After a while Gahan stopped listening to the originals, and then before heading out to record, he and a few of the Soulsavers musicians put together what he describes as ‘little patchwork versions in the right key for me, maybe the right tempo’. These were his blueprint; ‘To find the right place for me with them. And once I started to resonate in that place and it was my voice that was coming through, I thought, I can do this.’
So is he worried about being the imposter on this record? ‘There’s definitely a dark sense of humour in the title, and I can play with it humorously,’ he says. ‘You know, living vicariously through song is something that I’ve enjoyed doing very much.’ He explains how songs possess a cinematic aspect for him, and so when singing he is playing a part. ‘So in the Neil Young song we do, A Man Needs a Maid, when he sings “I fell in love with the actress”, he is playing a part that I can understand. A song does that for me. And when it’s just right, I have so much identification with it that I feel almost… relieved. I can live in it. And when I’m performing I feel very at home.’ This is how he feels about the Imposter album in particular, he says. He also points out that he’s used to singing someone else’s songs – much of Depeche Mode’s output is written by bandmate Martin Gore.
‘Of course, in the past 40 years of my life, in there it’s been spattered with some of my own songs as well, but I would say that for maybe 30 out of those 40 I have sung someone else’s work. So, I had to make them my own – there was a point where I had to become the soul of the song. Otherwise it didn’t feel authentic to me. And I got good at that. I didn’t even feel it was written by someone else.’
So is, then, Imposter a comment on overcoming imposter syndrome? ‘Imposter syndrome was definitely there. Long before I made this record,’ he admits. ‘I went through a phase in my life where I felt like what’s wrong here? Why does this not feel right? I’ve got everything I ever wanted, and it doesn’t feel right. And that was where I had to then start to find my own place in writing songs and writing with other people and sort of peeling the onion and finding what’s underneath. And then I was able to come back to the songs that were written for me to sing by somebody else and really own them. Yeah. And then I felt like oh, OK, I can. This is mine. Yeah, I know you wrote it. But I’m singing it. And you know, that wasn’t easy for me in the beginning. I was younger. And I guess it didn’t matter so much initially.’
Gahan is a thoughtful man, and what’s pleasing is how he appears to have earned the right to sing these songs through acquiring perspective. ‘Now, I feel very sure. I know what to do with a song when it’s the right song. And that’s time. Yeah, I think so. I guess it comes with anything that we do – you know, the more you do it, the more you learn about it; and then at some point you let go of trying to control it.’
Hublot is the official partner of Dave Gahan’s Imposter tour, starting on 5 December at London’s Coliseum. This sold so quickly a second date at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on December 7 was added. On 10 December Paris will host the tour at the Salle Pleyel, and on 13 December there will be a show in Berlin at the Admiralspalast. For further tour dates, other events and Soulsavers news, keep an eye on davegahan.com