27 Nov 2021

Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan on the songs that soundtracked his life

From Music 101, 12:30 pm on 27 November 2021

Dave Gahan has been the vocalist for UK electronic band Depeche Mode since they formed in 1980.

He's widely recognised as one of modern music's greatest vocalists, and has just released a third album collaborating with Soulsavers, led by Rich Machin.

It's called Imposter, and is made up of cover versions of music that has been important to Gahan during his life, including songs by PJ Harvey, Mark Lanegan, Cat Power, Rowland S Howard, and ... Charlie Chaplin.

Tony Stamp spoke to Dave Gahan at his home in New York.

Dave Gahan

Dave Gahan Photo: supplied

Gahan, 59, has been Depeche Mode's lead singer since its formation in 1980. But most of the best-known songs in Depeche Mode were written by guitarist and keyboardist Martin Gore.

Eventually, Gahan started contributing his own songs to the band with 2005's Playing The Angel.

"There was a point where ... it just wasn't enough for me," he said.

His side projects with Soulsavers, an electronic duo with Machin and Ian Glover, started in 2012. "Over the years we've become mates," he said.

"It's that yearning for me to experience something outside of my day job if you like. Which is a great job, I have a great job, don't get me wrong, I love my job.

"I still want to stretch myself and work with other musicians."

Even the new Soulsavers album title, Imposter, is a wink to Gahan's urge to set his own identity apart from Depeche Mode.

"My tongue is in my cheek there," he said of the title. "There's a bit of sarcasm to that because I have felt like that many, many times in the past.

"Having sang for many, many years Martin Gore's songs for instance, there was many times I realised at some point 10 years in, the way to get to remove this feeling is I have to really push for my own songs as well to be part of these projects."

Imposter's sound runs from the mellow ruminations of Bob Dylan's 'Not Dark Yet' or Willie Nelson's 'Always On My Mind' to a rousing Elvis-esque take on Elmore James' 'I Held My Baby Last Night' or the soaring anthem of PJ Harvey's 'The Desperate Kingdom of Love,' which sounds like a lost track from a vintage Depeche Mode album.

"This particular group of songs for me when played back to back they took me on a little journey," he said.

A key for Gahan was inhabiting each cover song he sings fully, through lots and lots of practice.

"I started to lose sight of the original versions.

"At some point it turned into feeling very, very real and natural. I really felt like the singer ... I felt, I could really own this. This is mine, like, I've earned this."

One of the biggest surprises on Imposter is a take on Charlie Chaplin's bittersweet 'Smile,' a song that dates back to the little tramp's 1936 film Modern Times.

"It's a song that is revealing to this person that is desperately trying to grow up and stand up tall ... and stand there and be proud of who they are, but they still feel like there's this child inside them that's been crushed somehow. That song, lyrically as well, it has the same empowerment for me."

Chaplin represents some of the album's themes, too, he said.

"To me Charlie Chaplin was the ultimate imposter.

"When I was a little kid I was obsessed with him for a little while. I used to watch him and his expressions. He could do it all and he was like the ultimate performer, and he didn't use any words.

"I still to this day couldn't tell you much about the guy at all," Gahan said, but that did not really matter when it came to his universal appeal.

"We identified with Charlie Chaplin. We all identify with that person."

"My thing that I use with that is my voice and if I really kind of go there and reach deep, with songs like 'Smile', it feels really honest to me."

Well into his fifth decade working with Depeche Mode, whose latest album was 2017's Spirit, Gahan said he is always up for a challenge.

"I'm finding as I get older and over the years you have to take these opportunities.

"There's things that get given to you and they're little magical things, and if you kind of go nahhh, I don't do that, that's not me, or I don't wear that kind of shirt, nothing's ever going to change, is it?"

To Gahan, music is a constant friend and consoler.

"I'm always looking for a way to not feel like the way I feel," he said.

"Music has always been the key to that and the one therapeutic part of all the stuff I've tried in my life so far that has not done a lot of damage.

"All of the other choices are not necessarily so good, but music always carries me through things."