Catching Up With... Depeche Mode's Andrew Fletcher
Few bands have had the good fortune to be as continually successful as Depeche Mode. This year, the band celebrates 30 years together: a three-decade career that includes 11 studio albums, global record sales of more than 100 million units, and dozens of hit singles.
While one could easily forgive the band
if it chose to ride gracefully into the sunset, it instead released its 12th studio album, Sounds of the Universe, last week.
The record is arguably Depeche Mode's strongest since 1990's Violator, riding on the assets that make up every great
Depeche Mode record: David Gahan's impassioned baritone and Martin L.
Gore's distinctive pop songwriting (though for the second consecutive
album, Gahan also contributed several songs co-written with musicians
Andrew Philpott and Christian Eigner).
The band is amidst its Tour of the Universe now. Paste caught up with founding member Andrew Fletcher by phone from New York during the first round of press for the new record.
Paste: How would you describe your current role in Depeche Mode? I read that you were as much a manager as a band member in the past. Is that still the case?
Andrew Fletcher: The first half of our career, Depeche Mode didn't have a manager, so I was the person more interested in that role, and it's something I enjoyed. We have a proper manager now, and I'm not saying I wasn't a proper manager. But I think sometimes it's quite easy for people to look at conventional bands and to see what their roles are because you have a bass player, guitarist, a singer and a drummer. With electronic bands it's sometimes a lot harder to work out what people's roles are. So sometimes for me, I'm sort of the guy in the background, you know? Martin's obviously the songwriter, and Dave is this sort of energetic frontman. And they get most of the attention, you know, but I'm quite pleased to be quietly in the background, to be honest.
Paste: You've been together for 30 years. How do you stay together and remain creative atfer such a long time?
Fletcher: To be honest, when people say that, to feel that we've been doing this for 30 years, it's just incredible. I don't know, I mean we consistently, I think, write good songs, work hard. We've been very fortunate with our relationships with people such as Daniel Miller from Mute Records...and we've managed to build a very big fan base that is very loyal. So there's quite a few reasons, but it's very weird to think. I mean, when we originally started we thought we were only going to last a few years.
Paste: I watched [concert documentary] 101 recently again and saw the huge spectacle of that Pasadena Rose Bowl concert, and realized that the next year you went on to record Violator. Did you think you'd get that far, or think that you'd go another 20 years beyond that?
Fletcher: The Rose Bowl was quite an occasion really and one of the real high points of our career because I think a lot people were surprised that we'd take on a venue like that. Yeah, and after that, [with] Violator, they were sort of the really high points of our career. But I think we still are relevant today, we still sell a reasonable amount of records and we do good business on the road. We just have to look forward, really. We feel we've made the best possible album we can for this moment.
Paste: Other than the obvious differences in lifestyle, how is being in Depeche Mode different now than it was back then? How do you approach recording and putting together a live show now?
Fletcher: I don't think it is. I think it's pretty much the same. The beginning of the process starts with Martin, and now Dave, writing songs, and then going in the studio and then at a certain point in the studio making a decision to go on the road and to start planning that, so it's pretty much the same process. I think if you compare it to those early days, I mean it was all so new to us, so in a way, I suppose, it's not so new; it's more we've been there before now. On the other hand, we're a lot more sensible now than we were in those days. I think we're able to play more consistent concerts. We're much more experienced, which is in some ways good, and in some ways bad.
Paste: You said you felt fortunate to still have a really supportive fan base, and it seems like you've always been able to engage your fans through things like having a group of kids follow you around on the 101 Tour, and even recently, you posting videos of you guys in the studio. Do you still feel a really strong connection to your fans?
Fletcher: We have to really, because it's our fans that give us the freedom to release music we like rather than music that we have to make. And, you know, the thing about our audience: It's very international as well, which makes us feel pretty good to produce this feeling which seems to go around most of the world.
Paste: The band has had a tremendous influence on other musicians and bands. Do you ever hear that coming out in people's music and if so, how does that feel to hear bits of Depeche Mode come out?
Fletcher: Yeah, we get cited quite often. A lot of times, the group doesn't have to necessarily sound like us. Someone like The Killers, for instance, they've got their own sound and their own look, yet they will say that we were one of the bands that inspired them. So I think it's quite good, because there's sort of a certain amount of intelligence there, it's not bands completely just copying us, which wouldn't be very good, I think.
Paste: The new record has a very electronic, aggressive sound. Was that a conscious choice, or was it something that just developed naturally?
Fletcher: It wasn't a conscious choice, and to be honest, it's quite strange, because you guys that are interviewing at the moment, you're the first bunch of people that have actually gotten to listen to the album. We've been in our little world, recording away, and it's quite nice hearing what people say. The word "aggressive" has come up quite a bit. Not saying that's a bad thing...but it is quite electro. The last album was a bit more rockier, I think. This is a bit more electro.
Paste: So how would you describe how this records sounds to you?
Fletcher: I can't describe it, to be honest. Sounds a bit Spinal Tap, but for me, the songs I think are very good, the sound's great, and the performances are really good. I don't actually play it from start to finish, I'm just playing little bits all the time. We were quite inspired by Martin's addiction to buying, on eBay, vintage synthesizers. And believe me, it is an obsession. He gave up drinking a few years ago, and he's turned his addictions on to other things, and this one was actually quite useful. So he's like bidding, and synthesizers were just turning up every day. That was quite inspiring. Some things we'd used early in our career. I don't think the album sounds like it's just a load of analog synthesizers, but they were quite inspiring.
Paste: To me one of the album's strengths is that despite sounding very fresh and very relevant, as you said, it does exhibit a lot of the classic melodic elements of the Depeche Mode sound. Are you conscious of "the Depeche Mode sound?"
Fletcher: Well, I think there's always going to be an element of a Depeche Mode sound because you've got Dave's voice which is very distinctive and you've got Martin's songs, you know, Martin writes his songs in sort of a similar style. So yeah, I do. But around that, we do try and keep things fresh and now, as much as possible. We don't do that by looking around. I think it's quite a natural process.
Paste: You've mentioned Martin's still the primary songwriter, but I understand David's written a few songs on the new album. I read something about that being a little bit of a conflict on the last record. Was it a problem on the last record, and if so, it sounds like it's smoothed out now?
Fletcher: It's just something that we've had to deal with, you know? Dave, he's now making solo records. In the past, he wasn't particularly interested in writing songs, but in the last, say, seven or eight years, he has been. So it wasn't really a source of conflict, we just wanted to be sure that Dave could write songs that would fit into the album and be on par with Martin's. And to be honest, he's achieved that, and he seems to be getting better and better. So I wouldn't say a conflict at all. He's really worked at his songwriting, and the last two solo albums he's done are very good as well. Remember in the past, we've had Vince. Vince used to write most of the songs. Alan Wilder, when he was with the group, he used to write a couple of songs, so it's not uncommon to Depeche Mode.
Paste: You worked with producer Ben Hillier for the second time on this record. Why the decision to work with Ben again?
Fletcher: We thought that it worked very well with Playing the Angel, and we were very comfortable with him, and he was the only one who would take on the next album [laughs]. No, we felt that there was still some room left with Ben, and to be honest he's been like a man possessed, he's really done a good job. He did push us into making a good album I think.
Paste: How did he do that?
Fletcher: He was...fully on the job, recruited a good team of people around him. He seemed to have a real idea of where he wanted this to go, more than the last album when I think we were just getting the relationship going. It just worked out really well.
Paste: Depeche Mode has a reputation for making these innovative records as well as captivating live concerts that as you said are still well attended. What do you think makes it possible to operate in both spheres so well?
Fletcher: From the day we started as a band, making records and playing live was equally important. We felt that being an electronic band, it was very important that we weren't just stuck in the studio, that we proved to people we were a good live band. I think some electronic bands get the impression that they're not good live bands. And it's just equal in our career, it's 50-50. We put as much into our live shows as we put into our records, again that's one of the reasons we're still here today.
Paste: Do you prefer making records, do you prefer the concerts or is it all just part of the cycle?
Fletcher: You know, when you're making a record, you've been at it for quite a while. You go and you can't wait to go on tour, and when you're on tour you cant wait to go in the studio. It's really hard to judge. It's just a different experience. In the studio you don't really meet other people. You're completely alone, you know, just a group of you. And the live experience is quite much more sociable so it's completely different. It depends where you're at personally in your life sometimes whether you're having a great time or it's just okay. But we're not as wild on tour as we used to be - I think age children, families, and stuff, you know. And I think we wouldn't last very long on this tour if we were anything like we were in the Violator days or the Songs of Faith and Devotion days.
Paste: What's your mindset right now? You're going out on tour, the album's coming out. This is the 12th time you've done this. Is it exciting? Are you nervous about it?
Fletcher: I think you've got to be... It's both really; it's called adrenaline. You know, you're fearful that something could go wrong, something could happen, and you're excited about everything you're gonna be doing. And I think that adrenaline is very important, especially when you're performing, and that fear factor's quite important. It's that fear factor that enables you to go out and do a good show. You know, we still get quite a big buzz from playing live, the adrenaline factor's very high.
Paste: Does that surprise you that you still get that buzz?
Fletcher: I think if you didn't get that buzz, you shouldn't be doing it. We're lucky with our audience as well, they're so amazing, you know, and sometimes you feel you could go out there and not play anything at all and you'd get an encore.
Paste: I believe you've said these days there's not necessarily an expectation that the band will do anything beyond the current project, but things seem to be going well...
Fletcher: I'm afraid, I think we're running out of time a bit, [laughs] age-wise. You know, groups like the Rolling Stones, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I could see us going on a bit longer, I'm saying [knock on] wood here, but you know, we just look at the current album, the current tour, and hopefully we finish that tour and we're getting on, and we want to do another one.
Paste: Assuming that things are going well, would you still want to be in Depeche Mode in another 10 years and be able to celebrate your 40th anniversary?
Fletcher: I don't know, really. It might be that I don't have a choice, the way it's going at the moment, so I'll just wait and see.
Paste: Anything else you would add about this career-long experience of being in a band that's so well known and so beloved?
Fletcher: You have to pinch yourself sometimes, it's so amazing. And like I say, I think we're still making good records. We always said that if we weren't making good records then we'd have to quit. But somehow we still keep it going.