Better late than never, they always say. So Depeche Mode founder Martin Gore was definitely pleased that his beloved synth-rock outfit was finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, four long decades after he’d started it. And he was doubly honored to learn that actress Charlize Theron—a lifelong devoted fan—had been selected to induct him and his current bandmates Andy Fletcher and Dave Gahan. “Depeche Mode is the soundtrack to my adolescence—I’m not kidding,” she enthused in her introduction adding that when she had the opportunity to choose soundtrack songs for her shoot-’em-up Atomic Blonde, the Brits were at the top of her list. Sadly, however, the ceremony turned into something of a—ahem—black celebration, courtesy of COVID-19, a fly on the windscreen that delayed it from lockdown March to restriction-easing early November.
“And it was nice to see everybody on a Zoom call,” says the Santa Barbara-based Gore, 59, who stayed busy during the coronavirus quarantine composing a new solo EP, The Third Chimpanzee, out today on longtime DM label Mute. “And we weren’t on the Zoom call for long before they started filming, so I think it was quite natural the way we interacted with each other.” He pauses, unable to stifle a droll chuckle over the memory. “But I do think it’s quite funny and ironic that we managed to get inducted during a pandemic—it seems quite fitting for Depeche Mode.”
And if you didn’t get the speak-no-evil allusion in the title, this latest record—Gore’s third, after Counterfeit in 2003 and 2015’s MG—features no singing, per se, just his voice synthesized beyond human recognition amid clattering, often David-Lynch-industrial keyboards on five simian-dubbed instrumentals. It opens on the heartbeat-pulsed creeper “Howler,” detours into a sinister, squealing “Mandrill,” then climbs arboreally into a conversely spry, vibraphone-toned “Capuchin,” an undulating epic called “Velvet” and the clarion-call closer “Howler’s End.” All of it visually underscored by the abstract black and forest-green brushstrokes of the disc’s cover painting, commissioned from a popular Toronto artist named Pockets Warhol, an actual capuchin monkey known for his Pollock-splashy canvasses. Gore checked in to explain this mysterious new primate side road he’s suddenly taken.
Paste: How did you get your paws on an original Pockets Warhol painting?
Martin Gore: Well, I was struggling to come up with the artwork for this project, and then one night I was laying in bed and I had a eureka moment when I remembered that monkeys actually paint—there are actually painting monkeys. So I started Googling like crazy and stumbled upon Pockets Warhol and the sanctuary that he’s in up in Canada (Storybook Farm Primate Sanctuary). So the next day, there was a contact email for them on their website, so I just reached out to them and explained who I was and what I was doing, and I asked if Pockets would be interested in doing the artwork. And fortunately, he was. And they actually got Pockets to do five paintings for me, so that I had options.
Paste: Did you get footage of him, painting his masterpieces?
Gore: I have pictures of it, yeah. But not a video. And at some point, I may end up using two of the pieces of his art for this project. But I told them that when it was time, when the album gets released, I will auction off the other three, with all the proceeds going to Storybook Farm.
Paste: So you haven’ shook hands with Pockets in person yet?
Gore: No. But the woman who owns the place sent me an email saying, “The next time you’re up in the Toronto area, you have to come out and meet all the monkeys!”
Paste: What set you off on this new simian theme?
Gore: The first track that I recorded for this EP was “Howler,” and I actually finished that before COVID-19 was a thing. And I recorded my own vocals as well as the sounds on it, and then I manipulated it by re-synthesizing it and doing all kinds of effects on it, and I really liked the end result. But it didn’t sound like me, and it didn’t sound particularly human. And during normal years—not last year, of course—I usually go down to Costa Rica once a year, and there are lots of howler monkeys down there. You can hear, and they’re often very close to where I’m staying, or they’re out on the balcony or whatever. And I thought, “Maybe I should call this first track ‘Howler,’ after the howler monkeys.” And then after we went into lockdown, and I was just working away in the studio, I thought, “Maybe I should write some more instrumentals and carry on that theme, and re-synthesize the vocals on each track and name each one after a different monkey.” So that’s how I came up with that EP.
Paste: Have you ever had a bad run-in with a monkey? Like, “Hey, waidaminnut! Come back with my wallet!”
Gore: Years ago, I went to a place called Monkey Kingdom in Bali, and everybody was warned before they went in—“Take off any glasses if you’re wearing glasses” and all that. But the guy that went in right in front of me was still wearing glasses, and within a minute a monkey took them and ran off into the jungle with them. Just stole those glasses, straightaway. But I myself have never had any bad experiences with monkeys. They’ve tried to get the food out of my pockets, because they always know where the food is, obviously. They’re very smart.
Paste: “Capuchin” on your record feels almost like pop.
Gore: It had a bit of a wonky beat, so I just felt like it had a bit of a swagger to it, and it reminded me of a monkey walking. And it also felt like a futuristic Western or something.
Paste: Are you on a permanent primate kick now?
Gore: No, not really. I’ve always loved monkeys, and I was trying to blur the line between humans and monkeys by naming the EP The Third Chimpanzee, and then blurring it even further by getting a monkey to do the artwork. I put in no lyrics, but I wanted to blur the lines between humans and monkeys because sometimes I think that we’re not that much more evolved at all.
Paste: Well, the fabled Age of Aquarius just began, the era when humanity is finally supposed to wise up about the damage we’ve been doing to our planet and ourselves.
Gore: I know! And they got rid of Trump, so maybe that was the turning point. I’m hoping that that was the turning point for positivity in the world, because it seems like we’ve just been dealing with misery and heartache for so long. So maybe Biden winning is the turning point for the entire world. But it’s scary to me that even after the pandemic—and the awful handling of the pandemic by Trump and his administration—and the murder of George Floyd on camera, that Trump almost got back in again. Over 70 million people voted for him when he was basically running on a white supremacist platform. That’s scary to me. I mean, I’m so glad that Biden won. But it’s scary that he almost got back in, notwithstanding everything else he did, like almost getting rid of the EPA, getting out of all the climate change agreements. I just don’t see how anyone can vote for him.
Paste: But mankind is also capable of great things. Using new CRISPR stem-cell technology, scientists just edited out sickle-cell anemia, genealogically, from an afflicted woman, in real time.
Gore: I know. Mankind is capable of amazing things. But I’m sure that we’ll find really evil ways to use CRISPR, too. Unfortunately, that’s in our DNA, as well.
Paste: How are Dave and Andy doing?
Gore: Good, as far as I know. We don’t speak very often, to be honest. Not for any particular reasons—I think it’s just that when we’re not working together in the middle of a project, we just usually speak only two or three times a year. And there’s nothing nefarious in that—it’s just the way we operate. It’s kind of like family members that you still stay in touch with, and just say “How are you?” It’s a bit like that.
Paste: What spiritual lessons has COVID-19 imparted to you?
Gore: Well, I think it’s a good thing that nature at least got a break from mankind. And maybe that was some kind of divine intervention. But I hope that we have actually learned something, and we come back out of this and try to get back on track, addressing climate change, because I think that’s the most pressing thing that we have to deal with. And the other big thing that happened last year was the whole Black Lives Matter movement, which really needs to be addressed, too.
Paste: But one of the most surprising recent Depeche Mode footnotes? Def Leppard just did a cover of your “Personal Jesus.’ And it actually works!
Gore: Ha! And I was surprised, definitely. But that song gets covered so much, so I was more surprised when I found out that Johnny Cash was doing a version of it. And that was fantastic, obviously. But it’s probably our most used song—most covered, most used for soundtracks or movie trailers, most used for anything.