Depeche Mode strives for synthesis

September 10, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Remember when synthesizers were so new that they were treated virtually as a kind of novelty instrument? Back then, synth rock was just blip-and-bleep music, an almost laughable attempt at pop futurism that even at its best sounded vaguely robotic. At the time,it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever consider the synthesizer a rock and roll instrument

Now.of course,synths are almost as common as guitars, and have largely replaced pianos and organs on stage and in the studio. But as Depeche Mode songwriter Martin Gore sees it, the ubiquity of synthesizers hasn't done much to change the way pop listeners look at synth bands.

"People are so used to hearing traditional instruments that they become programmed to accept them," he says over the phone from New York. "The moment they hear a single note from a guitar, they warm to it, because it's what they've been taught to accept over the years."

But since much of the Depeche Mode catalog was recorded strictly with synths, Gore worries that "people tend to shut off to those songs, because they're not conventional."

Not that Gore feels this way. "I personally think that the synthesizer is a very emotional instrument," he says. "And we're using the synthesizer and samples and computers in a way that we felt was quite human and quite warm. But people who are not used to the synthesizer, who don't hear it a lot, sometimes don't get that."

So Depeche Mode decided to help those folks out. Not only was "Songs of Faith and Devotion" recorded with low-tech instruments like guitar, percussion, piano and strings fleshing out the sound of the synths, but the band's current tour even includes a section in which Alan Wilder plays drums as Gore strums guitar.

"That's quite different," admits Gore. "And it's been going down really well. We were a bit nervous about the response when we first started the tour, but we've already done three months in Europe, and the whole thing went down well."

This shift in instrumentation isn't just an attempt to broaden Depeche Mode's audience base, though. Because at root, what it reflects is the band's increasing interest in blues and gospel.

Granted, that's not quite the association casual listeners are likely to make. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine music less bluesy than early D.M. material like "Master and Servant" or "People Are People" -- and not just because of the band's synth-based sound.

But as Gore explains, incorporating such influences into

Depeche Mode isn't the sort of thing that can be hurried along. "I've always been a fan of a lot of blues music, and I have been listening to gospel music for quite a while now," he says.

"But I don't ever sit down and say, 'I like gospel music, therefore I want to sort of have some kind of gospel inflection in the music that I'm making.' It does take a while for things to come out."

It also helps if the music suits the emotions Gore is trying to express, and to that extent, the relatively upbeat sound of "Songs of Faith and Devotion" does reflect change in personal perspective on his part.

"If you go back as far as 1983, we did a song called 'Blasphemous Rumours,' which was very kind of negative from a religious point of view," says Gore. And indeed, the song -- which includes couplets like "I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God has a sick sense of humor" -- is unlikely to turn up in inspirational songbooks any time soon.

But that was then, says Gore. "At that time, I was much more of an atheist. I really didn't believe in God at all. Whereas now, I don't follow any kind of organized religion at all, but I do definitely believe in some form of higher being or God.

"My views have changed a lot over the years, and it probably does come out [in the songs]. Maybe even it affects the melody and the music."

Still, this isn't the kind of thing Gore considers very often. "I've always thought that the new album is a lot more positive," he says. "But other than that, I try not to analyze too much. Analyzing past stuff is a bit like planning new stuff -- you can see too much in it, and try too hard to achieve things that happen better naturally."

Making things seem like they're happening naturally can get pretty tough after a couple of months on tour, however. And as Gore admits, it isn't always possible to pull the same intensity from "I Feel You" or "Policy of Truth" night after night after night.

"You do start running on automatic pilot," he says. "Because you can't go on stage every night and feel excitement like you did the first time you performed the song.

"But that doesn't mean that you're not enjoying it. It just means that you're dealing with it in a different way. We still enjoy being on stage every night. Every show is an experience, even though we may be playing the same set a lot of the time."

Besides, it's not as if the band hasn't made a few changes in its repertoire. Most of the band's live show is built around its two most recent albums, but, says Gore, "when we do go back to some of the older songs, we've done very different versions of them.

"Sometimes those versions are based on sort of more obscure remixes that we've had done, and sometimes we've reworked them totally. I like that option. You can basically almost make a greatest-hits package every time, and just choose the ones you like."

Depeche Mode

When: Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: USAir Arena, Landover

Tickets: $25

Call: (410) 792-7490 for information; (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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