November 2019, Shangri-La, Malibu, CA: Dave Gahan and his regular collaborators Soulsavers are working through the tracks that will form their third album together in ten years, ‘Imposter’.
Things are different from their previous two albums, ‘The Light The Dead See’ (2012) and ‘Angels & Ghosts’ (2015). For a start, everyone’s in the room together, whereas elements of their first two records were recorded as distance collaborations; secondly, they’re recording songs by other artists instead of their own. During the course of the Shangri-La sessions, they will cover artists as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Neil Young, Cat Power and Rowland S. Howard, and songs made famous by Elvis Presley, Jeff Buckley and Fleetwood Mac. The sessions will yield an album that positions Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan’s voice in new and unexpected ways, exuding a diverse array of complex, unfamiliar emotions and revealing an artist able to effortlessly switch direction.
“Every once in a while you catch a break, and everything just plays out for you the way you want it to,” says Soulsavers founder Rich Machin. “The stars align and everything falls into place. With ‘Imposter’, I’m over the moon about how it sounds. It was the easiest record ever to make. There were no locked heads about anything. It was seamless.”
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In the summer of 2018, Dave Gahan had just completed a major world tour with Depeche Mode and he was deflated and exhausted. “I didn’t feel like writing any new songs or doing anything at all,” sighs Gahan. “I was back home with my family and friends and just trying to adjust back into my life. I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired at all. In fact, I was feeling pretty much like I always feel after a long project and tour: ‘I don’t know if I want to fucking do this anymore.’ I was thinking that maybe I should learn to make shoes or, as my mum would put it, ‘get a real job.’”
The idea of Gahan throwing himself into any sort of musical project seemed remote, let alone another Soulsavers album. “We talked together a lot, but weren’t talking about doing anything,” insists Machin. “We had no plans to make another record. And then one afternoon, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Dave asking how I’d feel about doing a covers record.”
For Gahan, without really knowing it, the idea for what become ‘Imposter’ had started to emerge in the conversations with Machin during the period of downtime after the Depeche tour. “We spent a lot of time talking about other artists and other records that had sustained us through all these years of listening to music and loving music,” says Gahan. “For me, those voices have carried me through so many different moments in my life. Those voices have always sustained this belief that there is this other place that I can vicariously live through. That’s what ‘Imposter’ became. We started to think of an album that would be a place where I could really use my voice.”
Machin wasn’t initially quite so sure about a covers project. “I didn’t know,” he admits, cautiously. “I’ve done covers before, and I enjoy playing other people’s stuff, but I’ve never done a whole record of them. I kicked it around for a day and then I just figured it’d be fun. It’s nice to take stuff that you love and see if you can wrap what you do around it.”
Vocal covers have never been something you associate with Depeche Mode. In 1988 the band recorded a version of ‘Route 66’ and, on the tour that had come to a halt before Gahan contemplated ‘Imposter’, they had performed a live version of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, the song that Gahan had performed at a scout hut jam session in 1980, and which led to him being picked to front Depeche Mode. Gahan is quick to correct this notion of covers being alien to him, however. “I’ve been singing someone else’s songs for years,” he says. “That someone else just happens to be Martin Gore, the main songwriter in Depeche Mode. In a way, it wasn’t until after we recorded ‘Imposter’ that I really thought about the fact that I’ve always been trying to find a place for myself in someone else’s songs. In the early years of the band, I didn’t really think that much about it. But more recently it hasn’t come so naturally.”
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Gahan talks, perhaps surprisingly, about feeling a sense of imposter syndrome within the band that he’s fronted successfully for over forty years. “It started about ten years into being in the band,” he admits. “Just singing Martin’s songs wasn’t really doing it for me anymore. It felt like there was something missing. It felt like a real risk exposing my own songs and ideas to the band. I tinkered away at that for years before I felt confident enough to let them hear my ideas. It wasn’t what the job description was – I was the singer of Martin’s songs, and that was fantastic, but I definitely got to the point where it wasn’t enough anymore.”
A turning point for Gahan came with ‘Paper Monsters’, his debut solo album, released in 2003. Since then he’s collaborated on solo projects with various different musicians and Depeche albums have invariably found Gahan volunteering his own songs alongside Gore’s. “I’ve realised that working with other people is just something I need to do,” says Gahan. “I know that doesn’t sit well with people who just want me to make another Depeche Mode record, but it just doesn’t work like that for me anymore, and it hasn’t worked like that for a long time now. And if I put the time and energy into it – like I have for the past ten years with Rich and Soulsavers – it actually makes me a lot better at what I do with Depeche.”
Once Machin came round to the idea of a covers album, the pair traded song ideas for what the album could include. “I think I sent Dave three or four songs,” remembers Machin. “I’d send things and say, ‘Oh, I could hear you doing this.’ We ended up putting together a list of stuff that we both liked. Dave threw some in the mix, I threw some in the mix and we just narrowed it down to what we ended up with. It wasn’t like, ‘You’ve got six and I’ve got six.’ I had a bunch of songs that I could imagine him singing, which I felt made sense for him to try. Even by that point he already had a couple that he was very set on doing.”
The studio complex at Shangri-La sits on the hillside above Zuma Beach in Malibu. A location more redolent of the Californian lifestyle and the state’s pervasive influence on rock music is hard to imagine. “It was pretty terrible recording there,” says Machin, sarcastically. “I’d much prefer the North of England in November...”
Originally a ranch, the buildings were converted to a studio to the exacting technical specifications of Bob Dylan and The Band, who settled in to record after their 1974 tour together. Currently owned by Rick Rubin, Shangri-La now features a reverential nod to Mr Robert Zimmerman out front, with his old tour bus parked up and converted to a separate studio space for Rubin to record vocals in.
“I’ve never worked at Shangri-La before, but I had been up there before,” says Machin. “When Dave and I were kicking around locations, I mentioned it. Dave was really keen to work in Los Angeles. I’ve done a lot of records out there over the years, but I felt like we needed more of a remote vibe rather than being in the middle of a city. I called up Rick Rubin and asked him if it happened to be free the weeks we were looking at. ‘That’s weird,’ Rick said. ‘It’s just come free the exact weeks you want it.’ It was just meant to be.”
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Machin talks enthusiastically about what it’s like to walk into the main room at Shangri-La. “It’s an incredible location to work in,” he gushes. “It just has a very specific vibe to it. There’s a history in that room that goes back decades. As soon as you walk into that room, you feel it. There are a couple of studios around the world when I can walk into the room and I already know that things are going to go well before anybody else gets there. Something just happens when you walk into a room like that. It’s like there’s a very specific, positive energy that wraps around you, which is really important to me – I'm a very stressed, anxious person who errs more on the side of pessimism than optimism. A space like the one at Shangri-La makes me know instinctively that things are going to be good.”
“Every once in a while, you get this thing where everything lines up,” he continues. “This was definitely one of those times. Most of us stayed at Shanghai-La, which helped as well. It meant you could live in the bubble of what you’re doing and get lost in the record. If you wanted to stay and play until midnight one night, you could do that. It just knitted everybody together.”
As the band settled into life recording at Shangri-La, it became obvious to Gahan that this wasn’t just a covers album, and that the songs were important markers of a very deliberate narrative. “I realised that the songs were reflecting back parts of my life, and times in my life, over the past forty years. They were reflecting different relationships I’ve had over the years, and the relationships I have now, which I treasure dearly, but which I’m also still trying to navigate my way through. These songs started to give me a plan of how to deal with that, maybe. They gave me my past, present and possibly my future. And it was all happening in those moments in the studio with the band.”
Machin was similarly surprised that the songs were speaking to Gahan in the specific way that they were. He recalls sitting in the studio one evening, running through what they’d recorded that day before sending rough mixes over to Gahan at this hotel. They were working on one song per day, starting in the afternoon and finishing up in the evening. “It was possibly the second night,” he remembers. “Dave came back and said it all sounded great. He also said, ‘Its weird Rich – I’m making a playlist as they come in, and it feels like we’re almost recording them in a deliberate order. I’m looking at it and as I’m listening back to each one, each one follows on naturally. I think it’s telling a story.’ With the exception of a couple, the album is very close to the order we recorded them in.”
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Perhaps the most surprising song on ‘Imposter’ is the version of ‘Always On My Mind’ that concludes the album. Best known as a version recorded by Elvis Presley in 1972, what’s most striking about its inclusion is the fact that Gahan has sung very few straight-up love songs in his career. Martin Gore’s writing tends not to be quite so overtly romantic, dealing instead in darkened, more shrouded terms. The version of ‘Always On My Mind’ by Soulsavers is presented as raw, heartfelt and naked, making it one of Gahan’s best vocal performances of his whole career.
“That was one of the first couple of tracks that he mentioned being very passionate about,” remembers Machin. “It was also the one I had the most reservations about. I loved the Willie Nelson version of that song from 1982, and for me that’s the definitive one. I can still remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. It’s had a very deep impact on my soul for many years. I initially said to Dave that he couldn’t mess with that, but I could tell he was very passionate about wanting to do it, so I suggested we try it.”
“For me it’s the ultimate closer – not just to the album, but to everything,” gushes Gahan. “It’s very much a plea for forgiveness and redemption. Also, it was coming from that place of me being the ultimate imposter. Elvis had the game plan for all us singers and performers. His whole career was a message – you know, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this,’ and yet we all still fell into that trap as performers and singers. There’s something about that song that really reveals a vulnerability.”
“That song was recorded on a Sunday night after most people had gone home,” recalls Machin. “Sean Reed, our piano player, was still there, and maybe there were a couple of other people with us. I was sat in the room while Dave was doing it, and it was really beautiful. In the same way that I felt when I heard the Willie Nelson version, I was like, ‘Wow’. It was an incredibly powerful moment.”
Another song that Gahan included was ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ by Neil Young, a song that he has revealed a love for several times over the years. The plaintive song, originally recorded by Young for his epochal ‘Harvest’ album in 1972 might not necessarily stand up to scrutiny in a time of questioning of male dominance and the patriarchy, and even back when he first performed it in 1971, Young felt it necessary to explain the true message of the song. Gahan highlights something much more fundamental in its metaphorical framing. “It’s about dependency,” he says. “It’s about a dependency on something, or someone, or some person where you can’t be with them. You’re desperate for something but you just can’t get to it. For me, ‘A Man Needs A Maid’ is that admission, and that acceptance, of having to settle for something else.”
“It was one thing listening and having all of these voices – these great singers and great interpreters of visual and soulful experiences – in the back of my head, and another to actually try singing their songs,” reflects Gahan. “Whether what they were singing about was true or not didn’t really matter to me. It was something that I really believed in, almost religiously, from the earliest age. It was something I was drawn to. I remember obsessing over Bowie and being drawn to this otherworldly place that he seemed to be in, and which I desperately wanted to be a part of.”
Gahan, arguably, has more than become a resident of that place which he longed to live as a teenager. He has led Depeche Mode from their tentative electronic pop beginnings to being one of the biggest bands on the planet. His energy, delivery and presence as a frontman and showman has only become stronger over the years, and, on recent tours it’s felt like Gahan has finally settled into that persona, and taken his rightful place among the best. ‘Imposter’ is, then, an album of extreme vulnerabilities, of this confident singer revealing his innermost anxieties as an incredible performer among incredible performers, and overcoming them.
“I don’t think I could have done this without Rich and Soulsavers,” he confides. “I really don’t think I could have sung these songs, with my own voice, twenty or thirty years ago. But in 2019, when we recorded ‘Imposter’ together, it felt – strangely – very, very natural.”
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'Imposter' will be released on November 12th. Catch Dave Gahan & Soulsavers at London Coliseum on December 5th.
Words: Mat Smith
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