Spirits In The Forest: Depeche Mode's Complex Fan Culture

Spirits In The Forest: Depeche Mode's Complex Fan Culture

Using Anton Corbijn's new film as a cypher for fan worship...

Anton Corbijn’s association with Depeche Mode has produced some of the band’s most striking imagery over the years, whether in the visuals that accompanied their career-defining ‘Violator’ album or the weird dream-like framing of the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ project and tour, and pretty much every record they’ve released since has had Corbijn’s distinctive imprint on it.

If their former label head and confidante of the last forty years Daniel Miller is often regarded as the band’s invisible fourth member, Corbijn is undoubtedly the fifth, his artistic vision visible in everything from the band’s ever-evolving typography to their distinctive image.

His new film Spirits In The Forest purports to focus only indirectly on the band itself, its principal subjects instead being six fans in the audience at the last show on the Global Spirit tour of 2017-18, interwoven with concert footage.

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I haven’t yet seen the film – I’ll be watching it in a local cinema where I live with an audience full of similarly-minded followers of the band when it’s released on November 21st – but I do know what it’s like to be fan.

My Depeche singles collection may be woefully incomplete; I may not have every international version of every album on every format it was available in; I may not have re-mortgaged my house to pay for either the recent singles vinyl releases or the upcoming ultimate complete album collection; I may not listen to them with the same frequency as I once did; I may have put Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ ahead of ‘Spirit’ in my top ten albums of 2017 for what I considered to be entirely logical reasons at the time – but I’m still a fan.

This band have soundtracked some of the most important moments in my life from the age of fifteen onwards – the highs, the lows, my GCSE revision and most of the points in between; they were the first band I ever saw in concert (NEC, December 14 1993); they were the first band to help me make sense of things that often didn’t make sense to me as a teenager; and they made me feel like I had a place in the world that I could belong to, even though I only knew one other Depeche Mode fan at school, and she very nearly turned me off them before I’d even given them a chance.

There’s more, but this piece will probably turn into a full-blown confessional if I carry on down this path, and nobody needs that from this writer. The point is that lots of the reasons Depeche Mode mean as much as they do to me are linked to very specific events and circumstances.

The same can be said of most fans of most bands – you hear or see or feel something that resonates with you on a level you can’t quite fathom, but you come to realise that you can’t live without them in your life, and then discover that loads of other people feel precisely the same way as you do.

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This isn’t the first film to shine a light on Depeche Mode’s fan base. Spirits In The Forest was preceded by Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, a 2007 film made by Nicholas Abrahams and the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. Their film took its inspiration from the recently-departed D.A. Pennebaker’s 101 film about a bunch of handpicked fans taking a bus from Queens in New York to the band’s concert at the Pasadena Rosebowl in 1988, interspersed with live footage from the show and candid interviews with the band. 101 was reality TV before reality TV, offering a fly-on-the-wall insight into what it meant to be a fan, even though the kids don’t actually seem to be that interested in anything other than getting absolutely trashed on the bus.

Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode was deliberately different. “We weren't really making a film about the band,” explains Abrahams. “Our film intentionally had zero concert footage in it, as it would have made the film more about the band again. We just found all the fans so creative and interesting in themselves, and so wanted to make a film about them. Depeche Mode became something of a tool for these people to express themselves through.”

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True to the aesthetic that Abrahams and Deller were looking to use, any visuals of the band themselves in the film are viewed through the eyes and the memorabilia of fans – brief glimpses of grainy concert footage played in a St. Petersburg club or on bedroom TVs, photos, posters, drawings in books of fan fiction, record sleeves and t-shirts.

Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of using MacGuffins in his film – plot devices that are ultimately pointless but which are necessary for the true premise of a film to reveal itself; Stephen Spielberg used the same technique in his Indiana Jones series, and Abrahams and Deller – to a certain extent – used Depeche Mode as the MacGuffin of a film whose true focus is on the fans. (In contrast, the ‘bus kids’ of Pennebaker’s film were arguably his MacGuffin).

Their stories are all entirely unique, but they arose because of this band, these totemic individuals and their music, each and every one drawing some comfort, solace, hope or freedom through from a group whose appreciation in places like Romania or Russia eclipses that of the country where they came from.

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The various fans we meet in Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode range from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor through to Claudia and Ronny Granzow, who painstakingly make homemade versions of items of clothing worn by the band for them and their young sons to wear. Reznor cites the sports-first attitude of his school as one reason why Depeche Mode meant so much to him, calling their output “music for someone who felt like they didn’t fit in,” and “an alternative to what the accepted, happy people listened to.”

Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode didn’t get posters on London Underground stations, sponsored social media ads and a simulcast showing in cinemas around the world; in fact it was never officially released. Abrahams and Deller recently uploaded the film to Vimeo in response to calls for it to be properly issued, after years of only ever appearing at festivals like some sort of grubby Vaudevillian freak show act.

The exact reasons for it never receiving a proper release have always been a mystery to its directors, but their suspicion is that by focussing in on some of the devoted behaviours of fans, it suggested that all fans were similarly extreme, and the band didn’t want to be embarrassed through seeing that.

“We were making a film for everyone about the way music effects everyone in different and unforeseeable ways,” says Abrahams in response. “I can only guess that the band can’t really appreciate just how diverse, happily bonkers and great their fan base is.”

I first watched Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode in full in 2012 after Nick Abrahams graciously sent me a DVD-R in the post.

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It was accompanied by a photo – not of him and Jeremy but of an Iranian, Andy, one of the fans profiled in the film. It seemed like an odd thing to include until I watched the film all the way through the first time. Alongside the aforementioned Granzow family and their miniature costumes (“We tried to keep the irritating ones out of the film – we got the fun ones,” Deller said to me at the time) there are some truly moving stories from fans, with Andy’s being among the most poignant.

These are stories that make my taking comfort in an afternoon of playing ‘The Things You Said’ from 1987’s watershed ‘Music For The Masses’ on repeat after getting unceremoniously dumped by Kate Fox in 1994 seem trivial in comparison.

We meet three friends in the former East Berlin, where Depeche Mode performed in 1988 even though no one there could buy their records and all their knowledge of the band’s songs came from being able to receive radio broadcasts from the other side of the Wall. For them, Depeche Mode were symbolic reference points for the freedom of the West, their music resonating with them in a way that someone growing up in the comfort of democracy could never comprehend.

We meet two Romanian guys who point out that the band’s 1990 album ‘Violator’ was released just a few months before their own seismic revolution. “We opened our eyes directly onto ‘Violator’,” says one. Albert, a Russian fan, reminisces that “this music coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union, and so I see it as having been the music of freedom.” We hear others taking about the band’s music being “for the lonely”, that “it helps us to survive and to stay ourselves,” and so on.

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Andy, the Iranian fan whose photo I was sent, points out that in his home country, just to listen to music like that by Depeche Mode was reason enough to be caught, beaten or impressed by the police. We are used to music being freely available to us without risk of capital punishment, but in the strict climate of Iran your tastes were centrally controlled.

Much like Trent Reznor, just with much more at stake, Andy found himself drawn to the band because it gave him a sense of identity. “What you look like, and what you listen to is basically setting up your culture and who you are,” he says. “And when you don’t fit into society because you don’t listen to the music they do, and you don’t look like what they look like, eventually you feel depressed, you feel separated from them.”

Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode wasn’t quite the fan freak show that some were offended by at the time. Its genuinely heartfelt message is relatively universal for anyone who’s found themselves drawn to a specific group and their music, though Abrahams did point out to me that he thought it unlikely that a film about U2 fans would make such rich and compelling viewing.

From the trailers, Spirits In The Forest looks like more of a child of the 101 school of documentary filmmaking than that put forward by Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller. One thing that is inevitable, though, is that by focussing in on a handpicked selection of fans, we are undoubtedly going to hear more stories of why this band speak to people in varied and personal ways, how they have helped them through difficult periods in their life, how they helped them escape loneliness and so on.

Quite what it is about this group that’s made their vision to be so personally transcendent to so many people in so many countries is something for the academics to ponder over for decades to come; in the meantime, the films of Pennebaker, Abrahams & Deller and now Corbijn provide reasons to feel like we fans belong to something far, far larger than our own unique attraction to Basildon’s enduring musical export.

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Spirits In The Forest will be released on November 21st.

Words: Mat Smith

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