Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan Finds His Voice in Other Artists' Words

He was creatively exhausted until recording covers of "singers that I believe have carried me," including PJ Harvey and Cat Power
Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan Finds His Voice in Other Artists' Words
Photo: Spencer Ostrander
Dave Gahan was spent.

Having travelled the globe for 15 months with Depeche Mode for the English synthpop pioneers' Global Spirit Tour, the singer came home to New York physically and creatively exhausted. "My family were like, 'We don't know who you are, you need to just kind of get your shit together,'" he recalls during an interview with Exclaim!

Eventually, Gahan readjusted to life at home and began exchanging messages with Rich Machin, one-half of the gospel-blues production team Soulsavers. At the time, "I didn't feel like doing anything," Gahan recalls. "I'd look at my guitar and I'd just feel a little bit nauseous." But their conversations turned to music — specifically, the singers that had inspired them.

Soon Gahan, Machin and the rest of the Soulsavers live band were in Rick Rubin's Shangri-La studio in Malibu, CA, to record Imposter, a collection of covers from "singers that I believe have carried me, that have inspired me, and taken me to a place outside of myself that I kind of wanted to be part of," in a matter of weeks. They wanted to keep the momentum going and planned to release the album in the spring of 2020.

Of course, that didn't happen.

Imposter sat on the shelf for a year and a half while Gahan rode out the pandemic's worst months with his wife and adult children. "That was weird, dude," he says, "making something that you feel like, 'Wow, I think we trapped lightning in a bottle here,' and then not being able to do anything with it."

In choosing who to cover, Gahan gravitated to the singers that had left a "deep impression" on him over the years. "I just kind of started digging into some records and pulling out some ideas," says Machin to Exclaim! "He was pretty receptive to pretty much everything."

But Gahan was also concerned with constructing a cohesive narrative for the record. To achieve that, some obvious choices, like Leonard Cohen, the Stooges or Johnny Cash were left off, while more left-field choices like PJ Harvey ("The Desperate Kingdom of Love"), Cat Power ("Metal Heart") or the Byrds' Gene Clark ("Where My Love Lies Asleep") made the cut. "The challenge was really to take a bunch of songs and make them mine — that it was through my voice, with the backdrop of Soulsavers."

Gahan was a fan of Soulsavers before he became a collaborator. The singer had been asserting himself more as a songwriter — both on a pair of solo albums and in recent Depeche Mode material, where Martin Gore had traditionally been the group's primary writer — when Mark Lanegan, who sang on a pair of Soulsavers records, introduced Gahan to their music. Depeche Mode took the duo on tour in 2009 which led to their working together on 2012's The Light the Dead See and 2015's Angels & Ghosts. "Rich is brilliant at facilitating and pulling [people] together," says Gahan of the collaboration. "This group of musicians have worked together for a long time. There is a chemistry and I fit into that." But he says the nature of Imposter flipped that dynamic: "This is the first time where I did feel like I'm sort of the leader."

Machin doesn't disagree. "It is more vocal-centric than any other record we've done," he says. The songs tell a story, and following the narrative requires listeners to pay attention to Gahan's words. And while Imposter sounds like Soulsavers, in this way it's closer to Gahan's solo records than his and Machin's previous work together. "Maybe this is a Dave Gahan record," the singer muses. "Towards the end of the recording, there was definitely some talk of that."

Although this is Gahan's first covers album, he's an old pro when it comes to making the words of others his own. He landed his day job singing with Depeche Mode after Vince Clarke heard him sing "'Heroes'" by David Bowie, and for much of his time with that band he's been an interpreter of Martin Gore's songs.

Even so, it took the singer more than a decade to learn how to take ownership of someone else's art. He cites "Condemnation," from Depeche Mode's 1993 album Songs of Faith and Devotion, as a breakthrough for him. "I immediately knew the song. It wasn't necessarily completely accurate to the way Martin wrote the melody line or the phrasing or the timing." Gahan says he still gets goosebumps when he thinks back to recording the song in the garage of a converted house in Madrid. "I just sang it, and [after] I sang it, the tape stopped rolling and it went on quiet. I've got my headphones on and I hear [producer] Flood's voice go, 'Yeah, I mean, you could do another one. But I think we got it.'"

"Condemnation" had fallen out of Depeche Mode's setlist, but Gahan and Soulsavers resurrected it for some shows the band performed behind Angels & Ghosts. He even considered re-recording the track for Imposter. "It's got everything in there," says Gahan. "It's got that soulfulness, the redemption, the longing to belong in something. I feel that in all these songs."