In a Depeche Mode

Despite personnel shifts and personal problems, the world's most resilient electro band isn't ready to fold yet.

Violator, from 1990, was another blockbuster, and arguably Depeche Mode's finest offering. Gore broke Clarke's electronic-only law by adding guitars, his instrument of choice, to the band's mix, thereby giving "Personal Jesus," "Policy of Truth" and others an industrial edge that testosterone junkie Trent Reznor would later emulate. But 1993's Songs of Faith & Devotion was a step backward--a terrible hodgepodge of arena rock and disco built upon the awful, half-baked ditties "I Feel You" and "Condemnation." The quartet seemed confused about its direction, and a notoriously debauched series of dates in support of Devotion hardly clarified the situation; insecurity spurred by the rise of grunge led to an orgy of drugs, alcohol and sex that left the music, and the musicians, seeming emptier than ever. "There was a time--that dark period--during the tour where I really didn't think we'd get back on stage again, then or in the future," Fletcher says.

The situation didn't improve after Depeche Mode returned from the road. Wilder left the group to focus on Recoil, a cutting-edge project that's allowed him to collaborate with Diamanda Galas, among others. As for Gahan, who'd begun to take his reputation as a rock icon a bit too seriously, he tried to kill himself in 1995 while living in Los Angeles, and an overdose the following year at West Hollywood's Sunset Marquis Hotel nearly claimed his life as well. Fletcher, who steers away from discussing Gahan's plight, was also losing his grip. "At the time, I didn't know why it happened," he says. "But we'd been in the studio and then straight on tour for fourteen months, and I think it was just too much. It was a heavy bingeing tour, and I just think everyone cracked. But we've come back. We've taken things very slowly, and it's worked well."

In 1997, the Mode men (including Gahan, who stabilized after serving a little jail time and completing drug rehabilitation) gathered to make a comeback album. The task was complicated by the absence of Wilder, Fletcher concedes. "We had to think how we would redo things after Alan left. But once we made that decision, it's operated in our favor. You say things work well in the end? Well, Alan leaving the band was very sad, but it also inspired us to go and use other musicians." With the assistance of Can drummer Jaki Leibzeit and Bomb the Bass programmer Tim Simenon, the group assembled Ultra, a chronicle of Depeche Mode's near demise. Fueled by the scratchy "Barrel of a Gun" and "It's No Good," a return to straightforward electro, the full-length sold more copies than any of the group's previous discs.

The Singles 86>98 includes "Only When I Lose Myself," a new trip-hop single produced by Simenon, as well as an avalanche of Depeche Mode favorites. The concerts inspired by the package take advantage of this catalogue while indulging in the band's trademark theatricality. "It's like Cabaret," Fletcher says. "The tour is all glitz, like a peep show. It's not so high-tech, and it relies on us performing very well on stage."

At present, no new recordings are on the drawing board. "We're generally taking it easy with our career at the moment," Fletcher says. "We're all about enjoying ourselves, not rushing to decisions. We want to get this tour out of the way first and then see how we feel." However, he adds, changes in logistics should facilitate recording: "Dave lives in New York now, which is easier than when he lived in L.A. I mean, you don't have to find an excuse for me and Martin to go on a trip to New York." Just as important, "we are getting on well at the moment. A more sober attitude does mean that you get on better."

If this state of affairs continues, there's no reason why Depeche Mode shouldn't keep frustrating non-believers--and thrilling the faithful--for a long time to come.

Depeche Mode, with Stabbing Westward. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, November 29, McNichols Arena, $22-$38.50, 303-830-8497.

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