Enlightenment isn't arrived at easily. The best lessons in humility often come from being humbled on a grand scale, tumbling from the headiest heights to the bottom of the moldiest, stinkiest garbage can. Or in Gahan's case, rehab, where the Depeche Mode vocalist spent the waning weeks of what he calls his "prehistoric times" -- days marked by increasing strife within the band, alcoholism, heroin addiction, an overdose and a suicide attempt. This type of personal nadir has become a cliche, but for Gahan, it was do or die: Get your shit together or make sure the will is drawn up.
Gahan opted for the first choice, as evidenced on Paper Monsters, released in June on Mute/Reprise Records. The result is an almost painfully intimate look at the singer's psyche.
The saga began in 1976, when a pair of young British upstarts, Andrew Clarke and Andrew Fletcher, founded No Romance in China, which made cheery pop music for several years. Clarke then teamed up with Martin Gore in a two-piece outfit called French Look, which was rechristened Composition of Sound after Fletcher joined them. Gahan soon took over vocal duties, and the quartet became known as Depeche Mode. The act chucked every instrument except for the synthesizers -- a move nearly unheard of at the time and one that would prove wise, since the all-synth combo created a chilly musical detachment that countered the "me-me-me" tenor of the Thatcher/Reagan era.
The group's future was compromised when the cheery one, Clarke, left to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet. (Clarke, of course, eventually became the creative mastermind behind Erasure, the queer-pop poster boys.) But Gore took over the songwriting duties, and the group subsequently exploded into one of the biggest-selling alternative bands of the '90s -- a phenomenon that caused Gahan to implode.
Talking to Dave Gahan can be a daunting prospect for someone who spent her alienated teens listening to and identifying with the Depeche Mode sound, who bought Music for the Masses instead of a proper Mother's Day gift during the '80s. His skinny-faced sneer and drama-school posturing gave a human face, or at least a human voice, to Gore's clinical, spiritually searching, sexually quirky synth-pop. As the music grew darker, Gahan's anima followed suit. Teenage record buyers were none the wiser; they still worshipped him as their own Personal Jesus. And so it's easy to imagine that the disturbed, famous-with-a-capital-F music superstar will be arrogant, rude and difficult, greeting each question with a deeply bored sigh. And it's certainly not a stretch to assume that what was once projected to the world was the real thing.
But the voice on the other end of the line is warm and friendly, with no detectable rock-star pretension. This is the new Dave Gahan: humble, excited about his new identity as a solo act and eager to smash his image as a troubled, cocky, alt-rock bastard. "Things are going great!" he says. "Never better!"
Gahan's on a mission to break down a persona that took twenty years to craft, and to build something better and more authentic in its place. The challenge lies in convincing fans that new Dave is imminently preferable to old Dave.
Paper Monsters may deter the casual listener, since the album starts out with "Dirty Sticky Floors," which sounds like a typical Depeche Mode song, complete with razor-sharp electric guitar and falsetto backing vocals -- and why listen to a solo effort that sounds just like Depeche Mode? Listen closer, though, and the truth will be revealed: This opening track is a piss-take, a blatant "fuck you" to the old Dave, dismantling his tortured, Christ-like rock-and-roll-bastard demeanor and chucking it aside like a used syringe.
From there, the record takes on the dimensions of the new Dave, a man who thanks his guardian angel for the redemption offered in the form of his wife and daughter. In "Little Piece," Gahan sings, "A little piece of you/A little piece of me/A little piece of God is what you gave to me." Yes, it's a bit cringeworthy in its teenage earnestness, and perhaps too intimate, but Gahan's not going to squander any opportunities to express whatever's happening in his heart.
In addition to penning agonizingly private odes to his loved ones -- "Bitter Apple," "Stay" and "Goodbye" read like for-your-eyes-only mash notes -- Gahan angrily revisits the old days. Into the swanky, rattling "Bottle Living," he caustically spits "He's living for the bottle/He's a dog without a bite," then wails on his harmonica. And "Black and Blue," a document of a nasty spat with his wife, reveals that Gahan is not always a nice guy in between the fluffy-bunny, lovey-dovey stuff.
"I wanted to do something that was really me. I'd not gotten the chance to do that before," Gahan says. "People are responding to it very well. I've got a really great band, including the drummer, Victor Indrizzo. Everyone's really passionate about the music, and that comes through in the shows." One-time Depeche Mode collaborator Kyle Chandler is another key player; he co-wrote all ten of the songs on Paper Monsters and is Gahan's guitarist on the tour.
Gone, for now, are the big arenas, but Gahan is confident that the strength of the music will keep people coming. And he's prepared for those who may want to see the old Dave. "I'll definitely be doing some Depeche songs," he says, despite the rumors that he's threatened to quit the band if Gore doesn't give him more creative control.
Does that mean there's a future for the erstwhile kings of fey alterna-rock? "I'm not sure," Gahan replies. "I was just talking to Fletch the other night about how much we're enjoying doing our own thing. So, we'll see." Given each member's involvement with independent projects -- Fletcher has started his own record label and Gore just released a solo album -- Depeche Mode may just fade quietly into the background.
And a slow death for Depeche Mode won't stop Gahan. "It's all come out how beautiful life can be, seeing that again and feeling that again," he says, positively glowing through the phone line. "It's all about freedom."
Freedom to walk away from what nearly destroyed him; freedom and to never let himself down again.