The last time audiences witnessed Martin Gore, David Gahan and Andrew Fletcher – collectively, Euro-electronic pop avatars Depeche Mode – together was when the trio, virtually and humorously, accepted their award as part of the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Come March, Depeche will be up for another award, as its 2020 career-collecting set, the all-black, all square “MODE,” is nominated for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package (for art director Jeff Schulz).
Like the rest of the music-making and touring world, Depeche has had to sit out the last 12 months. Its principle composer and co-founding member Martin Gore, however, had other plans — namely a new solo record, “The Third Chimpanzee.”
Unlike Depeche Mode’s mannered, Euro-romantic sound, Gore (who has made several solo albums in the past, including 2015’s “MG”), has pared his manic “Chimpanzee” sound to a cinematic but wrenchingly industrial tone with metallic rhythms. Add to that, a menacing processed vocal that makes the whole record sound like a man on fire, and you have some of Gore’s most incendiary sounds ever.
Variety caught up with Gore at home in Southern California on the eve of the album’s release.
The sound of “The Third Chimpanzee” is quite harsh and isolationist, but in a cinematic sense. What was your mood when you started it, and how did your approach change the further you got into the pandemic and its lockdown?
I already had the demo to “Howler” finished back in 2019, but it was just a one-off sitting around that I didn’t know what to do with. Then the pandemic hit, and I was at home and thought I should do something. I was going into the studio and wasn’t inspired to write lyrics – I usually find that I can do something musically a lot easier than I can lyrically – so the instrumentals came out. “Mandrill” was born out of that, and once its basis was formed, I decided to manipulate and re-synthesize its vocals. That somehow connected it to “Howler,” and gave the project a concept.
It’s certainly not your usual angelic vocal tone — what did you do to it?
The main thing that I used is a Eurorack module system called the Panharmonium, which is a re-synthesizer. You put any sound you want into it, and it replicates it in a re-synthesized way. From there, you can manipulate it time-wise; some really interesting sounds are possible through this.
Without turning this into a psychoanalyst’s session, how was your mood was affected by the quarantine?
I’m fortunate in that I’m able to isolate with my family and be able to work. A lot of people across the globe are hurting, struggling a lot more than I am. Obviously, I do miss human contact. We have a handful of friends – a little pod – we see occasionally. But not moving for nearly a year now, not travelling to another country, state or anywhere more than 10 minutes from my house… I don’t want to complain, but, there are days where it does get to you.
“The Third Chimpanzee” and your last solo album, “MG,” use industrial sounds even more than Depeche Mode’s earlier work. Why?
I think that what I liked about the demos for “Howler” and “Mandrill” is that there was a power inherent into those tracks, perhaps starting with the bass line. When I sent those demos to the mixer, and he set his levels to where they normally sit, he said his hair was blown back. That summed it up nicely for me. It had primal power.
What’s with the monkeys? Everything on this album is tied to vervets or capuchins or some other primate.
“Howler,” even as a one-off, came back sounding like a howler monkey to me — I’ve heard howlers many times because I’ve gone to Costa Rica. The re-synthesized vocals for “Mandrill” sounded like a primate, and the concept was born. As I was naming the record, I remembered a book I’d read, “The Third Chimpanzee.” It was quite funny and nice how Derek Diamond blurred the lines between monkeys and humans.
The primate thing ran so deep that you even got a monkey to paint the cover.
I did. Every piece of the puzzle fell into place slowly. Once I decided upon that title, I struggled to figure out its cover until one night I remembered that monkeys actually paint. So I started Googling and came across [famous painting capuchin monkey] Pockets Warhol, found that he was in a sanctuary in Canada and went to the website’s “contact us” section. I explained who I was and what I was doing, and asked if they would be interested in having Pockets do the artwork for me. Fortunately, they really liked the idea.
Does Pockets work cheap?
I made a donation to the sanctuary, and after the record drops I’m planning to auction some of the artwork off, because Pockets actually did five canvases for me to choose from. At some point, a remix EP is coming out so I’ll use another Pockets painting there, and the other three we’ll auction, with some proceeds going to the sanctuary.
Between “The Third Chimpanzee” and the very minimalist design for last year’s Grammy nominated Depeche Mode box, what is your usual level of involvement with an album’s art, and how is cover art reflective of the music?
It’s different every time. With this project, I was very hands-on and wanted to stick with the concept after I’d gone and named everything after monkeys. With the “Mode” box, I have to give more credit to Depeche’s management team, our manager Jonathan Kessler, Alex Pollock and the people who came up with that stark concept. This time I wasn’t that involved. Remember too, that with a lot of Depeche stuff, Anton Corbijn is behind the wheel — no pun intended!
Going back to that isolation question, the last time audiences saw Depeche together was during your virtual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Is it fair to say that the pandemic continues to keep the three of you apart, and that nothing new is being worked on?
Yeah. We’re such a big machine that once we start rolling, there has to be somewhere for it to roll to. The vaccine is coming, but when is the world going to get it? When am I going to get it? It’s difficult planning anything when life is up in the air.
The last time you did press was 2017, disavowing the alt-right for liking Depeche records and talking about how the then-bourgeoning Brexit sounded sad and outlandish. What’s your current world view?
I’m looking forward to a brighter future, one where I don’t live in a state of panic every day. It got to a point where I had to switch my news alerts off, because it just ruined my day every half an hour. I’m hoping we have a brighter next four years.