Martin Gore discusses humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction, the synth that kick-started Depeche Mode, performing on TV with live chickens – oh, and his new EP, ‘The Third Chimpanzee’
“We are not there yet / We have not evolved.”
Such are the opening lines of Depeche Mode’s ‘Going Backwards’, kicking off the band’s politically-charged 2017 album ‘Spirit’ with a sense of righteous despair. The global chaos of the ensuing four years has clearly done little to lift the spirits of the band’s chief songwriter, Martin Gore. His new solo EP, ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ – a tight, minimalist salvo of modular instrumentals – even questions how much distance mankind has put between itself and its primate ancestors. The resigned conclusion seems to be not an awful lot.
Nevertheless, chatting amiably over the phone from his home in Santa Barbara, California, he sounds chipper, in good form. And the EP – his first solo release since 2015’s ‘MG’ album – boasts a sense of angular, homespun playfulness that’s never entirely subsumed by the lingering gloom of fallout from the Trump era and the ongoing misery of lockdown. Howler monkeys, mandrills and vervets all lend their names to track titles, and the cover artwork was painted by a talented capuchin.
Brushing aside the suggestion of a gruelling promotional schedule, he jokes, “I’m doing an hour every Tuesday and Thursday.” Here’s how the rest of the conversation panned out…
Happy new EP! After everything you’ve done in your career, do you still get excited by a new release? Even a little nervous?
“It takes so long from finishing something to getting it out there for the public that, if you did have any nerves, they’d probably dissipate during that time. [Laughs] I think I actually finished the music for this last summer.”
Was it a project you began during the first lockdown, then?
“I completed the demo for the original track, ‘Howler’, before it started.
But once we went into lockdown, I thought I should make use of my time and maybe record some more instrumentals. ‘Howler’ was a bit of an outlier. It was just sitting there without me really having a plan for it.”
‘Howler’ is aptly named – you’re literally howling all the way through. Was experimenting with that sound the initial spark of inspiration for the whole project?
“I had the idea of manipulating my vocals using the Rossum Panharmonium, a Eurorack module. And it came back sounding not like me and not even very human. It reminded me of howler monkeys, which I’m quite familiar with, because in normal times I go down to Costa Rica every couple of years, and they’re very common there. I just thought it was a good name for a track.
“When I started working on the next track – which eventually became ‘Mandrill’ – I felt it would be interesting to manipulate the vocals again and keep the theme going through the rest of the recordings. And then I had the idea, ‘Maybe I should name each one after a different monkey’, so that’s where the initial concept came from.
“Once all the tracks were finished, I was looking for an overall title and remembered a book I’d read a while back by Jared Diamond, ‘The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution And Future Of The Human Animal’. It struck me as funny, but also quite relevant, blurring the lines between monkeys and humans, which seems fitting for the world we’re living in now – not just the pandemic, but also politically… all the craziness of the last few years.”
I sometimes find myself thinking that if the human race didn’t exist, the Earth would be getting along fine. We are, essentially, just chimps with ideas above our station.
“Exactly, yeah! We’re the only animal capable of destroying the planet in one fell swoop and also by doing it incrementally, every single day. As you say, if we weren’t here, then the rest of the animals on the planet would be getting along quite nicely.”
It feels as if all the good things the human race does is simply offsetting the bad stuff we did in the first place.
“I do think every piece of technology we come up with can be used for incredible good. But there’s something within human nature, a dark side, so we’ll find a nefarious way to use it. Take CRISPR gene editing – the hope is that it will be able to cure all kinds of diseases, but it could also be used to create designer babies or edit animal DNA into the human genome. So it has great potential, but…”
You know that we’ll abuse it.
What about the recording of the EP? I’m guessing you have your own studio, and in my imagination there are banks of vintage synths all over the walls. Am I anywhere near?
“Yes, I have way too many synths – quite a few vintage and quite a few modern ones as well. When people walk into my studio, they’re usually more blown away by the Eurorack wall. And on the other side, there’s the MU [Moog Unit] format wall.”
Are we talking the full modular synth experience here, with cables like an old telephone exchange?
“Yep. I have cables running everywhere. At the moment the studio is a real mess. I should probably tidy up. But at the same time, I think it’s a healthy-looking used studio.”
The first synth you bought, the Yamaha CS-5 that basically kick-started Depeche Mode – is it in there?
“Ah. I do have a CS-5, but not my old one – it bit the dust way back, probably about 1983. I could have got it fixed, but somebody wanted an item for an auction, so I signed it and gave it to them. It’ll be on display somewhere.”
The artwork for the new EP is by Pockets Warhol, an actual capuchin. How did you make contact with him?
“So I’d decided to call the EP ‘The Third Chimpanzee’ and I’d come up with the concept of naming each track after a different monkey, but I still didn’t know what to do about the artwork. Then one evening it suddenly hit me – I remembered that monkeys can paint.
“So I started googling and came across Pockets, living in a sanctuary up in Canada, near Toronto. I went to their website, hit ‘Contact Us’ and sent them an email explaining who I was and what I was doing, and asking if they’d be interested in getting Pockets to do the artwork for me. Fortunately, they were really into it and put me in touch with the woman who works with him.
It was a fun process.”
Have you got plans to visit him once lockdown is over?
“I’ve been given an open invitation! Any time I’m up in the Toronto area
I can go and meet Pockets and his friends.”
‘The Third Chimpanzee’ is set for an accompanying remix EP, with tracks reworked by ANNA, Jlin, Chris Liebing and Barker. Do you give free rein to your remixers? It must yield surprising results sometimes…
“Yeah, it’s always really interesting, and I do give people free rein. I did go back to a couple of them to say, ‘Could you just add something from the original, so there’s a link?’, because otherwise it’s like a different track. But that was the only input I had. I think the remixes for this EP are outstanding.”
When you sit down to write, do you have specific intentions – “This is a solo project” or “This is for the band”? Or do you just see what comes out, without making too many plans?
“When I decide to work on instrumental stuff, in the back of my mind
I know it’s for me, whereas when I work on a song, I’m always thinking,
‘If it turns out good, it’ll be something for Depeche Mode’. As a solo artist, I’ve never released any songs I’ve written, and I think that’s because I don’t consider myself a very prolific songwriter, so when I do come up with one
I like, I feel that I should save it for the band.”
We’ve all been stuck in lockdown now for the best part of a year. Has it scuppered any plans you had with Depeche Mode?
“We got lucky because we finished a long tour in 2018, and we don’t go out again too quickly after something like that, so we didn’t really have anything planned for 2020. We’re now just waiting until there’s a semblance of normality, or at least until we know what’s happening. There’s still no clear-cut plan, even with the vaccine – I have no idea when I’m getting mine. And it’s difficult, because we’re a big machine. You can’t start a big machine until there’s a road for it to drive down.”
Interesting you should say that. I’m fascinated to know how easy it is to maintain relationships on a personal level when bands reach your kind of size. When you, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher meet up, are you still essentially three old mates from Essex?
“I think we get on very well, considering we’ve been together for over 40 years now. This is actually our 41st year. When we’re working, we usually take on projects that can last up to two years – there’s the time we spend in the studio making a record, then we go into rehearsals, then we go out on tour. It’s a big chunk of your life. When it finishes, you don’t necessarily feel you have to call every week, but we do stay in touch and we make sure everyone’s doing OK. I always say it’s more like a family.”
I once interviewed Andy McCluskey of OMD, and he said something that’s always stayed with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically it was, “I started a band because I wanted to be in Kraftwerk and I ended up making traffic-light sandwiches with Timmy Mallett on kids’ TV”. Did Depeche Mode have a “traffic-light sandwich” moment? A promo appearance where you thought, “What are we doing here?”
“Oh, we had lots of them in the early 80s. There’s a famous German TV show called ‘Bananas’ where we’re doing ‘See You’ and they had us in a farmyard singing, playing and holding chickens!”
We’re talking live chickens here?
“Live chickens, yes! We’d laugh about it afterwards. Whenever we went over to France or Italy in the 80s, we’d end up on these big variety shows, and we were just so out of place, especially because there seemed to be a rule that you couldn’t get into the audience if you were under 65.”
There was a lovely show on Sky Arts last year called ‘Guy Garvey: From The Vaults’, featuring incongruous appearances by unlikely artists on old regional TV programmes. And there was a great clip from 1982 of you and Dave, sitting on the floor with Sally James on the kids’ Saturday morning show, ‘Tiswas’.[Laughs] “There was another one – I can’t remember what it was for – where we had to do ‘Leave In Silence’ at Alton Towers. There were no instruments involved, just us standing around this theme park in weird positions. They were trying to make us look mysterious. It was awful.”
Those are the moments when you need to think, “Don’t worry lads – in a couple of years we’ll be playing stadiums in the US”.
“Well, you live and learn. In the early days especially, we did whatever came along and we’d be told by our publicist, ‘This is good for you’. So maybe we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t held those chickens or stood around like idiots at Alton Towers.”
A chicken-themed EP is surely the next project, Martin. Actually… are you working on anything?
“Not at the moment, no. I’ve been writing songs but, like I said, we don’t have plans with the band. We haven’t got studio time booked or anything – we’ll just wait and see where the world takes us.”
‘The Third Chimpanzee’ is out on Mute