Why Depeche Mode just can't get enough of Belfast
The city hasn't been on Depeche Mode's tour schedule for almost 30 years but, ahead of Thursday's big gig, co-founder Andrew Fletcher tells Andrew Johnston why he has a very personal reason to visit anyway
After 27 years, Belfast's Depeche Mode fans had probably given up hope of seeing their heroes perform live in the city again. But, nearly three decades since they played Maysfield Leisure Centre on their 1986 tour, the kings of electronic music return for a show at the Odyssey Arena next week.
And co-founding keyboardist Andrew Fletcher – known to all as 'Fletch' – is upfront about the reason for their protracted absence. "We've become a worldwide band," he shrugs. "We have lots of other countries to play. Our British tour isn't as extensive as it used to be, when we were only pretty much known in Britain. Now, we're popular everywhere, and our tours have to encompass every country in the world.
"We've been plodding over to Dublin occasionally, but have never made it up to Belfast like we used to in the old days."
It's a reasonable enough response for an act of the stature of Depeche Mode, but what makes the situation a little surprising is that Fletch's wife of 22 years, Gráinne Mullan, with whom he has two children, hails from Northern Ireland, and the man himself is a regular visitor. "I've been many times," he reveals. "Thirty, forty times. My wife's family still live there, so I've been going to visit for 33 years."
Still, one suspects Fletch doesn't dictate where and when Depeche Mode tour. The 52-year-old's role within the band's line-up has long been a subject of speculation. Although he handled bass in the first incarnation of the group, and continues to be credited for synthesisers and backing vocals, he is widely regarded as acting primarily as a mediator between the more volatile characters of frontman Dave Gahan and multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter, Martin Gore.
However, the idea that Depeche Mode are a dysfunctional family has been consistently shot down over the years. "That's never really come from us," Fletch bristles. "We've been going for a long time, we're still very successful, and we're very lucky we come from the same town (Basildon, in Essex) and the same working-class background. We still love each other; we just have different circumstances now. Dave and Martin married Americans and moved to America. But I don't really think that's dysfunctional in the modern-day world."
As well as the Maysfield gig, Depeche Mode played Belfast in 1983 and '84, both times at the Ulster Hall. Founding member and primary creative force Vince Clarke had not long left, and their sound was considerably less edgy. But in the ensuing years, Depeche Mode became an intense, industrial-influenced outfit, as challenging musically as they are huge-selling.
The 1990 album Violator – containing the iconic hits Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence – remains their landmark opus, while the current Delta Machine album has been greeted as a return to form. Overall, the group has released 13 studio albums and 55 singles, but the formula, Fletch says, remains essentially the same: "The songs start with a basic demo from Martin, and they go from there," he explains.
There are no great mysteries in putting together the setlist, either. "We're playing stuff from 1981 till today," Fletch says. "The set is derived from all our years and all our albums."
And they won't be tampering with things for the Odyssey concert. "We evolve the setlist, but we evolve it gradually," says Fletch. "We wouldn't say, 'Oh, we haven't played Belfast for 27 years – let's put a few of these songs in. We think that the Belfast audience are as educated as any other audience."
For many artists in the later years of their career, the temptation is often to bask in former glories, either through a 'greatest hits' tour or the current favourite, the 'classic album' tour. But not Depeche Mode.
"We've never gone in for that," Fletch says. "It would be like us doing a Violator tour, or a (1989 double live album) 101 tour. We are a band that releases new material. We feel it's important – and I think our fans feel it's important – that we should play some of that new material on tour. We really haven't got to that stage when we would do something like that, but I'm not saying it wouldn't happen in the future."
Depeche Mode have sold an estimated 100m records and fill arenas across the planet, but they aren't mainstream personalities, in so much as Fletch, Gore or Gahan could probably walk down the street in any UKtown unmolested.
Certainly, there has been some drama along the way, most of it involving Gahan. The one-time wildly hedonistic singer (he's now been clean and sober for 16 years) suffered a heart attack on stage in 1993, attempted suicide in 1995 and had a near-fatal drugs overdose in 1996. More recently, in 2009, he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from his bladder.
But Fletch doesn't wish to dwell on these distressing moments in Depeche Mode's history, and is quick to steer the conversation back on to music: "Personal Jesus I always thought was a risky single," he remarks of one of the top smashes of the '80s, "but Enjoy the Silence we pretty much knew was a massive hit in about an hour, really. I know it sounds a bit bolshie to say that sort of thing, but we really knew we had a big hit." As influential on pop and dance acts as they are on rock and heavy-metal bands, surely no other group could claim to have had tracks of theirs covered by everyone from the Cure, Johnny Cash and Marilyn Manson to Susan Boyle and The Saturdays.
Such a stellar list would be enough to humble most musicians, but Fletch takes it in his stride. Referring to Cash's recording of Personal Jesus, he deadpans:"If Elvis (Presley) had been alive, he might have covered it."
He adds: "Martin, who wrote that song, loved Johnny Cash since he was 12, so whenever these sorts of things happen to you, it is very bizarre. It's not something we set out to do – we never thought we'd influence lots of people and Johnny Cash would be covering one of our songs, but it's an honour, and an incredible feeling."
As for the acts that inspired them, one name looms large: "(David) Bowie was a big influence, and not only in the music, but in the style as well," Fletch says.
"The New Romantic scene was a lot about Bowie, and glam, and glitter. We've always thought you should get dressed up for a concert. Someone like Oasis, they go the opposite way – they look like their fans – and there's nothing wrong with that. But we always thought it was good to dress up."
Before the interview ends, Fletch reflects on a recent encounter that could only happen to a major international rock star.
"I was at lunch with Bowie in LA, actually," he states, matter-of-factly. "We stayed in this amazing hotel, and there was the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and us."
And despite remaining stoic behind his trademark sunglasses for most of our interview, there seems to be a glimmer of the wide-eyed Basildon teenager left in the globe-straddling musical legend as he adds with a smile: "It was quite surreal!"
The best and worst of their cover stars
Personal Jesus – Violator's lead single is now arguably as well known for Johnny Cash's take on the dark blues song on his Rick Rubin-produced American IV album. Nu-metal shock-rocker Marilyn Manson has also had a go, as have indie stalwarts Placebo and cult songstress Tori Amos
Enjoy the Silence – once again, Tori Amos released a sparse reworking, while indie stalwarts Keane's acoustic version has had one million hits on YouTube. Metal bands Lacuna Coil, HIM and Breaking Benjamin have also had a bash, but perhaps the most famous interpretation is by Susan Boyle, who covered the song on her third album
Just Can't Get Enough – the Vince Clarke-penned dance-floor hit from Depeche Mode's 1981 debut album was also played live by Clarke's subsequent group Erasure during the 1990s. More recently, the cast of US series Glee have given it the happy, clappytreatment, while in 2009 girl group The Saturdays took their Comic Relief cover to number two in the charts
Depeche Mode play the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on Thursday, November 7. For details, visit www.odysseyarena.com