Booze! Drugs! Lesbian strippers! One of the biggest rock bands on the planet, Essex synth warriors DEPECHE MODE also used to be amongst the most hedonistic. But on the release of their 14th studio album, Spirit, founding member Andrew ‘Fletch’ Fletcher tells a truly gutted OLAF TYARANSEN that their decadent days are long behind them...
“We’re not celebrities,” declares Andrew Fletcher of Depeche Mode, speaking in a strong Sarf London accent. “We lead totally normal lives. We can go the cinema, go the pubs. We very seldom get recognised by people, but when they do they’re always very nice. People know the name Depeche Mode, but the average person on the street doesn’t know what a member of Depeche Mode looks like. It’s a great situation.”
Casually dressed in a black sweatshirt, blue jeans and trainers, the bespectacled, sandy-haired and charmingly laid back Fletcher – better known to millions of DM fans as ‘Fletch’ – probably isn’t exaggerating their capacity for anonymity. Or his own, at least. We might be meeting in a luxury suite in Brown’s Hotel, an exclusive five-star establishment deep in the heart of Mayfair, but the 55-year-old keyboardist/bassist looks as though he’d be far more at home supping pints of lager in a quiet corner of a child-friendly Essex pub. Nothing about him even remotely whispers ‘rock star’.
However innocuous he looks, though, the reality is that Fletch is a founding member of one of the world’s biggest rock bands. Since first forming in their native Basildon in 1981, synth warriors Depeche Mode – currently a trio with Dave Gahan and Martin Gore – have sold well over 100 million studio albums in their lengthy career. We’re meeting on this balmy London afternoon to discuss their 14th studio release, Spirit, but we’ll get around to that shortly.
While Fletch mightn’t look like a rock star, he and his two bandmates certainly have the right credentials. Infamously, Depeche Mode have enjoyed some serious decadence in their time. But some of it they presumably didn’t enjoy. Back in the early 1990s, during their tour to support 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion album, things got badly out of hand… to the point that frontman Gahan actually died of a drugs overdose in the back of an ambulance in Los Angeles (needless to say, the paramedics revived him from that particular flatline).
Gahan might have been the most OTT member in the hedonism stakes, but Fletch and Gore have also had their own problems. It was around this time that an exasperated Alan Wilder quit the band for good.
Fletch winces slightly when Hot Press asks about that messy period of Depeche Mode’s history, but doesn’t shy away from talking about it. “I was the first to go,” he recalls. “I had a massive nervous breakdown on that tour. The Songs of Faith and Devotion Tour was 187 gigs and, unfortunately, I had to pull out of the last leg. I remember Primal Scream supported us and they were shocked at Dave’s behaviour. Which is really saying something.”
The band had been partying hard for years. Why did things came to a head on that particular tour?
“Well, it was kinda like a snowball,” observes Fletch. “It started off in the mid-1980s. Us drinking… then you known just… the aftershows. It was like a snowball building up pace, and it just smashed.” He smacks his fist into his palm. “Bang!”
Heavily addicted to cocaine and heroin, Dave was injecting multiple speedballs on a daily basis. Were the rest of you on hard drugs, too? “Nah, Martin was more drink, but he still had… you have to think about it as a big smash, you know? No… it was a long time ago and we’re now in a fortunate position. I mean, it sounds boring when you say ‘We’re very professional’. I mean, every concert we do, we give 99.999 percent. In the old days, we never cared about the gig. It was the aftershow that was the most important thing.”
So did you play many lousy shows around the time?
“Well, I suppose we must have!” he laughs, slapping his knee. “There were certain gigs. I remember one of the funniest was when Dave had a heart murmur on… not ‘funny’… I don’t know why I’m using that word… queer… he had a heart murmur on stage in New Orleans and he was rushed off into an ambulance, and then we went straight to the aftershow, where we had various lesbian strippers and everything going on. So you could imagine what it was like.”
Was it enjoyable?
“I think at that stage, it wasn’t,” he admits. “I think the snowballing thing beforehand was really good fun. We were amazed that we were doing so well in America and that was just, you know, we started drinking a bit more… and it escalated from there.”
How is it now? Are you all totally sober?
“Well, I’m the only one that drinks, but you can’t exactly drink a bottle of whiskey when your two mates in the band are sober. So, sort of a couple of pints here, a couple of pints there. But it’s one of the great things about Depeche Mode. We never did that in the studio. We never drank or took drugs in the studio. So our recording has always been normal.”
What’s your take on the notion that drink and drugs can be good for musical creativity?
“Well, it can work in your favour for one or two albums, Olaf, but you can’t go beyond that, I don’t think.”
I read a German magazine profile of you recently that said you retire to bed at 7pm every night when you’re not touring…
“Nah,” Fletch pulls a disbelieving face and shakes his head. “I go to bed about 10pm. Was that someone else making a joke of me?”
It didn’t read that way.
“Nah, I go a bit about half-ten. I’ve always been a morning person. I don’t know why. My wife is Irish so, as you might imagine, she’s the opposite.”
Talk turns to the new album. The follow-up to 2013’s platinum-selling Delta Machine, which debuted at No 1 in twelve countries, Spirit marks the band’s first collaboration with producer James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco. Ford has also helmed albums for Foals, Arctic Monkeys and Florence + The Machine. How did Mode find him to work with?
“James is amazing with sounds,” says Fletch, admiringly. “I mean, we liked all his stuff, it’s the sounds of his records. He’s in Simian as well, you know, so he has the electronic angle. He’s really good with sounds and he works really fast. So we did this album in three sessions. And, yeah, he was amazing.”
How many sessions does an album normally take?
“We’d normally take five sessions, but we did this one over two in Santa Barbara, one in New York. Martin lives in Santa Barbara, and Dave is based in New York. I think he likes it there because he can walk around and nobody bothers him.”
You didn’t record anything in London?
“Nah, I got short straw on that,” he smiles. “But I don’t mind going to Santa Barbara or New York.”
More overtly political than any previous Mode album, many of the songs on Spirit directly address the currently perilous state of the world, both politically and environmentally. Hard and heavy opening track ‘Going Backward’ sees Dave Gahan singing, “We have not evolved/We have no respect/We have lost control/We’re going.” Powerfully menacing first cut ‘Where’s The Revolution’, meanwhile, finds him passionately demanding, “Where’s the revolution/Come on people, you’re letting me down”.
“It’s a bit of a departure for Depeche Mode to be talking about politics so openly,” Fletch admits. “We’ve always talked about politics in a different way, you know? Related to sex or whatever. But Martin wrote these songs about two years ago and, when I first heard them, I thought, ‘You might be a little bit over the top there’. But since then we’ve had Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, etc. So it just so happens when it’s released it’s actually more relevant than even when Martin was writing.”
What’s your own take on Brexit?
“We are totally and utterly disappointed,” he says, frowning. “It should have been 60/40 or 70/30 for a major constitutional change, not 50/50. So you get a situation where 50 percent of the population want one thing and 50 percent want another thing, you know? I think people didn’t have a clue what they were voting for. The whole way it came up with Cameron, you know, desperate to remain prime minister, to give the referendum and it’s just a farce… and we’re taking a risk.
“I was in Glasgow recently,” he continues. “You go around Glasgow and it’s changed so much as a city that you can’t believe it. Not just Glasgow – Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool. All these cities that were just industrial are now beautiful cities with really trendy things happening and stuff like that, and we’ve put everything at risk with this Brexit decision. Same thing with Trump. It’s just all a really big risk.” John Lydon doesn’t agree with you. Did you see his ITV News interview last week where he described Brexit as “a truly brilliant British exit”, and Trump as “the political Sex Pistol”?
“I think that you could really take whatever he says with a pinch of salt,” shrugs Fletch, indifferently.
Do you know him?
“We did actually meet him once,” he nods. “He was in a dressing room in Top of the Pops and he was just making a racket. He was screaming and shouting… whatever… you know.”
Depeche Mode have had over 50 songs in the UK Singles Chart over the years. Do you remember your debut Top of the Pops appearance?
“Yeah!” he laughs. “It was with ‘New Life’ back in 1981 and we travelled up from Basildon on the Tube with our synths. Went on the Tube, got out at whatever station, and we walked to the Top of the Pops’ gate and we said, ‘We’re on Top of the Pops tonight’. And they wouldn’t believe us because we weren’t in a limo! So we had to wait outside for ages until someone came down to let us in.”
That memory of Depeche Mode’s younger days prompts an observation about the current state of the music industry. “Actually, I’ll talk about the problem with young bands at the moment,” says Fletcher. “With the low record sales, and no tour support, it’s a really dire situation. So, say like if you’re U2, four lads now in Dublin. They’d form their band and they’ve got jobs. Where do they go from there? If you release a record, you’re gonna sell what? A thousand copies? You can’t give up your day job, there is no tour support, so I mean it is really difficult today for young bands.
“I’m also hoping that there is gonna be a reaction in music as well in the next couple of years. I think there needs to be another musical reaction to get people excited again. It shouldn’t be us, Depeche Mode, we’ve been out there 37 years. It shouldn’t be us, it should be younger bands coming through.”
Are you guys all still good friends after 37 years playing together? “Yeah, well, the way I like to describe it is: Dave is more of a brother to me. Martin has been my best friend since school. The only problem being with Martin is he moved from London to live in California. Both of them married Americans, so that was a big thing. Even now, to ring him, you know? To get the hours right and things like that. Me and Dave have had occasional fights and things like that, but I think that the actual spirit – no pun intended – in the group is pretty good.”
You’re not tempted to join them in the US?
“Nah, they married Americans. I married a Basildon Irish girl, so there is no reason for me to go over to America.”
How does it work when you all live thousands of miles apart?
“Well, they write separately, Dave and Martin,” explains Fletch. “I mean, we’re in a four-year cycle, really, for the last 20 years. We have a break of a year-and-a-half or a year-and-three-quarters and, during the end of that break, Martin or Dave would start writing. And then we’d get together and record and then release, promote, tour, break. The ‘80s and ‘90s we were constantly, album-tour, album-tour, album-tour. We’d keep the quality up. We couldn’t do that now. And we do have families. All of us have families and we have to devote time to them.” When you’re on your 14th studio album, is there still a genuine sense of excitement about putting new stuff out? Or has it become more like a job?
“Nah, it’s really exciting,” enthuses Fletch. “I mean, we just happened to have got the best reviews for Spirit. What people don’t realise is that when we released Violator, it got mixed reviews. When we released Songs of Faith and Devotion, it got mixed reviews. All our records always had mixed reviews and this one has been reviewed well, and obviously that pleases us. And the whole tour sold out.”
Kicking off in Stockholm on May 5, the first leg of the Global Spirit Tour will see Depeche Mode play to over 1.5 million fans at 34 shows in 21 countries throughout Europe and North and South America. There’s been no Irish date announced yet, but will they be visiting Dublin at any stage?
“Yeah, we’re playing Ireland on the winter tour,” reveals Fletch. “I don’t know when that’ll be announced. It’d be around June, I would have thought. The last gig was absolutely fantastic, and we also played Belfast as well. And Dublin is always a good crowd.”
Someone from the record company enters the room and asks me to wind it up. As I gather my things, I ask Fletch what has been his own personal high point of Depeche Mode’s 37-year career.
“I don’t know,” he muses. “Maybe the biggest moment is just here, now. I could say playing the Rose Bowl or something, but I just think it’s incredible that, 37 years on, I’m sitting here talking to you, Olaf. It seems like Depeche Mode are as popular as ever. We had an absolute dream career… at least, if you take out those years that were a bit messy. Like I said to you earlier, we lead normal lives, and we’re not celebrities. So it’s a great situation. I’d like to think that now, really, is the best moment.”
Does Fletch have a motto in life?
“Sure and steadfast.”
Spirit is out now on Columbia Records.
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