When Depeche Mode’s Global Spirit tour came to a close in 2018, Dave Gahan started revisiting music from his past, songs he never wrote that still remained bonded to him for years. Returning to work with Soulsavers’ Rich Machin, the duo began recording an album of covers, Imposter.
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Recorded live with a 10-piece band in 2019 at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Recording Studio in Malibu, California, Imposter is a collection of songs that are as important to Gahan now as they were in the first moments he heard them.
“These voices have stayed with me for years, some longer than others,” says Gahan of Imposter, a follow-up to his Soulsavers debut Angels & Ghosts in 2015. But there’s something about their voices and this choice of songs in particular that have always made me feel a certain belonging, or something. Songs can do that. Music can do that.”
Those lingering songs are the same as musicals or films, or books. “You pick them up again and again and you find something new in it,” says Gahan. “I was very familiar with all these songs, but I had to go through this process of removing the voices that I had been listening to and finding my own.”
For Machin, who worked on covers with the Soulsavers (Will Oldham’s “You Will Miss Me When I Burn”) but never a covers album, it was the perfect excuse to return to some songs that connected to him and Gahan.
“It was a good excuse to sit and dig through my record collection,” says Machin. “I had a reason to not leave the house for the next two weeks, and we had a nice few months of texting each other ideas and getting lost in that cathartic process, getting lost in lots of records that you’ve loved over the years. There’s no better way to kind of spend some time.”
Initially rehearsing the songs in New York during the summer of 2019, Gahan slowly found his place and the soul around each song like the elicit love song “Dark End of the Street,” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and later recorded by James Carr in 1967, or capturing the heartache of Jeff Buckley’s Grace cut “Lilac Wine,” Neil Young’s “Man Needs a Maid,” and the Charles Chaplin classic “Smile.” Introducing Imposter with a more subdued “Metal Heart” by German metal band Accept, it’s as if Gahan and the Soulsavers were the original authors of Imposter, from the folk-driven “Where My Love Lies Asleep” by the Byrds’ Gene Clark, and Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” and a more ignited version of PJ Harvey’s “Desperate Kingdom of Love.”
“Her version of that is very small and intimate,” says Gahan. “We went full Soulsavers on it and just let everything in there. For me, it’s that bursting energy of wanting to desperately belong and be with someone and be in love and in that place, then finding yourself in there and not knowing what to do with it.”
“The Desperate Kingdom of Love” describes this place Gahan often finds himself. “It’s this amazing place to be, but it’s also this place where you feel entirely—and I do at times—suffocated and mostly from my own doing and my own choices and my own inability to really express how I feel,” shares Gahan. “To take that in, and what you get back, or what has been given to you and not being able to handle it. I’m just more these days aware of that’s just the way I am, and those around me, including my wife, who has to put up with that. It’s like Lanegan says in ‘Strange Religion,‘ ‘I’m no easy ride.’”
There’s a personal story in each song for Gahan. Around the time Gahan was working on his second solo album Hourglass, he had Mark Lanegan’s Bubblegum playing on repeat. “The song ‘Strange Religion’ just stayed with me,” said Gahan of Lanegan, who also worked on two previous Soulsavers albums. “I believe these voices because I think they’re telling me a story that’s true to life. I felt incredibly connected to them.”
Gahan adds, “I started to realize that there was a pattern with these songs, and there was a reason why I was drawn to them. When you do other people’s songs, if you’re just mimicking the original, to me there’s no point. The real trick is to somehow make all the songs sit together and sound like they’re coming from one voice, one band, and one group of musicians together.”
Once he got the original songs and those voices out of his head, Gahan reconnected with each track. Before arriving at Shangri-La, Gahan knew in his heart and mind how he wanted to perform each song. “They weirdly became more personal than things I’ve even written myself,” says Gahan. “I started to realize why they had been so important to me, and I can’t really put that into words. It’s just it’s a weird, magical musical thing.”
Working through the arrangements, Machin says the simpler songs were the most difficult to present. “It’s hard to just let them be what they are,” says Machin. “You’ve got to cut in and find the urge to want to just poke at something for the sake of it. There’s a beauty and simplicity. Don’t try and change something just to put a stamp on it. The most important thing is what you don’t play. If there’s a gap there and you feel like you should play something, just leave it.”
Rowland S. Howard’s stirring “Shut Me Down” was a late addition, but a necessary one for Machin. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Serge Gainsbourg and kept hearing this kind of Paris-French thing,” he says. “I had this idea in my head and I didn’t know if I could translate it, so we winged it. It’s such an amazingly well-written song. It’s beautiful and sad, and Dave did incredible justice to it with his vocal.”
Working closely together, Gahan and Machin decided how they would approach each song, and what musicians would be needed. “Once we got into it, within the first couple of days, I could tell that this was an amazing bunch of people that really love music, and had a sensibility about how to best support me as a singer in getting the best out of me,” shares Gahan. “They really lifted me to this place where I felt so entirely comfortable that I could do my best work.”
There was always a distinct beginning and end to the story of Imposter. Bookending the album, “Dark End of the Street” opens the story while Gahan leaves Imposter off channeling a more Elvis Presley’s gospel-pierced rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”
“We wanted some kind of archetype that would take you through this little journey,” says Gahan of sequencing the 10 tracks. “It’s a live performance that we got on record in the way it plays out. ‘Always On My Mind’ is the ultimate kind ‘thank you and please forgive me,’ the perfect close to ‘Dark End of the Street.’ You know you’re getting in trouble but you go there anyway.”
Now two albums in with the Soulsavers, there’s a chemistry that exists between the two regardless of time passed.
“Every single time you do something, you assimilate, so when you move forward, you’re a different person, and I’m incredibly fortunate that I get to work with a lot of incredible people,” says Machin, who is currently composing the soundtrack to an upcoming Netflix series. “Each time we’ve taken something from the last experience and moved it forward. After 20 years, the freshness of being able to change the dynamic like that is what makes me excited to show up to the studio every day because I know there’s going to be somebody doing something new there.”
Reflecting on turning 60 in 2022, Gahan says he feels like he’s on the “other side” now. “Time is ticking now,” says Gahan. “I don’t worry about that, but I want to do things that make me feel moved, and I’m lucky to be able to do that. To make music with a bunch of people that can just come up with something like that, it’s a magical thing that happens, and it still blows me away that you that I can be part of that.”
When Gahan released his first solo album Paper Monsters in 2003 with guitarist and cellist Knox Chandler, there was pressure to refrain from the release by members of Depeche Mode, but working outside the band is the thing that has kept him more engaged over time. “I found over the last 20 years that doing things outside of my band has enabled me to just feel more excited and creative,” shares Gahan. “I go back to work on a record with Martin [Gore] and Fletch [Andy Fletcher], and I just feel an enthusiasm that I maybe wouldn’t feel if I didn’t get to do these other things.”
The last time Gahan spoke to Gore and Fletcher was during their Zoom acceptance speech for Depeche Mode’s 2020 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Once we got on the Zoom together, it’s constant piss-taking, joking, laughing together,” shares Gahan.” I’ve known these guys since I was a teenager. It’s family.”
He adds, “It’s a family that has survived a lot of stuff together, and we still strive to do something that is not just challenging, but that we feel that our heart and soul is in. Then we go out on stage and when we perform it’s still as important to us as it was when we walked on a stage in front of three people and a dog at a little pub in the East End of London.”
Another Depeche Mode album will happen, says Gahan, now fixed in another creative zone, but there’s never a set timeline.
“We finish a record, a tour and then we say goodbye and sometimes we don’t talk to each other again for like a year, maybe two, which is crazy, but time just flies by when you’re with each other day in and day out,” says Gahan. “We’ll be back in a studio together again, doing something at some point. Who knows when that is, but I don’t really worry about it anymore.”
Photo by Spencer Ostrander and Joe Magowan / Columbia Records