Depeche Mode makes self-destruction sound like falling through the clouds. One needs only revisit the morbid, deviant pleasures of “Master and Servant,” “Fly on the Windscreen,” “Blasphemous Rumours” or “Barrel of a Gun” for a glimpse into the harrowing worldviews of Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher, who have spun a penchant for both futurism and perversion into sales of more than 90 million.
Gahan & Co. have spent a career crafting a theater of cruelty for the masses, and if the masses didn’t always quite grasp the concepts—like, why does Gore always seem to be on stage in quasi-bondage gear?—they were lured by the colossal hooks and the seething sexuality, and they devoured it all like piranhas. The Killers, looming large among Depeche Mode’s numerous acolytes, are a peculiar case. Since rocketing to fame with their explosive 2004 debut Hot Fuss, they’ve craftily mated the outré glitz of Duran Duran with the visceral earnestness of U2, all the while reaching for nothing short of the megastardom of both those bands.
Adorable and grandiose, Killers frontman Brandon Flowers maintains a contradiction that matches any to which Depeche Mode can lay claim: he is a resolute Mormon, a religion not exactly known for turning out glamorous rock ’n’ rollers. Gahan’s only significant rival in the rock-star-as-Christ-figure stakes is probably Bono. But while Dublin’s finest unwaveringly professes his faith in the only Son of God, Gahan, especially in the lyrics to the deliciously blaspheming “Personal Jesus” (“Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares”), has offered himself up as an earthly substitute, a heresy you surely won’t find any of his worshipping public objecting to, no matter their religious affiliations.
Appropriately, Gahan nearly saw to his own heroin-fueled crucifixion back in the 1990s and literally rose from the dead in the back of a Los Angeles ambulance. Flowers, for all his cockiness and swagger, has been a model of responsible behavior. At just 27 years of age, he’s happily married and a father (he doesn’t go anywhere near drugs, as you might have guessed).
Both bands are brandishing new records. The Killers’ third, Day & Age, was released last November to critical acclaim. With its stylistic ambition, sweeping atmospherics and grand lyrical gestures (Brandon took some heat for awkward philosophizing—“Are we human / Or are we dancer”—on the otherwise resplendently majestic hit single “Human”), the Killers sound like a band just a few rungs from superstardom.
The members of Depeche Mode, on the other hand, have dispensed with the rulebook. Virtually nothing on the enthralling new Sounds of the Universe relies on recycling their past. The thundering rhythms and industrial fervor of “Hole To Feed” come across like the soundtrack to some futuristic cannibal ritual; “Little Soul” appears almost like a gospel tune lost inside of a nightmare dreamscape; “In Sympathy” is what Kraftwerk might sound like if they’d stop all the calculating and get a little sleazy. Gahan’s singing increasingly exhibits a raw, bluesy sexuality, and is perhaps more fiery and captivating than ever. Meeting up with BlackBook on a recent winter evening, Gahan was his usual charming and charismatic self, while Brandon, accompanied by Killers guitarist Dave Keuning, was, understandably, a little starstruck.
Depeche Mode were very much outsiders in the beginning. But the Killers found fame almost instantly. Brandon, how has fame affected the band, personally and artistically?
BRANDON FLOWERS I’m still struggling to identify any effects. I feel exactly the same. Maybe because it happened so quickly for us, I haven’t had much time to understand it. It’s all about just putting out our next record. We’ve got the fire burning, and we just go with it.
DAVE GAHAN In the beginning, it was really about doing the work, and the rest had been thrust upon us. I certainly ran with it and had some fun… and then didn’t, really. Being a rock star, playing that game, was fun for a couple of years out in Los Angeles. But after a while, being the celebrity sitting in the corner of the club wore a little thin. I live in New York now, where I walk around and don’t really get bothered. I like it here. My day is pretty normal. That whole idea of fame being something that’s going to fulfill you… I just don’t get that.
Brandon, how have you been influenced by Depeche Mode?
BF Before I ever thought of myself as a musician, I was personally affected by Depeche Mode. Some Great Reward and Songs of Faith and Devotion shaped me as an individual before I even wrote a song. So they mean a lot to me… [laughs]. God, this is surreal.
It’s interesting that you bring up Songs of Faith and Devotion. I’ve always seen Depeche Mode’s work as being about exploring guilt, perversity and sexuality as a reaction to society’s ideas about religion and morality.
DG The three subjects that you mentioned and that Depeche Mode write about are the keys to wanting to be a part of something, and wanting to be able to be intimate, and ultimately having some sense of peace within yourself. For me, I can’t get that from somebody or something else. You have to feel it within, that there’s something that the universe is offering; but we often seem unable to grasp it.
Brandon, there also seems to be a search for moral and spiritual grounding in your songs.
BF It’s been a constant struggle for me. Growing up in Las Vegas really prepared me for this. There’s so much that goes on there that is taboo everywhere else, and it finds its way into our songs. I’m trying to come to terms with the reality that I’m a believer, and I’m getting more comfortable with it as I get older. Sometimes it’s a weird contradiction with what I do, I know.
DG Not really. It takes a lot of courage nowadays to actually come out and say that. I think we all want to believe in something.
The lyrics to the songs “Kingdom” and “Miracles” on your solo record Hourglass deal directly with the struggles of being a non-believer.
DG Yeah, it’s a constant search for hope and faith that there is a higher power that has a better eye on things—because, obviously, we’re not doing a very good job of it.
Well, the Killers’ “Are we human?” is a big, poignant, existential question.
DG Through music, you’re able to express that, whether lyrically or atmospherically. I hear it in the landscape of the Killers’ songs; I can hear the search.
I think it was Wagner who said that if you want to find God, look for Him in music.
BF They say that making your own music can be the closest thing to a religious experience. When I do go to church, the hymns are what always suck me in. I can be having a day of doubt, but as soon as I hear the right gospel song, it’s over. There’s no more doubt.
Dave, you were a part of destroying everything that the music industry had become comfortable with. It was punk, it was electronic music and the bands did it. Now, technology is changing things for the bands, rather than the bands being in control of the revolution. How are you both dealing with it?
BF I’m paranoid all the time because of YouTube [laughs]. But the great thing about technology is that it allows you to make an amazing sounding record in your kitchen.
You could argue that Daniel Miller took the first step down that road. He said that a guy, alone with his synthesizer, was the most punk thing ever. And he made this incredible club hit, “Warm Leatherette,” as the Normal, with just himself and his machine.
DG Yeah, that was pretty radical at the time. We had that as our template for the kind of music we wanted to make. Coming out of punk, we knew we weren’t going to blag our way through guitar, bass and drums. But we could just plug our three synthesizers into a PA, and we could play all these little clubs in London. At the time, it was not considered “real” music.
Brandon, you’ve derided the lack of ambition from the general music culture, and with the latest Killers record, you seem to be reaching for grandiosity. U2 had The Unforgettable Fire and Depeche Mode came out with Music for the Masses. Are you consciously preparing for that next step?
BF Well, in talking about all the blandness, I think it’s a fear of just going for it. All the bands I grew up listening to, they went for it. Now, we’re finally feeling comfortable enough, and we’re not going to be afraid of it.
DG That’s right. You have to go out there and embrace it. We just made another record that was produced by Ben Hillier, and he said to me that he’s never worked with a vocalist who works as hard as I do. But a lot of discipline goes into maintaining any kind of ongoing success and ongoing growth. It’s not something you just pull out of the air. You have to believe in what you’re doing.
What do you want to give people with your music?