Martin Gore - Ultra Sounds (Guitar World, 1997) |

Martin Gore Ultra Sounds (Guitar World, 1997)


Well-known member
Ultra Sounds
[Guitar World, May 1997. Words: Alan di Perna. Pictures: Alastair Thain.]
A remarkable, detailed interview with Martin for a guitar magazine. The interviewer focuses on the band's use of guitars but with never loses sight of the fact that Depeche Mode are not primarily a guitar band. Priceless for a guitar enthusiast and currently the only article I have of its kind.
" Gore belongs to that breed of guitarists who don’t exercise fingers as much as they do their imagination. He’s more interested in tugging at the heart strings than the wang bar. "
A close encounter with the ambient guitar world of Depeche Mode songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore.

Seated in the rosy glow of his London hotel suite, Martin Gore plays a few tentative blues runs on a vintage Gretsch Anniversary that is as fine as the room’s antique furniture. “I don’t have any guitar heroes,” he confesses. “Those two words don’t really go together in my vocabulary.”

Gore himself probably isn’t anybody’s guitar hero. But that’s okay. He belongs to a completely different breed of guitarist. The guitar is hardly his sole claim to fame, or even his sole instrument. It’s just one of the tools he uses to bring life to the songs he writes for Depeche Mode.

Gore may not play as fast or proficiently as the guys who practice their guitar all day and then sleep with it at night. But, coming to guitar from the larger perspective of songwriting, Gore will often do things with the instrument that a guitar obsessive could never think of in a million years. He uses it to create aural colours more than riffs – the orange glow of a western sky, the desperate blue-black of a deserted nighttime street. Which is to say Gore belongs to that breed of guitarists who don’t exercise fingers as much as they do their imagination. He’s more interested in tugging at the heart strings than the wang bar.

And he’s done so admirably over the past 16 years, eight Depeche Mode studio albums, assorted ‘best of’ packages, a concert album and movie. The newest addition to Depeche Mode’s impressive body of work is called Ultra. Its first single, “Barrel of a Gun”, is powered by a Wah Wah From Another Planet guitar riff that helped make the tune a hit several weeks before its official release.

Not bad for a guitar non-hero.

Guitar was Martin Gore’s first instrument, picked up amid the pubescent explosion that males undergo at age 13. A few years later he put it down, amid the excitement of another kind of explosion: the early-Eighties dawn of affordable analog synthesizer technology. Depeche Mode were one of the first all-electronic groups, the quintessential synth pop band. There was absolutely nothing ‘rock’ about them. They had nothing to do with the past. Only the future. They came on like a band from a sci-fi novel.

When Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode in 1981 (going on to form Yaz, then Erasure), Martin Gore became the band’s main songwriter. With Gore penning the tunes, the Modes went from being an underground cult band – known only to a handful of Anglophiles and technophiles in the States – to being mass culture teen idols. They exerted a curiously powerful effect on adolescent girls in particular. Gore compositions like ‘People Are People’, ‘Master And Servant’, ‘Everything Counts’, ‘Get The Balance Right’, ‘Blasphemous Rumours’, ‘Strangelove’ and ‘Personal Jesus’ formed the coming-of-age soundtrack to a major chunk of worldwide Eighties youth. Gore’s lyrics have generally dealt with the big adolescent questions: Why does everything suck? How can God exist when everything here on Earth is so fucked, and human nature so vindictive and vile?

Since his lyrics declaimed a kind of post-modern blues, maybe it was inevitable that Gore would go back to guitar. He began playing it on Depeche Mode records as early as ’83. But his guitar work really came to the fore on 1987’s Music For The Masses (Mute / Sire), a record which established his trademark spaghetti-western-meets-007 tone. By 1990’s Violator (Mute / Sire), Gore’s guitar palette had grown to include lyrical nylon-string melodicism, snaky blues patterns, slide and sizeable amounts of distortion. Aggression levels intensified on 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion (Mute / Sire), fuelled in part by singer David Gahan’s move to L.A., where he’d begun running with rockers like Perry Farrell and Trent Reznor.

Along the way, Depeche Mode evolved into a highly specialized organization. Gore wrote the songs. Gahan sang them. Alan Wilder (who’d replaced Vince Clarke) did most of the ‘screwdriver work’, fleshing out arrangements in the studio. And Andrew Fletcher, deciding that the adding machine was his best instrument, looked after the business. But the whole thing began to unravel last year, when Wilder quit the band and Gahan became enmeshed in drug problems that culminated in attempted suicide and a dramatic Memorial Day arrest.

It might have been the end of the line for Depeche Mode. But instead, Gore soldiered on, writing new songs end entering the studio with producer Tim Simenon (celebrated for the ground-breaking electronic dance records he’d recorded under the name Bomb the Bass, and for his production work with Bjork, Neneh Cherry, Sinead O’Connor and Seal.)

Meanwhile, Fletcher continued looking after the finances. Gahan underwent rehab and began working with a vocal coach to regain the voice that had fallen into disuse during his period of drug excess. In time, he was in good enough shape to join in on the sessions with the band in London and New York.

The result is the aforementioned Ultra. It’s the biggest stylistic leap Depeche Mode has taken in a long time, drawing on the limpid blue cool of modern electronic dance styles like ambient, trip hop, jungle and drum & bass. Though the big single, “Barrel of a Gun”, burns with strident urgency, most of the other cuts have a kind of stark, still beauty that quietly eludes stylistic categorization.

“There are a lot of different influences there,” says Gore. “There are all these very small parts that go into a big mixing pot that somehow comes out sounding like Depeche Mode. Probably because of the way I write and the way Dave sings. Those are the constants.”


Well-known member
GUITAR WORLD: Many people who play both guitar and keyboards find the guitar more responsive.

MARTIN GORE: I definitely find the guitar more responsive; I can get far more feeling out of a guitar than I can out of keyboards. Although, the better you get at programming, the more emotion you can get out of computers, keyboards and samplers. It’s just harder to get there. That’s why I think guitar can sometimes be the easy option when you’re making a record – the lazy option, if you like. You have to work very hard to get something really emotional out of an electronic keyboard. So it’s quite ironic how a lot of people think that electronic music isn’t “real music”, and any fool can do it. That is a misconception. Sure, any idiot can buy a sampler, a computer and keyboard and probably make music. But the majority of people who do that don’t make good music, because they don’t spend time actually creating sounds. They’re quite happy to live with presets, and that really sounds bland most of the time.

GW: What did you want to accomplish with guitars on Ultra?

GORE: I think this album is more like Violator, where, although they are prominent, the guitars are being used over a very electronic backbone. Whereas with Songs of Faith and Devotion, we decided to go out on a limb and create a very stylized album – our ‘rock’ album. That was a definite change for us. If you look at the history of what we’ve done, it’s very much out on its own. For me, the new album fits in more with what we were doing prior to that. It’s more of a successor to Violator, for me. Not that I regret Songs of Faith and Devotion. It was a great, fun thing to do.

GW: Was that album a response to the climate of the music world at the time? With the rise of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, things were getting so ‘rock’.

GORE: No. Now everybody keeps telling us how electronic music is back in, and that’s got to be beneficial for us. But I actually think that whatever style of music has been in at any given point has had absolutely zero effect on our records. From a very early point, we created our own niche, and whatever’s going on around us really seems not to be of any importance.

GW: The first single from Ultra, “Barrel of a Gun”, is certainly a track where guitar is prominent. How did you get that wah sound?

GORE: The main riff that goes through the verses is just something I experimented with at the demo stage. It’s actually a sample of me playing a bit of wah. And then the sample is played back at various pitches. It really worked well. Nothing else we tried ever really bettered that. So we just stuck that track from the demo in the finished version of the song.

GW: The transposition of the sample must be what gives the guitar sound its unique timbral quality. A wah pedal can’t usually generate those kind of high transients. I thought maybe you were using some super-tweaked wah, or even doubling the guitar with some kind of analog synth filter regeneration.

GORE: Sorry to shatter your illusions. We just sampled it. I’m sure there’s a million guitarists out there who will hate that. Sampling is such a matter of fact these days. I don’t think that anybody has a problem with sampling anymore, do they?

GW: Not to the same degree.

GORE: At one point, I’m sure everybody would have gone out and burned our records in America if thy thought we sampled anything. I’m talking about 1983. We struggled for ages to get any sort of recognition, because the way we made music wasn’t considered serious. It’s nice that electronic music’s actually respected now and the tables have turned. That is a gratifying feeling.

GW: Speaking of respected figures in electronic music, why did you choose to work with Tim Simenon this time?

GORE: The way the demos turned out set us off in a dance music kind of direction. So we had this idea to work with someone who is more well known in the dance music field. On the last couple of albums, we worked with Flood, who is more well known for his – how would you describe it? – his alternative rock slant. This time, although the songs aren’t out-and-out dance songs, they do have a soully groove to them. So we started looking for people who work in that area. Also, atmospheres were really important this time. They’ve always been important to Depeche Mode, but even more so this time. This time ‘round, it’s more about capturing a mood.

GW: Was the album started before or after Alan Wilder’s departure?

GORE: After. Alan left at a very strange time. It was when we were actually doing nothing. He didn’t leave us at the end of the last tour, and he didn’t leave when we got together and decided to actually start working again. He left in this limboland, about six months after the last tour finished. I think, after that last tour, he probably felt that he’d had enough and wanted to leave the band, but he wanted to give himself time to reconsider. Maybe it was easier for him to leave during that time of non-activity.

GW: What reason did he give you for wanting to leave?

GORE: Well, he called a band meeting and just told us that he didn’t particularly get on with us anymore. He felt that our relationships had all gone down the drain and, because of that, it was time to leave. But there were a lot of things he didn’t tell us at that meeting that came out later. He made a very big press statement saying that he felt the workload had been unfairly distributed over the course of the last album or two, and that he wasn’t getting enough appreciation and gratitude from the rest of the band. What he failed to say in that press statement is that he is a control freak who decided it should be that way. We were all quite happy going home at midnight or one in the morning when we were in the studio. But Alan is one of those studioheads who loves being there until four in the morning. He focuses on every minute detail. Or over-focuses. And also, for the last tour, he took it on himself to prepare all the backing tapes. He said he wanted to do it. Since the rest of us don’t particularly enjoy that task, we said, “Fine, if you want to do it, go ahead.” Maybe we didn’t thank him enough at the end.

GW: So did Tim take on some of Alan’s role in the studio? Someone to bounce ideas off? Someone to work out the details of an arrangement or sound?

GORE: Actually, it was a keyboard player and programmer that Tim always works with, Dave Clayton, who, for me, really played a role similar to the one Alan played. You see, Tim always works with the same team, which includes Dave Clayton and the engineer, Q. And because Dave is such a nice and easy-going person, in some ways I found the whole process much easier this time. It was easier to convey ideas to him. And if you didn’t like what he was doing, he would totally scrap those ideas and go off and try something else. Whereas I think Alan was very set in his ways. I’m sure if we ever suggested something to Alan, and he didn’t particularly like what we were suggesting, he would make sure it didn’t work.

GW: What guitars did you use on this record?

GORE: I still mainly use a Gretsch Anniversary. That’s my favourite guitar.

GW: An old one?

GORE: Yeah, but I’m not quite sure exactly how old. I think it’s, like, an early-Sixties model. We had a couple made for the last tour by somebody called David Knight, who uses all old Gretsch parts and reconstructs the old Gretsches, but with the body slightly more solid, so that you don’t get as much feedback. They’re really good for playing live. They sound really like the original Gretsches anyway, so we use them in the studio as well. I’ve got a whole bunch of guitars. They go in and out of storage, I’m terrible with names. I have another, slightly more solid-bodied black Gretsch. Can’t remember what it’s called. And I have a [Gretsch] Country Gentleman, and a Rickenbacker. I suppose that would be the main core of guitars used on the record. And we had a Music Man bass there, just in case there were bass ideas to try out.


Well-known member
GW: On some songs, you can hear a nylon-string electric.

GORE: Oh yes, I do use a nylon-string electric. Just with a pickup. Now what’s that one again? It’s a Japanese acoustic. Begins with a Y. Yairi, I think.

GW: It’s used for the solo on “The Love Thieves”.

GORE: Yeah. That’s the guitar.

GW: What about amps and effects?

GORE: We actually used the engineer, Q’s, amps. He’s got a really tiny Fender, which is really good, not only for guitars, but to put beat boxes through – really distorted. And I used a Zoom quite a lot of the time. There were also quite a lot of Mutron effects I used: a Mutron wah and phaser. Also, there’s a really good product that came out last year called the Mutator. Like a sound processor. I think it’s mainly used for synthesizers, but it’s really good for putting the guitar through. I don’t know if they made many of them. I think we got one of the first 500.

GW: So you played guitar originally in Depeche Mode?

GORE: Funnily enough, I didn’t. Although I started playing guitar when I was 13, before me, Andy and Vince formed a band. This was before we were Depeche Mode. Vince was playing guitar, Andy was playing bass and, because I’d just gone out and bought a synthesizer, I was on synthesizer. But then Vince and Andy became so enthralled with my new synthesizer, they went out and bought synths of their own. A few months later, we changed to an all-electronic band.

GW: When Vince Clarke left the group [shortly after Speak and Spell was completed], were you reluctant or eager to become the main songwriter?

GORE: I don’t think I was reluctant or eager. We just took it really matter-of-factly. We were really young and enthusiastic. We didn’t even think it was that important that Vince had left the band. We booked a studio, went straight in and recorded a single [“See You”]. And that got to a higher chart position than any of the previous singles we’d released. After that, there seemed little point in worrying.

GW: What kind of things prompted you to pick up the guitar again and play it in Depeche Mode?

GORE: I think for ages we got caught in our own trap. When we changed into an all-electronic band, we made it our creed to bear the electronic flag. We felt that using guitars was harking back to the past, and that wasn’t the way forward for music. And after a few years of carrying that kind of belief through, we came to the realization that we should be open to using whatever was available to us, if it suited the song. We shouldn’t be limiting our options.

I think our music changed quite a lot as well. The guitar wouldn’t have worked on our early stuff because that was just so electronic. Actually, I just remembered that on Construction Time Again I played some guitar on a song called “And Then”. A 12-string guitar. I’d totally forgotten about that. So it wasn’t completely out of the blue when I started using it more heavily in 1987, on Music For The Masses.

GW: When you went back to playing guitar, were you wary of the stock associations the instrument carries – the rock posturing, the phallic symbolism?

GORE: I think we were worried that we would be perceived as just another normal band. We always liked the idea of being different. But since then, I’ve actually enjoyed playing the guitar a lot. In concert, it’s a highlight for me, because I can have so much more contact with the audience. I can go down to the front and shake my head and splatter the audience with sweat and stuff. It’s a bit more fun than being stuck behind a bank of keyboards for the whole concert. I’m not saying we want to be an out and out rock band. But it’s nice to have those moments in your concert.

GW: There’s a blues element that comes across in your work. Was that a big influence for you?

GORE: I’m interested in music all across the board. I love emotional music. For me a blues singer on his own with a guitar is one of the most emotional things. I love John Lee Hooker, Son House and things like that. To me, that is the blues. But when you start getting 12 bar blues and bands playing the same thing over and over, there’s very little of that stuff that moves me. But the very simple, stripped down stuff, I find really inspiring.

GW: Speaking of which, you play some slide Dobro on “Freestate” [a song on Ultra].

GORE: Yeah. That song really works well for me because the Dobro is just sitting on one basic root chord, whereas the instrumentation beneath is changing down by a semitone, and it creates this real jarring, almost out-of-tune effect. But that works.

GW: Did you do that in an open tuning?

GORE: Yeah, just roots and fifths. I don’t even remember what key it’s in.


Well-known member
GW: A big surprise on Ultra is the pedal steel on “The Bottom Line”. How long have you been playing that?

GORE: That’s not me! I think pedal steel is one of the most difficult instruments to learn. I wouldn’t even try. No, we got in one of the best pedal steel players in England to do that. Somebody called B. J. Coles. He’s really good. An experimental pedal steel player as well. He doesn’t only do country. You’re very pigeonholed if you’re a pedal steel player. But he’s actually done an avant garde pedal steel album. I think he’s pretty open-minded.

GW: So you just heard pedal steel on that track?

GORE: Yeah. For me, that song always had a country feel, even before the pedal steel was there. Just the way the words roll. I think it would be perfect for a country singer to do.

GW: These days, do you write more on guitar or keyboards?

GORE: I always begin writing a song on either acoustic guitar or piano. I think it’s quite important to capture ideas without a lot going on instrumentally. This way, you can be sure that what you’re hearing is some sort of basic, real emotion. Whenever I’ve tried to start writing immediately with electronic keyboards and sequencers, I always lose sight of the song. It’s quite easy to convince yourself that something great is happening when all you’ve really got is an interesting sequence or a great-sounding atmosphere. The song behind all that might be crap. So I always try to complete most of the words, the chords and vocal melody before I move on to the next stage.

GW: As is usually the case in your writing, biblical images crop up on Ultra: Like that line in “The Love Thieves”: “Sure as Adam is Eve, sure as Jonah was a whaler.” But it’s sort of playful this time. There isn’t that kind of existential angst that’s been present in your past work.

GORE: I think this is the album with the least religious connotations. I think that line you cited is one of the few on there. There might be a couple of others, but they really are throwaways. It’s hardly Songs of Faith and Devotion. I think religion is one of those things that’s so important – it’s a crux of life – that you can’t help cutting on it every now and again. But I think we have overdone it in the past. So I am consciously trying not to get involved with it every time I pick up a pen. It’s just too easy for me to fall into writing about religion, because it is one of my fascinations. If I go into a bookshop, chances are I’ll go straight to the religion section. It’s just the way I am.

GW: Do you sense a growing gap between the American and the English music scenes?

GORE: It’s hard to say. I come to America every now and again, I put on the alternative station wherever I am to see what’s happening, and I find it a really weird scene. Because a lot of the stuff they play I don’t find alternative at all. At one point, ‘alternative music’ meant something. Now it seems like it’s almost become the mainstream. And most of the people who are doing it aren’t doing it particularly well. A lot of it just sounds like folk or old rock music to me. But yet it’s got this alternative label.

GW: A lot of that has to do with grunge.

GORE: That just sounded like Free revisited to me. Meanwhile, England’s so fickle. Things have been coming and going out here so quickly. It’s a real weird situation when one radio station reaches the whole country. The BBC basically decides who has a hit and who doesn’t. If you don’t make the Radio One playlist, chances are you won’t have a hit.

GW: Are there any plans to tour this time?

GORE: We’ve decided not to. This is the first album ever that we probably won’t be touring behind. There are various reasons for that, one of them being that the last tour was way too long and we all came back from it shattered. Alan left the band. Dave had a terrible drug problem and was in and out of rehab. Me and Andy have had various problems ourselves, probably directly related to that tour. We felt it was time to give ourselves a break and take it from there. Also, I don’t think it would be a very healthy environment for Dave to be in, with his problem. He’s been clean for seven months now, but it’s still early days for him. He gets really bored on tour for the 22 hours he’s not onstage. And when he gets bored, that’s when it gets worrying.

So we’ll see what happens. If, later in the year, we decide we miss touring, then we may decide to put some dates together. But it’s very difficult for a band like this just to do a two-month tour. We’d have to do Europe, America, South America, Asia… That would take nine months at least. The world’s a big place. If we were going to tour, we wouldn’t want to leave anybody out.