Depeche Mode Returns to Soothe Israel's Soul

Andrew 'Fletch' Fletcher, co-founder of the classic synth-pop band, tells Haaretz about the group's dark days, its bluesy new album and performing in proximity to bombs.

By the time Depeche Mode lead singer David Gahan, stripped down to his waist Tuesday night, sweat pouring down his tattooed torso, and crooned "Never Let Me Down" to 35,000 revelers in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park, the band had pretty much made good on that promise.

After postponing what would have been their first tour in Israel in 2006 due to the Second Lebanon War, the band made a point of kicking off each subsequent tour here.

"We, the band, didn't want to cancel," says Andrew "Fletch" Fletcher, Depeche co-founder and keyboardist. "But Hezbollah was firing all those rockets and we were to play in front of 50,000 people. So we thought, is this a sensible thing to do? In the end, it was our crew who voted against it. And we couldn't force 70 people to do something they considered dangerous." 

They compensated by launching their "Sounds of the Universe" tour in Tel Aviv in 2009, but the concerts were greeted with lukewarm response. In the end, that series of shows proved to be trying for the band.

"That tour was slightly spoiled from the start for me because the day before the first gig, my father died," says Fletch over coffee at the Tel Aviv Hilton. "But I still went ahead. And then we went to Athens and after that, that's when Dave got diagnosed with bladder cancer. So that whole last tour, it was very successful in the end, but you could say we were unlucky to a certain extent."

Their fortunes seemed to turn Tuesday night on the official first date of their "Delta Machine" tour. If the band seemed in an especially good mood, they had good reason. Their business manager, an Israeli, had gotten married the day before and the band was on hand for the ceremony.

"Tonight's show is like part of the wedding party," says Fletch. And even though the tracks on "Delta Machine" are evidence that the band hasn’t stopped penning tormented songs of love, lust, longing and loneliness, there was nothing black about this celebration. Their demons are now well behind them. Besides battling cancer, Gahan is in recovery for heroin addiction, which led to a near-overdose in 1996. He also tried committing suicide, slashing his wrists in 1995. And his hard-partying ways took their toll on his health. He suffered a small heart attack onstage in 1993, forcing his band mates to continue the show without him.

"We had our really dark period during 'Songs of Faith and Devotion'," says Fletch. "It had been building and building for years and it got out of control. What used to be fun turned bad. Dave was very ill. But in the end, and this is the good part, we've recovered from all that."

The band skipped touring their "Ultra" album, which itself took years to complete because of Gahan's drug problems. "Dave wasn't capable of handling that," says Fletch. "He went to rehab." The band reemerged from the maelstrom of the '90s on what Fletch terms "four year cycles of recording, promoting, touring and then family."

Indeed, these days the band's only addiction seems to be clean living and family. They each have kids, some of whom are older than the band members were when they first started playing together. "My wife's here now, she makes a point of coming to sunny areas," says Fletch. "My daughter and her friends are joining us in Istanbul. My son's meeting us in Germany. We've been touring with our kids for two decades now."

Not even tension up on the northern border could cast a cloud over the thousands who flocked to the open-air field to take in Depeche's two-and-a-half hour open-air concert. While acts like Aerosmith had just cancelled a date in Myanmar over tensions there, Depeche had no intention of canceling in Israel again.

"We played in Belfast during bombing there," says Fletch. "We have lots of fans in Israel. We were in Jerusalem, which is very interesting. I've been here to DJ on my own, which I do when I'm not playing with Depeche Mode. We've been here a few days now. How can you not love it here? The weather's always beautiful."

What of the militant campaigns that were waged by anti-Zionist groups to deter the band from playing in Israel? "We are not a political band," says Fletch. "We go where we have fans, and we have many fans here." Indeed, Depeche had crowds in their thrall from "Shalom"—or the moment a purple ball flashed onscreen with the words "Welcome to my World," the opening track on their new album.

Fittingly, Hayarkon Park felt like a warm bubble, insulated from whatever turmoil existed beyond its boundaries. Green, blue and red lights haloed over the stage as images of the band flickered fast and furiously at times in a hallucinatory tailspin. Fans danced along, arms aloft, clapping and chanting, as Gahan did a slow grind with his hips, belting slow-rhythmic numbers off the new album like "Should be Higher" in his signature baritone.

The diverse crowd was a testament to the band's enduring appeal. Teens and 20-somethings, donning their share of black, seemed well versed in "Delta Machine," singing every lyric to new songs like "Soothe my Soul," which was one of the show's standouts. Their 30-ish fans with young kids on their shoulders mouthed along to songwriter and guitarist Martin Gore, donning metallic eye-shadow to match his sparkly plaid trousers and vest and black nail polish, as he sang the obscure "When the Body Speaks" from 2001's "Exciter" album.  Gray-haired fans, who looked old enough to have seen them in the '80s, shrieked knowingly to the opening synth chords of early hits like "Just Can't Get Enough" and "A Question of Time."

Despite mixed reviews, the new material, which true to the album's title is laced with a Delta blues feel, held up to Depeche's song book of hits like "Personal Jesus," off their uber-successful "Violator" album. In fact, the Robert Cray style blues licks and honky-tonk rhythms only seemed to add meat to their bare-bones electronic sound.  

"We've dabbled with blues before in songs like 'Personal Jesus'," says Fletch. "But we've found that these songs sound really good live because they are quite minimal. There are only three or four things going on with each one. There's a real blues feel mixed with electronics, so for once, the title perfectly describe the music."

Whether spinning in place with the mike stand in hand, or shaking his hips to the relentless rhythms of "Delta Machine," Gahan hardly looks the part of someone who's been at death's door half a dozen times, at least. Perhaps his brushes with death helped anchor the theme of "Delta Machine," which seems chock full of songs about mortality and spirituality—"Angel," "Heaven," "Secret to the End," "Goodbye," "Soothe my Soul," "Alone"--though of course served up in seamy Depeche Mode style.

Wings are broken, souls needed penetrating, eyes are moist and vision blurry, lovers find themselves when lost in others… it may sound like the same old fodder for these synth-pop originators, but it does speak of something a bit more mature.

"I would say our subject matter has become even more narrow," says Fletch. "Pain and death." Thankfully, their new flirtation with the blues has yielded a sound that doesn't sound depressing at all. As the undulating waves of fans gyrating along Tuesday night prove, Depeche truly is age and genre defying--and how fitting they came back to Israel to soothe its soul in a time of turmoil.

Whatever the reason why Depeche seems the perfect balm for Israelis, Fletch offers this simple response: "We write good songs. It's not that complicated. We may be darker than the mainstream, but we touch people. We make them happy, ironically."

Nir Keidar
Nir Keidar
Reuters