Nobody quite knew what to make of Depeche Mode. Formed in 1980, when the world of music was succumbing to the temptation of digital technology for the very first time, this leather-clad rabble of Basildon boys seemed the very antithesis of what the public had come to expect from rock music.
Combining the classic ’70s songwriting of John Lennon, Neil Young, and The Doors with the computerised arrangements of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode were one of the first bands to take electronica out of the avant-garde and throw it, head first, into the world of pop. This robotic balladry opened up new horizons, heralding a new age of pop music in which sound could emerge not only from voices and instruments but also – as New York’s hip-hop artists had already established – from records themselves. However, Depeche Mode seemed to exist beyond the realms of other sample-based artists of the day, so what was it that made them sound so unique? Well, in 1984, they gave an interview in which they answered that very question.
By the time Depeche Mode released their first album, Speak and Spell, in 1981, samplers had only been around for a few years. Like their contemporaries, New Order, Depeche Mode made much use of the E-MU SP-12 and SP-1200. Both of these models allowed users to program their own samples into the interface, with which they could make new and unfamiliar 8-bit infused sounds. This new functionality allowed Depeche Mode unparalleled creative control. “Before starting a recording project,” Alan Wilder said during a 1984 interview, “We will spend maybe four or five days separately just sampling and building up a massive library that we’ll resort to when we’re searching for a sound for a particular melody part. And if we think the sounds we already got aren’t suitable, we’ll carry on looking longer, sampling other stuff”.
This method of building up a custom sound library wasn’t novel in itself. However, what was new was the sound sources Depeche Mode chose to utilise. When the interviewer asked the band where they found their samples, they were probably expecting the group to name a local record store, not the local scrapyard. “The thing is to try to think laterally,” Wilder maintained.
“If we used a Hoover, it wouldn’t be the noise of the Hoover Hoovering you’d hear; it would be the sound you get when you hit the end of the blowpipe — a great bass sound”. As guitarist Martin Gore explained, the standard kitchen also represented a wealth of sonic opportunities. “Plates, glasses can openers, pots and pans – crockery and cutlery – make good percussion sounds”.
By collecting these non-musical sounds and using them in a musical way, Depeche Mode continued a tradition started by experimental composer John Cage, whose 1940 score ‘Living Room Music’, instructed a quartet of musicians to take any household object and use these as a source of percussion for the first and last movements. This peculiar form of music-making imbued Depeche Mode’s sound with something unfamiliar and yet recognisably musical – giving it a mesmeric, uncanny quality. So, the secret of Depeche Mode’s sound was less an instrument and more an approach, a worldview if you will; one that saw members approach every inanimate object, roaring motorcycle, and “pygmy wail” as having melodic and rhythmic potential.