(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #76, April 2021)
Words: Bob Fischer
“We are not there yet… we have not evolved”. Such are the opening lines of Depeche Mode’s ‘Going Backwards’, kicking off the band’s politically-charged 2017 album Spirit with a sense of righteous despair. And the global chaos of the intervening four years has clearly done little to lift the spirits of chief songwriter Martin Gore. His new solo EP The Third Chimpanzee – a tight, minimalist salvo of modular instrumentals – even questions how much distance mankind has really put between itself and its primate ancestors. The resigned conclusion, it seems, is not an awful lot.
Nevertheless, chatting amiably over the phone from his now-native Santa Barbara, he sounds in chipper form. And the EP, his first solo release since 2015’s MG album, boasts a sense of angular, homespun playfulness that’s never entirely subsumed by the continuing gloom of Trump-era fallout and locked-down existence. Howler monkeys, mandrills and vervets all lend their names to track titles, and the cover artwork is painted by a talented capuchin.
“I’m doing an hour every Tuesday and Thursday,” he chuckles, laughing off the suggestion of a gruelling promotional schedule. Here’s how the rest of the conversation panned out…
Happy new EP! Even after everything you’ve done in your career, do you still get excited by a new release? Even a little nervous?
It takes so long from finishing something to getting it out there for the public that I think, if you had any nerves, they’d dissipate during that time! [Laughs] I think I actually finished the music for this last summer.
Was it a project you began during the first lockdown, then?
I finished the demo for the original track, ‘Howler’, before lockdown started – probably in 2019. But once we went into lockdown I thought I should make use of my time, and maybe record some more instrumentals. ‘Howler’ was a bit of an outlier, really. It was just sitting there without me really having a plan for it.
‘Howler’ is aptly named – you’re literally howling all the way through. Was experimenting with that sound the initial spark of inspiration for the whole project?
Well I had the idea to manipulate my vocals using the Rossum Panharmonium, the Eurorack module. And it came back sounding not like me, and not even very human! It really reminded me of howler monkeys. I’d heard them quite a lot because, during normal times, I go down to Costa Rica every couple of years. So I just thought it was a good name for the track. But when I started working on the next track – which became ‘Mandrill’ – I thought it would be an interesting idea to manipulate the vocals again, and to keep that as a theme that carries on through the rest of the recordings.
And then I thought “Maybe I should name each track after a different monkey…”
So that’s where the initial concept came from, and once all the tracks were finished I had to think about an overall title. And I remembered the book I’d read by Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee. Which is actually about humans! I thought it would be a funny title, but also quite relevant. It blurs the lines between monkeys and humans, which I think is quite fitting for the world we’re living in at the moment. Not just with the pandemic, but also politically… all the craziness that’s been going on over the last few years.
I do find myself thinking that, if the human race didn’t exist, the Earth would be getting along just fine. We are, essentially, just monkeys with ideas above our station.
Exactly, yeah! We’re the only animal capable of destroying the planet in one fell swoop. And obviously we’re destroying the planet incrementally, every single day. As you say, if we weren’t doing that then the rest of the animals on the planet would be getting along quite nicely.
Sometimes it feels as though all the good things the human race does are simply to correct the bad things that we’ve done in the first place…
[Laughs] “I also think that that every piece of technology that we come up with can be used for incredible good. But there’s something within human nature… there’s a dark side. And we’ll find a nefarious way to use every piece of technology. CRISPR has such potential, but you know it will be used very badly.
Oh, I don’t know about that – what can you tell me?
It’s gene editing. Obviously the hope is that it can be used to cure all kinds of diseases, but it can also be used to create designer babies, or to edit parts of a different animal into the human genome. It has great potential, but…
…you know that we’ll abuse it.
Can I ask a little bit about the recording process of the EP? I’m guessing you have your own studio, and in my imagination there are banks of vintage synths all over the walls. Am I anywhere near?
Yes, I have way too many synths! Quite a few vintage synths, and quite a few modern synths as well. When people walk into my studio, I think they’re more blown away by the Eurorack wall! And then, on the other side, there’s an MU format wall.
Are we talking the full modular synth experience here, with cables like an old telephone exchange?
Yep. I have cables running everywhere. The studio at the moment is a real mess, I should probably tidy up. But at the same time, I think it’s a healthy-looking used studio!
I’ve always been intrigued to ask about the first synth you bought, the one that basically kickstarted Depeche Mode – was it a Yamaha CS-5?
It was, yes…
Is that in there?
Ah… I do have a CS-5, but at some point my old one bit the dust. This was way back, probably about 1983. I could have got it fixed, but I think somebody wanted something for an auction, so I signed it and gave it to them. It’ll be on display somewhere!
I must ask about Pockets Warhol too, who has done the artwork for the new EP. He’s an actual capuchin monkey. How did you make contact with him?
After I’d come up with the concept of naming each track after monkeys, and I’d decided to call it The Third Chimpanzee, I didn’t know what to do about the artwork. And one evening it suddenly hit me – I remembered that monkeys actually paint! So I started googling and came across Pockets. He’s living in a sanctuary in Canada, near Toronto. I just went to their website, hit “Contact Us” and sent them an e-mail explaining who I was and what I was doing. And I asked if they’d be interested in getting Pockets to do the artwork for me. Fortunately, they were really into it, and put me in touch with the woman who works with him. It was a fun process.
Have you got plans to go and meet him once lockdown is over?
They gave me an open invitation! Any time I’m up in the Toronto area, I can go and meet Pockets and his friends.
The Third Chimpanzee has an accompanying remix EP as well – with tracks remixed by ANNA, JLIN, Chris Liebing and Barker. Do you give free reign to your remixers? That must yield some surprising results sometimes…
Yeah, it’s always really interesting. And I do give people free reign. With a couple of the remixes, I did go back to them and say “Could you just add something from the original, so there’s a link?” Because otherwise it’s like a different track. But that was the only input I had. I think the remixes for this EP are really outstanding.
When you sit down to write, do you have specific intentions, thinking either “this is a solo project” or “this is for Depeche Mode”? Or do you just write and see what comes out, without making too many plans?
When I decide to work on instrumental stuff, in the back of my head I know it’s for me. Whereas when I work on a song, I’m always thinking – if it turns out good – that it’ll be something for Depeche Mode. As a solo artist, I’ve never released any actual songs that I’ve written. And I think that’s because I don’t consider myself a very prolific writer. So when I write a song that I like, I feel I should save it for the band.
I should ask a little about Depeche Mode. We’ve all been stuck in lockdown for the best part of a year now. Has that scuppered any plans you might have had?
We got really lucky because we finished a long tour in 2018, and we don’t usually plan to go out again too quickly after something like that. So we didn’t really have anything planned for 2020. I think we’re just waiting until there’s a semblance of normality. Or we at least know what’s happening… even with the vaccine, there’s still no clear-cut plan. I have no idea when I’m getting mine!
It’s difficult really, because we’re a big machine. And you can’t start a big machine until there’s a road for it to drive down…
It’s interesting you say that. Because I’m always fascinated to know, when bands reach that kind of size, how easy it is to maintain the relationships on a personal level? When you, Dave and Andy get together, are you still essentially three old mates from Essex?
I think we get on very well, considering we’ve been together for over 40 years now! This is the 41st year. But we don’t keep in constant contact when we’re not working. When we are working, we usually take on projects that can last up to two years. There’s the time we spend in the studio making a record, then we go into rehearsals, then we go out on tour… it’s a big chunk of your life. So when something like that finishes, you don’t necessarily feel like you have to call every week! But we do stay in touch, and we make sure everyone’s doing OK. I always say it’s more like a family. You just keep in contact and ask “How are you…?”
And are they both doing OK?
This is a slightly flippant question, but it’s one I love asking of people who rose to fame in the 1980s. I once interviewed Andy McCluskey from OMD, and he said something that’s always stayed with me. I’m paraphrasing, but basically: “I started a band because I wanted to be in Kraftwerk, and I ended up making traffic light sandwiches with Timmy Mallett on kid’s TV”. Did Depeche Mode have a “traffic light sandwich” moment? A TV show or a promo appearance where you thought “What are we doing here?”
[Laughs] Oh, we had lots of them in the early ‘80s. There’s a famous German TV show where I think we’re doing ‘See You’ and they had us in a barnyard… singing, playing, and holding chickens!
Just to clarify… we’re talking live chickens here?
Live chickens, yes! We would always laugh about it… whenever we went over to France or Italy in the ‘80s, we’d always end up on these big variety shows, and we were just so out of place. There seemed to be a requirement that you couldn’t get into the audience if you were under 65.
There was a lovely show on Sky Arts last year, Guy Garvey: From The Vaults – basically showing incongruous appearances by unlikely artists on old regional ITV shows. And there was a really nice clip of you and Dave in 1982, sitting on the floor with Sally James on Tiswas…
There was another one… I can’t remember what it was for, but we had to do ‘Leave In Silence’ up at Alton Towers. There were no instruments involved, they were just trying to make us look mysterious – all standing in weird positions around the theme park. It was awful.
Those are the moments when you need to think “Don’t worry, lads – in a couple of years we’ll be playing stadiums in the States…”
Well, you live and learn! In the early days especially, we did whatever came along. And we’d be told by our publicist: “This is good for you!” But I suppose… well, maybe we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t held those chickens, or stood around like idiots at Alton Towers.
A chicken-themed EP is surely the next project, Martin! Actually… are you working on anything?
[Laughs] Not at the moment, no. I’ve been writing songs, but like I said – we don’t have plans with the band. We haven’t got studio time booked or anything, we’ll just wait and see where the world takes us.
The Third Chimpanzee is out now on Mute Records.