Sunday, 6 March 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH GARETH JONES

Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller worked with Depeche Mode on their three "Berlin" albums - Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward and, of course, Black Celebration. Happily for me, Gareth agreed to an interview for this project, and I was extremely fortunate to spend an hour or so on Skype with Gareth chatting about Black Celebration. I'd have happily talked much longer but I was conscious that he's a busy man and that I didn't want to bore him. The chat we had threw up some wonderful Black Celebration gems and so here it. Hope you enjoy it.



APA: I've been doing some revising before speaking to you Gareth. I watched the Black Celebration reissue dvd to help me prepare.

GJ: I haven't seen that for a while. Let's hope I can remember something :-) !

APA: One of the things that you mention on that dvd is the approach you all took to recording the album. You say that you adopted a Werner Herzog like approach of actually living the project as it went on. How did that impact on the album?

GJ: That was Daniel's suggestion. It made it very intense in a creative and challenging way. At the end of the album's recording, cabin fever set in. We had a real desire to get it finished so that we could get on with our lives! From the moment we started recording the album, we were together every day until the mixing was finished. In many ways, it was the most time intensive project I've ever worked on. I've spent longer on other projects but I always took some time off during them. Working in the way we did on Black Celebration gave it an energy, a claustrophobia and an introspection that all work together. We were very involved in each other and in the work, and it brought lots of creative tension. Overall, it's difficult to say how those conditions impacted on the album as there is no other version of Black Celebration - there is only that one. That's just how we chose to make it. It definitely affected the record and that was a major thing.

APA: One thing that strikes me about Black Celebration is the different feel the record has compared to the preceding four albums. Whilst Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward added a harder edge to the band's sound, they still had a lot of pop elements to them. Was there a conscious decision to make a darker or more intense album with Black Celebration?

GJ: Part of the idea of coming together to work so intensely on it, this idea of “living the album” that became so iconic, was based on the songs and title of the album - the idea of a black celebration. Martin was aiming at something darker and, you could say, deeper with his song-writing and the work on the album took the lead from that. It's a step into the territory that the band continued to go towards with Music For The Masses, Violator and Songs Of Faith And Devotion. Perhaps every album is a tipping point of sorts, but Black Celebration is certainly a tipping point for Depeche, as it's the last of the Berlin trilogy, moving forwards from edgy electropop to a darker and more accomplished form. As with every project though, it was led by the song-writing. If the song-writing is deeper, weirder and darker, it will necessarily inform the whole production.

APA: The album sessions started in London before moving to Berlin. When did you first hear Martin's demos? Was it in the first London session?

GJ: Daniel and the band would have listened to the demos before the first studio session and I would have heard them too. When I started working with Depeche on Construction Time Again, I'd heard no demos before as I met them for the first time in the studio. The demo is so important. In those days, they were inevitably different to the final track and you couldn't really use them as the quality was so bad. Now, you can use a demo as a finished product, but back then, there was a huge gulf between the demo and finished track. The demo, like I said was very important though as it was the first vision of the song so we always had the demos available to us. We wouldn't play them every day but they were a handy reference point if we needed to listen back and work out what the original atmosphere of the song was or if we had somehow lost our way or missed something. On Black Celebration, Alan Wilder was working on demos in the Rough Trade studio. The band had a pre-production phase there - it was a small multi track studio. The work done there would not have been transferred to the 2 inch tapes but it was useful for developing sounds and song structures and building sounds and sample sets.  I visited the band in Rough Trade studios before we went into Westside Studios in London to start the album sessions properly. I didn't have anything to do with the pre-production though - that was Alan and the rest of the band.



Gareth Jones, Hansa studios 1986

APA: In terms of the songs, the re-issue dvd is entitled "The songs aren't good enough, there aren't any singles and it'll never get played on the radio." Despite that, the first single Stripped is something of a Depeche Mode landmark single. Do you recall a worry about the apparent lack of singles at the time?

GJ: Not really. I remember that Stripped was the first time that we invited Neil Ferris (the band's radio and TV plugger) into the studio to hear the song. Daniel insisted that only mastered tracks were played to anyone outside the core studio team. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and Daniel was keen to ensure that impression was excellent. A lot of the time, the work we were doing was under wraps and it would only be played to the record company and P.R. team once it was mixed and mastered. The video director might hear it earlier than that though. Anyway, I remember Neil being invited down to the studio to hear Stripped. We tried to make it as exciting as possible. We sat him down in the middle of the speakers, turned the lights down and the volume up and said "Right Neil - listen to this." We wanted to make it a special moment. It was a wonderful and powerful step in the start of the marketing of the album campaign because, in that situation, Neil just totally got it. I don't recall Daniel saying there were no singles. As label boss, he understood the importance of singles much more than I did but throughout the sessions, we were focused on making an album as a whole, not singles. The singles were obviously important, and when a song was picked as a single, it would get a special focus and we'd spend a bit longer on production and mixing it. I felt very strongly that Black Celebration was an album though and it works best as that. It flows from beginning to end, moving through a set of moods. It all belongs together.

APA: One thing the first two Berlin albums are well known for is sampling and use of found sounds. It seems to me that there's less obvious sampling in Black Celebration - there's certainly less metal bashing. Was there less sampling overall?

GJ: Not really no. We built on our experience as a sampling team and used the more modern technology to use sampling in a way that devoted it to the mood of the album and songs, we used polyphonic high quality samplers, so we were much more sophisticated. Sampling was still very much used though - we were definitely trying to make things as weird as possible! When we sampled, we made sure we didn't use anyone else's music, and that was adhered to even in this track where we had the idea of sampling Sir Winston Churchill. We wanted to use his "A brief period of rejoicing" quote on the title track as we loved that idea of a brief moment of rejoicing. We didn't use his voice though - instead Daniel said the words, we processed his performance  and we used that instead. That's how determined we were not to use anyone else's work! We all loved hip hop but we didn't want to sample in that way - we didn't want to collage other people's work and drop it into Martin's songs. We used samplers to grab real sounds from the real world to make sure our samples were original.



Depeche Mode, Hansa studios 

APA: Fly On The Windscreen is one track where a number of sampled sounds are used

GJ: Yeah it is. (At this point, Gareth started playing FOTW in his studio and picking out individual tracks and sounds. I was listening to the track with the man who produced it. Incredible!) In this track, you can hear a rather young sounding Daniel again saying "over and done with." The breath sample noise at the start is interesting too. I can't remember who it was - really it could have been anyone. Depeche had an interesting philosophy and working practice at the time. Because they were an electronic group, the work on the tracks was collaborative. It didn't matter who made or found a noise as it was just an element of the piece. Someone would find a sound, someone would record it, someone else would sample it, someone would trigger it, someone would add an effect and someone would use it in an arrangement. It didn't matter who did what or who made what noise as we were all sculpting the same sonic world. There were no egos as such.

APA: I think most Depeche fans have a real affection for Black Celebration as a whole, and Fly On The Windscreen is one track that I think stands out. Was it an obvious choice for the album even though it had already been used as a b-side on It's Called A Heart?

GJ: Definitely. Lyrically it's an obvious fit because of its message of doom or mortality. Perhaps Martin was coming to terms with mortality as a songwriter on this album. He was in his mid 20's when he wrote these songs. Despite being a young man at that point, he was definitely embracing mortality. That's where Fly On The Windscreen fits - it's a bit bleak really! It's a realistic track though and does have positive elements. Martin was developing as a spiritual being and he was expressing uplifting sentiments mixed with his own sense of mortality.

APA; You mentioned egos earlier. One thing that strikes me about this album is the fact that four of its eleven songs are sung by Martin which is the highest proportion of Martin songs on any Depeche record. Was that hard for Dave and was there a reason for so many tracks having a Martin lead vocal?

GJ: To me, it didn't matter who sung the songs as all that was important was whether or not the song fitted the album. As I recall, it was clear which songs were to be sung by Dave and which were to be sung by Martin. It wasn't like Dave tried to sing the tracks then people thought they'd sound better with Martin or vice versa. I know that there was an image issue though, a connection issue. There was an importance attached to having one voice lead the project, connecting the band to the public. That was discussed both before Black Celebration and subsequently. There's a sense in which the band having only one voice connects better. The public hear Dave's voice and know it's Depeche Mode. I recall it being an issue, but Black Celebration was so experimental, almost the pinnacle of the experimental pop we were working on at the time, that it didn't involve any great discussion. All we wanted was a song that fitted the album.


Gareth And Dave, Hansa Studios 1986 (picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos and Videos FB Group)


APA: Aside from the album, there are some superb b-sides from that period too. Breathing In Fumes is a particular favourite of mine. Was that an exciting track to work on?

GJ: Let's have a listen. (Gareth started playing the track. Again, this was superb). Yeah that sounds like me. We worked on that in Hansa as I recall. It's our remix of Stripped. You'd have the single version of that track, Flood's Highland Mix of the track and this was our own 12" mix of some kind. Because Flood had prepared what we'd have called the Extended Mix, we did our own experimental thing. We used to love making the extended versions - they were the days of the great extended remix. I've actually just done some extended remixes for New Order's new album - like me, and like Depeche, they love that format. On Breathing In Fumes we were definitely being more experimental than on, say, our extended remixes of People Are People and Master & Servant.

APA: Those two remixes are special too aren't they? They're timeless

GJ: Yeah we loved making them - it was superb fun. We didn't ever start those mixes until we'd finished the mix for the single version. We worked on making the 7" version sound good for the radio, finished it and then found ourselves freed from the constraints of making a three and a half minute track designed for radio play. Psychologically, there was a huge sense of achievement and relief you know - like "Great - AT LAST!" The next day, we'd come into the studio and everything would still be set up and start the 12" version. There would be a great creative relief and outpouring. Everyone would take risks and you'd just fuck about thinking "Turn up the drums! Put more effects on the vocals!" and so on. There was sense of freedom and fun and that playfulness clearly comes across in those extended versions and massive tape editing of course.

APA; A key element of the album, and indeed of the whole Berlin trilogy, is Hansa itself. Why was that studio important?

GJ: The band, me and Daniel always loved Berlin. I was living there at the time and I loved the place. The band really enjoyed Hansa and its atmosphere too. There's no doubt that the place you make a record actually affects how the record sounds. At the time, Berlin was very bleak and the area around Hansa was a bombsite. Perhaps that dark and bleak atmosphere helped shape the record. Obviously the fact that were able to rent the mixing room and the big hall at a reasonable costs was a factor too. West Germany was an important country for Depeche at the time as well as they'd had a huge number one there with People Are People in 1984. Their popularity in that country helped feed the creative energy. Don't forget that we also felt like we were following in the footsteps of our heroes from German electronic music and Krautrock. All those things added up to make Hansa special for us. We were in the right place at the right time really.

APA: Did Hansa's own space and equipment bring anything particular to the record?

GJ: Yeah definitely. We wired the whole place for sound basically. I got twenty four tie lines in between the studio upstairs and the big hall so that we could use the hall to record in. There are lots of natural reverbs on the album and the hall was used a lot for that. Black Celebration is drenched in reverb, drowned perhaps! We had this idea that reverb equaled atmosphere. We were moving away from the pure Kraftwerk or early Human League electronic sounds where all the synths were DI'd. We had the idea that what got the girls was atmosphere, and because we decided that atmosphere WAS reverb - the more there was, the better it was going to be! I was always fascinated by a sense of place in music - the difference between a synth plugged directly into a speaker and plugged into amps and using big acoustic spaces. Depeche Mode loved the idea of experimenting this way so I was fortunate enough to be able to develop that idea with them. By the time we got to Black Celebration, we'd gone nuts on reverb! We were trying to get to that 3rd dimension. You have left and right speakers and we tried to get that third place where the sound just goes back. We were constructing our own synthetic world and we wanted the songs to have depth that echoed behind the speakers, with the sense of things happening far away in the soundfield. Hansa was really important in that it allowed us to do that and the studio was key in making this profound album.

APA: Finally, looking back at Black Celebration, what do you consider is its legacy? Do you think it was an album Depeche Mode had to make to take the next step towards becoming one of the biggest bands in the world?

GJ: The only way we can understand life is by looking back and decoding it. At the time we're doing stuff, we're driven by our subconscious and it's only years later we can perhaps understand and say "Oh yeah, that's why we did that." Black Celebration was clearly a milestone in all of our collaborative, creative work together. It's the end of a road, as well as the end of the Berlin period. I've worked with the band since then obviously, but not quite in the same way. It was the start of a new phase and the end of an era. It was clearly a very important album and the band felt it was a deeply spiritual piece. It was almost like "Is this too spooky? Is it too dark? Can we do this?" They pushed their own envelope as far as they could sonically and song-writing wise which is fantastic. The broke new boundaries with that album and they continued to do that in much of their subsequent work. Back then of course, bands were given time and encouragement to develop unlike today. Depeche were so talented and creative when we worked together in Berlin. Black Celebration was the pinnacle of that and it is still a wonderful album, one I am delighted and proud to have been a small part of.





Thanks so much to Gareth for taking the time to speak to me. It was a real honour and a genuinely wonderful experience. Keep an eye on Gareth's Twitter for all the information on what he's up to - he's still involved in producing loads of great music so you're bound to find something you're going to love.


(c) David McElroy and Almost Predictable Almost. This interview is not to be reproduced without permission.


6 comments:

  1. that was a great read! Thank you Gareth and David!

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  2. Thank you boys for an wonderful read...

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  3. Really interesting read, indeed. However, Mr Jones memory is not perfect: Sometimes' intro and the female moan samples in A Question of Time come undoubtedly from external sources.

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    1. What female moan samples?

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    2. Well, polyphonic sampling can easily acheive the intro on "sometimes" and all kinds of voices/moans can be created by transposing

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  4. "We were trying to get to that 3rd dimension." Brilliant.

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