By Stephen Fortner
“THIS IS OUR FIRST DANCE RECORD, WHICH SOUNDS LIKE A WEIRD THING
to say,” reflects Martin Gore about Ssss, the new electronic album co-created
with fellow synth statesman Vince Clarke. Weird indeed, given that almost every
electronic dance music star we talk to cites Depeche Mode—especially the
Speak & Spell lineup that included both Clarke and Gore—and Clarke’s subsequent
work in Yaz and Erasure, as top influences. “I suppose both Depeche and
Erasure have made very danceable tracks, and remixes were done, and they’re
considered dance bands in a way,” Gore clarifies, “but neither Vince nor I have
gone out of our way to make an actual dance record.”
Now they have, reuniting as VCMG after three
decades of separate successes to produce an
impeccable result. The ten instrumental tracks
avoid gratuitous bombast and clichéd flourishes,
pulsing their way across a sonic landscape the
pair describes as “minimal,” but that’s burbling
with enough analog counterpoint to keep the
most cerebral of electronica fans listening even
as it delivers the gravity of bass and beat that
keeps the viscerally-inclined ones dancing.
How did you initially conceptualize this
Vince Clarke: I don’t know that we ever had a
“concept.” What happened was, I started writing
tracks about two years ago. I’d been listening to
a lot of minimal techno music, and after two or
three tracks I just thought it would be interesting
to collaborate with somebody. But at no time
did we sit down and say, “Okay this is the kind of
album it’s going to be.”
|Clarke (left) and Gore in a rare restful moment.
Martin Gore: The first contact was an email
from Vince to me saying, “I’m thinking of making
a techno album. There are no timelines or
pressures. Are you interested in collaborating?” I
simply said yes, because I was quite excited about
the idea of working with Vince again.
Given how many techno and electronic artists
you’ve influenced, who influenced you going
into this project?
VC: I did a Remix for Plastikman [a.ka. Richie
Hawtin] a while ago, and I’d never really listened
to music like that—I’m a real “songwriter”
person. Someone told me about the Beatport
website, which specializes in dance music, obviously.
I’d never really viewed techno as emotional
music, but after listening to a lot of stuff on Beatport,
I was blown away by all the sounds people
were using. It was a whole new world for me. I
also really like the music of Deadmau5. He’s a
real builder of tracks.
MG: I’ve been into techno music for a long time.
Sometimes I DJ, and when I do, I play a lot of
techno. I think we both remember listening to
Plastikman’s first album when it came out on Mute
[the record label that’s also home to Depeche
Mode and Erasure] and thinking, “This is just out
there and we don’t get it at all!” Coming back to
it years later, you realize what a genius and how
ahead of his time he was. Which is not to say
Plastikman was the basis behind the whole album,
but he’s definitely someone we admire.
Dance music loves its genres and subgenres.
Did you have one in mind at the outset?
|Yamaha CS-10 above Roland VP-330, with Moog Source and Sequential Pro-One behind.
VC: I think “minimal” is what we were kind of
aiming for, although Martin and I never sat down
and conceptualized about it. I think what we
were looking to do was make as many interesting
sounds and arrangements as possible without
the use of lyrics, choruses, and verses. Minimal
techno—whatever you want to call it—I love it
because people are being very adventurous with
sound itself. It’s like sound sculpture. In a traditional
pop song, you get your emotional lift from
a heartfelt lyric or from a chord change in the
chorus, but [with techno] you get emotion from
the musical lift that goes up, up, up and then
goes down to nothing or that has some unexpected
twist. It’s done purely with sound.
Are there any telltale sonic differences between
the parts each of you contributed?
VC: No, it was all done 50/50. I think we both
knew when each track was finished—when the
arrangement was correct and it didn’t need any
more stuff . Some tracks I initiated and some
tracks Martin initiated, but we both contributed
equally to all of them.
MG: I think it’s very difficult to tell who did what.
I’d never done this whole file-sharing thing before
where you add a piece, send it off , and then get
it back. It’s always very interesting to open your
inbox and see what you’ve got. So it was very interchangeable,
the roles that we performed.
File-sharing? So you collaborated remotely?
How did that work?
VC: The album was done in both my cabin studio
in New England and [Martin’s studio] on
the West Coast. We both work in [Apple] Logic,
which made it easy to share tracks.
MG: Vince just gave me his iDisk password and
we shared all the files like that. There was talk
of us going through Mute and them encrypting
everything, but it seemed like it was less safe
and convenient than us just dumping stuff onto
You worked together in the debut lineup
of Depeche Mode. What’s different—or the
same—about your creative process now?
MG: The technology available today is just so
mind-blowingly amazing compared to back then.
Obviously we could sync things, but it was such
a process. Even getting a drum machine to run
in time with a sequencer was an effort. But now,
you can do so much that the real effort is to reign
in those possibilities.
How much of the record’s sound is owed to your
studios full of analog synths, and how much of
it could have been done anywhere on a laptop?
VC: My analog stuff is the first thing I go to if I
have time. I enjoy the tactile-ness of it, and the
unpredictability. Most of the synths in my studio
don’t have any memory, so every time that I go
to a [Roland] System 100M or a Moog modular
or something like that, hopefully I’m going to be
creating something completely different from
what I did before. On my end of the album, I’d
record sounds from my analog synths and manipulate
them in Logic—I’d cut them up to make
interesting rhythms or EQ them in odd ways just
to get a variety of sounds.
MG: The majority of it was hardware for me. I
always get into these different addictions. Luckily,
they’re more instrument-based than in the
past! [Laughs.] My latest addiction has been the
Eurorack format—I’ve been using that quite
extensively. Then there are always some old
analog classics lying around, like the Gleeman
Pentaphonic, Memorymoog, or [Sequential Circuits]
Martin, were there any Eurorack modules
you found yourself reaching for a lot as you
worked on the record?
MG: That’s a good question. It’s such an addiction
for me that I’m literally buying stuff every week.
I see interviews about people who get so addicted
that it’s like crack. You know, moving modules
around all the time, constantly trying out different
things. I couldn’t actually say that there’s
one thing I overused. I do have quite a lot of Ken
MacBeth’s Eurorack modules, and I used an M5N
on the record. I met Ken when we [Depeche Mode]
played in Scotland on our last tour. He’s an amazing
character, one you don’t forget easily.
What was the very first sound created for
the very first track?
VC: The first sound from the first track that I
started was “Single Blip,” which is exactly what
it was. It started off with just that blip sound—I
thought that was funny.
The track “Bendy Bass” seems like a tastefully
understated alternative to dubstep
bass. What was used for its bass sound?
VC: I try not to go to just one synth for a given
part—I’m not one of those people who says, “If
it’s a bass, I must use the Minimoog,” for example.
I think in “Bendy Bass” it was a combination
of Minimoog and [Sequential Circuits] Pro-One. I
love the Pro-One, it’s a great synth.
Vince, you used the Pro-One heavily in Yaz.
Did you take one out on the Reconnected
tour in 2008?
VC: Actually, most sounds on that tour were
from the original multitracks. Some sounds
were so degraded because of time that I had
to replace them, using analog stuff from my
studio. What was interesting about that tour
was that I hadn’t listened to that stuff for 30
years and I was completely amazed at how
little music there was on the tape—how minimal
There’s a new wave of compact analog
synths—sort of the modern equivalent of
the Pro-One. . . .
VC: Yeah, I have the one made by Dave Smith
[the Mopho]. I think it sounds fantastic, actually.
I checked out the rack version of the new Moog
[Slim Phatty], and I’ve got to give it some time. I
haven’t had a chance to check out the modulars
coming from Germany because Erasure has been
on tour for six months, and I’m in the process
of building a new studio in New York. Once that
work’s done, I’m looking into getting some of the
new modular stuff .
On several tracks on Ssss, there are little
hits that will do a walk-up of two or three
chords, and they have lots of harmonics in
them. How did you get that sound?
VC: The way I achieved most of those sounds
was by sampling a synth like a Pro-One—something
very simple—then making a chord out of
those samples, then pitching it up way too high.
You know, recording it low and then pitching
up high within Logic. That’s where you get the
How do you sync up your computer-based
Logic world with your analog synth world?
VC: Well, obviously most of the analog stuff
uses control voltage [CV], and I actually use
old Roland MPU-101 units to convert MIDI
information into CV. They’re quite cool because
you can do pitch-bend and stuff like
that with those particular modules. When
MOTU Volta first came out, I was really intrigued
because some of the synthesizers I
have will never, ever be in tune! [Volta can
convert automation from a DAW into CV, send it
through audio interface outputs, and keep analog
oscillators of external gear in tune. —Ed.] So I
tried it with a Moog modular, but to be fair,
not for long enough—I only played with it for
about a week. That’s another thing I’ll look
into once I get my new studio set up.
Vince, one of the most viral quotes in the
history of Keyboard magazine is from a vintage
interview where you refer to MIDI timing
as “sloshy” and “crap.” Do you still feel
VC: I don’t feel that way at all anymore,
because if anything’s out of time, which it
frequently is, you just move it within Logic.
When we were using CV and gate-based sequencers
like the Roland MC-4, the timing of
those was much better than when we started
using hardware MIDI sequencers, especially
the early ones.
|Ssss (Mute Records 2012)
Remixes are currency and tribute in the
dance world. Who would you like to see
remix tracks from this album, or otherwise
|Vince with Dave Smith Mopho Keyboard in front of ARP 2500 system.
MG: Wow, that’s a loaded question! [Laughs.]
Well, a lot of the people that I’d like to see remix
this record, we’ve got. So far we’ve released two
singles, we’ve got Bytone doing a remix, and Terrence
Fixmer’s done a couple for us. We may get
Alva Noto to have a go at another track. I like
Alva Noto; he’s definitely one of the more interesting
artists in the electronic field.
VC: I wouldn’t mind producing Paul Simon,
because I’m a huge fan of his.
Listening to the record supports something
a lot of your fans must feel: Th at you’re back
together to show the EDM world how it’s done.
MG: I don’t know if it’s necessarily about showing
people how it’s done. I think it’s quite nice
that we did manage to influence a lot of electronic
musicians and techno producers, and that
now, we’ve actually been able to go on and pay
our respects to what they’ve created.