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 record?
Clarke (left) and Gore in a rare restful moment.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.”
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.
Yamaha CS-10 above Roland VP-330, with Moog Source and Sequential Pro-One behind.Dance music loves its genres and subgenres. Did you have one in mind at the outset?
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 Vince’s iDisk.
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] Prophet-5.
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 it was.
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 interesting harmonics.
Serge Modules.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 that way?
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)Vince with Dave Smith Mopho Keyboard in front of ARP 2500 system.Remixes are currency and tribute in the dance world. Who would you like to see remix tracks from this album, or otherwise collaborate with?
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.