Meet the ‘fifth member’ of Depeche Mode
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“I’m jet-lagged but ready for tomorrow night,” says Depeche Mode’s guitarist, main songwriter and sometimes vocalist Martin Gore. He’s preparing for the band’s Ziggo Dome gig in Amsterdam, which has offered him a chance to stop by the studio of his friend Anton Corbijn, the Dutch photographer, video artist and film director. The space is spare save for a bright red jukebox in the corner that’s a two-fingered jab at the minimalist surroundings – its menu shuffles from The Everly Brothers to Aretha Franklin.
Dressed in black and California-tanned (he’s lived in Santa Barbara for some 23 years), 61-year-old Gore is in town for the European leg of the band’s Memento Mori tour – a globetrotting stadium romp named after the band’s 15th studio album that has attracted sold-out crowds. It’s a bittersweet moment in Depeche Mode’s 43-year-long rock ’n’ roll journey – this is the first tour for Gore and frontman Dave Gahan without their keyboardist Andy Fletcher, who died last year. Memento Mori is dedicated to “Fletch”, one of the Basildon four (which included Vince Clarke, later of Erasure), who formed Depeche Mode in Essex more than 40 years ago.
Corbijn, 68, is “the fifth member of Depeche Mode”. The band’s longtime creative director, he will be part of the maelstrom that will take over their lives over the coming year. He is also known as the creator of some of the world’s most iconic black-and-white portraits: in addition to his work with Depeche Mode, he is famous for his images of Joy Division and U2. In an adjacent room are the last packing boxes destined for his latest exhibition, Artists & More Artists, running concurrently with this month’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival at Château La Coste. It’s a curation of 40 large-scale images, some hitherto unseen, others rare, of musicians with their instruments. “I always felt it was too obvious to photograph a guitar player with his guitar,” Corbijn says with a Dutch lilt. “But there have been a few exceptions: Elvis Costello and Johnny Cash…”
Corbijn’s subjects include some of the most famous musicians in the pantheon, but he prefers not to be considered a “rock photographer”. “I’ve tried not to have a life filled with repetitive experiences. I’ve worked with a lot of musicians but many other people, too. I really like photographing painters, for instance, because deep-down I would have liked to be one. I am really interested in the canvas and how it turns nothing into something.”
Over the years, Corbijn’s work has taken in many creative directions: first into music videos (Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Coldplay, The Killers) then film direction. His movies include the critically rated Control (2007), a biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. A shy man, he never imagined he “could be on set with 50 people. But then the script was the only one I dared take on because I knew Ian – I was a fan.”
Control brought in further film offers from Hollywood: he’s since directed the cinematic thriller The American (2010) starring George Clooney; and A Most Wanted Man (2014). His documentary Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) has just been released in America – an insight into the iconic ’70s album covers of design studio Hipgnosis – and later this year, he’ll begin a new movie project, Switzerland, about The Talented Mr Ripley writer Patricia Highsmith, with Helen Mirren.
Corbijn and Gore have come a long way in music but both still remember their first experiences with a camera and guitar. “I was fascinated by music from the age of 11 because it suggested freedom and a liberal way of living that I hadn’t experienced living in a religious family on an island,” Corbijn says. He recalls borrowing his father’s camera to take snaps of local bands, believing it would arm him with the confidence to get closer to the stage. “Everybody in my family was a minister. That didn’t appeal, so I thought of becoming a missionary so I could at least travel. But aged 12, I read in a newspaper that two missionaries had been eaten by cannibals in New Guinea – that was the end of that dream!” The two men erupt into laughter. Corbijn is constantly cracking jokes.
Posting some of his photographs to a Dutch magazine led to new aspirations. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do,” he says. By the time he met Gore and Depeche Mode in 1981, Corbijn was the official photographer for the NME.
It was another magazine, Disco 45, that helped encourage 13-year-old Gore to start writing music. “Someone had taught me a few chords on the guitar, and I’d buy the magazine as it had all the words. I’d just sit in my room for hours on end learning to play them. It was a great education in songwriting,” he recalls. Discovering his mother’s album collection was also enlightening: “She had the old rock ’n’ roll stuff: Elvis and Chuck Berry… some doo-wop stuff, which I would play endlessly. I suppose it’s the same with Anton and photography, but when I look back, I’ve only really had one major passion in my life: music.”
That passion helped shape Depeche Mode – one of the forerunners of pop-electronic music. “I guess we were ahead of our time musically,” Gore says modestly, when asked about the timelessness of the band’s songs, which, as Corbijn notes, are constantly refreshed. “What was happening back then for me was the true meaning of alternative – especially from ’83 to ’90 before it got more commercialised. You could do whatever you wanted,” says Gore, who, like Corbijn, found music helped him overcome a propensity to shyness. “I struggled with relationships, so it was easier for me to write things than do things,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Corbijn was not into Depeche Mode in the early days. “I’ve made up for it since,” he jokes. “I told myself that I was into serious music and thought that Depeche Mode was too popular for me.”
Gore retorts: “They were too popular for me at the time!”
Neither was Gore always a willing participant in Corbijn’s videos. “We hated doing it in the early days but as it went on we found the stuff got a little more serious.”
Corbijn nods. “It took time to develop. Dave was such a natural actor, which was great because all the stories could be told through him and Martin played a quieter role.”
Gore agrees: “Yeah, David is a great front man. He really works his craft on stage – he knows how to get the crowd going. You see it at the shows we’ve been doing, by the end they’re a massive celebration.”
Corbijn attributes much of the band’s longevity to the transmutative mix of Gore’s songwriting and Gahan’s showmanship. But he does acknowledge his own part in that alchemy. “When we started making more videos after ’86, we realised that my visuals and the music worked well together – we had a kinship in approach. I think I made a difference with my pictures because I shot them as a soulful band.”
Corbijn’s unique relationship with the band – he’s given carte blanche creatively – feeds into his photography and he’s become an unexpected chronicler for a clutch of different bands. “It’s interesting what I have with Depeche Mode and U2, because I photograph people over an incredibly long time. That’s really interesting because it’s the same subject but I do different things with it.”
What does Gore think of Corbijn’s photography? “I like a lot of Anton’s work, obviously,” he smiles cheekily. Corbijn laughs. “Thanks. I mean, come on, John Lee Hooker…” Gore nods slowly. “Yep, John Lee Hooker, Tom Waits, Ian Curtis, John Lydon.”
One image that stands out for Corbijn, however, is a portrait of Nelson Mandela. “I rarely take images of people smiling but he’s really transformed by laughing,” he says of the late South African president’s expression, a joyful anomaly in his moody, graphic repertoire. “I always wanted to be taken as a very serious photographer and part of how I expressed that was by printing my pictures really dark. I always felt it too temporary when people laugh.” His words remind me of a quote by Gore about happy music being too fake and unrealistic.
Johnny Cash was a coup for the photographer. “I remember I was in a hotel in New York lying on a bed when the phone rang and this voice said, ‘Hi, it’s Johnny Cash’ [he mimics his American drawl].” Corbijn was invited to the country singer-songwriter’s home for a video shoot. “During the lunch break, I found myself going into his house where his Jamaican chef was making chicken. I was a vegetarian but I told myself, ‘I’m not going to sit in Johnny Cash’s home and not eat his chicken,’ so I just tried a piece.” Martin, a fellow vegetarian, bursts out laughing. “He was a great, great man,” adds Corbijn. “I mean, he recorded one of Martin’s songs.”
Gore grins: “Yeah, I didn’t believe it when somebody called me and said, ‘I’ve just heard Johnny Cash singing “Personal Jesus” on the radio.’ Of course, being Johnny Cash you don’t ask for permission. But I thought it was great.”
There are other people the pair want to work with collaboratively. “I got lucky with this record [“Ghosts Again”] because Richard Butler [of The Psychedelic Furs] reached out to me and that worked out really well,” says Gore. “I asked if he had any lyrics. So he sent me some and I put those to music and sent it back to him – it built from there.”
Corbijn would love to work with Bob Dylan again. “Yeah, he could knock on my door…” he says. “I’d like to think I could make better pictures of Bob Dylan. I have photographed him before but it was just two frames at two or three in the morning in a parking lot in Cleveland.”
But then Corbijn would not have it any other way. “That’s how it goes. You get a few minutes in a hotel room and you have to make that work. I’ve become good at using impossible spaces to my advantage,” he shrugs. “It’s good when you have to work with your back against the wall. Quick decisions are usually the most creative…”
Artists & More Artists, Château La Coste, runs until 15 August, chateau-la-coste.com. Depeche Mode’s world Memento Mori tour runs until December