Interview Date: 05/10/2010
Run Date: 06/07/2010
He only wrote a handful of songs, none of which were released as singles, but one could make a hell of a case for Alan Wilder as the man who made Depeche Mode great. As the band’s sonic architect during their glory years, Wilder pushed the band into darker, experimental territory, but perhaps his most well-known accomplishment is when he took a gentle ballad of bandmate Martin Gore’s called “Enjoy the Silence” and transformed it into a dance track, and subsequently a worldwide smash. Growing frustrated with doing the majority of the heavy lifting – and receiving little acknowledgement for his troubles – Wilder left Depeche in 1995 and put his energies into his solo project Recoil, which is about to release its first retrospective Selected and launch its first-ever tour. Bullz-Eye caught up with Wilder at his home in Sussex to talk about sampling blues over electronic beats well before that Moby chap, the upcoming World Cup, and how his old mates could use a swift kick in the ass in the studio once in a while.
Bullz-Eye: I know we’re here to talk about Recoil, but I have to start off by telling you that I sorely miss your contributions to Depeche Mode. They are just not the same band without you.
Alan Wilder: Thank you. I get that comment quite a lot, actually, which is always flattering, of course. It’s amazing how many people continue to say that to me after all these years. I guess a lot of people have a soft spot for that particular period.
BE: Well, there were a lot of different things that were clicking [then]. You were doing so much sonic experimentation, and those were Martin’s best songs as well.
AW: What you say about pushing [boundaries] and experimentation, that’s a lot of the problem with Depeche, you know. I always found, in the years I was with them, it was always my role to push for change. They’re very happy to settle into their own methods, and be comfortable within that. One of the great things about working with Flood was that between him and me, we insisted on pushing forward and trying to change things, and I think you can hear that in Violator and Songs of Faith & Devotion more than any other albums. You can also hear that since then… [Pause] I think they’ve lacked really strong production. You know, a really strong producer who can take charge and not just sit there and get a nice sound, but someone that can actually say, “Yeah, this is okay, but you can do better. If you just push it a bit further, you can do a lot better.” That’s what they miss, I think.
BE: I couldn’t agree more.
AW: There are good songs [on the post-Wilder albums]. Martin’s always been a good songwriter, and that hasn’t changed.
BE: Recoil has not been terribly active the past few years. What made you decide to release a singles compilation now?
AW: Well, let’s not call it a singles compilation, because there aren’t any hit singles on it. It’s an overview, if you like, of what Recoil is all about, to try and bring it to a few people that may not know about it. In terms of singles, I can’t think of it in that way. I’m trying to think of it in terms of a cohesive album that makes sense when you listen to it. Not just a selection of tracks that you cherry-pick something from, but something you listen to all the way through and it makes sense. So that’s the reasoning behind it. And the project’s been going a long time now; it’s nearly 25 years old, so I think it’s not before time that we put something together like this. And I guess you can say I haven’t been that active, no. This is the first time we’ve ever played live, for example. And I never thought it was a project that was easy to take out on the road. It’s still not that easy, because of all the different singers, they live in different parts of the world, and they’ve got other commitments. So that’s not easy, but the thing that has become a bit easier is the availability of film, cheaper film potential, which I always wanted to do but could never really afford. So there are various reasons why we are now able, or I feel willing, to go on the road with it, as it were. But it still a different kind of presentation. It’s certainly not a live band.
BE: I was going to ask you about the tour, but now that you’ve brought it up, this is the first time you’ve been on the road since Songs of Faith and Devotion, right?
AW: Yeah. Sorry, I answered about ten questions in one there, didn’t I? (Laughs) It is the first time. I’m not a natural performer. I’m not like a Dave [Gahan] character that has to have his audience. I’m quite happy in the background, in a way. But having said that, I’m enjoying being out there, because I like traveling around and meeting people and all that stuff. So I’m quite happy to do it, and it’s been good fun. But this is much more like…a kind of presentation where we have quite a lot of pre-prepared music, and we do some live things over the top, but it’s tailored with venues and live audiences in mind. So they’re quite different versions to the records, for example. Much more stripped back, more minimal, more like a big remix, in a way. And the film is an important – more than important – part of the whole thing. It’s vital to making the whole thing have some focus and be interesting to people. Otherwise, there’s not much going on onstage, you know. So if we’ve got a good projection facility, then it’s really good.
BE: That’s interesting that you brought up film, because one of the things that I was going to ask you is whether you thought about scoring movies, because there is a very cinematic feel to a lot of the songs on this album.
AW: It’s something I have expressed interest in. It’s not really happened as of yet. There have been some collaboration with film; Recoil’s music has appeared in a few different places along the way, but I’ve never scored a full movie. I guess it’s just a question of a good opportunity and the right combination coming along. Which may still happen. I’m open to that idea, yeah. It’s definitely something I could do, I’m sure.
BE: The song “Red River Cargo” sounds particularly interesting now, since it essentially beats Moby’s album Play to the punch by a good two years.
AW: Yeah, that’s true. There’s our album Bloodline, where we did a track called “Electro Blues for Bukka White,” which has sampled blues singing over electronic music, and was way before all that Moby stuff took off. So there you go. (Chuckles)
BE: You also managed to get Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb to actually sing on a record, instead of yell. Why doesn’t he do that more often?
AW: I guess Nitzer Ebb are lacking a lot of melodic content, you could say.
BE: There’s the understatement of the century.
AW: They asked me recently to do a remix for them, and I managed to find one track on their new album that does have some melodic content, and that was the one I chose to do. I think it’s a shame that they don’t have more melody, because they obviously have really good rhythmic ideas and good energy, and Doug is potentially a very good singer.
BE: Is there anything on Selected that you pitched to your former bandmates before deciding to record it yourself, or were these songs always meant to stand apart?
AW: No, none of these things were ever written before they were recorded in the studio, because…I can’t really write songs, to be honest. What happens is the songs evolve out of experiments in the studio, which is how I like it, because it’s a discovery process as you make the music. You never know quite where it’s going to lead to or where it’s going next. And it’s these aspects of making music that I really enjoy the most, these trial-and-error experiments where something happens that you didn’t expect and lead you to a new direction. Once I’ve got some music in place, I then try and find a vocalist or a lyricist to create the end result, which we could call a song, or we may not. It depends how it sounds; these are not conventional songs. In the early days, I tried to write songs much more conventionally, in a pop format. I did contribute a few to Depeche in those days, but I never was really happy with them.
BE: Your Wikipedia page states that you were invited to join the Cure in the mid-‘90s. True, or false?
AW: Um, 75% true. They never directly asked me. They asked Daryl [Bamonte], who was working for us at the time. Daryl’s brother actually ended up in the Cure, Perry Bamonte. Daryl used to work for Depeche and was very close to Robert Smith, and in fact he ended up working for Robert. Robert asked Daryl to ask me, “Would Alan be interested in joining us?” And of course I had just left Depeche Mode at the time, and the last thing I wanted to do was join any other band. I didn’t want to be in any band at all. I still don’t, in fact. So it was never going to happen.
BE: That would have been like another version of Electronic, you and Robert Smith in the same band.
AW: Yeah, it could have been a weird combination.
BE: I saw the video of your appearance with Depeche Mode at that benefit gig in February. When was the last time before that night that you had even played “Somebody” on the piano?
AW: Probably that afternoon. I played it a couple of days before, just to remind myself, but it’s not something I sit down and play every week, no. The interesting thing was, as soon as I played it again, it was like it had never been away; it’s kind of ingrained in my limbs, that song, because we’ve played it so many times over the years on past tours. It’s a very simple song to play anyway, so it didn’t take a lot of rehearsal.
BE: How are things now between you and the rest of the band?
AW: Pretty good, I think. We haven’t got any problems. I speak to Dave quite regularly, mostly by text or email. I don’t see so much of Martin and Fletch, but we had a very good chat that day. We met up before the concert, and I think everyone’s in good spirits and we have a good relationship. Martin’s in a great place at the moment. He’s been sober for four years or something, and he’s like a new person, completely different to how I remember him the last time I saw him.
BE: I love the story about how you transformed “Enjoy the Silence” from a ballad to a dance track. What other moments of studio wizardry are you particularly fond of?
AW: I think we were the most inventive on the Songs of Faith & Devotion album, going back to what I was saying earlier about working with Flood and pushing the boundaries a little bit. I can remember the first time we recorded “Walking in My Shoes.” It was the first, and possibly only, time the band has ever jammed together. We were never that kind of group; we just meticulously programmed music. Yes, there would be performance elements, but they tended to be overdubs and single-person performances. And Flood said, “Look, let’s just do something different.” We were getting nowhere; we had tried different ways of recording that track, and none of it sounded any good. So after the third or fourth time, Flood finally said, “Look, just all sit down, pick up an instrument and play something together.” And that was met with derision. “What? What are you talking about? Play together?” Alien concept to Depeche Mode. So Martin had a guitar, I had a bass, someone else had a tambourine, we had a little rhythm box going, and we just made this noise. And after that, we got the main groove for that song, the bass line and guitar lines. I’m not saying it was anything special. All I’m saying is that the process was so different and so unusual, and we did get a result from it, that I’ve got a good feeling about that. Again, going back to what I was saying, it was one of those moments where we did something different, and out of it came something very strong. I wish we had done more of that kind of thing.
BE: So you’re doing three dates in the US, and then you’re doing some dates in the UK. What are your post-tour plans?
AW: Well, we actually already did the London show. We have a date in Mexico and a couple of dates in the States, for now. And then we’re doing quite a lot of European dates. The idea was to do more [shows in the US] now, but it hasn’t really happened for one reason or another. So what we’re going to do is come back in October and play the rest of the US cities that we haven’t done this time. And South America as well, which we wanted to get to now, but the promoters have been a bit slow to get back to us, and we want to organize it really well. And it will happen; it’s just taking time. So that’s the plan, interspersed with the World Cup of football, which I know you’re not interested in, but we are. Actually, we’re playing you. We’re playing America. You didn’t know that, did you?
BE: I didn’t, but I guarantee you that one of our editors does.
AW: Yeah, we’re in the same group as the USA, so that’s going to be interesting. So I’ll have to take a break for that. That takes precedence over everything else. And we’ll come back in October, do a few more Recoil shows, and then I’m going to come up with some new music.
BE: Under the Recoil name, or something else?
AW: Under Recoil, yeah.
BE: Have you got people lined up that you’re going to collaborate with?
AW: Not yet. The way the music comes together, I never really know where it’s going, so it’s very difficult to pre-prepare. I just do the music and then find a singer.
BE: Well, that’s all the questions I have for you, so I’ll let you get back to dinner, or happy hour. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. I really appreciate it.AW: You’re very welcome. Good talking to you. Cheers.