On first listen, Depeche Mode's new Sounds of the Universe may seem like more of the U.K. trio's sinister stock in trade — Gothic synth motifs backed by the funereal crooning of frontman Dave Gahan. But delve deeper into the tracks, most composed by band Svengali/keyboardist Martin Gore, and a thematic pattern emerges; this is easily the most spiritual set of the band's three-decade career.
"And that's kind of how I see it, really," says Gore, who just turned an unusually reflective 48. "The album didn't start making sense that way until I'd written songs like 'Peace' and 'Little Soul' — then I realized the bigger issues I was confronting."
The "Peace" lyrics read like a reaffirmation of purpose: "I'm leaving bitterness behind this time / I'm cleaning out my mind... peace will come to me." So how did Gore suddenly find serenity? Easy, he says — through sobriety. Three years ago, midway through a world tour, he quit drinking, cold turkey.
"I was suffering from panic attacks, I was always irritable and grumpy, and when I added up all the units of alcohol I'd been consuming, the total was truly horrifying." It was even scarier to realize, he says, "that I'd never been onstage sober in my life before. So this is the first tour I've ever done, alcohol-free, and I prepared for it like a professional boxer does before a fight."
Was there a final-straw moment when Gore knew he had a problem? He laughs.
"There were loads of those moments, but they never hit home. I mean, I had seizures one day on a boat in a Louisiana swamp, and fell forwards, just by chance. And if I'd have fallen backwards, I would've landed in a swamp full of alligators — no joke. But even that didn't stop me — I kept right on drinking. But in the end, I finally just realized it was time to stop."
Gore attended an occasional AA gathering, but couldn't hit the recommended 90 meetings in 90 days schedule. Still, he managed to put down the bottle and begin working out in earnest.
"It sounds like a cliché, what I've learned from all this. But getting a clear head only brought me closer to friends and family, made me really treasure the people I have around me."
But Depeche Mode still gets mortality reminders from time to time. As on a recent Athens, Greece date, when Gahan — who was once declared clinically dead back in his heady drug days — was rushed to the hospital after collapsing in his dressing room.
"We are getting a bit older, as proven by Dave's cancer scare," says Gore, who cancelled a band date two weeks ago so his vocalist could get some physician-prescribed rest. "At first he was diagnosed with a stomach bug, but overzealous doctors did a scan and found a shadow on his bladder that turned out to be a malignant tumor. It's a miracle they managed to catch it so early."
A divorced father of three, Gore says he wants to be around for his kids.
"I've learned that for me, personally, drinking is not an option anymore," he says. "The moment I open that door even a crack, it's fully open within 24 hours. Because I could always find a reason to drink ..."