AUSTIN, Texas — From the outside, the scene looked like just another Depeche Mode gig, with a crush of stylishly attired music fans gathered on a street corner in downtown Austin.
Inside the bare-bones warehouse, though, it was clear that this veteran English outfit — one of the few rock groups in the world still capable of filling arenas and stadiums — was slumming it, performing on a stage (and before a crowd) many times smaller than it normally plays to.
A large video screen seemed wedged into the tight space behind the band, and when Dave Gahan thrust his arms skyward during “Enjoy the Silence,” he almost scraped the ceiling. Even so, the frontman kept his movements big, grimacing dramatically as he struck a series of rock-god poses. And as is often the case with Gahan, he’d elected to go without a shirt.
The intimate concert, held last month during the South by Southwest Music Festival, was part of Depeche Mode’s unconventional promotional blitz for its new studio album, “Delta Machine,” which came out March 26. Instead of “going around the world talking to people” (as the band’s manager, Jonathan Kessler, described the usual succession of interviews), the trailblazing synth-pop group opted for a handful of live performances likely to ricochet across the Internet.
So there the band was for the first time at SXSW — a convention founded for up-and-comers — not long after an appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman.” From Austin, it was off to Vienna for a concert that was to be streamed online.
“It’s about getting people talking,” Gahan said the morning before the gig in Austin. The singer wasn’t due on stage for hours, but his eyes already were ringed with mascara. “Playing shows is what we do best.”
The approach appears to be paying off. This month, “Delta Machine,” the band’s 13th studio disc, debuted inside the top 10 on the Billboard 200; in Britain, it entered the album chart at No. 2, behind only Justin Timberlake’s smash “The 20 / 20 Experience.”
And starting May 4 in Nice, France, Depeche Mode is to return to the roomy venues it knows well. The group’s world tour will stop Sept. 24 at the Santa Barbara Bowl (not far from multi-instrumentalist Martin Gore’s home) and move on to L.A.’s Staples Center for three shows on Sept. 28 and 29 and Oct. 2.
Yet if the rollout of “Delta Machine” makes strategic sense in the age of social media, it also suits the album itself, which feels geared more to live performance than to the close headphone listening encouraged by the band’s last outing, 2009’s lush “Sounds of the Universe.” Stark and stripped down, the new set was inspired in part, Gahan said, by the blues, an influence evident in songs such as the grinding “Angel” and “Slow,” which rumbles ominously atop a twanging guitar lick.
Lyrically too, “Delta Machine” trades the guarded optimism of “Sounds of the Universe” for a more wounded tone, the product perhaps of a run of health troubles Gahan experienced while on tour in 2009. “Sometimes I slide away, silently,” he moans in the crawling “Heaven.” “I slowly lose myself, over and over.”
And although Depeche Mode, which also includes keyboardist Andy Fletcher, recruited help in the studio from Christoffer Berg, best known for his work with the edgy Swedish electronic acts Fever Ray and the Knife, the band didn’t tinker away endlessly. “We wanted it to be more direct,” Gahan said, sipping a cup of black coffee. “We wanted to have less stuff filling up the gaps — less fuss, basically.”
To that end, the group actually finished recording “Delta Machine” ahead of schedule — an unprecedented experience for Depeche Mode, according to Gore. “Usually, we work right up to the last minute,” he said in a separate interview in Austin.
Columbia Records Chairman Rob Stringer, who signed Depeche Mode last year following the end of the band’s deal with EMI, acknowledged that “Delta Machine” is “a challenging record.” But that didn’t faze him.
“I love when bands that have been pioneers can make records that still provoke people,” Stringer said. “They’re bringing a bit of weird into the mainstream.”
Gahan is eager to keep bringing it to audiences. Last month, the singer was working on a set list for the band’s upcoming shows, deciding which old songs paired well with the lurid, hard-edged new ones. So far, he said, he was most excited about revisiting material from 1990’s “Violator” and 1993’s “Songs of Faith and Devotion”: “I Feel You,” “Walking in My Shoes” and “Personal Jesus,” the last of which Depeche Mode turned into a booming big-beat rave-up at SXSW.
“Those songs just work with this stuff — they’ve got those Robert Johnson riffs,” Gahan said, referring to the legendary Delta bluesman. Then he grinned. “They’re gonna crank.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.