"It's been about seven years since I've even had a drink," he says via phone from London, "but I feel fantastic now. Getting fucked up was a whole career in and of itself for me for a while, but now I'm thrilled to be focusing on my own music."
The heroin overdose may be the ultimate rock 'n' roll cliché, but lucky enough for Gahan, he was never in a rock 'n' roll band. For more than 20 years, he was (and remains) the lead singer for one of the most popular electronic pop groups the world has ever seen -- Depeche Mode. At the height of its U.S. popularity in 1988, that band packed the 90,000-plus-capacity Rose Bowl. These days, it's almost impossible to reconcile the Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode 101 -- the concert film of that infamous Rose Bowl show featuring backstage footage of the fresh-faced singer doing pre-show stretching exercises -- with pictures of Gahan on the cover of his debut solo record, Paper Monsters. Gahan looked like David Beckham in 1988. Today he looks more like a ravaged Jim Morrison. Suffice it to say, the man has been through some shit.
Now, finally, the 41-year-old Gahan is releasing his own music after two decades of singing Depeche Mode ringmaster/songwriter Martin Gore's lyrics. In a way, it's surprising he didn't get around to it sooner. While Gahan did manage to make Gore's lyrics his own with his uniquely smooth baritone, deep down he was literally dying to find his own voice.
"To me," says Gahan, "it's always been a challenge to look for the light; to look for those spaces in your heart where there is hope and faith and try to embrace that rather than crush it. I've spent so many years trying to crush those feelings of hope, and I certainly succeeded for quite a while."
But today Gahan has a newfound love of life, an energy that he's channeled into his upbeat debut LP, which, in addition to being a vibrant blend of rock and electronica, is a compelling document of the singer's past as a drug addict and unfaithful lover. Indeed, Gahan doesn't need you to remind him of his darker days. He's got Paper Monsters to do it for him.
Although Gahan denies it, media reports in the mid-'90s asserted that his overdose was actually a suicide attempt. Gahan does admit that things were spiraling desperately out of control for him, however he chooses now to celebrate his current "clarity" rather then dwell on addictions from the past. "As dark as my addiction got, I'm able to look back now and see the ridiculousness of it all," he says. "As much as I'd like to blame everybody else for the sorry state I put myself in, it was all my doing."
But you can kind of understand why Gahan went down that road. After all, though Depeche Mode was widely regarded as Martin Gore's baby, as the frontman, Gahan shouldered much of the weight of one of the planet's biggest bands. Throughout the '80s and '90s, as the rest of the band members earned a reputation for being notoriously shy, rarely venturing out from behind their keyboards, Gahan became increasingly known as the squeaky-clean figurehead, familiar to anyone who turned on MTV. When the pressure of carrying the band finally got to him, Gahan did everything he could to destroy his image of the laddish pop star: He grew a beard, racked up tattoos, and, naturally, insisted on copious cocaine and heroin use.
"I became very unlikable during some of our tours," he laughs. "I definitely have a dark side of me that can be pretty vicious ... as we all do," he plaintively adds.
But while the drugs didn't hold Gahan's frustrations at bay forever, they did provoke his near-death experience and subsequent arrest in Los Angeles, which finally inspired him to get sober, find his own voice, and put together a solo record.
Gahan obviously feels he has a lot to prove with Paper Monsters. To that end, he wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the record and plays keyboards on many tracks. The result is a mixed bag of dark and moody explorations, as well as some upbeat numbers that lean more toward rock 'n' roll than Depeche Mode was ever willing to go. "Dirty Sticky Floors," the record's first single, exemplifies both of these themes.
"The whole song is poking fun at my existence as a junkie," Gahan says. Indeed, the song does try to turn the junkie lament on its head with its buoyant, electro-pop swagger and often-funny lyrics ("I'll sit and wait right by the phone/ Praying over the porcelain throne"). The song's only shortcoming is that it doesn't stray too far from late-era Depeche Mode; it's even replete with reverb-laden slide guitar à la "Personal Jesus."
Gahan fares much better on the more subtle tracks. The shimmering "Stay," in particular, equals anything Gore ever wrote. Underscored by gentle, breezy synth and piano lines, the melodies on "Stay" prove the breadth of Gahan's voice and -- through simple lyrics like "Stay/ Wait until tomorrow/ Please stay" -- his emotional bravery.
Gahan recorded Paper Monsters in New York, where he now lives, with considerable help from his friend and former Psychedelic Furs touring member/multi-instrumentalist Knox Chandler, as well as producer Ken Thomas (Sigur Rós). Together the trio has a widely varied set of influences.
"We didn't want to limit ourselves in any areas," says Gahan of the songwriting process, "whether it was blues, jazz, electronic stuff, Radiohead, Sigur Rós, or whatever."
Gahan's record reflects that schizophrenic songwriting philosophy to some extent, but the overarching thrust of the music doesn't veer too far from where Depeche Mode fans are willing to go -- a few blues guitar licks here, an experimental electronica bit there notwithstanding. Thanks to songs like "Hidden Houses," with its driving bass line and dissonant guitars, the record manages to rock as hard as any fan could possibly hope for. And Gahan, deservedly so, is proud of what he has written.
"It's amazing to finally be singing my own words," he gushes.
Not many people get to die, come back from the grave, and have a second chance at life -- as a solo "rocktronica" star no less. Gahan is thrilled to be alive, and happy to have the opportunity to reconnect with fans on his first solo tour. "To go on the road and see people sing my own lyrics back to me is just fantastic," he says.
Of course, when crowds sing lyrics like "I'll soon be lying on my own/ On some dirty sticky floor" back to Gahan, he will no doubt be thinking about his past. But at least now the monsters are haunting his music, not destroying his life.