Leave them wanting Mori: Depeche Mode on tour
The sudden death of co-founder Andy Fletcher last year had Depeche Mode contemplating the end of the band. But with new album Memento Mori invigorating both the act and their fans, the tour of the same name is arguably their best yet, with armies of ‘Devotees’ filling stadiums and arenas to celebrate the new music and the band’s legendary catalogue. Gordon Masson joined them.
In the history of rock & roll, there are not too many acts that have the deep, dark, and sometimes destructive history of Depeche Mode. But as the band work through their grief over the loss of Andy Fletcher with the release of Memento Mori (Latin for ‘remember that you [have to] die’), their tour of the same name is delivering joy to millions of fans across Europe and North America – just as their live performances have been doing for more than 40 years.
The background to the current tour was among the most complex its architects have ever had to deal with, involving the uncertainty of the post-pandemic live music sector, and a risky gamble by an otherwise usually cautious management. “At the start of 2021, when we could see light at the end of the tunnel, we started making some early plans for the current tour,” explains Jonathan ‘Baron’ Kessler, head of artist management company Baron Global Inc.
Colleague Alex Pollock says, “We could see that the built-up demand for venues in 2022 was going to be huge, and because it was already challenging enough to get a sensible stadium routing in Europe – where you’re book-ended by football dates in the major markets – we just off the bat thought, ‘Well, why not hold our tour for ’23?’”
The artist managers reveal that band member Martin Gore had been prolific during the Covid lockdowns and had written a lot of new material and songs. “So, when he and Dave [Gahan] started writing together, quite quickly we had the basis for a new album, and we sort of flipped the switch,” explains Kessler.
“We took a calculated risk and held stadium dates for 2023”
“Originally, we were planning to record the album in 2023 and tour in ‘24. But for a variety of reasons, we accelerated that. We realised that 2024 was going to be a particularly hard year to tour because Germany is hosting the Euros [football tournament], which rules out using most of those stadiums until after the middle of July. So, we took a calculated risk and held stadium dates for 2023.”
Kessler confesses the gamble in holding 2023 stadium dates happened before having the full conversation with the band. “But thank god we did, because as you know, everything started to get booked, and before we knew it, we had 15 other bands coming to us offering to buy our stadium dates if we would give them up.”
As a result, initial tour talks centred around ILMC in 2022. “We just took a suite in the hotel and met with every promoter one by one,” says Kessler.
However, with the band in the studio recording the new album, in May last year tragedy struck when founding member Andy Fletcher suffered a fatal heart attack at home in London, England.
“All of a sudden, we went from planning the album project and discussing the tour, to planning the funeral,” says Kessler. “Following that there was a very deep internal discussion amongst the band about whether they should even continue. But in the end, between Dave, Martin, and all of us, we agreed that Fletch would have wanted us to continue – he was sort of the biggest fan of the band.”
“We’ve been used to starting our tours with a stadium run in Europe, but because the reaction to the album was so strong, we had a desire to be in America closer to the album release”
As Baron Global plotted the Memento Mori tour structure, the success of the album caused a deviation from previous Depeche Mode outings.
“We’ve been used to starting our tours with a stadium run in Europe, but because the reaction to the album was so strong, we had a desire to be in America closer to the album release,” says Kessler.
Consequently, the band played arenas in ten key North American markets before starting their run of 36 stadia shows in Europe, in the knowledge they would return across the Atlantic for a more extensive tour in the autumn.
For many production professionals, that switch between indoor and outdoor shows can be a major challenge. But with production manager Tony Gittins notching up his fifth tour with Depeche Mode, his ability to reunite a core crew that has similarly longstanding relationships with the band, has contributed once again to smooth and seamless transitions.
When Gittins was named as The Gaffer by IQ in January 2018, he revealed that the first people he wants to work with on every tour include: “Tony Plant as stage manager, James Heath as head rigger, Britannia Row for audio, Popcorn for catering, and for transport, Stagetruck and Beat The Street.” Reminded of that wish-list prior to the Memento Mori show in Bucharest, Gittins laughs. “Yep – they’re all on this tour. In addition, we have 4Wall for lights and Universal Pixel for video. We used to use Brilliant Stages before for the set, but now it’s TAIT because they acquired Brilliant Stages back in 2019.
“It’s a tight crew: everyone knows everyone else and gets along, which is massively important when you’re on the road for months at a time”
“It’s a tight crew: everyone knows everyone else and gets along, which is massively important when you’re on the road for months at a time,” adds Gittins. “Basically, if it works, why on earth would you change it?”
In addition to earning a reputation as one of the world’s top production managers, Gittins is also recognised as being ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental matters. The Memento Mori tour is a significant beneficiary of his expertise, because despite its stadium-filling presence, the fleet of Stagetruck trailers numbers just 13.
Stagetruck have been transporting the band’s set and equipment since the 80s, and founder Robert Hewett tells IQ that when he established the company, one of his primary goals was to work with Depeche Mode.
“During the punk period, I was originally running a small PA company, but then in 1980, Stagetruck was born, and I became hooked on rock & roll trucking,” says Hewett. “This coincided with the advent of Depeche Mode breaking onto the scene, in what was an exciting period of self-expression and new music. I knew straight away I wanted to get involved with them, and although it took me five years to charm them away from their existing supplier, my hard work paid dividends, and we have worked successfully together ever since.”
Hewett continues, “The boys are great; their history with Vince Clarke, who left, and then Fletch who sadly passed last year, gives them the grit and longevity to have come through the most difficult of times. [And] the band’s manager and guiding light, Jonathan Kessler, combined with their long-time PM Tony Gittins, make for a dynamic and happy team who are always a pleasure to work with.”
“Luckily, Depeche Mode are a great band, and Dave Gahan is just one of the best frontmen, so we don’t need the bells and whistles that other acts take on the road – the performance speaks for itself”
He adds, “On this current tour, it’s clear that Depeche’s new material, along with a refresh of their classic hits, is a winning formula and drawing fans old and new to see one of their best-ever shows. To still be relevant in this time of multiple musical genres is testament to their ability to bring something engaging and different to the party.”
Making sure that the need for trucks is kept to a bare minimum, Gittins reveals a strategy that other bands would do well to follow. “We use local stages and delays everywhere we go,” he tells IQ. “If there’s already a stage in situ, then why not use it?! For sustainability, it works a lot better, and to me, it’s just common sense – I’ve been doing it for years: I allow Stageco to go through all the local promoters and do deals directly with them.
“Luckily, Depeche Mode are a great band, and Dave Gahan is just one of the best frontmen, so we don’t need the bells and whistles that other acts take on the road – the performance speaks for itself.”
Representing an act who have built a reputation on their live performance has also helped in dealing with the spiralling costs of touring, it would appear. “Costs have gone up less than we had worried they would, but it’s still a substantial increase,” says Kessler. “We’re blessed that we have a big enough margin, because we’re so lean. Even so, when we look at what we spend now versus what we spent on the last tour, the percentage increase is very large. But we pride ourselves on good decision making, so it’s still manageable.”
That sensible approach to life on the road means that the core crew for the Memento Mori stadium tour comprises just 46 people, plus drivers. “We use local crews of about 66 people,” explains the production manager.
“The Depeche Mode philosophy has always been to share as much of the resources as you can, so they’ve always been ahead of the game on the sustainability front”
With Gittins at the helm, it’s a well-oiled machine. Indeed, he tells IQ that the biggest challenge in planning the current tour has been the post-Brexit ruling that only allows UK citizens to remain in the European Union for 90 out of every 180 days. “That’s always been the case for American crew, but they’re just having to actually pay attention to it now, as are those from the UK,” he says.
Once again, there’s simplicity to the solution. “We planned the European tour leg on a 90-day run, but with the Dublin and London shows we were able to bring it back to 86, so we don’t really have to worry about it,” adds Gittins.
Audio suppliers Britannia Row have been working with Depeche Mode since 1982, with founder Bryan Grant handing the reins to client liaison and business development exec Dave Compton three tours ago. Paying tribute to the tour’s low carbon footprint, Compton reports, “The Depeche Mode philosophy has always been to share as much of the resources as you can, so they’ve always been ahead of the game on the sustainability front. For instance, rather than carry delays, you pick them up as and where you need them.”
Compton notes that the arena show production is basically a modified version of the stadium show. “The box count is almost identical – I think there are eight more boxes on the stadia production, but that still fits on the same number of trucks. At the end of this European leg, we’ll ship the control package and three of the crew to Mexico for the shows there, while our other two crew will go to Lititz to put together the new PA package for the North American arena tour, before everyone reunites in Austin, Texas.”
Jordan Hanson, head of live events at lighting suppliers 4Wall, is similarly impressed by the minimalist approach. “For the stadium shows, we increase the lighting and boost the crew by one extra person,” he says. “The production is a very clever design, thanks to [creative director] Anton Corbijn. To look at it you’d think there’s a hell of a lot of production involved, but in terms of other stadia tours, this travels remarkably light – Tony Gittins does it very well. He’s great to work with, very calm, and he employs the best of the best in terms of crew, all of whom know the 4Wall staff very well, so it’s really harmonious on the road.”
“They are very loyal, they know what they want, and as long as we don’t fuck up, then there’s no reason why that relationship would change”
Feeding the travelling Depeche Mode army are the kitchen wizards from Popcorn Catering, whose owner Wendy Deans has been working with the band since she first set up the company.
“We’ve been working with the band since 1989 and we’ve done every tour since, so they’ve been really good to us and the company,” says Deans. “They always ask for the same people in catering, which is great, although we’re all struggling to met the Schengen rules these days, because we obviously work on other tours, too.”
Feeding the crew with three meals a day, as well as providing food on the buses and in the dressing rooms keeps Popcorn’s seven-strong team busy, while even just shoping for the food has become more complex thanks to rising costs. “It’s different every day,” adds Deans. “We’re dealing with challenges all the time, but when you’re on tour with Johnathan Kessler and Tony Gittins, nothig is impossible and everyone has a good experience.”
Tasked with making sure Gittins and his road warrior army get from A to B to Z is bussing operator Beat The Street – another long-term Depeche Mode contractor, who this year expanded its remit for the band.
“We launched Beat The Street’s North American operations just before the pandemic, so the fact that Depeche Mode are using us for both continents is fantastic – they are very loyal, they know what they want, and as long as we don’t fuck up, then there’s no reason why that relationship would change,” says company founder Jörg Philipp.
“We lost shows because of the war in Ukraine”
Beat The Street is supplying four buses for the core production crew and caterers, each of whom the company knows well. “There’s never any drama when Tony Gittins is the PM,” states Philipp. “He’s calm, he’s professional, and he knows the drivers that he prefers for his tours. He’s a joy to deal with.”
But the drivers won’t be doing as many miles as originally planned. “We lost shows because of the war in Ukraine,” says Kessler. “Stadiums in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Minsk, then there’s an indoor stadium in St. Petersburg that we had to take out and another again in Moscow, so we lost six big stadiums in that part of the world.”
From Gittins’ perspective, weather has been a major challenge for suppliers and crew, with the extreme heat in southern Europe adding another layer of very necessary prep on the stadium leg.
“We’re a lot more wary about making sure that the crew is sun-screened up, that they take advantage of any shade they can find, and that they are getting enough water,” says Gittins.
“Normally, you don’t want water being anywhere near the stage, but when we’re doing a build in 45-degree heat, we have to make sure there is a big supply of water and that people are drinking a bottle every half an hour or so.”
“People follow Depeche Mode from all over the world, so we’ve seen lots of tickets being bought by people from outside of Romania. In fact, for our 2017 show with the band, in the city of Cluj, we had fans travel from as far away as Uruguay”
Music for the Masses
The feelgood factor of Depeche Mode rolling into town is palpable among the promoters involved on the Memento Mori production. To date, more than 2 million fans have witnessed the show, while management predict the forthcoming 40-date North American arena leg, and the indoor shows in Europe early next year will take that total to around 3.5m hard tickets by the end of the tour.
The Memento Mori tour is a Live Nation global operation, with local LN offices across America and Europe generally passing the baton from date to date, with one or two notable exceptions.
One such instance is Laura Coroianu at Emagic in Romania, who has a special place in her heart for Depeche Mode. “When we first welcomed them here in 2006, they were the first act to sell out a stadium show in Romania and that really helped open the country up for international touring,” she informs IQ.
With Live Nation Eastern Europe bringing in Emagic as their local partner, the current tour marks the fourth time Emagic has co-promoted the band in Romania. “It would have been five tours, but unfortunately we lost the show in 2008 when Dave [Gahan] fell ill,” says Coroianu who, although delighted to welcome the band back, admits that the Memento Mori tour is tinged with sadness. “We really miss Fletch,” she says, “We had him here as a solo act, DJing, in the past, and he was such a wonderful human being.”
With 45,000 fans packing Romania’s national stadium for the sold-out 26 July show, Coroianu details the delight of local businesses and hotels. “People follow Depeche Mode from all over the world, so we’ve seen lots of tickets being bought by people from outside of Romania. In fact, for our 2017 show with the band, in the city of Cluj, we had fans travel from as far away as Uruguay, so it’s a big deal for the local economy and tourism.”
“There’s no other band that has that extreme connection with the German fans. I think that the emotional content and depth of their music appeals to the German character”
As one of the few independent promoters on the Memento Mori tour, Emagic has developed a close tie with Live Nation in recent years – again, thanks to Gahan, Gore and co. “We’ve been working with Live Nation since that first Depeche More show in 2006, and it’s been a wonderful collaboration because it has given us access to lots of important artists and given Romanian fans the chance to see them live,” she adds.
That excitement of welcoming Depeche Mode back is also familiar to Live Nation GSA CEO Marek Lieberberg.
“I’ve had the honour of being the promoter for Depeche Mode for around 40 years now – since the mid-80s – and they seem to have come back even stronger than before on this tour,” says Lieberberg.
“There’s no other band that has that extreme connection with the German fans. I think that the emotional content and depth of their music appeals to the German character – it’s something quite Faustian. But their fans here are very loyal and passionate about Depeche Mode and many of them attend multiple shows.”
That army of German Devotees helped sell out 11 stadium shows across Germany this summer, while the band will return for another eight arena shows early next year.
“Their core fans are the same people who have accompanied them for a long time, but we are seeing more younger fans than in previous years”
“Their core fans are the same people who have accompanied them for a long time, but we are seeing more younger fans than in previous years, which speaks to the band and their music remaining so relevant,” adds Lieberberg.
As the European stadia leg of the tour reaches its climax, artist management observe that there has been a noticeable shift in demographics on Memento Mori’s outdoor concerts.
“We’re seeing a lot more young people, and I think that’s a combination of a couple of things,” says Kessler. “First, is that the band’s long-time fans are now bringing their kids to the gigs. But also, a couple of promoters have mentioned to us that the run of festivals we did on the last tour has helped bring in a lot of younger fans.”
Pollock comments, “Depeche Mode are sort of the godfathers of remixes and that’s laid paths to a new generation. There’s also been a bit of planning on our part, as well as a good old slice of luck, as we’ve had some high-profile syncs.”
One of those syncs was the use of the band’s 1987 track Never Let Me Down Again on the hit TV show Last Of Us. “The timing was just sort of perfect with the launch of the album campaign,” states Pollock. “It put a spotlight on the band two weeks before we had new music coming. And there were also things trending on TikTok, so there was just a lot of activity in that social space that was happening with a younger demographic leading into the start of the tour.”
“It’s not only kids going with their parents, it’s kids discovering what is ‘new music’ to them through streaming and other platforms”
Kessler also points to Depeche Mode’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during the pandemic. “It’s quite a bizarre thing, the Hall of Fame, as it sort of elevates you to this whole other level because there are only five or six acts that go in every year.”
Promoter Memo Parra has a different explanation for the demographics of fans awaiting the band’s arrival in Mexico City. “It’s mainly 40-55 year olds, but there’s a lot in their 30s and 25-and-unders,” he says of the ticket buyers.
“It’s not only kids going with their parents, it’s kids discovering what is ‘new music’ to them through streaming and other platforms.” He adds, “It’s good because Depeche Mode deserve to have a new generation to embrace them – it’s such great music!”
Delighted by the number of younger fans who have been attending the stadia shows, whatever the reason, Kessler nonetheless believes Depeche Mode’s biggest appeal remains in the power of their performances and the abilities of frontman Dave Gahan.
“The band is just continuing to make great music, which is helping them to grow and become more and more iconic,” he says. “We’re blessed with exceptional performers – a mesmerising and magnetic frontman, as well as a songwriter who has become, in his own right, a sort of sidekick frontman to Dave. But when you have Dave Gahan on stage, you don’t need a lot of extra gags to capture the audience’s attention.”
“We work with a lot of other bands, and every act has their own specific fan base, but Depeche definitely have something unique”
He adds, “We work with a lot of other bands, and every act has their own specific fan base, but Depeche definitely have something unique. The fans are not only loyal, but they are an integral part of the show, and the connection between the band and the fans is a huge contributor to the feel of every performance.”
Another element that helps elevate Depeche live shows is the enthralling films and visuals that accompany each song. Crafted by long-term collaborator Anton Corbijn, he’s also the creative mind that works with the artists on the set design – the centrepiece of which on the current tour is the eight-metre ‘M’ at centre stage.
Corbijn has been part of the Depeche Mode camp for 30 years. “The first time was in ‘93, when I was part of a bidding kind of thing with around six other six people in total. And much to the surprise of the management, they chose me.”
But even Corbijn was quickly made aware of the stripped-back approach that the band has for touring. “I was maybe too ambitious,” he laughs. “My first tour design involved two stages on top of each other, and in those days, you used projectors, which all had to start at the same time. It was complex, but I didn’t know any better. So halfway through the tour, they made it simpler by just reducing it to one stage.”
With the passing of Fletch, Corbijn says the removal of a principal from the stage has subtly changed the setup. “Instead of everything being 90 degrees to the audience, on the stage itself, we’ve angled the energies of Dave and Martin more towards each other, and I think consensus is that it’s a good development.”
“The ethos has always been to have a video-heavy show”
Talking about his set design, which spectacularly showcases his video content, Corbijn notes, “There’s basically one big LED screen, and then there’s another LED screen in the shape of an M in front of it. And sometimes, within the M, there’s different content to what’s going on behind it: sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s opposite movement – that sort of negative/positive thing.”
While from his creative point of view, Corbijn says it’s frustrating that cameras on phones mean that it’s impossible to surprise the audience after the first night of a tour, he nonetheless observes, “I think people enjoy themselves, too, when they recognise something that they’ve seen on social media.”
The band itself views Corbijn as a key member. “The ethos has always been to have a video-heavy show,” says Kessler. “We put a lot of effort into the design and the content creation, so we’re very fortunate to have Anton who’s done the video content for 30 years and who makes sure the show is impactful and artistic.”
When it comes to the video elements, Phil Mercer explains that Universal Pixels have been working with the band since the 2017 Global Spirit tour, but his relationship spans back to 2005 when he was working at XL Video. “We inherited the last tour because the previous vendor was fired at the end of the European leg. So, we know there is no margin for error, but looking back it was a good introduction for us to become involved,” says Mercer. “The band are fiercely loyal, as long as you don’t screw up.”
Noting that the challenges for the screen teams mostly revolve around the giant M, Mercer says Corbijn’s aesthetic is one of the biggest considerations. “The M is made of the same hi-res LED as the main screen, so from our point of view, we have to make sure that everything is pixel-perfect every day.”
“We’ve made a very conscious effort to try to have a bit more of a gender balance, and on this tour, we’ve managed to get our female ratio up to 20%”
He adds, “It’s never been about scale with Depeche Mode: basically, nothing goes on the road without good reason, so we’re not dealing with the same number of cameras or the size of LED walls that we do with other clients – we have to work within certain constraints, and it works really well.”
Diversity: People are People
While the planning of PM Gittins has ensured that Depeche Mode have been ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability issues, the band’s management have been working hard with all concerned to improve the gender balance of staff involved on the tour.
Pollock tells IQ, “We’ve made a very conscious effort to try to have a bit more of a gender balance, and on this tour, we’ve managed to get our female ratio up to 20%.”
“It is challenging,” notes Kessler, “but to be fair, a lot of the vendors that we work with have made an effort as well, so when we’re putting together the lighting, audio, and video teams, it’s easier to find more diversity within those teams when everyone is onboard.”
Of course, when it comes to personnel, life on the road without Andy Fletcher has had a seismic impact.
“Not having Fletch has changed the group dynamic onstage”
“Not having Fletch has changed the group dynamic onstage,” says Kessler. “Just by having one less person it’s naturally formed a different dynamic musically, and I think the band has become a closer unit, in a way. It’s certainly been a challenge but witnessing the fan reaction in the big venues has been amazing. Ultimately, they’re not a mainstream act. But they have this hyper-loyal, crazy hard following, and I know that the band appreciates that support.”
Erring on the Side of Caution
Somewhat dictated by the EU working regulations, the European stadium leg’s 36 shows could easily have been expanded. But manager Kessler confesses that his inherently cautious nature played a part in the number of dates.
“We’ve found that the sweet spot of what works on a tour is 130, 145 shows and that’s it. In all honesty, there’s 300 shows we could do, but we know we have to draw the line somewhere.”
However, Kessler admits, “Looking back, we probably could have done more multiple nights in stadiums. For example, we could easily have done another night at Twickenham. But we’ve always had a very conservative approach. My mantra has been to leave people wanting more, and that also allows us to play it safe.”
That’s certainly the case in Mexico, where the band has sold out three dates at Foro Sol and could easily have been tempted into booking more. “The first two shows went up together and those blew out in a day,” says Kessler. “We added the third date a week later and that also went right away, so we could have done a fourth.”
“Mexico has always really loved the relation with British music. Depeche Mode, The Cure, Placebo, Coldplay – British music in Mexico has been big since the 1990s”
The promoter for those 21-25 September shows is OCESA chief Memo Parra, who agrees that a fourth show was a feasibility. “Normal stadiums are around 55,000-capacity, but Foro Sol is 65,000 – 10,000 more – and when you have three shows, that’s another 30,000 tickets, which is a big amount,” says Parra, whose first experience with the band was back in 2006 with two sold-out Foro Sols. “Before that, they didn’t play Mexico for a long, long time – I think the previous visit was around ‘94 or ‘95,” he recalls.
While other promoters count on cross-border ticket sales, Parra says the audiences at the Foro Sol triple header will very much be local. “Mexico has always really loved the relation with British music,” he says. “Depeche Mode, The Cure, Placebo, Coldplay – British music in Mexico has been big since the 1990s.”
And Parra pays tribute to Depeche’s manager for imbuing a circle of trust around the band.
“Kessler really listens to the promoter: it’s not a business deal, it’s a friendship deal – a win-win situation for the band and for the promoter,” he states. “Kessler wants to take care of the promoter: he listens to my ideas and takes my advice on board. And I believe that’s why we’ve done so well with Depeche Mode throughout the years, because it’s always been thoughtfully taken care of on every level of decision, pricewise and everything.
“When Depeche Mode comes to town, you don’t feel like you’re the promoter; you feel like you’re part of the family. And I can tell you, I don’t feel that with many acts.”
“I’m very much a big believer of the fact that there’s enough money for everybody, so let’s be partners – if we do well, everyone does well”
In Germany, Marek Lieberberg agrees. “Jonathan Kessler is a unique manager and he always executes meticulaous planning two-three years in advance,” says Lieberberg. “I can think of no other manager who is so concerned with every aspect of the tour than Jonathan – his level of detail is exceptional and he has guided the band through all kids of currents.
“He asks for advice and challenges his opinions with those of the local promoters, which make him a fantastic person to deal with,” adds Lieberberg.
That respect is mutual, and Kessler tips his hat to Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino who has been working with Depeche Mode on their global tours for close to a decade. “I became friends with Michael 15 years ago, and he’s been nothing but the best sort of partner to have,” he adds.
Kessler concludes, “I always had a very different approach on how I dealt with promoters. I’m very much a big believer of the fact that there’s enough money for everybody, so let’s be partners – if we do well, everyone does well. As a result, we’ve never had an adversarial role with a promoter, and the partnerships have only gotten better over the years.”
As Depeche Mode close out their European stadium tour and head west for those huge Foro Sol dates, followed by a run of arenas in America, the hard work behind those partnership relationships is paying off big time.
The European tour leg in early 2024 has only recently gone on sale, but is well on the way to selling out those 32 arena dates. And with just 45 dates of the Memento Mori tour so far completed, the band will be counting on their Live Nation promoters for a further 60-plus shows on the way to what critics and fans are describing as their best tour yet.
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