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Native to Central and South America, the howler monkey gets its name from the menacing wail it makes. It's among the largest nonhuman primates in the Americas, part of a cluster that migrated, it is speculated, either by raft or natural bridge from Africa more than 30 million years ago.
Martin Gore, cofounder and primary songwriter for Depeche Mode, zoomed in on the monkey while working on the first track on his new EP, "The Third Chimpanzee." In his home studio, he developed what he calls "a resynthesized vocal that sounds not quite human — but like a monkey or another member of the primate family."
Released Friday, the five-song instrumental EP is Gore's first solo material in six years, and finds him neck-deep in menacing analog synth tones and rigidly funky rhythms. A longtime Santa Barbara resident, Gore said during a recent conversation that he didn't set out to create a conceptually linked work involving howlers, mandrills, capuchins and vervets.
Rather, after he, David Gahan, Andy Fletcher and the rest of Depeche Mode concluded touring in 2018 in support of 14th studio album "Spirit," Gore returned to Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife, to recharge and help raise their two toddlers. But with a home studio and 40 years' worth of gear — he uses the term "gear addiction" when asked about his accumulation — it was inevitable that he'd start creating new music. It's been a pattern for both him and Gahan: Each usually creates solo and collaborative work between Depeche Mode albums.
Gore had already finished "Howler" when the pandemic began consuming the world. Drawn to the distorted vocal effect he'd made for it, in the spring of 2020 he came to understand that additional feral, interspecies wails were warranted. Gore recalled thinking: "To pass the time and keep me sane, maybe I should concentrate on some sort of project."
He named the second track "Mandrill," and when he did, the theme for "The Third Chimpanzee" was born. Opting for an EP because he didn't think he could stretch the concept across the length of an entire album, he borrowed the title from a book he'd read by Jared Diamond called "The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee." Gore said the phrase made him laugh "because, obviously, humans are the third chimpanzee."
Gore, 59, long ago learned to embrace these creative cues. Recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with Depeche Mode, Gore is one of the most influential pop creators to come out of the postpunk movement of the late 1970s. Growing up in Essex, a county northeast of London, he and bandmates Gahan, Andy Fletcher and Vince Clarke (who quit to form Yazoo, later shortened to Yaz, in 1981) shot to international success through their debut album, "Speak & Spell," becoming one of the first of the British synth-pop acts to bust out of the vibrant London scene.
During their Rock Hall acceptance speech, Gahan described the band as "outsider eyeliner-wearing weirdos from Essex," but their bubble-gum melodies and unique synth tones resonated. As primary songwriter, Gore is responsible for influential hits including "Everything Counts," "People Are People," "Personal Jesus" and "Enjoy the Silence," and his experimental approach to electronic sound can be heard in artists including Nine Inch Nails, Grimes, Muse and Linkin Park.
Gore said the pandemic hasn't disrupted Depeche Mode's schedule, because aside from a canceled performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in November, there wasn't much of one: "We were very fortunate. Usually we take a good break after we finish our tour because they tend to be quite long, so we didn't have any big plans for 2020 or 2021 on the books." He declined to speculate on plans beyond that.
For "The Third Chimpanzee," Gore focused way more on the synth than the pop. A release powered by the frequency-dense, dynamic tones suggestive of 1970s-era analog synthesizers, the work harnesses ideas made popular by German experimental artists including Kraftwerk, Harmonia and Cluster in service of tracks that seem to weigh a ton. But nestled within are the catchy melodies that have come to define Depeche Mode.
At more than eight minutes, "Vervet" marches along to a four-on-the-floor rhythm that suggests minimal Berlin techno of the 1990s — a mesmerizingly precise pattern of beat and melody that shifts in eight- and 16-bar increments to create a vast geometric space. Sonic bloops, tings and pews shoot through the beats.
If these stomping bolts of sound are jarring, that's because they were created during jarring times. In another environment, Gore said he might have attempted to write lyrics but didn't feel at all inspired to do so. "There's been just so much going on," he said. "I don't know if everybody's head's in a muddle since the pandemic started and nobody goes anywhere or does anything. But it's very hard to get inspired when you don't have any input coming in."
The line separating monkeys and humans seems thinner than ever, Gore concluded — with a caveat: "I think monkeys might find it a derogatory term if they were accidentally called a human."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.