Depeche Mode founder Martin Gore calls it his Eureka moment — when, last year, after a lengthy period planning the cover of his latest solo EP “The Third Chimpanzee,” released Jan. 29 — he stumbled upon Toronto-based artist Pockets Warhol.
He loved the abstract expressionist splashiness of the 29-year-old’s work — which is in the homes of Ricky Gervais, Jane Goodall and astronaut Chris Hadfield – and he gave the commission to Warhol’s agent-handler Charmaine Quinn.
She saw the logic in it. Gore’s all-instrumental side project was simian-themed; Pockets is an unusually gifted capuchin monkey residing at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Canada.
Gore’s masterpiece, a study in blue and green called “Breaking the Fourth Wall,” was hand-daubed by the furry little fellow.
“Charmaine actually got Pockets to do five separate paintings for me, so I had options,” says the Santa Barbara-rooted Gore, 59, who, after remembering late one night that certain monkeys had learned to paint, he found Pockets the next morning online at Story Book. (The primate literally saved the organization from eviction in 2015 when 40 of his paintings sold for hundreds of dollars after a local exhibition.)
The visuals fit Gore’s musical aesthetic perfectly. “Chimpanzee” opens with the heartbeat-pulsed, synth-blasted “Howler,” segues into the sinister squealer “Mandrill,” a conversely bouncy “Capuchin,” the undulating “Velvet,” and closes on the clarion-call “Howler’s End.”
None feature vocals in the traditional Depeche Mode sense. But the songs have Gore’s manipulated, effects-modulated voice instead, which to his ears felt more apelike.
Online videos reveal the studious intent, keen affinity for colors and deliberate, sweeping strikes that go into every Pockets Warhol canvas. He appears to really enjoy making art.
“I have pictures of him doing mine, but not a video,” says the guitarist-keyboardist, who plans to auction off three of the works to benefit Quinn and the Sanctuary.
For Gore, 2020 revolved around Depeche Mode’s long-overdue induction on its 40th anniversary into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November, after the March-scheduled ceremony was delayed by the coronavirus clampdown.
“I think it’s quite funny and ironic that we managed to get inducted during a pandemic. It seems quite fitting for Depeche Mode,” he says, laughing.
But his interest in simians and sound began before the world health crisis.
“The first track that I recorded for this EP was ‘Howler,’ and I actually finished that before COVID was a thing,” says Gore, whose first solo album was “Counterfeit” in 2003, followed by 2015’s “MG.”
“I recorded my own vocals as well as the sounds on it, and then I manipulated it by re-synthesizing and doing all kinds of effects on it, and I really liked the end result. It didn’t sound like me, and it didn’t sound particularly human,” he adds.
The recordings resembled the blustery bellows of howler monkeys that frequented his backyard and balcony on his annual vacations in Costa Rica, so he dubbed the tune “Howler” and kept composing more music. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should write some more instrumentals and carry on that theme, and re-synthesize the vocal on each track and name each one after a different monkey,’” he says.
He intentionally didn’t write lyrics, finding relief in avoiding potentially scathing, anti-Trump sentiments in an emotionally-charged, high-stakes election year. And he’s happy Joe Biden won the presidency, just as the fabled Age of Aquarius is beginning and climate change has taken a deserved center stage.
“I’m hoping that this was the turning point for positivity in the world, because it feels like we’ve been dealing with misery and heartache for so long,” says the British-born musician. “But it’s scary to me that even after the pandemic — and the awful handling of the pandemic by Trump and his administration, and the murder of George Floyd on camera — that Trump almost got back in again. Over 70 million people in America voted for him, when he was basically running on a white supremacist platform.”
With “The Third Chimpanzee” (and its subliminal “speak no evil” allusion), Gore wanted to blur the line between humanity and its evolutionary ancestors, and then blur it even further, he says, “by getting a monkey to do the artwork, because sometimes I think that we’re not that much more evolved at all.”
Though he has not met Pockets Warhol in person, he says Quinn has made him a standing offer. “She sent me an email saying, ‘The next time you’re up in the Toronto area, you have to come out and meet all the monkeys!’”