Just Can’t Get Enough: The Warring Depeche Mode Tribute Bands Of Los Angeles
“Attn Talent Agents, Promoters, Venues, Clubs, and fans: Devotional Dave is no longer with Strangelove The Depeche Mode experience as of Feb 2018 – Any promotional audio-video recording or photographs promoting my image is not permitted and no longer affiliated with the band or brand of STRANGELOVE.”
So reads a Facebook post from Los Angeles-based Dave Gahan stand-in Freddie Morales, published after he parted ways with his previous tribute act. Morales is one of many faux-English-accent-spouting Depeche Mode replicas that populate southern California.
Los Angeles is a city that hangs on to the ’80s like a cat on the rim of a bath tub. When the Sunset Strip is mentioned, folks pretend like it’s still full of dive bars and coke-fueled rock clubs and not the unneeded high-rise hotels that replaced them. And LA’s nostalgia for the ’80s extends far beyond hair metal. The city has a longstanding love of goth and new wave dating back to those days, and a passion for Morrissey and the Smiths among the area’s Mexican-American population is well–documented.
SoCal’s fascination with gloomy, glammy Britons of the Reagan/Thatcher era also extends to Depeche Mode. When the band last toured in 2017, they played four consecutive nights at the Hollywood Bowl. LA loves DM.
There are many possible reasons for the city’s faith and devotion: KROQ DJ Richard Blade breaking the big new wave bands in the ’80s, Depeche Mode choosing the Rose Bowl for the famous 1989 stadium show captured in the live album and documentary 101, or even lead singer Dave Gahan laying roots there (and briefly dying, while on heroin).
One outgrowth of their popularity in the region is that the Mode have a very active tribute scene in the southern California area. But you have to ask yourself, if I’m going to get a babysitter, get drunk, and hitchhike home on a school night, which Depeche Mode tribute band shall I go see? Because you have not one, not two, not four, but seven different options.
I meet with Sweetest Perfection at a pool hall with a dance floor in Bellflower where women wear vests that read “Property of Ruco” or “Property of Kickstand.” It’s Kickstand’s 49th birthday, and one of the gals interrupts the band’s two-hour set to have them sing “Happy Birthday.”
Upon starting their band in November 2001, Brian Soto and Jose Maldonado hoped play at the annual Depeche Mode Convention in Hollywood, now an annual gig on their itinerary. After Maldonado left to dedicate more time to singing in Smiths tribute band Sweet & Tender Hooligans, Soto was bumped up to lead vocals. Eight years later they swallowed another tribute called Violator.
Set wise, the group rarely plays tracks released after Violator, the 1990 album considered the peak of Depeche Mode’s career. They play infrequently, as the band members themselves admit that Sweetest Perfection has always been a side band to the members’ other tribute acts.
Andy Singer started Blasphemous Rumours in 2005, focusing on Depeche Mode’s ’80s output. He mentions that a Martin Gore figure was always hard to come by — until he met musician and producer Brent Meyer, co-founder of America’s largest tribute band agency, Music Zirconia. Meyer sang a song at one of their first gigs and later joined as a full-time member. He was so committed to Blasphemous Rumours that he purchased $15,000 worth of equipment for the band.
I caught Blasphemous Rumours in 2017 at an event called Depeche Boat. It was supposed to be a cruise around the Port of Long Beach, but the engine busted so it was more of a Depeche Float. Singer looks like Andrew Dice Clay with braces and even does an English accent on stage.
In 2009, Meyer kicked Singer out of the band he started. Along with another Blasphemous member, they recruited Freddie Morales of the Sounds a La Mode tribute act. (Sounds a La Mode are now defunct, but Morales still sometimes deejays under that name.)
Keeping the band name Blasphemous Rumours, Singer started a new group two weeks later. But after a while he felt that the scene was too competitive with all the other tributes, so in 2013 he retired. A year later, a girlfriend convinced him to get back on that tribute horse.
Strangelove, the new band Meyer started with Singer’s former bandmates, began playing in 2010. In part thanks to Meyer’s gig at Music Zirconia, they’re the largest DM tribute in America. They play long sets and have clothes tailored to match the real band. For many of them, this is their full-time job. They tour internationally and sell out shows in Australia, where DM hasn’t played since 1993. They were included in LA Weekly’s “The 20 Best Tribute Acts In Los Angeles” in 2015 and featured in an episode of E!’s Clash Of The Cover Bands in 2021. Sweetest Perfection considered disbanding after seeing Strangelove perform.
Strangelove are the most fun to talk to, and that joy translates into their live show — complete with original video content, melodica, theremin, and three-part harmonies. They all speak in UK accents on stage. (One of them isn’t faking it.) They advertise themselves as “The Depeche Mode Experience – Expect no substitutions,” which is a funny thing for a cover band to insist.
In 2018, Freddie Morales announced he was leaving Strangelove, which was followed by a farewell tour. The band got him a cake and wished him well. It seemed like an amicable breakup. Two days after playing their final show with Morales, Strangelove announced their new vocalist, Leo Luganskiy, a Russian native living in New York.
With his facial hair and long dark mane, I got excited that Luganskiy was going to be heroin-era Dave Gahan, but he clips it back to a pompadour while performing as Ultra Dave. He has the energy of a young Gahan and dances playfully, as if his mom just caved into taking him to McDonald’s. After we chatted about nü-metal at their July 2021 gig in San Juan Capistrano, the band inserted the bridge to Linkin Park’s “A Place For My Head” in the middle of a Depeche Mode song and screamed at the bowling-shirt-clad boomers until they were white in the face.
Strangelove allege that during their split they offered to trade their backing music tracks that Meyer spent 3,000 hours programming for the original video content that Morales provided. Morales declined. So they paid him for the videos to continue to use them exclusively. Morales took the money. And their tracks. And the videos he sold the rights to.
Morales spent the rest of February posting previous videos of him performing with his ex-band nearly every day on Facebook, promoting DJ gigs, and performances as his new act Devotional. This climaxed when, in a now-deleted post, he wrote that Strangelove were illegally using his image to promote their upcoming shows with a singer they had not yet taken the stage with. Strangelove claim that while booking Devotional, Morales called venues asserting that Strangelove was defunct. Allegedly, his friends even began harassing Strangelove on social media. Morales then booked a tour and called it the Strangelove Tour 2019.
To fill out his backing band, Morales recruited Brian Soto of Sweetest Perfection and their fill-ins, as well as getting permission from Andy Singer to hire Blasphemous Rumours members. Devotional functions more as a solo project; when Morales tours internationally he hires locals.
One of the Devotional shows I catch is at the New Wave Bar in Bellflower, where backing band member Jay Tando works as a karaoke jockey. Morales sports a jacket so sparkly you could spin him from the ceiling of the dance floor, as well as sunglasses, inside a bar where the only lights are black. His voice is a good match, and he absolutely has the look, right down to the tattoos. Yes, permanent tattoos identical to Dave Gahan’s. He does Dave’s signature twirl to what I imagine is a dizzying extent. As I write notes to myself, I’m asked if I’m a cop. A stranger hands me a Budweiser. Her deceased husband loved Bud and Depeche Mode. Someone later grabs my ass. After the show, there’s a line to meet Freddie and his tattoos outside.
(“I think it’s quite weird, the whole tribute band thing,” utters Depeche Mode member Martin Gore in an interview posted on Devotional’s social media.)
The only party with no relationship to LA’s other DM tributes is For The Masses, likely because the trio is spread across the state, with members in the Bay Area, central, and southern California. They started in 2005 and, with their live drummer, focus on the Songs Of Faith And Devotion-era sound. While the singer may look more like Gerard Way, he perfectly mimics Gahan’s sound right down to the yell, toting the same silver tripod mic stand made by the same tradesman. Though “Personal Jesus” is less fun on keys, “Master And Servant” is more fun with live drums. The entire band also plays in the Cure cover band Bloodflowers.
In January 2022, Freddie Morales announced he was quitting showbiz and announced his second farewell tour. After his mother passed the following month, he called the whole tour off. After Morales decided to end Devotional, Jay Tando was a free agent. Vocalist and karaoke pal Rowland Dark reached out to start a new tribute. They recruited Dave Tong on keys. Enter Mode 101. If you wanted to take a wild guess that they focus on the 101 era, you’d be correct. They love to hype up an audience and engage the crowd with call-and-response. My eyes are magnetized to Rowland’s braces.
Tando is featured as an audience interviewee in a Blasphemous Rumours promo video from 2011. Having already filled in for Sweetest Perfection, and with Brian Soto nearly joining Mode 101, Tando likes to maintain good relationships with his fellow tribute contributors, so he contacted everyone for their blessing before he started booking shows with the new act. Then, a few months after announcing his retirement, Freddie Morales decided to resurrect Devotional. Tando was not invited back.
Clubs don’t care who is performing. To them, they’re just booking “a Depeche Mode band” or “a Cure band.” After Morales broke his wrist and had to back out of a Devotional gig, the club called Tando to book Mode 101, chafing his relationship with Morales.
This year, Tando and Tong quit Mode 101 to start Ultra Mode with vocalist John Paul Gonzalez, who sang in DM tribute Halo from 1990 to 1992. Ready to hit the ground running, Ultra Mode picked up the previous shows that Mode 101 backed out on. They have recent single “Ghosts Again” ready to rip as their debut show is just weeks after the release of Memento Mori, Depeche Mode’s first new album in six years. Rowland Dark will be keeping the Mode 101 name.
All these bands have the Richard Blade endorsement. Many of them have him on video stating that [insert band name here] are the best DM tribute ever. He’s probably just happy to be remembered.
With many of these musicians also playing in tributes to the Cure, New Order, and the Smiths, it is safe to say that the new wave tribute scene in Los Angeles is absolutely vibrant — even if many of them have to grit their teeth when performing on the same bill at the annual Depeche Mode Convention.
If anyone is looking to start an eighth band, I’ll be holding auditions for my metal tribute, Enjoy The Violence, after I make an appointment with an orthodontist.