Peter Gabriel: 'Up' and About Again


November 1, 2002


With the exception of assorted soundtracks and the techno-futuristic soundscapes on 2000’s “Ovo,” Peter Gabriel has largely been silent since 1992’s “Us,” and many longtime fans were disappointed by that relatively slight and poppy effort.

Gabriel has made a welcome return to the spotlight (and to prime art-rock form) on the new “Us.” I spoke to him from London during a break in rehearsals for his upcoming tour, fronting a band that includes frequent collaborators David Rhodes on guitar and Tony Levin on bass, as well as guitarist Richard Evans, keyboardist Rachel Z, drummer Ged Lynch , and backing vocalist Melanie Gabriel.

Q. It seems like a million years since your last record, but “Up” was really worth the wait.

A. Well, I’m glad you like it. [ITAL] I [ITAL] like it, but I think it’s a difficult record for some people. It takes a while to get into.

Q. Tracks like “Darkness” reconnect with the more sinister vibe of your first four solo records. Was there a conscious attempt to make a heavier album this time?

A. It was sort of random really, because I just had quite a lot of ideas I was working on. It was the ones that sort of got finished and seemed to fit together that actually comprised the record. I think I was trying to get something that was more about the writing, if you like—more of a songwriter’s album, I think.

Q. I’ve read that you had 150 tracks in the can, waiting to go.

A. Well, it was 130, but some have gone into this record, some have gone into “Ovo,” so we’re probably down to 80 or something now.

Q. So are there three or four completely different albums in there? Is there, say, a light-hearted pop record waiting to be released?

A. I think the other half of this material—which I hope to finish this coming year and have out by the end of 2003 or early 2004—has some lighter material, one song of which we’re going to be playing on this tour. And I’m not quite sure again which stuff is actually going to reach the finishing post for that record. But the stuff we’ve already mixed, some of it’s a little rockier, and “lighter” is probably a good word. I hope it will be a sort of complimentary record to this one that’s out at the moment.

Q. Your lyrics have changed in many ways overt the course of your solo career. In the past, you were interested in playing different characters in your songs—a home invader, an assassin. Now you’re writing more directly about emotions or moods. Is that riskier in some ways, not to hide behind a fictional persona?

A. Yeah, but it’s also more compelling if it works. I think you’re probably more exposed, but I like both things. I’m a big fan of Randy Newman for example, and he always writes through characters. And sometimes you’ve had enough of people pouring out their hearts. But I think in this period I’ve made some discoveries in my own life, and so that has fueled some of what I’m writing about.

Q. In the early days of Genesis, you often played a bass drum onstage as you sang. Were you a drummer? I’m interested because of the intense role that rhythm plays in your work.

A. For me, rhythm is still the heart of a lot of what I do. I was a failed drummer. I started off as a drummer in a sort of jazz band, and then in a sort of soul band, and I wasn’t very good at it either. But I was very enthusiastic. So now I live vicariously through the extraordinary drummers that I manage to work with—Manu Katche, Ged Lynch, Steve Gadd. They’re all really good players. There’s also the chance to build up percussion with drum machines and Pro Tools and god knows what else—you can really sort of sculpt rhythm in a way that wasn’t possible before. On the track “No Way Out,” I used a [computer] drum treatment in there that sort of breaks up the sound into particles and then reassembles them. Normally I have a demo with a sort of drum machine part; I still find the drum machine quicker than working in the computer for me. The drummer will work to that track usually, and sometimes I can lose the programmed stuff, or they’ll be working alongside it. I love to do that, when you get both the machine and the human plugged in together.

Q. Different world rhythms have been such a key part of your work. Do those come naturally to you now? Do you think in terms of, say, African beats and time signatures when you write?

A. I think some of it is in there. For example, with Youssou [N’dour’s] music, some of the grooves sounded quite hard at first. When you go to Senegal and watch everybody dance, you think, “Where the hell is ‘one’?” And now I can’t understand why I had that problem! Actually I quite like getting lost [in the rhythm] sometimes. I found that when I heard “one” in the wrong place and started playing whatever patterns or phrases, you sometimes get things that are more interesting than if everybody knew where north as. [Producer Brian] Eno goes on about this a lot, but the influence of accidents and randomness is a big part of my process. I talked to [Beatles producer] George Martin once, and he was sort of horrified that I didn’t know where I was going most of the time, and I just throw stuff against the wall. Whereas he would know exactly where was going and just head straight for it, which is probably a lot quicker and simpler. [Laughs.]

Q. On the other hand, with your method, you can wind up working on 130 tracks for 10 years and not knowing when to call it quits!

A. Well, that is a problem, and in some ways, yeah, you have the tools of production and nobody’s gonna kick you out until you can’t pay the electricity bills. At the same time, it does give you amazing facilities. When I was going nowhere in school and not doing well in any field, they sent me to career’s guidance and they had two things which they thought I was suitable for. One was photography and the other was landscape gardening. I thought both were a bit ridiculous at the time, but now looking back on it, I think they were quite perceptive, because a photographer has to find a moment and capture it, preserve it for all time, which you do when your record button is on and you’ve got a magic performance happening. And yet the landscape gardener takes elements, plants them, and is very patient and slowly sort of clips away and chops here and plants new seeds there and is all the time working on this slowly evolving picture. They’re both visual things which I think is one of the things that helps make my music different—that I approach it as a visual piece of work.

Q. One of the things I admire about you is that you still challenge yourself as an artist, and you take some very big chances. I remembering interviewing your former bandmates in Genesis when their last album “We Can’t Dance” was released. I asked them why they never went to their own home studio and tried to make an album as weird and wonderful as “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” and Phil Collins just bristled!

A. [Laughs.] Well, I know they’re not doing so well now, but I think the other thing is that Phil always did what he wanted in a way, and what he liked and was passionate about was quite different than the sort of things I was focused on. I don’t think it’s necessarily that they were commercially-obsessed. I mean, I’m sure there was some consideration, there but it was also down to a change in taste as well as chasing commerce or not.

Q. What I’m getting at is that you could very well make a formula “Peter Gabriel record,” but it seems that you fight against that.

A. I think I want to have something new. I think the landscape should definitely be part familiar, but definitely be part unfamiliar. It’s more interesting that way. If you go on holiday always to the same place, maybe you build relationships with people, but it might get a little boring. I think it makes more interesting to me if there’s a bit of adventure, a bit of exploration. Hopefully it keeps it fresh.

Q. The single “The Barry Williams Show,” your critique of trash TV like “The Jerry Springer Show,” is very different from the rest of “Up.” Where did that come from?

A. I hadn’t realized it was gonna stick out as much as it apparently does. It seemed to be in the same sound world, even though it was more poppy and about pop culture. I’ve seen various reviews where people have really liked the record except for that track, which they hate. I think that going with something that is so much at the heart of things, you sometimes learn a bit about human behavior, what people chose to read or eat or watch, in this case. On the one hand it was quite entertaining and I would want to switch on to see what would happen, while the other part of me was thinking, “This is just like people feeding Christians to the lions!” Then there were people making a lot of money on the suffering of these unfortunates who all want to be famous for 15 minutes.

Q. Whenever I’ve seen the show, I’ve always wondered whether all those people are actors, and if it isn’t all some kind of brilliant fake.

A. I never thought acting was that good! [Laughs.] But that would be more impressive to me in a way.

Q. You always do something new on every tour in terms of the theatrics. What can we expect this time?

A. Well, I don’t want to give away too much, but we’re doing a central stage this time, a circular stage. I’m having a lot of fun, and I think it will be a good show. I want to do pretty much all of the new album. I haven’t yet worked on “The Drop,” because I’ve forgotten how to play it, but I’m hoping to relearn it. Then we do three from “Ovo,” so that is almost two hours of music. That leaves us about 30 or 40 minutes to do oldies. There will be some familiar elements, but I’m not going to do “Biko” on this tour, for example, or one or two other stalwarts that have been put out to rest for a while. I think there will be two or three familiar landmarks and then a lot of new stuff.