BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.