Peter Gabriel: "You could feel the horror…"
The current issue of Uncut features a review of the lavish reissue of Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking So album – to accompany that, it seemed like a perfect time to republish this great interview with the man himself, from Uncut’s July 2007 issue (Take 122). Gabriel joins Uncut for a look at his glorious career, and at those remarkable costumes… “You could feel the horror,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is exciting!’” Words: David Cavanagh
The scene is one of those upmarket London PR consultancies where the rooms have giant TV screens and lots of laminate flooring. An odd place to find Peter Gabriel – a man who, across a 40-year career, has lent his distinctive pepper-and-salt voice to “Supper’s Ready”, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, “Biko”, “Sledgehammer”, and, more extracurricularly, to the championing of world music and the pioneering of digital music distribution.
But in a sense, a fifth-floor brainstorming room is a perfect milieu for Gabriel, whose projects take shape gradually over ‘recording weeks’ at his Real World studio in Bath, attended by ever-changing casts of musicians from many lands. A new Gabriel album, Big Blue Ball, is expected this autumn. Only his third in 20 years, it’s been such a collaborative effort that it may be credited to Various Artists. “Some people find a tunnel, and they dig their one tunnel extremely well,” Gabriel explains. “I’m not like that. I like ideas. What excites me is collaborating with interesting people from different backgrounds.”
Freshly lunched at Zilli Fish around the corner, Gabriel, 57, is intense, softly spoken, with a Sean Connery-esque bald pate and snow-white goatee. This summer he’ll be headlining a handful of rare UK and Irish dates, including the Hyde Park Calling festival (June 23) and the 25th anniversary of WOMAD (July 27), an organisation that he himself co-founded. One thing Gabriel could have been doing, but isn’t, is rejoining Genesis, the group he spearheaded to theatrical prog-rock glory in the early ’70s, for a lucrative reunion tour.
“We had a couple of meetings about it,” he admits, “but it seemed too big a commitment. It was stretching out a bit, in terms of the amount of gigs that everybody wanted, and also it’s a fair bit of work. They’re, uh, not easy numbers to get up and jam, if you know what I mean.”
And so, just as they did in 1975, Genesis are carrying on without him.
Genesis were formed at Charterhouse, the famous public school. Were you allowed to hear much pop music there, or was it very strict?
There was only one room where you could listen to loud music. There was a radio upstairs, and then a sort of billiard room downstairs, which had an old music-player. Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips were in the same house as me, and there was a piano which we used to fight over. You’d all go down to the Record Corner in Godalming, and I would sneak away occasionally to see gigs. I saw John Mayall, Hendrix. I saw Otis Redding at the RamJam Club in Brixton in 1967, which was amazing. We were always straightforward in Genesis about our public school education. A lot of musicians, before us and since, have come from middle-class families and kept it concealed.
Well, in Joe Strummer’s case, it would have been bad for business.
Exactly, yeah – Joe comes to mind. It’s funny, I got to know Joe in later years when he became interested in world music. We’d have recording weeks in the studio and set up ‘Strummerville’ for Joe. He was a delightful man.
Genesis were hardly an overnight success. Were there times when it required a leap of faith to keep going?
Yes, definitely. The first three years were really difficult. Our mentor was Jonathan King, who liked my voice. He was our route to making records, so we were trying to create music that would appeal to him. We were always songwriters first and musicians second. I played the flute – badly – and the oboe very badly, and the drums pretty badly, but all enthusiastically. Then the music started becoming more ‘proggy’, and we lost King’s interest at that point. It was extremely hard to find dates. Most people wanted covers, and we weren’t prepared to do any. But we carried on, in a somewhat obsessive way.
Songs like “The Musical Box” on Nursery Cryme were whimsical, surreal and macabre all at the same time. What sort of world did you want to take your listeners into?
A dream world, I suppose. It was about mood and atmosphere. I pictured my grandparents’ house, and some of the underlying feelings I had about that place. They didn’t have a croquet lawn but it was a Victorian house, with dark wooden panels, and it had a mood that fed the lyric of that song. I think it was sex trying to break through it all. The feeling of constraint… the feeling that somehow fertility, vitality and sexuality were all connected, and the old world of control and order was on the other side of the spectrum. And was something that had to be broken through.
At that time , it also felt like there were a lot of musical barriers. People were always telling us we couldn’t move from a folk mood into a rock mood, but that’s what we were trying to do on ‘The Musical Box’. I mean, I was a big Who fan, and the end of that song is definitely Who-influenced. I was trying to persuade Mike [Rutherford] to play the guitar like Pete Townshend.
With the visual side of Genesis, did you literally say to the others one day, “Right, at the next gig, you all sit on chairs and I’ll wear a flower on my head”?
Well, firstly, I was left with the job, while they were busy tuning up their 36 strings of guitars, of filling in these enormous silences. To entertain the audience, I started telling stories. I found I could hold their attention and they wouldn’t all go to the bar. With the costumes, I started wearing bat wings and stuff, and getting a little more outlandish, and then on Foxtrot I wore the fox head and the red dress. My wife, Jill, had a red Ossie Clark dress which I could just about get into, and we had a fox head made. The first time we tried it was in a former boxing ring in Dublin, and there was just a shocked silence. [Laughs] You could feel the horror. I thought, ‘Oh, this is exciting!’
What did the rest of the band think?
Some of them hated it. They thought I was trivialising our music. But I thought we should have humour, and fun, and enjoy it. The audience lapped it up – not everyone, but most of them. Genesis was pretty democratically run, but I knew I could never involve them in the costume side. When we did the Rainbow for The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the band didn’t see the costumes until I arrived in rehearsals. I knew if I put them up for a vote, there was just no way.
Why did you decide to leave Genesis?
I hated having my life planned. You’d sometimes be looking 18 months or two years ahead, when you were touring. It felt like there wasn’t much room for independent thought and action. And then my first-born, Anna, they [the doctors] didn’t think she was going to survive. We were halfway through recording Lamb… in Wales at the time, and she was in Paddington, and I was tearing between the two. There’s nothing as important to you as your family, but the band were really unsympathetic and didn’t appreciate that they should sit around while I was dealing with life-and-death issues. We’ve had conversations about this since, but it built up some poison between us, internally. There was also some jealousy and resentment about the amount of attention I was getting as a frontman.
Wasn’t there talk of you leaving Genesis to work with William Friedkin, the movie director?
Yeah, I had written a short story on [the sleeve of] Genesis Live – one of the stories I used to tell onstage – and William Friedkin, who was the king of Hollywood because of The Exorcist, wanted me to work with him. Not as a musician, but as a screenwriter and ideas man. That was very exciting to me. In the end, unfortunately, nothing happened; it was one of many Hollywood projects that bit the dust. But it was something that the band – who later, of course, made lots of room for Phil [Collins] to do projects outside Genesis – were unhappy about.
Being public school chaps, presumably all this resentment festered under the surface? No fist-fights to resolve the tension?
Not too many fist-fights, no. We weren’t the Gallagher brothers.
Or as Sid James used to say in Hancock’s Half Hour: “A quick punch up the bracket and it’s all forgotten about.”
Ha ha ha ha ha!
Surely you expected Genesis to split up when you left?
I didn’t, actually. I had more confidence in Genesis continuing than they did themselves. And the reason was because we were a group of songwriters, and the songs would continue coming out. It’s a funny thing, but when I was the singer, everybody thought I created everything and wrote all of it. Of course, when I left the band, they were way more successful without me. Everybody then assumed, ah, okay, he did nothing [laughs].
When you re-emerged in 1977, there’d been this revolution in the music world. Genesis were always crucified by the punks, but you positively thrived. How did you manage that?
Some of the material was darker. But it was strange, because the first album – which is quite poppy to me – was up in the window of McLaren and Westwood’s shop, and Nick Kent was really into it. I was surprised, to be honest, because Genesis were getting real [criticism]. Perhaps it was because I’d left [laughs], so it was a perverse way of continuing to knock the proggers.
You got a very short haircut around ’77, too. Maybe that made you seem more ‘punk-compatible’.
I’m sure. Well, I tried to do a lot of things to separate me from Genesis. Sometimes you’d see people leave bands and do watered-down versions of what the band had done. I was determined not to do that. I was keen to get a new audience. It took me until album No 3 [entitled Peter Gabriel, as were the first, second and fourth] before I found an identity.
Did you make that third album with a clear plan? It’s said that you banned the drummers from using any cymbals, for example.
It was a case of ‘do something different – and make some rules’. The worst thing you can say to a creative person, I think, is ‘You can do anything.’ That is the kiss of death. You should say to them, ‘You can’t do this. You definitely can’t do that. And under no circumstances can you do that.’ Then they’ll start thinking in a different, more creative way.
Ironically, that experimental album became the template for chart pop in the ’80s – early Fairlight samplers, the dreaded ‘gated snare’…
It was one of the early Fairlights, and in typical Gabriel style, you know, if I want a pint of milk I buy the cow. I’d always dreamed of being able to grab a sound and do what you wanted with it. But they were horribly expensive. A Fairlight at that time was 10,000 quid – and nobody in rock had spent more than 2,500 on a musical instrument until then. The only way I could get easy access to the things was to persuade my cousin to become the distributor for them.
Did you always want your records to sound more ‘modern’ than everybody else’s?
‘Modern’ was good. But ‘different’, really. Particularly with the third album, I was trying to find my own path. I worked with these young guys, Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham, who’d done new-wave-y, punky, XTC-type stuff. It was this tougher, more skeletal, edgier music, and it seemed very exciting. I liked XTC a lot. In fact, I heard “Making Plans For Nigel” this morning, and thought, ah, yeah!
The So album in the mid-’80s made you a superstar. Your videos were constantly on TV, sandwiched between ZZ Top and “Addicted To Love”. A pretty strange context to see you in.
Extremely weird, and sometimes people even got me confused with Robert Palmer. I found that very strange. So, yeah, I was a pop star for about a week and it was a lot of fun. But it feels freer, now, not to be struggling to get a Top 20 record or appear on Top Of The Pops. So was a strong album, and Dan [Lanois] was very good at focusing it, and the band were great. [Thinks] It was Dan who I worked with, wasn’t it? Yeah. But I think Passion [Gabriel’s 1989 soundtrack to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ] may be the best one I’ve ever done. I wasn’t working with a producer, and as I was serving someone else’s vision, that gave me freedom in a strange way. Some of the ‘Sledgehammer’ fans wouldn’t be into it – a bit too ‘out there’ for them.
What got you into world music in the first place?
One, I was a drummer – a bad drummer – and I got bored of the grooves I was hearing on the radio in 1980. And two, there was this soulful stuff I was hearing from around the world that was really hard to find. And yet it had its own magic and mystery and power. I was on a train coming back from London when I thought it would be great to have a festival focused around world music. I started making phone calls around Bristol, and got a disparate group of people involved. We had enthusiasm, we were totally naïve and we almost went bankrupt. But that first WOMAD was a wonderful event, and it’s been a 25-year journey since.
Because your two most recent solo albums, Us and Up, have similar titles, people might assume they’re very alike. Us was very personal, wasn’t it?
Us was all about relationships and the crap that goes with them [laughs]. And the joy. I guess Up was darker, and maybe had more connection with my third and fourth albums. It didn’t do very well, but I felt it had some of my best work. The older you get, the easier it is to learn and accept who you are, what you do and how you do it. Whatever stuff is there, just let it come out – regardless of whether it’s commercially attractive.
Photo: Jon Enoch