“In Conversation" Part 1 - The Conversation Disc Series - Peter Gabriel. Transcribed by Alan Hewitt. Memorabilia: TWR Archive.
Another blast from the past this one. Please bear in mind that no sources or dates are given for the interview extracts contained on this disc but we hope you find Peter’s answers interesting, over to you, Mr Gabriel…
1986 - So album….
INT: Now that the album (So) has arrived one can see that the themes you have established are very bold indeed, and I want to pick up on one which is Big Time which is a track which deals with the pressures of success. I was wondering if that has affected your outlook in any way at all…
PG: Well I think it is more a sort of lust for success or perhaps a bit of the pressure at the end of the song. It is just a moral fable of sorts a small town guy that leaves for the big time and gets the big time and then gets weighed down by it. So it is partly a cynical observation of the human drive for success which I see outside of me and I see inside of me too.
INT: So to what extent is it autobiographical then?
PG: I think partially, there is definitely part of this in me but probably not a side of me I am particularly fond of.
INT: The reverse of that is also covered by the album in some ways as the losers in life are covered by a track called Don’t Give Up. Now, again is that a feeling that is very close to your heart and that other people have experienced but you don’t seem to have experienced it yourself…
PG: It was partly after I saw a programme on the effect of unemployment on relationships that I started thinking that it is very destructive when people lose their self respect.
INT: What is Milgram’s 37 about…
PG: Well, that one has a title We Do What We’re Told or Milgram’s 37 and I had read about these experiments in the 1960’s where this Professor Stanley Milgram in New Haven had invited a whole group of people to come up to the university and participate supposedly in a test with punishment and learning. The student was taken into a room and strapped to two electric terminals and a volunteer “teacher” was hidden behind the glass in the laboratory and sat in front of this box with thirty two buttons and the last one marked xx and he was told that for each mistake that the student gave, he should increase the punishment. The real test was not actually on the student but on the volunteer teacher because the student was a dummy, an actor and it was just to see how far the volunteer teacher would go pressing the buttons before his own moral conscience and the apparent pain that he was inflicting on this actor would tell him that he had to stop. The disturbing thing about the experiment was that most of the people, 63% in the s first main experiment were quite prepared to go to the xx button. They were fairly controversial experiments at the time and there is a film of the experiments which is fascinating because you see these very normal people, there is nothing weird or perverted about these people.
What interested me is this idea that we very quickly judge other people and say this action is immoral, I could never behave like this and in truth if we were in a situation where there was an authority that was taking the responsibility for us then most of us would probably behave in that way. Although there was this percentage that was prepared to rebel and so in the song I think there is some positive slant given for those people . It may be pessimistic if you take human nature as a little more practical and a little less moral, then maybe you have a better starting point for understanding how people act.
INT: What is it about these different cultures and different musics that you still find so appealing after all these years?
PG: Well, I think in the Seventies when I first started exploring these things I was just amazed at some of the stuff that I was totally ignorant of and there is still a whole body of stuff I don’t know about and I just find that it is very passionate music very often and the at there are very mature driving rhythms particularly in Africa and Brazil. So it coincided with my first drum machine which was a little electronic kit which was very roughly put together but I used to be a drummer… a frustrated drummer in a soul band and so for the first time I had this little box that could start generating rhythms that were in time unlike my own playing. That made me think, what is it I can stick in this device and what is going to give me new ways of working and a lot of this non Western music was coming up with grooves that I found much more hypnotic and compelling than what I was hearing on the radio most of the day. So they still supply me, if you like, with a lot of inspiration. I don’t try and sound African or Brazilian but I definitely use it to put into my rhythm machines which then liberate me as a writer.
INT: Do you think such sounds can be liberating to some extent because you have also written n songs which could be construed as political, let’s take Biko for example where you have not only utilised the sounds from different countries but added different statements on top of that. Do you think that is too much to ask for that the songs can be liberating for other people besides yourself maybe artistically?
PG: I think they can be but I don’t think you can change the world directly through music but you can help to bring other ideas to greater attention. I think sometimes you see music in other countries and musicians get locked up and murdered in some cases where they are singing things that don’t agree with the government in question and I think we have it very easy in a way but I still see Western music or rock music primarily as entertainment but I would like to see it with more of a social conscience.
INT Like the Sun City project and the Nelson Mandel single from the Special AKA both of which followed on directly from your track Biko for example…
PG: Well, obviously with Sun City I was involved with that but I fully support it and I think that was a really good example and a well marketed campaign that I think had a measurable impact on US opinion polls with the TV broadcasts which had a measurable impact on President Reagan in that he did a U turn on his policy towards economic sanctions in South Africa and that in turn had an effect on the South African Rand which put them under pressure to begin dismantling, albeit slowly, Apartheid. So you can become part of a chain in that way and so I think some songs should have a direct message, a direct political message but not everything.
INT: Do you miss not having a group like Genesis around you with such strong personalities guiding the sorts of music that you make…?
PG: Well, I feel that I have the advantages of both worlds because I do have long term relationships with some musicians say, such as David Rhodes, the guitarist that I work with, Tony Levin the bass player and Jerry Marotta and Larry Fast although there is a little less of them on this current record. So if you like, there is some of the band spirit there and yet I am also able to fantasise about who could bring a particular element, a musical element into a song or a piece and quite often they will say yes and come along so that is a great opportunity that you can’t really do in a band, you can’t get in another guitarist without upsetting the guitarist or that sort of thing. So I think there are advantaged to both ways of working but I am not a solo artist on the sense that everything you hear on the record has come from my head and I dictated it to the musicians. I use the creative ideas of all the people I work with and I think I am very fortunate to work with great people.
INT: So you haven’t missed the days with Genesis at all?
PG: I don’t miss them but there are feelings there and it was a healthy part of growing up.
INT: There is a generation of bands, new bands that have been influenced by you, and Phil Collins and Genesis also. Is it strange to you now to take a step back and look at that kind of influence on people who are maybe ten years younger than you?
PG: Sometimes if you like when the influences has not been digested enough but all musicians start off copying the musicians that they like, we used to do that and this is natural so I think it is a compliment so I am happy that there are people picking up on Genesis stuff although that style of music doesn’t interest me in the same way.
INT: What is it about feature films that appealed to you as a musician and writer also. Is it a whole different ballgame to making music for yourself?
PG: I think it is, I mean I was nursemaided to some degree through this soundtrack (Birdy) by Alan parker because I hadn’t done it before and it was incredible for me to see the way that the dialogue between characters would change almost meanings would change according to the type of mood of the music you were putting with it. So that was great and I have always been a film fan and I had a place at film school which I turned down in order to carry on with Genesis and I have been if you like a frustrated image maker and I hope that the long form video like the video album which is something that is only just beginning, will be something I can get to play with and get to explore that.
INT: Are you going to start working on an amusement park in Australia now is that just hearsay or is that a definite plan?
PG: Well the project that is definite for me is one called Real World and is just an attempt to put together a team of innovators if you like, I think there are a lot of great people whether it is visually minded musicians, artists, architects, psychologist whatever who can get involved and design experiences in amusement parks. So I have been toying with this fantasy for many years now and somebody in Australia took notice of it and asked me to submit a proposal but there were five other people also submitting proposals and the Minister of Works in New South Wales who decides who to give the green light to and even then that isn’t the final green light so it is still way off actually happening but at least it is a little closer to reality than it has been in the last ten years.
INT: Will it be something like Disneyland then?
PG: well In some ways yes bit I think in others it might be something a very different basic philosophy in that people could be right inside the experiences t rather than just observing them passively. I think that way it is a lot more exciting
INT: If we can move on to the video for Sledgehammer once again, that has raised a few eyebrows, a terrific example of animation. Can you tell us exactly what happened there and how you managed to put something together that was so distinctive….
PG: Yeah, well it began with Stephen Johnson who is the director and we sat around for two s weeks just going through ideas at my place and his place and then we brought in some animators, there was a team in Bristol called Ardman Animation who had produced these very strange things called “Conversation Pieces” which we had seen on Channel 4 in England and some very quirky animations and then some twins in London called The Clay Twins, who had also done some very unusual pieces that Steve had seen. And so after we got some basic ideas together we brought in these animators and there were about eight people generating ideas. We were working in a small studio in the West of England and it really felt like a community project.
INT: Are you optimistic about the future?
PG: I am a pessimist with optimistic tendencies, and I think while as in the song which is on the album, Mercy Street I believe very strongly that this material world consists of f dreams, this chair was once merely an idea in a designer’s head and so the way you dream and the way you hold the future does help to shape it and so and so as with the case of the nuclear industry and nuclear war, I think it is important not to generate hysteria. And I think both of those things we would be a lot better off without. But the way of approach should be calm…
And with that we bring this part of the interview to a close. Interesting stuff there I am sure you will agree. More from Peter next time….