“Lessons from the School of Life” - Peter Gabriel at the School of Life Lectures, 1st March 2016. Transcribed by Alan Hewitt. Photographs by Stuart Barnes.
Well, we are still waiting for Peter to grant us an interview, so we thought that in the meantime, you might find this recent one interesting. Over to you, Peter….
INT: What is it about the human animal that makes us make music?
PG: Well, I think we sometimes like to shows, get up and dance, try and find a mate. When you are a boy and you’re in a rock band there’s so much material here for me! (laughs). I think that it is a deep thing that we share with the other creatures we share the planet wit. We all make sounds and not always with specific intent. I went to a Public School and really music was a retreat and I used to go down to record Corner in Godalming and pick up the latest Soul records and go down to the one room where we allowed to play music and turn it up as loud as I could and dance, I still have problems dancing! (laughs). But it was just a release and the freedom to kick, grunt or make some sort of noise.
INT: As writers we feel incredibly clumsy next to musicians because we have to work with this one form of communication which is quite awkward called words and if you have to translate a song into words, it would be a bit of a mess. What is it you think that enables music to carry so much meaning?
PG: I guess it plugs directly into the nervous system in a way that other forms of communication go through filtering and music has frequencies and patterns there and the quicker are released but maybe that’s not as exciting.
INT: You said that you consider music as an emotional toolbox, which is a fascinating concept, tell us more about that…
PG: Well, from my own perspective and I think of Justin Bieber (laughs).
INT: Indeed, so what is it you like about Justin Bieber…?
PG: I think the record is very good and it is my ten year old who listens to it on the way to school …
INT: What is it you dislike in Justin Bieber?
PG: Actually there are some great rhythms and it is beautifully produced and I have always liked good pop music and he sings very well. And to the people who just dismiss him I would say open your ears because there is actually a serious artist there. Anyway… (laughs),
INT: The emotional toolbox particularly in the context of a song that is very close to my heart, I Grieve you said that you felt that you had added a song to your emotional toolbox with that…
PG: Yeah, well I think inside your box of tools you have your certain records for delivering certain emotional functions and they ms ay be kinder and comforting or to excite you, whatever it is and my wife’s mum died recently and I was thinking … there aren’t many songs that you can use in that situation and I didn’t really know that it was about grief in that way…
INT: In the emotional toolbox that you have built up as a musician what are the areas that you feel interested in and drawn to…?
PG: I think as we were talking about earlier, just making a lot of noise and getting excited and I was always drawn to church music and hymns were a big influence and bits of classical music…
INT: What drew you to that?
PG: It was what they could do with the voice and the storytelling and songs like Strange Fruit which were telling what was happening to the Civil Rights movement and black people and then I always remember exactly where I was in school when I first heard that song and Hey Joe and I remember which room I was in and I was in the back of my parent’s car and although that doesn’t sound at all revolutionary now, at the time Love Me Do was more revolutionary because people forget it was a different world then.
INT: I remember you once said that music can be like an axe to a frozen sea, which is a quote from Nietsche what does that mean to you?
PG: That we lock away part of ourselves and there are certain instruments when we find them that can break our emotions open.
INT: There are some great lines in Red Rain, “defences down”, “trust of a child” and these are all from the toolbox of therapy aren’t they?
PG: Well I guess after my first marriage broke up some of that got to me and I think I was a sucker for all of that anyway. I probably learned as much from that sort of encounter and I was encouraged or pushed into group therapy which was the last thing I wanted to do, expose myself to a group but it was enormously powerful because the wonderful thing about having a group with you is that you can go through a lot of the stuff and particular people have had relationships and volunteers agreed to be in your group and for them that was very powerful so…
INT: The word defence comes up in your music and some of the things you say. How do you think the human being is structured, do we have a soft vulnerable core and a hard exterior, how do you visualise the kind of journey that we go on…?
PG: I think fear is undervalued probably and bravery is quite often the flip side of fear and fear will channel but maybe that is part of my journey, learning to be less afraid and I think there are very few things that old age has going for it but maybe that is one of them.
INT: What were the fears that were overcome?
PG: I had many fears, inadequacy and all sorts and I was never very good academically or at sport and then not going through university and not being sure of myself in conversations with people who seemed to be smarter than me and gradually as I got older I have become much less afraid of other people and the more I challenge myself to do these things I do think again that as an artist I have got away with pretty much anything I wanted to do and calling it work! (laughs) and that is part of the function of getting a bit more comfortable with your fear.
INT: How did that feel when you initially didn’t go to university. How was that seen by your peers, your parents was it seem as a great risk?
PG: I don’t think my parents minded, they would have loved me to go, my dad did but my mother didn’t, mainly they wanted their kids to be happy and fulfilled and the conventional success wasn’t the dominant thing. My dad was an electrical engineer and he was quiet and an ideas person and my mother was much more emotional and she would organise things but she was also the compassionate one and I learned a lot from her. She was passionate about music and that was her obsession…I do think what was interesting is that you have spent a good part of your life with these giant figures hanging over you and we are still trying to prove ourselves and do it for them…
INT: Psychoanalysts are very interested in that and that there has to be a dialogue and all the problems that arise are denied…
PG: But again maybe this is another role that music can play and when you are in a group of musicians it really is just like being in a group of kids and having a good time but you don’t always have a good time.
INT: One of the most fascinating and mysterious things is where does a song come from?
PG: Well, right now they all come from Justin Bieber (laughs) actually I do think that you do start off trying to copy the people you love and then you… I have always had this distinction between vomit and shit (laughs) and anyone who deals with my words will know this one well but when you take something from someone else and you don’t digest it and it is just regurgitated but when you absorb something from other people and it goes through your digestive system, it comes out the other end a slightly different colour maybe but it has been through your process and at that point it is living again in a way and then it fertilises the next group of songs (laughs) and it is the same old story but there is something to that and I think that you really want to be wide open and wide awake and able to steal, absorb, borrow and feed off anything that interests you and again I have said this before, you should be like dogs in a park; you sniff something interesting and you jump on it! (laughs).
INT: Some of your songs have taken decades to be assembled, and presumably you are picking up many things, from many dogs along the way? (laughs).
PG: Well, maybe I am afraid of the final commitment and there are so many distractions and I will always go off on a tangent rather than finish.
INT: How do your engineers feel …
PG: Well they age (laughs) I think they quite enjoy some of it because there is apart of the process in music which is highly repetitive and intensely boring and I often think that two underrated creative giants are boredom and fatigue because actually they make a lot of decisions.
INT: You mean, that’s enough, I’m bored of this… well one thing that has always distinguished you from Justin Bieber is the ambition behind the music, one thinks of The Lamb…. What separates your music from others is that you have got a sense of what it can do, everything he arrangements etc are just bigger and more complicated…
PG: Well, I am trying to learn to do things simpler…
INT: What is your simplest song, the one that came unusually easily and simply as if it was somehow …
PG: Here Comes The Flood came quickly and there is one called So Much which is about mortality and that came pretty quickly.
INT: I Know it is naughty to ask but you are working on a new album , its rude to say when? (laughs)
PG: Well I never go as far as saying the year (laughs) but .. Douglas Adams said he loved the whistle of the wind as he went past his deadlines or something like that and that is sort of my experience but and this comes with being a little older… f*ck it, you’ll get it when I’m ready! (laughs).
INT: One of the things about your music is that it has always brought a lot of solace and some tunes are about the vulnerability of the listener and some are an imaginary hand held out and no song of yours does this more powerfully than Don’t Give Up which has literally saved people from jumping off roofs…
PG: This is a thing that really surprises me and it was actually begun after seeing an exhibition of Dorothea Lang pictures of the American Depression and it has ended up particularly because of the way that Kate (Bush) sings it seems to be offering hope when there is very little and it is amazing the people who have said that the song has made a difference to them.
INT: How do you look back at the music of the past, if we look back and some people may get very bored by this so I will tread lightly, but going back to Genesis, what is Genesis for you now? And what do you think of what you achieved there?
P G : it was part of growing up I guess. It was a good group and I think we were highly ambitious and some of it succeeded better than others and there are bits in there that I still feel and relate to and I enjoyed some of the crazier stuff and then there are other bits which don’t connect as well or as strongly.
INT: What do you connect with now?
P G : There are little bits of The Lamb… carpet Crawlers, some bits of Supper’s Ready and maybe things where there is a bit of my personal history. The difference between us and a lot of groups as was with Ten CC who were a group of song writers first, you know most groups get together as musicians and write the songs whereas we were really trying to get others to record our songs and we didn’t really become a group until we recorded the album and that was in desperation (laughs)
INT: Wasn’t it the performing side…
PG: No, lets be clear, I loved getting up, showing off and dancing around but \I am also quite a shy person and like when I am away on holiday I am not pining for a stage or a piano although if I am doing it I really enjoy it.
INT: Where did the ambition come from, the scale of the arrangements, what wa behind that?
PG: Well, I think the most hated genre of British music; Prog Rock and I think it contained people who just wanted to break out of barriers and I remember a review of one early gig referred to us as “folk, blues, mystical” (this was the band’s first proper review in the East Grinstead Courier - AH) and I was the sort of entrepreneur, no one else had any idea that we had to earn some money and again out of desperation I sat around in the foyers of a lot of record companies being completely ignored until in fact we met a guy who knew how to do it and the thing you do is find out the managing director’s Christian name and then you say, ‘oh is Bob back from lunch?’ And on record company executives would be working at lunchtime and then with any luck, you would be put in Bob’s office and then he comes back from lunch and asks’ what the hell are these people doing here?’ (laughs) and the receptionist would say ‘oh, I thought they were friends of yours’ and then you would have about thirty seconds to play him something (laughs) but I remember one of these executives saying’ you can either be a rock band or you can be a folk band but you cant try and do all of those things together..’
And we thought why the hell not? It was difficult but we would just go into whatever interested us.
INT: Who do you become when you are on stage in front of those thousands of people and how do you access that different part of your persona?
PG: I think you have just got to buy it and believe it and I learned very early on that if you are shy and apologetic, people will switch off and so you have to sort of pump yourself up and then give them something, they may not like it, but then they can’t ignore it and so that’s what I do.
INT: There’s also that wonderful moment when an anonymous crowd comes together and becomes one and barriers fall away …
PG: I know it is fanciful but it is a real phenomenon and people know it when they feel it and when you get that, it is a magical thing and you can share it with an audience and they give you the fuel on which you build it and so for many years I would try and think of things that would engage an audience such as walking through the audience and that sort of barrier can be broken through and it is much more powerful when there is some mutual exchange going on.
INT: Collaboration is central to your music, you have collaborated more than any other British musician…
PG: Maybe I needed to ! (laughs) I think I have been smart enough to work with a great group of people and inside music and outside of it I will still try and get the best people because it just raises the game and allows you to do more of what you can do.
INT: Do you always feel that’s the moment when you need to bring in someone in to do whatever they do.
PG: Yeah, sometimes a lot of the stuff I do now I tend to mumble away because these instruments allow you to have such a wide range of sounds that you have got a giant palette and actually the worst thing you can give an artist is freedom. You know, if you say to someone you can do anything you want, it is the kiss of death. If you say to them, you actually can’t do this and you definitely can’t do that then you will find a way and that I think, is what encourages creativity. Sometimes of you don’t have those restrictions or rules then it is good to impose them…
INT: We have a clip of one of your collaborations with Sinead O’Connor, what drew you to her voice?
PG: Well I thought it was a very powerful and emotional, from the gut and that’s what I loved about it.
INT: One of your more unusual collaborations is you have apes, lots of apes are they going to be on the new album?
PG: They are not at this point but I have been fascinated to learn of these attempts of communication with other species on the planet, we share the planet with intelligent life and we are looking for it out there but we have got plenty here and they have been much better at learning our language than we have at learning theirs. I have been following some of the reports and I thought I would love to see if there is some way of connecting with music and I called a couple of places the Langridge Research Lab which was in Atlanta and they were working with Bonobo apes and they invited me down and I went about five times and for me it was a life changing experience and it led to another project which we are trying to get slowly going which is called Species Internet which is where we allow other kinds, other species access to the Internet to see what they would do and how they would express themselves and so, if that sounds a little fanciful, we are very serious about it and we have great scientists such as MIT are involved and one of the founders of the Internet and his particular interest is intelligent life in the Cosmos and we expect to meet aliens one day and we have had no practice learning to communicate with other species and so we are starting at a disadvantage.
INT: so, is there any idea that music is a convertible language?
PG: yeah, what had happened is that at the bonobo centre a couple of them had given the bonobos percussion instruments and that was interesting for me and I thought we could encourage them to sit at the piano and then they did what a three year old would do and then I asked if hey could try playing with just one finger and they decided to interpret that as two fingers but then we asked the bonobo what they wanted to write about and she wanted to write about grooming ( we hear a sample of the bonobos on the piano at this point while Peter improvises over their playing) and this worked really well and they were making distinct choices and just that in itself was mindblowing and she knew, like with any improvisation, that you can feel whether it is good or not connecting. She knew that too, so on her keyboard in front of her she hit the good side because she knew that she had done a good job that time. Just the level of communication , see Coco the gorilla and she had been upset after 9/11 because she had seen all the people working there and they were really upset and she asked what was going on and I think she was shown the news footage and she didn’t know what to sign for aeroplanes hitting tall buildings and people dying and “I’m sorry” was her line in fact so it is not just fun and games we really had intelligent life and it seems to me absurd that we don’t try and communicate …
INT: And the Inter-species Internet would work how?
PG: Well, we could try to give them the opportunity to video conference and we are working with Monkey World and some of them who have gone back to Africa may wish to Skype the family like we do (laughs) so that is one thing that we hope to try, We are just about entering the age where visual search engines dropping a word in like Google and you will be able to drop pictures or choose pictures that then predict a whole lot of other pictures so it branches into navigation and when this is freely available then they are going to be able to navigate as well as we are. Will they go to the naked porn sites like we do? What are they going to be interested in? (laughs). It is just going to be fascinating. So, that is our hope that … a lot of people really hate this idea and think that these creatures should be left alone, the conservationist approach but I would argue that intelligent beings should have rights because that bridges the gasp that distinguishes you from any other species.
INT: The depth with which you engage in technology and the possibilities of technology for helping our species and other species, I was talking to your sound engineer before and he said, oh what we are really excited about is the idea of making music to form for whatever intelligence…
PG: That’s good but not music so much as there is a lady who was in charge of the One Laptop One Child project and she is now in charge of the project on Facebook to improve resolution and the three dimensional immersive technology however, she had been fascinated by the experiments and basically they showed someone two weeks of video footage while they were in an MRI scanner and every single frame of video was recorded with the corresponding brain pattern. Then you switched the video off and you observed the brain pattern and asked the computer to bring up the closest image to that brain pattern and it is a bit of a twist but it is working and she is working on some very low noise, hi resolution brain scanners which are going to become commonplace within the next two, five, ten years which will allow us to present the parts of our thoughts that can be put into pictures back to video and this will be a new form of communication and I actually wrote many years ago a song called Here Comes The Flood which was about the time when people can read each other’s thoughts. I suspect we have enough tools in this department already but a lot of it in the same way that a part of the brain is devoted to smell, has shrunk as our survival no longer depends on it Maybe, because some of the people who work with apes believe that they can go hunting for food and seem to have a way of communicating without vocalising. Who knows if that’s true and I would like to re-explore it but anyway, and there is a whole world of invisible thought which we are just entering into and I think it is going to turn our society upside down because we are going to become see-through, we are going to become transparent.
INT: It will also enable us to get so much better at communication as words are a very clumsy way to try and understand one another so at last we will have that Utopian sense of knowing who others are…
PG: I think in the same way that TV removed the role of film. I think this could provide other avenues and I think we shall get multi-media applications and what I was hoping for several years ago with the Witness human rights organisation and all these sci fi things that we are hearing about are beginning to appear.
INT: And this is the extraordinary thing about you, you have thought like the Silicon Valley visionaries and you have foretold so many of these things which are now commonplace, the computer systems, music streaming; music recommendation service …
PG: Well, I think that there are always smarter people than me that pick up on things ahead of you and my dad was always focussed on how things could improve the world through technology and I think I have inherited his passion for that, not his skill necessarily …
INT: Apart from the visual picture communication, what else do you see?
PG: I think the world finds ways and there will be tools and there will be technology. I think there is a phenomenon where almost always the first wave of technology is dehumanising and the second wave is where we get the feedback and get it right and that is where I hope it will give us tools through which we can explore ourselves and how they connect with us. For example, and I have been looking at bio feedback and actually The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was going to start with some bio feedback but I couldn’t sell it to band at the time (Laughs) but there was a guy who I was working with who said amongst other things if all the audience hold hands so you have one continuous chain you would observe that the heartbeat would tend to average out and I think we can do that without touching and the emotional mood of everyone in this room is shifting.
There was another one where I had an argument with Douglas Adams but one of the things we agreed on which was quite surprising was that the walls of a building could absorb some of the emotional content of what had gone on inside so which are your wackiest ideas…
INT: well, I pinch the wacky ideas, let me explain… one of your wackiest ideas which is deeply fascinating is something which has occupied fifteen years of your life, something called the Real World Experience, a park which you describe as “a magical garden, twelve waterfalls, doorways to adventures underground, experiences designed by filmmakers, artists, technicians, psychologists and architects. So its going to be a very different theme park, not just entertainment but self discovery…
PG: Well, we had such fun and there were three layers so by going underground you could go to this other place and there were three layers, there was an observation level where you could check out stuff and there was an information level where you could get your hands dirty and I think the technology is moving that way.
INT: It is also about trying to use space, music, light in different ways to achieve effects that are not the usual…
INT: The idea was to have music and images and they would create a double effect?
PG: Yeah, that was something and I wanted all these great artists to work on my music and I had a great time.
INT: I love the idea of constant adventure. OK, you asked for my wackiest idea, and one of the things that I am involved in is building, houses, buildings for various functions and it is likely that one of the things we are doing in society is that we get married and die outside of organised religion but these two pivotal points, two of the pivotal moments in our lives and these are the moments when we look for ceremony and ritual and we look particularly to architecture and music to create a resonance for these moments and we are lacking these things. And we have people saying, ’I’m getting married, where do I look for a church?’ And that seems wholly inadequate and my dream has always been to try and unite artists, musicians and architects to create these spaces where this can take place, so there you go…
PG: Well, I was going to say you are talking to an audience who does that (laughs) and I think we have also to be concerned about how we deal with terrorism and what causes it and what drives people to it and to try and generate the equivalent that gives you all those things and that can be as powerful and compelling and that is extremely difficult but maybe we can do that with great people who have a draw of their own and that is the way to start it. I have a thing about crematoria, I hate that ritual and somehow it makes me angry and somehow when that curtain closes it is theatre of the very worst kind and I don’t know why it makes me angry but that is the case but we desperately need rituals to help us over the difficult moments or sometimes over the joyful moments…
INT: What is striking is that not only did you collaborate with musicians from all over the world but with thinkers and artists and this is the way that artists used to work in the great days of religion, there was Titian collaborating with the Pope and one of the things that is missing in this world is the fracture and there isn’t much collaboration and you are such an exception because there is not much of it around…
PG: Well, I think everyone could get into that situation and one of the things that seems to be happening is that musicians seem to be just starting to play with each other around the festival sites and so we thought better get some of this down and so for a number of years we have been recording and we have a database for musicians and we have a twenty four hour café and you can bring your own studio party and I would like to find a way of getting that going again and people can learn from that and it is good therapy and Gary Oldman said about it that one of its benefits was that it had brought him companionship and I thought yeah, that is the real thing. There are a lot of lonely people and a lot of lonely musicians too and the camaraderie that happens.
INT: And the other thing that is unusual about your career is the Global Business Network…
PG: I think my grandfather on my mother’s side was an entrepreneur and at fourteen I started off… well I started trying to dye shirts at school which went very well for a couple of weeks until the cricket team went out with pale pink and green (laughs) and y my dyeing career finished then I went into hats and I used to go up to Carnaby Street and one of the highlights of my youth was coming home and seeing Jukebox Jury and there was Marianne Faithful wearing one of my hats! I remember selling one to Keith Richard too…
INT: So the entrepreneurial side was always there and you now meet with some of the top leaders of the world to discuss idea…
PG: Well, there are a lot of crooks out there and there are people who shouldn’t be doing what they are doing but there are also people who are really using their imagination and being creative and there is something about entrepreneurs that I feel quite enthralled by.
INT: We have only scratched the surface but with someone like you we can only scratch the surface but we have a bit of time so we can open it up to questions so Peter thank you so much…
AUD: Your music more, I think, than anyone else’s lends itself to sitting down and going over it with a fine tooth comb and particularly as a musician myself, and really picking out whether it be musically or lyrically. Do you actively drive for complexity in music and if so, does that come from you, your musicians how do you view it…
PG: Well some of the complexity I am trying to simplify but I do get distracted and get attracted to complicate things so I have got these two polarising thoughts going on because I can’t ignore some ideas because they are too good and I get excited and sometimes it will just be that I come up with some funny riff and that is just because I play them right it is not always by coincidence and I remember having a conversation with George Martin and he would talk about having very specific goals and knowing what he wanted and always going straight for it. My process is a lot muckier than that, and it is more like a kid throwing off the colours and finding which one sticks and where that leads. Occasionally there will be an idea. I have been lucky to work with some of the best drummers and they are brilliant and they have a shorthand which enables them to get in quick and start cooking and now in this digital age I can send stuff out and they can send it back prior to sitting down in a room and so we have already had a sort of conversation about how it works.
AUD: Your methods of awareness and responsibility have always been very strong, through your music and your concerts and any piece of work that you produce, so I was wondering if you have developed through being a musician or have you developed this philosophy of life and that is what inspires you to write music in the first place?
PG: I think it was something that I fell into and I think it is partly that we connect with feelings and I had some thoughts and Biko was one of the first so-called human rights songs that I wrote and I thought people are going to reject this because I went to Public School and I wrote about conditions in that country and nonetheless I did that and it was like a calling card and then I started working with human rights activists and there is a detachment you have when you are just reading about it or seeing it on the news and talking to someone who has been tortured makes it that much harder to walk away from it.
AUD: Back in the 1980’s you toured with Sting for Amnesty International and is there any chance that you might reconnect with one or two of your old Genesis songs such as The Carpet Crawlers?
PG: There might be, last time I went out I did think about it and I had more trouble from the band! There were a couple who weren’t very keen but we shall see. I mean, the door isn’t closed forever on that.
AUD: My question is also based around the Eighties, there seems to be quite a clear distinction from Peter Gabriel IV to So and there seems to be a lot of change happening within your life and so my question is, was there a conscious effort to change the way you looked and the way you sounded and moved away from the kind of minimalist aspect of Peter Gabriel IV and bringing yourself dare I say it, almost into Billboard kind of music ….
PG: You mean on SO? Its funny, my manager, Gail Colson said you always get more and more obscure, and its about time you stuck a photograph on the front cover of an album and we had a fair amount of debate about it and in the end I did and again people think that Sledgehammer was a consciously written pop song, which I have no objection to writing and for many years I REALLY wanted to write but they were never popular enough! (laughs) but the man who actually did the album and there was a taxi outside and I said I have just got one other idea and just sit down and see how it goes and I remember we were arguing at the time and that was Sledgehammer and so that was my weekend as a pop star.
AUD: I was wondering how you feel about teaching animals to sing and play music and how important that is?
PG: To me it was… the musical side of it would be great but it is no more important to me than any other form of communication that nature has to offer. Because I just want to learn more about what is going on in our heads and I think we would all benefit from that.
AUD: What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting out?
PG: I would say don’t give up (laughs) I do think that perseverance is… talent is overrated because all of these things are just languages and some people pick them up quicker than others but there is no language be it music, poetry, building, whatever that should exclude the others so perseverance, these people who have extraordinary willpower I think are much more likely to be successful than those who have extraordinary talent
AUD: A question for both the philosophers on stage because you have talked a bit about transhumanism and your statement that technology has the ability to exploit power, has a lot to do with your other comments that we should be trying harder to identify other species and so I wonder what you think about technology improving humans beyond their natural state?
PG: What do you mean, specifically by transhumanism?
AUD: technology having the ability to improve the human body beyond the state in which it exists…
And at this point, the evening rather fizzled out and so we leave it there. Not much musical content but certainly a lot of food for thought.