So … Gabriel

Posted on July 18, 2017

An interview I did with Peter Gabriel. Written for Making Music, 1989.  “DRUMS, THAT’S the instrument I started playing first. I always wanted to play drums. And I still think that’s the best way for any musician to start. Because if you get drums right, you get feel. And the rest is downhill. I hear a lot of musicians trained up to the eyeballs who haven’t got the feel right — particularly when white English players are trying to get laid- back, and it doesn’t quite sit. But if you can learn that on drums, focus only on rhythm and phrasing and accent, then that’s I think the centre of any musical language.” Peter Gabriel pauses for thought.

He blinks, looking down. “I’m talking as if I’m a great player,” he says, apologetically. “I’m not,” he shrugs. “I’m a very primitive keyboard player.”

First off, our primitive keyboardist was a singer. Back at public school in the late 60s, Peter’s fledgling band was called Over The Garden Wall, which became Genesis. Peter sang and wrote songs, and helped hawk tapes around the record companies. Pop madman Jonathan King signed them to Decca, for whom they made one lacklustre LP in 1969 (“the main thing we were trying to do at that time was break the barrier between folk and rock”). After that, it all got much better. So much better, in fact, that here is Peter in his own extremely pleasant Wiltshire studio complex, twenty years later.

And I think I know now why his last album was called So. He uses the word quite a lot. This I discovered as I was guided around various parts of the studio and grounds by the owner himself. When did all this start, I ask? I continue to stare slack-jawed at the astonishing lead-covered building that houses the newest bit of his fabulous studio.

“The building work began a few months after we came here three years ago,” he says slowly and carefully, like everything he says. And, given the gaps between his records, like most things he does, I presume. “So it’s been a slow process. I think you’d call it ‘a learning experience’. Most of these things are well behind schedule and well over budget, so … .” But it’s a nice place he’s got here. It’s called Real World Studios, and Mr Gabriel’s ploughed a lot of his royalties back into this one-time mill. A series of old buildings, ranged around the new leaden structure, contain such country-studio necessities as a catering and accommodation block, admin offices, and, as it’s Peter Gabriel’s gaff, the WOMAD HQ. Where’s WOMAD, then, Pete? “On the other side of the river,” he grins, pointing to a newly-painted white hut in the distance.

We repair to his office, tucked up in the admin block. Bookshelves, cardboard boxes, tapes, paintings, a great long table cleared for work, some ethnic drums. A comfortable sort of place, really. We’d got to the bit where Chrysalis were about to sign Genesis just now; with them, Genesis made intricate, absorbing records, while on stage they grew into an over-the-top theatrical spectacle. Peter wore masks and make-up and weird costumes. Then he left, in 1974, and started practising his keyboards. In 1989, after five studio solo albums, much critical acclaim, and strong commercial success, he’s teamed up with WOMAD (World Of Music Arts and Dance) to start a label called Real World, the first batch of releases including Cuban, Pakistani and African music, and Peter’s extended soundtrack for the film The Last Temptation Of Christ. Phew. It’s a busy life, then, Pete? He grins.

He personifies for many musicians the unusual combination of musical and material success, the latter so clearly surrounding us as we sit here at Gabriel’s place, disturbed only occasionally by the express from Bath Spa hurtling just yards from his office and reminding us that we are indeed in the Real World. So … how’s it done?

“I think persistence is worth more than talent,” he says, “in terms of achieving results. Because in a sense I think people are born talented and they tend to limit themselves. Some will find it easier than others, but music and art are just languages that anyone can learn, and I think no one should be discouraged because they don’t feel good enough. If they are determined enough, I think it’s possible to make something work. Determination is at least seventy percent of getting things going. So it isn’t so much a question of denying talent, but just encouraging people to maximise what they’re capable of. And what actually determines that is their will and persistence, both in working on the writing and the instruments, and particularly in selling your goods at the end of the day. You need to be able to fight for your music.”

He tells me a story. An American songwriter called Mac Davis was obsessed with getting a song recorded by Elvis Presley, but so far with nil response. He heard Elvis was going to play in Las Vegas, so come the morning of the concert he sneaked in a back door and hid in the toilets. “He waited all day,” Peter recounts, “and eventually the Almighty came to relieve himself and sat down upon his throne. And the chamber next to him began resonating with the sales pitch from the songwriter. Elvis said well, I don’t want you to send me a tape: if you have a song, sing it to me now.”

So the premiere was delivered, with natural reverb, from one cubicle to the next. “Elvis really liked the song,” Peter says. “It was ‘In The Ghetto’, the only social comment song that Elvis ever recorded. But I think it’s a good example of how far you have to go to make it in the music business. So get to those A&R offices; hang around the gents.“

I ask if during his early days in bands he ever tried to sound like someone else. “The only time was when the publishers and Jonathan King seemed to be losing interest, and his obsession at that time was The Bee Gees, so I did a little bit of my Robin Gibb impersonations to help us get the deal. It seemed to work.” Influences around that time included “the first King Crimson album, some Fairport Convention stuff, and a lot of beat groups, The Yardbirds, Beatles, Beach Boys.” Today, if you glanced in Peter’s car, which is where he does most of his listening, you’d find a pile of African tapes brought back while video-shooting in Senegal, random cassettes from the likes of Simple Minds, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and The Waterboys, and the radio switched permanently to Radio Four.

Peter reckons that when Genesis started recording they’d only get about sixty percent of the ideas on to the record. He says that one of the bonuses of working today with great musicians, producers and engineers is that there’s a very good chance of getting every idea to work. He also welcomes the longer playing time of CDs. “For example, there was a song on So called ‘In Your Eyes’ that had to be really edited, and I think it lost quite a bit as a result. The CD length could be an excuse for indulgence and lack of writing discipline, but at the same time if it’s used well, rightly, it could be great: one hour is a better body of work.”

As his writing’s developed, his standards have become higher. He’s always pushing his writing. Lyrics he agonises over. “With the first draft I’m running on some idea and I’m excited and it seems to be going places, but then when you’ve got to hone it in, it’s hard work.” He’s renowned for having tapes running at all times during sessions — to catch that ‘magic groove’ between takes when the tape would usually run out, and because “it’s so easy to come back to a thing a day or two later and think well, it must still be there, because it was there. But if you don’t feel it, it won’t be there again. So keep it.”

When we met for this interview in early May, Peter was sorting through his pile of kept tapes, marked with an asterisk and ‘new idea’, in preparation for his next songs album. “The way I do it now, which I think is sensible, is each song, or each idea, has its own cassette, and every time you’re working on it you add to that cassette. Half the time used to be spent chasing to find that one place where you did a good version.”

Songs are powerful things, we discover, when he talks about ‘Don’t Give Up’ from So. “A lot of people like that song, say that it came at a very good time in their life. A well-known American comedian was very depressed – I was a great admirer of his – and he said to me that the song saved his life. Totally unexpected … it’s fantastic, that, a great feeling.”

Peter says that with any project he’s ever worked on that involves a lot of other people, there’s a sort of invisible line that you have to cross. This side of the line, no one really believes in it and everyone gives you funny looks and thinks you’re out on a limb. Then, suddenly, one person makes up their mind that this project is a brilliant wheeze, that it’s most certainly going to take off. “And then these animals who are only showing you their backsides suddenly shift as they sniff something interesting,” he explains, graphically. But what if you can’t see the line? “You’ve got to make the line.”

He considers for a little bit. “When I was talking about the animals just now, although I think there are some shady areas of A&R, I think there are some very talented people there, too. So I mean I’m not running them down. So I was the sort of guy who’d hang around in the reception, and that would be as far as I’d ever get. I’d try sort of winking at the receptionist, usually to no avail. And you’d see all these people that you knew you should be collaring.”

Another story. He had a friend who told him that politely sitting in receptions with his pile of Genesis demos and his big, big, big, big (but unnoticed) wink was a mistake. One lunchtime, the friend took him to A Big Big Record Company, having taken the precaution of memorising the managing director’s name. “He said to the receptionist, ‘Is Ian back from lunch?’ So the receptionist thinks ah, Friends Of MD. Straight to his office. Cup of tea, plate of biscuits. And then the MD comes back from lunch and finds this bunch of wallys in his office. Some people admired the cheek sufficiently to give us a listen. So I’d say to people doing that now, locate the people you’re aiming at, and make sure you make contact with them, person to person; they’ll eventually listen, if only to get rid of this pest.”

Don’t you get that now? “l can hate that too, when I’m on the receiving end. I try to be conscientious with tapes, but I’m about nine months behind, and unfortunately I get so many of them now that I don’t always get to it. I feel very guilty about that because I was someone who was punting out a lot of tapes.” He reckons that maybe six of the thousands of tapes he’s received have been successful in one way or another. “I’m sure it’s similar proportions with anyone else. I hope with the Real World label that there’ll be more.”

Discussions about a ‘world music’ label began a year or so ago. “It seemed like an obvious thing to put a label together so that we could make use of the studio to get great quality recordings and also any hype that I could add to it to try to get it to a bigger audience. I also think it’s important to include western music in the category of world music, because otherwise it can become a ghetto. For instance, on a general compilation I’d like to include Elvis Presley as a pioneer of world music.”

Do you intend to sign homegrown bands to the new label? “I think eventually yes, but at the moment they have to have perhaps a sort of connection to folk or world music, as it’s known, because the style of the rest of the label is to focus on music that isn’t tailor-made for the mainstream. So, quirky things that may not have a happy home in the marketplace.”

But here’s Peter Gabriel setting up a new label, so why isn’t he making it easier for bands at home? “I think there are a lot of people and labels who are trying to sort of focus on homegrown talent. The other thing is that we tend to go project by project, so if someone has an interesting idea for an unusual project, then I think it’s something we’d look at — but not really trying to compete with the mainstream record companies. I feel nervous being on the record label side of it, too, because artists always end up having arguments with their labels at some point or another, or feel they’re being ripped off by their labels. Which, I should point out, I don’t with my labels at present.”

We go down to have a look at the new studio — you remember, the one with the lead covering the outside walls. As we walk between the buildings, Pete ruminates. “It’s always seemed to me that studios are getting more focussed around the needs of the engineer and the producer, partially at the expense of the artist. While they have probably the most critical job in terms of the recording process, if you haven’t got a great performance there to start off with, you haven’t got the goods. And I think there’s been a tendency with some of the technology for people’s attention to get focussed on the possibilities of the technology rather than the possibilities of the writing and the performance.”

True. He says how these days at least half the project, and usually considerably more, takes place in the control room, which in most studios has not been designed for people to play in and sing in. We walk into the very, very large studio room — it appears to be round, with huge windows on one side looking out over a small boating lake. On the opposite side is a raised stage-like area. There are sound diffusers along this wall and hanging from the ceiling. In the midst of the bright and airy room is the SSL desk and racks. The whole place has a wonderfully open and relaxed feel.

“Traditionally, a studio’s the perfect environment for paranoia,” Pete says, sitting down at the desk. He mentions as an example how you could do a vocal, and everyone in an old-style control room might burst into laughter at something out of your vision, while you naturally concluded that they were laughing at your vocal. “We have a sort of slogan for the studio, ‘high tech and hand made’, and that suits my philosophy.”

We pursue this philosophy. He tells me about a technique he’s trying to create that harmonises technology and spontaneity, so often perceived by musicians to be in opposition in the average studio.

“In theory you function differently when you’re analysing things at the computer, say, or going into detail on a track, than when you’re playing along and the red light’s on, the adrenalin’s pumping, and it’s a live performance. I call them energy A, analytical, and energy Z, which would be zen, or performance, improvised, spontaneous. Two different ways of interacting with the machine.”

So he proposes to systematically layer these energies. Layer one would start with energy Z — red light on, define the melody, spontaneous stuff. Then you pull it apart and prune it down to something useable — that’s A, analysing it. So level one’s defined.

“Level two would be with a sound palette — we’re going to try and build the largest library of sounds here, obviously very useful provided we have fast access to it. Level two would be defining those sounds. So, put the red light on, energy’s up, and you do a live pass in defining the sound, maybe with a joystick and different tones at each corner.

“Level three would be saving the performance, so you put in vibratos and so on, and again we’re trying to set this up so you’ve got a controller of some sort. It’s very good to create moments when you have to rely on that excitement, that immediacy of a spontaneous response. I think the studio should be capable of trapping magic whenever and wherever it appears.”

I venture the opinion that this last sounds like a rehearsed line. ‘No, no, that’s a new definition. I was thinking how Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have this ‘transparent studio’ approach, and Dan definitely got me aware of the importance of having those moments. In the mix, too: if it’s sounding good, you should find a couple of tracks to fly it to, so that then when you come back two weeks later you’ve actually got it on tape. So many people have been in that situation so often where you waste days trying to recreate something that seemed really easy to get at the time. So print it, and always have it available.”

I look around this amazing room. When you’re putting together a place like this, how do you start? “Think big! We went through a few different alternatives for the outside. At one point we had something like Sydney Opera House, ‘semi-tensile structures’ they call them. But that worked out too expensive, so we worked this tiered lead effect eventually. Yes, it is lead on the outside. So just a few other sheets and we’re all set for nuclear attack. I like it. It has grunt.”

At this point Chris the photographer is taking some pictures of our subject by the desk. Pete jumps up now to help Chris stick some tape around some lens or the other. I suggest he might like to become Chris’s assistant. “I went to a careers guidance thing once,” he recalls, “they do all these aptitude tests, and they said there were only two things I was fit for. One was photography, and the other was landscape gardening. I think I would enjoy both, actually. Perhaps that’s what I do with the music.”