From an artistic perspective, Peter Gabriel has never stayed in one place very long. A relentless innovator and inquisitive musical explorer, Gabriel has constantly pushed forward whether experimenting with technology or scouring the most remote corners of the globe for inspiration.
Gabriel made a bold first impression as the eccentric leader and highly theatrical lead singer of the British progressive rock band Genesis in the early Seventies. However, when Genesis reached new creative heights in 1974 with their ambitious concept album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel left the band to pursue his own creative muse. Between 1977 and 1982 he released four highly individualistic solo albums that blended electronics, ambient atmospheres and African and Latin rhythms in a truly unique and innovative manner that still inspires musicians today. These albums delivered a consistent string of hits like "Solsbury Hill," "Games Without Frontiers," and "Shock the Monkey."
Gabriel's 1986 album So was a massive commercial success that produced six hit singles, including "Big Time," "Sledgehammer," and "In Your Eyes." With So Gabriel managed to find that rare, elusive balance between accessibility and innovation, enjoying status as both a pop star and critically acclaimed savant. But instead of rushing out another collection of hits as his next move, Gabriel went in almost the opposite direction, writing and recording Passion, his masterful score to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ that introduced his fans to the genius of artists like Youssou N'Dour, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Baaba Maal, and L. Shankar. The album was the first product to emerge from Gabriel's Real World Studios, a revolutionary state-of-the-art facility located near Bath, England, that he built to work at his own pace and bring together musicians from all over the globe to collaborate. Shortly after the release of Passion, Gabriel founded Real World Records to give world music artists greater exposure—a pursuit that began when he founded the WOMAD musical festival in 1980.
By 1992 when Gabriel released Us, the true follow-up to So, his music and focus became increasingly inward looking. It took Gabriel 10 years to follow that album up with Up, a dark, psychologically challenging effort that digs deeply into subject matter like birth, death, and grief. Gabriel's latest projects—Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours—manage to look inwards and outwards at the same time. The first album features Gabriel's orchestral interpretations of songs by a variety of artists like David Bowie, Paul Simon, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Bon Iver. In return, the artists covered by Gabriel will be recording their own interpretations of Peter Gabriel's work on I'll Scratch Yours.
Peter recently took a break from his New Blood tour where he's performing with a full orchestra (and no guitars or drums) to stop by Guitar Center for a truly momentous Sessions event, which provided attendees a rare one-on-one opportunity to delve into the motivations and revelations of a true modern musical mastermind.
Guitar Center: Scratch My Back, is a collection of covers. Is that the focus of these concerts or have you also arranged your own songs for orchestra?
Peter Gabriel: The covers were going to be the focus, and then we realized that only gave us an hour of material. I thought we should try other stuff that people know. We've been having a lot of fun with that. Over the last couple of days (arranger/engineer) John (Metcalfe) and I worked on an arrangement for "Red Rain," which has just been included. "Rhythm of the Heat" ends with this big African drum thing, and I asked John if we could try transcribing the drum parts for orchestral instruments. I'm very excited by that and want to do more of that. The first half of the show is the new album performed without interruption from start to finish. We take a short break and then we do some of my stuff. Ane Brun, a wonderful Norwegian singer who is doing background vocals, does a little bit as well.
GC: How did you choose the songs for Scratch My Back?
PG: We went through an awful lot of them. It was partly things that I loved or cared about, but I also tried to mix it up a little bit. Melanie, my younger daughter, introduced me to Bon Iver. Dicky (Richard Chappell), my engineer, pushed a few things like Arcade Fire. I was aware of the band, but I hadn't really listened properly to them before and fell in love with their music. I felt like some of the songs were things that I could live inside and do my own thing with.
The other challenge was getting the I'll Scratch Yours parts, so it had to be living artists that were willing to play or at least entertain the concept of swapping tracks. It was "You do one of my songs, and I'll do one of yours." The only exception to that was Bowie, who was very clear that he didn't want to play. Fortunately Brian Eno is the co-writer of "Heroes" and I know Brian very well. Brian said he would do a cover version of one of my songs, so that way I managed to get around my own stupid rules.
GC: Did you get feedback from each artist that you covered?
PG: I didn't hear from everyone. I never heard from Tom Yorke, but rumor is that he really didn't like it. [laughter] Bowie didn't give much of an indication, either, but Brian was very positive. Everyone else was very positive. You can't win them all. That's part of what adds interest to this project. You don't know if people are going to like the way you do their stuff, and you sit there with excitement and anticipation when the email comes and someone else has done another version of your track.
GC: What were the challenges in interpreting those songs? And what was the most challenging song to arrange for orchestra?
PG: John did the lion's share of the arrangements. His genius shaped them. Sometimes I would throw in a lot of notes or rhythms or ideas and encourage him. The Arcade Fire track—"My Body is a Cage"—was smaller and polite, and we pushed it out because the idea was to go the whole way wherever possible. "Listening Wind" probably went through the most incarnations. "Mirrorball" was the toughest one for me to sing. But it was an evolving process. Some songs fell out fairly effortlessly and others had to be worked hard.
GC: The original version of Paul Simon's "Boy in the Bubble" is very uplifting, but you strip it down so it becomes sparse and heavy, which exposes the lyrics in a very different way.
PG: We squeezed all the joy and African music right out of it to reveal another miserable white person's lyric. [laughter] I think it has some of the most extraordinary lyrics written in the last 20 years. A lot of people said they hadn't really taken in how good that lyric was until they heard it stripped back. It's wonderful the way he moves around constellations to various details and medical discoveries. There's even this sort of terrorism element. Love, sex, terrorism and death seem to be recurrent themes with that, although it certainly wasn't planned that way.
GC: How did it feel to concentrate on the work of other artists instead of your own music?
PG: I've learned a lot from doing other people's songs. A lot of musicians start by playing covers because that's the only way they'll get paid. At this point in my life I'm exploring it because I'm interested as a songwriter. It allows me to move beyond my own boundaries and that I find interesting. I have a real passion for songwriting. When I wasn't trying to be a drummer as a young man I was trying to learn about songs. I still have that passion. I want to put a songwriting festival together where you might have the Sherman Brothers singing Mary Poppins or their classic Disney Jungle Book songs alongside Nine Inch Nails. It would all come together as songwriting to expose young musicians to a craft that is common to all musical genres and encourage them to delve into it.
GC: What inspired you to open Real World Studios?
PG: I was never able to make records quickly. Having paid enough recording costs to purchase several studios, it suddenly occurred to me that I should get some setup that allowed me to spend whatever time I wanted recording. We built Real World the way that I'd always wanted a recording studio to be. Most studios at that time were cellars with disco lights. That wasn't an environment I found very easy or comfortable to work in.
We built what I think may still be the world's largest control room so we could put a lot of musicians in the control room together rather than in the live room or a recording booth. From the word go the musicians were part of the process, although that can make life difficult for the engineer sometimes. But there's a general sense that it's a good space. We have good acousticians who control the environment. It has lots of windows that fill the studio with natural daylight. The studio is on the edge of a river, so we pointed the control room out at the water so we're looking at swans or an occasional otter rather than an irate drummer. We were getting musicians in from all over the world, so we tried to make them feel comfortable and even get the food right. Although it's in the countryside it's located by the main London to Bristol railway line. Trains often shoot through at high volume, so it cost a lot more than I anticipated to soundproof the studio.
GC: The studio's unconventional setup allows musicians to interact easily. Since you often host so many musicians from different countries who may not speak the same languages, it seems to encourage them to communicate through music.
PG: We've had these wonderful recording weeks where we would hijack a lot of the musicians from the WOMAD festival and bring in songwriters, poets, and producers. It was like a big dating agency for creative people from around the world. We kept a café going 24 hours and encouraged people to explore interesting ideas or noises and get together. It was effectively a bring-your-own studio party. Unfortunately we never found a way to make it pay for itself, so that concept died recently.
GC: Some of your songs are densely layered. Do you have all of those pieces in mind before you record or do they reveal themselves as the process unfolds? Do you prefer to record tracks live with a group of musicians or individually on a track-by-track basis?
PG: I think there are two forms of creative energy. One is "energy A," which is an analytical energy where you layer things up track by track, then zoom in and work on little details. The other is "energy Zed," which is a Zen-like performance energy that is spontaneous and improvised and produces a different animal. Both are useful and important. The smart process involves harvesting performances then analyzing them and layering them up. Initially you might just look at rhythm, then maybe you look at melody, then harmony, then timbre. Each time you put down a layer of performance you slow it down and analyze it. Musicians need to be aware of how they work. Sometimes you just need to flip it and do it the other way and see what happens. Working backwards is an exploratory process. I love diversions and I keep on following them, which makes the process a lot longer.