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25 décembre 2008

The Creator: Inside the Collaborative World and Visionary Mind of Peter Gabriel

by Nevin Martell, Filter Mag; Photos by Arnold Newman & Stephen Lovell-Davis | 12.29.2008

To be a musician; that’s one thing. To be a visionary—well, that’s quite another.

Peter Gabriel is a quintessential visionary because his notable works transcend his numerous contributions to music. Since the late ’60s, he has continually reinvented himself by embracing sonic evolution through worldwide collaboration, the art of the music video, the power of social action and the creative expansion afforded by emerging technologies. He’s one of the few people on the planet who can get Bono, Steve Jobs and Nelson Mandela on the phone, and unlike other celebrity musicians who merely lend their image to a new project, Gabriel is an active brainstormer, overseer and executor of his myriad endeavors.

The 58-year-old Englishman enjoys experimentation, creation and innovation in large doses, thriving on them the same way Hunter S. Thompson flourished on a steady diet of illicit substances. Combining the mesmerizing showmanship of Houdini, the unbounded imagination of Walt Disney, and Asimov’s futurism, Gabriel is incessantly trying to make things happen—all sorts of things, with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places. And he was doing it years before Al Gore invented the Internet, before cellular technology was a fact of life, and before someone dubbed the phrase “multi-tasking.” In many ways, he’s the benevolent grandfather of this new digital age, but he’s not embracing Floridian retirement and trips on a charter boat; he’s got bigger fish to fry.

No matter where you look, Gabriel is leaving his stamp on the culture of today and tomorrow. You might hear his song with Tom Newman, “Down to Earth,” playing over the credits to Pixar’s WALL-E or read about him in the latest issue of Wired or even in a BoingBoing blog post. Considering the scope and depth of Gabriel’s works, it’s no wonder that he’s notorious for taking long stretches to finish albums (there was a 10-year gap between Us and its 2002 follow-up, Up).

His latest musical venture isn’t his new solo album (six years and counting); rather, it’s the Big Blue Ball project—a collection of songs culled from three week-long jam sessions he curated at his Real World Studios in the early ’90s. Featuring artists as varied as The Egyptian String Ensemble, flamenco guitarist Juan Canizares, Joseph Arthur, Sinéad O’Connor, Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, the album is held together by Gabriel’s presiding vision of bringing creative people together.

Over the years, Gabriel has collaborated with a diverse array of artists—including Robert Fripp, Cat Stevens, Youssou N’Dour and Lou Reed—while his Real World Records label has introduced artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Blind Boys of Alabama and the Afro Celt Sound System to wider Western audiences. He also found time to write Passion—the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ—and contributed to movies like Natural Born Killers and Philadelphia. Of course, his most known contribution to film appears in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 high school-romance classic, Say Anything, in which John Cusack plays Gabriel’s swooning ballad, “In Your Eyes,” on a boombox hoisted over his head to woo back his girl.

Ever since Gabriel left Genesis in the mid ’70s and embarked on an incredibly rich solo career, he has been a master crafter of the unexpected pop song. From the lilting “Solsbury Hill” and the chant-worthy protest song “Biko” to the quirkily catchy “Shock the Monkey” and the sexual soul stylings of “Sledgehammer,” Gabriel has defied strict categorization, though many of his songs have found their way into the Top 40. He is a man who feels unfettered by traditional boundaries and continually surprises listeners by defying convention and expectation.

In a world where brand is king and artists of all ilks are expected to find a pigeonhole—then rape it for all its worth—Gabriel has done a superlative job of staying outside this artistically debilitating system. His only promise to his fans is that he’ll surprise them if they have patience and don’t mind a multitude of detours along the way. Whether he ultimately delivers a CGI video so trippy it makes Björk’s clips look blasé (“Kiss the Frog”) or a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the talk TV circuit (“The Barry Williams Show”), Gabriel is one artist who would rather fail at something new than repeat himself for the sake of success.

Today, we find Peter Gabriel in constant motion acting as the artist in residence at his second home, Real World Studios, which is tucked away in the countryside of southwestern England. Though he has just put the finishing touches on his contribution to the WALL-E soundtrack and is at the end of a long day’s work in the studio, he is warm and generous, even apologizing for being a mere three minutes late. Over the course of our conversation, Gabriel opens up wholeheartedly to discuss his multitude of projects and how they help make him a better artist and shape his vision of a truly collaborative world.

What is your philosophical approach to making music now? Has it changed since you first started out?

It began fairly primitively, though I still consider myself a pretty primitive artist in lots of ways. For my latest project, Big Blue Ball, the recording was a huge collaboration. The World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival started in 1980 and it always brought together all these wonderful musicians from around the world, many of whom couldn’t communicate in any other way except through music. But, they’d always be jamming with each other at any given opportunity. None of that ever got recorded and it was such a magical feeling that initially we just thought, “Let’s grab some of these musicians and bring them down to the studio.” And then we began to think, “OK, jams are wonderful for those involved, but not always for those listening. So, let’s try and steer this towards writing songs that will stand up through repeated listening. Let’s start taking advantage of these unique musical mixes.” So we brought some songwriters and poets in and had some of the most exciting musical weeks of my life. They were exhausting even though we had a 24-hour café going. The enthusiasm that everyone had…there was a real generosity of spirit.

What was your role?

I was the instigator. [Former Waterboys/World Party musician/songwriter] Karl Wallinger and I were producing stuff upstairs in one room; that’s always what we were steering. And I appear as an artist or writer on a few of the tracks. Some people think this is my latest record, and I’m at pains to point out that this is very much a group record of which I was only a participant.

Of all the people you invited to Real World for those weeks of recording, who surprised you the most?

I loved working with some of the Egyptian string players. Hossam Ramzy, a percussionist I worked with on the Passion soundtrack, originally brought these guys over to work with Plant and Page, but then we roped them in. They would listen to a track and the lead violinist would play along to the melody and the other three guys would lean over, with their ears almost touching his instrument, copying whatever he played just a little bit behind. So it was a really organic, flowing, serpent-like string part that you hear on the track “Habibe,” which was a beautiful thing.

You’ve earned a reputation for taking a long time to make records. What was it like only having one week to collaborate, compose and record?

I actually like working fast, as opposed to the normal snail’s pace. It’s a different type of energy. It was like the old days in the Brill Building when there’d be a ton of songwriters who had to turn something in before they went home, and that’s good. It’s not good for everything—and it’s certainly not the best way to get what I do out there—but it’s another facet. You look at some painters who can deliver something in 10 seconds that’s extraordinary, and for someone else, it might take 10 years. One is not necessarily better than the other; it’s just different.

In terms of your artistic process, how much improvising and on-the-spot work do you do? Or, are you still a very calculated songwriter?

I’ve always been so 50/50. In other words, the performance is where the magic often happens, and you get spontaneous reactions to things and you try to catch them fresh. I will then chisel away like a sculptor, hoping something has been caught with life trapped inside it.

What song of yours required the least chipping away?

“Solsbury Hill” was pretty quick, but getting it recorded always takes longer than writing the lyrics.

Would you explain the title, Big Blue Ball?

One of the astronauts—and I can’t remember which one—said that once they’d been up in space and looked back at the place they’d come from, they had seen it just as a “big blue ball.” So it was impossible to think and feel about the world in the same way again. It’s such a queerly defined object, so a lot of the barriers and divisions that we make on its surface seem a bit ridiculous.

It seems that this record desires to obliterate those barriers and facilitate thinking about the world as one “big blue ball.”

From the beginning, that was one of my hopes. In fact, one of the fears I have with the climate change is that by restricting travel, we inadvertently feed intolerance and racism.

If there was one song to play at your funeral that reflects this ideal of bringing people together, which would it be?

It was pretty emotional when we were doing the Human Rights tour for Amnesty International in 1986 and we would get people singing “Biko” all around the world, so that would definitely be a candidate.

Do you feel that it would be easier to write a political song like “Biko” now than it was in the ’80s? Then, it was a powerful statement magnified even more because it was on a major record label. Now, you could conceivably write a protest song, record it and upload it to the web all in one day. Is it easier now to be outspoken on issues that were formerly off limits?

I think it’s easier, for sure. “Biko” was a protest song and one of the benefit projects I’ve been working on is, which is for global elders in a global village. One of the many proposals for the site was that you encourage people to spontaneously respond to the world’s events. So, you could get painters, cartoonists, musicians, poets or whomever generating responses. If you see the violence in Tibet or the earthquakes in China, this website would be an encouraging platform to get people to respond quickly, and not just with money.

In many ways, you’ve always been a collaborator, whether in music, emerging technologies or visual mediums. Do you see this new record as the apex of the way you collaborate?

It’s an opportunity to explore collaborations. One of my hopes with the digital revolution is that historically, every technology that has come along has changed the very nature of the content of the music. In other words, when the single record was invented after the player piano roll, because of how many grooves you could fit on the vinyl, the format determined the length of a composition. And now we’re in this digital world. You could have a piece of music that’s three days long or three seconds long. The other revolutionary aspect is the economics of the business.

In the old days, a record company would sit there and listen and say, “If we can’t sell 100,000 of these things, we’re not going to go and produce it. And we’re not going to pay for the studio.” Now we know that stuff can be done on a laptop and it can be made available in every country in the world, virtually for free. We had a great example of this happen at the Real World Studios when The Incredible String Band wrote to their fans on their website and sold admission to their recordings. They sold tickets for about $100 to 120 fans who came to the studio, and that gave them the budget to purchase the studio time. So they created a mini-economy based on 120 people, rather than the 100,000 required in the old model.

Would you ever consider allowing fans into your recording studio—perhaps for more than $100 a pop—in order to fund your own work?

That’s quite an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought about it as a means of funding for my work or stuff like Big Blue Ball, but absolutely. There are space constraints at Real World, but I’m sure we could figure something out.

Over the years, you’ve embraced a lot of technology—from your groundbreaking music videos and live concert CDs delivered to fans right after the show to the CD-ROM Explora to your numerous online efforts. Which one do you feel has influenced your artistry the most?

As far as music making, I’d have to say the Internet and the PC, because everything else has been delivered down those channels. They are fantastic tools. We now have all these different musical colors available, all these different ways of manipulating them and access to musicians around the world. I recently did this song, “Down to Earth,” for the Pixar movie WALL-E. I wrote the song with Tom Newman, then we sent out the tape to South Africa for the Soweto Gospel Choir to record its part, and then they sent it on to the bassist, who couldn’t be at Real World Studios. There’s no substitute for having all the musicians together in a room, but to have near-instantaneous access to all the world’s sounds, grooves, musicians and audience—that’s huge.

When is the next Peter Gabriel record coming out?

I don’t know. I hope before the second coming or the first coming, depending on which religion you subscribe to. But “soon” is a word I’ve often used. They generally say deadlines are something you pass on the way to completing a project. There are about 50 track ideas that I’ve started in one form or another, so there’s lots of stuff there, but I just need to finish it.

Two weeks ago, I went to a wedding and the priest turns to the bride and quotes scripture, but in the same breath, he turns to the groom and starts quoting “In Your Eyes.” No one realized it at first, but my fiancée and I started giggling wildly, because it had been such a profound ceremony...

[Laughs] Are you trying to say I’m not profound? You know, it’s funny—you start your musical life playing at weddings and that’s exactly where you end up.

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