Peter Gabriel will always be many things to many people. For some he will forever be the frontman for Genesis, the band he departed in 1975 as Phil Collins took over his role. But Gabriel is most likely to be remembered for his solo career, where he has been a huge hit-maker thanks to songs like “Sledgehammer,” “Bigtime,” “Don’t Give Up,” “Red Rain” and many others. An innovator throughout his life, his songs were also among the most compelling music videos of all-time and his live shows were nothing short of staggering.
Prior to the album’s release, he spoke from his home in London about the new album, his friend Kate Bush, 3D films, his decision to skip the Genesis reunion and his wild experiences while body surfing during his concerts.
Why did you decide to do “New Blood?”
“New Blood” fell out of the “Scratch my Back” project which dealt with the orchestra, then taking it out on the road. I realized we needed another hour’s worth of material at least. So we started to look at what we could do with my material. I got very excited by what was coming out, took a look at material and thought, o.k., we’ve got to record this.
How did you come up with the songs for it?
I didn’t want it to be just a succession of hits done with orchestra, so I specifically left out things like “Games without Frontiers,” “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” and went more for this moody, atmospheric kind of compositions, “Signal to Noise,” “Intruder,” “Rhythm of the Heat,” those sort of things.
Did some of these songs bring new meaning to you with these arrangements? Can you give me a few examples?
What I found was that they did seem to get re-born. Even though there were 10 times as many musicians on stage with me, it felt more naked and more exposed. The melodies and lyrics particularly had their different space to speak in a way maybe they hadn’t in a band arrangement. That was the principle difference. I felt there was ironically more room to focus on the lyric and melody.
Were there songs that you tried within this musical framework that just would not work?
Yeah, the rhythmic stuff is harder to get right with orchestra, particularly if you’re changing some of the players. So “Digging in the Dirt” for example was a track that we couldn’t get to sit in the groove. It was dying. That was a song that we were considering dropping and then we worked hard with our particular players and some of the wind section and then they seemed to find the pocket and it began to work. That was definitely a wobbler.
How did you find out about Norwegian singer Ane Brun who sings what was the Kate Bush segment in “Don’t Give Up?”
In one of the (Nelson) Mandela benefit concerts, there was one event in Tromso which is right up north of Norway where they can have 24 hours of daylight or 24 hours of darkness. And one of the singers there was Ane. I remember hearing someone and being very impressed…We eventually found her and rang her up to see if she’d be interested and fortunately she was because she’s a great singer. The other voice was my daughter (Melanie Gabriel) who I’d sung with before, I thought she did a beautiful job on “Downside Up.”
How old is your daughter?
She’s 35 and she’s just about to make me a granddad.
That song “Don’t Give Up,” seems so pertinent now given the unemployment issues affecting people across the globe.
It was strange in a way because it had been partly influenced by pictures of the Great Depression and unemployment then. I think now when we perform it, it seems more relevant now than when I first performed it in the ‘80s. Probably of all the songs that I’ve written, that’s been covered by a lot of people now. It’s not very easy for any singer to try and take on, Kate Bush, Sinead (O’Connor), Alicia Keys, there’s quite a few voices to follow.
Speaking of Kate, she’s been such a recluse; did you ever try and talk her into the advantages of touring?
I think I did for awhile but she made a decision to have a life and I have a lot of respect for that too. Now, with these records that have come out, there are some rumors that she may go back to doing something live, which I think would make a lot of fans very happy. But she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom for awhile and I completely understand that.
How long did “New Blood” take you to assemble? How do you feel it ranks among your most ambitious works?
I think it ranks right up there in that it’s bold. We have some wonderful players and extraordinary arranger and I think the result is uncompromising…It’s obviously not the first version of songs but for me a song is a living thing, it should be allowed to live, evolve and breathe rather than have just have one moment trapped in time and try to reproduce that moment.
Did you ever have any regrets about not doing the Genesis reunion?
I didn’t. I think they had a good time. There were some big checks being waved. But it grew into a bigger thing than I was ready to take on at the time. I had these other opportunities that I thought were certainly more interesting. I got on with those people and could have enjoyed it for a little bit but it’s not somewhere I wanted to live again.
There are multiple formats of a film of the “New Blood” tour also hitting the market, including one in 3D. What was it like for you bring the music into the 3D configuration?
It’s more complicated filming in 3D. You need more light levels, camera rigs, practical things. But we were born with two eyes and to me it seems completely logical that you’d want to see as if we have two eyes rather than one. We’ve gotten used to that with audio. Mono doesn’t sound as interesting and as rich an environment as stereo or 5.1 (audio format). I think the same will be true of 3D, it won’t be seen any longer as a gimmicky medium but as the default medium. In the same way that black and white photography still has an important role but it’s no longer the default position, that’s color. I think 3D will become the default and 2D will become like black and white, a nice area to do certain things in.
From all accounts I can see, you invented crowd surfing in the early 1980s when you fell backwards into your concert audiences and let them carry you, sometimes to the farthest stretches of the arena. Did that ever make you nervous? What was the weirdest thing that ever happened to you during those trips through the crowd?
I did get nervous occasionally in the crowd surf but the whole purpose of it was to trust the audience. But apparently one time there were a couple of people with knives open trying to move in my direction. And there was a night in Chicago when every single item of clothing was removed from me and I could barely hold on to my underwear. I had to return to the stage holding what was left of my dignity. I think whenever I was groped I would keep my eyes shut and I’d just hope it was a woman.
“Intruder” is just terrifying, even more so with this arrangement, what inspired that song?
Alfred Hitchcock was a reference here and (film composer) Bernard Herrmann with the arrangements and there was probably some inspiration from that sort of world. And I think I was trying to get something that was dark and menacing. This intruder idea came into my head and it’s still something I enjoy performing.
You redid your debut single “Solsbury Hill” here quiet beautifully, but you prefaced it with “A Quiet Moment” about 5 minutes of ambient sound that was recorded on Solsbury Hill (located in England near Somerset). Why did you do that?
Originally I wanted to separate the album, which I thought worked from start to finish as a journey, from the bonus track which was “Solsbury.” I thought, how do we do that? It occurred to me that rather than have just some silence for awhile we could have some sort of sound. I asked Dickie Chappell who was my engineer if he could just record what was happening up there. I think when I used to go up there, sit and think about the world, that is where it happened. It’s really there as a bridge, from the main body of the album to “Solsbury” which I think is a lighter piece.
What do you do for fun?
For fun? I play with my kids. So it can be anything from when we’re at the sea, where we have been this summer anything with water. Kayaks. This weekend we were out picking blackberries and elderberries and making juice and crumbles. I love to play tennis, table tennis, we don’t see as many friends as I’d like, we tend to do more of that in the summertime, but that also can be a lot of fun. And comedy I love. And films, I like to watch people who make me laugh. As a matter of fact yesterday I saw “Tree of Life” which I thought was one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time.
© Mass Live, by Kevin O'Hare