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Peter Gabriel - Behind The Mask

Peter Gabriel

Nobody has advanced the application of technology in music more than Peter Gabriel. His pioneering use of the Fairlight CMI helped popularise that instrument and give credence to sampling as a creative recording practice. Yet his music has never fallen prey to the technology trap - his latest album So remains a soulful collection of songs heavily reliant on technology but applied with subtlety. Ray Hammond talks to the great man about the album, new technology, Otis Redding, and his role as musician.

Peter Gabriel is the Scarlet Pimpernel of rock. His numerous costumes, characters, and personae, developed while singing for Genesis in the early Seventies, enthralled audiences world-wide. After leaving the band in 1975 for a solo career, Gabriel's masks have evolved from the ethereal into something more earthy and natural. He now wears the mask of the shaman, the witch doctor - a sort of pan-cultural exorcist.

In July 1982, Gabriel financed the World Of Music, Arts and Dance festival (WOMAD), designed to bring Third World music (from Africa and the Far East) to British and American ears. In that same year, he released his brilliant third solo album - a disturbing set of compositions which married his interest in folk rhythms with the intellectual veneer of the latest in synthesizer and sampling technology. It was both an artistic and commercial breakthrough, yielding the hits Games Without Frontiers and Shock The Monkey.

Four years later, Peter Gabriel is hotter than ever. In the following Q and A session, the thoughtful and articulate Gabriel reflects on his new smash LP, So, his recent stage performances for Amnesty International, cross-cultural polination, sampling, Otis Redding and other subjects as far-flung as his inquisitive mind. Text: Ray Hammond. Photographs: Chris Jones (courtesy Bristol Press).

How does it feel to back in the Top Ten?

Well I think there's always a buzz if it's a hit. I think I have primarily an album audience and that's still the same excitement for me, to see the success or failure of the album. The single is the icing on the cake and it obviously opens the door to another audience. Then what tends to happen is that if there is a single, I'm recognisable and visible and very much around for at least a couple of weeks. Then I disappear back into my normal state of anonymity. This is a regular pattern.

How do you feel now about getting a hit record compared with how you felt in the early days when Genesis had their first Top Ten entries?

I think the first time it's wonderful, your head's in the clouds. I'm a little more cynical now with regard to the charts. But this time my kids, Anna, 11 and Melanie, 9, make a brief appearance in the video and they're old enough to enjoy it. So that gives me pleasure.

When I first heard 'Sledgehammer' I thought of Wilson Pickett - you suggested the song was a tribute to Otis Redding in your biography - why did you want to do a song with that sort of feel?

Well, I began as a drummer, a pretty bad drummer, and I used to play in a soul band and we used to do a lot of this type of material. It's still very exciting for me. The best gig of my life was when I went to the Ram Jam Club in Brixton to see Otis Redding in 1967. That hasn't ever been surpassed for me, it was an amazing night. In fact, the trumpet player on the gig was Wayne Jackson, of the Memphis Horns, and he's playing on Sledgehammer. I've been thinking for five or six years now that I might do a soul or r&b album, not so much as part of the main body of my work, but as a fun project where I could work primarily as a singer - maybe a little bit as an arranger - but without the responsibility of being the writer and all the rest. That is still something I might try and do, but I wanted Sledgehammer out as the first single because it is in fact different to the rest of the So album. I think it was a surprise for people who have a fixed image of what I am and what I do.

Why did you bother to get Wayne Jackson and the brass section to play on 'Sledgehammer' rather than, for example, taking a good brass sample on your Fairlight and putting the sounds on the track yourself? What is the essence that you thought you couldn't get?

I think there's still something magical that happens when you get the interaction between live players. No amount of good programming can replace that. As I hear more and more bands based completely around drum machines and sequencers, I pine to hear more musicians playing with each other. Now, at the same time, those tools are incredible. They've revolutionised what I do. My music today is far better because of drum machines and synthesizers. That isn't because of what they can do in terms of sound and rhythm, but in terms of what I've learned as a musician from having had access to them. They've been great teachers, but there is still a warmth that is very subtle and very sophisticated, which comes when people play music together. That is a very complex thing to try to reproduce with machines. For instance, the slow slur of the brass in the second verse of Sledgehammer, plus the discrepancies in the way people play, make it special. It's the humanness of the performance that are real qualities that I like. My own attempts at working with technology have always been aimed at making it work with the human factor rather than eliminating it.

You were thinking of going to film school before you formed Genesis. Are you now glad you didn't and how much involvement do you have now in the content and production of your videos?

I'm quite pleased that I ended up doing music, but I feel that having some film skills would be a useful thing for me. I hope that I am now acquiring some of them, albeit slowly, through making videos, film soundtracks and so on. I'm learning a little more, and gaining some familiarity. As far as videos go, I work closely with the people involved. On Sledgehammer I worked with the director, Steve Johnson, and we had about two weeks of banging through ideas. Then we brought in a team of animators and they all put in their ideas. It was a little like a couple of composers sitting down and then bringing in the musicians.

Do you find the technical execution of videos fascinating or boring?

Fascinating to learn about, but there were about 100 hours of shooting time in one week, so it was pretty intense, hard work. Because the Sledgehammer video is largely animated, we were shooting frame by frame and that became incredibly tedious after a while. There's a ten second sequence of clouds moving across my face and these were literally painted across my face, so that was a very slow process.

On the subject of your small recorded output, do you feel any inner pressure to get more done? Are you driven to work or are you very laid back about the whole business?

Making music is always hard work. There's always a certain amount of stress there, and I would like to do some things faster. I did a song with Laurie Anderson which I wrote, recorded and videoed in three days and the Birdy film soundtrack took about six weeks. So I quite like working under pressure sometimes, but it produces a different type of work. Across The River, from the WOMAD album, which remains one of my favourite things that I've done, was recorded really fast.

Do you find yourself driven to work when you should be relaxing?

Yes, but then there's still this other part of me which wants to get the atmosphere just right, the detail just right, and I feel completely comfortable with that. With writers, for example, some will take seven years to do a book, others will take seven days. That is accepted as being just different ways of working - similarly with painters. In music, whether it is Blue Nile - a band I like a lot - Kate Bush, Scritti Politti and so on - they are the slow coaches, the tortoises of the business! I think they produce, as a group, a different type of music than people who work fast. So I feel quite comfortable being slow.

There are eight tracks on the 'So' album - did you have to fight to get up to eight, or were you editing down from a large number of potential songs?

"If you look at any artist, whether it's Picasso or music of any form, you will find artists have always plundered things that excite them."

We started with about 30 ideas and about 20 recorded tracks - but I'm bad at finishing things off. I suppose there were about 12 tracks within finishing distance.

Turning to your use of technology... one of the more interesting things about your work is the combination of using technology alongside music from the developing world. When did your interest in 'ethnic' music start?

Although I'd heard bits before, there was a moment when I said "I want to try working with this type of thing in my own music." That was when I heard something by chance. It was around the time that they changed the frequencies of BBC Radio 4 in Britain! I must confess I find news programmes much better listening than Radio 1, so I was disturbed when I couldn't find the station - it was around 1977. Anyway, I found this Dutch radio station and I heard a soundtrack from a Stanley Baker movie called Dingahka - I've heard it since and it doesn't impress me that much, but at the time it made a big impression on me. I thought "there's an atmosphere here that is very strong." It coincided with the arrival of my first rhythm box which was a $50 or $100 electronic kit, from a company called PAIA - they still make do-it-yourself equipment.

That preceded Linn and so on, and that was a wonderful thing because for the first time I found I could start putting in my own rhythms and the frustrated drummer in me was able to come out. I could get back to rhythm, which was where I started really. Then I started using those sounds. I think Biko was the first thing written with that technique and then Lead A Normal Life and No Self Control on the third album. Then I think there was a growing African influence with the Eno records and with Can. I think that, too, showed me another way of integrating things and I was influenced by their work. My interest hasn't faded because I find that a lot of rock rhythms don't make me want to dance any more.

Peter and his wife Jill find a harmony in his music.

Does rhythm still remain the core element for you?

Absolutely. I think that drumming is the heart of rock music, then melody, harmony and all the rest come after that. I would recommend drums as a starting point for any musician wanting to go into rock. I know so many players of other instruments with great technique who don't have great feel - but if you have great feel, which you get more from rhythm playing, then you can pick up other instruments and make them work. I think that's one of the things which has served Phil Collins so well, and I can see it with Jerry Marotta who can also make a big noise in the way that Phil can.

So many people comment on how similar you and Phil sound vocally...

Yes... fortunately I was singing before Phil so I hope I'm not being accused of ripping him off. I think part of that is chance, in that he had been singing background vocals on many of the early Genesis records and some people assumed that vocal sounds which were his were actually mine; sometimes it was a combination of our two voices. I also think it is unavoidable - if you listen to someone singing every night for five years something must rub off.

Do you get accused of plundering music from the undeveloped world for your own commercial ends?

Yes, the cultural imperialism thing - I know this argument very well. My position, and I feel it very strongly, is that if you look carefully at any art, whether it is Picasso in the Twenties ('Demoiselle D'Avignon') or music of any form, artists have always plundered things that excite them. That's what keeps music and art alive. You're just responding to the things which excite you. That's true of artists in Africa too - I left New York and London where all the musicians were trying to learn a few African licks and I got to Africa only to find that the African musicians were trying to sound like New York and London musicians! Obviously, the guitars, synthesizers and rhythm boxes have all moved across there and they've been strongly influenced by both black and white artists - it's a two-way thing. The problem comes when all the money and attention stays on one side and not on the other. So I think that those musicians and artists such as myself who take music from these places have some responsibility to try and redress that imbalance.

In my case, I started the ball rolling by promoting the WOMAD festival which is specifically designed to use rock's power to promote music from other cultures. Bill Laswell has started Celluloid Records for the same reason, and I still try and promote as much as I can some of the singers from that part of the world. For instance, Youssou N'Dour and Nusrit Fateh Ali Kahn are singers I am promoting at the moment. It is beginning to happen. I go into many record stores and I see, as well as a reggae section, there's an African music section, and in five or 10 years I hope there will be a world music section. Possibly, if enough rock musicians are stealing from these traditional folk music sources, then some of the young folk musicians in Indonesia or Australia - Aboriginal musicians who listen to rock music, disco, and reggae - will have more respect for their own traditional music and have extra incentive to keep it alive. Otherwise, they'll just wave goodbye to their father's and their grandfather's traditions and just go off and join a rock band.

Let's talk about the technology... What instruments have been most useful to you in recording 'So'?

I still use the Fairlight CMI (Series II) a lot, and the Prophet 5 is just like an old warhorse for me. I know it really well. I like the cheap organ sound you hear quite a lot in Sledgehammer and a few other places on the album - it's good for other things to. I also used a more antiquated keyboard, the Yamaha CS80. It's quite breathy - again an organic instrument.

Is there more technology used for sound production on the new album than on the last one?

In a sense, I think my work as an instrumentalist was channelled into the Birdy soundtrack. I was quite satisfied there, so what I wanted to do on the album was more solid songs - perhaps sparser, and I think it is more feel-based than sound-based. In a way there's less technology used than before. It seems that both the technology-produced rhythm and the sound are there but they're both more subtle than before.

"I particularly like samples where you can hear a little bit of humanity built into the sound - you don't just sample a single note, you sample notes with a quirk at the end, or a bit of finger noise or breath."

What's still the biggest limitation and frustration for you in using computer-based instruments?

I think that the first wave of any new technology is designed to achieve a single end, and often the flexibility and the human response factor are not put in until the second wave. For instance, all the computer-based instruments are getting more conscious of real-time expression. I've been talking for a while to some of the designers at Fairlight about the concept of the 'layered performance'. This is based on the Pianola idea. The old Pianola player with a piano roll - there was a big difference between a good player and a bad one. As the piano roll was turning he could control the expression by volume, by tempo - he had control over the recorded performance. He was putting his own performance into a recorded performance. I think we can also do that layer upon layer.

The thing that is really interesting is that if I perform on the Fairlight's Page R sequencer, where I'm pulling everything into note by note detail... if I construct a performance using a computer in a cold, analytical way, where I'm looking at it note by note under a microscope, a different feeling will emerge than if I just press the red light for record, either on a computer or a tape machine, and just have to respond instantaneously or at least perform in real time. Now, that energy is something very special and magical and is something that I want the huge leaps in computer technology to incorporate to the full. I think that the way you can do that is by this concept of the layered performance. You can record one performance which you can perhaps correct - this is equivalent to forming your own piano roll on the Pianola. In the second performance you use the keyboard, not as a music producer, but as a control centre for several parameters - perhaps volume and vibrato. On the next one perhaps you have a mixture of 12 different sounds and you could have the melody line, which you have just programmed, generated on any combination of those 12 constituent instruments. Suddenly this thing, instead of being just one sound, becomes something over which you have control. You're moving closer in in hierarchical control. But I always want to work in red light mode. You act as a conductor because a conductor is a performer, the orchestra speaks through him.

What are some of the sampled sounds that you found most useful on 'So'?

I didn't have a lot of time to do sampling - it sounds funny as the album took a year. Last time I spent four to six weeks just sampling. I'm intending next time to get someone in as a librarian just to gather sounds for me. In a way, it's like mixing the paints - you can still go after certain things. What I particularly like in samples are things where you can hear a little bit of humanity built into the sound - you don't just sample a single note, you sample a note with a quirk at the end, or a bit of finger noise or breath. You must hear people and character in a sample. So isn't really an album made with sampled sounds, but I think there were one or two samples which I used decoratively rather than as foundation sounds.

You're still primarily analogue in your studio - do you feel that's becoming a problem?

We hired in a Mitsubishi X-850 digital 32-track for half the album. We had intended to do the lot that way, but we had endless problems with tape machines and synchronisers and digital did actually bale us out of the problems. But it was interesting because for the first time I was hearing things being recorded from both analogue and digital; at some points we were recording in parallel and at some points we were copying analogue to digital. Although the high end, the breath, and the transients were all much, much better on the Mitsubishi digital, the fat end of the drums and the bass was far more attractive on the analogue Studer.

It sounds like the old argument guitarists have between valve and transistor amplifiers.

It is, except that I've never been in that camp. I've always been in the digital camp. Now I'm split down the middle...

So the inherent distortions and limitations of analogue give you something you lose in digital?

Yes, at the moment. I think when the sampling rate is improved it will get better.

In his home studio near Bath, England, Gabriel finds the perfect creative atmosphere.

Do you think it is a failing of the digital system or an inherent strength of the analogue that is the problem?

I think it's a bit of both. I'm attracted to the distortions of the analogue medium and there are still areas for improvement in the digital.

What are you like as an engineer - one, in terms of sound balancing and two, as a technician?

I think I'm pretty average in both areas in the sense that I trust my instincts: I know what I want when I hear it and I know how to get it in a lot of areas. There are still areas that I'm weak on - in the computer control of the SSL mixing desk, for example, and I'm getting a new Fairlight Series III and I'll have to do an awful lot of homework on that.

"My music today is far better because of drum machines and synthesizers. That isn't because of what they can do in terms of sound and rhythm, but in terms of what I've learned as a musician from having had access to them."

Are you programming at all - are you writing anything in programming languages yourself?

No, I'm just using one stage removed, like Page R on the Fairlight. I mean I've done some very simple programs on the home computer, but I'm not good at that.

And you're not going to pursue that approach?

I think it's lower down on my priority list. If you like, it's like driving a car without being able to do the repairs.

But you can't see any advantage for your music in getting down there, into all the bits and bytes?

I can see some advantages, but I'm a jack-of-all-trades and there are more basic skills which I wish to acquire first. For instance, I have this Fairlight CVI video synthesizer and my next project, when I get some time, will be to learn that. Then it will be to learn the Fairlight CMI Series III.

What does the video synthesizer do?

It does a lot of the video effects that you see on television, but it's also a great plaything because you can grab any image from TV, freeze it, and do things with it. I want to work with visual images more and I want to set up a video room in my studio here in Bath. In the same way that the audio equipment allows you to make much better music, I hope the video equipment will help with the visual side of things.

Pop and rock is fairly a working class art form, isn't it?

No. In truth rock is predominantly a middle class phenomenon, played by middle class musicians and written about by middle class journalists, but the large majority of these like to subscribe to the working class mythology. Obviously that's a generalisation, but the truth is that a lot more people have a background similar to mine than will admit it. So, it pissed me off when we were pilloried in Genesis for being straight about our background. I can see in one sense that if football and pop music are the only ghetto escapes for some working class people, then they don't want to see many of those places taken up by middle class lads. In truth, it really is middle class; there are a good number of people who have neatly concealed their backgrounds.

You've been made uncomfortable for admitting your middle class origins to the press, but is there ever a time when you're uncomfortable as a middle class boy in a working class art form?

I think it was uncomfortable at first because I was just getting used to people. I think the class system is so destructive in this country and it is fueled from both sides by vested interests who want to preserve it. I think that while that continues to dominate that way of life, our decline can only increase. I sometimes go to California and visit the factories there and the boss is playing table tennis with the crew men and there's no difference. In Japan, the management eat with the workers. The social barriers are bullshit.

Now that you're approaching the end of your youth, are you at all disappointed that you opted for a trivial pursuit in life, and I mean that all art must be that in real terms, or is the feedback enough to sustain you and stop you musing over what you might have done that might have been more worthwhile?

I think that at the moment I would like to see musicians getting a little more socially engaged. As a group we are primarily self-seeking and I find I can live with myself better if I spend some time and energy trying to use the advantages of my position for the benefit of other situations. However, I think there are many inherent dangers. Although I have tremendous admiration for what Bob Geldof has done, I think that sometimes rock musicians don't make the best spokespeople for causes. I would rather see some artists and musicians giving their power, their clout, to the real world professionals who have dedicated their lives to these particular problems. Because I think they would communicate better and have better access to the information.

So at 36, as a composer, a singer and arranger, you're not thinking 'what the hell am I doing in this trivial business?'

Yes... certainly the singles end of it and all that goes with that side of the music business does seem to me a lot more trivial now, but I know that I still value music as a fan. It is still something that is part of my life as a consumer. I think that music does have magical strengths, because it plugs directly into the emotions in the same way that as the great blues singer could sing a song and pour his misery out and purge his emotions, he could also do that for millions too and I know that. I can't do that... well I think I can do some of that, but it's an area which does have real positive power. Although it's primarily entertainment. I think it can have some redeeming feature such as bringing awareness to people of problems and making them think a little bit and allowing them some emotional release.

What about live performances?

On the Amnesty International tour I played it pretty straight, but next time round I want to do visual things again. I've always enjoyed projecting images.

Were you hiding behind the masks you used on stage with Genesis?

I don't think I was... when I see someone like Laurie Anderson, who I admire a lot, using the media so well, she makes me want to do it again. I always think the mask is misunderstood over here - we tend to think of it as something to hide behind. In most other cultures, the mask is seen as something which brings things out. In a masked ball, when people go in disguise, they'll still behave a little more bravely and I would argue that that isn't artificial: that's part of their personality. They're allowing something of themselves to come out and when it works in that way, it's good.

Sound On Sound would like to acknowledge Keyboards, Computers & Software magazine of America who originally commissioned the Peter Gabriel interview that we published in our January 1987 edition. Thanks are due to the publishers of KCS for granting us permission to use author Ray Hammond's article.

More with this artist

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Akai X7000 Sampling Keyboard

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Feeding the 5000

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jan 1987

Interview by Ray Hammond

Previous article in this issue:

> Akai X7000 Sampling Keyboard...

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> Feeding the 5000

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