INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph SEPTEMBER 12, 2013 - by Bernadette McNulty
Peter Gabriel talks to Bernadette McNulty about Twitter, being a grandfather, Syria and his new star-studded CD.
My interview with Peter Gabriel takes place in the large, shiny headquarters of his record company. The light-filled office is full of workers, and supersized pictures of recent success stories - including Coldplay and Tinie Tempah - hang on the walls. After another round of mergers in the music industry, the atmosphere here seems to be one of relief and even optimism at having made it through the storm of the last few years.
Although Gabriel's photograph may not be hanging there in reception, and it is decades since his Sledgehammer heyday, you sense the industry might quietly have a lot to thank the former Genesis singer for. It was him after all who, while most record companies were burying their head in the sand about digital music and downloading, invested in services that allowed people to buy music online easily and later on to listen to records via streaming.
In 2003 he warned that "the music industry is the canary down the coal mine and, unless we do something about it, will be the first to be extinguished by the gases of file sharing." Is he surprised it's still here then, I ask him? He laughs: "I'm pleasantly surprised to find there is more than a receptionist, a computer and a boss, because that is what I was expecting the record industry to end up as."
Not that Gabriel is really in the business of pessimism. Whether it was turning prog rock upside down in the '70s with his experimentalism and odd costumes, inventing the widescreen synth pop palette of the mid-'80s, creating MTV's most played video with his early Aardman Studio's directed video for Sledgehammer, championing world music through his Womad festival and record label, or pioneering new technological platforms for music and human rights groups, Gabriel has always been a man almost prophetic in the paths he has chosen to follow.
While many observers seem to scoff with delight when Gabriel shaved off his once foppishly full head of hair as he hit middle age, even that decision future-proofed his looks so that he appears barely different now from how he looked over a decade ago. Now sixty-three, he is all soft edges. Dressed in a Nehru-collar shirt and waistcoat, he looks like any of the thousands of happy festival-goers at Womad, sparkly-eyed from lots of yoga and organic food, happily free from anxieties about fashion or relevance.
He is just back from a gap year with his two young sons from his second marriage. Of course, this being Gabriel, this did not involve backpacking in Thailand but jaunts to the Galapagos Islands and Botswana, so that his wildlife-obsessed eleven-year-old could get to see the real thing. It takes only seconds before his inventive brain is ruminating on how grown-up family gap years are a new movement and before you know it he is predicting that the whole education system is going to be turned on its head within twenty years as technology takes over the classroom and kids will learn at their own speed on computers.
Yet for a man so in love with the future, he has spent an awful lot of the last three years excavating his musical past. First he released an album of contemporary cover versions called Scratch My Back, swiftly followed by an orchestral album where he revisited some of his own lesser-known songs, and last year put out a remastered "bells and whistles" deluxe version of his '80s magnum opus So.
At the end of this month he is following up the first of these albums with a CD called And I'll Scratch Yours, on which the acts he covered perform their interpretation of Gabriel's songs. Originally they were meant to released, rather whimsically, on a full moon concurrent with his versions, but corralling the bands to deliver on time proved more challenging - an ironic experience for an artist who notoriously labours over his albums for years and even finished his So remaster two years after its twenty-fifth anniversary.
"I'm hardly one to complain about not delivering on time," he concedes. "It was karma. I felt guilty about hassling people in the end and we lost a couple along the way."
The few who didn't complete their homework on time include David Bowie, for whom Brian Eno stood in, Neil Young and Radiohead. Gabriel is too diplomatic to complain, though, conceding that he might not have scratched Young's back enough after he didn't perform at a charity event the Canadian was organising. "Maybe he still had a tickle down his bottom," he chuckles.
Gabriel is still proud of the number he did persuade and rightly so. With old-timers Lou Reed, David Byrne and Randy Newman rubbing shoulders with hip new acts like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, the line-up is a testament to the respect and influence Gabriel wields across the generations. The interpretations range from the reverential (Elbow doing Mercy Street) to the downright bonkers (Reed's demented take on Solsbury Hill). "I'm really pleased with the final results. I love the way people have fiddled around with the words and melodies," he says. "I'm not proprietorial about my songs. I have taken plenty of inspiration from other people throughout my life so [the songs] should just be the food that encourages other people to do their own thing."
If anything, the sheer variety of styles reveals new depths to Gabriel's own songwriting. Arcade Fire's take on Games Without Frontiers makes it sound like a Clash song, reminding you that Gabriel was one of the few prog rockers who withstood the ire of the punk movement.
Perhaps the hardest challenge was presented to Feist and Timber Timbre who took on Don't Give Up, Gabriel's duet with Kate Bush. To avoid direct comparison, Gabriel suggested they switch gender on the words, and Feist's delicate, folk-tinged delivery has hints of Dolly Parton, the singer Gabriel first had in mind when he wrote the song, influenced by the Great Depression.
Bush, he says, hasn't heard the new version. "I should send it to Kate because that song is very much hers as well. I was very lucky that she did it. It has some extraordinary stories attached to it, people who say it stopped them committing suicide. It is that loving tenderness that come out of her voice that nails it."
There is certainly a playfulness to the album in contrast to Gabriel's perceived seriousness, a quality that has been emphasised outside his music by his commitment to human rights causes. While other pop stars seemed to have dabbled in global grandstanding as an extension of their own ego, Gabriel's commitment has been long-standing and personally felt - in a TED talk he gave in 2009 he revealed how an experience of childhood abuse at school fired his own desire to expose injustice.
He is a long-term advocate of video reportage through his Witness organisation and political mediation in the shape of the global leaders group The Elders, so I ask him whether the appalling video evidence of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria is not the thing that makes people argue that military intervention is absolutely necessary.
"I don't know whether that is right," he says. "I wish I knew. I think it is really difficult. You want to empower people. It seems totally wrong to sit back and do nothing but you don't really want more coffins arriving in Wootton Bassett. We need other structures."
Gabriel has also had a busy time in his personal life over the last couple of years. He became a grandfather for the first time through his daughter Melanie from his first marriage and last year his beloved father Ralph - himself a technological pioneer who helped invent the first fiber-optic cable television systems - died at the age of one hundred.
"It doesn't make it any easier when you lose a parent but to have a grandchild is wonderful. I think your parents are the trap door between you and eternity and when they drop you have to stare into the abyss." He describes himself as now being "in the grandfather league" and says: "My five-year-old is struggling with why I am dad and grandpa simultaneously, but I guess that is one of the issues of having children late. I love being a dad as much as anything else."
Age does seem to have tempered Gabriel's technological zeal somewhat. He doesn't use Twitter and admits that issues around the addictive nature of the internet and pornography and the potentially pernicious effect these have, particularly on teenagers, has made him install child filters on his home computers.
"For sure, it is not the benign force we reckoned it was," he admits. "There is too much information," he says. "Happiness lies in freedom from information. But you want a bit of both. You want to be able to find out anything but we also need to have the ability to protect ourselves from information."
Not that Grandpa Gabriel is ready for his pipe and slippers yet. This October he brings the So tour to the UK following a raved-about run in the US. Has Lady Gaga inspired him to dig out that old fox head and alien outfit with inflatable penis, I ask him?
"No, not in any way," he declares. "That was youthful abandon, and you have to take yourself pretty seriously to get away with that."
Although he turned down the chance to reunite with Genesis a couple of years ago, he says he is still interested in turning their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway into a film. And what about that disco album he has recently mooted? Maybe, he says, that ever-present twinkle in his eye, "I still want to enjoy heaving my tired body around sometimes."
And I'll Scratch Yours is released on Real World on September 23.