The Times JANUARY 31, 2010 - by Robert Sandall


Lately more a technology guru than a singer, he now has a new CD - Scratch My Back is a covers album with a difference.

It's been a while since Peter Gabriel has looked much like a conventional rock star, or acted like one, and, as he nears his sixtieth birthday, he passes unremarked in the smart Kensington hotel where this interview takes place. With his dark baggy garb, white goatee and twinkly beam, Gabriel looks today rather like a plainclothes Santa, an impression enhanced by his solicitous manner. How am I? Would I like a cup of tea or coffee? Something to eat? As well as illustrating Gabriel's instinctive kindliness, this amiable fussing is reflective of his way when presented with an agenda.

He is, famously, always running late, a master of the mumbled apology. It takes fifteen minutes for him to get down to talking about Scratch My Back, his album of cover versions of songs by artists ranging from Paul Simon to Bon Iver - a clue, perhaps, as to why this is only the third collection of new material he's released since 1992. Not that Gabriel has been taking it easy in the interim. On the contrary, he has developed into a tireless master of off-piste activities. For years in the 1990s, he was involved, with Laurie Anderson and others, in developing an "experiential theme park" - a sort of Disneyland for arty types that sadly never found a sponsor. More recently, he has been involved in exploring the creativity and cognition of bonobo apes, from helping them to make music with percussion and keyboard instruments to using a pictorial search engine to navigate the internet. Gabriel says he "was fascinated by the idea that these animals we've brought to the brink of extinction might be capable of mastering our language in sign and symbol form. All musicians are stunned when I show them the footage, because you can see them searching intelligently for notes in a musical way".

On a less wacky tip, his campaigning interest in human rights led, in 2007, to the setting up and funding of an international think-tank, The Elders, a group of senior statesmen, fronted by Nelson Mandela, whose aim is to "promote peaceful solutions to long-standing conflicts". Plenty of work still to be done there, then. There have been several high-tech internet ventures, notably an early legal downloading service, OD2, which preceded iTunes and was eventually acquired by Nokia in 2006 for a reported sixty million dollars. He still oversees the running of the Womad festival, which he started in 1982, as well as the Real World residential studio complex near his country home in Box, Wiltshire.

Yet while international arts and humanitarian organisations revere Gabriel's experimental initiatives - he was made a Nobel Man Of Peace in 2006, and awarded Sweden's prestigious Polar Prize in 2009 - some of the fans have been getting restless. Neither OVO, a collection of songs Gabriel wrote for the inaugural Millennium Dome show, nor his 2002 album, Up, ignited the album chart. And the news that Scratch My Back comprises twelve non-originals did not go down well with some bloggers. "It's hard to get excited about an album of cover songs when we've been waiting so long for new stuff," one posted.

Gabriel takes this on the chin: "I cleared the decks for this, put the tech companies and benefit projects on hold. In the old days, I used to work sixty to eighty hours a week, but now, with two young children, I live more of a family life, nine to five." He insists he has a plan that overrules the normal objections to covers projects. "I've always been a songwriter first and foremost, and with X Factor's stress on performance, I felt the craft of songwriting has got rather overlooked. So I thought, if we could put a twist on the covers thing, make it a genuine exchange and a dialogue with other musicians, rather than a homage to just one song, then we could create something different."

The deal with Scratch My Back requires each of the artists whose song Gabriel has performed to reciprocate with a recording of one of Gabriel's own. The opening salvo in this arrangement arrived yesterday via iTunes, when Gabriel's version of The Book Of Love, by The Magnetic Fields, was partnered by a radical reworking of Not One Of Us by MF's Stephin Merritt. "He's turned it into an electro-disco thing, which I really like. It's become like a gay anthem, presided over by Stephin's very droll persona." The timing of this paired download was important. "I liked the idea of releasing them together on a full moon," Gabriel says with a mysterious grin.

The horse trading needed to secure the agreement of all the participants held things up a bit. As we spoke, he still hadn't heard back from Thom Yorke, of Radiohead, whose Street Spirit closes the album, and he still didn't know what Arcade Fire's riposte to his dramatic reading of My Body Is A Cage would be. One of Gabriel's favourite choices to cover was David Bowie's 1980 anthem "Heroes". "Bowie didn't want to play - Brian Eno says David is not very interested in music any more. But because Eno was the co-writer, and performed on the track, we got away with it. He's recording In Your Eyes."

Another standout reworking is Gabriel's version of Paul Simon's The Boy In The Bubble, from Graceland, rendered much more slowly than in the jived-up original, which allows the callousness of the terrorist horrors, the blown-up baby carriages and shady global telecoms plots, to emerge more vividly. Simon is planning his version of Gabriel's great apartheid opus, Biko.

The drawback with such cosy mutual backscratching is the "so what?" factor. Many of the songs Gabriel has chosen here will be unfamiliar, such as Regina Spektor's Après Moi, or Flume, by Bon Iver. Why not leave such obscure selections to indie bands or veteran covers specialists such as Rod Stewart? To liberate them from the aspic of their pop context, Gabriel says. "A lot of songs come with a time stamp," he explains. "I remember where I was when I first heard Hey Joe or Love Me Do. They become like sound traps, because pop introduced to songwriting the idea that sound was as important as the notes, the harmony and the rhythm. I wanted to let these songs speak, so I become personally minimal in their presentation. Left to my own devices, I tend to put layers on top, I fuss too much. So, early on with this, I decided to make rules. No drums or guitars. Just chamber instruments, keyboards and brass."

Most of the recordings and arrangements for Scratch My Back were done in Air Studios, in Hampstead, with orchestrations by John Metcalfe. Just as striking as the accompaniments, however, are the wonderfully whiskery vocal performances. Gabriel has never sung better, or more affectingly, than he does here. "Something happens with age," he says. "You're becoming more yourself, whether you like it or not. You lose some high notes. You're not aspiring to be someone else. You listen to Dylan, Randy Newman or Tom Waits, and to how their voices have evolved over the years, and, uh, you get a sense that there's more grain and texture, and less trying for this or that."

Gabriel says he's "hoping this album will give me a greater respect for space when I get back into my next batch of material. It's definitely taught me how to focus on one idea in a more meditative way". Meditative, in Gabriel's current sound world, often sounds like a euphemism for sad. Scratch My Back, beautiful as it often is, sits a long way from the pop-funk highs of Gabriel's most popular work. "I wasn't trying to make a dark record, but I wanted it to be emotional. This is gonna be one of those records that divides people. What I want to do with the next one is to make it really up, like disco. It's a lot easier making emotional miserable music than it is making emotional happy music - joy is a much harder fish to catch."

Nobody, and certainly not Gabriel, is predicting when he will be next in the studio with his joyous side uppermost. It will be at least a year, he reckons, before his fellow backscratchers get their act together, and there are orchestral concerts to promote his new album. Meanwhile, what's he to do if Mandela phones up, or one of the apes gets seriously creative? You can't help wondering if Gabriel ever worries that he has simply too much on. "Without question, yes," he replies. "But I think I've had a much more interesting and fulfilled life as a result."