ROCK / Right up to his neck in it: The confusion, the therapy, the vicious snails - it's tough being
'It does hurt,' Gabriel claims, as he savagely lays into a poor defenceless baked potato, explaining that at the time he was filming a video which involved having snails crawl across his face. 'Most of the time they just sort of slime across you and try to stick on, but this one, the radula, has these little teeth-like things, like 40 little fork-ends, against which it sucks soft material and scrapes it. That's how they eat. Which is fine, except when it's your skin.'
This isn't the only way in which Gabriel has been suffering for his art. His new album, Us, his first batch of new songs since 1986's immensely successful So (which spent a whopping 76 weeks in the British album charts), is suffused with the pain and problems of Gabriel's disintegrated relationships with, successively, wife and mistress, the latter a highly-publicised liaison with the actress Rosanna Arquette.
Since then, the singer has been 'seen around' with Sinead O'Connor, who provides backing vocals on Us, and whose own latest album is dedicated mainly to 'the angel Peter Gabriel'; but any subsequent upswing of mood is hardly reflected in his new songs, in which the naturally melancholic Gabriel - who despite recognising joy when he hears it in any of a number of ethnic musics, seems to experience difficulty expressing it himself - goes through the kind of lyric therapy and self-examination that's been out of fashion since James Taylor.
'Since the marriage ended, I was doing therapy,' Gabriel explains, attacking the top of a bottle of Evian water with a blunt knife. 'I had firstly to overcome my fear of therapy, which is considerable, and then to start looking at what sort of stuff was going on, and why it was going on on my part - because always, when you break up, the first thing is to blame the other person, which gets you nowhere. It began to dominate my life - I was doing therapy twice a week up to Christmas. So I thought I'd put it into the lyrics. This was a very painful growing time for me, and in some senses I do put all my misery in my records. I dump it on everyone else and go away happy.
'In fact, someone suggested I should call the follow-up to this record Me. I'm quite tempted. But at the same time, I think you need to get into that sort of stuff before you're any use to anyone else. It's like a car - you can keep on driving it till it breaks down, or you can take it in and get it serviced.'
Though undoubtedly melancholic of aspect, the new album is as easy on the ear as Gabriel's most recent previous work, the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, for which he tried to create 'a new type of music which was quite alive yet had all these echoes of time and place'. Like that album, Us draws freely on the stable of international artists Gabriel has attracted to his RealWorld record label, a sort of sister-project to the WOMAD organisation he helps support. In these new songs, Celtic bagpipes wheeze alongside African percussion and exotic stringed instruments, the whole borne upon a solid yet flexible rock rhythm base. How, though, does he know which sounds will combine well together? And do these different musics bring sets of cultural pre- requisites with them?
'I'm not sure about 'cultural'. Sometimes the musicians will be playing in scales that won't fit chord patterns I'm going for, or they won't hear the rhythm in the same way; sometimes we get these loose grooves, and everybody counts the tone in a different place - sometimes that's great, because you get these very strange accents coming out, and occasionally it just sounds wrong. That often happens in my music: people think I'm being very clever, that there's a half-bar here or there, but usually it's just because I screwed up. Sometimes, when the first map is drawn up, it's just around an improvised performance, and I'm calling out the cues as we go along.'
Would he be worried about placing religious music in a secular context? 'Well, Nusrat (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pakistani Qawwali singer) would be an example of that, in that his is truly devotional music; but I'm happy to let him be the judge. I don't think I've ever surrounded the sacred with the profane, let's put it like that. I haven't tried to dress up some 'We can do it all night long' kind of lyric with some devotional prayer.
'Occasionally,I'll go too far and have to peel back. I think you hear it and feel it, and after a few years you get a sense of what a particular colour is going to do; you may not know exactly which notes to play, but emotionally it's a little like choosing a colour from a palette - you don't know exactly where you're going to put the line, but you know what effect that colour's going to have, just by holding up a brush of that colour. We're very lucky, because nowadays you can fiddle and fix things: a painter has a much harder time fixing things. You have to admire that old Sgt Pepper stuff where they had nine different instruments on one track.'
Gabriel's influences stem from a typical childhood of listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes and taping favoured songs off the radio, starting in his case with Johnny & The Hurricanes and 'Red River Rock'. He also had an admiration for the production colossus Phil Spector.
'I met Phil Spector at a U2 gig. That was a thrill. He seemed to be into what I was doing - there's nothing like getting a nice bit of feedback from a childhood hero. He seemed pretty sane, but it's hard to tell. I think there was a whole lot of politics in the way people worked the studio in those days, in all sorts of ways. In a sense, people nowadays are so much more relaxed, and just get on with the job, and there's no great mystery to it, or rules: anyone can do anything. But I remember when I first started, for a musician to be even allowed into the control room was a major concession. It was for the producer and engineer only - you had to be wearing a white coat.'
Gabriel has his own studio back home in Box, near Bath, a state-of-the- art set-up in idyllic rustic surroundings which is spoken of in hushed tones wherever engineers and musicians congregate. Although oddly, in this futuristic era of samplers, digital editing, optical disc recorders and techno music, Gabriel has effectively dedicated his studio to the perfectionist recording of international roots musicians, capturing the purest at their purest, as it were. It can't, one would have thought, be much of a high-return investment.
'The RealWorld Records thing does get a bit subsidised, both by WOMAD, because they've got the festival circuit that pays the travel costs - which would be prohibitive for a lot of the recordings - and by the studio in part, because we can give them cheaper time. And we put in a lot of our own time and services for free. But it's very much a hand-to-mouth operation: at the moment we get pounds 10,000 per record with which to pay the artist an advance, pay the recording costs, run the label, do the sleeve . . . whereas my art budget for this LP alone ended up a lot more than that. It's tight, but some of the records are beginning to sell.'
Unsatisfied with this paltry level of fiscal risk in an artistic enterprise, Gabriel has also got himself involved with the RealWorld Theme Park project, a sort of Gabriel Land for the senses, in which visitors would be taken on a series of subterranean 'rides' where the interactive element would be stressed. Along with Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, Gabriel has been trying to interest backers in the scheme, and it now looks possible that the project will be undertaken in Barcelona.
'We're not just taking Disneyland as a model but also art galleries, churches, science museums, discos . . . We've done a few presentations, and they seem to like the idea in Barcelona; we'll know by the end of this month whether they're committed or not. It should take, probably, four years to build, and cost a lot of money. A hundred million dollars is what they spent on the 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' ride at Disneyworld alone. Makes you think.'
Bubbling with boyish enthusiasm about holographic video and an advanced form of virtual reality called Telepresence, Gabriel considers the high-tech theme park and this type of associated technology 'a logical extension of what we do anyway, in music and pictures. We're also looking at interactive CD - I had a meeting on the train coming up this morning with a guy who's going to programme a disc with, for instance, eight different soundtracks, so you can do your own mix. It would be a sampler's paradise - but then, life is a sampler's paradise.'
'Us' is out this week on RealWorld/Virgin.
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