"High-Tech and Hand-Made": Peter Gabriel Shares His Recording Philosophy | Bacon's Archive

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, and Tina Weymouth.

I interviewed Peter Gabriel in summer 1989 at his Real World studio at the old Box Mill near Bath in south-west England. Passion, his accompanying soundtrack album to Martin Scorsese's movie The Last Temptation Of Christ, had just appeared, and his most recent solo album at the time was So, released three years earlier.

Up in his office in the admin block at Real World, surrounded by bookshelves, boxes, tapes, paintings, some ethnic drums, and a great long table cleared for work, we set out on a wide-ranging conversation. We covered the creation of Real World, his attitude to songs and composition, the importance of food when recording world music, and more. But we began with some instrumental memories.

What instrument did you first learn to play?

Drums. I'd always wanted to play drums. And I still think that's the best way for any musician to start, because if you can get drums right, you get feel. And the rest is downhill. Because I hear a lot of musicians trained up to the eyeballs who haven't got the feel right, particularly the English players [laughs] when they're trying to get laidback and it doesn't quite sit. But if you can learn that on drums, to focus only on rhythm and phrasing and accent, then that's I think the centre of any musical language.

Before you sort of learn bad habits, if you like, play along with great rhythms, and enjoy rhythm, because there is something to do with just letting go, I think. And the most extreme form of physical release in music is percussion and dance, and if you get comfortable with that, then as you develop… [he stops mid-sentence]. But I'm talking as if I'm a great player. I'm not. I'm a very primitive keyboard player. But I enjoy what I do and it feels right for me.

Peter Gabriel, 1973

So your advice for anyone starting out is to explore rhythm?

It is—well, that and a few things. I think persistence is worth more than talent [laughs] in terms of achieving results. Because in a sense I think people are born talented and they tend to limit themselves. Some will find it easier than others, but music and art are just languages that anyone can learn, and no one should be discouraged because they don't feel good enough.

If they are determined enough, I think it's possible to make something work. So it isn't so much a question of denying talent, but just encouraging people to maximize what they're capable of. And what actually determines that is their will and persistence, both in working on the writing and instruments, and particularly in selling your goods at the end of the day.

How did you get on when you were trying to sell your goods in the early days?

I used to be the guy hawking the Genesis tapes around the record company offices. I'd hang around in reception, and that would be as far as I'd ever get. I'd try sort of winking at the receptionist, usually to no avail. It needs… [laughs] well, it needs a certain iron will to survive.

Thick-skinned is the expression that comes to mind.

Yeah. We had a couple of guys who sat us down in their office and took an hour of their very valuable time to tell us to give up and go back to Brick Lane [east London] or wherever we crawled out of. Really discouraging, and quite malicious, I thought. But it happens a lot, I think, and you need to be able to fight for your music.

I had this friend at the time I was hawking my tapes around, and they said no, you've got it all wrong. He took me into Warner Brothers, and having found out the name of the managing director, he said to the receptionist—it was lunchtime, the timing was important—he said, I forget who it was, but something like, "Is Tony back from lunch?" So the receptionist thinks, Ah, friends of the MD. Straight to his office. Cup of tea, plate of biscuits [laughs]. And then the MD comes back from lunch and finds this bunch of wallies in his office. But he sort of admired the cheek sufficiently to give us a listen. If you could locate the people you were aiming at, and make sure you made contact with them, person to person, they'd eventually listen, if only to get rid of this pest.

When you were taking those Genesis tapes around, were you aware that you had something that was special and different?

Yeah, I think at the time one reporter described it as folk-blues-mystical-rock. I think the main thing we were trying to do at the time was break the barrier between folk and rock. People were beginning to do that, like Fairport Convention. And we weren't really seen as a folk band, but our set used to begin with half acoustic, the other half electric. So, this sort of wall of 12-string guitars and acoustic percussion was the first half, usually, and then we'd build it up, eventually finishing with this song "The Knife," a sort of hard, electric piece. So we went into the record company offices, and then if they listened to it at all, which was unlikely, the response was: We can sell rock music, we can sell folk music, but not the two combined.

Genesis, Live at Bataclan, 1973

On any project I've ever worked on that involves a lot of other people, there's a sort of invisible line that you have to cross. This side of the line, no one really believes it, and they think that you're out on a limb, that it will never fly. And then suddenly one person makes up their mind that this thing's gonna take off, and these animals who are only showing you their backsides suddenly shift something interesting. And, I should say, although I think there are some shady areas of A&R, I think there are some very talented people there, too. So I mean I'm not running them down.

I believe you've been in this studio [Real World] about three years now [speaking in 1989]. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted it to be like?

Yeah, I think really. I worked a lot with Mike Large here, who's in charge of the studio, Neil Grant, the acoustician, and the architects Feilden Clegg Bradley. Basically, I wanted to create the room that I would most like to work in, because it's always seemed to me that studios are getting more focused around the needs of the engineer and the producer, partially to the expense of the artist. While they have probably the most critical job in terms of the recording process, if you haven't got a great performance there to start off with, you haven't got the goods. And I think there's been a tendency with some of the technology for people's attention to get focussed on the possibilities of the technology rather than the possibilities of the writing and the performance.

Real World Studios (photo via Real World Records)

And in a sense, music for me has got to have passion and commitment, and I think the studio part can either serve that or not. I completely agree with anyone who says that you can do it in a bedroom with portable equipment, and there's no question in my mind that if the spirit and the intention are there and you have even a modicum of good sounds, you can still make something work very well. But at the same time, one of the things I've always done with any royalties that have come along is to plow them back into music making. So there are still a lot of advantages you can get from a studio.

So for instance, basic concepts here are things like we tried to get rooms that are comfortable, light, spacious rooms to be in. We've tried to make the control room an environment to perform in rather than just to mix. Most sessions now, at least half the project, probably a lot more, is spent in the control room, and yet it's not normally a room designed with the idea of people playing in it or singing in it.

Control rooms were mostly designed when you wanted complete separation from the performing area, at a time when the artist used to come in, do his performance in two or three hours maybe, and then the rest of the record [laughs] would be left up to the producer and the engineer. You may have been allowed in when they'd finished or if the mix was going well. Now, the artist is often an integral part of the production process, if not in reality the producer.

I think artists need to feel part of it. Plus I think there is some psychological barrier when you're in a room performing and you know that other people are listening to you, making comments. You know, when you see the whole control room burst into laughter because something funny's happened on the other side of the room and you haven't seen it, because it's not in your line of vision. And you think it's your performance that's creasing them up. So the traditional recording setup is the perfect environment for paranoia.

Real World Studios control room (photo via Real World Records)

How on earth do you start putting together a place like this?

Think big! We went through a few different alternatives for the outside, for example. At one point we had something like Sydney Opera House, "semi-tensile structures" they call them. But that worked out too expensive, so we worked out this tiered lead effect, eventually. Yes, it's lead on the outside. So just a few other sheets and we're all set for nuclear attack.

I was actually going to ask if that's aesthetic or practical.

Well, cost is a factor, too. So I quite like it. It's quite chunky. It has grunt.

Was this new studio a reaction against studios you've used in the past?

We were trying to do as much as possible different. But I think in a sense one of the most important things to get right is the engineer and the assistants. People are still very important! They have the largest effect on how you are. We're still building things up as we go.

There's the old problem when you're recording of trying to keep spontaneity alive in the midst of the technology.

There's a sort of technique that I'm trying to build both into the studio and into my own work which is exactly that—technology and spontaneity, built up in layers. Because the theory is that you function differently at, say, the computer, just analysing things, or going into spot detail on a track, than you do when you're just playing along and the red light's on, the adrenaline's pumping, and it's a live performance. I call it energy A, which is analytical, and energy Z, which would be zen, or performance, improvised, spontaneous. Two different ways of interacting with the machine.

Peter Gabriel, 1973

So to me it seemed that the best solution would be to try and layer it. So for instance, on layer one: red light on, define the melody—spontaneous, improvising, whatever. That is Z. Then A is when you analyse that, pull it to pieces, prune. So then you've got level one defined.

Level two would be with a sound palette. We're trying to build the largest library of sounds here, which obviously would be very useful, provided you have fast access to it. If you have this palette of sounds available, level two would be defining what those sounds are. So, put the red light on, energy's up, and you do a live pass in defining the sound, maybe with a joystick and different tones at each corner, so you're moving like a performance wheel on a synth.

Then you're back to the analytical, correcting it, improving it. And then level three would be saving the performance, so you put in vibratos and so on, and again try to set it up so you've got a controller of some sort.

It's very good to create moments when you have to rely on that excitement, that immediacy of a spontaneous response. I think the studio should be capable of trapping magic whenever and wherever it appears. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois have this "transparent studio" approach, and Dan definitely got me aware of the importance of having those moments.

Say you've got a particularly nice balance between six different acoustic instruments. Well, as soon as you've got processing going, you've got variables. And no matter how tightly you try to retain and record what's gone on, so many people have been in that situation so often where you waste days trying to re-create something that seemed really easy to get at the time. So print it, and always have it available.

One of the aims of this studio setup is to provide a good environment for world music, too. Quite often you have people who are not that familiar with this type of studio.

You mean not familiar with a big studio?

Well yeah, it varies from artist to artist—some haven't done much recording at all, depending very much on the facilities in their country. So we try very hard to make them feel at home, and WOMAD [World Of Music, Art, and Dance] have got very good at doing that, and we're collaborating with them on a new label now.

When did you decide to start the label?

I think we started talking about a year ago. I'm really pleased with the way some of it's coming out. A personal favorite is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, because I think, like Youssou N'Dour, he's just one of the best singers in the world. A lot of people could get into it. We're trying to do something different with it, not just in the presentation, but in the way it's recorded and in the attitude towards the musicians.

Youssou N'Dour - "Immigres," live in Athens, 1987, opening for Gabriel

Is there a policy for the label?

We have certain ways of trying to go about the recording, and we wanted to try to get some of the best from each region of the world. I also think it's important to include Western music in the category of world music, because otherwise it can become a ghetto. For instance, on a general compilation I'd like to include Elvis Presley as a pioneer of world music.

You say that WOMAD are good at making world music people feel at home here at Real World. In what ways?

They pay a lot of attention to surrounding people with familiar elements. Food is a big thing [laughs], but it's a lot of work organizing that.

The right food can make musicians feel at home.

Exactly. So [laughs] we have a wide variety of caterers coming through. It's fantastic, because you get a wide range of musicians. We had this Egyptian group that I was working with on the [Last Temptation] soundtrack, Les Musiciens du Nil, who are great characters. In any situation, they'll try and sell everything they have, including the clothes they're wearing. And they just fall asleep on the floor when they get bored. Wonderful people.

Presumably there have been a long line of your own recording setups that have led to this new studio. Can you remember your first?

Oh, it was an Allen & Heath, eight-track, after cassette. I never actually had a Portastudio, I was already up to eight-track when they were coming. That would have been maybe some time between '74 and '76, I guess. A mixer and an eight-track and one echo unit, very primitive but still a good thing.

Peter Gabriel, 1982

Larry Fast introduced me to quite a lot of the effect devices, including one called the Delta Lab DL-2, which even though it's noisy I still use today. It has a variable stereo imaging thing, and although one or two of the modern units have come close, there's still a life and vitality to that, which I love and which I've never heard anywhere else.

Larry made me very conscious of the possibilities of processing. Often you get these really horrible sounding synth notes, and then you put them in washes of different treatments and suddenly these beautiful colors emerge, like butterflies out of a chrysalis, or whatever.

Can you think of an example of that when you were working with Larry?

There was a sound I used to like on "Family Snapshot" [on Peter Gabriel, 1980], which was a small variation on a Prophet noise. It was OK on its own, but it was magical with the processing. And then Hugh Padgham, at that time, made some nice additional stereo imaging and delays, so it was a beautiful swirl sound. In the mix you don't hear it as much, but it's the sort of G minor where the band comes in.

When did you first see a Fairlight?

One of the inventors, Peter Vogel, the main sort of designer, in fact, was going round with this box of magic and was quite unable to interest anyone in it.

That seems remarkable now [1989].

It is. For many years I'd dreamt of something, of a sampler, pined for it, thinking, Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could just get a keyboard and have these sounds?

You'd tried a Mellotron and Hammond and stuff before that, I suppose?

Yeah, right, and they still have a charm. You get this real warmth coming out of good Hammond playing—you can really sort of smell the person behind it. And that's the problem with a lot of sequencers: people don't put enough personality into it. Personally, although I love what MIDI can offer, quite often I prefer it if people are getting four different keyboards to do the same part. I'd rather have them play it and hear those little discrepancies. And ideally, if they're fiddling with the tuning a little bit, so you can get some beating, the whole thing twinkles. Whereas if you get it all fixed and get the chorus, the pitch shifting, to do the twinkling for you, it's a different quality of sound.

I think it's just a matter of balance, because I mean I'm a real sucker for technology, but not at the expense of the human element. We have a sort of slogan for the studio, which is: "High-tech and hand-made." And that suits my philosophy.

King Crimson's Robert Fripp and Peter Gabriel, 1978

As well as keeping technology in balance, I think you value the importance of songs, still, don't you?

Yeah, if you look at the people who've had long-term careers, it's been because of their writing, really.

When you started writing in Genesis, were you trying to sound like anybody?

The only time we tried to sound like anyone was when the publishers and Jonathan King [producer of the first Genesis album] seemed to be losing interest. His obsession at that time was The Bee Gees, so I did a little bit of my Robin Gibb impersonations to help us get the deal. It seemed to work.

But we'd been very influenced by many, many people. I was writing, trying to get a deal, at the very beginning. Soul music, folk music, that first King Crimson album was an inspiration, some of the Fairport stuff, too. I don't know—a lot of beat groups, as they were then known [laughs]. Yardbirds, Beatles, Beach Boys.

Do you think writing becomes more difficult as you go on?

My standards are higher. You have more of the techniques in place, so in some ways it's easier, but I'm always trying to push myself. The lyrics I always agonize over. Occasionally you get a flourish here and you follow this path as far as it goes. But very often it's slog work. Not the first draft—with the first draft I'm running on some idea and I'm excited and it seems to be going places. But then when you've got to hone it in—it's hard work.

So you revise a lot?

Yeah, lyrics and music. But I feel whereas when we started off in Genesis we'd only get about 60 percent of the ideas on to the record, there'd be whole sections of the music which worked at one time or another or worked live which weren't working on the record. So I think I know better what I'm doing.

I work with great musicians, producers, and engineers now, and so we have a very good chance of getting every idea to work. I think that's important for everyone making music: Try to keep a cassette on at all times, even if you're just using the same five cassettes over and over. Just because when that magic arrives, mark it, and record it on to a safe cassette, just as a reference. Then you know it's there. Because it's so easy to come back to a thing a day or two later, even an hour later, and whatever it was that was there, and which everyone involved thought was wonderful, has gone. And you think, Well, it must still be there, because it was there. But if you don't feel it, it isn't there.

Genesis, 1973

Very often I get new ideas when I'm working on other things. I'm very good at being distracted. Much to the frustration of the people I work with. I have all sorts of tapes, which are supposed to be for something else, and there's a little asterisk with "new idea."

So I'm now at the stage of going through all these wretched tapes. The way I do it now, which I think is sensible, is each song, or each idea, has its own cassette, and every time you're working on it you add to that cassette. Because most musicians, and the way I used to be, half the time is spent chasing to find the one place where you did a good version of that song, fumbling through this maze.

As an example, can you tell me how wrote "Don't Give Up"?

That was built around a rhythm, a sort of three-against-four play, which I like a lot, which you hear a lot. Actually a tom tom part [sings basic descending riff]. I asked Tony [Levin] to try that on the bass, which he did, and I was very pleased with it. So I set up a rhythm first on the drum machine, and then built up the chords from that, and the melody, pretty much as I was going along in that case. The chorus actually didn't come till later, but the verse I got quite early on and I liked and felt comfortable with it. Then the bridge section, but the chorus part went through a few different varieties.

Lyrically, was the chorus always "Don't give up…"?

I think it was "don't give up" pretty early on, but the final lyric was a little while after, probably a couple of months after the melody was finished.

Peter Gabriel feat. Kate Bush - "Don't Give Up"

Was it always as long as the released version?

Even longer. I tend to write things around seven minutes long. I don't know why—it seems to be a natural length for me—and then I try to shrink them down a bit. That's another thing I do, a recording technique, I always over-record, because again it's a classic situation in the studio. The band suddenly starts rehearsing at the end of the song and this sort of magic groove starts coming—and then the tape runs out. So I always make sure we've got five minutes spare, so if something does happen, if the band takes off, then you can get it. And then perhaps you'll come back and try to pull some of that energy into the earlier sections.

Did you always intend "Don't Give Up" to be a duet?

It started off as a solo song. I just thought the story would work better with a man–woman relationship. It's really nice when Kate [Bush] comes in, and she's there.

Did the lyrical ideas come from anywhere in particular?

I was looking at some photos by Dorothea Lange—she's a great photographer. She had these classic pictures from the dust bowl Depression in America, and there was one called In This Proud Land, although I haven't been able to find it since. [He may have seen the '70s book titled In This Proud Land that includes Lange photos.] I used that for the first line in the song. I'd also seen a TV programme about the effect of unemployment on family life, so that played into my own problems at that time. I think a combination of that and domestic difficulties.

Peter Gabriel, 1994

A nice happy-go-lucky song, then.

Yeah, music for jumping off bridges.

But it is in fact a positive song, isn't it?

It is very positive actually. A lot of people like that song, a lot of people say to me that it came at a very good time in their life. It's fantastic that, a great feeling. This person, let's say, "a well-known American comedian," was very depressed. I was a great admirer of his, and he said, "This song saved my life." Totally unexpected.

I like the end section of "Don't Give Up," too.

I love the feel of that end section. We tried a few versions of it. Now [1989], particularly when we have CDs, the 40-minute framing [of LPs] doesn't have to have such a tight hold. There was a song on So called "In Your Eyes" which we do live at sort of 12 minutes long, and it feels as if it needs to be at least eight to let loose. That had to be really edited for the record [to 5:27], and I think it lost quite a bit as a result. The CD length could be an excuse for indulgence and lack of writing discipline, but at the same time if it's used well, rightly, it could be great. One hour is a better body of work.

What are you listening to now, CDs or otherwise? I think some people have this idea that Peter Gabriel must listen to stacks of world music. You know: a different country every five minutes.

I do listen to quite a lot of it, yeah. I tend to relax to [BBC] Radio 4. I know quite a lot of musicians who tend to switch off and become TV vegetables. I find I need to have a period of my own time or life when I'm not listening to music, when my brain's focussing on something else, and then I enjoy music more. The car tends to be where I do most of my listening. At the moment there's a mixture of some African tapes that I brought back from Senegal, having done a video there, and Simple Minds, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., Waterboys—those are things I've been listening to at the moment.

Any Western classical music?

Yeah, I like Vaughan Williams. Lots of individual things.

Vaughan Williams makes me think of "With This Love" on Passion, which I thought sounded a bit like an English classical tune. How did you write that?

Slowly [laughs]. I like it. It's the first time I've tried to do that. David Sancious helped me with the arrangement. I just sang the melody there, rather than playing it at first, and then began to pick it out and get into the harmony.

Peter Gabriel - "With This Love"

Were you trying to write in a certain way?

Yeah, it was deliberately supposed to be church-like. Which was actually the reason Marty [Scorsese] didn't want to use it in the film, although we tried it at one point. There's this magical moment when Christ is being taken off the cross by this little girl, who's the devil in fact, she's taking the nails out and kissing his wounded, bleeding body. We put it with that and it was amazingly powerful. I think it was perhaps too powerful for that, because it was in a sense the beginning of the devil's section of the last temptation, and so I think it was potentially too explosive. But I was quite sad, because it was a very strong marriage of music and image.

Were you working on The Last Temptation with images or with written ideas?

We had the film a long time in advance, plus I'd already got some ideas, because originally I was going to do it seven years ago when Marty first tried to make it. He had all the sets in Israel, the actors out there—a different set of actors in some cases—and then the backers of the first film company started getting nervous and pulled the plug.

Marty did this on a very tight budget. I think the original film was going to be 12 million dollars, and five years later it was something like six million, effectively a third of the original budget. As we were working on the film we were reading stuff about Bertolucci in China with thousands of Chinese extras—and we had six Moroccans acting the Roman army, and then 12 Moroccans who were the entire population of Jerusalem when it was burning. But it doesn't really show in the film.

A lot of people didn't bother to go and see the film. The controversy clouded the film. Even though I think some bits had some flaws, I think it's an enormously powerful film and still feel very proud to be part of it, and I still recommend it. It's not a nice evening out, though.

OK, Peter, I think we're about done, and we need to shoot some photographs.

I went to a careers guidance thing, you know? They do all these aptitude tests, and the guy said there were only two things I was fit for. One was photography, and the other was landscape gardening. I think I would enjoy both, actually. Perhaps that's what I do with music.

I interviewed Stephen Morris from New Order here in the studio last year, and he told me he met you one day and thought you were the gardener.

Really? [Laughs.] I think that's a compliment.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Million Dollar Les Paul, London Live, and Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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