The silence between two thoughts

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

“Do you want to know what the ambition of our generation is, Wanda? We all want to be Chinese mystics living in thatched huts, but getting laid frequently.” – Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game, 1963.

11a LC & Roshi copy

Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher and close friend, died Sunday 27th July in Cedars Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles at the age of 107. I went to the LA Zen Center several times to hear him teach – it was a few years ago when he was a mere 103 or so; I’d gone in the hope of talking to him for my book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. When I spoke to Leonard shortly afterwards, I had to admit that, impressed though I was that the old man was still teaching, I couldn’t make sense of anything he said. Leonard laughed and said no-one could. “He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.”

Since posting that on my Facebook page two days ago, I’ve been contacted privately by a musician friend whose broken motor Roshi helped fix. And I’ve also been contacted by a major newspaper wanting to talk about the late guru’s sex life. What did Leonard Cohen have to say about it, they asked me, and I could honestly answer: “Nothing.” The last interview I did with Leonard for my book was more than a year before the New York Times broke the story alleging that Roshi had been sexually abusing female students at the monasteries for decades. But, whatever Leonard might have thought about this in private, it’s hard imagining him having anything to say publicly on a man he loved. His 45-year relationship with Roshi was one of the most durable and devoted of Leonard’s life.

They met in 1969 at Leonard’s friend’s Buddhist wedding – same year that Leonard met Suzanne Elrod, the future mother of his children, at a Scientology class. It seems ironic when not long before Leonard had told his friend that he was suspicious of holy men. He said he knew how they did it: their schtick, the showmanship, how they managed to draw people to them, because to a degree he could do it himself. One question I wish I’d thought to ask Leonard was when and how the cynicism in that line at the start of the blog that he gave to his alter-ego Breavman in The Favourite Game began to change.

I did try to interview Roshi for I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. I had spoken to two of Leonard’s rabbis and I wanted to talk to his Zen teacher for his insights into the man he made a monk. I went to the Mount Baldy monastery and stayed in a hut on the hill – but Roshi was away, teaching at another of his monasteries. Towards the end of writing the book I attended a series of talks Roshi gave at the Zen Center in L.A. – he looked so frail it seemed like a possibility that he wouldn’t make it through the teisho. Afterwards one of the head monks told me that Roshi did not give interviews, but he offered to pass on a letter. So I sent one with a list of questions. There was a great deal I wanted to know, like why he decided Leonard ought to be ordained (it was idea, not Leonard’s) and what the significance was of renaming him Jikan, meaning “Ordinary Silence: was it more than just a Buddhist joke? Or what it was like when the two of them were on the road together or in the monastery, the intimacy and the distance of such a relationship as this. Or his reaction when, after five and a half years Leonard told him he was leaving. Or what they talked about when Leonard came back to visit after spending months in India with a new guru, Ramesh; did they compare and contrast the different teachings? I was advised to narrow it down to one question. So I settled on the “more sad” question [see below]. Sadly he didn’t answer.

Leonard answered some of them though, in various interviews. And since I promised on Facebook that I would find a few more things that Leonard said about Roshi, here they are.


SS: Roshi gave you a new name?

LC: Roshi has given me a few names. When I was ordained as a zen monk, Roshi gave me the name Jikan.

SS: Is that the one that’s been variously translated as Silent One and Solitary Cliff?

LC: No, the other one was ‘Solitary Cliff’. But you know, Roshi doesn’t speak English very well so you don’t really know what he means by the names he gives you and he prefers it that way because he doesn’t want people to indulge themselves in the poetic quality of these traditional monks’ names.

SS: That’s cruel – I’d want to throw myself into the deep end of their poetic qualities.

LC: Yes, that’s the trouble. I have asked him what Jikan meant many times, at the appropriate moment over a drink, and he says ‘Normal silence’ or ‘Ordinary Silence’ or ‘The silence between two thoughts’.

SS: Dangerously poetic.

LC: Yes.

SS: So you became Ordinary Silence after Solitary Cliff?)

LC: I was Solitary Cliff for a while. You can just call me Cliff!


SS: You’ve quoted Roshi as saying “The older we get, the lonelier we become and the deeper the love we need”. Is he referring to impersonal, benign love or person-to-person love?

LC: I think that he was referring to the personal love.

SS: What are your feelings right now on personal love. Is that still an important aspect of your life or has that changed?

LC: It’s the most important. I don’t know if it ever changes. I think one becomes more circumspect as one gets older about everything – I mean you become more foolish and more wise at the same time as you get older. But I don’t think anyone masters the heart. No-one gets a handle on it. And Roshi’s often described himself as an old, love-sick monk.


SS : Did you discuss the teachings of Ramesh with Roshi when you returned from India?

LC: No, no. Roshi doesn’t discuss. He doesn’t discuss his own teaching. Roshi is direct transmission. It’s the owner’s manual. He’s not interested in perspective or talking. You either get it or you don’t. His teisho, the things you listen to, the best way to absorb them is from the point of view of the meditater – he’s really talking on the in breath and the out breath through the whole teisho. He’s speaking to the meditative condition, so if you hear him from the outside it’s kind of gibberish and it’s kind of repetitive and it’s very hard to penetrate. He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.

SS: Now you mention it, I remember that repetition, that sense of rambling. I blamed it on me zoning out or him being a very, very old man.

LC: But if you’re sitting in the right position and you’re breathing, then it’s like you’re in a hole and he’s saying: ‘Here’s a little indentation; put your right foot there, and you’ll see that little twig, and pull up there, and try to put your foot in that other little spot where the rock is sticking out, now take the left hand and put it up there.’ That’s what he’s saying.


LC: I don’t know if I told you this story. I was in the recording studio with Roshi. We’d been travelling to Trappist monasteries – at that time there was a rapprochement between Catholicism and Zen under the tutelage of Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk who wrote beautiful books – and I would go with Roshi and he would lead these weeks of meditation at various monasteries. We happened to be in New York at the time and I was recording parts of Various Positions and Roshi came to the studio – he was already an old man at the time We were drinking this Chinese liqueur called ng ka pay and he was nodding off most of the time and I was doing vocals.

SS: What did Roshi think of the recording?

LC: The next morning when we were having breakfast I asked him what he thought – this was the time when people were saying they should give away razor blades with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s ‘music to slit your wrists by’ and that I was ‘depressing a generation’. And he said, ‘More sad’.

And that was it.  Roshi didn’t tell him what he meant by “more sad”, Leonard said, and Leonard didn’t ask. When I said I guess I would have to ask Roshi, he smiled and wished me luck. As to whether he did as his teacher instructed, Leonard said, “Not ‘more sad’, but I thought, ‘you’ve got to go deeper.’ ”



On the road again!

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Leonard Cohen will turn 80 years old on  September 21st. He plans to celebrate by releasing a brand-new studio album (and buying that pack of cigarettes he’s been promising himself these past two years!)! and his fans are planning to celebrate him with all manner of events. So Sylvie’s going back on the road with her book and her uke to join them. Her upcoming appearances include Oslo; Helsinki; Dublin; Winchester, England; Reno, Nevavada and Cartagena, Colombia. We’ll post details as we get them on the  Tour page.

SS & LC, pic by LC on imac copy



more news…

European editions of Leonard Cohen book


Translation has begun on a Czech-language version of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, to be published by Galen. No details on its release date yet but we’ll keep you posted.

The Finnish version of the book, published by Sammakko, looks close to being finished – hopefully in time for Leonard’s 80th birthday in September, when Sylvie will be performing in Helsinki.

Editions that are currently being translated are Greek, Slovenian and Turkish.

The European editions currently available are UK British; German (I’m Your Man: Das Leben des Leonard Cohen, hardback and paperback by BTB/ Random House); Spanish (Soy Tu Hombre: La Vida de Leonard Cohen, RHM); Italian (I’m Your Man: Vita di Leonard Cohen, Caissa Italia); Dutch (I’m Your Man: Vita di Leonard Cohen; Nijgh & Van Ditmar), Polish (Leonard Cohen: Jestem Twoim Mezczyzna, Marginesy); Danish (I’m Your Man: En Biografi om Leonard Cohen, Glydendal) and Norwegian (I’m Your Man: Leonard Cohens Liv, Cappelen Damm).book photo

Leader of the pack

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Me and Pete bike


Motorcycles ran in my family. My dad didn’t have a car, he drove a motorbike and sidecar – mum riding pillion, kids in the sidecar, heads poked out of the soft plastic window, which was too scratched to see through, getting high as kites inhaling car exhaust fumes (unless we were too busy beating each other up). This must have been my big brother’s bike. That’s my little brother in the picture and me at age 13 . He got a motorcycle at some point too, and so did I though I didn’t keep it long. I had a habit of falling off of it, so I figured four wheels might be safer. Our dad, though, drove like a wildman. At some point in his life, before he had us, he was a Wall of Death rider. I don’t think there was anything my father couldn’t do. He was a flea-weight boxer, he whistled the blues, he made jewelry out of nothing and he made homemade wine out of anything, all of it near as dammit lethal. (I remember him encouraging me to go out with a science student so he could get equipment from him to make a still!) The first songs I can ever remember hearing were songs my father sang me:  St Louis Blues and Brother Can You Spare A Dime. These were my lullabies. So it’s no surprise that I’ve always had a thing for slow, dark, melancholy songs.

Prisoner in Disguise

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

I just noticed that today is Linda Ronstadt’s birthday. Hope it’s a happy one.

I spent an afternoon with her a few months back and really enjoyed her company. She’s a very warm woman, forthright and self-deprecating – much happier talking up others than herself, although it’s plain she’s not the kind who’ll stand for nonsense, and certainly not from any man. Sixty-eight years old, and what a life! You’ll have to find a June edition of MOJO for the full story. But here’s something I didn’t have room for in the article that made me smile; it made Linda laugh out loud as she told it. 

“The thing about being ‘a star’… well it was weird. It took away my anonymity and I remember distinctly feeling that was a drag. But I wasn’t really that social and I wasn’t into parties and stuff that much. What we mostly did as musicians was hang out in each other’s living rooms or hotel rooms and play one song after another – all the old Everly Brothers and Merle Haggard songs, all the great songs that held up on only guitar.
“Anyway, JD Souther called me the other day and said he’d found a note I had written him.

“We had been staying at the Plaza and we’d been up all night playing music and I’d gone up to my room at some point and I slipped this note under his door saying, ‘Dear JD, you have my purse, my shoes and my guitar – which is a distinct disadvantage – so how can I get them back?’ I must have been in the same hotel or I wouldn’t have left my shoes, my purse or my guitar. And I remembered: that night we were in the hotel room playing and singing Prisoner In Disguise and Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd were there and we were REALLY into it, singing the whole dramatic, loud ‘You must be a prisoner!’ We were stoned too, we’d smoked some pot and done a couple of lines of blow.

“And all of a sudden the door just explodes into our suite – there was a connecting room to our suite that wasn’t ours – and it was some man who had been trying to sleep and it was three in the morning and we’d woke him up!. His face was purple with rage. That was the first time I’d ever not had people listening and liking it. He HATED it! We were so shocked. We were just siting there with our mouths open. It was so funny. I don’t think he had any idea who we were. We weren’t ‘stars’, we were just these noisy people.”


On the bus

Monday, July 14th, 2014

I just got back from a trip to London and, cleaning out my handbag, I found something I’d scribbled down on a journey into town on crowded double-decker bus. The couple in the seat behind me were already deep into a loud and heated conversation when I got on board. Three stops later, it was still going strong. Being the only one on the bus without earbuds in or a smart phone to distract me, I found myself doing what journalists do and taking notes.

Her: “You wore your jeans and T-shirt and your velcro shoes because you’re five. You’re 31 and you’re wearing velcro shoes on MY birthday. I hate those shoes. You have never made an effort for me – ever.”

Him: “I wore a shirt–”
Her: “Yes you wore a shirt but  that was for your grandmother’s funeral and you had your crappy shoes on that are awful that you’ve had since high school and you couldn’t bear to part.”

Him “And that black shirt –”

Her: “That you wore to your brother’s do. You’re only interested in it now because you’ve pissed me off. You just go on  being your own selfish self all the time. I want us to go somewhere nice and you just wear the same pair of crappy trainers and the same pair of jeans. The number of times you get out of bed and put on the first thing that you grab which is all baggy and stained and if it’s not it’s because I spent all that time scrubbing the stains out. And those disgusting track pants. I can’t say I paid a great attention to what you wear. It just would be nice if you cared.”

When the bus reached its terminus at Aldwych, they were still arguing. I don’t know if they ever kissed and made up. A friend of mine told me, “The disintegration of a relationship always begins with clothing critiques,” so maybe not. Another friend told me that Charles Bukowski “got a lot of his material rolling around buses in LA …it’s a goldmine.” Can’t disagree with that!

Mad (Men) for it!

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Yes, that’s a copy of the US edition of ‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ behind the left ear of Pete Campbell (actor Vincent Kartheiser) of fabulous TV series Mad Men. When trade magazine Ad Week asked him what’s on his reading list he answered, “a biography of Leonard Cohen called I’m Your Man. Pretty cool!”

In more book news, the Chinese edition is due to be published at the end of May – more on that later.  And Sylvie will be performing several Leonard Cohen-related events in California in the next few weeks, beginning in Wine Country. More details on the ‘Tour’ page!

Life in a motel without a car

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Life in a motel without a car

Part1: People in motels with cars get up early.

Woke before dawn when two people walked past my window talking. People in motels with cars get up early so they can get in their cars and go. My sleepy brain, thinking we were home where there’s nothing outside the window but a long drop, frenziedly tried to figure out what was happening. I couldn’t find the light switch so I turned the TV on. The news said that while I slept a man in McDonalds was shot to death. The thought of a fluorescent-lit MacMeal being the last thing you eat, or even see, before you die was a mournful one to start the day on. The weatherman said 93 degrees and gusty winds; a good day for an early run.


Part 2: Going for a run beside a freeway.

It was a freeway motel and since I don’t have a car, the only place to run is the freeway. Running beside a freeway isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s far less boring than a treadmill – for one thing there’s that tinge of anxiety that the driver of one of those enormous trucks going by at 75mph might get distracted by the sight of you trying to race them, veer over and squash you like a bug. Though still safer than McDonalds probably. Also, the knowledge that however fast you run you’re still going to get there last and that there really isn’t any ‘there’ to get to, gives it a Zen element that running  – running by choice, I mean, as opposed to necessity, like if you’ve a bus to catch or an armed maniac to evade – ought to have.

Part 3: Breakfast.

I’ve never much enjoyed going out for breakfast; I’m not much of a morning person and like to ease into a day. The motel offers a free continental breakfast – although America is the only continent I know that breakfasts from a big plastic bin of fruit loops. I’d forgotten all about fruit loops – can you get them outside of motels? But I appreciated the subtlety of their colours, the pastel lime and dusty pink. Breakfasts in America and the places you eat them tend to be far too colourful for the food they serve and for the time of morning. The motel also had a waffle machine, which looked scary, and good coffee with those little pots of half and half that make you feel guilty that your desire to open a third one and only to use a drop of it has put yet another knife into the environment. And, on my run, I noticed there was a Dennys. I think I’ll start going out for breakfast.

Part 4: Buying shit.

Really there are too many shops, period. You can get almost anything you need to get by from a freeway gas station. And the staff is friendly. The gas station was empty; when the guy working there noticed that there was no car accompanying me, he seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being and my ability to return whence I came without the help of wheels. Had I been a several decades younger or a few decades older I’m pretty sure he would have given me an icecream and called the authorities. I came back with fresh milk for the fridge, a bag of trail mix and a hand-drawn map to a dry river bed where I could go for a run tomorrow.

Part 5: Motel pools.

Motels invariably have pools. They tend to be small and square and fenced into their own little gated compound, as if to protect them from someone making off with them in their truck. There’s a slew of  trucks parked around the back of the motel, but strangely only the fronts. All of the trucks are missing their back ends, which makes them look funny, like semi-pantomime horses. The pool in this motel here is sparkly clean, with loungers all around and an umbrella that no-one’s put up, because no-one but me is here. In motels, most people tend to get in their cars and leave by seven in the morning, so the car-less guest gets the pool to herself. And the sound of the traffic going by on the freeway is soothing. Like Tom Petty wrote in American Girl, the cars roll by like waves crashing on a beach. And yes, for one desperate moment there, he crept back in my memory.

Award for I’m Your Man!

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

The audiobook of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen – all 18 hours 33 minutes of it – is the proud winner of the Audiofile Golden Earphones Award!

The hardworking narrator was Josh Pollock, a friend of Sylvie’s, who is an actor and acclaimed musician from San Francisco.

And here’s a link to an an excerpt of Josh reading from the book.


Peter Gabriel

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Peter Gabriel: Ape Man
by Sylvie Simmons
(Rolling Stone, Germany 2002)

The large white room has been divided in two by a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling screen. There’s a closed door in the middle, with small hatch about one metre off the ground, like a midget’s prison cell. On this side of the screen, the room is empty except for a synthesiser and a stool.

After a while an ape saunters in – cool and casual, checking the place out. It heads over to the synthesiser, springs onto the stool and sits there, picking its feet. Then it turns to the keyboard and, with a thick index finger, starts prodding the keys. As it does this, a pair of eyes glance through the hatch and a slow, strange synthesiser melody starts up on the other side of the screen. The ape appears to respond to this music with more notes of its own, to which the hidden synthesiser swirls and dips with a strange beauty. At one point in the process, the ape discovers how to play an octave. Fascinated, it keeps on playing the two notes, over and over again.

“See?” says  the bright-eyed, round-faced sitting beside me in front of the laptop screen where this drama is unfolding.”No-one has ever shown her what an octave is – she’s discovered this entirely on her own! You’ll see her brother Kanzi come in, in a moment. He’s never sat down at a keyboard before. Look!” A second ape has entered. It leaps straight onto the stool, beating out a rhythm on the lower keys as if it were born to the job.  “Like James Brown!” exclaims the man, who is bouncing up and down in his seat now. (To my eyes it looked more Jerry Lee Lewis, but I don’t say so, not wanting to dent his enthusiasm.) “We had the band there -Tony Levin and Richard Evans  – and Kanzi pressed the button for ‘open’ so that the door would open and he could really feel like he was jamming with us.” Saying this, Peter Gabriel beams like a proud father.

Bonobo Apes are, in Peter Gabriel’s opinion, the best of all possible musical collaborators – which is quite a statement coming from someone who in his 35-year music career has collaborated with Prog Rockers, Sengalese musicians and artists from Joni Mitchell to Sting, from Kate Bush to Nile Rodgers. Not to mention architects, visual and multi-media artists, theme park designers, Mick Jagger’s choreographer and makers of movies about talking pigs and errant rabbits. Apes, says Gabriel, unlike their human counterparts, don’t come with any preconceptions, conscious or otherwise (other than, presumably, ape preconceptions), which he says makes them the nearest thing to freeform jammers you’re likely to get.

“It was an extraordinary experience”, sighs Gabriel, who enjoyed it so much he went back and did it four more times. “I want to make a record with them. It will help fund an organisation called Apenet, where I’m trying to get apes computers to allow them to use the internet and communicate with each other in zoos or in the wild, using their language and possibly ours.”

And we’re only telling you this in case you wondered why it took him ten years to come out with a follow-up to his 1992 album US.

Part visionary, part great British eccentric, one of the many charming things about Gabriel is that his open honesty about projects that many would consider nuts is in equal proportion to the zeal with which he pursues them.  He has countless time-consuming obsessions. Always did, but with age (he’s 52 now) it’s gotten worse. He also has the kind of creative clout and artistic respect – as well as his own state-of-the-art studio and record label – to do something about them. His head, like it was in the video for Sledgehammer, is in a constant whirl of distractions and brightly coloured ideas.

Even the room he chose for our long , rambling interview in London is entirely cluttered with objects vying for attention – lamps, oil paintings, antique ornaments, lamps, scroll-work, chandelier, bowls of fruit, bowls of biscuits – fitting perfectly with a conversation that takes in monkeys,”thinking machines”,  a “healing theme park”, the redecoraton his old farmhouse in the English countryside,  the beehive he designed and built in his bedroom to put the toilet in, water-paintings, the cycles of the moon, recording on the Amazon river, an “arts and science cabaret”, looking after the Real World label and the WOMAD festival, becoming a father once again – oh, and that’s right, his new album.

It’s called UP. “The title came first, before a lot of the songs. About ten years ago. Since then other people have used it – REM, Ani Di Franco, Shania Twain – so it’s been tried and tested, which is why I’m still using it.” He smiles. The material on the album – remarkable, complex, disturbing sometimes, but at others breathtakingly lovely (and it sounds amazing on headphones) – was pieced together from hundreds of hours of material Gabriel recorded for “130 different song ideas,” some of which were developed for last year’s Ovo – the music he wrote for London’s vilified Millenium attraction, the Dome, which now sits abandoned and empty on the South side of the Thames [*Postscript: Today it is the 02 Arena, a famous music venue] and his recent soundtrack album The Long Walk Home (music from the critically-acclaimed film Rabbit-Proof Fence). “It’s been a long, slow process”, says Gabriel – who credits his producer Tchad Blake for helping model the pieces into a cohesive whole –  “a sort of ramshackle way of working on what interests me at the time, accumulating so much material, either finished or nearly finished, and then it all ending up falling into one place.”

The fact that it fell into place a decade after its multimillion-selling predecessor is a coincidence, he says.  He hadn’t planned to take this long, he explains, looking slightly embarrassed yet privately gleeful at it having taken so long. But ten years – such a nice round figure, he says, and without pausing for breath starts talking about his current fascination with roundness. The moon, for example, plays a big part in his new record. Which is why he’s realising it at the exact hour and day of the full moon on September 21st, and  is making snippets of it available for free on the Internet to the so-called “lunatics”  – fan club members who signed up for the privilege – every month on the night of the full-moon. “They just have to look up”, he says, “to see when the next one’s due”.

And then he’s talking about home decoration. “A friend introduced me to adobe and ever since then, we’ve plastered the studio and the house with  lot of round features. Not proper Mexican adobe”, he says, “because of the English weather. The way we do it – pink plaster, don’t paint it, just put a little Unibond (sealant) around it  – and you blob it around the place so you have wonderful shapes. For instance in the bedroom, it’s quite a small space, in an old farm building, and to get a loo in, we didn’t really have enough space to put anything, so we had to take a  bit of space from the bedroom back. Rather than just lose a big chunk of the room, I thought of having a beehive shape with a little arched door and the loo is hidden within the beehive, so in the bedroom you still get the sense of the full space of the room but with this beautiful shape in it. And in our London place we’ve got a huge fireplace and in the middle of that is a big, pregnant plaster shape with a fire underneath it. I’ve been very interested in roundness – woman roundness, woman shapes, womb shapes, inside and out.”

Not that surprising really when, less than a year ago,  Gabriel’s new wife Meabh presented him with a baby boy, Isaac.

“Fantastic!” says Gabriel of becoming a father again. ‘It’s the first time for her, but I think I’m definitely more relaxed about things, so that’s an advantage. You have a different perspective. It’s a wonderful gift. You don’t get panicked by all the neurosis you felt as a young parent, you know, will this or that kill them? ”

Curiously, many of the songs on UP are about death.

“There’s a whole lot of songs about death. Most of them were largely written before Isaac came along. In fact there’s a song written even before Isaac was conceived called ‘Babyman’, which I think will probably be on the next record. That wasn’t specifically about him, but it was obviously something in my head. So I think these things are influenced by, but not directly concurrent with, life – everything just goes in and gets chewed around and digested a bit and you never know what is going to get spat out in the end.

“During that same period I lost a brother-in-law. And my parents are getting on in age – my dad just hit 90; I’m extremely lucky that he’s made it through to my wedding and Isaac’s birth – so I think I’ve been focusing more on beginnings and ends. In a way  a way I think there is a positive edge to this stuff which I am writing about death, because out of death comes life. And sometimes, I think, when you stare mortality in the face, life is lived a little bit more fully.”

Many of UP‘s songs have this in-built dualism, extremes of sound and mood that, like life and death, fuse back into each other. “They go from different place to different place – journey songs, rather than just verse, chorus, middle. I’ve always liked that in other people’s songs so it seemed a good thing to try to do.”

Opening track Darkness for instance, whose big doomy intro, like an orchestra playing Death Metal (“it scares people a lot – which is nice; I like music that touches extremes”) gives way to something lyrical and childlike. A song might mix several ingredients – almost Beatlesque moments (what Gabriel calls “the sort of Lennon references and that Beatles bendy-string thing – The Beatles were one of my formative influences growing up so it’s bound to come out from time to time”),  plus African rhythms,  mournful piano, backwards masking, odd percussion and a male choir – within its six-minutes-plus. (Only the closing track, ‘The Drop’ is short.).

Musicians this time cover a very wide range- former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green, African musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; African-American gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama, American producer-players Daniel Lanois,  Mitchell Froome and Bob Ezrin who produced Gabriel’s first solo album after leaving Genesis. Gabriel’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Melanie, sings on the album too.

The instruments include brass, strings, tape loops, tape scratching, Mellotron, mandolin and strange items called ‘Wonky Nord’, ‘Mutator, ‘Bass Pulse’ ‘JamMan’ and ‘MPC Groove’. On a couple of tracks, including ‘More Than This’, Gabriel plays guitar, “but I sampled it, because I’m such a bad guitarist.” On another track, ‘Sky Blue’, one of his early guitar heroes, Peter Green, takes over the job. “I’m an old fan. He’s an extraordinarily soulful musician. I know he was generally written off as an acid casualty and working his way back in. I just tried to find out where he was and called him. I really wanted him to stand in the limelight and take a solo but he wanted to sit back a bit more – which was all right with me; it was an honour to have him on my record.”

If he had to sum up his approach to making music, he says, it’s “the idea of playing around with and contrasting diferent elements. You know, you live in two Britains in a way – a historic Britain, which is far more organic, with far more folk music influences, and contemporary Britain, where you’ve got Asian, African and Irish input and  industrial/ computerised instruments. All these instruments, organic and technological, have their place and do different jobs, so I use them all. If I just stuck to organic instruments, it would be a bit like saying, ‘I’m a painter but I’m not going to use blue, because the colour has only just been discovered’ – and”, he laughs, “I’ve always been interested in new toys for boys, I guess because my father was an electrical engineer. If you’ve got all these sounds at your disposal you use them all. I can’t tell you how exciting the possibiities that the new technology opens up are for an artist.”

So many possibilities that it gets ever harder to finish an album? “Exactly. And having your own studio has its weaknesses as well as strengths.”

This duality, the new father theorises, came wrapped up in the sperm that conceived him. “My dad is reserved, shy, an inventor, more into  ideas and meditative energy. My mother’s more instinctive and emotional, someone who responds by the moment, and very much into music – classical music. I’m an equal product of both. I have a depressive part of my nature and a hopeful, energetic, laughter side.”

If his music more often tends to reflect his more melancholy side, it’s because “I’m a fan of sad music, and I think it’s a lot easier to make good sad music than good happy music. Yes, there is a sadness in the songs, but it’s soulful. I think there’s a release when someone pours out their heart. You feel lighter and lifted.” These songs, he says, bring out “some of the therapy stuff I did, where I really got to what I felt was a sort of light place only by pushing out the gunge.” Gabriel first went into “serious” therapy after the break-up of his first marriage to Melanie’s mother Jill. “I did a couples group first of all for about two and a half years, then three years on my own but part of a group. No, it’s not very British – I think it stems from my having been 17 years old in 1967 so all that sort of alternative ‘hippy’ stuff filled my adolescent head. But I think it’s a very helpful tool, just to look back at what you’ve been doing. And it’s a safe place to emote.”

His studio, on a large patch of countryside near the old Roman town of Bath, west of London, is also something of a sanctuary, you gather – the hi-tech equivalent of the potting shed at the end of the garden, where a man goes to hide from domestic life, smoke his pipe and think. Peter’s new wife, as a recording engineer herself, is doubtless more understanding than most about his near-total immersion in his work. She was with him when he decided it would be a good idea to do some recording on a boat on the Amazon river.

“The boat  had a fully-equipped, 48-track studio on board. You’d be just playing away and you’d look up and there would be all this amazing vegetation and insect life.” This trip was just one of the many extremes the new songs came out of. “We went to the snow, in France – working in the morning and snow-boarding in the afternoon. And right before that we went to Senegal with a (recording) desk I’d been making. We didn’t have air-conditioning so I’d be sitting, working, with a towel full of ice cubes on my head, water dripping down my back, because I can’t think properly when my brain gets too hot. I was enjoying the process so much, just generating more and more new ideas, that I didn’t want to discipline myself to finish anything. But I hope”, he adds, as if in compensation, “to have another album out within two years. There’s plenty of material there and I really want to try to finish it off.”

How he’ll find the time to do it, of course, is the big problem. There are several other projects in various stages of cooking. For example the instrument he’s inventing. “When you hear some of these boxes generating a lot of dance music, arpeggiated things, that’s up and down with quite electronic-sounding synths, I think I’d like to do that with organic sounds.  I asked this guy Dave Hinton to build a box to do that”. There’s also an “arts and science cabaret” collaboration with Robert Page;  “It’s in Montreal at the moment – it was going to be in New York and then  Sept 11th happened, and since it’s got terrorists on planes blowing things up in it, it was obviously not the right time.  We’re working on involving even more artists and scientists, because it’s a good mix”.  And still on the back burner is The Real World Experience Park, a new age Utopia theme park he planned and has been trying to get off the ground for more than 20 years. “Nothing’s happened, but I think all of this stuff feeds everything else that I do in some way or another, so you can’t make a wrong turn”.

His UP world tour is due to start later this year in the U.S. Right now Gabriel is designing the stage set  – moon and water, circles within squares. He runs over to fetch his large briefcase and pulls out a book of photos by an artist, Susan Derges, who poured water onto a loudspeaker and photographed the ever-changing shapes made when the music played, then fixed a hose dripping water onto the speaker, turned up the volume, and photographed its weird and affecting results.

“Water”, says Gabriel, smiling, “is this fluid medium through which they think life on this planet began. We’re all composed of water, more than anything else, and water is affected by the moon, from tides through to the menstrual cycle. Everything that happens”, Gabriel says – like his apes will be one day, he hopes, via the  worldwide web – “is all  linked.”

It’s time to go now. He plucks a cherry from the bowl and  hands it to me: “Do you want a piece of fruit?” I take it, and, packing my tape recorder, notepad and pen, prepare to go back into a far duller world than the one Peter Gabriel inhabits.

Snake-shot Saturday

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Throwback Thursday is so… throwback. So I came up with Snakeshot Saturday. And to mark its inauguration, here’s a photo of me from, hmm, the mid 90s I think, with a snake named Sebastian.

He was a long snake, was Sebastian. The other two-thirds of him didn’t make it into the shot, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Sebastian lived in Los Angeles with a good friend of mine. When he first turned up at her house he was baby and, while construction was underway on a grand serpentarium, he lived in a large, lidded aquarium in the guest room. One night when I was staying in that room, Sebastian managed to push the lid off the tank and crawl out and into bed with me. First I knew about it was when she found us in the morning side by side and fast asleep.

I never much liked snakes – still don’t – but Sebastian and me, I guess you could say we had an understanding. And yet  for all the years that I knew him, we never slept together again.