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.