In conversation with Peter Gabriel ahead of his upcoming UK tour.
This is your first tour in the UK and Europe since 2014 (and since 2016 in the USA). Do you approach a new tour of this scale with a sense of excitement or trepidation? Perhaps a bit of both?
“There’s always a mixture of dread and excitement when you decide to go on the road again. What has been making it pleasurable for me is the band. We have an amazing band. I think it’s the biggest band I’ve been out with, except when we were joining forces with Sting (2016 Rock, Paper, Scissors tour in the USA).”
Tell us about who do you have in the band this time round?
“We have two string players, the amazing cello player Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who’s also playing the keyboard and singing beautifully. Marina Moore on violin and viola, a great player and she’s also singing with us. Richard Evans is back. He’s been working with me for many years on and off for different situations, more in the studio probably than on the road, though he was in the band for the Growing Up tour.
“We have Josh Shpak, who’s a brilliant trumpeter. He’s also ended up on the i/o record. Oli Jacobs, who was engineering, was visiting an old flatmate and heard him rehearsing next door and said, ‘This guy’s amazing.’ And sure enough, we sent him some stuff and he did some beautiful playing. And it’s great to have him out here with us as well.
“When I was working with Brian Eno, who has done some wonderful work on the i/o record, I was trying to play a funky keyboard part and he said, ‘Peter, the man you want is Don E.’ And it was on the track Road to Joy, which hasn’t yet come out. But he got Don in and he was fantastic. Lovely to work with. Then we found out that he does all sorts of other things too as he grew up in a sort of gospel household where you just had to play all the instruments, sing, percussion, all sorts! So, I thought that would be a nice inclusion on the keyboards as well.
“Then Manu Katché, we have back on drums, he’s just brilliant. David Rhodes and Tony Levin have been with me such a long time and have been such a regular part of my band. So that’s what makes it fun, extraordinary musicians with a really wide range of experience and talents.”
You have a lot of new songs to play this time out, that must bring a new energy to you and the band?
“I’m an old guy but it does get me going to have a lot of this young energy around. I think the colours that we can now use, if you like, with the horns and strings means sound wise I’m really happy.
“We’re still in production rehearsals now, so visually we’ve still got a little way to go, but some of it’s looking really strong, I think. We’ve also been working with great visual artists, some of whom you may have seen a little bit of on the monthly lunar releases, and some of that work they’ve let us play around with for the live show and it looks great. I’m excited about that too and I hope you enjoy it.”
How have you approached the balance between old and new songs that people will get to hear?
“Well, there’s always a trade-off. People generally want to hear what they know and the artist generally wants to play the new stuff. So, I think there’s a sort of barter thing where you have to suffer enough new numbers to get to hear the old ones. It’s always been a bit like that with me, but I think this is a strong batch of songs. They’re not all up-tempo, but I feel they’re certainly being played with a lot of heart.”
You are working with Robert Lepage again, what is that working relationship like and what does he bring to the process?
“Yeah, Robert Lepage is an extraordinary, visionary theatre and film director, but it’s his mind that I love. He’s also very funny, very rude sometimes, so it’s fun to work with him. He definitely has a visionary mind and what he’s really strong at is telling stories, linking things together so that it makes some sense of the whole.
“Unfortunately, he gets booked many years ahead now so we didn’t get as much time as I would have hoped, but we had enough to set the scene and help us focus on what story we wanted to tell and how we were going to do it. I can’t think of anyone better to help realize things in terms of live performance because he has this wonderful visual sense. For anyone who hasn’t seen his work, I strongly recommend it.”
Secret World Live and Growing Up Live – two previous tour collaborations with Robert Lepage – had some big themes that were reflected in the staging. What are key themes you are exploring this time?
“There are a few ideas that occur in some of the songs like reconnecting to nature. I personally feel that we’ve lost our sense of where we came from, that we came out of the planet, out of the natural world, and really, we’re still in it. We like to pretend that we live in this man-made environment and we’re independent and isolated, but actually we’re dependent very much on the planet that gave us birth. So that’s one of the themes.
“I do think that we’re at the point of an existential crisis and not just climate, also AI. I’m a great fan and believer in technology, but like any of these powerful transformative tools you’ve got to have a sense of what you want from them, where they might take you.
“Also, I’m 73 years old now and part of it is getting older. That’s another theme. Trying to simplify the things that you value, that are important, who’s important, what’s important in your life, those type of issues. So, it’s more reflective in some ways, but I think it’s still quite alive and we have fun with it.”
Peter Gabriel – i/o the Tour 2023 begins on Saturday June 17th at Birmingham’s Utilita Arena. Tickets.