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.