Roger Waters on 'The Wall,' Socialism and His Next Concept Album

"'The Wall' is asking the question, 'Do you want a voice? And if you do, you better bloody well go out and get it,'" says Pink Floyd co-founder

In an epic interview, ever-outspoken songwriter Roger Waters weighs on in his current projects and surveys the worldwide political scene. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Interviewing Roger Waters can be a wild ride. If he likes a question, he's happy to pontificate at length, but bore him with tired inquiries and angry Roger "If you don't eat your meat, you won't get any pudding!" Waters can come out, though usually only for a few frightening seconds. The occasion for Rolling Stone's latest chat with the Pink Floyd co-founder was the impending release of Roger Waters The Wall, a CD/Blu-ray document of his recent Wall tour, out December 1st, but inevitably politics came up quite a bit. Waters happened to phone mere seconds after Joe Biden announced he wasn't running for president; knowing his interest in the political scene, we started with that. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea.

Hey, Roger. Did you see the news about Joe Biden? He just said he's not running for president.
I can't understand a word you're saying. You aren't making any sense.

I was just saying that Joe Biden announced he's not running for president.
Aaaaannnnd ...

And I'm surprised. I really thought he was going to go for it.
[Three-second pause] Thanks for sharing your opinion.

Okay, then. Let's talk about The Wall. Why do you think it has managed to connect with so many people over the past 35 years?
After the death of the protest movement, which was quite strong among young people in the 1960s and 1970s, though it somehow got dissipated in the Silicon Valley revolution, I think people are ready now to start confronting very broad philosophical and political issues, and The Wall is absolutely packed with them. And a lot of these issues have to do with quality of life, and they also have to do with life and death.

And so I think The Wall allows us to focus our attention on a fundamental question, which would be whether or not we want to live in societies that are very, very similar to East Germany before Perestroika, should I say. I mean, I'm not going to go back to the 1930s because I should get into terrible trouble, but I think people are just beginning, as they sleepwalk their way through imperial capitalism, to realize the law is being eroded and the military are taking over commerce and the corporations are taking over government and that we the people no longer have a voice. To some extent, The Wall is asking the question, "Do you want a voice? And if you do, you better bloody well go out and get it because it's not going to be handed to you on a plate."

How has the meaning of the album changed for you since the time you wrote it?
[Sighs] I've answered this question so many times. At the start, it was much more a personal narrative about a man in his twenties who couldn't quite make sense of what was going on in his life and why he felt so isolated from other human beings and really unable to reach out. And it was expressed because I had experienced that as a very successful young musician standing on the stage in front of an audience and realizing there was this extreme disconnect between how I felt and how they felt. And that's where The Wall came from, that feeling of disconnection and it was why I thought of using the theatrical device of physically building a wall in front of the stage in order to express my feeling of alienation.

Now it's about me not feeling that alienation from the audience. My connection with my audience over the last few years traveling The Wall over the world has been very intimate and close and rewarding for me, so The Wall becomes more a communal examination of the political state that we live in.

You played the show about 220 times. Did you always intend the tour to go that long?
We had no idea how many shows we were going to be able to do. It was taking a huge punt to put a show of that magnitude together in the first place, but people responded to it and the word of mouth was great, and in consequence we went on for over three years.

Are you tempted to do more Wall shows in the future or are you done with it?
If Israel works toward equality and actual, real, genuine democracy, with no apartheid or racism infecting the society, then I will go over there and play The Wall again. I have the bits and pieces of the stage stored, and the ones I haven’t got stored, I will rebuild. 

I've spoken to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and particularly the Israelis, since they hold all the power. Again, if the illegal wall that is winding its way remorselessly across the — yes, we can call them the occupied territories; yes, we can call it a country, Palestine — if that wall ever comes down, I'll do it. This was a promise that I made a number of years ago and it stands today.

Are you hopeful that day is going to come in the foreseeable future?
It's interesting you should say that. I was lying in bed last night, flipping through channels as one does when you can't find any more replays of the Champions League, and suddenly I came to something and I thought, "Hmmm, that looks interesting. I think I'll have a look at that." And it was JLTV, which stands for Jewish Life Television. What caught my interest and made me chuckle was that they called it, "JLTV, the chosen network." [Laughs] Oh, my God, I was laughing out loud. Wow, how unbelievably inappropriate is that?

There was a perfectly nice young woman on that ran an organization that I've heard of peripherally called StandWithUs, and I think it's trying to get people to support Israel. Israel that is, not Israelis. Israel, to support the government of Israel and the country that is called Israel. She had on two guests, a young blonde woman and some guy who looked like he might be French. They started to talk about BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] and they were agreeing, the three of them, how awful it was that BDS was organized, how it wasn't grassroots and that it was organized from the outside. They said that money was being poured in from outside and people supporting the BDS movement at American universities were puppets and almost in the pay of rich Palestinians that were pulling their strings.

They kept showing huge walls that have been built across campuses in southern California and other places. They were beautiful structures, copies of the separation walls, covered in political slogans with people manning them and telling some of the history. And the three moderators were desperately trying to knock down the BDS protest against Israeli occupation, terrorism and racism. Every time they opened their mouths they gave more credence to the thing they thought they were attacking.

I sat there with my mouth open and just thought, "This is fantastic. You have this television program preaching to the choir, where they might just as well taken their boots off, rolled their socks down, handed them some Glock 9mm [guns] and be shooting themselves in the foot, describing all this nonsense.

When they were describing Palestinian action, they were actually describing themselves, the Hasbara the arm of the Prime Minister's office that we all know starts with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. It's very organized, and I see it all over my Facebook page all the time. It's this hugely organized thing, which takes no account of history, never looks at facts and just tells this big lie that "this is our land, and it belongs to us, and God gave it to us, and there never were any Palestinian people, and they were always trying to murder us and don't we have a right to protect ourselves," which is basically their platform.

When you talk about this issue, people often label you an anti-Semite.
[Laughs] They try to. You know, funnily enough I am doing a gig with G.E. Smith, my great friend, in a tiny theater in Sag Harbor next Saturday, 300 people. It's been sold out for months. It's a series of shows G.E. is doing where he invites one other musician. It's called Portraits. I saw him the other day and I said, "What are we going to do, G.E.?" He said, "Don't worry. We'll talk a bit, play a bit of music, and you'll be alright. You know what to do."

But it got picked up by somebody, and I got sent a link to a blog item about little, old local Jewish ladies, God bless them, who have decided to protest. They are writing letters to the theater saying I shouldn't be allowed to perform. The theater, I am happy to say, is claiming that I'm an important musician who should be allowed to speak, at least, or play his music, or whatever I want to do. Quite rightly.

So, I know people could turn around and say, "Well, hang on a minute. It's all very well to say that you have freedom of speech, but what about Alan Parsons in Tel Aviv? You tried to stop him." And I can have that conversation all afternoon. And it would not be all that interesting because it's really quite simple. The analogy is with the civil rights in the southern states of the United States and pre-Mandela South Africa. We all know how important the cultural and sports boycott of South Africa became in the organizing of global civil society to express the generally heartfelt horror of the way the white-supremacist South African government was oppressing the black population of that country.

This is the same way that global society, by and large, feels about Israel. But a lot of people in America don't know that because it's not reported that same way. It's not the Israeli people, not Jews, not Judaism. I would never dream of attacking them. In fact, a lot of the Israelis are the people who are fighting the hardest because they believe it is the most effective tool for changing policies of their own government. So we could have that conversation, but let's not.

So when someone like Howard Stern ...
Ha!

When he says you want the Jews sent back to concentration camps, how do you feel?
You know, I wouldn't waste a single one of my precious breaths on that asshole, and I just did. That was a waste of breath. Let's move on.

Okay. What's the status of your next album?
Ah, that is a very, very good question. I have made an entire demo. I’m in a room sitting with a guitar, all the demo recordings and a legal pad and a pen, shoveling things around and scribbling things down. It’s an attempt to come up with a shape, a cartoon sketch of what this painting may be when it’s finished. And the device that I’m using to do that is to think of it as an arena show, because I do think I have one more in me. I’m trying to figure out how to juggle all these new tunes with old tunes as well into a cohesive arena show that I can get some bums into seats with. The basic question of the album is, "Why are we killing the children?"

So I take it this is a concept record.
Yeah. Why change now?

It's been 22 years since your last rock album. I think the fans are quite ready to hear some new stuff.
Right. They really are. And that's where it is. It's very exciting but also a very challenging and scary time. Once you get into the meat of the thing you're starting to say, "Mmm, maybe we should do this with the keyboard part, or maybe that tempo isn't quite right. Or wait, maybe this transition from this theatrical scene in the next one needs tweaking a bit." I mean, that's what we do. But the difficult bit in any project like this is getting the first sketches and finding the basic shape of the thing, blocking it out into the grey bits and the white bits.

Do you have any sort of timeline for when you'd like to see it come out?
[Laughs] I don't really deal much in hopes and fears. Now that winter is with us, I'm finding myself making more and more. And now that my vets thing is over, which was fantastic. We did that last Friday in Washington. It was called Music Heals and we did a show for about 3,500 people at Constitution Hall. It was incredibly moving. We have so much help from so many people. The wounded guys I was working with were great musicians. And I had Billy Corgan and Tom Morello. It was very rewarding and very exhausting, but we're past that now and I have a little bit of time and can go and attack this project.

Do you miss being on tour? The Wall tour occupied a huge portion of your life for so many years.
Yeah. When we did even just this gig on Friday, I got real charged up. Half of me is going, "I can't wait to get back, and I can't wait to put this idea to the test and get the thing out." I dipped me toe in the water [of touring] somewhere around the new millennium. I know that I have an audience out there. People have finally figured out that I do exist, that I didn't disappear the day I left Pink Floyd. I went on writing and working and doing my thing.

What's your relationship like right now with the other members of Pink Floyd?
Nick Mason and I adore each other. We've been friends for almost 50 years. There was a brief schism when I left the band, and it was completely understandable, but it was relatively brief and we're great, great friends now. And so I see him. Rick [Wright]'s dead, sadly. Syd [Barrett]'s dead, sadly. David [Gilmour] and I have never been friends at all, so we don't socialize or have anything to do with one another, really. And I'm content with all of that.

With all that in mind, I'm sure its annoying that everyone asks you about a Pink Floyd reunion that will obviously never happen.
I would refer you to my Howard Stern answer.

Do you mind summarizing that just a bit?
[Screaming] No, I’m not going to! Why don’t you just ask me my favorite fucking color? You know, this can’t get any more dumb than that. Everybody knows the answer. And everybody asks the question again and again! It’s just so dumb. I'm sorry to get testy.

I don't blame you for feeling that way. That's why I asked if you're sick of it.
I know. You’re just doing your job.

Let’s talk about Donald Trump. Are you horrified he’s doing so well in the polls?
Yes, its horrifying, of course. It's entirely horrifying. But then, you cannot look at any of those Republican candidates and not be horrified. They are so charged up with wanting to murder everybody in the world. I know I should get into hot water for saying this, but their attitudes are so fascist, all of them, that it's very hard to listen to any of them. Trump is particularly obnoxious. He thinks he’s clever because he made a few bucks and has a crappy TV show. And obviously he's not. He doesn't have a smart bone in his body.

Why do you suppose he's leading in the polls then?
Because your electorate, and it's only the Republican electorate that we're taking about now, are kept entirely in the dark by a malignant mainstream media lead by Fox News, but closely followed by all the other talking heads that just want to kind of smile at you and toe the party line and never question anything seriously, especially about the United States or what it is and what its aspirations are or what it wants to be, except that it wants to be a major imperial power all over the world. You have bases in 135 countries, which is extraordinary, though nobody ever seems to question it.

You pour huge amounts of your national resources into the Pentagon and use it, basically, to push around the rest of the world and make yourself unpopular with everybody else. And nobody seems to address any of this. This is a silence hovering over this great nation, and I think it's a silence that is about to be broken.

It's a bit like I was saying about the movement to try and gain some sort of justice for the Palestinian people. It's beginning to take root, and it's not just in the campuses either. It's in the churches as well. I now correspond with people from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. They voted to divest from Hewlett-Packard and Motorola and Caterpillar and other organization that seem to be actively involved in the oppression of the Palestinian people and supporting the settlement movement, which is entirely illegal, as we know.

You won't hear this, obviously, on Jewish Life Television. They never ask themselves, "Why is it, do you suppose, that the whole body of world opinion believes that the settlement program," which they call the territories, "to be illegal?" Hang on. Let me think: because it is. The law is written down, and it is enshrined in documents, and you can go and look it up. And under International Law, Israel is breaking the law 600,000 times a day, just in the settlement issue alone. Every single Jewish settler in the occupied territories breaks the law every morning when they wake up. You are not allowed to build settlements in land that you have occupied by military force.

In your mind, has any war after World War II been justified?
No. Absolutely not. I mean, they are all little wars, clearly none of them justified in any way, unless you think it is a reasonable justification, in Panama or Guatemala or Nicaragua or Chile, to spend American money and use American covert operations to change regimes and impose dictators on democratic people. Chile is a perfect example. They murdered [Salvador] Allende and imposed [Augusto] Pinochet.

When I say "they" I mean "you." The United States of America did that. We all know that [Henry] Kissinger did it. Everybody knows what happened. When you do that, you obviously can't call it a just war. When you do that same thing in Guatemala or Venezuela ... the list is absolutely endless. Vietnam, which was the biggest thing, was clearly unjust.

Do you see World War II as a just war, despite the firebombing of Dresden and other war crimes?
I'm sure war crimes were committed by everybody in World War II, and this is the awful thing about war. If people go to war, people commit crimes. Nobody plays by the rules. Major crimes were committed by the Allies in World War II, mostly in the dying stages of the war: the incineration of the German civilization population, which was a heinous crime. It wasn't just Dresden. It was Hamburg and Dusseldorf. There's about 13 cities that were completely destroyed for no military reason, just to break the will of the people.

It's terrorism, what they did. They figured out how to destroy people using the technology of aerial bombardment. And obviously they did that in Japan. It wasn't just Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They killed more people, in fact, in the firebombing of Tokyo than they did in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And they're war crimes, but they'll never get counted because we won. If you win, you don't get accused of crimes.

Despite all that, the war had to be fought, right?
Absolutely, yeah. Hitler ... You can look back to the end of the First World War and say, "Well, where did we go wrong? What actually created the political will, during the Weimar Republic, for the rise of National Socialism and Nazi Germany and '33 and '34 and everything that happened after that? How did it come that Hitler became the leader? And blah, blah, blah." One can look at that history, and there are people much wiser than me — historians, political commentators — who can figure out what happened, and strangely enough, see parallels to right now. They'll say, "You know what? We should be careful about what's happening."

That is why the Donald Trumps and Ben Carsons of this world are so dangerous. We know from personal experience that electorates, particularly if they're uninformed, ill-educated and subject to a constant barrage of propaganda by the mainstream media in the country of which they are citizens, are at least potentially capable of following someone like that into cataclysm.

And then Ben Carson is nuts enough to say that Obama is like Hitler.
It's really scary. You know, I often get people saying to me, [mock Southern accent] "Why don't you go back to England, damm limey! How dare you?" And I go, "Hey, listen, guess what? Have you read your Constitution? Have you read your First Amendment?"

People used to criticize me for singing songs that criticized Ronald Reagan, or one like "Leaving Beirut" that criticized Tony Blair. They'd go, [back to the mock accent] "I didn't pay money to listen to this shit. Why doesn't he shut up and go home?" Well, I'll tell you why I don't shut up and go home! It's because I have profoundly held beliefs and because I am a writer and this is what writers do. You don't have to buy tickets and come see the show, but you cannot silence me. It's illegal.

If Donald Trump wins, are you going to leave the country?
No. I think if Trump wins, all of us of good heart need to stay here and organize and get rid of him as soon as possible before he destroys the world, because he will. Give him half a chance, he could. I mean, I don't get think he'll get elected, but if he does, this is a wake-up call for America beyond any other wake up-call. And by the way, congratulations to our brothers and sisters north of the border for electing [Justin] Trudeau in the face of the awful [Stephen] Harper. I cannot tell you how glad I am to see the end of him.

That election shows how polls aren't always that reliable, so maybe Trump's numbers are really inflated also.
Yeah. I don't know. It's a long, tedious and corrupt campaign, inevitably. Bernie Sanders is one of the few people saying that Citizens United is one of the biggest steps backwards in American jurisprudence since ... I don't know. Maybe the Harrison [Narcotics Tax] Act [in 1914.]  He is right. Citizens United is an appalling misappropriation of the wording of the constitution, I feel. It shows that the Supreme Court, because they are political appointees, by and large, on major issues, vote down party lines. So if you've got five Republicans and four Democrats you are going to get a Republican opinion, as you did when they gave Bush the election after the recount in Florida, sort of snatching it from Al Gore, as they have done with Citizens United, where they are giving big money the absolute permission now to secretly give as much as they want to whomever they want.

I think the big fear about Sanders is that he's so far left, he can't get elected on a national ticket, and if the Democrats nominate him, they'll hand the White House to the Republicans.
Well, you might be right about that, but I hope you are wrong. It is true that people become marginalized if their politics appear to be too far to the left. You have you remember, this is why I admire him, because when he speaks the truth, he speaks the truth. He sounds very left wing, but that is because we have been fed this right-wing bullshit by the whole of the mainstream media since the Second World War. And it has gotten worse and worse and worse, and the outlets for dissenting voices have become fewer and fewer. So he is bound to sound out of step, because he is! And that is what is good about him.

I just think the term "socialist" freaks a lot of people out.
Socialism is a good thing! What is wrong with socialism? You are the only country that I've ever heard of that buses its kids to school in the morning. What is that if not socialist? I am serious! I know nowhere else in the world. Then you go, "What the hell is that about?" "Well, we don't want our kids to walk through dangerous neighborhoods to get to school, so we send a bus to pick them up at their front door and take them home afterwards." And you go, "Wow, great." That is pure socialism, and it is correct.

If you had socialized medicine as well, then we could really start calling you a socialist country. At least you have a better medical system now, thanks to Barack Obama, thanks to the executive branch of this administration that we are now seeing draw to a close. But it's nothing like the healthcare you get in any of the other 30 major civilized countries in the world. Your healthcare is great if you are very, very, very rich and you have some rare form of cancer. You have the best brain surgeons or whatever in the world, but they service a tiny, tiny proportion of people. But by and large, your healthcare is dreadful, and the cost of it is almost double anywhere else in the world, and you get half the service for it. You know why?

Why?
Because it goes to the fucking insurance companies and to the profits of the drug lords and drug companies. It has skimmed off its profit, and it shouldn't be! Medicine should be provided to all the people, all of the time, for a moderate cost. Of course the drug companies should make moderate profits and of course insurance companies should make moderate profits, but they don't. They are like loan sharks. They are ripping the heart out of everyone, and they are gouging as hard and fast as they can. That is the world we live in.

That should do it, Roger. Thanks for doing this.
You know what you need, don't you?

What?
Socialism!

Ha!
Well, it was nice talking to you. Cheers.