A week after last year’s U.S. election, Barack Obama made a speech in which he lambasted nationalism “built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them.'” It was a phrase that resonated with Roger Waters, and not just because he’d co-written a song called “Us and Them” when he was in Pink Floyd.
“It’s because I agree with [Obama],” says Waters, who is working on a new album in a New York recording studio. “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’; it’s an illusion. We are all human beings and we all have a responsibility to support one another and to discover ways of wresting the power from the very, very few people who control all the cash and all the property.”
That notion that we’re all in this together is one of the major themes the former Pink Floyd singer and bassist will highlight on his upcoming arena tour, also dubbed Us + Them, which kicks off a North American leg in May. He’s promised a spectacle worthy of following up his blockbuster The Wall tour for the trek, and it will feature a mix of older songs with a taste of some new songs, since the tour coincides with the release of a new Waters solo album, Is This the Life We Really Want?, which he says also addresses concepts similar to the tour.
The singer, age 73, says the tour and album fall in line with the sense of discontentment that he’d previewed when he posted video of himself performing the Animals track “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” in Mexico City last October in front of projections of Donald Trump juxtaposed with the word pendejo (“stupid”). “I was wanting to make a strong point of my disapproval of the Donald and everything that he stands for before the election,” he says. “Sadly, it didn’t seem to have quite enough effect. I wrote a long speech that I was gonna make at Desert Trip, but I didn’t because it would not have been good theater. I’ve still got that speech written, and I think I might post it at one point.”
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Ever outspoken, Waters is ready to take his message of humanity on the road and play it before giant audiences, even if it alienates a few fans along the way. “Out of the 80,000 people at Desert Trip, I’m guessing maybe 1,000 got up in disgust and walked out of my performance – I don’t know for sure,” he says. “But there was a very small number people who were upset that I was lampooning the nincompoop.”
Here, in a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Waters talks about the intersection of his musical and political views.
What will the theme be for your Us + Them tour?
The show takes its title from a song on Dark Side of the Moon, because in that song, there’s a line that goes, “With, without/And who will deny that’s what the fighting’s all about?” And I’ve realized in the last few years that the interesting thing about that lyric that I wrote in 1973 is that the answer to the question would be, “Almost everyone.” Almost everybody thinks that the fight is about ideology. Everybody will tell you, “Well the fighting is all about the Middle East.” “Well, it’s about Muslims starting jihad.” “It’s about terrorism.” “It’s about this or that.” And no, it’s not. It’s about money.
The fighting is always about cash. War is hugely profitable. It creates so much money because it’s so easy to spend money very fast. There are huge fortunes to be made. So there is always an encouragement to promote war and keep it going, to make sure that we identify people who are others whom we can legitimately make war upon.
How do you see that happening currently?
Now that the Donald is in power, he says that, in spite of the fact that the United States has armed forces that entirely dwarf the rest of the world’s, he wants to spend even more of your resources in this country – I say “your,” but I actually pay taxes in the States, so he’s using my money as well – on creating a larger Army, Air Force and Navy, and creating more conflict ’round the world because it’s good for business.
And all the Donald cares about is business. He cares about winning and losing at business. He just wants to be the strongest country in the world and to dictate what he believes to everybody else, and he is trying to do so and will continue to try to do so until the resistance grows to the point where hopefully he can be removed from office.
How will you be presenting that concept onstage?
I will be making the point that we’re living the life that we don’t really want to live. I titled the album, which comes out on May 19th, Is This the Life We Really Want? It’s actually a poem I wrote in 2008 before that election, and it was me musing on the idea that possibly, if Obama won, things would get better.
So that is partially what it’s about. But mainly it’s about how if we accept that there is an “us” and a “them,” we’re already embarking on a path through the woods where we’re unlikely to come out into fresh fields and daylight and sunshine and bees – not that there will be any bees if we ever come out of the woods, because we’ll have killed them all with pesticides. I like to think that people would still like to live in a world where the bees might survive, where we might address the problems of climate change, where we might understand that if we empathize with others, it makes us feel happier. Maybe we should start looking at happiness indexes rather than if we win and lose. And if we do that, then we may start to understand that the idea of “us” and “them” is actually an illusion.
And you’ll be doing this with a mix of old and new songs?
It will be songs I wrote when I was in Pink Floyd, maybe a couple of songs from [Waters’ 1992 solo album] Amused to Death and a few songs form the new album, so there’ll be about 75 percent music of mine that everybody will recognize and some things that have been co-written with other guys in Pink Floyd when I was in that band, and maybe 20 percent new material that nobody’s heard. But thematically, it’s all connected.
I’ve only ever written about one thing in my life, which is the fact that we as human beings have a responsibility to one another, and that it’s important that we empathize with others, that we organize society so that we all become happier and we all get the life we really want. And the life that we really want is a life where we can all afford to educate our children, so they and our grandchildren can aspire to better and more productive, less aggressive, less competitive, less “rah-rah,” less nationalistic, less colonial, less supremacist lives than the lives we’re forced to live now, controlled as we are by the very few.
That sounds like a lot to squeeze into a two-and-a-half–hour show.
Well, yeah. … What we’re doing is still rock & roll, and it’s also theater. And we care about it. And there will be people who don’t like it, because I will be attacking Trump.
A good example of how you’ll be doing that with older material is your “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” performance from Mexico City. Why did you choose “Pigs” as the song to indict Trump?
Well, because the first verse fits Trump really well. You know, “Big man, pig man/Ha-ha, charade you are.” And the stuff about, “Down in the pig mine” and “Pig stain on your fat chin.” It’s about gluttony, and Trump is a glutton for his own self-love. He’s also a philistine and deeply insensitive. He shouts it from the rooftops. Unfortunately, because he’s been elected as president of the United States, it has emboldened him in the view that people are impressed by him. I’m sure there are people who are impressed by him, but I’ve never met one of them. Nevertheless, they do exist.
“It’s a lack of empathy that creates a true sociopath like Donald Trump.”
When you posted your “Pigs” video, you wrote “the resistance begins today.” How else are you fighting Trump?
I hope that my tour, Us + Them, will be an exercise in resistance, not just to Trump, but to all the despots, dictators, thieves and ne’er-do-wells all over the world – and unfortunately there are a lot of them. We have to organize our love in such a way that it becomes a potent and powerful enough tour to resist their narcissism and their greed and their callous disregard for the feelings of others and their absolute lack of the ability to empathize with anybody. It’s a lack of empathy that creates a true sociopath like Donald Trump.
I will continue to update [the projections] like you see in the video as he says more outrageous things. He’s an unending source of absurdity. [Quoting Trump] “You can’t be too greedy.” I actually have put that in one of my songs on the new album, because that kind of Gordon Gekko mindset – we thought we left it behind in the Eighties and Nineties, but we haven’t. The president of the United States espouses exactly the ethos of the Gordon Gekko character in Wall Street.
In that case, will Is This the Life We Really Want? be a concept album?
A few years ago, you were working on a radio play that told a story of a man and his granddaughter investigating why children are being killed elsewhere in the world, but you abandoned some of that for this LP. What can you tell me about the album?
Well, two or three of the songs from that idea are on this album. I’m working with an English producer called Nigel Godrich and he persuaded me that for the purposes of a rock & roll record, which is what this is, he felt my theatrical idea – I’d written the whole thing as a radio play – was less than ideal. I said, “OK, that’s an interesting idea. Tell me more.” And since then, we’ve been working backwards and forwards, and it’s been a very rewarding and interesting process. I think that the record we’ve made together is beautiful and we’ve developed all kinds of new pieces to go with it. But it’s far less linear than the radio play would have been.
I have a plan that I may do the radio play anyway, but I’ll do it as a radio play. So there are still many ideas from that on this. The concerns I have with that central question – “Why are we killing the children?” – are still there. I’m still deeply concerned that we’re killing children all over the world with hardly a second thought, because we’ve become so insensitive to the idea of every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life, it is because we stood by silent and indifferent – it’s normal. I’m quoting from the record now. And unfortunately, it has become normal; we have normalized the death of the innocent.
Your last release was an opera, Ça Ira, and it’s been 25 years since Amused to Death. Why did you decide to make a rock album this time?
I don’t think there’s any question … When I was touring The Wall, which I did between 2010 and 2013, I always had a guitar with me in the hotel room and I had a lot of time. At a certain point, I wrote this one song that demands an answer to a particular question. I’ve changed the title but the working title was “If I Had Been God,” and it describes what would have been different – or might have been different – if I had been God.
It’s an interesting exercise to go through for any individual. It’s like if you said, “What would I do if I was the president? What would I do if I had control of the House of Representatives and the Senate? What would make things better?”
What would you do?
It would obviously be very different from the Donald. I would certainly want to make peace with my neighbors in Canada and Mexico, but also all my neighbors around the world. And domestically, I would try to make sure there weren’t people living in the backs of their cars and that people who worked in cities could also afford to live in them.
I would encourage town planners to create green spaces and to lavish money on a public-school system so people could have the great joy of an education. And I would stop being so bellicose and belligerent around the rest of the world, and I would reduce the size of the United States Armed Forces by a huge amount. I rather like the Costa Rica model, since they don’t have an army at all and for some reason they haven’t been invaded by their neighbors.
You seem very plugged in to the news, regarding Trump and his policies.
I’m waiting every day to see what he’ll do next. It seems extraordinary that the judiciary, the law, seems powerless in the face of this narcissistic onslaught. So the fact that his advisor, the Conway woman, is advertising Ivanka’s clothing line on television – that’s against all the rules, but then everything Trump is doing is against all the rules. It’s so bizarre that he’s getting away with it.
But it seems like so many more people are tuned into what’s going on.
A few years ago, the public were more interested in the size of Kim Kardashian’s bum than they were in their own real situation, economics or the way society works, or anything to do with the future, climate change, anything serious. So long as we’re being titillated that we could buy 32-ounce bottles of sugary poison relatively cheaply so that we can all die of diabetes, we’re entirely happy to be fucked by these people.
Maybe [Trump] will be the catalyst. It either goes one way or the other. Either there is going to be a huge resistance and the people of the United States and the rest of the world will wake up and go, “No, this is not the life we really want. We do not want to lead this life. The Trump model for human existence and politics and civilization and the way we organize society is not a model that we aspire to, notwithstanding the election that just happened. We want to follow a different model that is more humane, where we’re not in desperate competition with one another and our nation is not in desperate competition with other nations in the world, that we have come to the conclusion that we need to cooperate with each other and other nations in the world in order to resolve conflicts and make life more bearable for all our brothers and sisters.” After all, we are all human. Even the Donald.
Even the Donald?
Even the Donald is a human being. He’s just sick and mad and crazy, but he’s still a human being. We are all part of the family and have responsibilities to one another. So I see the resistance growing in strength. And the more that he does to implement his policies of diversion and the more he tries to set us all against each other, hopefully we will resist more and say, “No, this is not what we want.”
It may interest you to know that I saw Donald Trump in the audience of one of your Wall concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2010, and I noticed he left before the second act. So he saw the wall go up but did not see the wall come down.
[Laughs] Well, good. That’s interesting in its symbolism. I’m glad you told me that. I had no idea he was there.
This will be your first major tour since The Wall, which was an incredible spectacle. Do you worry about rivaling that production with Us + Them?
No. It will be spectacular but completely different. I’m not going to talk too much about what we’re doing, but anybody who was at Desert Trip or anybody who saw what we did in [Mexico City’s] Zócalo Square will have an idea of what we’re doing. There will be no lack of spectacle. We figured out how to do this, because the North American tour, on this leg of it anyway, is in arenas.
You said prior to The Wall tour that you thought that one would be your last big one. What keeps you wanting to go on the road?
Yeah, well, I have a strong suspicion that this may well be the last one, because I’m not getting any younger. But it’s addictive.
You did a couple hundred shows of The Wall.
In the years since that tour came to an end, I’ve been thinking, “You know, maybe I’ve got one more in me.” Then I started to make the record and thought, “You know what? Maybe I’ll try and put something together and go ’round the world once more.” Because over the 40, 50 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve come to like being in front of an audience more rather than less. I was very ambivalent about it when I was much younger, but the Wall tour and the couple I did before it, I realized that people have connected with my music over the years and there’s something very engaging about being in a room with likeminded people. There’s a real sense of community at the shows, and I feel a real connection with my audience now when I’m onstage, so it’s something I want to go on doing for as long as I can.
Lastly, I did an interview with Nick Mason around the Early Years box set and he put forth an interesting theory about Syd Barrett. He said, “There’s no doubt that LSD exasperated his state, but I think what was happening was Syd realized he didn’t want to be in a rock band at all – he’d done that and decided it wasn’t what he wanted to do, and he wanted to go back to art school.” What’s your take on that?
I don’t know. Maybe. It’s a perfectly decent theory. I think that maybe there is something to that, but we’ll never know, because Syd wasn’t making all that much sense by that time, so it’s hard to know where he was at or what he was thinking. We’ll never know.
Watch Roger Waters explain how Donald Trump has changed the atmosphere in the U.S.