Two days before his spectacular closing set on the first weekend of Desert Trip in Indio, California, Roger Waters is sitting in his backstage trailer already looking past that – to the summer of 2017. “I have so many ideas on how to engineer this,” the ex-Pink Floyd singer-bassist tells Rolling Stone brightly of his next tour, a five-month run through North American arenas which opens on May 26th in Kansas City. Billed as “Roger Waters – Us + Them” after the song on Pink Floyd’s 1973 breakthrough, The Dark Side of the Moon, it will be Waters’ first tour since “The Wall Live,” his worldwide 2010-2013 solo staging of the Floyd’s landmark 1979 album, The Wall. (The tour is still the highest grossing by a solo artist in history, pulling in more than $458 million.)
“Us + Them” will feature an entirely new audio-visual presentation of material from Waters’ long history with the Floyd. Waters also plans to debut songs from his first studio album since 1992’s Amused to Death, which he has been recording over the past year with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. “We’ve got some really good work in the can,” Waters reveals, looking at once hip and distinguished with his light-gray hair and beard set off by a black T-shirt and stovepipe jeans. “We did some work in London and in Los Angeles.” Waters, who is living in L.A. while he works on the record, will be back in the studio with Godrich in November.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging conversation over the noisy air conditioning in his trailer, Waters talks about the genesis of his new songs; his pride in the scope and invention of his stage shows; and about Pink Floyd’s new mega-box, The Early Years 1965-1972 – 27 discs with 130 tracks and 15 hours of video footage from their pre-Dark Side era, including the group’s very first recordings with star-crossed founding guitarist Syd Barrett. Released on November 11th, the set is a prelude to the first, major museum retrospective devoted to the group, The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, which opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on May 13th, 2017.
Waters, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights, also speaks about the latest, improbable Floyd reunion. On October 6th, Waters, guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason announced a message of support on Pink Floyd’s official Facebook page for the Women’s Boat to Gaza, 13 activists sponsored by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition who were intercepted when they attempted to breach the Israeli navy’s blockade of Gaza. “It is an issue I care about deeply,” Waters says. “I knew the women – one of whom I know [Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Northern Ireland], all of whom I admire – were going to try and get through the blockade. And we knew they would be arrested.
“I was really happy that Dave and Nick joined me on this,” the bassist adds, “to be finally united with them, taking this stance.”
What is the concept of the new album? Is there a storyline?
I had written a long, meandering piece that was a radio play with about a dozen songs in it. It was the story of an old Irishman who is babysitting. You don’t know this. The thing starts off with a two-minute monologue of discontent [chuckles]: “Our children and grandchildren, ceaselessly bent over their computers, blah, blah, blah, I fucking hate this, I fucking hate that.” That was the beginning of the whole thing, this disillusionment.
You eventually discover that he is babysitting. The kid wakes up. He goes in to look after the kid, and it’s his granddaughter. She is having a nightmare, and the nightmare is someone is killing all the children. He says, “No, they’re not. They haven’t killed any children since the Troubles [in Northern Ireland].” And the kid says, “Not here, Grandpa. Over there.” The grandfather promises they will go on a quest to find the answer to this question: Why are they killing all the children? It is a fundamentally important question.
So I wrote this whole thing – part magic carpet ride, part political rant, part anguish. I played this to Nigel, and he goes, “Oh, I like that little bit” – about two minutes long – “and that bit.” And so we’ve been working. I’ve also been falling in love, deeply in love. So the record is really about love – which is what all of my records have been about, in fact. It’s pondering not just why we are killing the children. It’s also the question of how do we take these moments of love – if we are granted any in our lives – and allow that love to shine on the rest of existence, on others.
“Spectacle is an interesting thing, because I can say I invented it.”
Is that the concept for the new tour as well?
The tour is called “Us and Them” because it is about reaching out, holding hands and understanding – particularly understanding the simple things I have been saying for the last 40 or 50 fucking years, which is, “Building walls is not the answer.” It is particularly appropriate now that we’ve got this lunatic who talks about nothing else, about national exceptionalism – all the things that can be used to destroy all life as we know it.
How will you integrate the older Floyd material into the new theme?
Until I have figured out the theater, I won’t know the answer to that question. The theater is all important. What do you do to make a show useful and entertaining but also philosophically engaging without being preachy and dictatorial? That’s what The Wall is. But I am 40 years older. I have other things I am interested in saying. I am no longer interested in talking about my childhood or my wife leaving me. But I still feel I have a lot to say.
In the show we do [at Desert Trip], at the end of it, I make a speech that will upset a few people [about Palestine]. But it may encourage other people – you can’t sit on a fucking fence. Well, I can’t. Then I sing “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home” [from the Wall] before we go into the big finale [“Comfortably Numb”]. It is me – one man standing there with one acoustic guitar, singing things that mean something to me.
What’s left of the original radio play on the new album?
Oh, it’s been completely thrown out. The radio play will be made. I will make it, because I love it. But it’s a separate issue – it overlaps what we do. Nigel’s really good. He said to me, “People always want to do these long records. How long was The Dark Side of the Moon?” I said 38 minutes. But there are no constraints on records now because nobody pays you anything for them. So everything’s off the table. I so feel for young musicians, knowing that all of your work will be stolen, and nobody wants to pay you.
It also means you can say anything you want. Well, I’ve always said anything I’ve wanted anyway.
How did you meet Nigel?
He came in to do the sound on Roger Waters: The Wall, the movie. He mixed it. He did a great job and I really liked him. We started to talk about doing something.
Did you like the records he has made with Radiohead?
I don’t listen to other people’s records, so I haven’t heard any. I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m working. When I hear “Look out, mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river,” I think about Neil [Young, “Powderfinger”]. Same with Dylan songs.
You built “The Wall” on your last tour, around the world for two years. How do you go beyond a show like that – or do you pull back? How do you address the issue of spectacle when you’ve gone that far for so long?
You have to forget about The Wall. Because you can’t do bigger or more complex. The spectacle is an interesting thing, because I can say I invented it. The [Floyd’s] Wish You Were Here tour had some of that, and the Animals tour in 1977. And then there was The Wall. After that, everybody did spectacle.
“[The box set] has nothing to do with me. It’s not for me. It’s for people who care.”
But do you wonder if you are giving an audience too good a show – that the point you want to make gets lost?
No, never. Certainly when I was in charge of it, there was never anything gratuitous. It was all absolutely directed – essential to the narrative, directed to a particular feeling in the audience.
How much input did you have in the new Floyd box set?
This had been going on for a couple of years, because of the exhibition that is going to to be at the V&A. It took a certain amount of persuasion to get some of the boys to accept their mortal remains [grins]. I haven’t taken much interest in the box set, except they all came to me a few months ago and said, “What the fuck are we gonna call this shit?” I came up with this “/ation” thing for the discs – “Germin/ation,” “Dramatis/ation.” I love the first one, from 1965-1967, “Cambridge St/ation.”
There is a bonus thing, “Continu/ation” [of BBC sessions and rare soundtrack recordings]. That was not my idea. I suggested “Petrific/ation,” “Masturb/ation,” almost anything else. “Continu/ation” is so lame. But whatever. This has nothing to do with me. It’s not for me. It’s for people who care. If people want it, I’ve got nothing against it. It’s cool.
How did the social-media reunion with David and Nick over the Flo-tilla arrests come about?
Two days ago, I emailed them and said, “C’mon, it’s time. They just emailed me back and said, “Fine by me.” We had been sort of talking – “Should we get united on this?” But if you read all the trolls on the Pink Floyd official Facebook page…
Do you wonder if Pink Floyd’s audience today – and the one at Desert Trip – is as politically open and committed as they might have been 40 or 50 years ago?
Probably not. It’s quite clear that this is not the case. Unfortunately, the Trump exceptionalism, all of his racist rhetoric, is feeding an electorate that feels defeated. But it’s not the foreigner who’s defeated you. It’s the one percent that owns everything.