Singer-songwriter also discusses his plans for an upcoming arena tour and explains how a recent truce with ex-bandmate David Gilmour fell apart
When Roger Waters planned his recent, massive Us + Them Tour, he wanted to use his songs as a plea for humanity, a call for listeners to get together and tackle the world’s problems. So he combed the Pink Floyd catalogue for songs like “Us and Them,” “Pigs,” and “Money” that spoke to today’s social ills and paired them with selections from his recent LP, Is This the Life We Really Want? Because he’s Roger Waters, he supersized his message with stunning visuals like a video wall that divided arena audiences and showed satirical takedowns of Donald Trump, and he closed each evening with a laser pyramid and rainbow light array that harkened back to the cover of Dark Side of the Moon.
But these multimedia touches weren’t just eye candy. Throughout the performance, he used his screens to tell the stories of refugees fleeing their homelands and warlords abusing power. This is the message he highlights — along with all the hit songs — in the new film Us + Them, which he co-directed with longtime collaborator Sean Evans. The movie overwhelms both in subject matter and presentation — the theater shakes with the bass in the Dolby Atmos mix — and you can see how the show affected the audiences that came to see the tour. Us + Them, which contains footage from the tour’s stop in Amsterdam last year, will screen around the world this week.
“I’m glad the film turned out to have a humane and political message,” Waters tells Rolling Stone. He was worried during the editing process since the film was too long, so he decided to cut the nightly encore “Comfortably Numb” since “it’s an appendage added to the end of the thing,” and he and Evans focused their cut to show more of the story of the woman featured in the visuals for his Is This the Life song “The Last Refugee.” “I think the film benefits greatly from that,” he says.
When he watched the concert footage, though, he was stunned to see the emotion on the faces of his fans in the close-up shots. “I’m proud of them,” he says. “I’m proud of anybody who allows themselves to be moved by the idea that human beings acting collectively to make each other’s lives more full of love is something worth fighting for.”
Do you feel like the message of the tour reached people in the way you intended?
You know, yeah. That comes out in the film. There’s one woman in the film who is singing along with the second verse in [Is This the Life’s] “Déjà Vu” — I can’t remember which line — but she’s got a little tear running down her cheek. And I think, “Wow. I must have done something right that these young, young people are responding to work that I created when I was 74 years old.” It’s moving. So I’ve done something right.
There’s a lot of Trump imagery in the film. Did you ever get sick of seeing house-sized pictures of him on the tour?
I didn’t look at it very much. I’m glad it’s on the film. I like the zoom-in on the [doctored photo of Trump’s] tiny dick. I think that’s important to point that out because he clearly is infantile and he almost certainly has got a tiny dick. Anyway, whatever, it’s silly to waste breath on Trump. Or it would be if it wasn’t for the fact he’s conspiring to destroy the United States brick by brick.
The dick image is shown during “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” What did that song mean to you when you wrote it and what does it mean to you now?
Well, within the context of this show, it’s “Pigs (One).” It’s just the pig, the awful Trump.
But in the original thing, who were they? I don’t know. “Big man, pig man,” that’s any businessman who’s more interested in making money than they are in having relationships with other human beings, which might be more rewarding than accumulating wealth. So that’s for Steve Schwarzman and all the rest of them. They’re all the same, by and large.
The last verse is about somebody who tried to censor English television to keep sex off of it who was called Mary Whitehouse, which was convenient ’cause it means I can say, “Hey, Whitehouse,” and a lot of people think I’m singing about the White House in Washington, D.C. And I am now, because nobody cares about Mary Whitehouse anymore. She did try to clean up British television by making it sort of evangelical-Christian–friendly in ways that are unhealthy, in my view. So hang on, what’s the second verse about?
It goes, “Bus stop, rat bag … “
Oh, Margaret Thatcher. How could I have forgotten? What a wonderful thing the human mind is that you can forget Margaret Thatcher. I love that.
What inspired the scene onstage where you and the band put on pig masks and drink wine?
There’s a long section in “Dogs” after I sing the verse “Dragged down by the stone,” which is about dogs and pigs destroying whatever they can in a mad scramble to be Gordon Gekko. So it’s only Joey [Waronker, drums] and [keyboardist] Jon Carin actually playing anything. So what are the rest of us going to do? Stand around on the stage? Let’s dress up as pigs and be served by sheep in a bar and have a glass of champagne and be obnoxious, so it developed from that. it’s an opportunity to attempt a piece of theater on the stage.
And it’s a bit of audience participation. I hold up a sign that says “Pigs Rule the World” followed by another that says, “Fuck the pigs.” And the audience is very glad, ’cause by and large most people don’t want to be ruled by these assholes. Most people recognize that the division of wealth is completely unacceptable, and we don’t want to be ruled by the oligarchs. We don’t think it’s a great system where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer and richer. It needs to be addressed and redressed as soon as possible.
I imagine that’s why you used so much imagery from Animals, like having Battersea Station split the audience in half. Your message in the show relates to the themes of the album.
Yeah, it does. When I designed that album cover and went and photographed Battersea Station, I thought it was quite good symbolically of a band like Pink Floyd, because it’s a thing that has some power and there are four of us and four chimneys. It’s all very phallic and whatever. It sort of represented to some extent the power, maybe, that we had as a band if we cared to use it for something. And maybe music has no power. I don’t believe that. I believe music is a very powerful art form and that it can be used as a political tool, as well as a source of entertainment to keep the masses quiet.
Was there anything that didn’t make it into the film that you wish had?
I sort of wanted to do something that implicated the people who would have been present at the Obama weekly drone-strike meetings, where they would sit in a darkened room somewhere and decide who to kill next week, which is one of the most disgusting pieces of U.S. foreign policy. Well, no — maybe that’s pitching a bit hard. But it’s pretty scary to think of grown men sitting in a room deciding who to kill — foreign nationals — and then killing them. This is disgusting beyond all belief. So I wanted to shoot something that implied that, but we didn’t have time. So I regret that.
What song would you have used as the soundtrack?
Somewhere in the second half. Most of the stuff we shot is in or around “Déjà Vu,” “The Last Refugee,” and “Picture That.” So I’d do it probably in “Dogs.”
In the film, Lucius — the singers Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe — do a stunning version of “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Did you give them much direction for that?
No, I didn’t. We talked about it and they came up with something. Then we worked on it and worked on it. Like anything that is brilliant takes work. G.E. Smith and I sat with Jess and Holly for a few hours in rehearsals, but that’s not to take credit for them. It’s largely their creation but with input from G.E. and me. When we got to Amsterdam, where we recorded that one particular performance, it’s brilliant. The performance is beautiful.
There have been so many tribute bands — the Australian Pink Floyd, Brit Floyd, whatever, and Dave’s done it as well. They all slavishly copy Claire [Torry, the original singer’s] performance from Abbey Road in 1973. And that’s fine, because it was beautiful and great. But I think it’s wonderful that Jess and Holly produced their own interpretation of it. It’s also a fitting tribute to Rick [Wright], whose music it is.
Another standout in the film is “Wish You Were Here.” What does that mean to you now?
The last time I sang “Wish You Were Here” was on Balsham Street, outside the Home Office in London. Julian Assange is locked up in Belmarsh Prison, and I heard he’s not doing well. You will not know this because it wasn’t reported in a single mainstream media outlet; not a single newspaper or television station reported the fact that I made a public performance of that song for Julian Assange. People ask me all the time, “Why aren’t journalists standing up for Julian Assange? He’s a journalist doing his job.” The answer is, they’re frightened of being fired. But as for why I played “Wish You Were Here,” it just popped into my head. It’s easy to sing with one bloke and an acoustic guitar. I’m really proud of that song.
There’s a close-up in the film of you at the start of “Time” where you’re playing a tick-tock sound on your bass strings. Is that how that song started, making that sound?
No, the tick-tock thing came about probably from just the idea of, “Hey, let’s use clock sounds,” so they’re just deadened strings on repeat. But the impetus was the narrative in the song. For me, personally it’s a very important song. I wrote that when I was 29 years old, so the bits in the song where it goes, “No one told you when to run/You missed the starting gun,” it’s about my experience of being 29 years old and certainly going, “Fuck me. It’s the middle of life. I’ve been told that I was preparing for something.” Eventually I figured out what it was, and it was probably something to do with earning a living and having a family and blah, blah, blah.
But suddenly I realized that I was aimless. The reason it’s a good song is because it describes the predicament of anybody who, growing up — if we’re grown up at all — suddenly realizes that time is going really, really fast. It makes you start to philosophize about life and what is important and how to derive joy from that. And whether we should let the pigs and dogs spend all our energy trying to fuck other people and steal from them or whether we accept the truth of this fact: If you help another human being, it brings joy to your life. And the act collectively brings more joy to your life than to act selfishly. It’s as simple as that.
I imagine that song means something different to you than when you wrote it nearly 50 years ago.
I’ve been talking today with Sean [Evans] about this tour that we’re going to do next summer, and I was saying, I’ve been thinking about a title and which songs to do. There’s a song in a demo for a piece that I’m recording, and it’s, “Time keeps slipping away.” I think it’s because we’re all dying under the attack from the homicidal sociopaths who have all the money and all the power and run the media and the propaganda system and lie to us constantly and try to keep us at each other’s throats so they can maintain the system.
The problem with that is they will kill us all. They’re killing us all now. That’s one thing that the kid from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, is saying. We’re running out of time very, very fast. So more power to her. And more power to the anti-war movement and climate-change movements, who are fighting a valiant battle to try and get the walking dead, who unfortunately are most of the people — certainly in the United States of America — to wake up and understand that their lives and their children lives are not just under threat, they’re almost certain to be over.
I’m sure you were happy to hear that when David Gilmour sold his guitars this year, he donated the money to fighting climate change.
Oh, bless him. I think that’s a good thing. Good for him. [Pauses] I wish he’d let me advertise this movie on the Pink Floyd website. It’s not allowed. He censored it, and I’m not allowed to announce anything on it.
When was the last time you spoke to him?
We spoke in June. We had a big meeting where I came up with a big peace plan that has come to nothing, sadly.
I’m sorry to hear that.
I know you are. I bet all Pink Floyd fans are sorry to hear that. They all hoped that we could kiss and make up and everything would be wonderful in a cozy, wonderful world. Well, it wouldn’t be all that cozy or wonderful for me, because I left Pink Floyd in 1985 for a reason. The reason being that I wanted to get on with my work.
Well, thank goodness I’ve been able to get on with my work. Work is its own reward. I was very happy to see in the Variety review of the movie that they managed to connect the dots between Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, [Waters’ solo album] Amused to Death, and Is This the Life We Really Want? That was gratifying. Anyway, let’s not go there any further. I’ve said more than I should.
Before we move on from the topic of Pink Floyd, I saw you perform “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” with Nick Mason this year in New York. What did you think of his show?
I was really pleasantly surprised by Saucerful of Secrets. I really enjoyed it, and obviously I love Nick. He’s a very old friend, and luckily all those bridges have been rebuilt. We see each other often, and I adore him. The atmosphere that night was wonderful, and I couldn’t have been happier than to be allowed to share the stage and sing one of my songs with that band.
Guy Pratt was great singing and playing the guitar. He knows a lot about it all having worked for Gilmour for all those years. And I thought Nick sounded great. And the other guys were really splendid.
Would you ever want to do a tour like that on a smaller scale where you played older songs for people who aren’t expecting the big hits?
Fuck no. Why would I want to do that? I’m writing new shit all the time. I will go on doing what I’ve always done. My work is to think, “Well, how can I make rock & roll more interesting or theatrical or exciting or visual or musical or whatever?” That’s what I’ve spent the last 50 years doing, expressing myself. And I shall continue to do that. I can’t think of anything I want to do less than go and sing “Set the Controls” in a pub.
You once said, “[The concert] spectacle is an interesting thing, because I can say I invented it.” What put you on that path?
Going into big venues and thinking, “Christ, this is boring.” I remember around Dark Side of the Moon, when we had a couple of risers with lights on it built by Arthur Max, who was a lighting guy we stole from Bill Graham and the Fillmore East. And he sort of invented the circular screen we used. I thought, “How can we fill these spaces with theater?” That’s when I started working with people who made inflatables and thinking more about projecting images and firing fireworks that turn into parachuting sheep into the air and flying planes, all that crap. [Pauses] It’s not crap, actually. It’s perfectly reasonable.
To have a Stuka [plane] coming out of the audience, like I did in The Wall, even again a few years ago, it’s actually a perfectly legitimate theatrical device. I remember when we did The Wall [in 1979] being criticized by Bono. U2 were a very young band, and they’re going [affects Irish accent], “Oh, we can’t stand all that theatrical nonsense that Pink Floyd do. We just play our music and the songs unto themselves and blah, blah, blah.” Oh really? All they did for the rest of their fucking career was copy what I’d been doing and continue to do. So good luck to them, but what a load of bullshit. If you lead them, people will follow.
Did people say things like that a lot?
I remember Jagger coming to the Nassau Coliseum gigs in late 1979 and seeing The Wall. He came backstage, trying to find out how he could get that. “I want that.” Somebody pointed to [illustrator] Gerald Scarfe, who was sitting on the sofa chatting with Nick Mason and said, “He’s the one you should see.” And Jagger didn’t see. He thought it was Nick. So he went up to Nick and said [in a Jagger impression], “I gather you’ve done all the visuals and all that.” And Nick, of course being Nick, said, “Well, yes. I did. I do that in my spare time when I’m not practicing my drumming.” And Jagger sat and talked to him, wasted half an hour of his life thinking that. Bless Nick. How cool.
And not that I’ve got anything against Mick. Well, I haven’t. Well, not a lot. He’s just a bit old for me.
Since we’re talking about concert spectacles, what are you planning for next summer?
I think the plan is to do 30 or 40 gigs in North America in election year, and also a few gigs probably only in Mexico City. If we’re playing in the States, I really want to go to Mexico because audiences are stunning. I love the people. It’ll be Canada, the U.S.A., and maybe three gigs in Mexico City. And that’s all. I can’t go off around the world, and I don’t really want to either. And I’m not doing any outdoor shows; I’m just doing arenas, so there’s only one thing to produce. But it’ll be a new show. It will be no-holds-barred.
How will it be different from the Us + Them show?
It will be even more political than Us + Them was — political and humane. We were listening to songs and looking at set lists today. We were talking about, what should we call it? I shouldn’t be giving this away, but I don’t give a shit because it will probably all change, but imagine the iconic helicopter that normally comes before “Happiest Days” and “Brick 2” — that noise that we all know and love — and imagine a megaphone, somebody abused this device before, I know — but, “This is not a drill.” I thought that could be a good title for the show: This Is Not a Drill. The ruling class is killing us.
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