About four years ago, Peter Gabriel came up with the rather bold plan of recording twelve tracks by some of the biggest names in music and asking them to return the favor by covering his songs. It was originally planned as a double album containing both sides of the music exchange, but turns out getting acts like Arcade Fire, Paul Simon, the late Lou Reed, Bon Iver and many others to record on request is no easy feat. “I made the calls myself,” he says. “I’ve aways been a hustler. I wouldn’t have made it in this business otherwise.”
Gabriel’s cover album, Scratch My Back, came out in early 2010, and the follow-up And I’ll Scratch Yours finally hits shelves on January 6th. In the end, he got everyone to record his own songs besides Neil Young, Radiohead and David Bowie, though “Heroes” co-writer Brian Eno did agree to step in and tackle Gabriel’s 1978 song “Mother of Violence.”
Rolling Stone sat down with Gabriel to chat about And I’ll Scratch Yours, his ongoing Back To Front tour – where he plays his landmark 1986 album So straight through – why he has mixed feelings about Spotify, the long-awaited followed up to 2002’s Up and (inevitably) the possibility of a Genesis reunion.
You took off a year off to travel recently. How was that?
It was great, though I lost my dad in the first part of the year. But he was 100 years old, so I was very lucky. Then we went traveling. I think we started off in Ecuador, Galapagos, Mexico, Nassau, Hawaii, Wales and then Japan, Thailand and Botswana. It was a good mix. My twelve year-old became a passionate wildlife photographer and we took lessons with a lady photographer in Botswana, which was a real treat at the end.
Did you do any work whatsoever the whole year?
No. I wanted to purely spend time with the family and have a sabbatical year. I meant to do that when I was fifty, so I was only thirteen years behind schedule.
Was this the longest break of your life?
Absolutely. I thoroughly recommend it. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had many lives to lead, but I think it’s still quite easy to get stuck into some habits. It’s important to put yourself into different situations.
So many people in your position tell me their biggest regret in life is not spending more time with their kids when they were young.
It’s easier now because I have more money now than I did when my first kids came around. They’re now delivering me grandchildren. I still was present more than most musician dads. It’s harder when you’re in a band. You can’t call the shots the way you can as a solo artist.
You just wrapped up another leg of the So tour. Are you still enjoying that?
Yeah, I am. I’m gonna do a bit more. I only do short tours now of three to four weeks because of family. I’m gonna do one in the spring and probably one in the fall, both in Europe. The second one isn’t locked in at the moment. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy it, but playing again with [drummer] Manu Katche and [keyboardist] David [Sancious] was really a lot of fun. Manu is such a different musician than most drummers. It’s been great. We did the show in three parts with some acoustic numbers, some electronic and then the whole album.
Will the tour return to America at any point?
I don’t think so.
Tell me about And I’ll Scratch Yours. Did you think it would take so long to complete?
Well, I’m such a slow worker that it’s difficult to complain if other people take a long time. I also know they’re really doing me a favor. They’ve got things that are much more important to their lives and careers than my project, so I feel very lucky to have ended up with all but three.
I know Thom Yorke was originally going to do “Wallflower.” What happened there?
I don’t know. There may have been some internal politics and it may be my fault for only being in touch with Thom. I’ve heard that he didn’t like. . . I’m not sure if when he heard it or heard the shape it was taking whether that was his cup of tea or not. I don’t know. He’s never really revealed why he pulled out. But that would have been nice.
Neil Young is also pretty busy with his own projects
Yeah. When I met him, he said he was gonna play ball, but realistically I didn’t expect to get as many of these as I did. People have good intentions, but then other things take priority.
I love what Arcade Fire did with “Games Without Frontiers.”
I was very pleased with that. It’s great when you hear people take different directions with stuff. Also, the David Byrne cover of “I Don’t Remember” is great. I love when people take a left turn with the song. Some people love Lou Reed’s “Solsbury Hill” and some hate it. But I really like it. He always said he liked the catchy bits, the “boom boom boom.”
He took one of your poppiest songs and made it very un-poppy.
He tried two or three approaches to it. He worked very hard on it, so I felt very privileged. I think throughout this whole process there was no one who did it as a throwaway.
“Biko” was a perfect choice for Paul Simon.
I loved the little variations he does with the melody. It’s very elegant and it shows why he’s such a great melody writer.
I know David Bowie didn’t cover one of your songs, but he’s pretty tough to pin down.
He definitely didn’t want to play, but he was clear about that from the outset.
Bon Iver’s cover of “Come Talk To Me” is beautiful. You wrote that song about your daughter, right?
Yeah. I was going through a divorce and she was just entering puberty, so it was a difficult age for all this mess. Living apart from my kids was devastating. That was the most difficult thing in my life, probably. Certainly along with losing my dad. It was a painful thing, and I think a lot of divorced dads end up needy and that doesn’t help either. . . But then my daughter later introduced me to Bon Iver, so it was a nice circle.
Are you working on any new music at the moment?
Yeah, I’ve got some new music. I’m focused on music, technology and benefit projects in pretty equal parts at the moment. This week we did a live film of the O2 Arena show in London, so we’re just working now and trying to finish that off before Christmas if we can. I want to get in some writing after that.
Will that come out as a DVD?
I think it’ll have a very limited film release and then come out as a DVD. We shot it in 4K because I’m a bit of a tech nerd. It’s like super high definition. TV companies are trying to launch it as another reason why you have to buy new televisions, but it actually looks fantastic. But they don’t really have all the equipment sorted out. Unfortunately, there’s so much data that it messes up the synchronization. So then you have to go back and synch things up by hand. So the disadvantage of being ahead of the technology is that it doesn’t always work.
We spoke back in 2005 and you told me your next album was going to be called I/O. Is that still the name of the project?
Yeah. Well, it’s still. . . I really need to stop doing other things and lock myself away for a while. It probably hasn’t moved nearly as much as I would have liked to in the intervening time. The songs are still there but some of them I would redo now and there’s some new stuff as well.
How many songs do you have in some form or another?
There’s probably twenty, and there are other ideas that are needing formation. I did a song for a Guillermo Arriaga film called “Why Don’t You Show Yourself.” It was done quite simply and I liked that approach. It wasn’t the sort of rhythmic project that I imagined. I thought maybe one or two songs in that style might actually be fun to do. I keep arranging until the cows come home, which is sometimes a weakness.
If you had to guess, do you see a new album coming out in 2015?
I’d rather just pick a month rather than a year. It’s safer that way.
Let’s say March then.
March it is.
We spoke to Trey Anastasio earlier this year. He said if you ever want to play The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway he’ll be happy to let you use Phish as your backing band. Can you ever see that happening?
I don’t know. Right now, probably not. I’m getting older. My voice has dropped a tone since the Genesis days. That’s a fact of life. . . I still sort of think through film ideas for The Lamb, but I think it’s great what Phish has done where they take on their favorite albums. It’s a cool niche to have created.
You like to rehearse a lot and they improv a lot. That would probably be a bit of an issue.
Right. Occasionally, when I’ve done some things with other artists – either mine or their material – the control freak does come out in me. They are very capable musicians and they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t like it, so maybe that’s an unnecessary concern.
Phil Collins recently told the press that he’s writing new songs and thinking about going back on tour.
Good! I think he got himself into a bit of a hole and that’s great news he’s coming out of it. It doesn’t have to involve work, but if it does, that’s a great indicator.
I grilled you on this last time rather obnoxiously and I don’t want to dwell on it again, but Phil did say he’s thinking about a Genesis tour. Is there a possibility you’d do it?
It’s never been ruled out. I’m trying to picture a time when it would top my priorities list though.
And it’s unlikely that time will come?
I don’t know.
I see Monty Python coming back for more shows and that seemed impossible for years.
If you’re gonna do it, you gotta do it before you’re all dead, right? [Big laugh.]
All five of you are still alive and healthy.
Actually, I was thinking about that the other day. We’re quite lucky. Looking back at other bands of our generation, there’s usually one or two missing now. So you do get a sense of the clock.
So. . . you think it might happen one day?
[Huge laugh.] You said you weren’t going to dwell on it! [Even bigger laugh.]
I can’t help myself .
Alright. I just don’t know.
I just saw Steve Hackett do his Genesis show.
How was that?
I loved it. He really makes the material sound fresh, and his band is great.
That’s great. I know he’s had a lot of offers and it’s going well for him.
It’s funny that “In Your Eyes” wasn’t this huge hit when it first came out, especially compared to your other songs from that time. But I hear it more these days than any one of your other songs. It seems to get more popular with age.
People parody the scene from Say Anything all the time, so that gets it lots of plugs. It’s a standard wedding song now, which I think is really cool. It’s particularly big in America. It was popular in other countries, but here it’s at least half a hit.
I use Spotify to listen to lots of music, and your albums keep disappearing and re-appearing. What’s going on with that?
I have a problem with Spotify. It’s a great service and I love being able to get anything anytime. But they made a deliberate decision to get in bed with the record companies. They gave them equity positions, which means they can make payments to them without paying the artists. I have a fundamental ethical problem with that. I wish they were just a little more respectful to the artists. They are making all these deals, but the payments are so minuscule and way out of line with what the record companies are making. Twenty, thirty, even fifty years of hard-won compensations and rights are being lost. It’s not critical to successful artists because we can make money from live shows, but younger artists are going to have to start taking other jobs. . . Bono and I met with [Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek. He was as nice enough guy and I understand they have to keep their stockholders happy. I think at times we’ve pulled my albums. I’m not really following it. But I would like to see other artists get together and demand something different. There are some other alternatives that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m looking at them right now. I hope some other means arise where artists can get income.
They just sent me an alert that Plays Live is back on Spotify. It feels so random sometimes.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe some other record company. . . I better find out. I’ll ask. What do you think about Spotify?
I pay for it and I love the convenience. I just wish they offered super high-definition audio. I’ve also heard horror stories about how little the artists actually get.
I feel very strong that, at the very least, we deserve transparency. What deals have been made with every record company? Show us your accounts.