Peter Gabriel has never been one to look backward. He’s refused all offers to go on a highly lucrative Genesis reunion tour, and he has yet to write a memoir, release a box set or create a documentary about his long career. This fall, however, he has agreed to release a deluxe edition of his 1986 landmark album So. The disc transformed him from an art rocker with a cult following into one of the biggest pop stars in the world. MTV played his video “Sledgehammer” on what seemed like a never-ending loop, and radio fell in love with “In Your Eyes,” “Don’t Give Up” and “Big Time.” He’s about to launch a North American tour where he performs the disc “Back To Front” along with other cuts from his solo career.
Rolling Stone spoke to Gabriel about the legacy of So, plans for the tour and when fans can finally expect to hear a follow-up to his 2002 disc Up.
Why do you think So managed to reach a much broader audience than your previous albums?
There was less sort of esoteric songwriting. I think they were simpler songs in some ways, but I think we caught a wave. They were done with passion and we had a really good team working on them. Then, of course, we had things like the “Sledgehammer” video, which helped enormously. It got us a wider audience. Also, the one concession I agreed to was to place an actual photo of myself on the cover rather than the usual obscured stuff I had been doing.
You also gave this one an actual title.
It was named, yeah. That was a reluctant choice. In the old days I would go through my vinyl and identity each record by the picture, not by the title. I always liked that. In some ways, I’m just a visual person. It was the idea to just do away with titles. Give the pictures space to breathe and speak for themselves. But, of course, it caused confusion in the marketplace. The American record company, Geffen, got so fed up with me that they said they weren’t going to release my fourth record unless I gave it some title. So, it was called Security in America and it had no title everywhere else in the world.
The next time out I decided to go for the anti-title. There’s only two letters: So. It can be more a piece of graphic, if you like, as opposed to something with meaning and intention. And that’s what I’ve done ever since.
When you made So, did you try and make it more accessible, or that was just sort of a natural development?
I think that was a bunch of songs that were there at the time. With “Sledgehammer,” everyone thinks, “Oh, he must have created that to get a hit.” And it wasn’t done that way. In fact, [bassist] Tony Levin reminded me that he was packing his bags to go home, and I called him back into the studio, saying “I’ve got this one idea that maybe we can fool around with for the next record – but I like the feel.” That was “Sledgehammer.” It was late in the day and we just fell into the groove, landed a beautiful drum track on it, a great bass line and it all came together.
I think the video really helped get it to a different audience. I’ve not had many intersections with mass culture, so that was one occasion where that happened.
Did you see “In Your Eyes” as a special song when you made it?
I knew it had some heart in it, and I loved the Youssou N’Dour bit at the end. We should have put out the longer version, but we had to cut it ’cause of time constraints. But it felt so heartfelt and, yeah, I I felt it was a special song, the like of which I hadn’t heard before in the way it integrated the different influences and tried putting together this love lyric, which was, in part, based on this African idea of having an ambiguous love song that can be human love, man to woman, or man to God.
Do you think the famous John Cusack scene in Say Anything has played a big role in keeping that song alive over the past 20 years?
I think it definitely gave it a second life, because now it’s so often parodied in comedy shows and it is one of the modern day Romeo and Juliet balcony clichés. I’ve talked to John Cusack about that. We’re sort of trapped together in a minuscule moment of contemporary culture.
There’s a great scene on South Park where one of the kids serenades a girl with a jukebox, but he plays “Shock the Monkey” instead.
[Huge booming laugh] Yeah, that made me laugh too.
At a certain point did you feel that the “Sledgehammer” video got too big? MTV played it just a ridiculous amount of times.
Yeah, I think it was the most played video on MTV, and still is today. But I was trying to get some income from it, which is another battle, another story . . . I don’t know. At the time, I was still fighting the ex-Genesis label, so to have a new label that was bigger than ex-Genesis . . . I was quite pleased about that.
You didn’t release a follow-up to So for six years. Do you think that was a mistake? You sort of lost some momentum there.
I’m sure commercially it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I’ve never really worried about that. And to be honest, I think one of the reasons I’m still lucky enough to put out records and have audiences come to shows is cause I haven’t played that game very well. I think that consumer culture tends to be very hungry. It can’t get enough of you for a very short time and then your taste gets boring and they spit you out and take the next new thrill. And so, while it was never a predetermined strategy, I would probably recommend it to artists now if they want a long career. If you got something worth saying, if you’ve got something to put out, don’t worry about what the record company tells you. Take your time.
Why are calling the tour “Front to Back?”
It was just a title in the sense that it’s the first time I’ve gone retro. I was thinking of maybe doing some new stuff and old stuff, so that was the front bit . . . It was the fact that you’re pulling something back, because in a way you can never repeat history. You can sort of spiral back to it, but you’re standing at another point in time, even if you’re a observing as fully and as accurately as you can, you’re actually in a different space, time and certainly physical body then you were at that time.
It’s a different animal and I think the best thing is to sort of to acknowledge that and yet still work with some of the elements that you thought were good and strong and liked at that time. So, for example, the live show, I had this idea with camera booms; to replace the cameras with lights, but still have them have the freedom of movement. And at the time it was quite futuristic, now it’s quite retro. But because there are people operating it, it will have, I think, a different mood than if it was robots. So, we will be revisiting, but I think it will feel different.
How will the show be structured?
Currently, I’m planning to do the other stuff in the first half. I don’t know if we’ll take a break or not. And then do the whole So record from start to finish.
Are there certain obscure songs you’re thinking about playing in the first half of the show that you haven’t done in a long time?
I don’t think its just going to be sort of Gabriel-light, if you like. For example “The Family and the Fishing Net” is one that a lot of fans will never like really, but I want to play that. I’ve got an A, B and C list at the moment so were going to try them all in rehearsal next week and make some decisions.
What’s your plan when the tour ends? Will you take it to Europe?
Well actually, what I am doing after this tour is something I meant to do a long time ago, which is a sabbatical year with my family. And we will be trying not to spend too much time in airports, at the same time visiting quite a few different countries and places of natural or scientific interest. We’re going to be following up on some of the interesting invitations I’ve had over the years and never had the time to follow through on. So I’m really excited about it and we’re looking forward to it.
Next month is the exact 10-year anniversary of your last studio album. Are you working toward a new one?
Well, I’m definitely going to have this sabbatical. There’s this piece of music I just did for this film Reluctant Fundamentalist which is a sort of this eight-minute piece. And I worked on that with this Pakistani buddy of mine Atif Aslam, who is actually a wonderful singer and has got one of the finest falsettos I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley. That is the last thing I’ve just finished and really enjoyed. But there’s been quite a few ideas in the can, but probably, it will take me another year when I do get back next September.
Is your next disc still going to be called I/O, or will it be a different project?
Well that was the title. I mean the advantage, or disadvantage, of putting out the title out so early, as it turns out, before the record is done, I can see if I still like it when we’ve got the appropriate collection of songs attached. But I still quite like the title, but I think its been used in other things since, but that’s OK.