On 4 July 2002, Peter was interviewed about the forthcoming UP album by Nigel Williamson at Real World Studios. The finished piece was primarily used to circulate to international media who were not able to speak to Peter in person.
Why is the album called UP?
“UP was conceived as a title about 8 years ago. I had a lot of material even then and still a lot of it was quite positive. I was thinking about rivers and also playing with Up the Khyber, Up the Ganges, Up the Mississippi series where I would send the record off to a group in different countries and they would do their interpretation of it and then we’d try to pull something together out of that, or put it out as individual things. So it was a sort of UP package, but I think I mentioned that to Michael Stipe and they (REM) were the first to come out with a record called UP. Although I think Shania Twain is going to have a record called UP and Ani di Franco had a record called Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up.
There was some argument as to whether the title had passed its sell-by date so we put it up on our website to see if people wanted it or not, and I think that it was just in favour of the UP vote so I decided to keep it.
I think there is this thing about up and down in the record too and I’ll be playing with that idea on tour. Last time there were these two stages, male and female stages, urban and rural. This next one has shifted 90 degrees and is more about heaven and earth.”
Does the title UP reflect the sound of the record or your mood personally?
“Up is a positive word I think. If I listen to the music now there are some really miserable songs there so I don’t know if it fits that well but I’ve grown with it. I think that personally I’m in a good place at the moment, probably more up than the previous couple of albums. So maybe there’s some relationship there but I don’t think there’s so much relationship in the music itself. I’ve always found it harder to write happy music than sad music. I had thought that there was a bit of a hospital anthem – So, Us, Up that I could string together. So it had a sort of logic to it.”
Why did UP take so long to make?
“The record I was going after was the amount of time it takes to make a record.”
Did other commitments get in the way of you making UP?
“I think I enjoy the process of making music better than being a travelling salesman. So I think that, in part, I’ve been sort of avoiding getting into it. I do tend to get attracted to detours. OVO with the Dome was one of those detours and then there was the soundtrack Long Walk Home. Also I wanted to try and take stuff in. I think often when you make a record you’re spewing stuff out, and unless you’ve had enough input how can you expect it to be interesting or have any new things to reflect on or comment on. I think that process is a slow process for me, and if I go into the studio where we’ve got 130 song ideas that we’re working on, not all finished songs, I go from one thing to another and then to another and I wasn’t really focused on a small group of songs.”
How do you know when a record is finished?
“People always ask me ‘when’s the album coming out?’ and I always say ‘September’ but I never give away what year I’m talking about. So it’s tended to drift a little further than I’d intended. It feels like there is a lot of stuff there ready to come out. I’ve been very fortunate in that I don’t have to put out a record if I don’t want to. So it’s more when it feels ready and when I feel ready to go out into the world again.”
Where have the songs on UP come from?
“They come from all over the place and always on every record there’s been one or two that have been left over from the one before. Sky Blue on this record is one that came from an earlier period, even before that ten years. I think that I just threw up stuff that interests me whether it’s melodically, or more often rhythmically, and then just keep trying to develop it. It’s a bit like trying to grow fruit. Eventually it feels heavy enough or ripe enough that if you squeeze it, it might bear some juice.”
At what stage do the lyrics come into the writing process?
“Well, some of the ideas are there early on and so helping to shape the feel of the music. But the actual slog work of the lyrics is something I have to go away for, usually. And it’s anything from half a day to ten days for me to nail a lyric, usually. I will go away sometimes and stay in a bed and breakfast or drive around the place. I have to do that on my own. And, in fact, I think that for me, travel is good for lyrics.”
What is your working regime?
“I still come in most days at least by midday and I’m rarely out before midnight. You know, I think that this is actually a very sad life sometimes, and I do want to cut that down and have more civilian night times. I have a sort of messy, sprawling technique of writing really where you throw all this stuff at the wall and then you just chip away and spiral inwards and try to find the centre. I remember talking to George Martin (Beatles producer) about this as a sort of production technique and he was appalled, because of the waste involved. He could only envisage having a definite result in mind that you went straight to and you knew how to get there. I’ve tried that too but I’m not very good at it. I work this other way.”
How has technology changed the recording process?
“I think that all the computer stuff has affected the writing. I mean the ease with which you can change things and try ideas. Generally when I started, music was about what you could achieve that you could generate yourself, and now it’s much more about what you can conceive of. We always seem to be trying to push the technology one stage further than it’s ready for. So a lot of the time is spent sitting around while the computers get fixed. But the possibilities are fantastic. So, I think there is that shift away from physical technique towards ideas that has happened as a result of the technology. You have now not just the musicians that you happen to know or can afford to pay, but a huge range of sounds at your disposal. So the process of how you make decisions becomes much more critical and I guess that’s another process that slows me down.”
Having Real World Studios as a base must be amazing.
“Having a studio for me is an incredible luxury for two reasons; one, it allows me without worrying too much about money, to explore ideas as much or as little as I want. But more important in some ways, there’s a wide range of music being created around here and that feeds me – just hearing stuff or talking to people. If I hear a particular musician and I think ‘that’s great, that’ll be fantastic on that track’, I can try and hijack them. Having the studio here has really served me as an artist in keeping me amongst musicians and music.”
Where else have you worked on UP?
“We started off when I had a place in Senegal and I went out there to do some of the writing. I worked with some of Youssou’s (N’Dour) guys who I’ve worked with many times now. At that point I didn’t have much in the way of songs developed, so it was a little premature. Then we went to the mountains in France. I was learning how to snowboard at the time. It was interesting comparing hot environment versus cold environment. My house in Senegal didn’t have air conditioning or anything like that so I would sit there sometimes with a towel full of ice cubes on my head and water dribbling down. It was incredibly hot, and in Africa everything takes five times as long as you imagine. So what was already a slow process was even slower there, even though the musicians and the people were fantastic. France was great. We we’d work in the mornings, we’d get out onto the snow in the afternoons and then we’d work in the evenings. It was the most efficient creative period, although it sounds a bit of a con. And I find too that when I’m on the snow, I cannot think about anything else, but probably trying to stay up and survive. It’s really relaxing.”
How has collaboration impacted on the album?
“I think that it brings air into music and takes it into places that you wouldn’t normally go. There are real advantages sometimes to being in a band and real advantages being outside of a band, being a solo artist. I think that I have the best of both worlds in that I try to do some band sessions, (where you get people playing together that know each other and who have shorthand), and at the same time, we then take quite a while to bring in other people to try different adventures on each song. The key to collaborating is to listen and to allow someone space to do what they can do well. I am so fortunate both through this place with Real World Records and WOMAD and just who we’ve got to know over the years, some extraordinary musicians. That’s how I like to work, to try to get the best of both worlds. I think that I’ve always wanted to have my own cake and eat it!”
Is this a personal album?
“I think some bits are personal and some bits are less specific about relationships and more about observations on life. I would say it’s less relationship focused but it’s still quite a personal record.”
How important are long term collaborators like David Rhodes?
“He has very clear ideas about what is good and bad. I don’t always agree with them but it’s very useful always having someone in the process who’s as clear as he can be. Meabh, my wife now, is also similarly very critical. She was working here too and we’d get different people to score ideas. In fact, because this record had gone on for so long, even though we’ve been going out for seven years, before that she was working here. I asked people to score things out of a hundred. Most people were polite enough to keep the score above fifty. But she went down to fourteen I think on one occasion. It’s useful for me to have some scathing critics before the record goes out into the world.”
What was it like working with Peter Green?
“Peter Green is enormously talented and is someone who I think was one of the key British musicians when I was growing up. I was very keen to see if we could persuade him to come a play something on the album. In fact, he did a session down here and then a session in the studio where he normally works. I wanted a solo in the style of the solos that I grew up with, that would float above it, but he really didn’t want to grab the limelight and steam in there. He was sitting back in a sort of supportive role.”
What was it like working with Danny Thompson?
“Danny did a couple of tracks. In fact, there’s one which I think will now be on the next record. He did some fantastic playing and he’s an extraordinary player. What I also like about him is that he wants the stuff ahead of time. He does his homework before he comes into the studio. Most people just turn up on the day and fire away. I think that, because he’s so loose in one way but so precise in another, he likes to get some sense of the phrases he’s going to use and the type of motifs he’s going to put around places. He’s an extraordinary character and a great pleasure to work with.”
Do you hear your influence in current music?
“I respond to all sorts of influences and I think that most other people do. I think when you’re in your late teens, early twenties, there may be particular artists that you try to emulate and ape and often you actually find yourself by trying to imitate the people you like the best. So I would never discourage anyone from copying any artist because I think that, by exploring others, is how you can find your own voice.”
Are you going on tour with UP?
“Yeah. I’m going to do some touring around this record and venture out on the road again. Initially, I’m signed up to do a tour of America in November and December and then I’m sure to do some in Europe next year.”
How will you top Secret World Live?
“I still really enjoy visual things and I think Robert Lepage, who I worked with on the last tour, is a real visionary. I don’t normally enjoy going to the theatre that much but his work is really theatre for people who’ve grown up watching films. It’s very visual and what I would call ‘high moisture’ content. There seems to be some mystery, depth and emotion around it. Some of the things I enjoy doing most now is brainstorming with interesting people and doing a visual tour gives me the chance to do that, particularly with Robert.”
Has video making changed?
“In the early days of video there were no rules really so it was a lot freer in a sense because people didn’t know what was required to make a successful video. If it looked interesting, entertaining or different, it tended to get on. Now, it’s more of a cynical, commercial environment and I think it’s quite difficult for people trying to make something work artistically and visually to get enough plays to warrant the budget to create it.”
How do you feel about your back catalogue after its recent release?
“It’s all a healthy part of growing up.” (laughs)
Do you still connect with the older tracks?
“I can look at it in a more detached, critical way now. I think the good things that had some spirit and emotion still work for me and there’s quite a lot of stuff that falls by the wayside.”
How is writing for films different from writing for your own studio albums?
“I think I would draw a big distinction between writing a song for a film where you’re doing your thing and they’re slapping it in there, (often to get a soundtrack album so they can get a bit of cash back from, but that’s another story), and creating a soundtrack which is where you’re trying to build ambience and sound landscapes that will serve whatever’s going on in the picture.”
“This song was going to be called ‘The House in the Woods’. I think that it’s one of the most visual on the record. It’s principally about fear. For myself and for many other people it’s fear that stops you from doing things that you could gain an awful lot from. So I was just sort of looking at that in myself. UP feels to me to be more of a bookends record in that it looks at the beginning and the end of life more that the middle period. So there are childhood references in this song. I grew up on this farm in Surrey near Horsell Common which is where the Martians landed in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. It was quite a moody place to play in as a kid and there was this woman squatting in the woods in a caravan. You could never tell if it was occupied but we’d heard noises in there from time to time. There was newspaper over the windows so you couldn’t look in. To a five or six year old’s imagination she was a witch and very scary, so we always ran very fast when we crossed the path by her caravan.”
“My brother-in-law died of cancer and my parents are getting a lot older and I’ve seen a couple of friends die, so death have definitely been more present in the last ten years. It’s been quite interesting in some ways. I’ve read a bit more about it. There is this sense very often that people seem to retain their seventeen-year-old selves throughout their life, although they may peg it at a different age. I don’t think that people feel old internally or very rarely. Physically they do. Then there is this sense of never really having landed at a point when you look back over life and felt somewhere else.”
“Sky Blue is the oldest track on the record. In fact we had one go at it on the last record it may have even been before then. The original riff is probably fifteen years old but it was something I’d always liked and felt had some good emotion in it. As a teenager I was very influenced by soul and blues and that was my starting point to a lot of music and I think that this was definitely an influence on that track. We made it less of a band piece and emptied out the mix and I had the wonderful chance to work with the Blind Boys of Alabama. They’ve got extraordinary voices and they’re extraordinary people too, but the voices are lived-in and they have a different type of quality to them than young voices. I think that it’s one of my favourite emotional bits on the record.”
No Way Out
“The rhythm track was one of the earliest I began working on and then it had a more Latin feel. There’s a drum loop here that Chris Hughes took and did this programming on it with a thing called supercollider. What it tends to do is break everything up into lots of little pieces and then reassemble them but still very granulated. It has this strange, mysterious percussion quality to it.
I think throughout this record I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best drummers in the world, extraordinary percussionists and that is definitely one of the things that’s given me pleasure.”
“One of the things over the years that’s amazed me in some ways is how people use songs once you’ve said goodbye to them. There was one American comic who came up to me, (I’ve always liked his work), and said I think that song Don’t Give Up saved my life. I was suicidal and I just kept on playing it. All sorts of other people have used that song as an emotional tool. I started to think that if you have songs as emotional tools then what do we not really have. You know, there aren’t many songs that deal with grief properly, so I thought I’d try and do a grief song.
It starts off with this melancholy loss and then, in the middle, you have this sense that life is coming back. Then, at the end, a gentle reminder that actually you have lost something that you loved. So it was constructed as an emotional tool.”
Burn You Up, Burn You Down.
“In a way this is the odd man out on the album because all the other tracks grew out of the sessions. When we were selecting which out of say, the final thirty to try to nail. This came back into the running as it has always been one that I’ve enjoyed a lot. So when we were looking at some of the stuff that was around, it was more up than some of the other tracks and might be a nice counterpoint. It’s, probably again, along with Sky Blue, the most soul references in the music and in some ways the least thought about as it grew out of a jam, effectively.”
“The melody I’d actually proposed for the Dome project but it had been rejected but I’d always like it. So I thought I’d do a lyric to it. It’s of the bookends approach lyrically, it’s the tail end you’re looking at there. A parachute drop without knowing where you’re going to land.”
The Barry Williams Show
“This song is definitely an observation on TV culture. I didn’t realise at the time of choosing the name Barry Williams, which was effectively out of a hat, that there would be various well-known Barry Williams’s. There’s the Welsh rugby player and also an actor who was in The Brady Bunch in America. We’ve got samples that have been running on our website and so people are speculating why I would make references to the Brady Bunch and so on.
I think we’re also dealing with the lyrics and whether they’re going to get on radio which is something that really hadn’t occurred to me. I don’t think that any of the lyrics are things that you wouldn’t find in a Sunday newspaper or in a teenage magazine in some way. But it was fun writing it.”
My Head Sounds Like That
“The mood of it was something that I liked and there was a moment in Africa, in fact, when one of the echo machines jammed, just started malfunctioning and I liked the sound of it. So the loop which begins that track is actually from this Delta Lab echo unit that was crapping-out at that time.
I was just thinking about, I think it is a depressed state where you suddenly have heightened consciousness of sound. It’s a bit like when you’re about to throw up. Suddenly smell goes into 3D, if you know what I mean. It becomes a sort of heightened experience. So, I was just trying to picture it, this world in which the sounds, which I think is something I know, from my own experience, your consciousness is sort of drifting but there’s some awareness that is retained.”
More Than This.
“More Than This came right at the end and I’d started a thing with guitar samples. I was mucking around with guitars and Daniel Lanois had left this beautiful Telecaster here. I can’t play guitar to save my life but I can make noises on it, like mirror guitar, hair flowing, or single hair flowing as it is now. The samples we were getting, I was then manipulating on the keyboard. The first sound you hear on this track is that sort of thing so it was built around that. I’d always liked it and in fact, it was actually driving through the Italian Alps, again it’s one of these scenic detours, that I found this cassette which had got this stuff in and then I’d been playing with a different groove and that started all to make sense to me at that point.”
Signal to Noise
“Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the most extraordinary singers, I think, of our time. It was very sad for us to lose him and I was very lucky that he’d worked on this track before he died. It was such a powerful thing that I was keen to finish it and make it a sort of centrepiece for the record. It was a much starker thing that he sang to but I wanted to try and do this string thing. I think in a way it’s the most filmic and I believe that they’re going to be using the instrumental of this in The Gangs of New York. I’m happy with that because it always seemed like a large, visual song. Working with the strings at the end that was a very slow process and I spend a week working with Will Gregory who has been doing the Goldfrapp material with Alison. And it’s the dirtiest I’ve got my hands in the string arrangements and that was very satisfying in terms of trying to generate all sorts of melodic and harmonic things that were quite clashing in places. And then hear them all put together. So that was the other thrill for me on that track.”
I hear that this isn’t the only record in the pipeline.
“I’m really hopeful that there will be at least one other record out within eighteen months after this. It depends on how much touring and all the rest I do, but it shouldn’t take that long, touch wood, to complete because there are some tracks already finished. Some, I’m sure, I’ll rework a bit, but a lot of the writing has been done also the lyric, which is often the longest, slowest part. I have quite a few lyrics now so it feels good to have something in the bank as it were.”