Peter Gabriel has been campaigning against homework. He wants to start our interview, before any talk of new albums or old bands, by discussing how the modern school system is completely redundant and predicting a major overhaul of the classroom in the coming decade. The focus will shift from textbooks and teachers to self-education online, he says.
Gabriel has just returned from a “gap year”, for which he took his two youngest children out of school – much to the disapproval of some parents – and travelled around Ecuador, the Galapagos islands, Costa Rica, Mexico, Japan and Botswana, via the Nasa headquarters in Washington and a Ted conference. He uses words such as “criminal” and “tragic” to describe current proposals to shorten the summer holidays.
He has often referred to his two sons, aged five and 12, as his “second crack at it”. He has two grown-up daughters from his first marriage, which ended in 1987, and this is a chance to do things better – differently from how he had it as a kid, too. Galapagos and antihomework campaigns are a far cry from his own experience at Charterhouse, the school where the band he formed with Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips represented an enclave of creativity against the rituals of supervised prep and constant fagging.
The early Genesis started out, he says today, as “a bunch of writers parading as musicians” – except for Phil Collins, who came from a “proper musician’s background”. Gabriel – a secret frustrated drummer – auditioned Collins and others at his parents’ house in Chobham, Surrey, with a series of ball-breaking tests. Phil, a non-public school boy from Chiswick, stood in the garden while all the other drummers went in one by one to try out. By the time he was called in, he’d heard the routine so many times he knew exactly what to play.
But this was a long time ago. Being asked about a band he walked out on 40 years ago is an occupational hazard, as it is for Brian Eno – who, incidentally, also wanted to talk about the complete redundancy of the modern school system when I met him earlier this year. Like Eno, Gabriel is a kind of musicianinventor these days: there are always “projects”. We are developing . . . he says; we are looking into . . . His Real World Studios and record label start to sound like some kind of mysterious Willy Wonka dream factory where it’s never quite obvious who “we” is, what gets completed and what does not.
There’s Womad, of course, the festival series he founded in 1980 that’s now global, and Witness.org, a digital human rights organisation, developed long before YouTube, which gathers video evidence of human rights abuse, instead of written testimonies, in an effort to combat corruption. In 2003 Gabriel predicted that the music industry would be toppled by file-sharing. Back in 1999 he had launched OD2 (On Demand Distribution), which for a while was the leading distributor of digital music in Europe before Nokia bought it in 2006.
“Sometimes I think it’s not always good to be early on things,” he says today. “We didn’t have anything like the clout that Apple had when they came riding over the hill . . .”
Gabriel’s intellectual curiosity is always constrained by his finances. He remortgaged his house to start Womad; when the first festival bankrupted him, his old band Genesis sent him a cheque, which he refused to cash. They then suggested a one-off reunion concert to help raise funds, to be held in Milton Keynes in 1982. He agreed to perform, provided he could be brought on and off stage in a coffin.
We are sitting on the top floor of the former EMI headquarters in Kensington on the morning it’s announced that it has been absorbed into another legendary label, Warner Music. There are a few pop-music “toys” still lying around the office, the sort of thing the place would have been filled with in the glory days – a rocket once sat on by Lily Allen, a giant monster’s head worn in a video.
Gabriel likes toys: I got an email the other day about a new music device he is backing called the iBean, a 4GB digital player built into a giant bean from the Amazonian rainforest and available in a variety of colours.
Another project is his Memory Forest, which is part of an idea the geek world refers to as “the internet of things”, where inanimate objects are linked to the web like we are. A few years ago Gabriel started to record the voice and recollections of his father, who died in November last year aged 100. The data would be buried under a tree and, walking towards it, you’d connect with it on your mobile phone and the voice of the departed one would be brought back to life.
“I would like to be buried under an oak tree,” he says today. “Burning doesn’t seem to me a good way: if I had it all wrong and there was such a thing as a soul, I’d want to make sure I didn’t get fried before the soul goes.” He speaks quietly and precisely and there is something rather shy about him. “Tony, Mike and myself started off at school thinking we’d be songwriters and wouldn’t get involved in any other sort of performance rubbish,” he says –which is funny when you think of his costumes and spoken-word routines in the early days of Genesis: his wife’s red dress and the “fox head”; the Flower; Magog in his geometric hat; and Britannia, who first emerged during the song “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” and would stand at the front of the stage announcing in his/ her sad tones, “I am the voice of Britain, before the Daily Express.”
Those versed in Genesis will know that his regalia was unpopular with the rest of the band. Gabriel insists that it was necessary. “The others, less conscious of the ebb and flow of audience interest, spent a lot of time tuning their 12-string guitars. At the front of the stage I was painfully conscious that I was the one people would throw things at.” But it does make you wonder what shy and retiring songwriter would opt to fashion himself a costume with an inflatable penis (the Slipperman).
“I think I’m a mixture of shy and show-off, so the natural state is probably quiet and holding back – but give me the right opportunity and I’ll make a fool of myself and prance around,” he says. “You don’t do something like this unless you need it at some level, that attention.”
Gabriel’s “pop-star moment”, as he calls it, happened at the age of 36. He had spent the years following his split from Genesis exploring digital technology, world music and new drums through four solo albums so wilfully obscure, he refused to name them (they were all just called Peter Gabriel) or show his face clearly in the artwork. Critics liked them but there wasn’t much of a dent on the charts. Then his management, as he later explained, “informed me that my previous album covers were off-putting to women” and one day in 1986 – boom, the face appeared, on that Peter Saville cover for his fifth studio album, So.
With So, Gabriel’s life changed overnight. The celebrated stop-motion animation video for “Sledgehammer” remains MTV’s mostplayed number of all time. To small children like me, he was the funny man with the train flying round his head; to world music fans he’d made a cross-continental collaboration in the same summer as Paul Simon’s Graceland, also released in 1986. To his fans from Genesis he’d knocked Phil, Mike and Tony off number one in America. And to ladies he was a piece of grown-up, blue-eyed, jacketand- jeans sophistication cuter than Robert Palmer. Even in his forties Gabriel was wearing a headset microphone and thrusting his groin out on stage, or riding around on a bicycle with no need for costumes now. Girls filled the front row at his gigs, “a shock, and a very nice surprise – for all of the band”, he says carefully. “It is great ego-stroking. It was definitely a nice moment. A great place to visit, not a great place to live.”
The pop-star moment brought with it a degree of personal turmoil. After his marriage broke down in 1987 Gabriel and his eldest daughter, Anna-Marie, were painfully estranged for a while. Having married very young, he “did his running around later” and famously dated the singer Sinéad O’Connor and the actress/director Rosanna Arquette. His songs were more confessional: “Big Time” spoke a certain contempt for the Me decade as much as “Sledgehammer” was part of its soundtrack – “There’s so much stuff I will own . . . When I show them ’round my house, to my bed/I had it made like a mountain range/With a snow-white pillow for my big fat head.”
His split from Arquette was dramatised in 1992’s “Digging in the Dirt”, the video for which showed him and a “wife” (played by a model) having a huge row and smashing up a car. The same year, “Come Talk To Me” was a call-out to his daughter, then in early adulthood. Their relationship has since been repaired after quite a lot of therapy; she is now a film-maker and sometimes works with him.
Much of Gabriel’s help came from Erhard Seminars Training, or est. This 1970s counselling technique, developed by a San Francisco salesman, focuses on self-transformation, curbing one’s appetite for satisfaction and freeing oneself from the past. It has proved transformative for many celebrities, from Cher to Jeff Bridges to Yoko Ono and even, oddly, two members of the 5th Dimension.
“The analogy is of a boat in dangerous water,” Gabriel once said in a talk on est. “Would you rather be in the hold bitching about the captain or standing at the helm with the power to change direction? [. . .] Be authentic about who you are, how you feel. We spend so much of our lives not actually being who we are, but who we imagine we ought to be.”
It is strange, looking at the old hippie in front of me – in his untucked blue shirt, with his musical beans and gap years, listening to Michael Jackson with his five-year-old son – to think he was ever in therapy at all, or felt like he was in the hold bitching about the captain, when to the rest of us it seemed he had been steering HMS Gabriel in favourable conditions for at least 25 years.
“After my divorce, est taught me about family again,” he says now, “and I remember going home afterwards and sort of hugging my dad, which I hadn’t done for years before. My mum I had been more physical with but not my dad. He was quite a shy man. He was quite happy with silence. He used to have a workshop in the back garden in which he spent quite a lot of time building, repairing and designing things, and I would just go and sit and hang out there sometimes and watch him work. And . . . it was fine not to be talking. But there were other times when I did want more communication.”
There’s a clip for a song of his on YouTube called “Father, Son” that shows the pair of them walking around the garden, hugging, doing stuff together. You sense that every bit of that footage was taken with the future song in mind. Gabriel has a long-standing interest in the “usefulness” of music. His new album, And I’ll Scratch Yours, is the second part of a song-exchange project that began in 2010 with Scratch My Back, for which he covered tunes by Paul Simon, David Bowie and Neil Young in experimental, rather dour orchestral arrangements. Now, he’s sent his own songs out for other people to do with as they wish; Lou Reed slurs and grinds his way through “Solsbury Hill”, Gabriel’s first solo single and an account of the freedom he felt on leaving Genesis.
Given his generally Zen approach to life nowadays, the Scratch My Back project would appear to be an exercise in letting go. What can be more awful for a songwriter, especially one so slow and meticulous as Gabriel, than listening to someone butcher your babies? “Well, it is certainly easier to let someone fiddle with your songs than fiddle with your kids,” he says. He is currently looking into a new kind of software that will enable people to write songs on their computers, using the musical “fingerprints” of well-known musicians.
“There are people starting to identify the algorithms that will explain some of what composers put into their music and just make suggestions,” he says. “So, you know, Dylan will get a rhyme and make certain lateral jumps from those rhymes – and Bowie used the avant-garde technique of cutting up words . . . So, there will be various ways that you could, I think, integrate a whole variety of songwriting tools: ‘This person would probably have chosen one of these three chords – A, B or C. Which do you want?’ That kind of thing.”
So, one day will we be able to download software that enables you to write your own “Sledgehammer?
“Well,” he says, “I don’t think that would be too hard.”
Just as his own industry was turned on its head by the internet, Gabriel thinks that education, health care and government ought to be next. A significant funder of Labour during the transition to Blair, he fell out of love with the party over the invasion of Iraq and these days is more interested in online petitioning organisations such as Change.org and Avaaz.
“If you look at the big issues that face us,” he says, “whether it’s climate change or the Arab uprisings, they lie outside national borders or national governments. Governments are preserved in the 20th-century structure. So is the UN, which, although it does many wonderful things, has what is now an antiquated voting power base that needs to be undermined.
“The internet is only just beginning to transform politics, and global connections will gain influence at the expense of national boundaries. The next step – the dream for me – is to connect these non-governmental, people-powered networks.”
And then we enter strange territory – his idea for a “web-based, non-governmental world politics”. “Level one: mapping,” he says, “both geographical and issue-based, connecting the work of non-governmental bodies across the world, allowing you to scan them historically, to see where problems evolved. Level two: storytelling. That includes the news, but you’d also be able to zoom in to any point on the world’s surface and pull out a story, with contextualisation and first-person accounts via YouTube, Witness, Videri and Twitter.”
The third level of the structure, he says, is online petitioning. “World politics are global and they are local, but they are no longer national. A people-powered, non-governmental network will allow us influence on a lot of things that currently we’re unable to change.” In 2007 Gabriel became one of the funders of the human rights group the Elders, a conglomeration of ten vintage leaders with a combined age of 812 which includes Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson and Jimmy Carter and was founded by Nelson Mandela.
I was never sure what the Elders was for, until now. Gabriel isn’t quite old enough to be one himself yet, but then again he always seems to have been in a rush to move on to the next stage of his life. Level four of the non-governmental world politics is highlevel intervention, “Which is where the Elders would sit. And, with their wisdom and experience, connect old people and young people – in a pincer movement on the middle-aged in power.”
Peter Gabriel will perform “So” with the original line-up at the O2 Arena, London SE10, on 21 and 22 October. “And I’ll Scratch Yours” is out now on Parlophone