Peter Gabriel’s music is unique, a blend of diverse ingredients fused together, shunning the bombast of mainstream rock and denying any easy categorisation by the media. His compositional tactic is suitably oblique, relying a great deal upon studio-bound experimentation with hand-picked musicians who are prepared to follow his unorthodox lead.
David Rhodes himself enjoys a slightly anarchic approach to his instrument which evolved during a spell at art school...
“In my last year at college I met up with a guy who was an English teacher and we decided to do this kind of ‘noise’ group, with tape machines and me scratching away at a guitar and him playing Stylophone! There aren’t too many of those kind of people around...
“We did a series of performances at a theatre in Rotherhithe and only twenty-four people came, so it was then that we decided to do songs! So we started doing songs using backing tapes – we were amongst the first to be doing that, I think. But we were a lot more rock’n’roll than electronic, so we kind of missed out. When the Human League and OMD took off, we got left behind.”
How much did the whole ‘Art College’ experience help or hinder you as a musician?
“I think, attitude-wise, it helped because, as a guitarist, I’m technically useless! I’ve always been more interested in sound and the whole idea of what music is. Music is anything – any sound you can make. And, along with that, you accept everything that goes on around you. That interests me more than people getting so strung up about technique. I mean, it can be great because some of the people I work with are wonderful technicians and composers and they know exactly what they want. I think emotionally I enjoy chance – things going wrong. I take pleasure in trying to do something which may not turn out quite as expected but which takes you to another area.”
We’re not getting into the area of ‘sculpting with sound’, then.
“No. That’s bollocks!”
So when were you trying to put this band together?
“That would be ’79. It was just as people were getting into it. We were using the old Roland rhythm machines, using Latin rhythms, that kind of thing, but we gradually put a band together.”
What were you playing in those days?
“I was trying to play guitar,” he jests. “I had a Strat for a little while, then I had to sell it.”
What was the band called?
“We were called Random Hold. We were good at something – I’m not sure exactly what. It was quite crude, but there was some nice stuff – really effective. It was very intense, what we did, and consequently nobody bought the record when it came out!
We did an album for Polydor. It was the first time I’d done any proper recording. We were very new to it. I didn’t enjoy it and I found it very difficult. But I found the whole thing of being in a band difficult; I had very mixed feelings about it all. I was very unhappy at the time, very angry and frustrated at the fact that the world didn’t seem to operate in quite the right way.”
That would have been in the slipstream of punk, though; the ‘angry young man’ image should have fitted perfectly...
“We weren’t punk and we weren’t new wave, either. We were a bit stodgy, I suppose, looking back realistically. Some bits of it I remember fondly, because it was quite funny. But it was loud and it was quite tough and quite crude...and nobody liked it!
“The album was called ‘The View From Here’. But the funny thing was, we conceived it as a double album but in the end the record company would only put out a single album. It had a couple of nice moments on it. I remember that one of the guys in the band was pleased because the singer from the Gang Of Four had it in his top ten albums! But we really weren’t very good – that’s the truth of it. But the double album did get released a few years later – somehow somebody managed to get the tapes out of Polydor – and I don’t think it sold any copies at all! But it was quite nice to have the thing as it had originally been conceived.”
So Gabriel saw you with Random Hold?
“Yes. He came to see the band down at the Rock Garden, along with all his management people. By the time Peter saw us, we were just a straight-ahead band. He’d been recommended by a painter called Graham Dean who’d seen us a couple of times up in Oxford.
“Peter was looking for a band to work with for the third album. I think he’d even approached The Jam – Paul Weller ended up being on the record. But he was just casting around for younger people to do that record. His first record had been made with American session players and the second one was pretty much with his live band with a couple of additions.
“He came and saw us and invited us to go and do some demos with him. I was so nervous – I had tummy ache for the three or four days that we were there. I just ate mushy bananas and yoghurt!”
Not very rock’n’roll!
“No, but it stopped me from dying of belly-ache!”
That’s a really sad story.
“Pathetic! The funny thing was when we went down there I think Peter was twenty-eight and I must have been twenty-two, and I thought ‘What’s this old geezer trying to do?’ And it’s funny...we’re still at it!”
Presumably Peter’s reputation had preceded him...
“Yes, but I was never a Genesis fan. I once had a girlfriend who forced me to listen to ‘Foxtrot’, and the only track I liked on that was called Armageddon in 5/4 (in fact, Apocalypse in 9/8 – DM). Peter asked me at one time if I ever listened to Genesis and I said no, but the only track I ever liked was this thing in 7/4, and I think it was the only track on that record that he didn’t like!”
Peter has a reputation for composing in his Real World studio via a process of experimentation and jamming, is that the way “Us” started?
“Yeah, and just trying to play along – that’s how the thing works.”
How are the songs presented to start with? Does he come in with snatches of ideas?
“Yeah, it could be just a rhythm and a couple of changes and we’ll see what happens. He’ll go, ‘Oh, and I’ve got this other section. . .’ and it can kind of go on like that, until there are loads of bits. If he starts singing, that immediately sets the tone for something and he’ll just scat things. He won’t necessarily have any words; more often than not he’ll never have any words. In the studio they’ll always have a DAT running, so that you can go back and pick up on any good bits. Things nearly always start from a rhythm, from a groove, and just seeing what happens.”
What guitars do you use in the studio?
“I use Steinbergers; I’ve got a couple of sixes and a 12-string. I just got myself a Les Paul Junior that I really like, a ’54, lovely neck, nice instrument. And I also use an old Fender Jazzmaster for quite a lot of the groove, and that’s quite woody-sounding.”
“I use pretty much whatever’s there, but generally it’s a Roland JC120, AC30 or Mesa Boogie. . . It tends to be more the JC120 and the AC30.”
Do you use the Steinberger live?
“On the last tour I did. Those guitars are great. I also like the qualities of the Les Paul, the Jazzmaster and so forth. But the Steinberger is just so practical, and they give you such a high output. I quite like loud guitars!”
Delving into the nuts and bolts of a recording day, David paints a vivid picture of how ‘Us’ began to take shape.
“Steam, for instance, came from a rhythm loop that one of the engineers had. I think Peter had a groove and we just added to that. All these things start with rhythm. And then it’s just working with that and what Peter’s playing. . .and just doing something that fits.
“What he does expect people to do is fit in with the mood, and if they don’t it’s not a big problem; if you don’t feel like playing you don’t play. The other thing is, he’s in such a privileged position to be able to try out loads of ideas, on a lot of tracks. There’s been loads of stuff lost – well, not lost, it’s just on other multi-tracks. So there are many alternate versions. I think there’s a credit on the record for about a dozen people who worked on it that didn’t make it to the final mix. So in fact there are loads of guitar parts, alternatives, that sort of thing. In fact on Steam there aren’t, but on the more impressionistic things, for want of better word, there will be alternatives.”
The groove on Steam is very similar to Sledgehammer’s, isn’t it?
“Yes. The thing about that is he’s always had a soft spot for soul-type things. That track was basically cut as a band track – in fact, probably more than some of the others.”
It’s in the same key as Sledgehammer...
“Peter likes E flat.”
It’s a pig of a key for a guitarist, though...
“Nah, just tune down!”
Let’s take another track. How did Fourteen Black Paintings start?
“Peter just came in with some chords and we just started playing. If you listen to it, although it is structured because of the changes, it’s still pretty rough – he just calls out where he wants the change to happen. That happens until quite late on; he’ll just call out when he wants someone to change or what section to go to.”
On the delightfully euphemistic Kiss That Frog you play a very ‘froggy’ guitar part. If Peter rarely has lyrics in the early stages, how did that come about?
“A few months ago it wasn’t going to go on the record, then just the two of us worked quite hard on it, to get it up to scratch. With that one the lyrics were in place, or at least some kind of frog lyrics, quite a long time ago.”
So there was a fairly heavy frog content from the beginning...
“Yeah! Maybe I ought to get BOSS to do a frog pedal...”
There is one specific track, Only Us, with a repetitive guitar phrase just before the fade. Was that looped?
“No, I always play those things.”
How did you get the high pitch that’s embroidered in there? Was it a harmonic, or feedback?
“It was a Digitech Whammy Pedal. Somebody had brought it into the studio that day and I just tired it out and found that effect and we stuck it on!”
Peter got into the Fairlight in the ‘80s. Has he used that to sample guitar?
“No, things get moved around sometimes, but not often. That’s to tidy areas up, or if Peter wants a repeat of a section, but they aren’t normally triggered.”
Have you a favourite track that you play live?
“Biko, for emotional purposes. Sledge is just a blast. The tail end of Secret World...”
You’re just beginning the rehearsals for the ‘Us’ tour...
“The tour was meant to start on the 6 November last year in Africa, but it’s been put back. Peter’s got behind with the visual stuff, and he’s also been doing a lot of TV and radio.”
Are the pre-tour rehearsals intense?
“No!” David laughs. “They start in a little room, then we move to a bigger room, then we’re doing a couple of warm-up gigs in America, just in clubs. Then we start production rehearsals in a very big room – then we’ll go into a very big room with people in!”
When you try and condense several guitar parts into one live version, does it often involve a switching nightmare on stage?
“It could do. In fact on Steam I just literally steam through it on a single setting, but there could be as many as half a dozen guitars on one track. Digging in the Dirt, for instance: the first guitar is me and then when the vocal comes in, Leo Nocentelli (from The Meters) and then it switches back to me. That means I remember the riff I came up with, but the other I have to sit down and figure out.”
Was that the Steinberger?
“Yes, that and the Jazzmaster. Before going on the road it’s a question of sorting out which I think are the most important parts. It’s going to be awkward. Sledgehammer was a delightfully bouncy little groove, Steam is far more aggressive. I think that will come out more live. From my point of view, with the guitar part, I’ll have to maybe not use the riff in the way that’s used on the record. There are three or four guitars on
there and I’ll have to find a way of keeping the essential groove and keeping the aggression of the distorted guitar.”
What’s the most challenging song to play live?
“It always used to be Lay Your Hands On Me. It kind of nearly falls apart, and there’s something quite exciting about that song; it’s so on the edge that you feel it’s going to decay at any moment. It’s not that it’s a difficult thing to play but it always feels as if it’s going to slip away. It’s really delicate things that are the most challenging.”
What gear are you taking with you on the forthcoming tour?
“It looks as though I’ll have a few more pedals! I’ve got a Sansamp which I’m putting through a rack. I’ve got a Dynacord Leslie, a simple Lexicon reverb. I’ve got a TC Delay unit, because I wanted a high quality delay.
"I want to keep the rig very simple, because last time I went out with a crazy switching system which was fantastic when it worked. So this time it’s on/offs for everything and no MIDI!
“I’m also putting my Boogie away and using two Matchless amps. They are stunning. In their blurb they say that they base their design on World War 2 electronic technology! These things are beautifully built. It’s basically an AC30 design – but reliable. Another nice thing they do is guarantee them to the original owner for life. So if you have major problems, they’ll sort it out.”
You’re taking out the Steinbergers again?
“I’ve got a feeling I’m going to end up using them. There are things about them which are maybe not ideal, but they’re so consistent – I like the high output of the EMGs. The tone is nice and even, the tuning’s always good. I think that’s why I always come back to them.”
Apart from your work with Gabriel, you’ve also played alongside Joan Armatrading...
“Yeah, a long time ago. It was very different. She has all her songs prepared before going into the studio, and she has the chord charts written out and you play them, which is fine in some ways, but it means you don’t get into the ‘second phase’ of ideas. Not just with her but with anybody, if they only give you a few hours to do stuff it means you don’t have enough time to investigate alternatives. But then again, for people like that who have every song properly formed, that’s what they want. You can’t have everything.
"In ’87 I did work with Talk Talk, and I did a whole lot of work with Tim Fenn (Finn – SD) – an album and a tour. A couple of months ago I played with New Order and I do odd sessions, odd bits of production. I did bits on Peter’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ soundtrack – odds and ends really.
“There’s a chap who used to be in a pop group called Blancmange and I work with him sometimes. And I’ve just been writing with Toni Childs for her next record, and I have a Japanese friend called Akira Inoue who I’ve been working with. I go to Japan normally once a year and do a couple of shows. We had a record out and we’ve been doing some songs and little pieces of music to go with a story called ‘Snowflake’ by Paul Gallico, and Peter is going to narrate the English version. I suppose there’ll be twenty-five minutes of music and forty-nine minutes of story-telling. That’s a really nice project – writing songs and little pieces of music specifically to illustrate the story.”
You started as a sculptor, are you still involved with that side of things?
“Not as much as I’d like to be. I’ve actually only just started making things again. Not ‘art’ but furniture: tables, benches – simple things, but functional. Gardening! I’m very keen on gardening. I like plants...”
Who would you say has influenced you?
“Percy Thrower!” (Percy Thrower hosted gardening shows in the UK – SD
I really meant as a guitarist...
“I think I love anybody who plays a good groove. All the James Brown stuff, I think that’s brilliant. As a player, I don’t like to be conspicuous. I don’t think being conspicuous is an essential part of guitar playing.”
So the Marshall stack and heavy posing is out.
“Not completely, but I think you should always play the song. I think that’s crucial.”
Any other serious influences?
I used to love listening to jazz, John McLaughlin, In a Silent Way – stuff like that I really enjoy. I like listening to piano music – Glenn Gould. I just saw there’s a whole lot of stuff just been released on CD...
“I was listening to some Bach cello pieces recently, which I really like. My knowledge of that is minimal, but there are certain things I like. I still listen to John Cale, The Blue Nile, Hendrix. . . and Frank Sinatra, actually, for the last couple of weeks in the car. I don’t really listen to a lot of rock. I should do, I feel guilty about it actually...
Copyright 2004-2012 Stacey Drucker & David Rhodes