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Roger Waters on Political ‘Runaway Train’ That Inspired New Album

Roger Waters on Political ‘Runaway Train’ That Inspired New Album
 

“There are a lot of songs that are not on there,” Roger Waters said last spring, pointing to the CD on a mixing console in a Manhattan recording studio – an advance copy of his latest album, Is This the Life We Really Want? “There’s so much stuff that I’ve produced over the years that I never put out,” the ex–Pink Floyd singer-bassist went on. “I don’t really think about it. I’m focused now on what I’m doing, so I can’t really remember why I didn’t make a record for all that time. I have no idea.”

“All that time” is the 25 years that have passed since Waters’ last solo album of new material, 1992’s Amused to Death – a period in which his only studio releases were a 2004 digital single (“To Kill the Child” b/w the 12-minute anti–Iraq War diatribe, “Leaving Beirut”) and an original opera, Ça Ira, while his world tours were largely built on Floyd repertory (1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, 1979’s The Wall).

Waters, 73, is back on the road this year with his latest spectacle, Us + Them. The show, which opened in Kansas City on May 26th and runs through October in North America (with plans for additional shows in 2018), is stacked with Floyd classics, including a provocative sequence from 1977’s Animals squarely aimed at the current U.S. president, Donald Trump. It is also Waters’ first concert production since 1987’s Radio K.A.O.S. to feature new material. Us + Them, named after the Dark Side song, is a show, Waters explained, about “how we express the idea that to love our fellow human beings is really good for us and that to build walls between us is really bad.” The songs that he performs from his latest record – including “Déjá Vu,” “Picture That” and “Smell The Roses” – are “important” to that narrative, he insisted, “and really up to date.”

I first spoke to Waters about the new record while he was still making it – during an interview in his backstage trailer at the Desert Trip festival in October 2016. We met again this year, in late April, shortly before Waters began full-dress rehearsals in New Jersey for the current tour. It was a candid, wide-ranging conversation, published here for the first time, about the album, its long, tangled origins and Waters’ fiercely-held personal beliefs. Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, drinking tea in a swivel chair, he looked at once rested and eager to hit the road. He spoke in a deep, soft voice, just this side of a whisper, but with certainty and a deep pride in the new work.

“Well, here we are again,” Waters said, glancing down at the CD in front of him. Then he was off.

It has been 25 years since your last studio album of new material. When did you start writing these songs and was there a topic, a premise?
Years ago – around the millennium, when I started touring again in 1999–2000 – I spent a month in Nassau and got some people to come there. It was the band with [guitarist] Doyle Bramhall II, and we cut six or seven tracks. There was one song that we recorded then that I really liked. But it was completely surreal. “Judgment Day dawns black/Furnished with smoke” – that was the first line. And it’s on this record. It’s called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”

There was a bit in the song about a cowboy who was hung: “The rope hit the spot at the end of the drop/And the last thing they heard was him calling.” That is now: “The bomb hit the spot where the numbers all stop/And the last thing she heard was her calling/Home/I’m coming home.” I adapted the song and stuck in all the stuff about a bomber and drone warfare. I wrote those lyrics six months ago: “Fuck me, I can finally use this song.”

There is a leanness to the writing – almost chant-like lyrics, like the repetitive pattern of “Picture That” – set in a theatrical-rock production.
“Is This the Life We Really Want?” is interesting because I was working with musicians I had never met, because they were friends of Nigel [Godrich]’s – [drummer] Joey Waronker, [guitarist-keyboardists] Gus Seyffert and Jonathan Wilson. It was the early days of being around the studio with them. We were feeling our way around one another, Nigel and I. I would say things like “We should try things at half-speed” or “double-speed.” And at one point, Nigel said to me, “Well, are you going to play?” Play what? “Play the bass.” Why? [Laughs]

It turned into a bit of a thing. “Why don’t you play with the band now?” We wrote down a simple chord chart and, rather grumpily, I stuck it on my knee. “Oh, give me the fucking bass.” We started playing. We played through it once. And that is the take.

“Picture That” was slightly different, more of a process. But “Is This the Life We Really Want?” was one take. That is actually part of a poem I wrote in 2008, ranting and raving about things.

There is a siege mentality to the album, in the images and emotions running through it.
This is a runaway train in my view [points to the CD on the mixing console]. We are all on board a runaway train, and it’s scary as shit, coming off the rails at every turn. There could be nuclear war, easily, and nobody gives a shit. “Well, so what?” Your job is almost impossible now. The resistance to actually reporting anything is so intense.

I keep repeating the same thing again and again. I know people think I’m mad. Is This the Life We Really Want? – people say, “What does it mean?” It means what it says. A perpetual state of war; your government rewriting laws taking away most of your civil liberties … Is this how you want to live? And if it’s not, is there anything you can do about it? Do you have any choice? Or is the train going so fast that there is no way of finding where the brake is? Or persuading anybody that maybe it should slow down a bit?

There is a line in the title track in which democracy is defined as “what we all say goes.” To me, that is not a definition of democracy. It’s mob rule.
That’s true as well. But that was ever the problem. [The British king] George V said, “Democracy is a Greek folly. It gives special powers to very ordinary people.” [Laughs] Spoken like a monarch.

When you were growing up in postwar Britain, was America an ideal to you – as a society, as culture?
America represented consumerism. It represented blue jeans and bobby sox. And it represented naiveté and boastfulness. I may have gotten this from my mother. My mother visited America in 1936 or ’37. She had only been to Texas and Ohio.

As a young man and particularly as Pink Floyd started, how much did you buy into the cultural uprising of psychedelia – the idea of a hippie utopia that was going to change society?
Oh, not at all.

You were born a cynic?
I never had anything to do with any of that, ever. Flower power? Are you fucking kidding me? No way. You have to remember I grew up on [Aldous] Huxley and [George] Orwell and H.G. Wells. We weren’t listening to Timothy Leary or Owsley [Stanley]. That was all nonsense. You don’t even need half an education to figure that out. I am old enough to remember the Atlee government [Clement Atlee, British prime minister from 1945 to 1951]. There was a social revolution in England after the Second World War. There was a shrugging-off of the overlords that characterized the Industrial Revolution and Victorian society. There was a genuine attempt to create a caring society. We still have a National Health Service that is 10 times as good as any health service you will ever have probably.

“Flower power? Are you fucking kidding me?”

Was there anything about mid- and late-Sixties London that had lasting value, other than the music?
What was important about that time had nothing to do with Carnaby Street. The Beatles suddenly made popular music a legitimate forum for expression of feelings – real feelings and ideas. That was revolutionary.

You went to architecture school. Did you ever consider, as a student, going into law, social work or politics?
No, I couldn’t do politics.

You have the aggression for it.
I could be aggressive. I can figure out what I think. I can be coherent. [Pauses] I went into rock & roll because I wanted to get laid. Having said that, I am still interested in the way politics works and how people organize themselves and what different societies do and why they do it.

Do you write songs to confront or convince?
What do you mean?

As a songwriter – telling stories, drawing pictures – are you trying to confront people with the truth as you see it or draw them together?
I don’t know. Half of the song “Déjá Vu” is not on the [new] record. The last verse was cut. But I quote it a lot: “If I had been God/I would not have chosen anyone/I would have laid an even hand/On all my children everyone/Would have been content/To forego Ramadan and Lent/Time better spent/In the company of friends/Breaking bread and mending nets.” A lot of people would go, “Oh, there he goes, the old anti-Semite.” Well, no. If I talk about choosing people, I’m not talking about the Jewish faith. I’m talking about all faiths – all members of different faiths.

But who do you hope to reach with this album and how would you like them to respond, what they could take away from it?
OK, that’s a good question. [Long pause]

I’d like to reach people who are looking for a friend – who will encourage them to stand their ground and observe things and, if they see something they believe to be true, are prepared to speak up about it. Years ago, my pig [in Waters’ live show] had “Habeus corpus matters” written on it. People think, “What the fuck’s he talking about?” When you’ve been whisked off the street and you’re rotting in a prison cell, you will get it. You Americans have allowed the law of your land to be subverted, so that can now happen. And you have no recourse. All it needs is somebody anonymous to suspect that you might be supporting a terrorist organization, and you can be taken away. You can be remanded somewhere, tortured and kept in prison forever, with no evidence – and no day in court.

Do you have U.S. citizenship?
No.

You have residency status.
I have a visa. I pay tax – a lot of tax.

As a British citizen, did you vote against Brexit?
If I had voted, I would have voted obviously to stay in the European Union.

You didn’t vote?
I wasn’t there. It was one of those things where everybody thought it was a foregone conclusion. Certainly I did. “It’s ridiculous. It would be so stupid.”

Do you regret not voting, given that the result was so close?
Yeah. I thought we were better than that. I was wrong.

When you talk about recording songs at the millennium – writing poetry, generating things over time – when did you get to the point where you thought you were actually making a new album?
It was two years ago, when I started working with Nigel. It’s not like we worked on it for two years. We’d do three weeks, then we didn’t see each other for six months, then did another three weeks. Before that, I had a radio play. There was this whole narrative and a bunch of songs with it. I would occasionally play it to people, and they would go, “You’ve got to make a record. It’s really good.”

I got to know Nigel because he was mixing the sound for the [2014] movie, Roger Waters: The Wall. Eventually I played it to Nigel, and he went, “Hmmm …” He expressed an interest in making a record. Then he went, “Yeah, let’s do these eight bars, and this four bars.” I was like, “Hang on a minute, it’s like two hours long, and you picked seven minutes. What about the rest of it?” “Let’s start with this.”

How easy was that to take, given that you are generally the leader of your own domain?
I decided to do something different. Working with Nigel, I realized early on that though there was plenty of space for me to have ideas about things, as far as the minutiae of making a record – or even the big gestures – I was gonna go [smiles and mimics sitting on his hands], which is a new discipline.

Did you hold ultimate veto?
There are some things like that.

Are there particular musical or lyrical examples?
Yeah, tiny things. Other things that I let go were really important to me. Nigel was always very keen that we shouldn’t be specifically political about anything. I took the words “Lay down Jerusalem” out of “Déjá Vu.” The chorus used to go, “Maybe a woman at a stove/Baking bread, making rice or just boiling down some bones/Lay down Jerusalem/Lay your burden down.” There was a big thing, Nigel trying to persuade me to take any reference to Jerusalem out. “I said, ‘It’s really important.’” But he said, “People will go, ‘He’s being an anti-Semite again.’ I said, “There’s nothing anti-Semitic about it. Jerusalem is hugely important because of the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, the British, whoever has been fighting over this place.”

But the phrase does not contain those details.
It doesn’t, of course. Obviously, Jerusalem, the place, can’t be guilty of anything. On the other hand, one feels that if Jerusalem could be peaceful – without the burden of that discontent, the fighting for faith – it would be fabulous. That’s what I’m saying in this song.

What convinced you to take the line out?
I eventually got worn down. You can make a point about something without being specific. People would misinterpret my intentions.

How were you raised religiously? Church of England?
I wasn’t raised anything. My mother did allow my [older] brother and I to go to Sunday school. My mother was agnostic. She was raised Church of England. My father was devoutly Christian, which is why he was a conscientous objector at the beginning of the war. Then he became politicized, joined the Army and got killed [in action in 1944]. I assume he retained his belief in Jesus Christ and the redemptive power of that. I never got the chance to ask him.

Where do you turn for spiritual sustenance?
When I was a kid, we always had a lodger. My mother was a teacher, and my brother and I would get home from school before she did. There had to be somebody in the house; she didn’t like the idea of us being latch-key kids. But sometimes the lodgers wouldn’t be there, so she would take us to meetings. She was very political. We used to go to British-China Friendship Association meetings in the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge, which was the Quakers’ place of worship.

I remember her talking about it: “The Quakers are a Christian religious order. While I cannot share their faith, you must understand that their beliefs are rooted in some of the same beliefs I have, because I am a humanist. I believe in human rights. I believe we have a responsibility to look after each other. And so do the Quakers. They are, by and large [affects emphatic, maternal voice], very, very good people.” [Laughs] I’ve never forgotten that.

The idea that you need some center of faith in order to be humane has never gained any traction with me. However, I do believe that part of the journey to develop one’s capacity for empathy can reside in the transcendental nature of love – that extraordinary, powerful thing that happens to you.

Does it bother you that people don’t think of you as humane?
Yeah, it does. The whole “bad guy who broke up Pink Floyd” bollocks – It is just fucking irritating.

It’s your cross to bear.
There’s not a lot I can do about it. Obviously, I’m a very lucky guy. I have great friends. I’m in a wonderful relationship at the moment. And I have my work, which I adore. The reward of doing the work is enormous.

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