“I keep thinking that I want to do it all with a live band and get in a big room and record the songs,” David Gilmour, the legendary guitarist and main vocalist of Pink Floyd, admits when I ask him if he misses working live with a band, as he did in the halcyon days of the Floyd in Abbey Road or the band’s own studio Britannia Row.
“But I always seem to find myself at the end thinking that what I’ve done (on my own) is so good that it would be hard to top it by doing that.”
“I have had a long and busy career, and I don’t feel it’s essential for me to keep going at the rate I was going when I was younger. I work until things start gathering momentum. This just happens to be that moment.”
“It’s been nine years,” Gilmour, seated in the London offices of his long-time publicist, begins a bit sheepishly when we begin our interview about his new album, Rattle That Lock, and why it’s taken so long to follow up 2006’s excellent On An Island.
While nine years is a long time between albums, Gilmour toured On An Island extensively with fellow Floyd Rick Wright, who died in 2008, and released Pink Floyd’s final album, The Endless River last year, a “musical elegy to Rick” and “the final word from Pink Floyd”, according to Gilmour.
Rattle That Lock is more evidence that Gilmour is on a late-career roll. From the gorgeous opening notes of 5 AM, the track the kicks off the album, you know you’re in for something not just quintessentially Gilmour, but also reflective. Gilmour’s playing is as intimate and yearning as ever, and the lead-off track sets up “a sort of day in the life, from daybreak to bedtime”, with the final notes of the last track And Then…, according to Gilmour.
The album, of course, includes many of Gilmour’s signature sounds, but along the way there’s also jazz and songs with a more modern-sounding structure and polish. There are plenty of Floydian moments, as well as nods to Gilmour’s early solo work, but Rattle That Lock is also a clear attempt by Gilmour to move forward as a solo artist, defining him more than ever as having a career away from the shadow of his former band.
“This just is the way that my mind and fingers are working at the moment,” Gilmour says, by way of explanation. “Mostly the songs begin as me, on my own. They tumble out of a guitar or piano, and I’ll pop them down on my iPhone these days. Then I turn them over to (producer and former Roxy Music guitarist) Phil Manzanera. I gave him about 200 little snippets. Phil whittled them down to about 30 ideas, and then we focused in on what were the best ten of those and what we wanted to develop. But we also had plenty of ideas to draw from that were also good, if we got stuck.”
Gilmour worked mostly alone at his studio near his home in Brighton, or on Astoria, the famed house boat where the Floyd recorded since the first post-Roger Waters Momentary Lapse Of Reason, and where On An Island was recorded, and Gilmour says he tackled the work, perhaps because it was in the wake of Wright’s death and the subsequent reflective period making The Endless River, with an energy that even surprised him.
The songs on Rattle That Lock are some of the most adventurous stylistically of Gilmour’s solo career. Polly Samson, his wife and the lyricist on every Gilmour-related album since 1994s The Division Bell, credits Gilmour’s always searching out new sounds. Getting the notoriously reserved guitarist to express himself in words, however, is another thing.
“David has a musical brain,” Samson says. “He finds it very, very hard to express emotion any way other than musically It’s a real strain for him. But if he had me write a guitar solo, it would probably be the same thing. Enabling him to write lyrics – helping him and prompting him – is much harder work than writing a lyric myself. He would write a line, we would go for a walk, and I would try very hard not to do what I’ve done in the past, which is to suggest the next line, which then becomes the next line. I don’t think he would find it particularly disloyal for me to say it was blood from a stone, but when he gets it done, it’s great.
“He gets these moments,” Samson continues. “He can get a line of a chorus, but he gets completely frozen when it comes to the verses. He freezes. It’s like a mental block. He can do it, but he believes that he can’t. It’s a bit like with an unconfident child. For all those years he had Roger, who was very keen to write the lyrics, or he had Syd, who was just born with a gift. I think over those years, he got sort of bashed into a place where he believed that he couldn’t write lyrics. I think I’m the first person who really believes he can. That’s, in a way, been quite an interesting part of this album: More or less forcing him to write two songs on his own. It worked really, really well. I think I’ve made myself redundant!”
Gilmour laughs when I repeat Samson’s comments back to him. But he also agrees that lyric-writing has always been a bit like preparing for exams to him. Still, he says he’s more engaged by it then ever, thanks to Samson’s encouragement.
“On this particular album, there are two songs with lyrics by me,” Gilmour tells me, barely hiding the obvious pride he feels in the accomplishment. “The other five lyrics are by her. She’s turned into a formidable writer who now really understands herself and what she’s trying to do and how to put a lot of weight and a big subject into very few words but have them be poetic, powerful, and meaningful at the same time. That’s not easy. My two lyrics on this one I’m pretty proud of, too. They have some good imagery and are quite visual, I think.”
“There’s a section of one of the songs which is I think one of the best things he’s ever written,” she tells me. “It’s in a song called Dancing Right In Front of Me: ‘Dancing right in front of me, all the lights I once could see, slipping to and slipping fro, disappearing who’s to know where they have come just out of sight into the shadows of my night who started out as stars in my eyes.’ I would have been thrilled if I’d written that.”
Gilmour’s voice, as much his trademark as his signature guitar sound, is also sounding as strong as ever. At a time when many of his contemporaries are struggling vocally, Gilmour’s voice sounds almost youthful.
“I’ve no idea how that seems to be,” he tells me, with a hint of surprise in his voice. “Maybe it’s because I haven’t used it quite as much as some people have, being a lazy fucker. It is what it is. I have no particular difference in approach. I’m trying my best to understand and sing the words that Polly has written and put as much conviction into it, but that’s what I always try to do. Other than that, I don’t really have any particular explanation.”
As we wrap up, and Gilmour heads off to work on the setlist for rehearsals ahead of his upcoming tour of the UK and Europe this fall, with the US and beyond to follow next spring, he promises there won’t be another nearly decade-long gap before the next album. In fact, he says he’s already at work on more music.
Samson tells me that Gilmour’s commitment to family life, and that having to space out their projects so that one of them was always around for their children, is less of a hurdle these days.
“We’re coming out of the woods,” she says. “Our youngest is 13, and everyone else you could more or less call young adults now. We’re both so completely obsessive when we work so to have both of us working seemed that it just wasn’t fair to our children, and it just wasn’t fair to us, because we’d miss them as well. We’ve come to the end of that now, and our children are really happy to be ignored, in fact. So I think those gaps (in our work) are probably a thing of the past. I think David Is eager to do more recording soon.”