“Lab coats? Yeah, I suppose there were people in lab coats. Engineers,” Roger Waters says after I hand him a set of coasters with images of equipment from Abbey Road Studios in the 1960s that I’d spied sitting on a coffee table while waiting for him to arrive at a Manhattan recording studio for our interview and asked him about the infamous lab coated engineers that peppered Abbey Road Studios up until the mid-60s. “But I remember the equipment being all battleship green, not battleship grey.”
Typically, Waters’ keen eye noticed something not quite right with the images, and he sought immediately to call out the imperfection. It’s that attention to detail that makes him who he is – the “creative genius behind Pink Floyd,” as advertisements for his current Us + Them Tour exclaim – but it’s also the obvious hallmark of a restless creative mind.
“Did they let you near the equipment? Were you allowed to touch it in those days?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course we were allowed to touch it!” Waters exclaims with more than a hint of derision.
“Oh, I guess The Beatles broke all the rules and then everyone got to play with whatever they wanted to,” I continued, putting my foot in it yet again.
“Whether they did or not I don’t know,” Waters says, squinting his eyes and sizing me up, seemingly for the kill.
Fortunately, I’ve interviewed Waters several times, and our history, it seems, saves me from a verbal beating.
“Don’t forget, when we were making our first album — The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — which was Syd Barrett’s work, really, we were in Number Three at Abbey Road and The Beatles were in Number Two, making Sgt. Pepper,” Waters says, amiably, and clearly letting me off the hook. “Sgt. Pepper was a record that revolutionized everything, because that really was the record where from where I was standing — which was next door in Studio Three — it seemed as if The Beatles were giving the rest of us permission to talk about our real feelings and our real lives and what was really going on.
“They introduced the kitchen sink to popular music, because before that it was Johnny Ray or Tony Steele singing the blues or ‘crying in the rain’ and they suddenly were writing about ‘Penny Lane’ or lunatic asylums or about being lonely or whatever it was about real life. It was what they lived and they felt and it was very important. I think it was really important.”
While we almost immediately turned to discussing Waters’ new album, Is This The Life We Really Want?, his first in 25 years, it was a fascinating, reflective moment from one of rock’s great minds.
Waters, of course, co-founded Pink Floyd in the mid-60s with Barrett, keyboardist Richard Wright and drummer Nick Mason, before Barrett succumbed to what Waters tells me he feels was a combination of schizophrenia and too many acid trips, forcing he, Wright and Mason to draft in David Gilmour on guitar. After about five years of cult status, Pink Floyd struck it huge with 1973s The Dark Side of the Moon, followed over the next ten years by Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and The Final Cut – all out in newly remastered vinyl editions – before Waters resigned from the band in a public barrage of acrimony and lawsuits.
But that work Waters did with his band mates during that ten-year heyday is, by almost every creative yardstick, untouchable. And, while his solo work has built on the same themes he explored with Pink Floyd – madness, emotional longing and corporate and governmental power and abuse – it never reached quite the same massive audience as his days with his former band.
In fact, at one point during our discussion, I recall some of Waters’ early solo shows that I attended, and he jokes offhandedly about playing to 1,500 people while Gilmour, Wright and Mason were down the road playing the local football stadium. It was humbling, he admits, but he never had any regrets about his decision to leave Pink Floyd.
“It wasn’t working,” he says, matter-of-factly. “You can’t stay if it isn’t working.”
As for Is This The Life We Really Want?, it picks up on the themes of 1977’s Animals, as well as 1992’s Amused To Death, Waters’ last solo album. It’s also Waters’ most Floydian-sounding album, thanks to the work of Radiohead’s go to producer Nigel Godrich.
“Sonically it’s Nigel’s record,” Waters says, singing the praises of his producer. “I mean, it is my record. I write the songs. But it was a great labor of considerable love from him. And you can hear his devotion to the Floyd in it, which is great.”
“Were you game for that or were you reluctant?” I ask.
“I was, after we got about a quarter of the way through it,” Waters, who is notoriously control-minded. “I realized pretty early on that he was a dog with a bone and that I shouldn’t try and take it off him or I’d get my fingers bit. But it’s all in service of the songs, and it’s great. I love it. But I did make a decision at a point: Shall I try and take the bone away or shall I just go and sit on my hands? I decided the latter, of course, which was the correct thing to do.”
Sean Evans, who directed the fantastic concert film of The Wall, from 2015, and who assisted Waters in creating the stark and politically-minded films that play during Waters’ current shows, suggested Godrich. With a new solo work in mind, Waters was sold after hearing Godrich’s mix for The Wall.
“He mixed it, and it sounded great,” Waters says. “We didn’t use my touring band, either. We shook things up a lot. But he’s very musical, and he’s got a great ear. He’s got great pitch and he has a good sense of drama. He understands dramatic the flow of a record, so he recognized that I wanted that and it was something that he wanted to do within that context.”
The results are spectacular, and probably Waters’ most fully realized solo work.
“About two years ago, when we were just beginning to make this record, it was a great, long, meandering piece,” Waters recalls. “But there were a couple of songs from that long, meandering piece that became the beginnings of the recordings. But this thing, as it exists, didn’t exist. There were a lot of songs that I wrote during the process, and I think that helped focus me and made the piece better.”
Remarkably, however, Waters doesn’t listen to the music made by other artists for inspiration.
“I don’t listen to music,” Waters says, flatly. “I really don’t, and certainly not pop music. So when I listen to something it’s because, if I’m playing gin rummy, I listen to Chet Baker, only because it’s there on one of those old tower things with CDs in it. I mean I might listen to music if I’m having a massage, or I might listen to a blues if it comes on. But I’m not much of an audience. I’m just not that interested.
“If I am going to listen to something it’ll only be because somebody sends me something or because I want to hear what Leonard Cohen’s last record was like. So I listened to It’s Getting Darker, but I only listened to it once. I thought, ‘Well, good. That’s what I expected.’ But I don’t listen obsessively.”
Originally more than two hours long, Is This The Life We Really Want?, Waters says, was more radio play than album.
“I’d written this long radio play that I thought was great, and it probably is great,” Waters says with a smile. “But I played it for Nigel and he said, ‘It’s not a record. You can’t do that on a record. There isn’t room for all this stuff that you’ve written.’ And he was right and I knew it to be true. So some of the songs on the album are in the radio play – which I hope to release sometime soon – and they will be part of that, too. It was a rather long and somewhat torturous radio play about an old Irish man taking his grandson on a quest of the imagination around the world to try and find the answer to a fundamental question that the grandson wanted to know the answer to, which is ‘Why are they killing the children?’ It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask given the current state of affairs, I think. But most of the radio play is not on this record. And a lot of the songs I wrote in the process of making the record.”
Waters had to give up a huge amount of control, he says, and certainly more than he had since his days with Pink Floyd when he worked with Gilmour and Bob Ezrin. But it was worth it, he feels.
“I went into the studio on the first day and Nigel said of the demos, ‘Well, why don’t we do this bit and that bit..?’ I thought to myself, ‘What about the rest of it?’ But he sort of ignored the rest of it. So that was our starting point and I’m really glad that I let him do his job because we’ve finished – which is, of course, great – and I like the record.”
Asked to describe the album he instead ended up with, Waters doesn’t hesitate.
“The record is a journey,” he begins. “It’s a journey about the transcendental nature of love and how it may lead us from our current predicament into a world that we might all enjoy living in a bit more. The answer isn’t money or greed. The answer is love. Not necessarily the love of a man for a woman – or whatever your love is – but love for our fellow man. And woman. It’s about the search and desire for a better world.”
When I tell Waters that I hear the strains and themes he played with on both Animals and Amused To Death, he readily agrees. But he’s also quick to point out that times are different and the stakes are much higher.
“Brexit and Trump are an admission of the defeat of our current development as human beings, in my view,” he begins. “I liked it when all the borders disappeared in Europe. So the fact that we have these nationalist assholes in places of power is a matter of grave concern to me.
“The album reflects that, and it comes from the idea that I wish we could just embrace our fellow man and that I wish for a time when the community of people could grow larger, not smaller and more fragmented and more fearful, as it is at the moment. So unfortunately we’re all forced to think about current events, because we feel the impact of current events. And that certainly did impact my writing on this record.”
As for his current Us + Them Tour, it also draws on Waters’ experience from Animals-era Pink Floyd.
“The Animals tour was in 1977, and of course we floated the big pig over Battersea Power Station – which is still a powerful image – and that’s actually in my new show,” Waters explains. “I’ve gone back to using the inflatable pig and images of Battersea Power Station, because I love them for the of iconic images that they are.
“But back then we used them because it had become clear that rock and roll was moving into larger and larger venues and that we needed to provide some kind of theatrical experience other than people having to peer at these tiny figures from a quarter of a mile away in a stadium. I used to disprove of that, of course, but recently I’ve started to enjoy it, because I changed. I’ve become more relaxed in the company of my audience and I feel much more of an intimate relationship with my audience. It took me a long time, but I’ve cast off the demons which haunted me throughout my childhood and my adolescence and I’ve embraced the connection I could make with people. That’s what this album – and the tour – is about, but even more than that it was a very good thing for me.”