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©Peter Gabriel / York Tillyer
© Peter Gabriel / York Tillyer
Peter Gabriel: Strings Attached

The British prog-rock icon recasts his classics on a symphonic scale

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

New music from Peter Gabriel comes at a very slow pace. Well, that's a bit of an understatement: In the entirety of his solo career, over the course of 35 years, the guy has released just nine studio albums. He put out a total of one studio album in the 1990s, and then another one in the first decade of this century.

For the last 20 years or so, Gabriel, age 61, has concentrated more on political activism (his human rights organization, Witness, was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 2006) and new technology (he was among the world's pioneers in developments from CD-ROMs to music downloading systems). So the fact that the onetime frontman of Genesis has released two new albums in successive years is startling, and almost unprecedented; the only time he was ever so prolific before was with his first two solo albums (both titled "Peter Gabriel," as were his next two records) in 1977 and 1978.

But there is, of course, a catch. Between the two albums - last year's "Scratch My Back" and this week's release, "New Blood" - there isn't a single new Gabriel composition.

"Scratch My Back" was a collection of covers, with Gabriel singing over purely orchestral instrumentation. His song selections ranged from Paul Simon and Neil Young to Radiohead and Arcade Fire. (The initial idea was that all of the artists he covered would, in turn, record a Gabriel song for an album called "I'll Scratch Yours" - so far, that has manifested as a series of singles by about half of the acts.) But as Gabriel toured behind this project, he needed to fill out a full evening's performance, and started working with arranger John Metcalfe to give the same symphonic treatment to some of his own songs.

Having started down this road, he decided to return directly to the studio to make a full album of reinterpretations of his work, with 12 songs eventually making the cut for "New Blood." The 46-piece New Blood Orchestra, conducted by Ben Foster, performs radically reworked versions of a dozen Gabriel songs, both well-known ("In Your Eyes," "Don't Give Up") and less so ("Downside Up," "The Nest That Sailed the Sky").

In a telephone conversation during a break from rehearsal for an upcoming South American tour, Gabriel discussed the path that led to "New Blood," its connections to his prog-rock past, and the direction he's considering for the future - which, yes, does include actual new songs, whenever it might come out.

MSN Music: Was there a moment when you were working on "Scratch My Back" and thought, "Hey, maybe I should try this with my own songs?"

Peter Gabriel: Yes, when we took it out on the road. "Scratch My Back" was an hour's worth of material, so we needed more music to fill out the show. We had the orchestra out with us, so we thought, let's try it with two or three songs. It felt exciting, it felt like something was happening. And then it seemed crazy not to try to record it, with the orchestra already there and rehearsed.

How did you determine which of your songs might work best with this treatment?

For the most part, I love textural stuff, so some of the choices were quite natural. I wanted to throw away all of the rock 'n' roll crutches  no guitar, bass, drums. We were certainly trying to learn to swim very quickly, having abandoned those elements.

I didn't want to do a hits package, so things like "Sledgehammer," "Games Without Frontiers" and "Big Time" were left out. I was really looking for stuff that could use the colors of orchestration, not just the conventional verse-chorus- verse stuff. That all helped shape the set list.

Also, I'm an old-fashioned guy in that I still like an album that takes me on a ride from start to finish. When I go to the cinema, I don't want to see a series of five-minute shorts; I really want a story. So while I do love the accessibility of being able to hear any track, anytime, anywhere, I think it's sad to lose those longer connections. So I did want to make sure that this was be an album with a start and finish.

I got lots of requests for "Solsbury Hill," so I put it on the album as a bonus track. But rather than separate it from the rest by silence, I had my engineer actually go sit on the real Solsbury Hill and record whatever happened. Whatever came into the mic we used as this kind of ambient sound before the track starts.

Is there any irony in someone who has been so progressive in terms of technology recording these albums with an orchestra, with the most traditional wood-and-strings instruments?

There's a quote from Stanley Kubrick - which I might not have exactly right - who said that if you want to make the future believable, make sure you include the past. Many people have done records with orchestras, but for me, it was new and fresh and a little scary at first.

Is it a different challenge taking on the better-known songs, things like "Red Rain" or "Don't Give Up," where the melodies are so deeply ingrained in the audience's mind?

Yes, I guess it is - but I always think that even when you try to recreate a moment that existed before, you inevitably mark it with your own time stamp. It's more natural to let creative things have a life, rather than try to preserve them in one moment. I like letting things transform and evolve, rather than trying to put the nails in.

Was there anything new that you learned about these songs from revisiting them in this context?

I suppose it reminded me that I do like things that break out of the conventional rock writing structure. And also that what you don't play is as important as what you do play. We chose to make empty, stark landscapes, which sometimes blossom, but songs where you feel the loneliness as well as the fullness. And it was interesting hearing the words again in a fresh environment. Something like "San Jacinto" really came alive again, the sense of Americana-meets-Native American. It felt like I was milking the emotion in a different way.

What did you take away from "Scratch My Back" that you brought back to this project?

Well, first, there were just some great songs there. With something like "The Boy in the Bubble," we stripped the African lifeblood out and were left with that wonderful lyric. So that was a reminder that you can take something rhythmic and up and go a very different direction with it.

Mostly, we developed a shorthand in our way of working. We knew how to do it at that point, so it sped up the process this time. Also, whenever you go out and perform, you automatically learn what feels strong in front of an audience and where you can sense that you're losing them.

How does working with an orchestra relate to your work with Genesis? Does it all fit together on some sort of progressive rock continuum?

This definitely has a different feel, but it's true that we were attracted to working with orchestral colors in the Genesis music in the old days. We had a lot of influences: church music, soul, folk, but classical music was also an influence. Something like the song "Watcher of the Skies" had a classical intro. So I guess that there are connections, but I don't feel any of that directly feeding into this. For these albums, we were taking more influence from composers we like - whether that was Steve Reich, Stravinsky, or Bernard Herrmann - rather than from the Genesis period. There are still some British composers, like Edward Elgar, who will always be set in stone somewhere in my head. But in this case, classical and film music were influencing the music directly, rather than through the filter of Genesis.

Why was it more appealing to work with old songs rather than writing new material?

Well, I didn't have time. We did the "Scratch My Back" recording and then we went on the road, and there just wasn't time to work up new songs while we had the orchestra.

I do have some new songs, in various states of readiness, but I'm not sure that the orchestra is the best direction for those. I think I want to try something really different next time, whether I go back to these songs I have or I write new ones. This project was so serious and adult. I think next time I want to go in the exact opposite direction.

Alan is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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