In stark contrast to the wildly successful tour he began in September 2010, Roger Waters today is a man who has transcended walls, or boundaries of any type. Calling on a travel day before the June 19 Nashville show of The Wall Live, Waters is, as ever, a compelling conversationalist who clearly enjoys the discourse, and there are no walls between subjects, either. Waters moves easily and without obstruction, showing equal passion for the Large Hadron Collider, neurophysiology, the existence of God and, of course, rock'n'roll. He laughs easily and often, his voice "as strong as it's ever been." Waters has clearly overcome the demons that once tormented him and were manifested in Pink, the confused protagonist of "The Wall," the landmark 1979 album by British prog-rock group Pink Floyd that was the beginning of the end for that beloved band, but has never left Waters' consciousness.
The next night in Nashville, Waters owns the expansive stage and leads his exemplary band and vocalists through a highly charged, totally captivating performance. Confident, charismatic and even happy, Waters is in complete control, whether he's in the role of the tortured Pink or the machine-gun-wielding Fascist, frontman or bassist. He and his band manage to not be overwhelmed by the often mind-blowing array of production elements, including the "wall" built during the show, and the entire presentation offers the interweaving of the sonic and the visual at a level that few rock tours have ever achieved. The audience was completely engaged throughout.
"The Wall" - an enduring, dark rock masterpiece that deals broadly with personal alienation juxtaposed against a backdrop of war and government corruption - has been presented in many formats, first as the album (co-produced by Bob Ezrin) and its subsequent "nightmare" tour, then as the 1982 film "Pink Floyd: The Wall" starring Bob Geldof, then as a benefit at the Berlin Wall in 1990 and most recently on this ambitious and technically stunning tour that began in September 2010. In the interim, the meaning of The Wall has shifted, at least for Waters, from his personal experience to a more global message of peace and, perhaps more than anything, the gift of empathy.
This is conceptual, high art for rock'n'roll, yet it sells the hell out of tickets. Even when the concert industry went in the tank in 2010, Waters and U2's Vertigo tour were among the few that emerged unscathed, and the Wall tour has only gained momentum as it heads to what looks like its own wall at the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City on July 21.
More than 150 shows in, Waters shows no signs of weariness and, nearly 20 years since his last record of original material, even seems ready to record a new album. Billboard talked to Waters about all of this and much more.
Throughout your career you've been an artist who looks forward and explores. So what is it about The Wall that was worth such attention and reassessment, particularly on this level?
All those years ago when I wrote this piece, I thought it was about me, and about feelings that I had about my Dad being killed at Anzio [in Italy during World War II], how much I missed him, and the fact that I'd made some really poor choices in relationships with women - all of that crap. Which it was.
But in the intervening 33 years, I've realized that because of the theatrical construction of the "wall" - which was an idea that I had back in '77 because of my disaffection with big audiences and stadiums and all that - the power of the metaphor lends the story a much more universal vision and appeal. So I've come to realize it's not about me - it's about anybody that has suffered the loss of a loved one in some kind of conflict, whether it be war or something else. It's about the problems we all face with errant authority, or all the difficulties we all have in relationships with one another, whether they're sexual relationships or political/international relationships.
That excited me about revisiting the piece, and in this most recent incarnation of it making a version that would work in stadiums and ballparks and football stadiums, which is ironic, because my starting point was my disaffection with that situation. But I've come to realize that not only does it work in big spaces, its appeal is such that people in big spaces feel intimately connected with the message. I'm sorry, this is a long and complex answer, but it's a good question.
In the second act, I sing "Vera" walking down steps at the bottom of the stage, and in the last verse of "Vera," I'm just behind the curtain of the stage, and I actually step out and sing the last verse - "Vera, Vera, what has become of you?" - and nobody's looking at me, they're all looking at the screen: a young girl in a classroom meeting her father who's just come back from Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere. And as I sing the words, "Does anybody else feel the way I do?" I see lots of lips in the audience moving, and I know that it's not just anybody else that feels the way I do. They all feel the way I do. It's just the reality of living a life where those feelings get expression and can affect governments and foreign policy. There is a wall between us and the realizing of our dream of peace, and that is what the show is currently about.
Pink isn't a character that's ever particularly happy, and I presume you were struggling with certain things when you wrote that character -
- but now you seem like a happy guy. So do you still relate to Pink?
I feel much less of a victim now. I've taken control of my life. I'm capable now, 30 years older and a little bit wiser, of resolving a lot of the issues that I wasn't capable of resolving at the time.
You've said that the loss of a father is the "central prop" on which "The Wall" stands. That angle of it, as I know, doesn't go away. You live with it.
You live with it. But if it's in any sense a gift - and I may get a bit wobbly here, because it means a lot to me - the gift is it encourages us to empathize with others.
I don't know if you know or not, but we have 20 vets we give tickets to every night, and they come backstage at halftime, so I spend most of my 25-minute break with them. I sign photographs, and we talk a bit, but we never talk politics, because that would be entirely counterproductive. But somehow they get that, whatever our politics might be, that I empathize with their situation. I don't invite them backstage because I applaud American foreign policy or because I'm jingoistic. I invite them backstage because I feel that to some extent I understand not only their plight - a lot of them have been wounded physically, very badly, but also been mentally scarred - but also that their families suffer, and they suffer in the same way that I suffered as a kid.
There was one guy about 70 or 80 shows ago, he was an older guy, a Vietnam guy, he stood back and he didn't want a photograph or an autograph, but I noticed him and he just watched me. And when I was leaving the room, he just sort of stopped me, so I paused for a minute, I was just about to go back onstage. He looked me in the eye and he said to me, "Your father would be proud of you." And I was fucked. I couldn't speak. It was such a weird, emotional moment. I kind of swallowed a couple of times, and then I went on and we did "Hey You" and we carried on with the second half. Because, as you know, "the show must go on." But it was deeply moving, and it made a sort of family connection.
Touring with such a mega-production, artful as it is, represents what you said were the initial circumstances that inspired it. It's clear the irony of that isn't lost on you.
No, the irony is not lost on me. But I feel I've transcended the problems of the wall between me and the audience, so the piece is rock'n'roll theater at the highest level, and it expresses the existence of all the other walls that I've talked about: the walls of media, the walls of government, the walls of religion, the walls of all kinds of extremism, and all those walls that exist between human beings. It very powerfully tells the message.
The song on "Dark Side of the Moon," to which Rick [Wright] wrote beautiful music and I wrote the song on top of it, "Us and Them," it's a very simple song but it expresses how I feel about the disconnect between "us and them" very eloquently. My position is that there is no "us and them." The difference between "us and them" is an accident of birth, it's geographical. So whether we are a radical Muslim or a crazed right-wing Christian extremist somewhere in the Midwest depends entirely on where we were born and what our parents taught us.
That's assuming that you don't think there's a huge plan, which I don't believe in, which I'm sure you already know. If there was a plan, in my view, if God had figured all this out and done all this, he would not be creating Muslim extremists in Saudi Arabia and born-again extremists in Kansas. This would not be the sign of his handiwork. It's the differential between all these extreme positions that leads me to suppose that there is no guiding hand.
Obviously technology improved a lot since the last time you staged "The Wall," and you've surely learned much about what the current capabilities are on the "Dark Side of the Moon" tour in 2006-07. But is there anything that you visualized that ultimately you couldn't pull off?
In this show, no. I can conceptualize things, but it's all my technical people, like Sean Evans who is the designer, or Richard Turner who does the projections. I won't go on mentioning names because they're all very talented people and there are very many of them. So when I say to them, "Can this be done?," they go [long intake of breath], "Yeah, maybe." And then we try and do it, and we succeed and we fail. But, by and large, there's somebody on my team that knows the answer to any question I can ask them. I have the most amazing team that anybody can imagine. I hate to sound boastful. Not that we're exclusive, but we're a very close family, me and everybody on the road with me.
It's not cheap what you're staging, and it necessitates a certain ticket price, but you could probably charge double, especially on the high end. Is keeping pricing conservative important to you?
Well, it used to be. I confess on this tour it hasn't been, because it was a huge risk to take. For many years I used to say, "I'm not charging anyone more than $50 or $60. That's enough!" And I had teams and teams of people lining up to scream at me, "Are you fucking insane? You're just giving money to the scalpers!" This show, I know the tickets are really expensive and [I wish] there was a way around it, with me still making a decent amount, because I don't want to work for nothing. What's interesting about this is there's no way that it could have worked without us going back indoors as well. Outdoors, it's a model that fails, because of the expenses. Anybody that goes to one of the outdoor shows is getting an amazing deal, because the outdoor shows are so expensive that there's no way I could do a tour of only ballparks and football stadiums.
There are 12 performers including you, and this is a real rock'n'roll band at this point.
Yeah, and we're a good band. They're all great, all of them. With some of the grumpy commentators, very often the reviews will say, "Oh, it took four people to replace Dave Gilmour." No, it didn't. From when we did the shows before, I now have one extra body onstage. There were always two bass players, there was me and Andy Bown. There were always two keyboard players, Pete Woods and Rick Wright. There were always two guitar players, Snowy White and David Gilmour. The only thing that's been added is one extra vocalist, because Dave Kilminster, the extra guitar player, can't sing Dave's vocal parts, so I got Robbie in to sing Dave's parts. So there's only one body there that wasn't there before. This is the same lineup exactly as '79 and '80, with one added set of pipes, and what a beautiful set of pipes Robbie Wyckoff has.
What did you learn early on about how the show would play out?
I can remember it like it was yesterday - I was making a lot of mistakes when we went to Toronto for the first gig back in September 2010. From that Canadian audience, it's been the same everywhere we've been all over the world. People just get it. I started work with Sean Evans; Andy Jennison, my editor; and me in November 2009. We went into an editing suite in New York, and I said, "The first thing we do is put a blackboard on the wall and write down the names of all the songs with blank spaces underneath them, and we will figure out the show." And we did. It took about 10 months - really backbreaking but very satisfying work trying to figure out how to get to the first gig. Chris Kansy and all the carpenters who have been with me since then, they were in a little arena in Wilkes-Barre [Pa.] for eight weeks figuring out how to build the wall, and Richard Turner and his team figuring out how to actually, technically make it work. And it didn't happen by accident. They're all very talented and accomplished people, and that's what makes it satisfying for us in the circus family.
Billboard is in many ways about the intersection of art and commerce -
- and this tour works so well on both ends of it. It's arguably the highest level of art ever staged for an arena rock show, and it's also one of the most successful tours ever in terms of gross, a top 10 moneymaker. Is that the balance you seek, to achieve high art and make it work as a business in the process?
Listen, if you do that, and if that's what I've done, then I've lucked out big time, because you can't plan that. I can't plan to do anything except do the best that I can, and if the success happens, then I've lucked out. That's a good thing. But if I see in my audience when I sing, "Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?," and I see the response, empathizing with others in the way that the best part of me does, well, then, I'm very happy to be communicating those thoughts and feelings with others, and that's extraordinarily lucky as well. This tour may gross a lot of money - whatever money I get I tend to spend on the next project or whatever - but I get an enormous reward from the work itself.
Has your backstage rider changed from the 1980 tour?
I've no idea what my rider says. I wouldn't dream of looking at it. Occasionally I might say, "What's all this shit doing in my room? I don't need any of this crap," if it's 10 bottles of wine or something like that. If I have some guests, we might need a bottle of wine after the show, but I don't need this crap, take it away.
What about in 1980?
I can't remember! I have no idea. I remember doing the shows - they were a nightmare. Everybody would tell you exactly the same. I remember Earls Court [in London]. We had separate [trailers] as dressing rooms - the four of us, we had one each - and they were circled like pioneers in covered wagons, and all the doors faced outward. Isn't that great? There was so little community by then.
And that's not to knock any of us. We just weren't together anymore, that was all. David, Rick and Nick [Mason] and I were no longer together, so we faced outward. We did the work, and the work wasn't bad. I still own all the film of those shows, which I've been editing a bit and I might even release it at some point. Or when I do the Blu-ray or theatrical release of this thing I might give away the 1980 shows as a side issue. I'm not sure what I'll do.
We'd finished as a group then. There was nothing creative going on at all. What we were doing on that tour was we were performing this thing that I'd largely written. Dave contributed to it a little bit, and so did [co-producer] Bob Ezrin, to "The Trial." But mainly it was something I'd written that the four of us were performing, because we hadn't quite arrived at the point where we were brave enough to not be together anymore. And we eventually arrived there.
There's nothing wrong with any of that. There's no guilt or shame involved in any of it. It's an organic thing. We eventually, a few years later, arrived at a place where we realized, "Wow, this is not healthy anymore. We shouldn't be doing this." So I find it so weird that there are still fans out there. I've seen them all over my tour Facebook page: "Oh, if only you'd get back together with Dave and Nick and have a Pink Floyd tour." Are you fucking insane? How dumb is it that they would even consider that? There's never been any question of that since 1982. Never! Not for a single second.
It's love. They love those albums.
Fine. I love the albums, too. I think the work we did was really, really good. And they may well be better than anything I've done since, or any of us have done. That doesn't matter. That's not what's important. The important thing is we did them and we were done. And that's not to say I belittle the thing we did at Live 8 [in 2005], where the four of us got back together onstage and played for Geldof for the charity in Hyde Park. That was absolutely magical. I adored it. But I could never do a tour or consider it as anything other than, "Let's get together for one day and play a few songs that everybody remembers and it will be great." And it was great. I'm so glad we managed it before Rick died [in 2008]. It was very moving for me. I loved it.
Are you writing?
I am writing, and I think that my writing is finally going to bear fruit. I've been writing all along, but I haven't made a record since 1992 - 20 years. I wrote a song on the road over the last couple of months, and just before we left South America I spent lunch with all the backing vocalists and I played them the song. They learned it and loved it, and we sat and sang it for about an hour-and-a-half. I think it may be the catalyst for at least one more record. I'm very enthusiastic about the idea of making a record based around this idea in this song.
Does this song have a name?
[long pause] It might have. I'm not sure we'd want to publish it at the moment. Everything that I've said to you in this interview is what it's about. Maybe with specific reference to whether or not there's a "guiding hand." And I'm not saying I'm making a neo-atheist record. I'm not. I'm making a record about my concerns about empathy, but certainly within the context of religious extremism.
That's interesting. Why not just be a bass player in a rock'n'roll band?
[laughs] You know, funny enough, playing bass in a rock'n'roll band is not a bad gig. For years and years I never really considered myself in those terms, because I was always more interested in ideas and writing and thinking and visual aspects. G.E. Smith, bless him, who I've only known for a few years but who's on the road with me now, the other day he said to me, "You're a fucking great bass player." I thought, "Wow, I love that." Eric [Clapton] said that to me about 20 years ago, so I've got two now. But it's taken me a long time to accept that I have a bit of a talent for that as well. But anybody that does that, whether they do it professionally or whatever the instrument, I would encourage them to always play instruments with other people. Because to play in a group is just so satisfying.••••