Roger Waters Shares What He Really Wanted to Say About Trump (and Clinton) at Desert Trip

Noam Galai/Getty Images Portrait
Roger Waters of Pink Floyd poses for a portrait on Nov. 5, 2015 in New York City.

Waters is making plans with Nigel — Godrich, that is — for an album he plans to have out by next summer.

Roger Waters isn't laboring under any delusions about why he was hired to close out both weekends of the boomer-centric Desert Trip festival in California: Nostalgia by virtue of “wearing the mantle of Pink Floyd.” In fact, he says he was quite pleased to “tip my hat to that band.” But, as is his wont, he used the appearance to lift a middle finger toward the forces in the world he sees as particularly oppressive -- Donald Trump not least among them.

Waters sat down with Billboard midway between his two Desert Trip appearances to tout a tour of North America (and, ultimately, the world) that will begin May 26, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. He couldn’t announce it at a better time, with even his most drug-avoidant fans flying high as kites (or pigs) after a Desert Trip show that had some impartial attendees saying he won the weekend with an astonishing audio-visual extravaganza.

While Waters will briefly talk about things like quadraphonic stadium sound and concert inflatables in an interview, it’s unlikely he'll linger on them for more than a couple of minutes before moving on to topics that concern him most -- namely, the Orwellian dystopia he thinks has progressed from being mere promissory nightmares on Animals and Amused to Death to a reality now. And he’s not just bothered by Trump, who “should be in a psychiatric hospital,” but Hillary Clinton, who he “can’t stand, like almost everyone else in America.” And lest his worldview be seen as boilerplate leftism, he concedes his pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli opinions sometimes make him “feel like a minority of one” even in the liberal-skewing music industry… which isn’t about to make him stand down.

In this condensed version of our talk, Waters discusses the success of Desert Trip, why he worked with a celebrated producer for a new album he has in the works, what he thinks about Black Lives Matter, and why a Pink Floyd reunion that occurred via email this month was one of the happiest moments he’s ever had. And he reveals the word he really wanted to associate with Trump on that floating pig out in the desert... or at least the first letter of it.

Some people might think that the handful of dates you’re doing this month at Desert Trip and in Mexico City are a dry run for the 2017 tour you’re announcing. But it sounds like you’re saying these current shows are one-offs, and it won’t be the same show at all when you go out next year?

That is correct, yeah. My plan absolutely is to move on. I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ve got a huge amount of material. I’ve got a whole new record [due out in 2017], and obviously I won’t play the whole new record live, but I will definitely be playing some of it. This Desert Trip thing I accepted given the way the weekend is planned, and since it’s sort of Rolling Stones/Beatles/Pink Floyd, I thought, well, if I’m being given the mantle of Pink Floyd, it behooves me to take a good, strong, long, loving, nostalgic look at the work that David and Rick and Nick and Syd and I did together between 1967 and 1982, which is the years that I was around. I think it’s a great body of work, and I’m happy to use this weekend to kind of tip my hat to them and to that band. But moving on, we’ve got to save the world, man! [He laughs.] Enough! Enough of the past.

A press release estimated that next year’s tour might be 75 percent older material, though, and 25 percent new. Is that accurate?

Something like that, or more likely 80/20, I would think. You know, if people are going to come see me in arenas or stadiums from Shreveport, Louisiana to Shanghai, China, and if I want them to listen carefully to what I have to say – and I do – I think it is absolutely essential that I give them a lot of songs that they recognize. And the fact is, because, whether it’s new material or from my solo career – from Amused to Death or Radio K.A.O.S. or Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking – or whether it’s anything from the records that I did in Pink Floyd, there is a general thread running through it. My basic ethos and philosophy hasn’t changed at all over the years. I began to understand more what it is and why it is. But it hasn’t changed. So it doesn’t matter which bits of my career the songs come from. They’re still me telling my truth.

Do you think the chances are good you’ll have the new album out by the time the tour starts?

Yeah, I really do. We’ve been working with Nigel Godrich and some friends of his in L.A. – whose names I don’t remember. I mean, I know it’s Joey and Jonathan and Gus and Roger, but what the f--- their last names are, I have absolutely no idea. I think they’re pretty well known in L.A. Nigel has very, very specific ideas. So I’ve sort of given him his head a bit, and there are some battles yet to come, but I think it’s a great collaboration. I’m very happy with it. It’s nice to work with somebody else’s vision for a change. Normally it tends to just be me-me-me-me-me. So it’s good to be with another grown-up.

I’m sure no one needs to remind you that it’s been a while since about 25 years since you released a rock studio album (Amused to Death), not counting your opera.

Is it 25 years? I thought it was 23. [24, to be precise.] Voom! It’s gone by in a heartbeat. I have been doing all kinds of other work. Recently The Wall Tour was a big thing; I know it [ended] three years ago now, but it lasted for three years. I’ve done a lot of touring in-between 1992 and now. I’ve sort of built a solo touring career from nothing. When I was out in competition with Dave and Nick, when they were Pink Floyd and I was me in 1987, and again in the early ‘90s, when we’re talking about Amused to Death… That’s probably one of the reasons that I never toured Amused to Death as a record, because I was feeling somewhat defeated. Back in those days, I certainly realized, though it came as a huge shock to me, that the ticket-buying people out there made no connection at all between me and the body of work that I’d left behind me. They entirely attached that body of work to the words “Pink” and “Floyd,” and if you didn’t have those words on the marquee, they didn’t want to know. And so as you know, their tours [without him, as Pink Floyd] were immensely successful, and I was grubbing around looking for bums on seats. It was instructive, and it was character-building. And slowly but surely, we’ve kind of moved up the ladder, rung by rung by rung. The faithful came, few of them as they were, and slowly the word spread: “Wow, this guy knows what he’s doing.” And here we are now, doing this one-off in the desert, which Sean Evans and I and a big team have thrown together in no time flat. Four months was what we had to put this show together. And I have to say, it’s pretty spectacular, and it’s pretty powerful, emotionally and politically. I’m really pleased with it. But I don’t want to trog round the world with it.

You said that with next year’s tour you want to be able to make a statement and have a through line. But don’t you feel you did that with the Desert Trip shows, too?

Yeah, to a certain extent. Bu [Desert Trip] is very much “Oh, here we all are for a weekend. And so let’s all kind of enjoy ourselves and listen to the old work and accept that it was good.” And obviously I make some strong emotional pleas and some strong political points during that. But we’re going to do nearly 200 shows all over the world with the new show. The new show’s going to be called “Us + Them,” because it’s really specifically about the line from this 1973 song “Us and Them” that goes “With, without/And who’ll deny that’s what the fighting’s all about.” Because the main message that I have to propagate, if I can, is embodied in the idea that the idea of perpetual war, which has been embraced by the neocons particularly in the United States of America, is an entirely wrong way for the human race to live. It seems so self-evidently true to say that, and yet, it is accepted, certainly by the American public, that it’s okay to spend a trillion dollars a year killing brown people overseas. But debate doesn’t exist. Well, I’m determined to open the debate. Because I care about my kids. And I care about you, believe it or not.

This way is driven by the greed of the few. There is so much money to be made out of killing people, and incarcerating people as well, that it’s a good model for people who are emotionally dead — like Donald Trump, for instance. Which is why in a way this presidential campaign is so interesting, because he’s managed to persuade the people that he has defeated that it was the Chinese and the Mexicans and the jihadists and the Muslims, the foreigners, who’ve caused this defeat, who’ve caused the erosion of your standard of living and the freedoms that are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It’s not [him] and the rest of the greedy assholes who represent the 1 percent, who own everything – it’s them! So it’s a fabulous confidence trick, pulled off by a complete prick who’s so dumb that you wouldn’t give credence to him. When I wrote Amused to Death, it’s exactly about this. My record from 25 years ago is warning you that you are being prepared for a descent into the abyss of a completely totalitarian, fascist state with this insane demagogic leader — and Donald Trump is it. My prediction is coming true in a more appalling, disgusting way than anybody could have imagined.

With you, obviously there are a lot of fans out there at Desert Trip or anywhere else who will say the same thing they say about, for instance, Bruce Springsteen: “I love his music in spite of his politics.”

To Bruce? F--- them! How dare they! I mean, that’s just stupid. I don’t know what Bruce thinks, but this is what I think: How dare they criticize Bruce Springsteen or me for having political opinions and having gone through the same process as them — if it is anything like the same process — of looking at a political question or a discussion squarely, listening to the evidence, making their decision about how they feel about it and what they want to do, and if they’re living in a country where they get a vote, deciding which way they want to vote. I know in many instances it’s not the same process. I certainly know that on the Israel/Palestine issue, they have not been through the same process, because you cannot go through the process in the United States of America. Because the narrative that is sold to the American people has nothing to do with the actual narrative of what has actually happened since the mid-1930s in that part of the Middle East.... It’s not the actual story of what’s going on now, which is a beleaguered nation, the Palestinians, who are being slaughtered by this juggernaut that is the Israeli military... There’s been a huge propaganda machine. So I know how big a resistance there is, certainly in the music industry, to taking a contrary view. Sometimes I feel like I’m a minority of one when I speak out about it.

When you spoke about BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement intended to put international political pressure on Israel] toward the end of your first Desert Trip show, was it off the cuff, or did you plan that?

No, there is no way I will get to the end of any show without mentioning BDS. This is a fight for the soul of America as much as anything else. I mean, clearly BDS and also Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace… Netanyahu’s panicked. Last year he mentioned it 18 times in his speech. They’re panicking, and quite rightly…. Did you see that letter Hillary Clinton wrote saying,  “When I’m president, I will do everything I can to destroy BDS?” What? You want to destroy a non-violent, completely legal protest movement in what is supposed to be a free country? You say that when you’re president you’re going to destroy it, in a letter you’re writing to a man in California who’s just given you $2 million? This is insane! How could you possibly be elected on that platform? But of course she will be, because people completely accept that your politicians are for sale.

So even though you’ve made your statements about Trump, you’re not about to jump on board the Clinton campaign bandwagon.

Like almost everyone else in America, I can’t stand Hillary Clinton. I mean, I’m not blaming her. She’s a product of the system. She’s a puppet, like all the rest of them. The system is my opinion broken. It needs a complete overhaul. Citizens United, when that went through the Supreme Court two years ago or whenever it was, felt like the final nail in the coffin of democracy.

At Desert Trip, you didn’t leave a lot of ambiguity in people’s minds. Even just playing all that material from Animals in association with his image, people probably would have probably gotten it. But you just to make sure everyone got it, you had the message, “Trump is a pig.”

Yeah. Well, I toned it down a lot! It used to be “Trump is the C-word.” And I thought, I don’t want to weaken my position by going to a place where people can go, “Come on, that’s beyond the pale” or “Why would you do that?” The message is clear. Trump should be in a nice, comfy private wing of a psychiatric hospital somewhere. This guy is completely nutty. Everybody knows it. And yet somehow he’s still a viable candidate for president of the United States of America. If this isn’t an indication that you are living in a sick, sick land, nothing ever will be. If this isn’t the wakeup call…

I wrote a long piece that I was going to say there. I didn’t say a single word of it, but I’ll say a little bit of it, to you, about how there is no place for the working man in America now. Globalization isn’t the perpetrator of this. Globalization is inevitable, and a good thing, in my view. But what’s happened is, if they can get you to build cars in Detroit and make a huge profit out of it, that’s cool. You have a job, you take in a pay packet, you can buy a fridge and TV and a small car and you can live somewhere in the suburbs and go for a picnic outside. But if that model ceases to work, f--- you. We don’t give a shit about you. No, we can hire people in China or India or Mexico or somewhere in the third world to do the job that you’re doing for 50 cents an hour. And suddenly you’re gone. Detroit disappears. What used to be a thriving metropolis is a desert. Well, a society should have a responsibility to its citizens to look after them. They work hard for society, so when things change, they have to be looked after. Unfortunately, that’s called what’s a very dirty word here in America, which is socialism. Socialism actually is a wonderful idea. It is the only way for countries to organize themselves that is humane. Once you’ve figured that out, then maybe we can start looking across national boundaries and across the ocean at helping other people. Because it is only through focusing on our potential for love, and loving one another in our own country, that we may develop a system that may protect this fragile planet that we all live on. Because if we don’t, we’re all f---ed! We will all be dead very soon. I mean, I’m going to be dead anyway. So are you. But I’m talking about our children and their children. I’m talking about successive generations. And in this dogs’ world, where the few control absolutely everything…

Speaking of dogs, is that why you ended up playing such a big chunk of Animals for your Desert Trip set? You haven’t played that much of that album since the Animals tour in ’77.

Partly, yeah. I had done “Sheep,” I think, on the Dark Side Tour [in 2006-08], and that’s why I didn’t do it here, because we’d done that. But I hadn’t done “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” in public [in many years]. I did do “Dogs” also on the In the Flesh tour [in 1999-2002], and I love it. It’s one of the great collaborations between me and David and Rick — a beautiful piece of music. And “Pigs” is just totally appropriate now. You know, I was casting around looking for something to do for the punters at Desert Trip. Because there’s no way I was going to go into the desert and not do something dramatic. I enjoy it.

Part of my shtick is that kind of rock n' roll theater piece. And I had all kinds of ideas, but they all involved big inflatables, and you never know whether it’s going to be blowing 30 mph or what in the desert, so you can’t really do anything big with inflatables or stuff in the sky. I thought of building an LED kind of geodesic dome over the whole audience and making stuff that was [set against] the stars. Well, it was difficult, the engineering, bla bla bla. So when I started thinking of doing Animals, I thought, “I know, let’s build Battersea Power Station on stage during the show” [as seen on that album cover]. Of course everybody went, “What the f--- are you talking about?” But I have such a great team of people that we did it, and it’s beautiful.

Animals was such a good idea for a record, obviously kind of based on Animal Farm. Orwell, I’ve always used a lot, because 1984 and Animal Farm and his writings—and also his participation in the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s—are a huge source of inspiration to anybody who cares about people and cares about ideas and cares about policies. And so to be able to use his work, which has translated its way in the ‘70s through my songs, to be able to use it now in 2016, in public in a thing that is saying “Ahhh, shall we all wake up now, or shall we just go on watching over the edge of the cliff like a bunch of lemmings?”

We all have a sense of disquiet. I think. Maybe not all. Maybe some people just go, “Gee, this is lovely.” When you see all those pictures of those people from Syria who can no longer live because there’s a huge civil war going on and you can’t live there, they don’t think we could do something about it. Except for the ones who go “Hey, let’s go and bomb them! That would be a brilliant idea.” What, are you f---ing insane? Getting involved militarily, in a no-fly zone or whatever, in Syria would be a complete disaster like it was in Libya and like it was in Iraq. This whole thing of getting involved in the geopolitics of the fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran is insane…

It’s such a bucket of bull that we have to start looking at. And it’s very difficult in the States, because the whole of the mainstream media is in on it. So you can’t print anything in the New York Times or the Washington Post, who might be the two most apparently liberal big broadsheets… When my movie came out last year, you didn’t see me on Charlie Rose, did you, talking about it? Do you want to know why? Because they canceled me. And when I went in it to try to find out, the people on the studio floor, Charlie and whoever, dithered. But I eventually got somebody high up in production, and all they’d ever tell me was, “We have no idea, but it came from above.” I was booked to be on Thursday afternoon on Charlie Rose, and at 5:00 on Wednesday, “Oh, canceled.”

You assume that’s because they didn’t want you to talk about BDS?

No, I’m saying that’s the Israeli lobby. They’re trying to kill me. Maybe not literally, because if they were literally, they probably would have done by now. They’re good at killing people. But they’ve been trying to destroy me for 10 years. And they’re making heavy weather of it, because I don’t roll over. I’m a big boy and I fight. And I’m stepping out now. I normally don’t say things like this to journalists, but I’m coming out now. Round one. Let the fight begin. I’m ready for these people. Because underneath it all there is a conversation to be had. And it’s a conversation now about love, and a conversation about a beleaguered, oppressed people, the Palestinians, and about whether or not we as Americans or me as an Englishman believe that they, like you, have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Is that not for people with brown skin?

There is a conversation to be had about Black Lives Matter. Because that whole protest is about saying hey, shouldn’t we have the same rights as white people have now in 2016? And they’re right to be protesting. We white people in America do not have to tell our children, “If you get stopped by a cop, do not go to get your papers out of your back pocket. Before you drive away to go off to your prom or wherever you’re going, put your wallet on the dashboard of your car so you can keep your hands on the steering wheel. You don’t have to reach for anything, because if you do they’ll kill you.” We don’t have to tell our children that, and it’s an absolute f---ing disgrace. People should be shouting it from the rooftops. We have a lot of stuff on the screens [at Desert Trip] about Black Lives Matter. Of course blue lives matter, but that’s a total red herring…

You managed to get a Pink Floyd reunion happening this month… on paper. Gilmour and Mason signed onto your statement of support for the Women’s Boat to Gaza and the Freedom Flotilla Coalition. [A boat full of female protesters was intercepted by the Israeli navy, and its crew arrested, in early October.] And that went up on the Floyd website as an official Floyd statement, which is quite a rarity nowadays.

Yeah, isn’t that beautiful? I so thank David and Nick. And they’ve always been party to it, you know. In fact, last year or the year before, it almost happened with the letter to the Rolling Stones when they went and played in Tel Aviv. But it didn’t. It ended up just being me and Nick. So this is the first time we’ve had the three of us on paper. It’s really, really, really great. When I got from David, “Sounds good to me,” and from Nick, “Fine by me,” it was one of the happiest days of my life.