There aren’t too many iconoclasts left in the rock realm, but Roger Waters is assuredly one of them. While talking about his new solo album (his first in 25 years) Is This the Life We Really Want? with Billboard recently, the former Pink Floyd frontman went after President Trump (no shocker there) and Bob Dylan (it would seem there’s no lingering Desert Trip camaraderie) during the course of our chat about his thematically expansive concept album.
From Donald to Dylan to the illusory American Dream to details of his Us + Them Tour, here’s what Roger Waters thinks about politics, rock and more in 2017.
How long have you been working on Is This the Life We Really Want?
For a while [I was working on it] as a radio play, and then I made this as a record with Nigel Godrich. He mixed the sound for the movie Roger Waters: The Wall  with Sean Evans, who knew him. I liked [Nigel], he did a good job, and we started talking about making a record. He listened to the radio play demo for this and said, “I really like it, do you want to make it into a record?” Because it was not a record in my mind. I said, “Let’s talk about it,” and then we did it. We actually finished a few weeks ago.
How much of the album changed post U.S. election? The title track obviously opens with a Trump quote. Was that decision made after he won?
The actual quote is very, very recent. We were figuring out how to put it all together until the very last moment. We didn’t start mastering until end of January.
Does part of you worry that including a Trump quote dates it? Legacy-wise, that 40 years from now people will hear it and think that it sounds too tied to a specific era?
No, I don’t worry about it. I’m going on the road and that quote will be in the show as well. In the show I’m putting that quote edited between the song “Us and Them” and “Money,” so it will come over the introduction to the song “Money” — you’ll get him going “I won! I won!” Ka-ching, ka-ching. “Chaos? There is no chaos. It’s a well-oiled machine.” Ka-ching, ka-ching. “I won! I won!” Ka-ching. So it’s sort of him admitting what we’re experiencing right now is a Kleptocracy, this is just a way to steal money, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. The people who believed all his bullshit about making America great, getting their jobs back, are going to realize sooner or later it was all a confidence trick and he doesn’t give a shit about them. He doesn’t care about anybody but himself — it’s his shtick.
Not that polls are perfect, but a lot of polls show his supporters are sticking with him.
Are they? I think they’re beginning to realize. They’re kicking and screaming, going “I thought you were going to help us.” He hasn’t done anything to help anybody. What he has done was reduce corporate income taxes from 35 percent to 15 percent, and they must surely be going, “uh, I thought you were going to help us?”
At one point on the album, you sing, “I feel small like a bug on a wall / who gives a shit anyway.” There’s a lot of nihilistic stuff on the album.
Well that’s not me, I have to say, this album is a radio play originally. The line “feel small like a bug on the wall” is a character in the radio play saying it, he’s a veteran of the Second World War who witnessed the Omaha Beach Invasion on D-Day. He’s part of a dialogue. When I stare at the night sky, it doesn’t make me feel small like a bug on the wall. It’s somebody else. I sort of agree with what he’s saying in the rest of the song, particularly at the end, when he says he won’t listen to the bullshit and lies. He says, after WWII was over, “the slate was never wiped clean.” It’s an attack on consumerism. “We chose the American Dream, but oh mistress liberty how we abandoned thee.” Trump is a perfect exemplar of the greed that is inherent in the idea of the American Dream, which is the idea that the individual is more important than the community. And anybody, if they’re greedy enough, can become rich and powerful, such as an asshole like Donald Trump, who cares about nobody but himself, which goes against the grain of anybody who is touched by love or by empathy or actual freedom or a concern for others or any positive attributes that may affect human life.
Do you see things that give you hope?
Whenever I see people doing great work, and there are people doing great work everywhere all the time, just that they’re surviving and doing the work is cause for hope. There are people trying to point to truths to things that are going on. For instance, in the tour I’m doing, I’m using footage of National Bird, which is a documentary about the effect of drone warfare on people who had to be engaged in it because they were in the Armed Forces. So they had to watch people being killed on television screens – it drives you crazy. It’s really, really bad for you, physically and emotionally. This woman who directed it, Sonia Kennebeck, some of the shots in the movie looked like it would be useful for me. I haven’t got time or resources to shoot a bunch of stuff, so I asked them, they said, “Use it, we’re in this together.” They want to help me share my story, so I with my work can help them share their story. We’re cohorts in a joint protest against Make America Great Again because we know it’s an illusion. There’s no good end to the Trump story.
Sometimes the resistance goes unnoticed. On February 15, 2003, there was a worldwide resistance to the invasion of Iraq. Twenty million people marched and were ignored. But at least we now know those 20 million people were right. It was a huge mistake. They were right that it was illegal and a disastrous piece of foreign policy. It destroyed Iraq probably forever and has gone a long way to destroying the whole region. Maybe people will learn a lesson that sometimes when people go to the streets and say, “They’re wrong,” they’re right, and one should take notice.
I don’t want to ask you to predict the future, but what do you think his re-election chances are?
I would have a huge bet he would not win an election for a second term. It would be very, very difficult for him to do that.
Especially in the last 40 years, so many of your albums have been conceptual ones. Why? Do you ever think of doing an album that’s just a collection of songs without a storyline?
I might be interested, if I didn’t have things I wanted to do. But the things I want to do are always about a coherent idea of something. I’m interested in theater, I like the idea of putting something together that has a coherent theme, and also I care about the issues I write about. And I care about love.
And war is a consistent theme on these albums.
I haven’t got time to do an album of Frank Sinatra covers.
Some people do three of them.
Bob Dylan, for instance, which is weird. You go, “Fuck me Bob, what is wrong with you? Why would you do that?” I guess it’s because he can’t bear the thought of not being on the road and he couldn’t think of anything else to do. I can’t believe he really has an affinity for all that schlock. But maybe he does.
Does part of you get tired of looking at the darker parts of humanity? Do you ever want to sing something lighter?
When I do the Newport Folk Fest or the Bridge School Benefit for Neil Young, when I get the chance, I’ll sing “Hello In There,” the John Prine song, because I love it and it’s a great song. I love the opportunity to drift into a different genre. When it’s not my show and I’m not feeling expectations, maybe I would break all the rules and do a short concert that was only John Prine songs, because he’s so fucking good, but I probably won’t because it takes a lot of energy and I still have my own work to do. And so there’s all kinds of other things I would do before pouring all the energy required in that.
You recently signed a letter asking Radiohead not to play Israel. You’ve been supporting BDS against Israel for a while now, which some people say is anti-Semitic to promote. What’s your response to that?
Obviously it’s not anti-Semitic. This is what the Israeli lobby use as an attack on anybody who criticizes any policy of the Israeli government. The fact is that Palestine had a population in 1947 that was 80, 90 percent Palestinian, 10 percent Jewish, and they all lived together under British mandate. And one way or another, in 1947, it unilaterally declared itself to be a state. Which is okay, but unfortunately, the people who weren’t Jewish living there relinquished all their rights. Well, they didn’t, they fought, there was a civil war in 1948, and since then they resisted this state. And slowly their rights, the rights of everybody else who lives there, have been eroded. Now they live under military occupation, since 1967, which is 50 years, and they don’t have any rights. When I discovered this, when I went there in 2006 and 2007, after conversations with people who live there, I thought, “Well, this is wrong, they have to have rights. The Palestinians have to have rights and they need the same rights that Jewish people have.” It’s just rights to property, for instance. Rights to self-determination. They need to be able to govern themselves. They don’t have any of those rights. So I’m a supporter of a nonviolent movement that seeks to give those people rights under the law. That’s all. Nothing else. There’s nothing anti-Semitic about it. It’s a very difficult situation but it’s not complicated. Either you have rights or you don’t. If they get rights under the law, under international law [wipes hands], I’ll go there and perform for everybody. Nothing could make me happier. Until they have rights, I will go on protesting.