PARIS (AFP) – Peter Gabriel strips songs to their bare essentials in his latest album, the first in eight years, but he is as passionate about new technologies and saving the world as he is about music.
Looking forward to a concert tour to promote “Scratch My Back”, the former Genesis frontman sits shoeless — “I like big boots but always take them off” — in a Paris hotel room, chatting about human rights and the music industry.
“The industry,” Gabriel, 60, told AFP, “is a corpse but there’s lots of interesting things crawling out of it.
“In some ways it reminds me of the early 60s because there wasn’t a lot of business then the way we know it, so people could write or rewrite the rules,” he said.
“The digital world I think is the same now,” he added. “Artists can be in 10 or 12 different bands, release a piece that’s three days long or three seconds, and have different audiences for different projects.
Gabriel’s new album revisits — in a somewhat dark mood — a dozen songs by Radiohead to Talking Heads to David Bowie, with guitar and drums replaced by a symphony orchestra to enable Gabriel to focus on the lyrics.
“I love songwriters, and what pisses me off with reality talent shows is they’re all about performance and not about what I love — the writing,” he explained.
“I think these songs are great songs,” he added. “I wanted to transcript them back and some of the things I felt comfortable singing ended up more melancholic.”
As befits its title, “Scratch My Back” is the first chapter in a two-part backscratching exchange where the artists whose songs he records, return the favour by each recording a song of his.
“Here there’s dialogue, there’s more connection, you do my songs, I do yours,” he said.
Gabriel tunes to be rendered by the likes of veterans Randy Newman or Paul Simon as well as newer names Regina Spektor or Bon Iver, will be released at each new moon on iTunes.
Why the new moon? “It’s great advertising,” Gabriel said. “People look out at the full moon and think, ‘Oh! There’s gonna be something new on the website’.”
Gabriel said his next album would contain original songs — but with only three albums over two decades to his name, he declined to set a date for its finalisation.
“I need to make more time available,” said the blue-eyed Englishman with the white goatee. “Before my life was about 90 percent music and 10 percent other, now it’s a third music, a third technology and a third benefit projects.
Away from music, Gabriel is excited by the use of new technologies for humanitarian causes.
“It’s a passion for me,” he said. “We’re beginning to see the formation of a world-changing engine built around the technology of the mobile and the Internet.”
After launching Witness, which supplied cameras to activists to document human rights abuses, Gabriel set up The Hub (www.hub.witness.org) “which is like YouTube but very small and focused on human rights”.
It enables people armed with camera phones to tell stories first-hand in their own voices, relaying information via mapping sites such as Ushahidi.
“Like Google Earth, you take an issue and zoom down into a house and hear the person speak in their own voice of their own experience. Then you have a group like Avaaz who do online petitioning and who got 1.5 million signatures in 10 days on Tibet.”
“In a Twitter world that could be 150 million,” he said. “Then you’ve got the numbers the politicians would listen to.”
Part of the scheme involves The Elders, a project he launched with Virgin founder Richard Branson to set up a group of older reputable figures headed by Nelson Mandela with top worldwide connections.
“The dream would be that you connect people power to a group of elders,” he said. Does it work? “The individual units are working. Now we’re trying ways of putting it together like a little eco-system.”