For someone who preaches peace and love, Roger Waters picks a lot of fights. The 73-year-old, who regularly speaks out against far-Right politicians and “greedy” corporations, has been feuding with former Pink Floyd bandmate Dave Gilmour for more than 30 years and revels in stirring arguments.
“Of course I’m belligerent,” announces the four-time divorcee when we meet in a recording studio in New York. Considering the dedicated way in which he has pursued his vendetta against Gilmour, I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But, with millions in his bank account and a major Pink Floyd retrospective about to open at the V&A Museum in London, to which Waters has given his blessing, I had assumed he might have mellowed.
Not a bit of it.
“Dave and I are not mates, we never were and I doubt we ever will be,” he says. “Which is fine, there’s no reason why we should be.” The exhibition, called Their Mortal Remains, promises to be a real blockbuster, in the vein of the V&A’s 2013 David Bowie show, revealing more than 350 artefacts, from hand-written lyrics to musical instruments, original artwork and the band’s famous inflatable stage props.
Waters says he is happy about the exhibition but, during a discussion about the relative values placed on lyrics, melody and arrangement in his songwriting, it becomes obvious that he still bears a grudge about the way he was treated by the band and, in particular, the way they dismissed his musical abilities.
“The music is hugely important to me,” he says. “It may sound daft to say, but over the years I maybe haven’t taken quite enough credit for it. I think the idea that Rick [Wright, keyboard player] and David particularly tried to sell me in the band, when I was a young man, was that I was a bit of a headmaster but I shouldn’t bother myself with music because I wasn’t musical. It’s absolute crap. I’m twice the musician either of those guys ever were. I just am. I’ve got it. It’s in me.”
The public can assess this claim for themselves next month, when Waters releases his first solo album for 25 years. Is This the Life We Really Want? is a politically charged concept album on which Waters rails against warmongering governments, mourns the plight of refugees, calls Donald Trump a nincompoop and generally vents his spleen at the inequalities of the modern world.
“I recognise a theme that I keep returning to, in all my work since Echoes (from Pink Floyd’s Meddle in 1971). It’s an obsessive belief in a humanity that we share, which makes it possible for me to empathise with you, whoever you are. But for some of us, it’s so deeply buried that we will never touch it.”
“President Trump, there’s no way he’ll ever empathise with anybody. If you talk about love to him, it would be like talking Swahili – he couldn’t understand it. But I still believe it’s there. I’m in love with the idea that there is no ‘us and them’.”
Waters’s forthcoming tour is named Us + Them after the classic song from Dark Side of the Moon. It kicks off in America at the end of May. His previous tour of The Wall is the highest-ever grossing by a solo musician. Apparently, Trump attended a show at Madison Square Garden in 2010, but left at the interval. “So he saw the wall being built but didn’t wait for it to be torn down.”
The album’s tone veers between elegiac sorrow, righteous anger and world-weary cynicism, in a sonic landscape of vast synths, shimmering acoustic guitars and cavernous drums, all linked by odd tape loops and Waters’s dry, elliptical narration. It is hugely reminiscent of Floyd’s classic Seventies work, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall. Waters ascribes this to the input of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich.
“He’s a fan. I think he would admit this is a sort of homage. All the found voices and sound effects were made using analogue tape loops. It’s been 50 years since I saw anybody try that. I love the random nature of it. You know, we were doing it in the Floyd way back in 1969. We would arrive at a point in the show and have a little transistor radio on the stage, put a microphone in front of it, stop playing and turn it on. Just go and make a cup of tea.”
Interestingly, Waters turns out not to be a fan of Radiohead, a group many see as carrying on Floyd’s experimental mantle. “I find it sort of impenetrable. I like my rock’n’roll to be very direct. I don’t want to be digging around trying to figure out the meaning.”
For someone with so much to say, it is interesting to consider that Waters’s songwriting career came about by accident. When Pink Floyd formed in 1965, Waters was the bassist, content to follow childhood friend Syd Barrett’s lead. Following the release of their debut album, The Piper at the Gate of Dawn in 1967, Barrett’s descent into drug-induced psychosis led to the recruitment of guitarist Gilmour and the departure of their founder.
“When Syd went crazy, either we gave up or somebody started writing. So it was a matter of necessity. You can’t have a band without songs, however crappy they might be. And there are a huge number of bands out there who have writers who are useless. Frankly, most rock’n’roll is awful.”
Waters and Gilmour shared vocal duties, and all four members (with Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason) contributed musically. But as time went on, Waters increasingly took the creative reins, leading to growing resentments and disagreement. When Waters quit in 1985, “I hoped that was the end of Floyd.” Waters sued his bandmates to stop them using the name – a decision about which he will now shrug and frankly say: “I was wrong.” Although the quartet reunited to headline Live8 in 2005, there has never been any realistic possibility of rapprochement.
Wright died in 2008. Mason, however, remains close to all parties and was key to facilitating the V&A exhibition.
“I love Nick. And he loves me. We were always close. But you can be creative without being friends. David and I did a lot of really great work together, which wouldn’t exist without both of us being there.”
Floyd released three albums after Waters departed (A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1986, The Division Bell in 1994 and 2016’s final posthumous Rick Wright album, The Endless River). Waters claims to have heard only bits and pieces. “I’m just not really interested. It’s not my business to be judging any of that.”
When it came to mounting an exhibition, he says there was “a little bit of negotiation about what should happen. I’ve always been a bit lairy about what I did with Pink Floyd being mixed up with the later version I had nothing to do with. But that’s all sorted. They’re in different rooms.”
And will he take the time to examine those rooms when he visits the exhibition? “I think you have to go through them to get out. That’s how it’s designed. I don’t think you can skip it,” Waters laughs. “That’s fine. Whatever. There is no escape.”
Is This the Life We Really Want? is released by Columbia on June 2. Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains opens at the V&A Museum, London SW7, on May 13. Click here for more information.