David Gilmour: Life after the Lurching Monster
Fans were given an unexpected treat when the man whose guitar and voice define Pink Floyd previewed the tour behind his new album, Rattle That Lock, in Brighton, England on September 5.
David Gilmour and his crack band — missing former Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright, who died in 2008, for the first time in more than 30 years — were loose, almost under-rehearsed.
Gilmour seemed tentative as he opened the show with the stunning “5 AM”, which also opens Rattle That Lock, and the transitions between songs took longer than most fans of the remarkable efficiency that marked Pink Floyd’s Gilmour-era were prepared for. During the first few numbers you could sense a restlessness in the crowd. Then came the classics “Money” and “Us and Them,” near the end of the first set, and everything started to fall into place. By the time Gilmour and company kicked off the second set, with the iconic 60s-era Floyd track “Astronomy Domine”, followed by “Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Parts I-V” and “Fat Old Sun”, they had taken flight.
Only Gilmour’s voice showed a bit of strain, but as the night wore on, it became stronger and stronger, until it sounded almost younger than the last time Gilmour toured, in support of his excellent 2006 album, On An Island.
“I’ve no idea how that seems to be,” Gilmour ponders when we speak ahead of the release of his first album in nine years and I remark that he sounds younger, clearer and stronger on Rattle That Lock than he had even in Pink Floyd’s 1970s heyday.
“I don’t know if it sounds younger. It’s got a little bit more of a rasp to it now, yet I still seem to be able to hit the high notes. Maybe because I haven’t used it quite as much as some of my contemporaries have, being a lazy fucker. Maybe that’s what it is. I dunno. I’m very pleased with the way it seems to have worked during the making of this album, though.”
As for the setlist for the forthcoming tour in support of Rattle That Lock that fans in Brighton got a taste of, Gilmour says he’d only recently started to think about what he’d play. His tour in support of On An Island, however, saw him digging deep into the Pink Floyd songbook, playing hits like “Comfortably Numb” and “Wish You Were Here.”
“I never tire of playing those,” Gilmour tells me with a chuckle. “I suppose I should. But I don’t.
“I’m about to get to working on the setlist, but I’m afraid I haven’t really started yet. I want to do the latest material I’ve been working on and throw in the songs I like the most from a long career. I’m always trying to make a set that flows and have a logic to it, and also one that works with the audience. Now, obviously, my view on it is often the same I think the fans want to hear, but I don’t play songs that I don’t like even if the fans do.”
As for whether the setlist from Brighton is the final word on what fans can expect to see live when Gilmour’s tour hits Europe this fall and the Americas next year, it seems unlikely.
“You change it as you go along,” Gilmour says, emphatically. “I’m not quite sure how it happens, but eventually you find the right pieces of the puzzle and it just seems to feel right.
It’s been almost a decade since there was a new album from David Gilmour, but he’s certainly been busy during that time.
He toured behind On An Island almost until 2008, when Wright unexpectedly passed away from cancer. Gilmour then collaborated with founding drummer Nick Mason on a final Floyd album, The Endless River, in honor of their fallen friend. Released last year, The Endless River was based on session tapes from the recording of 1994′s The Division Bell, when the band, and particularly Wright, was in “a great creative place,” according to Gilmour.
“When I was played the tapes we’d made with Rick, it felt like such a shame for us not to do something with them,” Gilmour recalls to me of when his longtime engineer Andy Jackson played him an early version of The Endless River. “I was glad we were able to make something that I think was really special out of them, and it was really built very much around Rick’s character, in many ways. We were able to locate some wonderful performances, and put our mark on them, so that it felt like one seamless piece.”
Gilmour also tells me, however, that with Wright’s passing there is nothing left of Pink Floyd for him.
“I know Nick says that he lives in hope that we’ll do something more, but it’s easy for him to say that, as the drummer,” Gilmour tells me. “There’s much more responsibility up front for me, and there’s no way that I can foresee working with Roger, certainly not on the sort of scale that it would be if it were Pink Floyd. When Rick died, that was really and truly the end.”
Roger is, of course, Roger Waters, the principal lyricist and the guiding force in Pink Floyd during its run of classic albums in the 1970s – The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall – until he left abruptly in the mid-1980s. A flurry of lawsuits and backbiting in the press followed, but eventually a Gilmour-led Pink Floyd released two studio albums, two live albums, and toured to great acclaim until 1994, when the band seemed simply to stop.
After twenty years The Endless River picked up where Pink Floyd had left off. But in the meantime Gilmour had periodically dipped his toe in the water as a solo artist – often with Wright along for the ride – and appeared to revel in the newfound freedom.
With a new solo album due on September 18, Gilmour is eager to talk about the future.
And rightly so. Rattle That Lock has plenty of Gilmour’s trademark guitar over ambient soundscapes of the sort that Pink Floyd were known for. Like his best work with Pink Floyd it’s sometimes mournful, periodically piercing and at other times a bit of both. But it’s also a clear step forward as a solo artist, encompassing a wealth of new ideas and styles that Gilmour had only touched upon with On An Island and his earlier solo work. The title track is almost a pop song, and there’s even some very un-Floyd dabbling in jazz.
“I remember wondering, when I listened back to that jazzy one – ‘The Girl In The Yellow Dress’ – if it fit,” Gilmour tells me. “But really, at this point, I shouldn’t give a fuck, and I really don’t. I liked the song, and my guitar and voice tie everything together anyway, so why not go out on a limb a bit? Maybe it doesn’t work; but I think it does.”
Gilmour’s modesty aside, Rattle That Lock is unlike anything he’s done before.
After releasing the restrained but interesting David Gilmour in 1978, followed by About Face in 1984, in the midst of his war with Waters, it wasn’t until 2006 that Gilmour released another solo album, the worldwide smash, On An Island, which he toured the globe in support of. Each album was another small step on the road away from the “lurching monster,” as Gilmour calls it, that was Pink Floyd. With that monster finally laid to rest, Rattle That Lock is the sound of Gilmour finally finding his footing as a true solo artist.
“I wish I could say there was a plan, but there never seems to be one,” Gilmour says with another hearty laugh, by way of trying not to explain the many styles on the album. “I just try to find something that is of the moment [of creation]. I can’t really describe how that process works and happens. You just find something and go with it. I think it’s luck more than anything else because I honestly don’t know how it happens. These things just seem to arrive. I’ll put together a couple of chords and suddenly I’m on my way!”
And like Pink Floyd’s best work, the songs are built around a loose concept.
“We tried to give a shape to the album,” Gilmour confesses about theme of the album. “We tried to give it the arc of a single day, beginning at daybreak with birds and Canadian geese – which I can hear out of my window, actually – and a dog barking. In between there are things that might happen, or that you might think, throughout the course of a day. There’s a visit to a jazz club and it ends with the crackling of a campfire at the end. It’s not specific, or linear, but it helps to give the album a flow.”
It’s an emotional day, then, to be sure. The ghost of Wright – “one of my dearest friends, I’ve realized especially since he’s been gone” Gilmour tells me, wistfully – hangs over the proceedings.
“The song ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’ was certainly an elegy of sorts for Rick,” Gilmour confesses when I press him. “The funny thing is it’s quite an old song. I played the piano on it, and it does quite sound like Rick. It just came to me naturally. I’m not sure from where or how. But it was long before Rick died that that piece of music came about. You can hear my son, who’s now 20, as a newborn baby, three months old or something, squawking on that track. So that tells you how old that one was.”
“Faces of Stone” is another deeply moving track.
“That’s about my mother’s last years,” Gilmour tells me of the song. “There was a nine-month period, during my mother’s last years, when she was on this earth at the same time as my youngest child. She had dementia at the end, and I think the waltz time gives it a slightly mad feeling, but the song is the way I’d like to remember my mother rather than to remember the rather difficult relationship we actually had.”
Phil Manzanera, who most music fans will know from his days playing guitar in Roxy Music, was instrumental in crafting all of the disparate ideas the guitarist had into a cohesive shape, Gilmour says.
“He’s a great guy to have around,” Gilmour reflects, with obvious fondness and admiration. “He listened to old pieces of music of mine, found little moments I might have forgotten, and would say, ‘Wait, we could put this piece into there and join that piece with that piece.’ He’s got a very brilliant archival mind. He can remember lots of little pieces of music I’ve long since forgotten.
“He’s always there and helpful, good to bounce things off, always positive and always trying to push things forward. As is Andy Jackson, my engineer, particularly when we’re mixing, and he really takes it all over. The first half or more of the album, two thirds of the album making tends to be me doing everything, working alone or with Phil. Then Andy comes in and fixes it all. I’m blessed with a truly great team around me. I suppose I always have been.”
Gilmour is also lucky in that his key songwriting collaborator is close by. His wife Polly Samson has written lyrics for Gilmour’s music since The Division Bell days.
“I know this sounds crazy now, but the idea of my name being attached to Pink Floyd was like some nightmare,” Samson confesses of her earliest days working with Gilmour. “That’s how it felt at the time. I said to him, ‘Look, I’m really happy to be paid for my work, but please leave my name off it. I just would feel so scrutinized.’
“Actually, as it turned out, he rather sensibly said, ‘I’m just not prepared to do this. You will have your name on it because you’ve written it.’ Nothing that I said to him could make him change his mind. He said, ‘There will come a time when you will thank me for this, because it’s horrible when you don’t get credit for your own work.’ Actually he was right. Then there was the big tour, and I got used to David singing the words I’d written.”
In 2006, the pair collaborated closely on On An Island, which was a huge critical and commercial success.
“I’ve become very much more confident as a writer and less inhibited with writing lyrics, partly because On An Island is successful, the world didn’t end,” Samson jokes when I remark on how well the lyrics of the album hold the songs together. “We’d listen to a load of songs and I’d tell him which ones I liked and wanted to work on. Then I’d put them on my iPod and I’d just walk around with them, listening to them over and over, and I’d ask him what they were about. Each time, when I gave it back to him, he said it was exactly what he wanted to say. So each time, I became more confident.”
“He’s like a child preparing for exams,” Samson jokes when I ask her why Gilmour is only credited as lyricist on a few songs on Rattle That Lock. “He just puts it off and puts it off. He did write a few in the end, but most of it we worked on together.”
“We usually go over to the studio together when we’ve got her first draft of something,” Gilmour explains of the collaborative process he’s developed with Samson. “I’ll put the mic up and sing it, and we see where to take it from there.”
When I point out that it sounds as though Gilmour has surrounded himself with like-minded collaborators who are supportive and has created a drama-free environment in which to work, his days in Pink Floyd clearly leaps into his mind.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about!” Gilmour exclaims with a hearty laugh, and with that he was off.
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles.
[All images by Kevin Westenberg]
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