[Q&A] Peter Gabriel on activism, revisiting So, and fans procreating to "In Your Eyes"

It's a rarely acknowledged truth that most of the people that bound up on stages in rock and pop, unleashing a wild and wooly id onto the general populace, tend to retire back into their mild-mannered true selves when the spotlight turns off. Which explains why a salivating goon like Marilyn Manson can be a relatively articulate person when the makeup is wiped off, or how a certifiable kook like PETER GABRIEL can concoct, over a four-decade career, some of the most bizarre personas in the annals of rock and pop, only to reveal himself as one of the most soft-spoken and compassionate men of rock in his off-time.

I guess what I'm getting at is that a dude who once dressed up like this:

And this:

And even this:

also went on to a) pretty much bring the "genre" of "world music" (quotes because really, is music from another part of the world really a genre?) to modern Western ears; b) co-found, with Amnesty International, the massively successful non-profit human rights documentation and advocacy group WITNESS; c) initiate the creation, along with Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela, of the Global Elders, a conflict resolution group chaired by Desmond Tutu. But then again, any fan of Gabriel knows that the man has always been serious, his voice the very definition of gravely earnestness even when it was in the service of his old prog band Genesis's sci-fi prog epics.

In 1986, Gabriel went from a well-known ex-prog-leader-gone-solo to an international superstar thanks to the blinding success of his album So and its coterie of smash hits like "Sledgehammer", "Big Time", and "In Your Eyes". He's revisiting the album on the (belated) 25th anniversary of its release, bringing back the original band that propelled the album on a tour he dubs Back To Front that comes to the TD garden on Monday, playing all of So as well as a smattering of his other solo hits. I caught up with him prior to the tour, as he took a break from tour preparations at his home/Real World studio in Wiltshire to talk about the enormous legacy of this album, and the way that he used his fame from the album's success to assist his long-simmering activist interests.

What’s it been like, re-investigating So for this tour-- what are your thoughts about not just the record, but the times around this album, especially since it was so important and pivotal to your career?

Well first, I thought it might be a bit of a pain, but I have to say I’ve quite enjoyed it. We ended up, rather than doing sort of a b-sides reissue, we’ve done a thing we call So DNA. I thought it might be interesting to try and map the evolution of the songs, because I tend to record most things I do. So there’s a whole mountain of mostly cassette tapes, because that was the format I was using at the time, as a sort of notebook. And we found moments when I discovered melodies or lines of lyric, and you can hear them. They’re not always very flashy, but it’s an interesting journey. I don’t think I’ve heard a record done like that, so that’s interesting. And also the filming, which was done of a concert of that time -- I was very enamored with video, of all things video, and the original intention was Scorcese was producing and Michael Chapman, who was his Raging Bull director, kind of directed it. But we realized that there was actually some stunning concert footage that I really had tended to overlook, so that’s was a huge undertaking, much more than we originally planned, because the film had to be effectively saved and re-put together again, it was over a ton of film in cans, and pretty disorganized from the video in it. So that was a real major labor of love, but again, there were a bunch of fiddly 5.1 mixes within that. But I think it’s been shot beautifully and we’ve finally got audio to match, so I think it came out better than I initially would have thought. And although I think that there’s some other work that I’ve done which is just as good as the album, So, that was the brief moment when I coincided with the mass market.

Looking back, what do you think that was all about, what about that record did people connect with so strongly?

Um, I think that there were a number of things. There were some strong individual songs on it, things like “Sledgehammer”, “Don’t Give Up”, or “Big Time” that had an appeal that was not so digital or esoteric. And then we had the brilliant “Sledgehammer” video, which certainly helped things. I think it sort of came together in a way that fitted the mood of the times, so it’s been, um-- I always think that being a pop star is a really fun thing to do but a lousy place to live, so the idea of a weekend rockstar always suits me better than a full-time deal.

Now that you’ve dug up all the archives-- did you have a sense, when you working on this, that this record was different than your prior work, did it seem to have more of a pop sense? Or was the process more organic than that?

It was pretty organic, I think we were trying to get the songs right, and I think the songs being written at the time just fit that mood. I wasn’t trying to re-invent songwriting or anything; there were still some quirky corners but it wasn’t I guess as challenging as some of my other material. So I think we had great players, we had our pick of some of the best musicians-- as an ex-drummer, I was really pernickety and determined to get great rhythm tracks that were original-sounding. And I was lucky enough to work with Stuart Copeland, Manu Katché, Jerry Marotta-- I had some of the best drummers around.

After the release of the album, “In Your Eyes” took on another life when it was used in the film Say Anything. It was also an era of the slow-dance power ballad; when “In Your Eyes” was at its height, it’s only real competition for the slow dance crown was singles by Genesis and Phil Collins. What do you make of that phenomenon, all these years later?

Well, I think it’s amazing how many small children-- well, not so small children, more like young adults-- owe their creation to that song, or at least it was a background track, or a useful pickup tool. I think that the Magnetic Fields song that I did on the Scratch My Back record, “Book of Love”, may have gone on to fulfill that for a different generation. But yeah, sometimes someone will say to me that a track on, let’s say, Passion, which for me is associated with some really strong spiritual moments, was a wonderful song for getting laid to. So you know, music has many faces!

Passion was a heavy album, as were your first four solo albums-- do you think it’s fair to say that So was in some ways a lighter album, thematically?

Yeah, it probably is, it was more playful in some ways, at least more consistently. It was also the time when we suddenly noticed that there were women in the audience, which was a delight to the band. And I didn’t mind it myself either-- rather than sort of serious-looking male students.

In addition to your music, political action and activism has played an important part in your life and career-- and the profile boost you got from the success of So clearly aided this. Prior to So, were you at all frustrated with your inability to do the things that you wanted to do, and when did you realize that So’s success was easing those frustrations?

I think when we started getting invitations-- although the Amnesty tour, the Conspiracy of Hope Tour that Bono was putting together, was really the result of an earlier song of mine, “Biko”. But yes, definitely, I think that the fact that I had a commercial breakthrough with So at that time made me more useful for those organizations like Amnesty. Once you’re on the hit list, there’s no end of invitations!

Would you say that, in some ways, you were deconstructing what it meant to be a music star, by having a career arc where you used the power of fame to further your other non-musical concerns and fuse them with your musical persona?

I think that I’ve always been quite pig-headed in some ways, and wanted to follow the things that interested me. In some cases, that was towards science or activism, or world music, or whatever it was. And I think it led me to a lot of places I wanted to go but wasn’t sure how to, necessarily. So in that way, there’s definitely some truth.

What do you make of the way things have progressed nowadays, with both activism and artists using their work to effect change?

Well, I think that the media’s changed, in a way-- there are of course all these social media things that weren’t around then. But the substance is still pretty much the same, and the opportunities for artists either to focus on music, making money, or hooking up to try to make change in the world. And it’s great to see that some of that has carried on through the generations. Not as much as I’d like to see, to be honest, but it’s still there and there’s still an openness of other cultures, interesting young bands working with African or Brazilian influences. So I think a lot of it is essentially the same, but the means of executing it has accelerated if you can get some momentum. You can suddenly get to millions instead of thousands.

Do you have a sense of it, now, that things have accelerated in a way that would have frustrated you back in the day before these things existed?

Yeah, I think the opportunities are there, but I think it's still really hard to get ideas out there, to get new ideas, new artists, new creations to find their home. But if you can catch a wave, with Youtube or whatever, then the tools are there to make it move very far very quickly.

PETER GABRIEL | TD Garden, 100 Legends Way, Boston | September 24 @ 8 pm | All Ages | $50-$170 | 617.624.1000 or

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