Wounds, peak experiences, and the vomit theory of art

For inspiration, Peter Gabriel looks to the world the soul -- and bodily fluids.

Published May 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

NEW YORK -- Peter Gabriel's inspirations have always been all over the map, from as far off as Pakistan's Islamic rhythms and as close to his English home as traditional Morris dances. On his new CD-ROM, "Eve," Gabriel worked with four visual artists from around the world -- Yayoi Kusama, Helen Chadwick, Cathy de Monchaux and Nils Udo -- to interpret his music and shape the visual landscapes of a multimedia journey.

A co-production of Starwave and Gabriel's own Real World Records, "Eve" provides a gently surrealistic exploration of the romantic, scientific, psychological and genetic nature of love. In February, "Eve" won the Milia D'Or award at the Milia Festival in Cannes. Its arrival in the U.S. was delayed when Starwave pulled out of the CD-ROM business, but its new American distributor, Graphix Zone, has announced an early May release.

Gabriel's own long journey has included a rise to prominence with the band Genesis, a 1978 jump to a flourishing solo career and a longtime commitment to human rights activism. In 1994 his "Xplora" CD-ROM was hailed as one of the first multimedia products to merit the label of art.

As Laurie Anderson commented at an "Eve" launch party at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, "Peter has a generous way of including people. He's not one of those rock stars who use pop culture to buy themselves a big home in the suburbs. He's incredibly generous in including other artists in his work, and encouraging everyone to play with and have fun with his music. I really do think that music can change people's lives, and he shows you there are other ways to use the things we already know."

Gabriel walks with the elegance and composure of a dancer, has a warm-hearted and pensive presence and is careful with his words.

What would you like people to come away with from "Eve"?

I think it should be like a kid in a sandbox. That was our model: You'd go in there and build things, maybe knock them down -- or just explore.

Why did you choose Adam and Eve as the theme?

"Eve" starts off with Adam and Eve in a paradise world, where there's unity between male and female, and they are pulled apart. Adam has to go off looking for Eve again, and try and work his way back into paradise. That's the map, the human condition.

People are mainly preoccupied with relationships, I think. Work, achievements, success come secondary. Because most people don't feel complete in themselves. You're looking to find the other entity that's going to fill up the hole. It's a lot easier to try and expose and fill up your own holes than it is to get someone else to do that.

There's a great Kenneth Tynan line that says, "We seek the teeth to match our wounds." Isn't that good? I wish I'd written that. You see it where someone goes through a lot of relationships, or three marriages, and married the same person three times, only they have a slightly different face. It's a real struggle not to fall into that. You have to work at changing yourself. If you change the shape of the holes, the plugs that fit them may change.

"Eve" is full of very primordial, archetypal images.

It's a spiritual and mythological collage. We included interviews with these "boffins," experts who can help you delve into their world -- psychology, genetics, art, the future. We were trying to ask, if we were going on some journey, what would we like to encounter? What detours would we find interesting?

I love doing research. I was doing a song on twins one time, and I got to have some interesting talks with some scientists doing research on twins. The Net will allow you to do that stuff -- you can actually find out who's doing the most interesting papers and research. Of course, not too many people are doing that yet, so some of these experts are still available to punters like me chasing them down.

And the look was very important too. I didn't want it to come across with that sort of sci-fi shoot-'em-up aesthetic. So it's very naturalistic -- there are 20,000 photographs in there. And the artists we chose had never worked with computers before. That made it more interesting. I think some of their work, say Helen Chadwick's for "Shaking the Tree," has some real depth. It's not just an illustrator, but someone who's struggled in their own path with these issues, so it resonates much deeper.

How did you work with the four artists?

We were like animals sniffing around each other at first. We started with these illustrated songbook ideas. We commissioned some particular pieces for the project. But we also asked if they'd be willing to let us connect with their existing work. For them, they'd never been asked to have their work manipulated, opened up in this way. They weren't sure at first how confident they could be that their stuff wouldn't get abused. But after a while, they realized we were happy for them to steer it and to let us know between consenting adults how far they wanted us to go. So we built much more trust.

Unfortunately, Helen Chadwick died during the completion. Yow, she was younger than I am. That's a bit scary. We dedicated the project to her. She was incredible -- a really fast, fertile brain. She reminded me of Laurie Anderson in the way she can really focus in with fresh energy and humor -- all sorts of interesting angles on any subject. She really started playing; it was like a big sandbox. And that's really the model we wanted to use, that it should be fun -- to hit that childish part of our brain, to come at things in a more open way than like us cynical older persons.

You've pulled out this amazing quote from Friedrich Nietzsche to describe your aims with "Eve": "A good book should be like an ax to a frozen lake." Why?

I can't remember where I got that, but I just thought this is the best description of how a work of art should affect someone that I've come across. There's this sense that we have this flowing mass below us that can be tapped, opened up. If you see a great film, a great concert, a good book, or whatever it is, these are great tools that we use to accelerate our own gathering of experience.

How did the technology affect the decisions you made?

Between "Xplora" and "Eve," the technology allowed us to do quite a bit more. Greater memory, faster speeds and so on. But you never quite know where the consumer equipment is going to be when you start -- this is a two-year run-in. So you don't quite know whether to go with what people might have in their homes in two years' time, or go for a more democratic spread, less memory, less speed.

The production was complicated: a team of 60 designers and technical people, the four artists, your recording studio. Getting through the piece is quite a journey. Technically, you have to assume we're all idiots out there.

No, I'm idiot No. 1. If it's Gabriel-proof, that's one stage below idiot-proof.

You also demand that people engage. The transitions aren't simple. They're not all just a simple click.

Not clicking all the time -- that was a conscious decision. Sometimes you have to move it around, washing, scrubbing over the landscapes ... I really believe multimedia's a prototype for a future language -- that we're all going to be communicating using pieces of TV, video, text, pictures, music, and we'll have our own little personal archives, dictionaries of multimedia stuff that we communicate with. I'm sure kids'll be doing that first, before us. Because I love all this stuff, I had some conversations with this futuristic research company, Interval. They're talking about having built into your clothing something that would record your peak moments. You hit the button and say, "I like this."

So you'd be able to replay peak experiences?

Yeah. Have some access to it. I know that's what I try to do in music composition. Often you're improvising around a theme. Ninety-eight percent of the stuff is dross, you don't want to hear it again, you want to be able to go straight to the bits you knew were happening. So someone designed a foot pedal for me, all I have to do is just click and it puts a marker on the DAT. A very simple technology. But if you could do that with your life as well, you just put down these markers ... Go straight back to your favorite girlfriend (laughs). But it's funny in a way -- each person has rights to their own experiences, no one else does, unless they've volunteered.

The Internet also raises questions about artist's control of their work. You seem to be interested in making work available, giving people access to play with it.

I have no problem with that. I know as a fan I would have loved to be able to have done that with my favorite records -- just pull them apart. We artists put our stuff out there. If it works, it moves people.

My definition I've been using for a number of years is the difference between vomit and shit. We all take nourishment out of anything that looks appetizing or tasty. If it goes through the system, it comes out with our mark on it, if you like, and if it doesn't, it gets regurgitated without being digested. That's a different process. I'm not saying it's invalid, but it's probably less personal, less a work of art, in vomit form than in shit form. Alchemists believed in their tradition that gold could only come out of shit. The lowest base elements.

You've always been outspoken about the political effects of the global information culture. Where do you see things moving today?

These new satellite systems are going to be enormously influential in the way the world changes. If you get cheap communication from the developing world into the developed world, it means that suddenly these other countries where wages are low can become information processors and producers. They can genuinely compete and perhaps do better than richer countries where the overhead is much bigger. But until the technology has got out into the developing world, the gap is going to go the other way, to separate rich and poor.

Still, the political impact of the spread of pop music is really underestimated. Through things like MTV, kids in Latin America, India are now just as informed as kids in America and Europe on a load of issues. Though you still see a lot of bouncing breasts and fast cars on MTV, there's actually a lot more content. And although music is never ideal for getting into detail on any subject, it's very powerful for actually providing an opening, a doorway, into deeper stuff. Even by changing your haircut or your dress, which is maybe all you get, that starts creating stuff in your own culture and society that puts you against other forces. That can start instinctively making you question things.

What effects do you think the growth in world music is having -- the development of vibrant Latin, African, Asian music scenes?

It's a real source of richness and excitement. Genetics, I think, is a very useful reference for us, because if you look at the hybrids, they're the most vital and alive people. And that's where the throbbing culture is. We travel around quite a fair amount in our job, and you get to one city and you see the same shops that you see whether you go to Russia, China, London, France -- you can always find the McDonald's. With this tendency for our world to homogenize everything, I believe it's important that variety gets valued more highly. Our differences are things that we should protect and exploit, rather than our sameness.

Is world music still a useful label?

I've always argued that the correct definition of world music is music that's made in the world. Sometimes that label is useful for an artist to get that little bit of attention, but we've proved to a fair amount of people now that you don't have to have lyrics in English to have music that is meaningful, to touch people. That was a major barrier 10 years ago; it seems ridiculous now. You still can't get play on the radio, but we're trying to find ways to bypass that now. Whether it's with one of our WOMAD festivals or with films.

What new music do you listen to?

All sorts of things. Obviously through WOMAD and Real World records, I get exposed to all kinds of stuff. We know we're weak in Latin music, I'd like to learn more about that. For me, it's the spiritual content that's still the thing -- well, rhythm and spiritual content. As an old drummer, you know, you can't argue with great grooves. That's foundation No. 1. The other is spiritual elements: When I listen to Nusrat Ali Khan or Youssou N'Ddour, I get shivers. It's like taking a shower in an essence of ... something ... magical.

I was listening to Ali Farka Toure with a composer friend, saying to him how the sound was almost straight blues. He insisted it couldn't be blues, because African music uses different scales ...

I would say, where the hell does he think blues come from? The whole movement with the slave trade, the black African Diaspora. They may have changed over the years, but for sure you can find the Bo Diddley rhythm in the Congo. You can hear the source, so I would accept they're using different scales, different tonalities, but the fundamental elements are branches from the same tree.

For instance, the most traditional folk dancing in Britain is Morris dancing. And there's one theory that the tradition is actually Moorish dancing. The sailors brought it back from having traveled to visit the Moors in Africa. Again, I think Africa is a big heart of origination of a lot of stuff that's been absorbed and maybe changed as it's spread around the world.

So, we're way beyond that whole "Graceland" controversy now.

I hope so. It should just be good music. I mean, again, I go back to that vomit/shit idea. As one does.

The overriding metaphor of our time?

The urge to digest.

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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