Guitar, September 1995
Inside the Mind of Pink Floyd: David Gilmour
In London, you can't escape the eye. Nor can you escape Pink Floyd. The graphically represented iris and dilated pupil on the cover of Floyd's new live album, Pulse, is everywhere, like some sort of Big Brother. Every record store on every street has window displays featuring the eye, while thousands of blinking red lights strobe from the racks within. British TV channels run ongoing interviews with the members of Pink Floyd and excerpts from the new concert video. Even across the Atlantic, Pulse is omnipresent. New York City turns the top of The Empire State Building into a skyscraping light show that celebrates the record's release. A hundred stories below, Pulse posters and billboards line the streets. For all intents and purposes, this live version of Dark Side Of The Moon has been given all the trappings of the second coming of Christ. For David Gilmour, however, all the excitement is post-mortem.
He wants nothing more than to simply retreat to the quiet of his London home and enjoy his new son, who is less than two months old. The spectacle of publicity is mere fallout, after all: It was Gilmour who orchestrated Pink Floyd's most recent concert spectacle in the first place. In the relative calm of West London, far from any spectacle and publicity, Gilmour sits in the rooftop atrium of a small hotel just off of Hyde Park. It is a typical London summer day, humid, overst, and grey, with the ever-present threat of a thunderstorm. Below is an English garden, lush and green, with row after row of brilliant flowers. It is atypically quiet here, as the noise of London fails to pierce the tranquil veneer of either the atrium or the garden. In other words, the setting is so British you almost expect someone from Monty Python to walk across the yard and explode.
Gilmour sits at a table, looking out over the garden and sipping cappuccino. His broad face betrays something of Jack Nicholson about it - the way he uses his eyebrows and the way he smiles. His voice is as smooth as the vocals on "Comfortably Numb" or "Learning to Fly." Surprisingly, it is a voice that sounds like that of a very young man, perhaps one in his twenties. But Gilmour was in his early twenties when he joined Pink Floyd, and that was nearly thirty years ago. Today, David Gilmour is one of the few rockers that the British revere as one of their royalty. He has become something of a nobleman - "landed gentry" in the words of Brits - like Jagger, Clapton, and McCartney. His cool demeanor, low profile, sophistication, proper schooling (very important to British society) and incredible success over the decades have afforded him a level of respect not always given to longtime rock and rollers. By comparison, it's doubtful that members of Slade or Motorhead will ever get the same treatment from British society that Gilmour does.
Gilmour has also assumed his rightful place among guitarists as one of the most unique, immediately recognizable, and enduring stylists in the history of rock music. As such, he has been accorded near-legendary status in the guitar community - this despite his personal reclusiveness and reluctance to play anything that is too over the top. So why has Pink Floyd, under Gilmour's direction, chosen to release such an ostentatiously lavish album at this stage of its career? Especially an album that features a complete live version of Dark Side Of The Moon, one of the most popular recordings of all time?
"The reason for Pulse is Dark Side Of The Moon, obviously," says Gilmour, stirring his cappuccino. "We weren't going to do a live album for this tour; it seemed a bit superfluous having just done one a few years ago. But, as we started out on the tour, we were looking for ways to change the show around and make ourselves a little more flexible and have a little fun, and Dark Side Of The Moon was one of the ideas that came across. We thought, 'That'll be easy, we're already playing half the songs.' But it took us about three months to put all the bits of sound-effect tape into it, besides getting all the old film and making one or two new bits of the ones that were too ancient or damaged. So we did it on the end of our American tour, and then when we carried it over to Europe, we started thinking, 'Well, it would be nice for us - and for posterity - to have a live version of Dark Side Of The Moon, which I always particularly wanted. We, in fact, discussed it years ago - even when Roger was still in the band - about putting a live version of Dark Side Of The Moon back together and recording it, because we don't have a record of it ourselves. So, I thought that would be a very nice idea. Of course, discussing it, we finally thought it was daft to just put out Dark Side Of The Moon - we might as well put out the whole thing."
Floyd's tour of the globe in 1994 may well have been the most elaborately staged concert tour in the history of the world, incorporating film, lighting effects, and a sound system that would make George Lucas cream his jeans, along with more than two hours of music. And, it was bigger than the previous Floyd show, which was bigger than the one before that, which was bigger than ...and on and on.
With everything that went into this last show, could the Pink Floyd concert spectacle ever get any bigger than it has gotten?
"I think the question is, well, can the spectacle get any better. I don't know. Limits are there to be surpassed, I suppose, aren't they? People have been saying that we would never be able to top the original Dark Side Of The Moon show in 1973. We're not trying to top previous shows, we're just trying to do a different show each time as well as we could possibly do it. We've set the standards for this kind of show, ever since the stadium shows in 1973. Obviously, the technology is better, and it's easier to do many of the things: The lasers are of better quality, so is the sound system. But we had the quadraphonic sound system and the circular screen even back then."
Gilmour is also not interested in going backwards, in making the show smaller or more intimate.
"I'm not big on playing small places with Pink Floyd. I mean, when we'd been doing this tour for six months and finally got back to London, we played Earls Court, which holds about 18,000 people. That was a nice small club, like being in Madison Square Garden," he laughs.
As a guitarist, Gilmour has been singled out for tastefully melodic solos, rarely cranking up the speed but always playing with just the right combination of aggression and restraint. He is one of only a handful of guitarists recording today who can be identified just by the tone of his solos. Pulse is rife with vintage-sounding Gilmour.
"My sound is what it is because of the way my hands and fingers are made, and due to my musical taste as well. I can't sound like anything else. That's just how I sound. I've never tried to make it like that, it's just the way I am. The fact that it is distinctive to other people is something that at first - in the early years - I was kind of unhappy about. I wanted to sound like other people. I had my moments of wanting to sound like Hendrix, or Eric Clapton, or Jeff Beck. Eventually, I got to like the way I sounded, and I think things got better from that moment, really."
After 30 years of recording and touring, then, is he completely comfortable with himself as a guitarist?
"Sometimes I feel terribly uncomfortable with the way I play, sometimes I feel comfortable with the way I play; it just depends on the moment. There are moments on tour - especially after the 200 gigs on the late 1980s tour and the 100 gigs on this last our - when I feel like I've played every lick and every note there is to be played, and I get bored with myself. Then the next night, I think, 'No, it's great,' and I find something new to explore, someplace where I haven't been."
Gilmour has also explored those places on his own, in moments apart from Pink Floyd. His two solo albums - 1978's David Gilmour and 1984's About Face - sold approximately a million copies each, an amazing amount of records for someone usually considered to be "part of a band." He also played as a sideman on several albums, including Supertramp's Brother Where You Bound?, Pete Townshend's White City , and Paul McCartney's Give My Regards To Broadstreet. One might think that he could have had a respectable career away from Pink Floyd and the well-publicized difficulties with Roger Waters.
Was there ever a time when he wanted to play his own music, unencumbered by everything that Floyd entailed? Gilmour sits back and rubs his chin, thinking the matter through.
"I have to confess to a certain sort of jealousy of Eric Clapton's position, where he has his wealth of material, and he's such a consummate blues player that he's got a wealth of other people's material that he can play that's not so well known. He can take out a new bad every time, and do his stuff - and that would be a nice position to be in. But I'm not in that position. I have spent my entire adult life working on Pink Floyd. I mean, I've done a couple of solo projects and I've thoroughly enjoyed them, and learned an awful lot from them, but my life's work has been Pink Floyd.
"I did songs from my albums on my solo tour in 1984, but there was never a time when I didn't see us doing another Pink Floyd record - ever. Even right before Momentary Lapse Of Reason . It was difficult to do another Pink Floyd record until Roger actually said, 'I am out of here, I am leaving.' When he declared that, it actually made it easier to get on with it. Because, you know, the last five official years with Roger, from 1980 onwards, were torture for all of us - including him. I couldn't see us putting it back together and going in [to the studio] and seeing whether he'd show up, and seeing whether he'd be helpful or destructive or what it was going to be like. I always thought that we would carry on, and when he said in December 1985 'I am leaving,' it actually sort of opened the door for us. So, while I can certainly see myself doing another solo project, I certainly didn't then - or now - see that I should be forced to start my career again as a solo artist."
Is it coincidental that Gilmour's first solo album appeared at the same time that his guitar playing was taking a more defined role in the band's sound? His increased presence was most obvious beginning with Wish You Were Here and moving into Animals , which featured some of Gilmour's most impressive and diverse playing. Prior to that, the guitar had just been one of many elements in the overall Floyd sound, a sound which included tape loops, sound effects, ambient noise, and "synths and all that, right?" finishes Gilmour.
"I hadn't - and haven't - thought much about it, really. I think the use of more guitar shows the gradual shift in the way we were doing things, and different people's influences on what we were doing. With Roger not being a soloist or an instrumentalist, really, it was left to me to do all that sort of stuff - along with a bit of saxophone here and there."
Yet despite his gradual rise to the position of overseeing all that is Floyd, Gilmour's sound and playing have remained virtually unchanged for two decades. This has won him devoted guitar adherents who feel he embodies all that is melodic and emotional in guitar playing. Yet there are Gilmour critics who feel that he has simply used his minimalism to the point of overkill via Pink Floyd. David appears not to be bothered in the least by anyone's accounting of his guitar skills.
"I have a certain style, you know, because I was given these particular fingers. They are the ones I got, and they are not terribly quick," Gilmour holds out his hands, palms up, and splays his fingers. "There are some things they can't do, and there are some things they do better than anyone else, thank God [laughs]. I can rehearse and I can practice for months, and I don't get any quicker. I've given that up years ago. And I can't be bothered with too much practicing, I'm afraid. I should, but I'm terribly lazy about it."
His belief in what he can and cannot do, however, prompts him to seek out other guitar players who possess the skills he claims not to have. This is hardly the way most recording guitarists think.
"The limits of what I can think of, or what I can write or think about for a guitar, are greater than my own personal playing limits. So if it comes up, which it does once in a while, that I can't play the part that I want to play - not having the technical proficiency in some areas - then I'll get someone else in to do it for me. To me, it's simple: Since there are some things I don't do, then there's no reason why I wouldn't get someone else to do something I thought of but I couldn't do.
"We've had a lot of people doing guitar parts for us. Tim Renwick played a bit on Pulse. I've know him since he was a kid, since he was 13. He was from Cambridge, where I'm from, and he's always been a damn good guitar player. We'd have been willing to go for him on any project, but he was never available. Especially during the Wall years, he was too busy doing other stuff. On A Momentary Lapse of Reason, we had Michael Landau play on the opening parts of 'One Slip.' Lee Ritenour was on 'One Of My Turns,' from The Wall. He played the rhythm guitar part on the second half of that. Basically I couldn't come up with a good part for that song, so I think I threw my guitar down and said, 'I can't get anywhere with this, I don't know what to do on it. Get someone else to play it. In the case of 'One Of My Turns,' I didn't even think of the part. I've sort of modified it and adapted it for the way we play it live. I think we also double-tracked the high-strung acoustic guitar on 'Comfortably Numb,' so he may be playing one of those."
"There was another guy, whose name escapes me, who played the Spanish classical guitar part on 'Is There Anybody Out There?' because I felt I couldn't do it quite cleanly enough or well enough for the record. Onstage, of course, I ended up doing it, and it wasn't a problem. I can't quite remember how we came across Snowy White [second guitarist for the Wall tour ]. He was a great guitar player, but I honestly can't remember who recommended him, or why, or when. I don't think at that time I was too used to hiring other musicians, so I can't remember how we went about it. Since then, I've started noticing other musicians with an eye to using them, from the point of view of who I might use in the future. I've been keeping a little book on musicians of all sorts who I thought were interesting, not just guitar players."
Have any of the younger, more speed-oriented players ever interested him?
Gilmour scrunches up his face, frowns, and looks up at the ceiling as if he has lost something.
"Ah yes...and where are they now?" he asks, before laughing loudly. "There aren't many of the speed merchants that I have any great curiosity about. Eddie Van Halen is great, a brilliant guitar player. Some of his own stuff and on the Michael Jackson piece are short, concise, brilliantly crafted solos. They're not just about speed. He can do a bit of something that's quite gentle and then throw in something that just blows you away because of the sheer pace of it for a second. And then he goes back to something else. There are moments when I would like to be able to do that, but, as I said, you get what you're given. I mean, Jeff Beck is still my sort of guitar hero, really, I suppose. He's the one that I think pushes the boundaries. He's consistently exciting. Jeff can play damn fast, he can do speed, but he chooses not to most of the time and that's what impresses me. It's what he chooses to leave out rather than what he chooses to stick in."
Ever get the urge to record or perform with Jeff?
"I played with him once, doing a Jan Hammer song, I'm not sure where now, but I played the bass and Jeff played the guitar. That was a bit of fun."
Gilmour does not see himself as having reached the pinnacle of his playing, despite his use of studio musicians to handle certain guitar parts. To keep from getting into a rut, especially when writing, Gilmour is willing to try new things on his instruments.
"I use new tunings quite a lot. I like to disorient myself a little bit, so I'll use a different instrument or a different tuning. I'll even use a piano, which I'm not very good at, because it's too easy to fall into established patterns on the guitar. For example, with an acoustic guitar, I'll just strum a chord mostly. That will lead me into a song, but it won't lead me in a particular guitar direction, if you know what I mean." He grins, admitting, "I also get a bit folksy when I play the acoustic."
What about his beloved electrics, especially the prized Strat that bears the serial number 0001?
"I'll use the old Number One once in a while. It's a beautiful, beautiful guitar, but, you know, it's been about and it feels quite delicate. You wouldn't want to thrash that around, especially not on the road. I actually don't like taking any of the older ones out on the road because there's always the possibility that things like that get stolen. The Strats that I do use, which are sort of early 1980s '57 vintage [reissue] Strats made in California, with one or two minor modifications to them, are so good that I'm comfortable with them, and they're all I use most of the time, even in the studio."
When Gilmour mentions the studio, he's talking about a refurbished houseboat moored on the River Thames, a boat that he converted to a studio in time for Floyd's last studio record, The Division Bell. For the time being, there are no plans to use the houseboat for any new recordings. In fact, Gilmour is not quite sure what the future holds.
"When I joined this band, I was 21. I don't think I had any inkling of what I'd be doing at 49 when I was 21. I didn't give it a thought. I didn't think anyone ever got to that stage. But there are a lot of black blues players in their eighties and nineties who are still going strong, and, well, luckily there's no rules, and no one to tell us what we can and cannot do - except the public, who support us and buy our records."
"I don't know what I'll be doing for the rest of forever. This tour - and this project - is finished with this album, and I've been working on the music and the video ever since the tour finished, as well as dealing with personal and family matters. With the birth of a new son, it's a new time of life for me, very nice, very refreshing. So I haven't had a minute to think about the future. We don't have any plans at the moment, but it might be something completely different next time. Who knows?"