English rock musician, singer-songwriter and composer Roger Waters answers questions about his ground-breaking concert, The Wall Live, coming to Riverside’s Big Screen in October. Waters is best known as a bass player, co-lead vocalist, lyricist and principal songwriter in the band Pink Floyd.
What lay behind your decision to mount a new concert tour of The Wall?
I had been touring quite regularly since 2000 and had slowly built up a following of people. After The Dark Side Of The Moon tour, I considered the idea of going out again. And my wife Laurie said, ‘Well, if you do go out, you should do The Wall.’ And I went, ‘Mmm… tricky.’ But I started thinking about it seriously, talked to a few a people and saw that it was a real possibility.
When I wrote The Wall, it was very much a personal record of times of anguish that I had felt. The reason I went back to it is because I felt it had a larger message: a broader, more ecumenical, more political, global anti-war message. So a tour seemed like a viable thing to attempt. We could make all those points over and above whatever it was that I’d been trying to express from a personal point of view when I wrote the album originally.
So Sean Evans and I started work in Autumn 2009. And we slowly put together the show that we finally went out with.
When and how did you decide to create this film?
Over the years, I have made the mistake of being subverted from the making of movies of the shows that I have done, which I very much regret. So there was no question in my mind that we would make a cinematic document of the work that we did over the last five years. The idea was always there; it was just a question of getting around to the details. Which Sean Evans and I did.
And I’m glad we did. Though there were only a few people who saw it in its early stages, those that did were visibly moved. I believe that’s because they recognise their own humanity, and the humanity of the people who made the film, and the humanity of the people that the film is about. And they understand the point that the film is making. Which is that commerce is being allowed to destroy the hopes and aspirations of ordinary men and women who are trying to bring up their children in peace and security, able to protect their own property, and the cities and towns in which they live. Since the end of the Second World War – in my view, the last just war – we have flagrantly sacrificed huge numbers of ordinary men, women and children on the altar of commerce. And we should be ashamed of ourselves and we should make redress and try to do better in the future.
Did the form or scope of the film change over the course of the three years?
At a certain point, we had the idea to film a separate narrative of me travelling through Europe, and visiting my grandfather George Henry’s grave in northern France; and also going to the memorial garden where my father’s name is displayed beneath the monastery at Montecassino.
The idea was that the pilgrimage might be concomitant with the narrative that already existed in the rock and roll show. As a consequence, the film weaves the narrative of my pilgrimage to connect with my fallen loved ones with the narrative that is in the show, which asks the audience to connect with their fallen loved ones, and with the whole idea of losing a loved one to war or any kind of political conflict.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Sean?
It’s great. I love Sean. He’s a very astute and hard-working young man. We go back to 2005, and we’ve been hand in hand for the last eight years, since the Dark Side Of The Moon tour. Sean has incredible skills in animation and digital technology. He’s responsible for almost all the animations in the show, and certainly the technical aspects of all the animations in the show.
He has a lot of skills that I don’t have, and I have a lot of skills that he doesn’t have. But together I think we make a formidable team. It’s one of those great and fortuitous working relationships and I’m very grateful for it.
Can you talk about the sequences where the camera feels like it’s haunting empty mansions in various states of splendour and decay? Where did that idea come from?
That was Sean’s idea and I was pretty sceptical of it at first. Between us, we eventually arrived at what finally appears on the screen, and I think those interludes work really well as segue mechanisms. The audience can read them any way it wants. For me, the sort of decaying, empty mansion metaphor speaks in mysterious, interesting ways to the connection between the narrative of the show and the narrative of the pilgrimage.
How did you come to have your companions on the road with you?
We wrote them into the story. They’re there because they’re old friends or family, and I wanted them to be with me on that journey. And they were happy to be with me on that journey.
Willa is my old school friend. I wanted him to take part because he is a bit philosophical and wonderful to talk with. He’s a really good man and we had lost touch for many years. Peter Medak, the great Hungarian film director, was himself a refugee in World War II and again when the Russians invaded Budapest in 1956.
When you were filming the road movie, were you able to forget that the cameras were there?
I think so, I hope so. I certainly wept no crocodile tears. If I weep, I’m weeping because I’m moved.
Were there challenges to directing the film while you were in the midst of the tour?
No. When we were shooting the night scenes in hotels and such, although I could understand what was going on, I was essentially being a central character. In shooting the live shows, Sean was clearly much more hands-on than I was. All the nuts and bolts of shooting those performances – that’s really down to Sean, Brett Turnbull, the director of photography, and Clare Spencer, my co-producer. Of course, I had opinions about everything. But I never went and looked through a viewfinder. I trust both Sean and Brett to do that.
It’s a beautiful-looking film.
I can take no credit for that. I give credit to Sean and Brett and all the other great people who worked on it.
Was it difficult to harmonise your vision for the tour with the story you created for the film? Did you have to rethink anything for the tour, for example?
No, I don’t think so. At the show, there was an intermission with projections of black-and-white photographs of fallen loved ones, with short stories about how they died and the dates they died. In the movie those stories do get told, but in a more cinematic way at a different time.
The concert audiences are very young, and clearly are emotionally connected to the music. Some of them are in tears singing along to Comfortably Numb. Why do you think The Wall still resonates today?
The demographics of the audience are quite extraordinary. The average age is early 20s. Obviously, that’s extremely gratifying to me. Across barriers of language, somehow all of these people figured out that this work is about love. And they know that love is important to them and they know that the idea of commitment to one another as human beings is important to them. That is deeply moving to me. When I see them engaged I know that it has something to do with a genuine attachment to the ideas in the poetry. As I’ve travelled around the world doing the show, I’ve spoken to enough people to believe that that is the fact of the matter. It means more than I can express.
It’s interesting when you think of the emotional space you were in when you wrote The Wall, and the feeling of wanting to be isolated and away from the audience – and where you are now in performing the work. Your relationship to your audience must feel so different.
How cool is that? From the kid I spat at in Montreal in 1977 to this audience now, my relationship with my audience has changed almost entirely. I believe that in 1977 most fans of Pink Floyd hadn’t the faintest idea of what the songs meant – they were just ‘rah rah, rock and roll’, let’s all get drunk and have a good time.
Whereas it may well be that these kids get drunk, and if they do, good for them. But I believe that politically the world has moved enough that young people today are a little bit more aware than they were in the late 1970s. That they have a little bit better chance of grasping some of the underlying problems that confront them than kids did then. We may only be talking about a minority, but I believe these young people are determined to see a change in the world. They understand that we need to cooperate with one another, to save this fragile planet for the sake of our children and grandchildren. And to stop fighting about dimes and groats in the horrifically unseemly way that we have done for the last few thousand years. This is why we all have a political responsibility to try and affect our leaders and demand of them that they rise above where they are now.
The tour and the film are both very strong political statements. Can you talk about how your sense of political engagement developed over the years, as a person and as an artist?
I lived in a political household so it was always part of my life. My father was killed in the Second World War. My mother grew up in a middle-class family in north London; after passing her exams at GCE level, she went on to train as a teacher at the Froebel Institute in London. Having qualified, she went as a trainee teacher to Bradford, a northern industrial town. There, she saw children walk to school through the snow with no shoes. And she thought ‘this is not right’ and became an activist. And I somehow picked up some of her ideas of fair play.
Was politics always part of your music, or did it grow into that?
Well, if you’re honest in any way, you paint what you see. If you have a viewpoint or insight about the world – particularly if you’re in a rock and roll band, but even if you’re not – then you’re one of the lucky ones. If you’re a young Spanish painter and you suddenly stop painting toreadors because Guernica happens and you decide that you’re going to make a political point – well, then you’re really lucky. Not just because you have the facility with paint and canvas, but because you understand what an enormous humanitarian disaster Guernica was, and are compelled to express your outrage. I’m not Picasso, but the expression of outrage is second nature to me.
You’re quite outspoken and have taken a lot of flak for your political positions. You’ve been criticised for your involvement in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment And Sanctions) movement, and accused of anti-Semitism. This Q&A is an opportunity to address your critics.
I do not have an anti-Semitic bone in my body. I look into my heart and I can’t see anything in there that is anti the Jewish people. I can see something in me that is anti the foreign and domestic policy of the Israeli government, particularly now. And that might run back to 1948, when they were pretty brutal in clearing the land of the indigenous people. But then, so were we in North America – the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Italians – we cleared that land thoroughly of all the indigenous people. I’m not pointing a finger at the Israeli government that I wouldn’t point at the colonial governments of the United States of America or Europe, in Mexico, Central America and South America. However, we live in a different time now and we expect, or demand, standards of behaviour that are different than those demanded of our forebears. This is a big historical topic. But am I anti-Semitic because I criticise the policy of the government of Israel? No.
I do support BDS, on the grounds that Boycott, Divestment And Sanctions is the only non-violent way to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its foreign and domestic policies. And I stress non-violent. I do not support the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel.
In its staging and its song lyrics, The Wall is a pretty clear indictment of fascism, bigotry and ideological extremism. Do you have any hope that this movie will help people understand what you’re about?
Of course I do. Perhaps not so much from the performance of The Wall, but more from the interludes, the other narrative: the addressing of my concerns with my grandfather and my father, and the loss that I felt and suffered. And the empathy that I have with others in my position.
Roger Waters The Wall screens at Riverside Theatres 4 October. This is your only chance to experience the biggest global tour by any solo artist in history on our Big Screen. Tickets on sale now!