Roger Waters Rails Against the Powers That Be and Asks, 'Is This the Life We Really Want?'

(Image credit: Sean Evans)

In 1979, the British songwriter wrote The Wall, a nightmarish rock opera he recorded with his former band, Pink Floyd. For over 40 years the album’s themes of isolation, tyranny and alienation have connected with audiences worldwide, selling an estimated 30 million copies.

It’s still selling and is perhaps more relevant than ever, as Trump seems determined to bring the dark metaphor to life, brick by brick.

In fact, with all his bluster about “the wall,” it almost felt like the president was taunting Waters and his magnum opus. If that’s even remotely true, he fucked with the wrong rock star.

On his fourth, and best, solo album, Is This the Life We Really Want? produced by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney), Waters is certainly responding like someone who’s been personally maligned. Never one to suffer fools, the concept album is loaded with disparaging references to the U.S. commander-in-chief, calling him a “nincompoop” and “a leader with no fucking brains.”

And if that wasn’t enough, he devotes even more time lambasting Trump on his arena-sized Us + Them tour. During the Pink Floyd classic “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” grotesque images of the president flicker on giant screens, while a flying pig buzzes around the arena with Orwellian menace. The fact that the huge pink swine is powered by a weapons-grade drone furthers the political implications.

Given the bold and uncompromising nature of his work, one might assume that the real Roger Waters might be an aggressive interview, but the person I meet is nothing of the sort. Soft spoken, thoughtful and not afraid to laugh at his own foibles, he is a smart and considerate conversationalist. At the same time, he’s not afraid to explicitly express his opinion.

“Because of the nincompoop and the current broken political system, it is demanded of every citizen of the United States to decide whether they are going to resist this or go along with it,” he says quietly, yet firmly. “Trump is entirely clear that he is out to fuck everybody except Trump. He doesn’t give a shit about anybody and makes it quite clear.

“It has to be difficult for anybody who voted for him to swallow that he is trying to reduce corporate taxes to 15 percent. What does that have to do with their life? He doesn’t care about their life! He just wants his taxes down to 15 percent.”

He is pissed, yes, but he’s far from one dimensional. Waters runs deep, and as our conversation unfolds, he speaks often about the “transcendental nature of love” and even refers to himself as “an optimist.” On his new album, he may sing that “fear drives the mills of modern man,” but three uplifting songs that finish Is This the Life We Really Want? hold out hope that love and compassion can ultimately save the day.

What motivated you to record your new album? It’s your first album of original rock-oriented material in almost two decades.
I had written a narrative and quite few songs for something I envisioned as a play for radio. It was a long complex story about an old Irish bloke whose grandchild has a nightmare about children being killed “over there.” [Waters recently wrote an editorial for the Huffington Post about the slaughter of youngsters in Syria, Nigeria and Gaza.] The grandfather promises the child that they will go on a quest to find out who and why they are killing children.

I eventually recorded a demo of much of the material and played it for lots of people, including Nigel Godrich who mixed my last project, Roger Waters: The Wall [a documentary of Waters’ 2010–13 tour re-imagining Pink Floyd’s The Wall]. He was really interested in it, but persuaded me that the concept was not a record, and asked whether I would consider approaching it another way. He was, “Well, I like these two bits!” [laughs] Those bits eventually became two of the tracks on the album, “Déjà Vu” and “Broken Bones.” In the end, we completely jettisoned the original plot and edited the music down to something more manageable.

Did he feel the original idea was not universal enough?
Yeah, partly. I think that’s fair to say. All throughout the project he was always steering me away from being too politically specific.

What made Nigel a good partner for you to work with?
He works hard, is very focused and is good at what he does. He’s also stubborn, which can be a good thing. So, we negotiated through this project, mostly with me rolling over. [laughs]

He’s also a fan. He grew up on Dark Side of the Moon, and loved all those voices and sound effects, and how those things moved and worked. That’s a magical kingdom for him, and something he urged me to do again. Part of the album is an homage to that and the history of where I come from.

I wondered whether those “found sounds” were part of your personal aesthetic, or something for listeners who might desire that kind of continuity from your earlier work.
It’s what I do! When we recorded Dark Side, I had the idea to add those voices as commentary, and I really liked the impact it made on the music and I still do. I’ve done it on all the records I’ve made. I wouldn’t dream of not doing it.

Your new album has explicit political overtones. At one point you refer to the president as a “nincompoop,” but what does that say about the people who elected him?
It could say two things. It shows Donald Trump duped a certain section of the working class by pretending he cared about them, when it’s obvious he doesn’t care about anyone but himself. Or, it shows that—as in any society—there are people who’re so damaged, they think they are better than other people. In the United States, they’re called “white supremacists,” in other countries they might be called “extremists” of one kind or another. These are people whose inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained that it can manifest in anger and violence. But, more often, it comes out as a trumpeting of their extreme worth, and their belief that they are a master race.

That idea will always strike a chord with some people in society, unless at some point in some Utopian future, we can raise our children in a way they don’t turn into those assholes, which is quite possible. We all know lovely people who aren’t like that, and we all know people who are like that. But I feel sorry for those kinds of extremists, because they must be damaged in some way, and it must be miserable to live with those beliefs.

It’s certainly easy to fall prey to people who tell you that you are special and encourage you to kick the shit out of someone else. That’s one of Trump’s tactics.

Do you think he’s laughing at those people?
I don’t think so. I believe he is sincere and really enjoys playing the game of being in charge. He’s boss and you’re fired! I don’t think he’s tongue-in-cheek. I think he believes he’s a real person and is fulfilling a real function.

Do you think musicians are obligated to speak out?
I don’t think musicians have any special obligation. We speak with whatever voice we have. It depends on your perspective. From where I stand, I want to hear what Neil Young has to say, but I’m not very interested in what Ted Nugent has to say! [laughs]

But everybody has their voice and we’re all entitled to our opinions, and freedom of speech is very important. Your First Amendment is very precious to this republic and all the people that live in it. Unlike your Second Amendment, which is a disaster, especially when people buy semi-automatic weapons and go to schools and kill children with them.

Is it difficult to write about politics effectively without being overly preachy?
That’s a good question, but it’s up to the audience to decide whether you succeed or don’t. People will have different opinions about that. But I can’t restrict myself to only writing boy-meets-girl love songs. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t express what’s in my heart, like when I hear about a child being blown to bits on a beach.

I try not to sound preachy, but I feel it’s perfectly legitimate to use my music to question why we are killing children with F-16s and bombs made in Oregon. Why are we doing that? It’s the central question of the album—is this the life we really want? Do we want to live in a state of perpetual war? That needs to be discussed…then we can talk about guitar strings or whatever. [laughs]

You admire both Bob Dylan and John Lennon, two guys who were able to be both political and popular. What made them effective?
Dylan denies ever being political, which is fucking ridiculous. What makes him great is his ability to talk about the reality of society in such a subtle way. For example, just take one line from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” like “the pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handle.”

First, it brings a smile to your face immediately, but secondly, I think it says a lot about what happens when we don’t cooperate with one another. It asks what responsibility does the individual have to society?

Dylan would probably say that wasn’t anywhere in his mind, but it’s inherent in the writing of that sentence. It brings up a whole series of questions on how human beings relate to one another in social terms—or it does to me! It’s just brilliant.

He always creates a sense of wonder in me. How does someone pick up a legal pad and write something like that? How does he open his mind up in such a way to let those words flow out? He has the uncanny ability to help us see something we know is there, but can’t quite identify. That’s what makes him a great artist. The same with Lennon.

Regarding John Lennon, it’s pretty ballsy to write something as simple as “all you need is love” or “give peace a chance” and make it work.
Lennon made those ideas resonate because of his ability to harness them to those incredible melodies. The meter and phrasing in “All You Need Is Love” is so sophisticated, yet feels so simple and effortless. That’s how you get away with “all you need is love.”

It’s interesting, because the Beatles were into Maharishi and transcendental meditation during that period in the late Sixties. I wasn’t…I was a little suspicious of what I thought was “mystical bullshit.” But rather late in life, I’ve begun to understand the transcendental nature of love. Of all love. Love for a woman, or love for fellow human beings, or even nature and the planet. We know about this word L-O-V-E, and it’s attached to some perception we have about something that brings us joy, or where we can give joy. I tried to make that idea part of my album, as well. So, is this the life we really want? Well, most of us would like a life where we were exchanging more joy, and spending less of our time building F-16s and killing brown people.

The juxtaposition between political outrage and personal intimacy is really powerful on songs like “Déjà Vu.” Was that your original intention?
No. Basically, I wrote some love songs and some political songs and Nigel stuck them together and somehow it takes you on a satisfying journey.

How do you personally keep cynicism at bay, when you observe people making bad decisions, or the same mistakes?
The underlying question is, are babies innocent or not? Do we all have the potential to express our love for each other or nurture each other or are we doomed to beat each other to death? I am an optimist. Yes, I do believe we have that potential for goodness when we are conceived. That’s what I’m getting at in the lyrics to “Broken Bones.”

[sings] Could’ve been born in Shreveport/ Or he could’ve been born in Tehran.

It don’t much matter wherever you’re born/Little babies mean us no harm

They have to be taught to despise us/To bulldoze our homes to the ground…

I believe that is true, so I’m not cynical. We can just as easily learn to be good.

You aren’t just shaking your fist and screaming in the streets…
That’s right. At the end of one of the love songs I sing about the child within, and the idea that there should be no need for people to be seeking refuge. That’s what refugees are—people who are in such dire straits they need refuge. We have a responsibility to give refuge to those that need it. People don’t want to cross dangerous seas with their children in their laps knowing they could drown without a reason. The far right in the United States and Europe want us to say, “Fuck those people, they’re coming to destroy us! They’re terrorists! We must build walls and keep them out,” rather than ask what can we do to help them and make the world a better place. That picture has something deeply wrong with it.

Do you find it ironic that Donald Trump shared your outrage at the killing of children and used it to bomb the Syrian army back in April? What should his response have been?
The response from both Trump and media should’ve been, “Let’s find out what happened.” It shouldn’t have been, “Oh fuck me, there goes [Syrian President] al-Assad again killing his own people, because that’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves for the last six years.”

My personal view is that it just doesn’t make any sense at all, and there’s a huge amount of people who don’t think he did. I mean, why would he do that? Isn’t it our responsibility to find out what happened, and then decide what we want to do about it and what that might be?

But Trump doesn’t look at it, or think about it. And there is nobody in that administration who would be faintly interested in asking the question. So, they just send over a bunch of cruise missiles, which apparently didn’t do any damage, and the media just rolled over and said, “At least he’s being presidential.” It’s just dumb.

“Broken Bones” deals with the dichotomy of capitalism versus human rights and civil liberties. Is there a way to have it both ways?
Yes, of course! A lot of the countries in Northern Europe like Scandinavia, Denmark, Holland, Sweden and Norway are capitalistic economies run on socialistic principles.

They all have free health services, they all look after their citizens, they all have safety nets and they all allocate their tax resources. It’s funny, when I sing “Mother, should I trust the government,” in most places in the world, everyone responds, “Noooooo!”

In Norway, however, they all go, “Well, yeah. Of course, we trust the government. They are good to us. We are the government. The government represents the people.” [laughs] And I go, “Fuck me! That’s what it’s supposed to be like!” So yes, there are a bunch of societies that have it more right.

What is your relationship with social media? Is it a force for good or evil?
The problem with the internet these days is that is subsists on advertising, so it’s just part of the marketplace. We all believed at one point that it was going to be a place where you could really exchange ideas, and a way to really communicate with one another. You always have to deal with some sort of commercial before you get your information.

It’s very bizarre, especially in our business—the music business. Music now is only about selling soap. It’s not about the music. When we released the first track from the album on YouTube, Spotify and all that, Nigel was going berserk because it sounded like shit because those services compress it and fuck with it until it turns into digital rubbish. You can just barely hear how it really sounds. You can’t hear what we made, because it’s been crunched. Nobody really cares about the music. It’s just being used to sell something. That’s how Spotify make their money—it’s not from subscription. They make their money from selling stuff to people.

Hasn’t that always been true? Radio has always had commercials.
Yeah, but at least on FM radio you had a decent signal and a certain amount of commercial-free programming. But those days are gone. I mean, the good thing is that for people who care, you can go out and buy a vinyl record and hear it properly.

It seems like the best way for you to get your music across these days is by simply getting out on the road and playing it. Your tours are enormously successful.
Yes, that will be a relief. I’m looking forward to the purity of being with a bunch of musicians and going, “Let’s try it this way.” The joy of just going out and doing the work. Then we’ll go out on the road and do the big show and people will shout at us, and some will throw things at us because we’re attacking Trump or whatever. But I’d like to think my show is an act of resistance as well as a way of making a living and something I like doing and all the rest of it.

But you’re right. People will be able to hear it properly by coming to the show. P.A. systems are so much better now than they were 20 years ago. With our sound system and engineers, it’ll sound good even in a crappy basketball arena.

You are a bass player…
Yes, I am!

Photo: Sean Evans

I think sometimes people forget about that. Do you enjoy playing bass or is it just a means to an end for you?
I love it. It’s only quite recently that I sort of accepted that about myself. Nigel kept telling me during the recording, “You gotta play the bass, man, because you’re really good at it.” I’d always be a little skeptical, but while I was working on the album I started embracing what I had to offer.

While there are people that are much better players than I am, nevertheless, my choices of notes and where I put them are different from anyone else. And I like that. It’s fun. I don’t play all the bass on the album. A lot of it is Gus Seyffert, so you can really hear when it’s me.

It has taken you close to two decades to write a new album. Is it hard for you to put pen to paper or find the motivation to write music? You seem full of ideas.
It’s not that hard, but I’m not the kind of writer that feels compelled to work on it all the time, either. I’ll think about going into the studio and then go play a few racks of pool instead! [laughs] I have to wait until something moves me or I have a feeling about something.

Funnily enough, I can write prose. I’m working on a memoir and I’ll sit down and write and really enjoy myself. I’m thinking of devoting some real time to writing a book when this tour is over. I’ve written quite a lot already, and I think I have a voice and a style. And I’d like to get my story out, because there is a lot that people don’t know.

Tell me a memory from the book that relates to your new album.
I’ll tell you a story. There are three short stories that I’ve written about a time I visited Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, back in 1962 when I was 19 years old. Here’s one. I was there with my friend Willa, and sort of living on beach. I decided to go for a swim, so I left all my important bits in the sand while I went into the water.

I was on the lookout, because I had left my passport and money out, when suddenly I saw a kid steal my shoes. I tried to get out of the water as fast as I could, but, vrooom, he very quickly disappeared into the crowd. So, I ran after him with no shoes, when I spotted this cop. Back in those days, they had special police whose job was basically to look out for tourists. I told him what happened, and we started looking around and by some miracle, I spotted the kid.

You could see by the look in his eye that he was thinking of running, but he didn’t because he probably knew the cop and the cop knew him. So, we got him and he was already wearing my shoes! The cop and kid began to jabber at each other in Arabic, until the kid rather reluctantly took off my rather beaten-up loafers and, as I say in the story, “placed them on the neutral ground between us.” They jabbered a little more and then the cop let him go.

I was completely indignant, in my snotty, middle class, Cambridge way. I was looking for jurisprudence! I was looking for retribution! The kid stole my shoes! Then, for the first time, the cop spoke to me in English. With pity, he looked me in the eyes, and simply said softly, “He is poor.”

I finish the story by saying, “If we’re all really lucky, when we’re young, we’ll run into our cop. And maybe, for the first time in our lives, we’ll begin to learn about love.”

I can remember that moment as if it were yesterday. Not because I can remember it, but because I know I internalized that feeling. And that was such an amazing lesson, because I had come from somewhere where they threatened you with being sent to borstal [British reform school] if you stole anything. Instead this particular policeman had compassion and some understanding for his people.

Recently I interviewed Chuck D. of Public Enemy, and asked him to tell me something I should know, but probably don’t. He said he thought many of the problems in the world would be solved if people traveled more and met folks outside of their communities. What is something you think I should know?
I don’t know if I can top that. That is so real, so right and good. I’ve learned about hospitality from traveling abroad. It’s no surprise that in Greece, for instance, that the word for “stranger” and “guest” are the same. Knowing how the other half lives is so fundamental. It’s hard to bomb the shit out of people after you’ve met them.

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Brad Tolinski

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Brad was the editor of Guitar World from 1990 to 2015. Since his departure he has authored Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen, Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page and Play it Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound & Revolution of the Electric Guitar, which was the inspiration for the Play It Loud exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2019.