In this exclusive interview, the ordinarily reserved David Gilmour discusses his per- spective— personal, political and musical—on Pink Floyd’s brilliant 1994 album, The Division Bell.
With a No. 1 album, a high-profile stadium tour and non-stop radio airplay, Pink Floyd appear to be everywhere—and, oddly, nowhere.
In an era when MTV appearances and revealing magazine interviews are de rigeur for rock stars on the make, the members of Floyd have methodically kept the media at bay. You won’t find their mugs plastered on the cover of Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly. Don’t expect to see them on Letterman anytime soon. In fact, if you happen to be lucky enough to scalp a ticket to one of their sold-out shows, you may even miss them onstage. Shrouded by state-of-the-art stage production, the band performs their spacey anthems while obscured by clouds of dry ice and laser technology.
And group leader David Gilmour wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sporting a fresh crew-cut and dressed in meticulously pressed black clothes, the earnest guitarist/vocalist could easily pass for one of the hipper, graying, urban professionals that comprise part of his audience.
“I cannot tell you how happy I am about the accidents and the choices that have brought me to the place where I can sing what I want to, get paid very well for it and still be able to live like a normal human being,” Gilmour says with visible relief. “It’s having the best of all possible worlds.
“Occasionally I get these sort of out-of-body experiences when I’m onstage, standing in front of maybe 60,000 people. I look at myself, thinking, Good Lord, how on earth did this happen? One part of my brain is fully focused on performing and the other part is somewhere else, thinking, How extraordinary it is—but how lucky I am!”
Lucky, yes; happy—that’s another story. Pink Floyd’s brilliant new recording, The Division Bell, strongly suggests that Gilmour still has one or two personal demons rattling around his cage. The album—named after the bell in the British House of Commons that summons members to parliamentary debate—is a thinly veiled documentary of the guitarist’s battle-scarred relationships with the women in his life and with ex-bandmate Roger Waters. Considering the recording’s delicate subject matter, it’s little wonder that he exercises his right to be selective about who he talks to.
Montreal, Canada—A crew numbering well over 100 scurry around making last-minute preparations for the second of three sold-out Pink Floyd concerts at the city’s Olympia Stadium. The 180-foot stage, constructed from 700 tons of steel with its 130-foot arch, is truly miraculous, an appropriate launching pad for one of the most visually ambitious tours in rock history. Soon, it will spring to life and dazzle over 80,000 Floyd fanatics with a light show designed to make the aurora borealis look like a dime store sparkler. Gilmour promises to chat after a quick afternoon rehearsal with Floyd’s expanded road band which features keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason, both original members, as well as seven additional musicians. The rehearsal begins with Gilmour leading the group through a powerful version of “Eclipse,” the majestic grand finale to the haunting best-seller, Dark Side of the Moon. The band plays it through three more times, effecting minor changes in tempo and dynamics with each performance.
Suddenly, in a fleeting moment between takes, the ensemble, with the exception of Gilmour, launches into a raucous version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Floyd playing Zep—truly a classic classic rock moment! But it immediately becomes apparent that taskmaster Gilmour is not amused. “Love” quickly peters out, and it’s back to the business at hand. The rehearsal finishes 30 minutes later, and David is ready to speak. When asked about the band’s impromptu Zeppelin jam, the soft-spoken Englishman deadpans, “Oh yes, I docked them a week’s wages for that.”
Gilmour is extremely polite throughout our encounter, but he never lets his guard down. Secrecy has always been an essential component of the Pink Floyd mystique, and he dispenses information sparingly. “I don’t like to get too specific about lyrics,” he warns. “It places limitations on them, and spoils the listeners’ interpretation.” He is similarly reluctant to talk about his instrument, explaining that he gets “really bored of talking about guitars and amps because I just can’t remember what I used on anything.”
But as the conversation progresses, the reticent rocker opens up—and the walls come tumbling down.
GUITAR WORLD Why have you been so reluctant to discuss The Division Bell?
DAVID GILMOUR I found that there’s very little that one wants to say about it. I mean, I don’t know if it’s just a stage in my life, but I just don’t feel like saying very much about how I write songs and what they mean and all that sort of stuff. But we’ll give it a whirl. I’m not trying to be unhelpful. Forgive me. It’s got nothing to do with anything except me.
Talking,” suggest that all problems can be solved through discussion. Do you believe that?
GILMOUR It’s more of a wish than a belief. [laughs]
GW Do you find it difficult to express your feelings verbally?
GILMOUR Yes, I do, I suppose. I mean, I have moments of huge frustration because of my inability to express myself linguistically as clearly as I would like to. A lot of people think that I express myself most clearly through the guitar playing. I don’t know about that. But it’s just…I don’t like that feeling of frustration when you don’t quite have the words to say what you want to say.
GW Did you discover anything about yourself as you were going through the process of writing and working on this record?
GILMOUR [slightly annoyed] I don’t know what I’ve discovered about myself, really. No, I don’t. I haven’t a clue. What was really nice about the recording of this record was that Rick [Wright, keyboardist] and Nick [Mason, drummer] and I came together and worked well as a unit in a way that we hadn’t done for many, many years.
GW Why are you relating better to Nick and Rick?
GILMOUR Probably because we are all playing and functioning much better than we were after the trials and tribulations of the late Roger years. Recording A Momentary Lapse of Reason was a very, very difficult process. We were all sort of catatonic. Unfortunately, we didn’t really work together an awful lot.
But the success of that album, and the success of the supporting tour and the enjoyment that we got out of working together—particularly on the last tour—meant that this one could be made in a different way. It’s a much more satisfying way to work than the way A Momentary Lapse of Reason came together. Yeah, they’re very different albums.
GW Does it feel like a new band for you?
GILMOUR It feels like a good start. It feels like there’s better things to come. I’m really, really happy and very proud of this album.
GW There was a long period between this and the last studio album. Why?
GILMOUR It’s just that we didn’t feel like working. I don’t want to be a full-time member of Pink Floyd all my life. The ambition stage of our career is kind of behind us. I mean, we’ve accomplished most of the things we’ve wanted to accomplish. It’s now just a pleasure to make a record. But it’s still very hard to get yourself psyched-up and motivated to do it. Pink Floyd is now one of many other things in my life. You earn the right—and we have earned the right—to take time off. When you’re starting out on a career, you don’t have that luxury. You have to devote every minute of every day in every year to work. You just have to work so hard and so consistently to make a career out of this business that we’re in. And for me, I just don’t have to do it quite as much.
GW Although the album clearly makes a personal statement, it also contains some specific political statements. On “A Great Day for Freedom,” for instance, you address the great hopes triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disappointment that followed in Europe.
GILMOUR Yeah. Well, it’s kind of tragic what has happened in the eastern parts of Europe. There was a wonderful moment of optimism when the Wall came down—the release of Eastern Europe from the non-democratic side of the socialist system. But what they have now doesn’t seem to be much better. Again, I’m fairly pessimistic about it all. I sort of wish and live in hope, but I tend to think that history moves at a much slower pace than we think it does. I feel that real change takes a long, long time. We see the superficial changes that people think are enormous. But they pass, and several years down the road you find yourself back at the same place you were 20 years before, thinking, My God, all of this happened and nothing happened.
GW “Lost for Words” also reflects a certain pessimism. The lyrics read, “So I open my door to my enemies/And I ask could we wipe the slate clean/But they tell me to please go fuck myself/ You know you just can’t win.” What do you do when somebody just tells you to go fuck yourself?
GW Fair enough. Overall, The Division Bell seems to be about man’s inability to communicate with other humans. Obviously, you’ve given much thought to this matter.
GILMOUR Well, it was never really a conscious decision to take it on as a theme—it just happened. One or two things started to move in that direction, and as soon as a theme begins to appear I find it very hard to get away from.
GW Do you find that you need a theme to get the creative juices flowing?
GILMOUR I don’t think so. Usually, though, one eventually appears in my work. Something comes up that ties the whole thing together. Your mood at the time of making and writing an album usually supplies the subject matter. In the past I have tried to sit down and consciously create a concept, but it never seemed to work very well. It has to appear naturally. And it has to be kind of nebulous—something that’s come up of its own volition.
GW Like most Floyd albums, The Division Bell has a universal theme. But it also seems more intimate than your past work. Were you trying to create something more personal?
GILMOUR I wasn’t trying to. Again, all I can really say is that it is just the way it seemed to come up. It probably had something to do with “High Hopes,” my first composition for the album. The song originated from a phrase that my girlfriend suggested, about how time brings you down. Oddly, the line that she gave me wasn’t really important. There was just something in it that sparked me into thinking about my childhood and my life in Cambridge, England. So, if you like, the first thing that got written for the album was much more personal than I’ve tended to be. And I suppose it set the scene for what was to follow.
GW Was recording the album cathartic for you?
GILMOUR No. I don’t really think so. I can’t really say that there was a huge angst that needed to be purged through songwriting. It wasn’t like The Wall. But, on the other hand, maybe I did need to unload my subconscious. It just never really struck me that way.
GW Several songs on the album, like “Keep
GILMOUR Well, the options are immediate. [laughs] You can simply become a good contortionist— there’s one option. Or just deck him. Or talk the matter out.
GW At what point do you think a relationship is no longer worth pursuing?
GILMOUR I don’t know if that’s something I can put into words. But it seems that I’m usually prepared to stick it out a lot longer than what, in hindsight, one should.
GW The album ends with a funny little studio snippet of you talking to a little boy named Charlie. It seem to suggest that the potential for miscommunication spans generations.
GILMOUR That is pretty succinct. [laughs]
GW At the same time, you must find it interesting that your music has multi-generational appeal. I saw people of all ages at your show.
GILMOUR It does really surprise me. But I think that we do have sort of a timeless quality. I listened to Dark Side of the Moon last year around the time of the release of our Shine On box set, and I remember feeling that it was pretty timeless. And a lot of the issues that we have dealt with—that Roger wrote about in his lyrics, if you like—are pretty timeless. They are things that apply to any generation.
GW The band’s success stems from the fact that it confronts ideas that have puzzled men from day one.
GILMOUR Well, I’m certainly still a puzzled man. [laughs]
GW How involved are you with the staging of the band?
GILMOUR We were constantly involved during the entire process of designing and building the stage. Lots of things got turned down. And we wound up with the sort of thing that we all agree is good.
GW You said earlier that you prefer not to explain the meaning of your lyrics, but in the staging of shows past and present you have used lots of very literal props to illustrate your ideas: flying pigs, crashing airplanes, collapsing walls…
GILMOUR Yes. Yes. [laughs] That’s true. But I think this show is a little less literal and more impressionistic. It’s a little less flashy, and because of that I’m probably more satisfied with this tour than any we’ve done.
GW Let’s talk about the live show a little bit. I noticed that you began each set with a little tribute to Syd Barrett. [Barrett, Pink Floyd’s founding singer/guitarist, left the band in 1968 due to mental illness.] The first set leads off with Syd’s “Astronomy Domine,” and the second set opens with “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” which makes allusions to Syd. Am I reading too much into this?
GILMOUR I think so. It wasn’t a conscious decision to pay homage to Syd. We’ve probably paid homage to him quite enough. [laughs] We basically just wanted to widen the spectrum a little bit and find one or two pieces of music we haven’t done before. “Astronomy” just struck us as being a very good opening number. It’s fun to go back and do that, despite some of the lyrics—it’s hard to sing it with a straight face. And “Shine On” was a terrific opener for the last tour, so now we just use it to open the second half of the show.
GW It must cross your mind, from time to time, how your life would be different if you hadn’t replaced Syd in the band. Do you feel indebted to him at all?
GILMOUR Yes, of course, I do. I feel a debt to Syd. I was very fortunate. His bad luck was good luck for me. Of course, one can not possibly know what would have happened. Luckily, I don’t have to ponder that too deeply. [laughs]
GW Your particular relationship with stardom is a little peculiar. You front one of the most popular bands in the world, yet you’ve managed to keep a low profile. You’re modest almost to a perverse point. For example, during your solo for “Comfortably Numb,” which is one of the highlights of the concert, the laser show directs the audience away from you.
GILMOUR That is a little perverse. But it’s a two-and-a-half hour show, and I think I get more adoration than I probably deserve. So I can’t really worry about the odd moments when people are watching something else.
GW Are there moments in the show that you really look forward to?
GILMOUR I enjoy the newer material. At the same time, I realize that you have to achieve a balance between playing all the stuff that you’d want to play and playing stuff that you know the audience wants to hear. I don’t harbor any resentment against the audience for wanting to hear our older material. They aren’t making value judgments. They’re more familiar with the older songs and how they are connected to moments in their lives.
GW Let’s talk about your guitar playing on some of the new songs. “What Do You Want from Me?” is a straight Chicago blues tune. Are you still a blues fan?
GILMOUR Absolutely—even though I don’t listen to very much blues anymore. I did listen to quite a lot when I was young. But I also listened to a lot of folk music and a lot of everything else.
GW Your blues influence is obvious, but I do hear a lot of folky, hymn-like overtones on some of your quieter songs like “On the Turning Away,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Poles Apart.”
GILMOUR I actually learned the guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger [folk legend and writer of “Turn, Turn, Turn”] instructional record when I was 13 or 14. And I did listen to a lot of folk and folk-blues. [African American folk singer] Leadbelly and Pete Seeger were both big influences on me.
GW What can you tell me about The Division Bell’s guitar instrumental, “Marooned”?
GILMOUR It’s amazing how far I can bend those notes, isn’t it? [laughs]
GW I’ll say. How did you achieve those wild, octave-wide bends?
GILMOUR A DigiTech Whammy Pedal. It’s a great little unit, but I haven’t even begun to explore half the things it does. The fact that it allows you to bend a note a full octave is quite shocking. It’s so odd.
GW You seem to use the effect very naturally— I almost didn’t notice it at first. Did you practice with it a lot before you recorded “Marooned”?
GILMOUR No. [laughs] I think we basically wrote the first version of it the day I got the pedal. I still don’t think I use it very effectively, but it’s a good pedal.
GW How do you achieve that spacious Pink Floyd sound’?
GILMOUR Of course we try to do everything as well as we possibly can. We have to get a reasonably good recording studio. And you need to get nice tape machines and pretty good mics. You get the best engineer that you can lay your hands on. And, of course, you play it as well as you can. And that’s it. It seems kind of odd to me that we should have the reputation of being “high tech.” I mean, I actually once got a little award from a stereo magazine for my production on the first Dream Academy album [The Dream Academy, 1985]. What was amusing to me was that the album was actually made in small demo studios all over London. We just worked and mixed the hell out of it. I couldn’t believe that we really got this award. I have to admit, it does sound very good. But if you knew the way it was put together, you couldn’t imagine that we would win an audiophile award.
GW Do you feel like you’re improving as a musician, as a guitarist?
GILMOUR I don’t really know. I doubt if I’m improving very much as a guitar player. If I sound better these days, I think it has more to do with the wonders of modern recording techniques and with having my own studio. Having your own studio often means having the luxury to keep first takes, which are usually my best. And most of the guitar playing on this album is literally the first time I stuck a guitar on and played. In the old days, I usually wasn’t able to keep the first take. We either didn’t have the tape machine on, or I gave my best shot in a rehearsal room somewhere. So to answer your question: no, I’m not getting better as a guitarist, but I think I’m better at capturing the good moments and hanging on to them.
GW It does seem to me that, guitar-wise, this is a very ambitious record. Sonically, almost every song has something a little different to offer.
GILMOUR I’m glad someone thinks so. [laughs] Lots of people think we’re merely retreading old ground.