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March 5th 2006 - Sunday Times Print E-mail
Originally printed in the Sunday Times on March 5th, 2006, and included on this site purely for archiving purposes.

Pop: He don’t need no band reunions

With a new album due, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour tells Paul Sexton he’s staying solo

It begins as a soundscape from some dreamy, distant shore: far-off harmonies, a barely heard saxophone and synthesizer fills, circling like seagulls. Then, precisely two minutes and 15 seconds in, David Gilmour powers up one of the most distinctive weapons in the rock toolbox, his Fender Stratocaster. Just for a moment, it’s almost Shine on You Crazy Diamond, all over again.
Gilmour turns 60 tomorrow, and marks the occasion by releasing a new solo album. Without the slightest pandering to past glories, it is likely to get Pink Floyd diehards very excited indeed.

It has taken Gilmour a decade to complete the album, since the tour that followed the final studio release of the post-Roger Waters Floyd administration, The Division Bell. On an Island is characteristically refined and quite unafraid to be itself. That means wearing fulfilment on its sleeve, and not hiding from its creator’s history. “It has naturally become what it’s become,” he says, as we chat in the studio adjoining the Sussex farmhouse he shares with his wife and lyrical collaborator, Polly Samson. The album is co-produced by the vastly experienced Phil Manzanera and Chris Thomas, with contributions from David Crosby and Graham Nash, Jools Holland, Georgie Fame and Floyd’s Richard Wright.

However subconscious, there is no mistaking a certain Floydian signature.

“I am the guitar player and creator of a large part of the sound of Pink Floyd, and the main vocalist, so I can’t get away from it,” says Gilmour. Instead, he embraces it, and while the album will be warmly welcomed by many without prior knowledge of Gilmour’s resumé, it is infused with an ambience of his former group — as well as plenty of guitar from a man who, as the erstwhile Floyd producer Bob Ezrin once remarked, could make a ukulele sound like a Stradivarius. He doesn’t bristle when I say that, after much deliberation over how to describe the mood it exudes, I’ve landed on “contentment”.

“Well, I’ll take that,” he replies. “Life is never that easy, but obviously a lot easier for some, and I count myself among those. I definitely would say I’m at the most content that I’ve ever been.”
For someone with a reputation for keeping his inner self hidden from the public gaze, this is positively confessional. He says that talking to the media is “not my strongest point”, but Gilmour is engaging company, and now noticeably more open in discussing Samson, with whom he has four children, aged 16, 10, 8 and 4. He admits that his protective instincts have previously left her role in his work somewhat underappreciated.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had any intention of covering up anything to do with our professional partnership,” he says. “I suppose you could say, around The Division Bell, I felt more guarded. I wasn’t as generous with the credit I should have given her at the time.”

Samson contributes most of the lyrics to the new record, and it is Gilmour himself who strikes the comparison I may have hesitated to draw. “I’ve had some practice at singing other people’s lyrics,” he says with a smile. “I was a mouthpiece for a lot of Roger’s stuff, but he was not writing stuff for me to sing, or he wasn’t trying to put himself in my head. They were his words. Polly’s are just as much her words. But, some of the time anyway, she’s trying to get inside my head and to feel what I might be trying to say. I am frustratingly difficult to pin down on what I may have had in mind for a piece of music, because it doesn’t often come to me verbally. Obviously, Polly’s here and listens to everything I do every day. For a while, the songs don’t necessarily have a voice on them at all, they’re just pieces of music. On the ones she likes, she’s liable to say, ‘Could I have a try at that one?’” A notable example is Smile, the most adhesive melody on the album, to which Samson added wistful words around the theme of home thoughts from abroad. “That was a demo I’d never recorded properly. It took us ages to track down which actual bit of music it was. One day, I was strumming and she said, ‘It’s that one, stop!’” Gilmour draws greater satisfaction from his own abilities than was once the case. “I love my singing voice,” he tells me, with unexpected conviction. “There was a point, in the first couple of years in Pink Floyd, when I’d been trying to sing like other people. Then you develop your own style. For a long time, I listened to myself and thought, ‘My playing isn’t as good as Hendrix.’ Or, ‘I’m not singing as well as Paul McCartney.’ But there was quite a sudden moment when I started liking my own voice and guitar playing, and that’s when the style develops.”

We touch on the last time Gilmour put his own name to an album, with 1984’s About Face. Even as he describes the political bindweed that was suffocating the creativity of those involved at the time, you grasp a little more about why he has every right to seem contented these days. “That was the phony war for us. Roger had left in all but name, and he’d sit in the back of the studio and piss us off. We’d just got through this terrible period of The Wall film and The Final Cut album. Nightmare.”

By then, the internecine bile within the Floyd ranks had built to the point where no antacid could help. Much of it would fester for two decades, until that unlikely reunion last July. Suddenly, Pink Floyd breathed anew, just for one day, in the name of Live 8.

Even in the build-up to the release of On an Island, Gilmour felt compelled to issue a statement refuting all rumours of another reunion. Unlike Waters, he did not spend the Hyde Park performance smiling his head off, but he looks back on it as a vital piece of marriage counselling. Or divorce counselling, to be more accurate.

“There’ve been a lot of years with a lot of vitriol, and if that can be put in the past tense, and left there, that will be a good thing. If the four of us can talk about anything, we need to talk about it and stop some of the bitching. It would help the world to seem a slightly more grown-up place to me.

“We’ve had a great history in Pink Floyd. We’ve done great work, in the era with Roger and in the era post-Roger. I couldn’t be more proud of that, but life is now different. You say you sense contentment, and I sense contentment, and a partnership with Polly and the team of people I’ve been working with. I have no desire to go back. I just couldn’t see that we could actually get into a studio and make a record together. We’ve all come too far, and we’re all too set in our ways. I couldn’t see that would increase my contentment.”

He reaches 60 with perspective. “It is the old cliché. I still feel 30. Not physically: you get older, and time moving faster seems to be horribly true. We packed a whole career into two or three years, and now it takes me 10 years to make one bloody record,” he laughs.

For someone who experienced all that stadium rock could offer, modest is the new huge. “Right now, I just like to be smaller,” he says, collecting our coffee cups and heading back to the house. “I’d love the album to sell bucketloads, but I would like for it all to be a little less... important.”    
 
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