Yes, I can confirm it: Roger Waters smiles. And laughs. A lot. During an hour-long in-person conversation with the man in the Sony Club atop Madison Avenue in New York City in mid-September, Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd, was quite amused and very much engaged while discussing techie topics like the origins of the mighty Floyd's live quad inclinations. He also continues to be deeply impressed by the surround-sound mixes his longtime production colleague, James Guthrie, has done for seminal albums like 1973's The Dark Side of the Moon, 1975's Wish You Were Here, and the recent 5.1 recasting of his often overlooked 1992 solo album, Amused to Death.
"Oh, I agree James did a good job on all of them," Waters says. "The new mixes of Amused to Death sound stunning. Yeah, it's great; I love it. It's pretty amazing."
Possibly the best scare-people moment of Amused in 5.1 comes in "Late Home Tonight (Part I)" when spoiler alert! all those deep explosions take place in the subwoofer channel. Waters grins when I tell him a stack of Blu-rays toppled to the floor as that sequence played on my home system. "Yeah, it was fun making that," Waters reports. "And then you get the heartbeat again. You get that [mimes heartbeat slowing down] as the woman's dying. That section with the glass breaking, and the way we made all that rhythm stuff, keying a football crowd against drumming with it just with a Vocoder, that very simple, old technology, closing an envelope... [makes whooshing noises, then turns his head to look over his shoulder] What the fuck was that? [quotes the song's final line] Too busy mixing politics and rhythm in the street below.' Bru-bru-brum!"
In between sharing his enthusiasm about the long-gestating theatrical release of Roger Waters The Wall, the film chronicling his mega-successful 201013 solo tour "It's actually very cool to be behind the wall, knowing that they're out there" Waters exclusively reveals how Pink Floyd came up with live quad, shares his favorite surround moments in The Wall film, and describes what upcoming original solo material he may do in 5.1 from that project's very outset. Shine on, you creative diamond.
Mike Mettler: You've always been in search of getting great sound quality in your recordings and live performances all throughout your career, which we can trace right back to the very beginning of Pink Floyd. Let me just pick a date out of the air: May 12, 1967, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. As far as I can tell, that was the first live quadraphonic performance by a rock act anywhere.
Roger Waters: Mmm-hmm, yes. Games for May. [Games for May was the name of the free concert Pink Floyd held that evening at the QEH.]
Mettler: Right. I talked with [Pink Floyd drummer] Nick Mason about this a few years ago, so I wanted to get your point of view on it as well, since you were there, after all. How did that decision to do live quad come about? Nobody had done that before, so what was your thought process as an artist to get you there?
Waters: Well, (brief pause)... that's a very interesting question. I think probably it had something to do with Bernard Speight at EMI, because we had asked him to design a pan pot, which became the Azimuth Co-ordinator. He built a mono one well, not a mono pot, obviously, as it had one in and four outs. Yeah, so they were two big, old-fashioned 270-degree pots converted to 90, as I recall, with the gimbal [i.e., the control] in the middle, so it was like the universal drum well, you probably know all about it.
Mettler: I do know that discussion of yours was held at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London, because Speight was an engineer there, and that's also where you recorded The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Pink Floyd's debut album, which was released in August 1967, three months after the Games for May concert].
Waters: He was, yeah. He was a [technical] maintenance engineer at Abbey Road. But I do know that I must have had one of the prototypes or early ones at home, because I made (takes slight pause) it can't be '67, can it? It doesn't seem possible that we made any quadraphonic tapes, because there were no 4-tracks then.
Mettler: Nick said you had mono tapes that you and he both put together that could be manipulated around the room [at the QEH].
Waters: Yeah, I think that's probably true. I do remember making the tapes. I was working in a very cold basement off Harrow Road in London, on my own. What I was doing was I made birdsong tapes, but I made them vocally. I'd make vocal noises, and then speed them up until they sounded like birdsong just whistling and chirping, and stuff like that.
But I also remember making tapes that were nothing but edge tones of cymbals, with beaters. You'd get a cymbal going like that [mimes hitting a cymbal], get a microphone, and bring it up to the edge of a cymbal until you got that [makes noise] "hmmmmm-wrowwwwwww-wrowwwwww" the noise that you get off the edge of a cymbal if you put your ear up against it. (chuckles) So I remember doing that.
Other things I do remember, during the show (chuckles), I had cars about that big [puts hands about 6 inches apart] with flywheels, these cars that you go [mimics moving hand across wheels to rev them up], and I would go like that get one going, and then put it on the floor of the stage, and run after it with a microphone. (both laugh) And that would go into the PA, or somebody else [keyboardist Richard Wright, who operated the Azimuth Co-ordinator during the Games for May concert] would put it into the quad, and you'd get this weird "krrrrrrrrrsssshhhh" noise coming out.
We did a lot of weird things in that show. We did a thing probably aping Barry Humphries, who, in his [Dame] Edna Everage persona, would throw gladioli into the audience. We did a big thing: We threw tons and tons of flowers into the audience they were all over, everywhere. They never let another pop group in that hall [the QEH] again. We'd made too much of a mess. (chuckles) Yeah, we made a terrible mess with flowers.
But it's funny that the title of the concert was Games for May, which obviously is a lyric from one of our songs.
Mettler: Yes, "See Emily Play." I think the line was, "Free Games for May"...
Waters: Yeah. (sings softly), "See-eee-eee Emily play..." Yeah, and that was Blackhill [Enterprises, their management company at the time], so that was Andrew King and Peter Jenner, and the guy who was the promoter of the concert was called Christopher something, I can't recall... [Christopher Hunt, a classical promoter]. I don't know if we ever worked with him again. (chuckles) But it was fun.
Mettler: Do you recall the impetus for that show? Were you thinking along the lines of something like, "Rather than just being in stereo, I'd really like to hear things throughout the entire space of this room"?
Waters: Yeah, well, it's such a long time ago, I can't remember the nuts and bolts. Even if I could [adopts posh tone]: "Oh, I remember I was sitting in my chair, you know, in my bedroom above Blackhill Enterprises, where I lived for a time. And I remember having this idea and writing it down and going, Oh! I've just invented quadraphonic sound!'" (MM laughs) I really have no idea.
Mettler: But even as time went on, live quad was always something that you kept doing. It was never not part of your process. Why do you like it? Why is it interesting to you?
Waters: Yeah, yeah. Ohhhhh... (pause) The very simplest things are just very cool. That's why we started using the system people started working in quadrophonic mode, but they always had front left, front right, back left, back right. And almost certainly this was my idea (laughs), but it's quite clear that's not the way the brain works. The brain goes front, back, right, left. It doesn't go front left, front right I mean, it did for a bit with stereo, only because it was like that, and you could move something across the wall [i.e., the soundfield] like that. But really, the brain is more interested in that [quad], so that's the way we used it. That's what we did, and what we did through all the shows. And that's what I did in The Wall, as well. That's the system in The Wall.
Mettler: Speaking of that, turning live quad into a full surround soundtrack for the new Roger Waters The Wall movie is nothing short of amazing.
Waters: I have to say, the 5.1 mix that Nigel [Godrich] did of the concert is pretty good. He's pulled stuff out that I didn't even know was there, while I was onstage. For example, at one point near the end, Jon Carin is playing a slide guitar, and Nigel's got it right up in the front in the mix. And onstage, maybe because I didn't have it in my in-ears, I was really just listening to acoustic guitar and the backing vocals. That's all I need in order for me to do my job out there, which is playing guitar and singing the song. So I never really heard it before this, and now I love it. It's beautiful.
Mettler: Now that you have Amused to Death out there in 5.1, do you think about having the rest of your catalog done in that fashion?
Waters: Not my job! (laughs)
Mettler: Well, you can have James Guthrie do it! Something like [1984's] The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking would be perfect for 5.1.
Waters: Well, that's got moments like that: "There are Arabs with knives at the foot of your bed" [a line from "4:37 AM (Arabs With Knives and West German Skies)"]. (chuckles) Yeah.
Mettler: Even [Pink Floyd's 1983 album] The Final Cut, which you originally did with that Holophonic system...
Waters: Oh yeah, with Hugo [Zuccarelli]. Wonder what happened with Hugo. You probably know more than I do.
Mettler: Before I talked with Nick, I looked Hugo up, and found he's got a website called AcousticIntegrity.com, so it looks like he may still be at it.
Waters: Maybe I'll check it out. I'm usually thinking about new songs, but, funny enough, talking with you is making me think about 5.1. Recently, I made a demo of this new piece I'm working on. There's a scene in it with two central characters. One is an old Irishman, and the other one is his grandson, a six- or seven-year-old kid. The grandfather takes the kid up a mountain. They're looking for the moral high ground (smiles), because they're trying to find an answer to the fundamental question, "Why are we killing the children?" So they think that might be a good place to look. But when they're on the top of the mountain, they can hear the sounds of battle going on in the valley everywhere all around them, and they have this conversation.
So I can imagine it could be stunning in 5.1, because there's this battle going on in the valley all around them. They have this conversation where the kid says, "Does it sound like fighting, Grandpa?" And the grandfather says, "It does." And he says, "Are there children down there, Grandpa?" "There are." And he says, "Won't they hurt the children?" "They will." You can imagine a little bit of [making blowing wind noises] and the sound of distant battle. It reminds of that Paul Simon song you know, "The sound of the train in the distance" [a line from "Train in the Distance," from Simon's 1983 release, Hearts and Bones]. He did a lot of stuff that was very evocative in that way.
Mettler: Is this an album project, or is it too early for you to know where it's going?
Waters: I'm right in the middle of it, so I don't know where it will end up. Except it could be an arena show, so scenes like that would work out quite well in an arena show in live quad. I don't see myself going out into stadiums again, but I could do an arena show where it's more controllable. [On September 29, The New York Times reported the working title of this album project is Lay Down Jerusalem.]
Mettler: All original music?
Waters: It would probably be an hour of new theater and music, with probably nearly an hour of old music. Yeah, I could do it, and it could be great. The last time I did "Us and Them" and "Money" was for the 12.12.12 Concert for Sandy Relief [at Madison Square Garden in New York], and I had Ian Ritchie over playing the horn. That was a one-off, one night, and it was fantastic to hear those tenor sax parts played again live. I thought, "Wow, that's really great!" That was cool. And to do those two songs again I know it works.
Mettler: And since you're the master of making all those bird noises, you can bring out "Grantchester Meadows" [from 1969's Ummagumma] too, and really make a go of it. But you have to do all those noises yourself.
Waters: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, exactly! Or [Ummagumma's] "Several Species of Small Furry Animal Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" one of the longest song titles ever! (grins)
Here's a sneak peak at an upcoming track from Roger Water's new album The Wall.