Why Roger Waters Isn’t Afraid to Get Political With His Concerts
Roger Waters has a message with his current tour that you'll hear before a single note of music is played. "If you don't agree with Roger's politics, you might do well to fuck off to the bar right now," is the text that appears on the giant video display as the show is beginning.
The Pink Floyd bassist and singer has long used his platform to share his current worldview. He's said his original vision for the pandemic-delayed This Is Not a Drill trek continued to evolve "as the skies have darkened considerably" – quickly adding that he wasn't referring to COVID, but the ongoing conflicts with Russia and other territories.
The production for these dates is stunning, with a giant stage shaped like a crucifix, set in the round with video screens that deliver large projections of Waters and the band. More than that, however, he uses the displays to share a variety of messages and stories – some with warmth, including the way he relates the memories of his friendship with Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett. Others are much more direct and intentionally uncomfortable.
Guitarist Jonathan Wilson first worked with Waters in the studio during the sessions for 2017's Is This the Life We Really Want. They subsequently hit the road together as Waters took his Us and Them tour across the world the same year.
He's had time to get to know and understand Waters as a person, and can dissect what makes him tick. That said, Wilson was floored when he saw how the designs for the new tour had progressed from where things started before the pandemic. "Ideas with him are constantly changing and ticking and they’re definitely evolving and stuff. He’s got a process, but he follows his gut," Wilson explained to UCR. "To come in and see where it’s at, it was like, 'Holy shit.' I mean, these guys spent thousands and thousands of fucking hours."
"As far as a peer or someone that would take their time and cash to put it into a message, he’s the only one who is fucking doing that," Wilson adds. "No one [else] will take their time, their airtime, to basically talk about things that should be talked about."
Wilson has been following his artistic path for 25 years, building out a well-regarded solo career but also working as a producer, while collaborating with the likes of Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, David Crosby and Graham Nash from the classic-rock world. Most recently, the Laurel Canyon-based multi-instrumentalist helmed the newest releases from Father John Misty and Angel Olsen.
Even on tour with Waters, Wilson remains engaged in making music, lugging a heavy suitcase of studio gear from city to city so he can work on his next solo album in various hotel rooms.
Wilson gave UCR a view from the road during a Zoom conversation before Waters' next show in Albany, N.Y. In the first part of our conversation, he details his early work with Waters and also shares what it was like getting ready to play classic Pink Floyd songs.
Watch Roger Waters Perform Pink Floyd's 'Sheep'
You started working with Roger during the sessions for his last solo album. I would think it would be something to be inside that nerve center of Roger's world.
For sure. That was kind of what started it all. It kind of started out as like, maybe we’re going to do some songs; maybe it will be a project. Then, you know, it expanded. We did a third song, fourth song, fifth song [and things progressed from there]. He came to my studio [after that] and we were there for about six months. That’s when we kind of turned into buddies and stuff. They said, “Would you consider being in this band?” I was like, “Wow, I hadn’t really thought about that” – but then, I was like, “Fuck yeah.” I mean, why would I possibly say no to that?
What do you think it was that bonded you and Roger?
I think it was rock 'n' roll, man. The first thing I did, I played a solo on the end of one of the songs. For me, it was in the key of E and it was a screaming solo. He said, “Yeah, that sounded great, man.” Off the bat, things were positive. I think he probably went into it going, “Who are these guys again? These fuckin’ hipsters from L.A.” But through that process and definitely all of the gigs that we did, we’ve scored some points there to where there’s definitely some trust, which is great.
How did you go about putting together your setup for the road?
I think with this band, at least myself and Gus [Seyffert] the drummer, Joey [Waronker], we’ve been collaborating since 2004. So he kind of stepped into some guys who have some experience as a group, which is a great thing. We like to honor the sounds, the particular drum sounds and bass sounds from back in the day, all of that stuff. So we did things [to accomplish that]. We studied it and [figured out] the [subtle] details. For me, it just happens that I’ve been a Stratocaster guy so that wasn’t really a stretch, but little things like the [Binson] Echorec – which was a big part of their sound. We have stuff like that and the right pedals, and all of that shit.
What were the nuances that were difficult to get right?
I would say the phrasing of the stuff that I sing. That was a process. It started out with him saying, “Don’t sing it like that; sing it like this.” There was a lot of that. So, that was a process. If you think about it, singing someone else’s song while they’re there on stage, it’s not exactly the easiest thing. [Laughs.] There was some phrasing stuff that definitely was a process. Now, I’ve gotten it.
It does seem like the prospects of singing those classic songs would be extremely daunting.
It was a funny process. When I first got asked to be on the tour, I said, “Yeah, I’ll go, but I want to sing. I don’t want to just not sing.” He was like, “Well, I heard you play guitar, but I certainly haven’t heard you sing.” [Laughs.] They had me do some tracks. I went in the studio and sang, basically to some karaoke tracks. I put some effects on and tried to make it sound good and sent it to Roger. He’s like, “That’s too good. That sounds like the studio.” They put me on a plane and there I was with him, face to face. He’s seeing if I can handle what needs to be done. “It’s not like that; it’s like this!” I’m like, “Yeah, man, let’s do it.” We worked on stuff and continued to. I was singing “Dogs,” which is kind of a tricky song to sing. We kept honing in on the phrasing [and worked it out]. On that tour, I ended up singing four or five things. This time, there’s not as much, because I come in on the second set.
One of the real highlights of the current tour as far as the Pink Floyd material is definitely "Sheep."
There’s these long pauses of just like a Rhodes or synthesizer, it’s taking the time to have that kind of space in a song or in a concert, [which] is super rare. Because [other artists] are trying to condense it all to fuckin’ up-tempo medleys and shit. That’s what the drive is, to keep it fast and short. That’s what everyone does because of the excitement of a big show, but these songs are sometimes the opposite. They have these long stretches, kind of like a pulse, that goes on for a long time. There’s no vocals, which I mean, that’s the style of [Pink Floyd] that was so fuckin’ awesome. But just to see that, the crowd, they’re stoked about it. It’s like, “Shit, this is that sound.” Some of it involves patience to get to the vocals and stuff.
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