When you’re speaking to Roger Waters, there is no such thing as small talk. The mind responsible for some of the most ambitious productions in pop music history is constantly crackling with activity. Even seemingly innocuous questions, sure to elicit canned responses perfected over half a century of interviews, yield eloquent run-on sentences that jolt forward like a runaway train. The destination is often impossible to predict but, like his lyrics, the words are caustic, hilarious, cynical, hopeful and warm.
The gargantuan critical and commercial success of his ’70s output with Pink Floyd has an unfortunate tendency to eclipse his status as one of rock’s great empaths. Given the fundamental idealism at the heart of his music, and the number of ears he’s reached—The Dark Side of the Moon is the third highest selling album of all time in the world, The Wall not far behind—you could argue that few artists have done more to promote a compassionate society than Waters.
His last full-length rock album was 1992’s Amused to Death, but disturbing parallels between The Wall‘s dystopian fantasy and a certain wall-loving politician helped drive him back into the studio. The result, Is This the Life We Really Want? (out Friday), is a brutal indictment of humanity’s chosen path forward—replacing intimacy with material goods, and autonomy with complacency. Though not an American citizen, he made his opinion of Donald Trump extremely clear to fans at the Desert Trip Festival last fall, when he dedicated a scathing version of “Pigs” and (naturally) “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” to the then-Presidential candidate. On May 26 he kicked off his latest global trek, equal parts rock concert, theatrical event and rock resistance rally. Dubbed the Us + Them Tour, the 45-year-old song title takes on a whole new meaning in the nationalistic post-Brexit age.
A few weeks before the shows are due to begin, we sit together alongside the NASA-like mixing desk in a bright Manhattan recording studio. After several grueling days of press I’m his final interview, and Waters is in a relaxed, almost jovial mood. He splays his long limbs in front of the chair and folds his arms against his torso—extraordinarily fit by any standard, but especially for a man who turned 73 in September. Even when discussing political catastrophes in his measured Cantabrigian tone, he wears a bemused, slightly menacing grin, like a Lewis Carroll character mistakenly dropped into an Orwell novel. At one point his youthful blue eyes become transfixed by a fire alarm flashing in a distant building out the window. He points insistently, urging me to check it out (which I do). Even when scheming to save the world, he appreciates the details.
Below are edited excerpts from Waters’ conversation with PEOPLE.
Is This the Life We Really Want? is the title of your new album. I assume your answer is, “No, it’s not.”
“Is This The Life We Really Want?” is a poem I wrote in 2008. It’s sort of a rant more than a poem, but it was basically in response to what one hoped were the bad old years of the G.W. [George W. Bush] administration when our lives were ruled by Dick Cheney—the Dark Prince—and Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. The crazies had taken over the asylum, it felt like. We had great hopes for Barack Obama. He was probably a thoughtful guy and whatever, but he got into power and then he decided that the drone program was a really good idea. He decided to have a kill list and that killing people would solve problems. Clearly it doesn’t. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll cut the head off the snake!” But then you get 50 more! The kill list was 30 or 40 people in 2008 and now it’s thousands. There’s no answer to the logic. “Hang on—it didn’t help, you’ve made a lot more targets.” There are more targets now. And the number of people you have to kill is going to expand and expand and expand, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy of perpetual war.
That’s why there are refugees. These policies are destroying where people live and they have to leave. You can’t live in Syria, or most of it. We’ve all seen the pictures of it, it’s rubble. And these people who are fleeting are not nomadic people, they’re physicians and professional people. But when they arrive in the refugee camp on your border, they seem like they’re of no importance. Well they are, of course. They’re all human beings and we have an absolute responsibility to look after them and give them refuge. That’s why they’re refugees, they needs refuge. It’s all very very difficult.
It’s been 25 years since your last album, Amused to Death. What got you back to the studio to make this new record?
It was just a confluence of circumstances. I started writing songs when I was out on the road doing The Wall [tour in 2010-2013], I had a certain amount of free time in hotel rooms and so on, so I’d strum a guitar and maybe jot a few ideas down. That’s how I wrote [the track] “Deja Vu.” I guess there comes a time when, if you criticize or if you’re upset by some of the ways that the human race is organizing itself—which causes pain and misery to lots of people—then you could be forgiven the conceit of thinking, “Well, if I had any power, what would I do? Which might lead you to think, if you didn’t mind being thought of as blasphemous, “If I had been God, I might have done some things differently.” But then in the second verse of the tune it goes on to have nothing to do with God but giving consciousness to a machine, a death-dealing robot machine that looks kind of innocuous but they’ve become a very real thing. There’s something weirdly prophetic about The Matrix. They have RoboCop now. If they wanted to make it, they could—things that could recognize facial features. Or they could be wandering around on the street and decide to kill you depending on what you’re wearing. I know it sounds stupid but it’s very weird this idea of targeted assassination. It’s horrible. It’s really really horrible because you have decided to wipe out 800 years of due process. “Do you remember Magna Carta? Haebus Corpus, Article 39? Well, we’ve decided to do away with it. If we think you should die, we’re just going to kill you. Does that sound like a good idea? Yeah! Great idea, let’s do it!”
After the sound collage that opens the album, “Deja Vu” is the first song. You reference drones as well as deities, and you also sing: “The temple’s in ruins / The bankers get fat / The buffalo’s gone / And the mountain top’s flat.” Do you feel that, for all of the progress we’ve made as a society, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes?
Well, it is very problematic that the power resides in the hands of the very few, very greedy, very, very wealthy men. And the wealthier they get, the more important and self-important they feel. Trump thinks he’s special, he really does think he’s special. To you or me, he might look like a complete buffoon, and he might be the epitome of everything that is vulgar and crass and stupid and short-sighted and shallow and mean and beyond contempt … but to him he thinks, ‘Look at me, I’m f—ing great!” He’s wealthy and he has an airplane with his name on it. So the self-aggrandizement reinforces his view of himself. So it’s very weird, but these people have enormous power because they can buy their way into wherever they want. They’ll buy whatever is left of Andrew Carnegie—they’ll try to put their name on Carnegie Hall, which is what [Carnegie himself] did. They’re all the same, they never stop trying to show how great they are by writing their f—ing name on an opera house or something. Something big, just to show how great they are. It’s pitiful (I think) but it happens all the time. So there’s something wrong with the market place. But that’s like, “The temple’s in ruins, the bankers get fat.”
In your opinion, what can we do to get the life we really want?
There’s all this talk about “fake news” going on at the moment. People laugh, but it’s a very real problem. We seem to be living more and more in a world where propaganda is hugely important, and there’s no longer any real attempt to distinguish what might be the reality of anything. Faith has become much more important than fact. “I believe this to be true—[therefore] it is. I can say anything and it will be so.” The march of science from the end of the Dark Ages through the Enlightenment, brought us to a point where we can say, ‘Oh, well now we know the Earth’s not flat, and now we know this and now we know that. Now we have all this information at our fingertips. Maybe we can sit around the table and plan the future.’ But it seems very difficult for that point of view to gain ground.
So the wise men in our society tend to be in the backwaters of academia. They have wise things to say and many of them know how to make society a better place—how to make it more egalitarian, how to make it fairer, how to give us more joy because we’re allowed to help people—but they’re pushed off into the backwaters because they’re inconvenient. Their truths are inconvenient. It’s like Al Gore making that movie, An Inconvenient Truth, about climate change. Well here we are now, and [Scott] Pruitt is the head of the EPA; somebody who has fought every decent move made by the Environmental Protection Agency his whole life. He has now been given the opportunity to completely dismantle it and throw it away because … why? Because it’s inconvenient. Because it might have been instrumental in stopping the Keystone pipeline—which there might be very good reasons for not building. But there’s profit in it, so it will be built now under this administration, whatever the cost. And if there’s a bit of a disaster or a spill or whatever, so what? They don’t care.
The wise men would care. The wise men would say, “This isn’t sound thinking,” but somehow commas trump everything. It may be partly because the laws. Is it not true that in corporate law in the United States of the America, the cooperation’s only responsibility is to its shareholders and maximizing the bottom line. So it has no social responsibility to society as a whole. And that’s interesting. So might wise men not sit around a table and go, “We ought to change this law, this is not to the benefit of society as a whole.” But as soon as you start talking about what might be a benefit to society as a whole, you’re talking about [screams] SOCIALISM! [screams] WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! [laughs]
RELATED VIDEO: Roger Waters Performs “Money” on the 2017 Us + Them Tour
A great deal of your music has been about promoting empathy in human beings. Does your desire to create music stem from a desire to help people?
I don’t think it did, originally. In fact, I know it didn’t, originally. I went into this business because I wanted to make money and get laid! [laughs] Although it’s not the motivating factor, in the intervening years I’ve traveled around the world and I’ve kept my eyes and my ears open, and it’s become more and more self-evident that the unseemly scrabble to be exceptional and make more money than anybody else is not a path for personal happiness. Not for those engaged in it, and certainly not for those who bear the brunt of the other end of that process. In this country, for instance, it’s the removal of safety nets. This is a very, very, very wealthy country and yet you see abject poverty even on the streets of your greatest cities.
It’s a sad thing to see because inherently human beings derive great joy and satisfaction and pleasure from helping other people. By having a society where helping other people is not encouraged, it is denying members of society the joy of giving. By in large, the person who does stop to help—the good Samaritan who stays and says, “No, I’m going to help this person”—that leads to a much more joyous life than a person who crosses to the other side of the road and goes off to see if they can eventually get a private airplane or whatever it might be. So if one can play a small part in encouraging people to pay attention, then that’s good.