Peter Gabriel thinks CD-ROMs are cool. He thinks digital technology can help enforce social justice in an unjust world. He thinks multimedia will vastly change the way music is made and heard. And he is one of a very few rock stars who actually has the credentials to know what he's talking about.
Since multimedia became trendy about a year ago, musical artists from Ice-T to Madonna have expressed a desire to dabble in the new medium. But as record companies rapidly form interactive divisions to repackage and resell old catalogues, few musicians--and far fewer of Gabriel's stature--have gotten around to developing a CD-ROM of their own.
For techies and rock fans the world over, Gabriel's fascination with multimedia technology has lent credibility to an unproven medium. And he has become something of a standard-bearer for artists who insist that it can be more than just a new revenue stream for traditional media firms.
Gabriel--whose 10 solo albums since leaving Genesis, including the Grammy award-winning "So," have sold 20 million copies worldwide--released his first CD-ROM for the Macintosh platform last year. The title, "Xplora," is now being distributed by Irvine-based Interplay for Windows-based personal computers.
Gabriel is currently at work on a new interactive CD title with Seattle-based Starwave, a multimedia firm founded by Microsoft co-chairman and rock fan Paul Allen. We caught up with him while he was in Los Angeles last week for the Grammys.
Q: How did you get into all this techie stuff?
A: I grew up with it. My father was an Italian designer of the first fiber-optic cable TV system. That was 30 years ago. And he was campaigning for electronic democracy, for home shopping, films on demand and education and entertainment accessible to anyone. He may have been somewhat ahead of his time. But you know I listened to him and championed the idea since I was old enough to understand what he was saying. And in some ways I've tried to carry it on.
Q: Multimedia had been heralded as this great new art form, but a lot of what's been produced so far has been disappointing. What will it take to get better?
A: CD-ROM is an intermediate medium in the sense that it has space limitations. The emphasis will begin to shift more to digital information on-line, where there are no limitations. And as that expands, and there's a whole source of digital material whether it's woodwinds, melodies, sounds voices, pictures, video, people will become, if you like, collage communicators.
Some new language will, I think, emerge from kids who will be writing their own multimedia letters, multimedia books, mixing in sounds and pictures, their own work and other people's work. And it will break down this ridiculous barrier that exists between supposedly "creative" people and the rest of the population.
Q: So you think the world is going to go totally virtual?
A: Well, I think people still like lumps of stuff. I can picture this desktop factory, if you like, which has the capacity not only to download the world's data and record it but it also has the capacity to download some sort of interesting packaging that will allow you to put your lumps of stuff up on the shelves. Because I think it's an important way that we communicate. Part of how we express ourselves is through our possessions, right or wrong.
Whether it's our clothes, our books, our records, these are all things which we use for bragging, in a sense. When you have a person you're trying to date coming over for the first time we suddenly get conscious of creating the environment to maximize whatever we want to present to the love interest. And records are part of that process. It's not really as sexy to tell someone "yes, you know, I've got all that stuff on my hard drive." You want to have a few sleeves lying around.
Q: How do you conceptualize the relationship between technology and your music?
A: It really changes the way that one conceives of and creates music. Each time a piece of equipment emerges there are new ways of approaching things. It really opens up the way we work. For example, before the programmable drum machine, I was relying on my ability to communicate rhythm ideas to the drummer and on his ability to interpret what I wanted. As an ex-drummer, that was sometimes frustrating to me.
I found with the machine that for the first time I was really in control of the grooves, and I was able to look around for rhythms from all over the world and try programming to these machines, knowing that the grooves would continue when I took my hands off the keyboard. And it really loosened the way that I wrote probably 70% of my songs. And on the receiving end, the technology is opening up the music for the listener. So they no longer are compelled to take a linear journey from start to finish. They can take all kinds of deviations, on something like "Xplora."
Q: Most of the record labels including Geffen (Gabriel's label) have multimedia divisions now, but you've chosen to develop your two titles with companies that are not part of the music industry. Why?
A: Well first, I think they've only recently become open to the idea. It's only now they're all starting to get into selling the technology. But I also love the idea of alternative distribution mechanisms. I think it will be a very healthy challenge to the record companies, which have got complacent in their monopoly.
Q: One of the themes of your music and in the "Xplora" disc is social injustice and economic inequalities between the First and Third World. What do you think about the fact that right now technology is mostly a First World phenomenon?
A: I believe one of the key issues in terms of economic growth for the world and political stability and peace will be determined by whether the technology stays in the hands of the West and whether it is really shared. What's exciting about technology is that with a few PCs and a small satellite up- and down-link--which should be very cheap--it's possible for any village in any part of the planet to in a very short space of time be part of this information revolution. So my dream is that the First World will be foresighted enough to realize that it is in their own basic economic interest to develop technology in emerging countries.
Q: You articulate a really optimistic vision of what technology can do. But isn't there a potential for it to dehumanize art and communication too?
A I think as with any tool it has the capacity to function positively or negatively. And I think it's really critical how this generation responds to technology. This issue of democratizing technology is fundamental.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Name: Peter Gabriel
Occupation: Rock musician, video artist, multimedia producer
Computer: Power Macintosh (about 70 of them in the studio and 50 on the road)
E-mail address: Inactive. "I can't even get through my regular mail."
Last album: "Secret World Live" (1994)
Recent accomplishment: His first interactive CD-ROM, "Xplora," has been released in a Windows version
Current project: Producing a new interactive CD title with Seattle-based Starwave
Newest hobby: Aspiring art groupie