David Gilmour talks to high50

Listen to the audio recording of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour talking to high50 editor-in-chief Tim Willis about Dark Side of The Moon. Plus: full transcript

Please note, the recording is quiet, so turn your volume up or listen on headphones.

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The full interview transcript:

DG: The most important thing to me was the space we had on the cover to have beautiful artwork and information. Letters that were big enough to read. The whole thing miniaturised [on CD] took something away for me.

The sound at the start of the CD was not what it became. It gave itself a very poor reputation because of the way they entered into the whole thing with very primitive analogue to digital converters. There was a rush to get things out on CD as it was a new thing and everyone wanted CDs, and they wanted it very quickly.

So they got mastering people to copy the tape straight out on to digital for CDs without any great care or attention, because they had a vast volume of stuff they wanted to put out, and over the years since the start of the CD the quality of the convertors improved enormously. And the quality of the converters back again. You see, in your player there’s a convertor to convert digital back to analogue that you listen to.

TW: Oh, is that right?

DG: Yes. Digital is a code, you have to get high quality equipment to convert sound into digits and then you need high quality stuff to convert digits back into sound.

TW: Because sound is a wave?

DG: The quality of all that equipment was not good. Now, it’s stratospherically higher. The original high quality, which is 44.1 khrtz, of a CD  is still the same… So that hasn’t increased, but that’s enormously greater than our hearing range. We can’t hear over – well, it varies in people, depending on how old you are, how much damage you’ve done to your hearing over the years – but between ten and 20 kilocycles, and this has frequencies that no one could possibly hear. So even at the beginning, the capability of the system was pretty good.

We are now recording music in a thing that’s 192 kilocycles, which is four and a bit times the quality that a CD is. It’s fairly inaudible, that difference, but you want to start with the highest quality you possibly can.

TW: For you, I guess you were always striving for perfection in sound so the CD must be a blessing for you?

DG: For me, it is. Yes. With the improvements that have gone on within it. Because, with analogue tape, the master of, for example,  Dark Side of The Moon, there is only one. There is a master, it is now over 40 years old, or just about 40 years old, it’s a piece of magnetic tape that runs at 15 inches per second. Every crosssfade that happens between tracks, which is well known about, that is a copy of the end of one song and the beginning of another song, with other stuff laid over onto it. And then you snip the piece out, and you edit it into the ending of the first song and into the beginning of the next song and on to a convenient invisible point where you can’t hear it. And that’s your crossfade. And then there’s a whole side one and a whole side two, as it was, in those wonderful days of vinyl. But the tape is a mass of little pieces of editing tape. It’s like Sellotape, but very thin, very fine.

If you watch it playing, tons of little white dots keep going through, on that original, one tape and over the years with some qualities of magnetic tape the glue that holds together what is basically  the iron filings – magnetic tape is very, very microscopic particles of metal, glued on to a piece of plastic tape – and if the glue is not particularly long lasting you can have that falling apart. And also the glue on the sticky tape you have used to join bits together in the editing can start failing and falling apart. And you find yourself having to, for one thing, with lots of old tapes, there’s a particular series of tapes from a particular time, which you have to bake in an oven.

You have to take the whole tape, a great big reel of tape, and put it in an oven and bake it at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, to reseal the glue. And also you have to take some of the edits apart, and re-join them together with newer editing tape. So it’s a very, very fragile thing, the original master, which is why most people, most record companies, want to work in a different medium.

In the days of tape that meant making production masters and copy masters. It’s hard to explain the difference. Tapes would be sent out all over the world, which were copies or production masters, to make the stampers that they make the actual discs with, and there are so many places within that procedure where something can go wrong. If the room which you are making your mother or your master stamper in has dust in the air, you can get one speck of dust in a groove and you’re going to have a click that lasts on that record forever. So every single stamper has to be examined and listened to carefully all the way through to make sure there are no tiny errors on it.

TW: I can remember in the past you said, when talking about Islamic art for example, the idea of the little imperfection that makes the ultimate beauty… that kind of thing

DG: Yep. There’s plenty of Islamic errors in the recording of the music without having to need them to be in the actual physical object that gets played.

TW: And how about those kind of almost nostalgic things of the clicks and the hiss, is that not part of the atmosphere of the record?

DG: There are people who have put artificial hiss on to make things sound lo-fi. That is what the lo-fi movement is about I suppose.

TW: What, they actually put artificial hiss in?

DG: Original tape hiss was the devil in the old days. We tried our very, very best to eliminate tape hiss and to do that you have to record as loudly on to the tape as you can so that the basic inherent noise of tape is kept to the minimum. It’s called the signal-to-noise ratio. The Dolby unit was made to encode music on to tape in such a way that it used the maximum of tape all the way through so you had the minimum of tape hiss and therefore a better signal-to-noise ratio.

 

TW: It’s quite funny actually, the vinyl movement, because you’re saying that in all the hundred years of recording music they’ve been trying to perfect it and now there’s a movement saying: ‘Well, we liked it the way it was.’

DG: Yes, I appreciate people’s nostalgia for this stuff but in my mind the modern digital technology is better or as good as vinyl can be and is so much more reliable in terms of getting your stuff out at as high a quality it can be throughout the world.

TW: Tell me, though; obviously, as you were saying before, it depends on the system so things like amplifiers using valves instead of transistors…

DG: Well, I don’t know enough about that to give you a proper answer but needless to say I use valve amps and in the industry it’s pretty much all valve amps in the top sort of studios.

TW: Why does that create a better sound?

DG: I don’t know. I have no real idea. I guess it’s quite probable that it doesn’t any more and I’m just a little old fashioned myself and haven’t been keeping up with the technology. Undoubtedly transistors or whatever they are these days have improved vastly over the years and perhaps they are just as good these days. I don’t know.

TW: I suppose there’s one thing with the CD, and I find this with the internet these days: on one hand it’s great, nothing’s ever finished and you can always go back to it. (I’m talking about the net now). On the other hand, it’s dreadful, because nothing is ever finished and you can always go back to it. With digital, you’ve already got bonus tracks, you can go back in and re-master all the time, presumably between pressings, so it leaves the work never completely finished. Do you agree?

DG: For me, I made my last album On An Island, and there was a point where it was finished. And that was pretty much the end of it. What then happens about putting other bits into various different packages in the way it’s all done these days has sort of moved slightly out of my hands. What happens is that people come to me with suggestions and I say yes or no, but my job is to get the record actually finished – and as you say you can piss around with it for ever and ever, changing tiny little things, correcting imperfections as you see them or creating little imperfections deliberately until it’s finished.

TW: And how about not so much the artefact but the work? I mean, some albums are collections of songs. Some albums probably come from a unified perspective to start with and some gather unity around them.  So, was Dark Side a… concept album seems the wrong name, but I don’t know if it was ever called that.

DG: I don’t think we ever called it a concept album. It has its negative feelings a little bit these days but, I mean, it’s a perfectly good description. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. There is a deliberately cohesive story in that album, which is giving Roger’s view on various aspects of life condensed into one 45-minute-long thing. As you say, other albums can come along which, because of the mood you’re in at the time you’re making it, are a snapshot of a moment of a person’s or the band’s life so there’s often going to be a consistency of mood about them which if you, when you’re making it, recognise and emphasise a little bit more. You can get something which you may not be what you would call a concept album but it has a sort of consistency…

TW: …so one might say that about On An Island, say, that’s all come from one place and mood.

DG: But that is distinctly a bunch of songs but at the same time to me it has a distinct mood and is a snapshot of that moment –

TW: But it almost takes say, a Beatles album, an early one like A Hard Day’s Night, that’s a collection of songs, isn’t it, essentially?

DG: Well, that’s a film soundtrack.

TW: OK, OK, let’s try another one, With The Beatles…

DG: But again, that’s not a concept album but it has a very distinct sound and the way they were making it, which was going straight into the studio and putting the mics on to the kit and everything, and record the song. You know, the first Beatles album was done in 17 hours, wasn’t it?

TW: Does that have a bearing on the unity of an album, how much studio time you’ve booked? Clearly not at your stage because you’ve got your own studio.

DG: Mmmm, no. I don’t really think so.

TW: So you don’t say, I’ve booked in for two months and we’re going to do an album there and that produces unity, if you see what I mean.

DG: Well, that happens, all the time, with all sorts of people. There are obviously limits to the amount of time, which is very expensive, studio time.

TW: And so on Dark Side, though, it started as Eclipse?

DG: Yeah, I guess. Its first name as a complete piece was Eclipse. It was still being called Eclipse I think when we first performed it at the Rainbow in 1972.

TW: And did you and Roger and the guys say this? Did you all know it was intended as a piece of work?

DG: Yes, yes, it was clear pretty much from the outset that Roger had a series of ideas that he wanted to explore.

TW: There would have been Meddle in between but you had come out with that orchestral thing, hadn’t you, as well?

DG: Well, we’d come out of a period, in my mind, of slightly floundering around for a while during Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother and being experimental to try and find our feet, really, to find where we were moving to, which I think we did find, by Meddle. Meddle has really, really good moments and shows quite clearly the way forward, with Echoes particularly.

TW: But you all knew you were working on a piece.

DG: Yes, yes. On an album of songs that would be interlinked physically and mentally.

TW: So how about the ordering – was there a logic of lyric?

DG: Well towards the end there is a logic, yes, the beginning and the end both have a logic, of the time elapsing. I suppose one or two of the pieces in the middle could be interchanged if you wanted to.

TW: So you had these songs and you pretty much knew in which order they would run anyway.

DG: More or less.

TW: Then again… obviously I can tell you go loud, soft, slow, fast… you’re trying to pitch it to make it an experience.

DG: I don’t think we ever did any of that with Dark Side of The Moon. I don’t think there was any concern with loud, soft, slow, fast. I think the songs just took their own shapes. To be honest, I can’t really remember how the final order was achieved in, as I say, the middle of the thing. You could have swapped Money and Us And Them if you wanted to, in terms of the logic of the whole piece. Roger might say that’s bullshit. I don’t know.

TW: That’s interesting because I just assumed that, even if one had this unity of idea, you then went in, rather like a DJ, and created a mood to bring people up, take people down…

DG: Well, there have been moments when you attempt to do that in the sequencing of albums, you do do some of that. You decide what is going to be the best song to close with, the best song to open with… and that may have not anything to do with the lyrical content.  But with Dark Side of The Moon and our other albums [like] Wish You Were Here, that wasn’t really a consideration.

TW: I’m assuming that on On An Island that was a consideration, yes, to have a suite of songs that carry you through from one to the next?

DG: Yes, a lot of time is spent considering the sequence those songs are going to run in.

TW: Now there is one disadvantage of the CD, surely: it’s too easy to skip –

DG: Oh, even on vinyl, it’s easy to skip – to the detriment of your albums, if you aren’t very careful!

TW: I hadn’t realised that because I just, from what I have read and so on, I’d assumed that there are loose ends at the beginning and end of any album and I was saying that thing about Dogs which started for Wish You Were Here, didn’t it, or around that time, and actually ended up on another album?

DG: Yes, what became Dogs, which was originally called You Gotta Be Crazy, and what became Shine On You Crazy Diamond were written at the same time in a rehearsal room in Kings Cross.

TW: I suppose one has to understand as well that there’s an organic production to these things. You don’t go in there saying this is going to be this song about this, it all comes together quite slowly and it’s part of the creative process I suppose.

DG: Yes, Dogs, or You Gotta Be Crazy at the time, should have been on the Wish You Were Here album. And Roger and I had some heated discussion about it and the decision was not to put it on that album but to use it for something later, and make Shine On be the beginning and the ending of the Wish You Were Here album with other things within in that were more relevant to it. He was entirely right, I was entirely wrong. It’s not the first time.

TW: And how about this thing? If we have an album like Dark Side of The Moon as opposed to a collection of songs, the merits and rewards of listening to it from beginning to end.

DG: That was how it was designed but that was also much more the sort of thing that was the general way one did it. One would sit around with some friends in a room with as high quality a system as you could and you would join together in sharing that experience amongst you and that was what it was intended for. But that was the way it tended to be. Now, of course, everyone is individually listening with tiny headphones to different things to everyone else and it’s a shame to lose that joined experience, the common experience.

TW: The length of the experience, because in Britain you only did one single, didn’t you, apart from the Syd singles, it was considered that the three-minute or five-minute track had not very much merit.

DG: Well, it moved you into a slightly different world, which we had doubts about whether we wanted to move into and we had a fairly clear idea of the way we wanted to operate as a musical ensemble and that was to go and do an experience which enveloped you for two hours or whatever and the records were the same thing. It was something that demands a greater concentration for a span of time. And we wanted, not to force but to encourage people to take the time to enjoy the whole experience, to listen to the whole thing through, to hear its cohesiveness, how one thing moved to another thing, how the ideas in the lyrics related backwards and forwards throughout. It was a grander idea of popular music if you like and unashamedly so.

TW: Do you think that’s all disappeared?

DG: It’s not disappeared, I’m sure people are still trying to do it. Musicians’ intentions I don’t think have entirely disappeared but I don’t know how or where people actually do that same thing of actually sitting around in a room for a whole hour or whatever it is and listening to one body of work. I mean, for me there just never seems to be time.

TW: Although you said you did it yourself with On An Island and with Polly about a month ago…

DG: Yep.

TW: That was the anniversary?

DG: Yes, it must have been the anniversary. But we just felt it was about the right moment to have a listen to it. Couldn’t have enjoyed it more. I remember, at the same time, when we finished it and it had that cohesion to it, or we had attempted to make it have that cohesion, and we sat and listened to it here in this room, and it did, to me.

TW: Because that’s the other thing, as we were just saying, you get these lyrical and musical references between tracks don’t you, that are meant to hold these things together and which get stripped out when you listen individually and so presumably diminish the experience.

 

DG: Diminish, yes, or leave you… Diminish is one way of saying it or you could say it leaves you short of the maximum you could get out of it.

TW: I suppose it’s not just technology but it’s a million things and fractured society but we seem to have less common things that we do together.

DG: That’s right. I listened to Brain Damage the other day and was thinking how brilliant the lyrics were to that. Focusing in on one track just because it happened to come on somewhere. It is a great piece of work.

 

TW: When was the last time you listened to Dark Side of The Moon?

DG: God. I mean some time, in the last few years, we have done a quad remix of Dark Side of The Moon and we have put out various re-masters of various things. And each time we have one of those, it is my job to sit down and listen to it very carefully with a professional ear, which can sometimes take away from the emotional experience but I think that within the last year or so I have listened to  it.

TW: Because actually, now you keep remastering it, is it actually better than it was in your opinion? Are there things you brought out that weren’t on the original?

DG: Well, the original master, the re-master is working from that original master tape and there’s a limit to what you can do in re-mastering. Basically you can change levels a little bit so if there are quieter bits you want to raise a bit you can do that and you can change the EQ, the treble and bass… the treble and bass in a studio there are a hundreds trebles, a hundred middles, a hundreds basses, and you’re picking out individual little frequencies, subtracting some and adding some, by tiny, tiny bits to make it sound as good as it possibly can. And of course, using the latest digital equipment to make it as good as it possibly can be, if you’re doing it digitally.

TW: Then of course it still depends on the transmitting equipment, doesn’t it?

DG: The weakest link is the weakest link.

TW: I remember what my final, well, it wasn’t a question, more of a topic… is. You weren’t the only ones but certainly the first, probably in Britain, the first to take it out of an intellectual atmosphere – musique concrete and using found sounds – and this is the place where it really came to the fore, didn’t it? And I suppose that would be one reason why you are looking for perfection all the time?

DG: Looking for perfection… but that is all to create an atmosphere, to fool the senses into thinking you’re somewhere you’re not. You’re trying to create a different world and convince the listener that they are in a different world. And you use any found sounds – the bits of birdsong, you know, tractors, industrial engines, anything to try to create a place where you can take people out of the moment they are in and put them in a different place, the same as happens when you read a book. The thing in Wish You Were Here with the lift was a very carefully created piece of sound collage to make it sound like someone was going into a lift, going up in the lift and coming out in a party, all entirely created with machinery that was synthesised stuff. But it’s quite cleverly done. That on some sort of scale was the way we were thinking all of the time through these albums.

TW: I remember the first time I ever heard that, it just seemed extraordinary to me, that you managed to bring the outside world, not just the instruments, but the whole world into this thing and give it out again.

DG: Yes, well, that’s part of the joy of listening to it. The shutting your eyes and being transported to a different place, which is why other things have helped!

TW: And did you know you were sitting on this enormous work?

DG: Well, we all knew we were… this was a pinnacle we were going towards. Obviously you never have any real idea; I mean no one is ever going to think – or maybe everyone does think, but I suspect everyone doesn’t think – it’s going to be the longest album on the charts ever, other than those sort of grand award type things.

TW: Put it this way, you knew it was big, obviously. Did you know how big it was going to be?

DG: No, big for us would have been a number one album of any sort, disappearing without trace after three months.

TW: Am I right that the popularity of this album came from America first?

DG: I’m not sure, to be honest. It went enormous in America and we toured in America immediately after its release quite a lot. In England you play a couple of places, maybe two or three places, I can’t remember, but it felt bigger from America. It did enormously well here, too.

TW: Even though you were doing very well as a band, would you say this was just an enormous sea change from here on in?

DG: Yes, yes.

TW: It was just a different world?

DG: It was, obviously.

TW: And it was a different sonic world as well, wasn’t it? You changed what people could aspire to?

DG: We did our best, Tim.

TW: Well, that’s brilliant. Thanks, David.