Peter Gabriel's 'Big Blue' Musical Mashup For weeks at a time in the early '90s, musicians from around the world converged on the rocker's Real World Studios to meet, mingle and make music. Sixteen years later, the fruits of their experiments are now on record.

Peter Gabriel's 'Big Blue' Musical Mashup

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In 1986, singer, songwriter and producer Peter Gabriel opened the doors to his legendary Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England. Over the years, musicians from Bonnie Raitt to Deep Purple from Robert Plant to Nigel Kennedy have recorded at this former grain mill, surrounded by sheep farms, 100 miles west of London.

But Real World has always been more than just a place for heavy hitters to lay down tracks and dash off mixes. Its mission has also been to provide a state-of-the-art space for musicians from around the world to meet and mingle, try out new sounds and exchange ideas. In the early '90s, the studio opened for what was called "recording weeks," and some 75 artists from 20 countries came to play.

(Soundbite of African music)

HANSEN: In those heady days of musical experimentation, artists recorded in every nook and cranny of the complex. So many tapes piled up, there soon became no room to store them. Today, almost two decades later, we finally will hear the fruits of that labor. On Tuesday, "Big Blue Ball" is released on Real World Records.

(Soundbite of African music)

HANSEN: Many points of the globe are represented on "Big Blue Ball." There's Congolese singer Papa Wemba, Sinead O'Connor from Ireland, the Holmes Brothers with American gospel, string players from Egypt, percussionists from Japan and flutists from China. And that is just a small sample. Peter Gabriel acted as curator and sings on several tracks, and he joins us now from his home in London. Hello, Peter, welcome back to the program.

Mr. PETER GABRIEL (Singer, Songwriter, Music Producer): Hi, Liane, thank you very much.

HANSEN: So I guess the first and most obvious question is what took so long for the CD to come out?

Mr. GABRIEL: Well, as you said, we created a mountain of tapes. I think every time that somebody looked at them they sort of backed away, and we eventually found someone brave enough, Stephen Hague, who is here with me today, actually, with Karl Wallinger. He agreed to dive in there, and it took him several attempts over several years. But he was the man brave enough or foolish enough to try and sort out all the mess that we created. But you know, it was a fertile mess, I think.

HANSEN: We're going to talk to Stephen and Karl in just a moment. But can I talk to you just a little bit about those recording weeks in the early '90s? You described it as dating service with a 24-hour cafe.

Mr. GABRIEL: Yeah, well, you know musicians.


Mr. GABRIEL: I think we are trying to get a certain number of records done as well, but the exciting thing for a lot of us was that there were musicians from all over the world, songwriters, poets were all thrown together and all sorts of connections happened.

(Soundbite of song "Burn You Up, Burn You Down")

Mr. GABRIEL: (Singing) No time or reason, no way to make it easy to the dark.

CHORUS: (Singing) Burn it up and I'll break it down, burn you up and I'll burn you down.

Mr. GABRIEL: I think they are the most fun weeks I ever had in the studio. Without question, you know, from a writer's point of view, it sort of takes you back to a time when say the Brill Building was full of songwriters and they come in at 9 o'clock and have a song by 6 when went home.

(Soundbite of song "Burn You Up, Burn You Down")

HANSEN: Let's bring in another of these triumvirate. We're talking to co-producer Karl Wallinger from World Party and Waterboys. Hey, Karl.

Mr. KARL WALLINGER (Co-producer, "Big Blue Ball"): Hi.

HANSEN: You described this project as something akin to providing a train and a track for the artists. So what was the journey like for you?

Mr. WALLINGER: Well, it's a random circle where we are - you know, I don't know. No, it wasn't really random circles. It was just a great thing. I was just asked by Peter to come along and sort of join in, and it was just like a musical health farm, really. There wasn't any considerations other than the sounds you heard in the room, you know, which were always pretty extraordinary and played by people who'd been mastering their instrument in whatever way, you know, for how many years. I mean, I think that collective musical years that have gone down amongst everybody there would have been well into the thousands, you know.

HANSEN: How did the process work? I mean, you know, who was writing the songs? How did they evolve?

Mr. WALLINGER: I think they just sort of came about, really. I mean, if you are planning on getting people to play together on some unknown piece that doesn't really have any shape, we basically used a kind of rhythm or just a pulse of some sort we'd set up, and then we'd start laying things on the top.

(Soundbite of African music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in Foreign Language)

HANSEN: Let me bring in Stephen Hague.

Mr. STEPHEN HAGUE (Co-producer, "Big Blue Ball"): Yes.

HANSEN: You really dug into this project to put it in some kind of manageable form. A very daunting task, surely. I mean, where did you begin?

Mr. HAGUE: Where'd I begin? There was a lot of listening involved and in between me and Peter, in particular, we narrowed it down. One thing that I ran by Peter as I digested some - you know, he's quite familiar with what had been recorded and had some thoughts about what - you know, where it could be taken, was what kind of latitude that I would have in creating final mixed versions of these tracks, besides editing the material that was there. And Peter said, you know, as long as it ends up being a great record, you know, whatever you think it takes. And I always tried to stay true the spirit of the sessions and just made sure that I wasn't losing track of the spirit of what had gone on.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: Peter, did you have to mediate artistic differences?

Mr. GABRIEL: No, actually, it was very easy, and Karl has a wicked sense of humor, too, which kept most of us in hysterics, so I think there wasn't a lot of room for rampant egos.

HANSEN: Karl, how would you defuse any egos that started to blow up?

Mr. WALLINGER: Oh, pull out a gun or throw a bucket of water over someone just as they were plugging in an electric utensil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Oh, that will work.

Mr. WALLINGER: I don't know, there wasn't really - there weren't really any kind of artistic, sort of, railheads or whatever, you know. People were so kind of interested. They wanted to put their bit on there. I think that's the only bit of ego that happened, that people wanted to join in.

(Soundbite of "Exit Through You")

Mr. GABRIEL: (Singing) What use is it to wash that stuff away? In every place that we have run to, all that we become with was never stay.

HANSEN: Look, I am going to ask you all this question, and Karl, I'll start with you. What do think you learned about the creative process by bringing all of these artists together?

Mr. WALLINGER: I learned it's universal, and I learned that music is an amazing thing to unite people. I don't know - yeah, I mean, I just think it was such a different experience, as well. Just being to play with people who you'd never be - that wouldn't come into your sphere of experience otherwise. You know, so it was a great opportunity.

HANSEN: Stephen Hague, let me ask you the same question. What did you learn about the creative process in watching and listening to all these artists making music together?

Mr. HAGUE: Well, particularly on the - you know, working with the recordings and more or less after the fact, hearing things in isolation and realizing that one performance would not have happened if it hadn't been responding to another previous performance or, you know, these people from diverging musical cultures being in a room at the same time. Just amazing some of the things that happened that would never have had an opportunity to have happened in any other format, really. You know, which is the great thing about the project. It was a really unique opportunity for these people to get together.

And also there is a sense of joy in the recordings. And even in some of the extended jams that I was dealing with sometimes, where people seemed to be looking ideas, some were kind of coming in from left field with something, and suddenly it would set up a whole chain reaction of things amongst the other players. And it's just really a great thing to be a part of.

(Soundbite of "Big Blue Ball")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) It's so clear that the other side of maybe. Yes, it's clear that no one sees it all, It's so clear that you just living out of love...

Unidentified Man #3: On a big blue ball no trouble at all.

Mr. GABRIEL: I just think music is a language of communication that doesn't - shouldn't exclude anyone. It's a great means of connecting and communicating emotion and ideas, and I know it's been said a thousand times and it's a cliche, but it became very real for us at those sessions.

HANSEN: "Big Blue Ball" is released Tuesday on Real World Records. Peter Gabriel and your colleagues, Karl and Stephen, thank you so much.

Mr. HAGUE: Thank you.

Mr. WALLINGER: It's a pleasure.

Mr. GABRIEL: Thank you very much, Liane.

(Soundbite of "Big Blue Ball")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Yes, it's clear that you're just living out of love...

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) On a big blue ball, no trouble at all.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) The other side of maybe. It's so clear that...

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) On a big blue ball, no trouble at all.

HANSEN: You can hear full songs from "Big Blue Ball" in the music section of This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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