What were the circumstances that led to the concert in Gdansk?
We were putting together a summer tour around Europe doing outdoor shows, and I specifically asked the promoters to find beautiful places that had a nice vibe to them, such as castles and old amphitheaters. Someone in Poland invited us to play at the Gdansk shipyards, which sounded like a great opportunity, and fit it in well with the rest of the tour.
You were involved with a lot of the album production as well as the playing.
I can’t help but stick my finger into everything. I’m a greedy person.
Phil Manzanera co-produced. How did you split up the duties?
We recorded every show in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and initially we were going to put together an album of material drawn from all of the performances. We compiled lists from people’s memories of which shows they thought were great, and Phil was the one who whittled it down, discarding whole shows and choosing tracks from others. He would pick out four or five versions of a song, and we would listen to those and pinpoint the best ones. Tracks from the Gdansk show kept appearing on all the lists, and eventually we concluded that they had more presence than most of the others, so we decided to use that entire show. Phil did an enormous amount of work putting it all together, and my role was then mostly to make sure everything fit right.
How did you select material to play on the tour?
I actually wrote out pretty much the complete discography of Pink Floyd and myself, and just went through it crossing out numbers that didn’t appeal to me for various reasons—but even after whittling it down, the list was still massive. We tried those songs out in rehearsal to see which ones fit well with the band, and in the end we still had more songs than we could play in a single show, so we started rotating them. We also tried to be flexible. For example, we never thought we’d play “On the Turning Away,” but we wound up doing it in Venice, without any rehearsal. Poor Steve Di Stanislao and Phil Manzanera had never played that song in their lives and were put on the spot, but they did a fantastically good job. We also did “A Great Day For Freedom” in Gdansk, because apart from being relevant, it had an orchestration by Michael Kamen, which we were able to perform with the orchestra there.
Speaking of orchestrations, how did you go about creating them?
I had met Zbigniew Preisner and loved his work, and he was very keen to work with me. I knew that I wanted to have an orchestra on some of the songs on the On An Island album from the beginning, such as “A Pocketful of Stones,” “Castellorizon,” and “Red Sky at Night.” And there were some that I hadn’t really thought of putting an orchestra on, but Zbigniew would ring up and say, “I’ve got a lovely little part for this song.” Eventually he said, “I think I should just do something for everything.”
In terms of the actual process, it varied. For example, with “Pocket,” I just played the basic parts on a piano. In fact, I went over to Poland with my wife Polly and we met up in his studio, knocked about an arrangement for a day, and he came up with the chart. In other cases, he already had fairly completed versions of the songs to work with. Sometimes I would give him a line—sing it or play it on the guitar—and he would weave it into an existing orchestration. And some things were just completely his ideas. He made it very easy for me. We then were able to record them together at Abbey Road, and if any part wasn’t quite working right for me, he’d just go out with his rubber and change a few notes right on the score. He’s brilliant, and he did a fantastic job.
Were the live orchestrations the same as on the album?
Do you approach writing solo material in the same way that you did when you were writing music for Pink Floyd?
I don’t think there’s any conscious difference in the way that I write. The methods of writing—or remembering little pieces of music that I come up—have changed over the years with the technology. But I don’t think there’s any real difference between the Pink Floyd stuff and the recent solo stuff. You could say that my first solo album was a reaction to the time we spent doing Pink Floyd music—more based on just going out and jamming and having some fun—and the second solo album was slightly more consciously trying to get away from Pink Floyd’s sound a little bit. But after that I really had to own up to myself that the Pink Floyd sound is what I do really like. So, when writing the music for On an Island, I was not trying to be either the same as, or different than, Pink Floyd in any way whatsoever. I was able to really just be me for the first time.
You mentioned writing at the piano. Do you have a preference for how you get started on a piece, or is it different each time?
For the past few years I have had a piano in the house, and acoustic guitars, so a lot more of the stuff is based around those. I think that possibly I should spend a bit more time over in my studio plugging in and thrashing on the electric guitar, to try to get that electric feel to things a little bit more. Maybe we could have done it with a couple of songs that were slightly more up-tempo on the album. Things you write depend on the mood you’re in, and if you spend all your time near pianos and acoustic guitars, it’s going to show [laughs].
Do you write lyrics or music first?
For me it is very much music first, and the lyrics come along later. Hopefully, the music will inspire a lyric. Most of the lyrics for On an Island were written either by Polly, or the two of us together. For example, when she heard the backing track for “The Blue,” which had a demo vocal on it, it was immediately obvious to her that the song was about the sea. She recognized it instantly, whereas that’s not something that I would have come up with. There’s only one song that I can remember having written words for first, and that was “Sorrow,” on the A Momentary Lapse of Reason album. —Barry Cleveland