David Gilmour is the model rock-star plutocrat – modest, creative, generous. Until the talk turns to money… and the Rolling Stones. ‘How much do they need?’ he asks Nigel Farndale. ‘It’s like a sexual compulsion’.
An arrow of barking geese spirals down towards a lake. Horses stand dozily in meadows, swishing their tails against the early summer flies. There are copses of woodland here, and thickening hedgerows and, sometimes, because this parcel of West Sussex is owned by a rock star, fans. ‘There is a public footpath beyond those fields over there,’ David Gilmour says with a lethargic nod. ‘Fans do sometimes walk it and I see them videoing the house. On the whole, though, they leave us alone.’ The ‘house’ he refers to is a rambling, ivy-covered farmhouse with an Aga, the odd dog hair on the upholstery, and dozens of gymkhana rosettes – but no platinum discs, no leopardskin throws. The ‘us’ is his wife, the novelist Polly Samson, and four of his eight children (he has four from an earlier marriage, now grown up).
Standing barefoot in jeans and T-shirt, Gilmour seems a solid and unyielding figure with an angular head and an impassive and narrow stare. There is, you soon sense, depth below his still surface. He is a David, never a Dave. In fact he is David Gilmour CBE, partly in recognition of his philanthropy, which included giving the proceeds from the sale of his London house to the homeless charity Crisis: £4 million.
He is polite and friendly but also taciturn – almost introverted. When he speaks, it is softly, with a crack in his voice. The son of a Cambridge don, he is also what used to be called well-spoken. ‘We never wanted to pretend we were anything other than nice, middle-class boys,’ he says of his band, Pink Floyd. ‘We never pretended to be working-class, like Mick.’
You have to get into the rhythm of his speech, which is as measured and precise as his guitar playing. He also has a public school way of qualifying everything with ‘slightly’, ‘pretty’ and ‘fairly’, as if afraid of exaggeration. Perhaps it is simply that there is no need to exaggerate the Pink Floyd story, nor his. He was lead vocalist, lead guitarist and joint songwriter, with bassist Roger Waters, of one of the biggest rock bands in history. In their glory days – the 1970s – the big Pink Floyd concept albums broke records effortlessly. One in four British households is said to own a copy of their biggest, Dark Side of the Moon. Last summer, when the band reformed for Live8 after an acrimonious split 20 years ago, they stole the show.
When Gilmour released a new solo album earlier this year, on his 60th birthday, it went straight to number one. A good present, I say, as we sit down in his drawing-room. Long pause. ‘It’s hard to put into words, but I feel more proud of On an Island than anything else I’ve done. We’ve got a nice system in this room and we like to sit in here of an evening and play the whole album through, pretty loud, and it definitely still gives me a thrill. I rarely listen to albums after I’ve released them. Normally one has been over every note of every instrument so incessantly and anally that one is sick of it.’
He is not a man in a hurry. ‘With Pink Floyd we packed a whole career into two or three years, now it takes me a decade to do one bloody album. I think I’ve grown lazy in old age. Bits of music do nevertheless keep arriving serendipitously at my fingertips whenever I pick up a guitar and, after 10 years of jotting them down and not doing anything with them, it was starting to feel a bit rude to one’s muse.’
On an Island is, as Gilmour might say, pretty good. It is a warm and lyrical album with all the tonal beauty, washes of sound and soaring, atmospheric guitar playing Pink Floyd fans could hope for. When a melody comes to him, does he immediately know it is new? ‘The bane of my life is when muscle memory takes over and my fingers play a tune they are familiar with. You have to do something to get yourself out of that comfort zone and one way for me is playing a piano, or using a different guitar tuning. Otherwise it is like doodling.’
He has sometimes woken up with a new tune in his head. ‘It is very odd because you think surely that is something I have done before, but then you realise it isn’t. ‘Fat Old Sun’, which we have been doing on this tour [his current solo tour], I always thought I had nicked from somewhere. But in 30 years I’ve never found out where, so I guess I’ve got away with it.’
Oasis must feel like that all the time, I suggest. He half-smiles. ‘Oasis I can pin down in a second. I can usually work out the three different songs they have lifted.’
Most of the lyrics for the new album were written by his wife. ‘She can express my thoughts better than I can,’ Gilmour says. It is a telling comment. Polly thinks he is ‘a bit autistic’. Wives often say that of their husbands, I point out, but what does he think she means by it? ‘She thinks I’m not that articulate, and I tend to agree. She thinks my guitar does my speaking for me, better than I can with words. I can become quite selfish when I am in the final stages of recording an album. Me, me, me. But otherwise I am quite shy. That might seem like a paradox, but even on stage I am fairly hopeless at introducing myself. I can’t do the raconteur moments between songs.’ Long pause. ‘Also I’m not comfortable giving autographs. I don’t understand why people want them. I will walk round the block to avoid an autograph hunter.’
The theme of the new album – those Pink Floyd habits die hard – is mortality. One song, ‘This Heaven’, reflects Gilmour’s atheism. ‘There is an element of contended resignation in that song. It extols the virtues of living in the moment and accepting your mortality. Perhaps the closest I will get to immortality will be through Dark Side of the Moon. I think that record will go on being played for a while yet.’
He was 27 when Pink Floyd recorded it. ‘It was a very productive period but, when I think about it now, I don’t feel shocked at how young I was then. Hendrix, Otis Reading and Janis Jopling were all dead at about 27. All those people had had long, illustrious careers by then. Your twenties should be your high-energy, creative years. You could say that after Dark Side we had achieved all we wanted to, and certainly it was hard to get up and running with Wish You Were Here [in 1975].’
Back then he had long hair and androgynous good looks – he had been a male model briefly in his teens. He still has high cheekbones and full lips but has he found growing old and grey disturbing? Is that what the brooding on his mortality is about? ‘Not really. I look in the mirror and I see the same face I saw then. Some of the hair has gone, unfortunately. And I’ve put on some weight but I’m perfectly at ease with the ageing process.’
Does he have a narcissistic side? ‘Polly thinks I’m the least vain person she has ever met, but I have got my vanities, yes. I’m a bit embarrassed by that young chap at times. If I hear him speak, like in the Live at Pompeii DVD [a concert filmed in 1972], I do find it excruciating.’
Because? ‘Because he was pretentious and naive.’
Gilmour did all the usual rock ‘n’ roll things. He took his share of drugs and collected classic sports cars and vintage aircraft (he has a pilot’s licence). But none of it seemed to make much of a dent in his fortune. The Rich List has him down for about £75 million, but that is probably shy of the true figure. Does he even know what he is worth? ‘No, I don’t actually. And I would much rather drop quietly out of that list. It is all guesswork anyway. One can calculate what the value of one’s tangible assets are. I’m a director of Pink Floyd Music Ltd and if I wanted to sell my shares in that, with future royalties and what the name is worth, well…’ He exhales and shakes his head. ‘I haven’t a clue what someone would offer for that, but obviously it is a valuable asset. There are people who would be able to make much more from that than I do, because I and the others have certain limits to what we will allow to be done in our name. I suppose we owe it to fans not to allow, say, ‘Us and Them’ to be used in an advert. You have to respect their wishes.’
Corny question, I know, but does his money bring him happiness? ‘I don’t think much of my satisfaction is related to my material possessions, but then how would I know? I am happiest when going for a walk with my wife and children in the countryside and that is free.’
But can he imagine living in a caravan and being happy? ‘I’ve just been living in a caravan this last weekend, or rather a motor home, for the Badminton horse trials. I’m perfectly at ease with that sort of thing.’
Does it worry him that his children will have a skewed take on the world because of his wealth? ‘Yes, it does worry me and we are very active in trying to convince them that they are unusual in this. But they are not going to have it all their lives. They are going to have to earn it themselves. My younger children especially are clear on those realities, I think.’
His intention is to unburden himself of much of his wealth before he dies. ‘Children who are given money are emasculated. It’s a big disincentive to making your own way in life and I want my children to have the satisfaction that I have had from making my own way.’
I suggest that his wealth seems to make him unhappy, or at least guilty. ‘I do feel uncomfortable about the degree of wealth that comes with the territory I occupy. We live in a capitalist society, I suppose, and it is a matter of supply and demand. And I do look at other bands and think, well, we are a f— of a sight better than them. But it is extraordinarily perverse that I as a musician am paid so much more than, say, a doctor, or a nurse, or a teacher.’
Did he find the disparity of income between himself and his father, a zoology lecturer, embarrassing? He becomes animated, by his standards. ‘Yes, I did. I did. He’s retired now but he worked hard and did something of great value to the world, researching genetics. It felt obscene the way I was treated compared to him. There were moments when we were both embarrassed by it all.’
Does he look at some of his peers, such as the Rolling Stones, and wonder why they are still so driven by money; endlessly touring and milking their reputations? ‘I think it’s ridiculous, actually. Mick and Keith should get a life. It’s like a strange, sexual compulsion. How much do they need? I think a lot of it is the applause. It’s a powerful drug, 50,000 people appearing to adore you. I’m a big Stones fan but they haven’t done anything that matches their earlier stuff in years. As Bob Dylan shows, it doesn’t have to be that way. He can still come up with material that is completely new and interesting.’
The unexpectedly waspish tone of this comment makes you wonder whether the big Pink Floyd bust-up all those years ago was entirely the fault of Roger Waters – the usual theory. Throughout the 1970s the two men fought for artistic control of the band. Waters always took the prize for pomposity and, later, for animosity – he was spectacularly rude about his bandmates. Finally, in 1986, he launched a legal action to stop them from carrying on as Pink Floyd. The rancour descended into farce when Waters claimed to have patented the inflatable flying pig that features in Pink Floyd’s extravagant stage show, forcing the remaining three members to build another inflatable flying pig, with a pair of testicles added. Waters lost the court battle. Before he rang Gilmour to persuade him to take part in a one-off Pink Floyd performance at Live8 last summer, the two men had scarcely spoken for 20 years, apart from through their lawyers.
‘I do feel that I never did Roger any harm,’ Gilmour says now. ‘Yet he did his best to harm me. Live8 gave me some closure. It was good to get some of the bile that had been building up for 20 years out of the way. You don’t want to die with unhealed wounds. The enmity between Roger and me has been an uncomfortable and negative thing that I haven’t liked living with. It was good that the Pink Floyd story didn’t end on a sour note. Now we can be on civil terms and enjoy a chat once in a while.’ Have they stayed in touch since Live8? Pause. ‘No, we haven’t really, but we have emailed each other within the last months or so.’
Pink Floyd was the undoubted highlight of Live8, but there must have been a lot of egos to accommodate that night. ‘We were so nice and modest about it all that when they told us there were not enough dressing-rooms and we would have to share, we said OK, fine. Then we found out that everyone else had their own proper, assigned dressing-room because they had insisted on it. We had to share ours with Snow Patrol, or someone. I think we should have been slightly more superstar-ish about it.’ Don’t you just love that ‘or someone’?
After Live8, Pink Floyd were reportedly offered $200 million to tour America, but Gilmour quashed any speculation that the band might re-form permanently. He also announced that he would be donating to charity his share of the royalties from the upsurge in sales of the band’s albums. Even so, for all his magnanimity, it must have given Gilmour some satisfaction that his new solo album this year went to number one, while the solo efforts of Waters, the self-styled ‘creative genius’ without whom Pink Floyd could not exist, have languished.
That Roger Waters, I say, trying to goad a little; he was a megalomaniac, wasn’t he? ‘Possibly always, but, for a lot longer than people think, his megalomania was controllable.’ Pause. ‘But it’s a boring old subject. I think we worked pretty effectively together until after the Wall album in 1979. Besides, there is something to be said for creative tension. We did complement each other, Roger and me.’ Another pause. ‘I’ve got that again with Polly.’
What? She’s suing him? He almost laughs. ‘No, I mean that she has a different area of talent to mine. It is almost onomatopoeic, the marriage of her words and my music.’