LOS ANGELES — Maybe artistic freedom isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Peter Gabriel, the British rocker whose bold and innovative career choices musically, visually and theatrically would seem to make him the poster boy for the benefits of the unfettered artistic imagination.
Yet as he releases the latest manifestation of a constantly evolving vision — a new CD and a DVD/Blu-ray set from his “New Blood” tour for which he reconceived his own songs and favorites by other writers for full orchestra — Gabriel talks like a musical Dirty Harry: a man who not only knows his limitations but welcomes them.
“I always think that the best way to frustrate an artist is to give him absolute freedom,” Gabriel, 61, said in the same gentle, sandpapery voice that characterizes his signature songs “San Jacinto,” “Biko,” “Don’t Give Up,” “Red Rain,” “Shock the Monkey” and “Sledgehammer,” some of which he revisited as part of his collaboration with the New Blood Orchestra, some of which he intentionally left out.
“If you want to give artists some support, make rules about what they can’t do,” he said. “So I’ve been trying to generate those rules for myself. In this case, John (Metcalfe, arranger for the New Blood Orchestra) and I wanted to strip away the rock crutches: the guitars and drum kits. Obviously, we use classical percussion, but we thought this created a situation where I couldn’t hang on to the side any longer; I’d have to dive into the deep end of the pool and really explore the dynamic range of an orchestra. ... What wasn’t played was every bit as important as what was played.”
Gabriel looks at the “New Blood” CD, released this month, as an extension of last year’s “Scratch My Back” album and tour, in which Gabriel recorded his interpretations, with Metcalfe’s edgy orchestral arrangements, of songs he admires by musicians such as Lou Reed, David Bowie, Randy Newman, Stephin Merritt and Arcade Fire.
For the second leg of that tour, he included a larger dose of his own songs, newly arranged for orchestra. He alludes in the DVD to the originally planned second half of the “Scratch My Back” project — an album of other artists interpreting his songs — as still alive and well, albeit with no specific release date.
More than just adding strings to his best-known tunes, he and Metcalfe conceived a set list from the ground up.
Gabriel described the possibilities — and limitations — of working with the orchestra as “absolutely critical” in choosing which songs to adapt and which to avoid. Jagged violins and ominous cellos and basses lay the sinister undercurrent for “Intruder,” timpani provide the percussive thunder while violins and violas saw metronomically and insistent horns and woodwinds build the tension in “Rhythm of the Heat,” and strings pulse powerfully rather than sweetly caress for “In Your Eyes.”
“I didn’t want to do a hits record,” Gabriel said, “So ‘Sledgehammer,’ ‘Big Time’ and ‘Games Without Frontiers’ were consciously left out.” That didn’t, however, stop some hits-minded fans from shouting out those titles when Gabriel first brought the project to the Hollywood Bowl in spring of last year before embarking on a more extensive tour last fall and winter.
“I was also trying to choose songs that might fit together as a sequence,” he said. “I’m still old-fashioned enough to like an album that told me a story from start to finish. When I go to a film seminar, I may love the short films I see there, but I also sometimes want a film that may take an hour and 10 minutes or an hour and a half to get me to some other place.
“I’d rather have that when I want them than just the fast-food version for every little bit,” he said, “which is obviously the way the culture has gone.”
For the “New Blood” album, that left space for cuts such as “Intruder” from his 1980 “Peter Gabriel” album, “Digging in the Dirt” from 1992’s “Us” and “Darkness” from 2002’s “Up.”
The DVD/Blu-ray set, which arrived last week, also incorporates the evocative visuals that Gabriel, a mastermind of the music video in the early days of MTV, fully integrated into the New Blood performances. The “New Blood” DVD was shot at his performance this year in London, which was enhanced with 3-D visuals. (A deluxe three-disc Blu-ray version will be available.)
Yet another limitation arises in shifting from the live arena to home video: the drastically reduced size, which compromises the emotional impact those visuals contributed in the live setting. Gabriel embraces it as one of the givens of presenting his ideas across media platforms.
“We did the 3-D version of the show in London, and one thing I love about the 3-D gimmick is that you can sit inside a space,” Gabriel said of the presentation that included crimson-hued raindrops deluging the audience in “Red Rain,” among other special effects. “In the same way that we were born with two ears, so stereo seems more natural than mono — it’s spatial — somehow, I feel exactly the same way with the visual.
“You can hold a slow pan much longer in 3-D and deliver more than you can maybe in 2-D because people can sense it from the inside of the space rather than looking from the outside,” Gabriel said. “I don’t know if it’s perfect yet; it will be much easier when we don’t have to wear glasses. But I love the fact we can do that; maybe that will be that future of the visual medium.”