Roger Waters: ‘I called Putin a gangster – that may have been unfair’

Roger Waters - Rii Schroer
Roger Waters - Rii Schroer

It has not been a quiet week for Roger Waters. “You are anti-Semitic to your rotten core,” novelist Polly Samson told the rock star on Twitter. “Also a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac.”

Every word demonstrably true,” chipped in her husband David Gilmour, the 76-year-old Pink Floyd singer and guitarist. Naturally, his ex-bandmate Waters, 79, rejected the “incendiary and wildly inaccurate” portrayal.

Waters and Gilmour spent the 1970s collaborating on some of the most successful albums ever made, and subsequent decades hurling insults at each other. “It’s really disappointing these rather elderly gentlemen are still at loggerheads,” as the band’s drummer Nick Mason put it in 2018. After this week, a reconciliation looks less likely than ever.

The latest spat follows an interview Waters gave to German newspaper Berliner Zeitung in which, not for the first time, he compared the state of Israel to Nazi Germany. After accusing Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid”, he went on to call the USA “the main aggressor” in the Russia-Ukraine war, a stance that seems to have gone down well with Russia, who invited him to speak at a UN Security Council hearing on Ukraine on Wednesday. He called the invasion “illegal” but “not unprovoked”.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he went much further. The idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “unprovoked” is, in Waters’s view, “f-----g insane”. “Nazis,” he tells me, echoing Russian propaganda, are “in control of the government” in the war-torn country.

Over four impassioned hours, Waters gives vent to the full range of his often divisive, sometimes contradictory opinions, while his interviewer struggles to get a word in edgeways. Waters has strong views on – in no particular order – China, Spotify, Ecuador, Biden, Haiti, Brexit, Putin and, inevitably, Israel (of which more later). He wants to share all of them, before getting round to the reason he’d invited me to meet him.

I’d been promised details of a major new musical project, one that may land Waters in yet more hot water. For months, Waters has been secretly working on a new version of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic journey through life and death, sanity and madness, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973).

He has re-recorded it from scratch, without the involvement or even knowledge of any of his old bandmates. He’s still polishing the final details, but plays me a full-length cut. At the time of writing, I’m one of just a handful of people to have heard it from start-to-finish. What I hear comes as a genuine surprise. (More on that, too, later.)

Waters is planning a lavish vinyl release, but this might prove tricky. Pink Floyd’s legacy has been the cause of much bitter debate. Waters quit Pink Floyd in 1985, expecting it to dissolve without him. But it didn’t. As a result, Gilmour and Mason, the only other surviving members, own the band’s name. “Faux Floyd,” as Waters calls them, “went touring round the world and made millions and millions and millions of dollars.” (By one newspaper’s estimate, Waters is $130 million (£108 million) richer than Gilmour, which may offer some consolation.)

David Gilmour and Polly Samson have been vocal about Roger Waters this week - Clara Molden for The Telegraph
David Gilmour and Polly Samson have been vocal about Roger Waters this week - Clara Molden for The Telegraph

After founding member Syd Barrett had, as Waters puts it, “gone loopy” (a 1968 breakdown following heavy drug-use), Waters had taken on the brunt of songwriting duties. “They said I was autocratic,” he says, still clearly hurt, decades after the split. But perhaps there was a grain of truth to that description. Waters is one of his generation’s most gifted songwriters, but famously uncompromising. In our conversation, he jokingly sums up his attitude to Gilmour in the Floyd years like this: “You play the guitar and sing and do as you’re bloody well told.”

Waters’s problem with the rest of Floyd, he says, was that they “can’t write”. “Well, Nick never pretended. But Gilmour and Rick [Wright, the keyboardist]? They can’t write songs, they’ve nothing to say. They are not artists!” He shouts the last two words. “They have no ideas, not a single one between them. They never have had, and that drives them crazy.” It’s oddly poignant, hearing him berate Wright (who died in 2008) in the present tense. It’s as if keeping the petty rivalry alive is a way of keeping Wright alive. Wright’s final solo album, he says, is “not as vacuous as Drake, but it’s pretty vacuous”.

A recent reissue of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals was delayed for four long years – and that was just due to a squabble over liner notes. Now Waters is planning to release a rival version of Pink Floyd’s most famous record, without Pink Floyd’s permission. I’m no copyright expert, but might there be some obstacles to that? Waters smiles: “I have no idea.”

Pink Floyd together in 1968 (Clockwise from left, Nick Mason, Dave Gilmour, Roger Waters and Rick Wright) - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pink Floyd together in 1968 (Clockwise from left, Nick Mason, Dave Gilmour, Roger Waters and Rick Wright) - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After we speak, his rep phones up to say the album – originally set for March – has been pushed back to May, as Waters still hasn’t quite finished tinkering with the recordings. A big concert that was meant to launch it in March has also been postponed, probably to May, and moved to a different venue. It all sounds a bit shambolic, but they assure me the release is definitely happening.

Waters is adamant that Dark Side is his to muck about with however he sees fit. “I wrote The Dark Side of the Moon. Let’s get rid of all this ‘we’ c--p! Of course we were a band, there were four of us, we all contributed – but it’s my project and I wrote it. So… blah!” (Waters, who wrote the album’s lyrics, is credited with composing three of its 10 tracks, and co-writing music for two others.)

With its light-refracting prism logo, The Dark Side of the Moon is the rare album that justifies that overused word, iconic. “The Dark Side of the Moon has flash – the true flash that comes from the excellence of a superb performance,” Rolling Stone’s critic wrote on its first release, exactly 50 years ago this March. It went on to become the fourth bestselling album in history, shifting 50 million copies – one of them to a 13-year-old me. It was the first album I bought. I spent much of my teenage years in my bedroom listening to it on rotation rather than, say, going outside to meet girls. (I’ve no regrets.)

Critics agree it’s an unassailable classic. Which makes Waters’s new project not just brave, but near-blasphemous: remake Dark Side? Why not rewrite Hamlet, or reshoot Citizen Kane?

Arriving for our interview, I’m itching to hear the new version. But first comes a tour of his Hampshire bolthole. An architecture student before he joined Pink Floyd, Waters designed an extension that blends seamlessly with the centuries-old building. The house looks over a river (where he fly-fished for years before moving in), and used to belong to the local Master of the Hunt. Waters campaigned against the hunting ban, but isn’t “enough of a horseman to hunt foxes on horseback” himself.

Hidden away behind electric gates (with a formidable security system), it’s the most beautiful house I’ve ever entered without paying. Waters says he doesn’t spend much time there. He’s more often in his Long Island home, where he spent the Covid lockdowns.

Waters – who has handsome aquiline features, sharp eyes, and a build halfway between slim and gaunt – pads barefoot from room to room, playing show-and-tell. Look: an original Burne-Jones. Look: a glass trophy he was given at Berlin’s Cinema for Peace event in 2009. “They were giving Gorbachev exactly the same thing they were giving me! Meeting him was just wonderful. We got into a bearhug type relationship… As he got older, I got more and more invitations to his birthday parties.”

With Gorbachev for the Cinema For Peace in 2009 - Anita Bugge/WireImage
With Gorbachev for the Cinema For Peace in 2009 - Anita Bugge/WireImage

In the library, I’m touched by a photo of his father, whose death in the Second World War, when Waters was still an infant, haunts so many of his songs. In the study, there’s a portrait of his great-grandfather, a Liberal MP, its frame puzzlingly studded with feathers. “Each of these feathers is plucked from a dead cormorant that I’ve shot with a rifle on this river,” Waters explains.

Outside a window, a woman walks beside the river. It looks like Waters’s former chauffeur and fifth wife, Kamilah, whom he married in 2021, when she was 43 and he 78. He’s said he was won over by her cheekbones.

Later, out in the drizzly garden, I naively compliment a tree. “It’s not a tree,” Waters corrects me. “It’s a 200-year-old wisteria.” It had grown around an old well, and he reluctantly agrees to pose with it for a photo. In conversation, Waters is animated and charming (until he gets stuck in a rant). But whenever he stops talking, his face comes to rest in a melancholy expression. Hunched between the wisteria’s knotted branches, still barefoot on the wet grass, in his black trousers and black jumper, he looks like a sad crow.

Back inside, he shows me a striking painting by Peter Blake of his daughter India, one of his three children from previous marriages. His son Harry used to be part of his touring band, and now plays in a tribute act touring Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall. Waters offered to give him advice – heck, even lend a few props – but says Harry wasn’t interested. On Thursday that Wall tribute is in Nuremberg. I wonder if dad’s Berliner Zeitung interview will be good or bad for ticket-sales.

Waters doesn’t spend as much time at his Hampshire bolthole as he does at his Long Island home - Rii Schroer
Waters doesn’t spend as much time at his Hampshire bolthole as he does at his Long Island home - Rii Schroer

The Wall is Waters’s masterpiece, a rock opera (and later film) about a jaded rock star called Pink. A quarter of a million people watched Waters perform it in Berlin in 1990, chanting “tear down the wall!” near the ruins of the city’s dividing line. It was arguably the highlight of his live career.

The Wall has a dark, troubling story. Cut off from the world by his wealth and fame, Pink loses his grip on reality. His concerts warp into surreal rallies, in which he delivers anti-Semitic, fascistic rants.

To his detractors, Waters has become Pink. When his This Is Not A Drill tour – which features a barrage of political slogans on giant screens – reached New York last year, it was picketed by protesters calling him a “Jew-hater”. The Times of Israel sent a reporter to watch the show. “A vague call for ‘Palestinian rights’ amidst a laundry list of other slogans is not Jew-hatred,” the reporter concluded. “For the many who believe you can be critical of Israel without having a bias against Jewish people, his show toes that line.”

Still, Polish venues have cancelled his gigs, and Waters says he is “verboten” in Germany, due to the accusations of anti-Semitism that have dogged him for years. There’s “not a single millisecond of anti-Semitism anywhere in my life”, he tells me, and I’m convinced he means what he says.

In Waters’s mind, there’s a clear line between his legitimate criticism of Israel’s government – which includes supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement – and genuine anti-Semitic slurs. To anyone outside his mind, that line was crossed by some of his more alarming comments. “The Right-wing rabbinate [...] is so bizarre,” he said in 2013. “They believe that everybody that is not a Jew is only on Earth to serve them.”

Speaking of his bandmates, Waters says ‘they have no ideas, not a single one between them’ - Rii Schroer
Speaking of his bandmates, Waters says ‘they have no ideas, not a single one between them’ - Rii Schroer

Even his most sympathetic fans would admit Waters has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth. When we finally sit down to talk music, he begins the interview by complaining about something another journalist once said about him. For minutes that feel like hours, we sit in silence as he scrolls on his phone, trying to find the exact phrase that annoyed him.

“Basically what he says,” Waters sighs, giving up, “is that I stick to whatever it is that I believe, and my side of any argument, in spite of the evidence.”

Well, can he give an example of a time he’s changed his mind due to the evidence?

“Yes, an article I wrote about three months ago calling Vladimir Putin a gangster… That may have been unfair.” He explains that he’s become a keen listener to The Duran, a podcast spin-off from a website that has published blogs linked to the anti-Nato hacking group Ghostwriter, and uses the Russian Empire’s two-headed eagle as a logo. After hearing their take on Russia, Waters now has more respect for Putin. “It may be that he’s leading his country to the benefit of all of the people of Russia.”

All of the people of Russia? Almost 200,000 of them who were sent to fight in Ukraine have become casualties of war in the past year. Wouldn’t it be more to the dead people’s benefit if they were alive? “You can’t really have this conversation at all until you go back to 2004, and until you read everything that [Nato-critical US political scientist John] Mearsheimer has written…” Waters begins to give me a history lesson.

“The Ukraine” – he’s punctilious about that “The” – “is a deeply divided country. In fact, it’s not really a country at all, it’s only been there since Khrushchev, 1956. So it’s a patchy sort of vague experiment.” How long does a country have to exist, for him to accept it as a country? “I’m very happy with Barbados [independent since 1966].”

Eventually, finally, at long last, I get to listen to the album. It turns out to be a curate’s egg; parts are very good indeed. Time, that young man’s lament for mortality, sounds terrific with his old man’s timbre. Breathe is wonderfully reimagined as a slow, acoustic groove. A country-tinged Money could be a late Johnny Cash cut, with Waters growling charismatically at the very bottom of his register.

But, surprisingly, Waters seems to have decided that what was wrong with the original album’s beautiful instrumental tracks was that they didn’t have Waters talking all over them. Now they do.

After a bad dream one night, he splurged down a description of it on his laptop, and recites the whole dreadful prose poem over On The Run unedited: “It was a revelation, almost Patmosian whatever that means… a fight with evil, in this case an apparently all-powerful hooded and cloaked figure… it brooked no rebuttal.”

This somehow ties in to his grand idea about following “the voice of reason” – in this dream, a bonfire with the voice of Atticus Finch – a phrase he uses constantly in our conversation, and which he says is the theme of the album. It was the message of the 1973 Dark Side, too, he says. So why has he remade it? “Because not enough people recognised what it’s about, what it was I was saying then.” This new version, he hopes, will hammer the point home.

Always following The Voice of Reason is good advice, or would be, if so many of history’s most unreasonable voices hadn’t presented themselves as precisely that.

Others on the album include Waters’s multi-instrumentalist collaborator Gus Seyffert, and Seyffert’s girlfriend, Azniv Korkejian (a brilliant Syria-born singer who performs as Bedouine), plus a Baptist minister on Hammond organ. Waters sings throughout, but only actually plays an instrument on one track, a terrific bass solo on Us and Them, which made me wish he’d played across the whole thing; it seems such a missed opportunity.

Many Floyd fans will enjoy the new Dark Side. It won’t replace the original; nor will it ruin Waters’s reputation. His comments in the press are more likely to do that. But he’s unlikely to stop making music – or provocative statements – any time soon. He says he’s already working on another album, The Bar. The title track is about an allegorical pub, a symbol for any place that welcomes open debate. The album is about the importance of talking to people you disagree with, even if some of their views appal you – rebutting them perhaps, but listening, rather than retreating into a corner of the internet that will only reinforce your existing beliefs. It’s a promising, well-intentioned concept. But after four hours in Waters’s allegorical bar, I leave in serious need of a drink.