“I was in Vegas for five weeks, and I think you should only stay in Vegas for two days,” Gavin Friday says with a cheeky laugh.
He's fresh off spending over a month with Irish rock band U2 in Vegas. They're currently playing a residency at the new high-tech Sphere venue (don't worry — more on that later).
“I'm good,” he said. “I'm a little jet-lagged as I've just come back from America. But good.”
Similarly, I took a trip to Vegas to witness the Sphere show. It was a quick one — I was back and forth in two days — unlike Friday's trip.
“And there's no casinos in the Sphere,” Friday jokes. “Which is a good thing!”
U2 fans will know who Friday is. If Brian Epstein was the “fifth Beatle,” Friday is the fifth member of U2. While he didn't manage the band, he's been an integral part of their live shows.
The Sphere is no exception. U2 is taking on their biggest task yet: Justifying a move to Las Vegas that doesn't suggest they're in the the twilight of their career. Yours truly doesn't think so, and nor does Friday. During our conversation, Friday was more than happy to open up about the band's Sphere shows. He talked through the show's biggest highlight, “So Cruel,” U2 staying true to the Achtung Baby song arrangements, how he actually met Bono (and a key detail the singer leaves out when telling the story), and how Peter & The Wolf came to be.
This was a fascinating interview to conduct, and a true pleasure. Hopefully, you're “ready for what's next” as Bono sings on “Zoo Station.”
Gavin Friday-Peter & The Wolf interview
ClutchPoints: Congratulations on Peter & The Wolf. I was not overly familiar with this subject material, but I really loved your adaptation of it. You and Bono are both very involved in this, and was there a reason you guys were so drawn to the project?
Gavin Friday: Well, the truth is, we did a version of this 20 years ago, just [in] a book and CD format. And we did that quite spontaneously. I had been doing work for the Irish Hospice [Foundation] for a number of years, and we came up with the idea. Let's do a version of Peter & The Wolf, but a new reinterpretation. And I recorded it and we got Bono to do the drawings and it came out in Bloomsbury and it sold really well.
And about five years ago, I got the rights of it back.
Twenty years ago, we were always talking about “Let's animate this,” you know, lockdown creeped in and we said, “Hey, why don't we try and pitch this Peter & The Wolf animated story?”
BMG Records, who are my record company, they went out and started that task and it came in very quickly with HBO — now Max — and it was basically a lockdown project. We did most of the sort of creation of the animation over Zoom calls, believe it or not, as the whole world lived for two years, as you know.
CP: So the drawings that are in the film and are based on Bono's drawings, were those done back with that book you were talking about years ago?
GF: Yes. The original drawings were done in 2003, and 20 years ago, and we took those drawings and it was possibly the most difficult thing because his drawings are quite sort of expressionistic and blatant and to try and animate them would be a very difficult thing.
Also, the other thing [is], just to jump, Peter & The Wolf is an old Russian-Ukrainian fairytale that was put to music by [Sergei] Prokofiev a hundred years ago and has been recorded by many, many people from David Bowie to Bill Clinton, even. And so to rerecord it with a different slant.
And then with this movie, one of the first questions when HBO started working on it, they said to me, “Well, you can't kill a wolf in 2023. And you don't want to send a wolf to jail in 2023.” And I says, “That's correct.”
“And what sex is the wolf?” And I says, “I never even thought [laughs].”
So we had to reinvent the story and taking into consideration the Irish Hospice and I mean, most of us [in] this day and age have some people that have had the care of hospice care. And it's a really important thing, especially when there's no funding anywhere for that important time of dying. So we started subtly with the consideration of, How do children deal with loss or grief? That was sort of the pinnacle.
And we went about reinventing the story, as you know, you've seen it, the big bad wolf really is— and the Bono's animations, they were really the imagination of a kid of what is fearful or what's dangerous, and that's why you see that sort of chalk drawing around the wolf. And to me, it's quite magical. It's actually making kids think outside of the box rather than in the box. And when Peter realizes [this], and he frees the wolf and all the drawing goes, he realizes that there's nothing really to be afraid of.
It's all in your head, you know? So that's really the sentiment, if I'm making sense.
CP: Since Bono's drawings are from years ago, was the narration that you did redone over COVID, did you rerecord them?
GF: Yes, that narration was done early this year when the movie was complete. And we had to, because certain things you thought 20 years ago [changed] — you don't want to send a wolf to the zoo or kill it. We totally rewrote it and reinvented it.
CP: You've done a lot of music recording, so can you compare being in the studio for music vs. voice-acting?
GF: They are very different, but as a performer myself, I've always been very physical and dramatic, and I have done theater and some movies, so the actor in me was always sort of waiting to creep out [laughs].
And also, it's a fairytale, but it's a bit of a scary fairytale. You wanted to sort of have that tone — like, I'm in love with old-school sort of Hansel and Gretel fairytales, rather than the modern ones. So that whole [changes into a deep, gravelly voice]. “This is the story of Peter & The Wolf,” sort of gently [pulls] them in, and sort of scaring them, but not scary. And also. taking the musical element [and] making it sort of quite hip and contemporary so the parent or the adult that is watching the movie or listening to the album can also enjoy it.
CP: And with your narrator voice, you lean into the gravelly, deeper voice. I didn't realize that you were on U2's remix of “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” but your voice here reminded me of that.
GF: That's me. It's, that's me. Me and that lovely girl from Arcade Fire (Regine Chassagne) — she also sang that.
CP: I'd heard some samples of other Peter & The Wolf musical arrangements, but yours did sound unique. I'm not well-versed enough in music to be able to tell the difference, but is there something unique that you brought when you were arranging this?
GF: Well, it was myself and a musical guy I've worked with for many years called Maurice Seezer. And Prokofiev originally wrote it to teach his children the instruments of an orchestra. So the little bird was a flute; Peter was strings; the wolf was a bass and a clarinet.
There are very many different recordings — I have a collection of about 30 different [versions] from Bowie to Bing Crosby to Bill Clinton to whatever. And I went, “Kids aren't really that interested in an orchestra anymore. They're just interested in the story or the sounds.”
So in my mind, when we were working on the arrangement, I imagined even before we thought this was going to be a movie of any [kind]: What would Tim Burton do if he was making the music?
So we sort of got rid of the idea of of an introduction to the orchestra and more went [with] treat[ing] it almost like [a] cinematic score. The melodies are very well-known, we kept strictly to the arrangement, but we got rid of the orchestra and brought in accordions and banjos and strange percussion.
CP: I really liked that song at the end that you wrote with Bono — I hope it gets put out on digital or vinyl at some point — but was Bowie an inspiration for it? I was listening to it, and I thought, Oh, this must be a Bowie song before I realized it was an original.
GF: I'd say that's just Bowie's influence on me [smiles].
My first love was David Bowie when I was a young boy. That's a compliment!
And it'll be on digitally released next week.
CP: I did read something about your relationship with Bono. I think it was in one of the books that they've written, U2 by U2, and he tells a story of how you met, saying that you were trying to steal something from his house. What's want to hear your side of that story?
GF: That's incorrect [smiles]! I mean, we were 14 years of age [laughs].
The great thing about biographies, I'm going to write my own soon, [is] because [you can be like] “No, it wasn't like that — it was like this!”
Myself and a friend of mine called Damien, who's since passed, we gate-crashed a party of Bono's when we were 14.
We opened up the fridge — and his [Bono's] mom had just died — and he used to have no food. But his brother worked in the airport and the fridge was full of airport dinners, like airplane dinners. And Damien, my friend, took two of them out of the fridge and put them in his pocket just for the f**k of it and was caught and a fight broke out [laughs].
So that's the real origins of that story. He didn't talk about the airport dinners [smiles].
CP: You did mention coming back from Vegas, and it sounds like you kind of helped pace U2's Sphere set. Is that correct?
GF: Well, I've been working with them since I've been 14 — it's the truth [laughs]. We formed bands at the same time and we've always been each other's bodyguards and whatever.
I [have] known the band longer than anyone other than their wives, and I tend to be a glue with them. And we speak the same language because we're musicians, so it bypasses the politics and just goes to the art and the music.
Yeah, I suppose I'm their midwife, if you want to put it technically — I'd be their midwife for any show they do [smiles].
CP: One of the things I noticed was that “Even Better Than the Real Thing” sounded more like its original arrangement from the Achtung Baby album. Was that something you discussed and urged U2 to do, or was that all the band's decision?
GF: They decided. And even “One” is back to the original version — there's no strings, it's just the raw version.
So yeah, I think ultimately they did want to be quite authentic to the music, but visually bring it to another level and a new meaning. The “ZooTV” tour 30 years ago was all almost a premonition of what we're living in, like mass information, fake information, where the phone is God, news is God, and who the hell is God?
We decided to sort of not go there because we did that 30 years ago and to look at possibly the most important thing in the world: Mother Earth. It's [the Sphere shows] a poetic poem to Mother Earth.
Have you seen the show?
CP: Yes, I went to the second one.
GF: So you get that whole thing about the fragility of earth. That's really what it's about.
CP: One of the songs you hyped up beforehand was “So Cruel,” one of my favorite U2 songs, and it didn't disappoint. But out of all the songs on Achtung Baby, that was the one that hasn't been touched really at all. That was played a few times in the '90s. That's about it—
CP: Right. Was “So Cruel” the song that the band was most nervous to dust off? Or did they nail it straight from rehearsals?
GF: I think they were nervous [about] it, yeah, and they were going to do a different interpretation and then they went back during the last rehearsals [during] the last couple of weeks to the authentic version with piano, they weren't going to do a guitar one. So I think they were nervous.
And then they just went, “You know what? The truth doesn't lie. Let's just do it as it was.”
CP: When you said they were going to do a guitar version, was that closer to the solo Bono performance for From the Sky Down?
GF: No, it was a full band [arrangement] with no piano. That's what they were thinking, but not what they did. They did the original.
Peter & The Wolf is streaming on Max.