Roger Waters does not want you to ignore his politics. The 79-year-old’s This Is Not A Drill Tour opens with Waters imitating a plummy British announcer and telling the audience: “If you’re one of those ‘I love Pink Floyd but I can’t stand Roger’s politics’ people, you might do well to fuck off to the bar, right now. Thank you, and please enjoy the show.”
Waters certainly has a lot of politics. He is a vocal supporter of a free Palestine and Black Lives Matter, and has spoken out against right-wing demagogues including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and former U.S. president Donald Trump.
He has also accused the Syrian rescue group the White Helmets of being “fake,” against all evidence to the contrary; said the Syrian opposition faked chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad, a contention no credible independent expert agrees with; and recently wrote an open letter to the Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, calling on her to encourage her husband to sue for peace with Russia — a move that would be tantamount to acquiescing to Putin. (In our interview, he dismisses well-documented accounts of Russian war crimes in Ukraine as “lies, lies, lies.”)
What he sees as his advocacy for Palestine has for some crossed the line from legitimate criticism into bigotry, whether deliberate or otherwise. Waters’ previous shows have had, for example, giant pigs emblazoned with the Star of David, alongside other symbols. Waters has repeatedly insisted his problem is Israel, not with Jews more broadly. However, as we discuss the subject during our interview, Waters argues that some Jewish people in the U.S. and U.K. bear responsibility for the actions of Israel, “particularly because they pay for everything.”
Waters wants his public to accept him — his music, politics, and all, and to take it seriously — and so Rolling Stone dispatched me, an investigative journalist, to interview him.
Waters says most of us are fed our narratives instead of being able to independently come to our own conclusions by the “completely controlled” media, which is “monopolized by the powers that be and by the government … oh, my God, Rolling Stone must be part of it.”
That compliant media, he continues, feeds us the idea that Russia and China are evil, and we by contrast are good. He sees things very differently.
“Of course, we — when I say we, I’m now speaking as a taxpayer in the United States — are not. We are the most evil of all by a factor of at least 10 times,” he says. “We kill more people. We interfere in more people’s elections. We, the American empire, is doing all this shit.”
This factor of 10 idea, I suggest, might not play all that well to any citizen of Ukraine right now — especially given the mounting evidence of war crimes we’ve seen, including mass graves, the use of rape as a weapon of war, targeting humanitarian convoys, and more.
“You’ve seen it on what I’ve just described to you as Western propaganda,” he retorts. “It’s exactly the obverse of saying Russian propaganda; Russians interfered with our election; Russians did that. It’s all lies, lies, lies, lies.”
I try to push gingerly through Waters’ brick wall. I haven’t just seen things via corporate media, I say — I’ve got friends in Ukraine, and friends who went to Ukraine as journalists. I’ve even got friends who are Ukrainian journalists. I’m relying on testimony of people I know who’ve seen things with their own eyes. And it’s not only Ukrainian officials and Western media reporting atrocities — there are war crimes investigations already underway.
This does not go far with Waters. “Maybe…” he wonders, before throwing a curveball. “Don’t forget, I’m on a kill list that is supported by the Ukrainian government. I’m on the fucking list, and they’ve killed people recently.… But when they kill you, they write ‘liquidated’ across your picture. Well, I’m one of those fucking pictures.”
“And when I read stuff, which I have done in blogs and things, criticizing me for my … I always go and look and see where it came from. And it’s amazing how often when I’ve done the hunt and hunted it down, it is da, da, da.ukraine.org,” he says, making up a hypothetical Ukrainian web address.
Waters’ claim isn’t true, but it isn’t completely false, either. There is a list maintained by a far-right Ukrainian organization that contains hundreds of thousands of enemies of Ukraine, from alleged members of the Wagner private military company to journalists accused of cooperating with puppet governments in the Donbas region. The site, which has been roundly internationally condemned — but not taken down by the Ukrainian government itself — claims not to be a kill list but rather “information for law enforcement authorities and special services.”
The impressive visuals for Waters’ tour at one point flash up the message “You can’t have occupation and human rights.” “I want[ed] to put ‘Fuck the Israeli occupation,’ he says … and then, ‘Oh no, the words are too long.’” – Given that message, what is it that makes opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestine a worthy cause, but Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion a bad one?
“Because it’s an unnecessary war,” he says. “And those people should not be dying. And Russia should not have been encouraged to invade the Ukraine [Waters insists he is not making a political point by saying “the Ukraine”] after they tried for 20 years to avoid it by suggesting diplomatic measures to Western governments.”
In other words, it’s NATO’s fault that Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
We’ve reached an impasse, and I’m left no more sure whether resisting Russia’s invasion is wrong because it risks nuclear escalation — suggesting human rights are only worth fighting for when it’s low-risk — or whether it’s wrong because Russia should be allowed its sphere of influence, which seems a return not just to imperialism but also to Great Game politics.
We need to move on, I suggest, because it’s important to talk about Syria too. Waters has repeatedly condemned U.S. intervention in Syria, which was initially based on not only tackling ISIS but also supporting secular resistance to Bashar al-Assad. I note that by 2017, the U.S. had carried out 11,235 strikes on Syria — but during the same period, Russia admitted to 71,000 strikes.
“There’s a slight difference, in that they were there at the invitation of the Syrian government,” Waters quickly notes. I wonder aloud whether the government of Bashar al-Assad, which was elected with 95.1 percent of the vote in the latest ‘election’ is really a legitimate one. Predictably, Waters has a counterpoint: “I mean, there’s no fair elections in the United States because it’s all bought and paid for because of Citizens United.”
Reminding myself that Waters professes that the core of his political philosophy is the U.N. declaration of human rights, I try again. “A friend of mine who lives here [in the U.K.] now was beaten and tortured, he was electrocuted in Assad’s cells,” I tell Waters. “And most of the opposition in Syria is nothing like ISIS. It’s driven by secular people who want freedom. And Assad and Russia have bombed them into oblivion and tortured them and forced them out of the country…”
Waters demurs to the possibility that this happens and agrees to take it on trust that my friend was indeed tortured. But we are quickly back to the suggestion that chemical attacks in Syria against the opposition were staged — partly because Waters claims Assad would have no motive to do so, as it would encourage the West to intervene, even though in reality it didn’t. Waters has “spent a great deal of time studying it” and is satisfied with his conclusions.
“I can live with myself and go to sleep at night knowing that the story that is being sold by the Western media is propaganda, and it is not the truth. I know the truth,” he says. “And I’m sure I’m right about that. The rest of it, your mate who was tortured, I’m sure you are right. I’m not sure you are right, but I would be prepared to believe you.”
As we flounder, I ask Waters what his politics actually are — what unifies these often extreme and incongruent views? “Politically, my platform is very small,” he says. “It’s just the declaration of universal human rights in Paris, in 1948. All 29 or 30 articles, however many there are.”
Beyond the 30 articles of the U.N.’s declaration of human rights, Waters professes only one more core political concept — that of “the bar,” a “safe place” where people can “exchange our feelings and ideas freely and frankly without fear of retribution.”
If Waters and I are in the “bar,” it’s a pretty fractious dive bar, at best. Waters is charming and courteous, but our conversation repeatedly generates into animated shouting and interruption — and that’s before we inevitably get to the issue of Israel.
“I’m absolutely not antisemitic, absolutely not,” Waters says. “That hasn’t stopped all the assholes trying to smear me with being an antisemite.”
What follows is a back-and-forth as we try to establish some basics. Waters doesn’t accept the standard IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism. Does the state of Israel have a right to exist? “Saying Israel does not have a right to exist as an apartheid state, any more than South Africa did or anywhere else would, is not antisemitic,” Waters counters.
Waters says what he criticizes is “the fact that they are a supremacist, settler colonialist project that operates a system of apartheid.” This quickly descends into ancient history — the Jewish people have a history in the region of Israel that goes back millennia, I say. Doesn’t that make “settler” quite an offensive term? “No, it’s not. Those people are not from there. They are not the descendants of indigenous people who’ve ever lived there.” This is not only untrue for many Israeli citizens, it also serves to minimize the horror and suffering that came before the founding of Israel, and the desire for a Jewish homeland that instilled.
I try to tackle one more question relating to Israel. In 2020, Waters sang the lyric “We’ll walk hand in hand and we’ll take back the land, from the Jordan river to the sea.” Was Waters aware that “from the river to the sea” is a term often used to describe either the destruction of Israel or the relocation of all of Israel’s Jewish population to somewhere else — and thus received with horror by many Israeli people and Jewish people alike?
“No, bollocks. It’s just a geographical description of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It has no connotation for me apart from that,” he says. “Nobody’s suggesting that they all have to leave, which is what they suggested to the indigenous people there in 1948.”
I wrap up the interview shortly afterwards — with neither of us having convinced the other of anything. Waters’ live show repeatedly flashes up one particular message that clearly compels him: “Control the narrative, rule the world.”
I leave the interview thinking it’s almost the opposite: Waters is an example of how we can construct our own narrative and twist the world to fit in, with no amount of mainstream media, propaganda, or even real-world facts and evidence able to let any light in. It leads us to a nihilistic place, where we are only able to feel compassion for victims that fit our personal narrative, minimising or even actively denying the suffering of others. It’s sufficiently bleak that I feel almost wistful for a world with a shared narrative, even if it’s one controlled by a oh-so-malign media.
Roger Waters and I have managed to avoid having a bar fight. But as I leave I know one thing for sure: I really need a drink.
Here is a lightly-edited transcript of the full conversation between Roger Waters and James Ball, which touched on multiple additional topics. It has been altered lightly for flow and for clarity – the unedited transcript was around 13,300 words. The edited transcript is 12,000 words long and includes the full context for every quote used in the article.
James Ball is the global editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He was on the Pulitzer Prize winning teams that reported the Edward Snowden leaks and the Panama Papers. He is also the co-host of The New Conspiracist podcast.