WHAT'S "Up" with Peter Gabriel?

As always, lots, including "Up," Gabriel's first song-based studio album in 10 years, and the root of the Growing Up tour that pulls into MCI Center on Sunday, Gabriel's first since 1993's Secret World multimedia extravaganza.

Those are just the high-profile projects. With Gabriel, you have to dig a little deeper to understand why it took him so long to deliver a follow-up to the best-selling "Us." Here's some of what's occupied him: running his Real World Studio and record label, as well as the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals; getting married for the second time and siring a son at age 52; and jamming with the great apes (more on this later).

There's also the matter of Gabriel's penchant for sonic perfection, for constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing his complex and richly textured songs so fastidiously that a six-minute track can represent six months of work.

"That's partly what takes me so bloody long," Gabriel admits. "Those sound environments are a major part of the work and quite often, you take three or four diversions before you get to the place you want to go. It's the way I tend to work -- just throw a lot of mud against the wall and feel around in the dark . . .

"It's a process of building up and stripping back, building up and stripping back," he explains, adding, "There's something which I'd forgotten about until recently. When I was floundering around in school, I was sent to career guidance and they deduced the only things I was suitable for were photography and landscape gardening. And I felt pretty stupid at the time.

"However, the more I think about it, that's actually a really good description of my process. On the one hand, you try and get the hot moment that is magic and capture it in such a way that it's held forever. The other part of the process is seeding this landscape, slowly building it up, chopping it back, seeing how it evolves through the seasons, through the years. It's a good thing and bad thing, but I haven't had the financial pressure that I have to put something out, so I sort of do it when I'm ready. And I'm not very good at saying no when I get interesting diversions, of which there have been quite a few in the last 10 years."

These include Gabriel contributing the narrative, visual concept and music for London's Millennium Dome Experience and recording "The Long Walk Home," the score for Phillip Noyce's film "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which opens here Christmas week.

Gabriel, 53, has lost several close friends in recent years, including his brother-in-law and the great quaali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose vocals are featured on the new album. A fair number of its 10 tracks reference death, including "No Way Out," "Darkness," "The Drop" and "I Grieve," which, with its key line, "life carries on in the people I meet," is actually in the inspirational tradition of "Don't Give Up."

"There's a consciousness about death now that I didn't have in my twenties or thirties," Gabriel says. "I know people who have died and certainly my parents are getting on, and yet I'm lucky enough to have it all over again with my young son. I feel much more comfortable in my skin in my fifties than I did in my forties, when it was much more of a struggle."

In fact, "Up" is less about fear of death than appreciation of life, its upbeat consciousness of mortality equally inspired by Gabriel's elderly but healthy parents (his 90-year-old father, Ralph, has been practicing yoga for 50 years) and the arrival a year ago of Isaac. This past June, Gabriel married 30-year-old Irish costume designer Meabh Flynn in Sardinia. His best man was Phil Collins, the drummer who in 1975 replaced Gabriel as lead singer when he left art-rock pioneers Genesis to pursue a solo career.

That career has always moved at Gabriel's pace. Salon recently called him "the Stanley Kubrick of popular music" and he does share some organizational approaches with the late filmmaker, such as operating his own elaborate, independent studio complex and working at his own unhurried pace.

"You end up spending more time answering e-mails and sitting in an office than you ever thought possible," Gabriel says. "I'm sort of running away from all that at the moment with the record out and tour preparations, and I'm quite happy with that. It buys you a lot of creative freedom but there are some responsibilities that go along with that and I have to try to keep a few plates spinning, or balls in the air, whatever the expression is, and it does take some time, effort and cash."

All of which pay off in the long run. For instance, the luxurious Real World Studios complex in rural Wiltshire, England, has become a major crossroads for world music since opening 20 years ago, a creative cocoon originally financed by the commercial success of Gabriel's first four albums, all titled simply "Peter Gabriel."

"It's like an airport or train station -- all sorts of people come through, from world music areas and young groups to older artists," Gabriel says. "Just sitting there, I get exposed to all sorts of noises wafting through the air, which is great. I think it's very easy for musicians, when they get some sort of success, to isolate themselves and lose touch. And while I have definitely lost touch with what's mainstream, I haven't lost touch with interesting people doing interesting things."

Like Robert Lepage, the vanguard French Canadian theater director/designer. He and Gabriel first teamed up a decade ago on the critically acclaimed Secret World tour and the new production should be more artful high-tech fun: Gabriel will be performing in the round on a stage split into "up" and "down" sections that represent sky and earth, as well as the album, which Gabriel has described as "up and down, more vertical than horizontal." He'll be a bit of all that as he uses "unusual means of propulsion" to move between levels. One is a clear plastic pod 30 feet in circumference which Gabriel navigates around the stage by thrusting his body weight in various directions -- the rocker as hamster!

"I love to do that stuff," Gabriel admits. "Robert is brilliant and I'm very lucky to work with him. When we sit down and start to conceive a show, the ideas are plenty and then we try to hold things back to a realistic budget. Going to arenas is a gamble but it gives me an opportunity to do some of these things we wouldn't be able to do in a theater."

The Growing Up tour will run well into next year, and traverse the world, but Gabriel fans may not have to wait a decade for his next album. After all, Gabriel created 130 "musical ideas" and far more than "Up's" 10 tracks have already slipped into the mainstream. Some ended up on "The Long Walk Home," others on "OVO," the Millennium Dome album that has yet to be released here.

"I think we'll do a songwriter version of that," says Gabriel, who has already enlisted such guest lyricists as Leonard Cohen and Stephin Merritt. "And there's material for the next song album. I should end up having four records from this period of time," he says.

Of course, Gabriel's next album could be with the Bonobo Apes. That's not a band, but a breed of notoriously intelligent chimps from the Congo. Gabriel, whose 1982 hit "Shock the Monkey" attacked animal research, has made a half-dozen trips to Georgia State University's Language Research Center, where scientists are studying how apes react to symbols and sign language. Working with a male and female bonobo, Gabriel tested their musical intelligence, convinced that music could be a bridge between humans and apes just as it was for humans and aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Echoing one of that film's most famous sequences, Gabriel played an electric keyboard, searching for a direct response.

"The male was much better at the rhythmic stuff -- he was playing these great triplets," Gabriel reports. "I asked the female to play with one finger, mainly in the white notes, which she did; she was searching around for notes that would harmonize and there was very simple melody."

Somebody listening to the Gabriel/ape tape recently said " 'This isn't good enough music from the apes,' " Gabriel says. "And I said, 'Hold on for a minute here. How many other times have you seen an animal feeling music, making intelligent musical decisions and just improvising in response to what they're hearing?' "

Gabriel's tone suggests that question could just as easily be applied to some human musicians he's known.

"I've just started working in this area and I want to do a lot more," he says, adding that bonobo apes, who share 99 percent of human genes, "are certainly as potentially musical as we are and it's a real pity that they haven't had a lot of access to music before. I'd like to encourage them to express themselves with music."

Worked for him.

PETER GABRIEL -- Appearing with the Blind Boys of Alabama Sunday at MCI Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Peter Gabriel, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

Peter Gabriel on releasing an album: "I sort of do it when I'm ready."