Porcupine Tree. No-Man. Blackfield. Storm Corrosion. IEM. Bass Communion. Production work for notable prog and metal acts. Surround-sound remix wizard for everyone from Jethro Tull and King Crimson to Simple Minds and XTC. We’re talking Renaissance Man territory. (No, “Renaissance Man” is not a band, although the day’s still young.) The British rocker talks all this, along with musings on his latest, excellent solo album and why he’s big on videos and performance. “Although the MTV era is certainly over,” notes Wilson, “a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it.”
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Steven Wilson first made a splash in the early nineties as leader of the British band Porcupine Tree. Though the band began as a one-man goof on psychedelic rock (cf. its first LP On the Sunday of Life), it quickly evolved into an actual group, one that took elements of progressive rock, psychedelia, pop, folk, metal and electronica and filtered them through Wilson’s distinctive sense of melody and texture-driven production acumen. Despite a series of strong records, culminating in 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, the Tree’s most critically acclaimed and bestselling LP, the band never quite caught on with the mainstream’s rock-loving fringe in the way its fans expected. That said, by the time of Porcupine Tree’s final album The Incident, Wilson had well established himself as a songwriter, musician and producer of note, one willing to experiment at will without losing a devotion to melody that should be the envy of tunesmiths everywhere.
Those qualities have also stood him in good stead in both his solo career and extracurricular activities. Though he first tested the solo waters while still a PT member with 2008’s Insurgentes, he really began in earnest with 2011’s Grace For Drowning, a double LP in the grand prog rock tradition. 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing was practically the apotheosis of his style, which meant he had to change tack, precipitating the turn toward pop with 2015’s Hand.Cannot.Erase. But working his pop jones didn’t mean a loss of thematic ambition – H.C.E. wears its apprehensions about the alienation of twenty-first century life on its sleeve. The idea that advancing technology creates new barriers even as it knocks down the old ones is a common notion Wilson has grappled with throughout his artistic career.
To the Bone, Wilson’s brand new album, brings those themes even more to the forefront of his concerns, but wraps the bitter pills up in music sweeter than any he’s made before. In the tradition of the ‘ artists he grew up with, from Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk to The The and XTC, Wilson mixes instantly appealing melodies with ideas more aspirant than musings on romantic love or personal introspection – an album that beckons to and braces you at the same time. It’s the kind of record that might very well make Wilson the star he’s been feted to be by fans and critics, but even if it doesn’t, it’ll set a new standard for his future work.
Meanwhile, Wilson quietly but consistently keeps busy even when he’s not making records under his own name. He’s co-led the art pop group No-Man with singer/songwriter Tim Bowness since 1987, issuing a variety of excellent LPs alongside those of Porcupine Tree. He’s collaborated with Swedish progressive death metal act Opeth’s leader Mikael Akerfeldt in the atmospheric prog band Storm Corrosion and Israeli singer Aviv Geffen in the anthemic, still-running Blackfield. He’s made explicitly motorik-based space rock as IEM and haunting ambient music as Bass Communion. He’s worked as a producer for Opeth and Israeli metal act Orphaned Land and made a number of guest appearances with his prog rocking peers. Wilson also works as a remixer, specializing in Surround Sound and DVD-Audio to create new, highly acclaimed versions of classic albums by Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Simple Minds and, most notably, King Crimson and XTC, leading to lasting friendships with those groups’ respective leaders Robert Fripp and Andy Partridge. Happiest when he’s busiest, Wilson has consistently followed his own muse in whatever direction it leads him, confident enough in his own ability and identity to never worry that it will steer him wrong.
We spoke to Wilson by phone from England about making To the Bone, the themes to which he returns from album to album, the importance of visual media to his work and the importance of balancing dark with light.
BLURT: I’ve been listening to the new record and it’s excellent – a new highwater mark in your career. I’m especially impressed with the pop element. You’ve talked about the progressive pop records – Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, that kind of stuff – but it seems to me that what this focuses on is your very distinctive sense of melody. Was there a conscious decision to put the melodies more up front that usual?
STEVEN WILSON: Very much so. I think the press release angle is a bit of a simplification. The reason those records are referenced in the press release is this idea that’s very much out of fashion these days, which is you can make a record that is both accessible and ambitious. There was a period in time, lest we forget, not so long ago in the ‘[P80s, when I think that the art of making accessible but ambitious records was kind of at a peak. You look at records like Tears For Fears, Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode – even Michael Jackson’s records from that period, to an extent. There is something about them that is completely distinctive, very ambitious, but at the same time, very easy to enjoy as just great pop songs. The question you asked was, was there a conscious decision? Yes. There was a conscious decision to focus much more on the art of creating hooks and pop melodies, but without any sense of having to dumb down or compromise in the ambition of the music.
One of the things that makes your music consistently interesting is that even though you have that distinctive sense of melody – you know a Steven Wilson song when you hear it – you’re always pushing yourself, pushing your own boundaries. You’re not just redoing Fear of a Blank Planet over and over again.
No, quite the opposite! I’ve moved further away. I mean, I’m very proud of that record – it was the peak of my interest in metal. You won’t hear anything like that on this record. Although, even as I’m saying that, I’m conscious that some of the lyrical strands off an album like Fear of a Blank Planet are still present in To the Bone – this interest in how technology creates borders between people rather than bringing them together, and that whole thing about how technology essentially creates a lot of alienation in modern life. So that’s still there.
But musically it couldn’t be further away, and to come back to your question, I think that one of the things that always drives me on is that if I’m going to make another record, if I’m going to add to my already substantial back catalog, then there has to be a reason for each album to exist. There’s no point in making a repetition of one that already exists – trying to cater to the existing fanbase’s expectations. I think it’s very important to always be confronting those expectations. Many of my favorite artists over the years have adopted that approach, whether it’s Bowie or Prince or Neil Young or Frank Zappa. These are people that always had a sense of evolution from album to album, and a sense of sometimes having to confront the expectations of their audience. To be fair, a lot of the industry is based on delivering more of the same, and that’s what most artists do. I’m not denigrating that at all, but that’s not right for me. I have to feel like every album has a distinctive place in my catalog.
It always seems to me that an artist has to make himself happy first – if he’s not happy, then how can he make the audience interested?
I think it can even go further – that’s the definition of an artist. An artist is someone who’s essentially very selfish. And I say that in the context of an artist being very distinct from an entertainer. If you want to be an entertainer, give the audience what they want, give them a greatest hits show, that’s fine. But that’s not being an artist. Being an artist is in some ways a very solitary, very selfish thing. But I believe that’s a good thing. I think Radiohead is a great example of a band that could so easily have gone the nostalgia route, and probably would’ve ended up being the new U2 or something by now. Because there was a point when I think they were headed in that direction. But the art – the sense of self-expression – was more important. That’s what being an artist should be, and sometimes I think fans forget that, and they should be more encouraging. Because the bottom line is the old work is always there, isn’t it? You can still go back and listen to the old records.
It seems that this is actually paying off for you. It seems like you get more and more popular every album the more you push yourself in new directions.
The bottom line is you never know. Taking risks sometimes, obviously, can pay off, and other times it can be a disaster to your career. The most important thing, I think, is to make the work in a kind of vacuum, where you don’t think about those things. But you’re right – I have been very lucky. But I’ve also worked very hard making these records. I have to say, every time I make a new record, it seems like you have to work a little bit harder – it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard to stand still. Because there’s too many records in the world, too many people releasing music these day. You have to fight so hard, even when you’re an established artist. In some respects I am established, not in the mainstream, perhaps, but most people at least know who I am and what I do. Every time I have to fight a little bit harder to get the column space in the magazine, or the attention on the Internet, or some radio play, or to sell tickets. I’m working harder than I ever have before in my career. And I’m 50 this year – in some respects I feel I should be able to slow down now. But I’m still ambitious, and as you alluded at the beginning of our conversation, I feel like I’m making my best work. Of course I want that work to reach as many people as possible. So I’ll still go out there and put in the hours and do the work that I need to do to achieve that.
You worked with some new collaborators this time. I’m curious about Paul Stacey – you co-produced it with him, which is unusual for you. Did that open up the sound?
I think that one of the other things you can do as a solo artist that I could never do in the context of a band, is you can change the people around you from album to album. The one thing you can never change is you. All of my kind of clichés and musical tropes and things that I fall back on – they’re always gonna be there. But one of the things that I can do to make things fresh and perhaps take the music in a different direction is to change the people around me. With Paul, it wasn’t planned that he would be the co-producer. It’s one of those situations where I wanted someone really good to engineer the record. I was recommended Paul by a few people, and we got on really well and I hired him to record the record. But about halfway through the process I realized he had obviously gone way beyond that remit, and was having very strong influences on the actual direction of the record, and bringing out performances from myself and the other people involved. Which of course is very much a production role. So it’s almost like he very naturally drifted into that role, and we ended up making the record together. I have to say, I really enjoyed that process. I am a bit of a control freak, which is why I rarely do those kind of things. But when something happens in that organic, natural way, I’m very willing to embrace it, particularly if I think it’s going to make the record better, which I think it has.
You also worked with Andy Partridge, which would be a dream for a lot of people. I assume came out of your remixing of the XTC records.
Certainly that’s how I got to know Andy. I’ve been very fortunate to count him as a friend these days. One of the most amazing things about my career is that I can say that some of the people whose music I grew up with and is very much in my musical DNA have become collaborators and friends. Andy is obviously one of the greatest for me, one of my favorite songwriters of all time. So I think it was almost inevitable that there would come a point where I would say, “Do you want to write a song with me, Andy?” [laughs] There was this one song, which became the title track on the album, where I knew what I wanted it to be about, but I really didn’t know how to go about approaching it. Because it’s almost semi-political, that song “To the Bone.” It’s obviously very much about the post-truth era, about fake news and the Donald Trump era of politicians. And I’m not one who feels very comfortable writing about something like that. Politics is not really my area. Not that the song is overtly political, but it certainly nods its head in that direction. So I didn’t feel necessarily like I knew how to approach it. It became the very obvious thing to call up Andy and say, “Do you wanna do this, Andy?” And he did a fantastic job.
Not too many people can call up Andy Partridge and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea – can you flesh this out for me?” That’s pretty cool.
I know! like I say, that’s one of the greatest privileges of all in my career, to meet these people, and to realize that now, people whose music I grew listening to in my bedroom are my musical contemporaries. That’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? It’s amazing.
Speaking of collaborators, you usually have excellent taste in side musicians. Who are you playing with on this album?
A lot of it is actually me, and one of the reasons why Paul became so integral to the record is because I was doing a lot more playing this time. So most of the guitar, bass and keyboards are me. When you cast yourself more in the role of a performer, you obviously need to rely a lot more on your engineer and your co-producer, which is why Paul was so important. But there are musicians on the record. There’s the two guest singers – Ninet Tayeb, who I’ve worked with before, and also a Swiss singer called Sophie Hunger, who sang on “Song of I” with me. So there’s a very strong vocal female presence on the record. Musicians-wise, a couple of drummers: Jeremy Stacey, Paul’s brother, who’s in the current lineup of King Crimson, and also my regular live drummer Craig Blundell. They pretty much did 50/50 for the record. Adam Holzman, my keyboard player, is on the record, but mostly handling the piano parts this time, as I did most of the synth stuff. A fantastic harmonica played called Mark Feltham, who I wanted to work with because he’s the guy on those old ‘80s Talk Talk records. If you’re familiar with those – Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, The Colour of Spring – you’ll know how harmonica is a very strong part of those records. So I hunted Mark down and was very privileged to have him do some incredible stuff on the record.
Let’s talk a bit about the themes you were mentioning earlier. How technology should be bringing us together, and yet it seems to be pushing us more and more apart. Communication in general seems to be breaking down. Why do you think that is when we have the technology for everyone to be so close?
It’s obviously not the fault of the technology – the technology is extraordinary. The Internet is one of the most extraordinary inventions ever, in some ways even more significant perhaps than the TV. The TV changed the way that people live, but I think the Internet has changed the way people live much more so than even the television – the way we communicate and understand what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, through no fault of the technology, it also taps into the very worst aspects of human nature. There’s a tendency we have to be very passive about the way we interface and engage with the rest of the world and with other people. I think the problem with social networking, because it creates the illusion of being connected to the rest of the world, people tend to be satisfied with that illusion – the illusion of having friends. Friends that you’ve never met! [chuckles] This illusion of having friends, of being connected, of having your whole existence up there on the Internet available for other people to experience and to share. It’s all complete bullshit. Basically we now have potentially seven billion people now who are all critics, who are all celebrities, who can all go on the Internet and share pictures of themselves, share their opinions on anything from movies and music to politics, and unfortunately it taps into a lot of the worst aspects of human nature: ego, narcissism, the need to be heard, the need to be noticed. If that means being negative and critical, or being an Internet troll, then so be it – that’s better than not being noticed at all.
I think the problem is, at the moment, the technology’s so new that we haven’t really learned properly how to make use of it. We’re going through that traditional transitional period in our evolution where we’re not quite sure where the Internet, where cell phones are taking the human race. There’s a lot of negativity – I think that’s easy to see – but there’s also some positivity too. So I think what will become clear is probably not going to become clear for another half a century or so. Then we’ll really see how this technology has influenced the world.
In the meantime, I think it’s important for people like myself and filmmakers to raise our concerns. Because I think one of the great things that art can do is create debates and raise these issues, and kind of hold up the mirror to the rest of the planet, saying, “You know what? This is what I see. Do you think it’s good? Do you recognize yourself in the mirror?” I guess that’s what I try to do, hopefully without being too preachy.
When you’re writing a record like this, do you sit down and say, “Wow, this is getting really dark really fast. I better put something else in there so people understand that I don’t think it’s hopeless.” Or were more positive songs like “Song of Unborn,” “Nowhere Now,” “Permanating” just a natural part of the song cycle?
It’s funny you should ask that, because I think, for the first time, I did say it to myself. “You know what? It would be very easy to allow yourself to make one of the most downer-sounding records of all time, unless you stop yourself from doing that.” Because the truth of the matter is, even in the two-and-a-half years since I made my last record, the world arguably has become even more concerning and worrying. It’s even easier to be down on everything. You look at what’s happening in the U.K. with Brexit, at the whole political scene in America, at what’s going on with the refugees in Europe, the religious fundamentalism and the terrorist attacks that in the space of the last three years have come very much to our doorstep here in the U.K., and in Europe in general. So things have got even worse in that respect. It would have been very easy or natural for me to allow myself to make a record that was even more negative.
But you know what? I don’t think that would have been a true reflection of what I really feel about the world. So I think it was a conscious decision. You mentioned “Song of Unborn” there – that’s a good example, really. Because that song is in a nutshell really what I’m talking about here. The song is basically saying to the unborn child, “You’re looking out to the world right now, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell would I wanna be born into this crazy, messed-up place?’” And the answer that comes back is, “Because the gift of life is something extraordinary and unique to every individual, and if you choose to, you can make something amazing out of your life, and you can make the arc of your own life profound.” I think that is a very positive message, and an important thing to remember as well. That we can all do something incredible with our lives, and we don’t have to allow all this other stuff to drag us down. It’s easy to get depressed looking at the state of the world, but we can all do something amazing with our lives. The gift of life is something extraordinary and very profound, and I really believe that. Without sounding like a hippy or something, at the end of the day, I do think that’s the reality. It’s a nice way to end the record on a positive note, which I think is important.
I’ve always thought the best dark records are the ones that have at least a glimmer of hope in there, just to balance out. It makes it more realistic. As bad as things get, there’s always good in the world.
On a lighter note, because you have this ‘80s vibe for the record to a certain extent, I thought it was very fitting that you’ve put out a lot of videos for the album. The time of MTV being any kind of dominant force is over, but it’s very appropriate that you’re putting out videos.
Well, although the MTV era is certainly over, a lot of people still will only engage with music if there’s a visual component to it. Of course a lot of people listen to their music through YouTube, which is the world’s most popular streaming service. For all Spotify’s success, and other streaming services, YouTube is still the number one, and YouTube is of course a video-based service, so I think a lot of people expect some kind of visuals. I’ve always been very interested in the combination of music and video, and I think in many respects the combination of sound and visual can be the most powerful combination of all. And I’ve always been very interested in that, and these songs are stories -they lend themselves very well to visual interpretation. So we’re having a lot of fun with it, and we’re gonna do a lot more for the live show, as well. There’ll be a lot of video content, all very, very exclusive and very much fundamental to the presentation of the live show.
In fact, one of the reasons I went solo was because I really wanted to explore that side of my performance more. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re in a band is to go to your band and say, “Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be great if we blow all the money that we make on this tour on some amazing visuals?” Usually, they’ll tell you where to go. So one of the reasons I decided I needed to be a solo artist was so I could explore that side a lot more. Because I’m very good at spending all the money I make [laughs] on video material, because it’s not cheap to do that kind of presentation. But it’s important – that’s part of the magic for me.
What have you got planned for the future besides this tour? Because you seem to never sleep.
I am focusing a lot on the tour, because there is a lot of preparation to do, not just for the visuals, but obviously for the musicians and the audio side. But I’m also doing a lot of promotion right now. There’s a couple of months’ worth of going around the world doing radio and TV and talking to people, which I’m very happy to do – I enjoy doing that stuff very much. In terms of other projects, we touched on it earlier with the XTC thing – I do a lot of working on these amazing remix projects – remixing these classic records, which is both a privilege and very hard work. But I love doing that stuff, and there’s a lot coming in right now, which I’m gonna try and squeeze in before I disappear off on tour. But really most of next year is going to be committed to touring what I hope will be a record that has resonated well with people, and people will be interested in seeing the presentation of the album in a live context.