Backstage with Steven Wilson
The Porcupine Tree founder on going solo, side projects, bad press and coming back to India
No discussion on progressive rock is complete without mentioning Steven Wilson. As a producer and a musician, Wilson has left an indelible impact on the genre and popular music in general. Wilson’s solo career is taking off and it is clear that this is his most inspired creative outlet. So when the opportunity to have a conversation with him came up, I braved the inclement weather and the post-Diamond Jubilee weekend detritus and made the trip to meet Mr Prog in Central London.
When you put together the touring band for your solo tours, did you expect it to turn into a real band as it has done?
I was looking for a very particular mix with the live band. I wanted a mixture of rock musicians and jazz musicians. I wanted that jazz sensibility. So Adam [Holzman], the keyboard player has a pedigree of having played with Miles Davis and Michael Petrucciani. Theo [Travis, on flute] is a jazz player.
Did I expect it to become a band? No. I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I was terrified about doing the solo thing. I planned everything meticulously; I had a document about 10 pages long with everything about the curtain, the lights, the film, the cues. I’m a control freak, so I’d planned everything, but I really didn’t know if it was going to work. We were about halfway through the first show when I thought ‘This is going to work’. I could see the look on people’s faces like they were seeing something special. From that point on, the band just got more and more confident. And confidence is very important. At the beginning of the tour, you’re very nervous. You almost don’t want to look at the audience because you’re afraid you’re going to see someone yawning or not digging it. Once you know something is good, you go on stage thinking ‘Fakkk off!!’ because you know you’re good! And I know this band can blow people away, and I can go on stage with that confidence now. I could never have planned that.
Is the move from a seated to standing audience in the last leg of the tour a reflection of this confidence?
I had originally planned the show as something theatrical. I didn’t know that the band was going to kick arse so much. I didn’t! I thought it was going to be a very sedate, choreographed thing, almost like The Wall. In my mind, I thought ‘I want to do something on the scale of The Wall but for no money!’ And I thought I’d have the audience seated because it’s not a rock show. What I hadn’t accounted for was how much the band would kick arse and it would turn into a rock thing. I prefer to play to a standing audience, because I like to see people moving. When you’re seated, you have license to be quite passive about what you’re watching.
At your recent show in London, you played an unreleased song, “Luminol,” from your upcoming album. It was an up tempo track that was quite different from a lot of your recent output with Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, Storm Corrosion and your solo band.
Yes, I know what you mean. Grace for Drowning was very dark and introspective, The Incident as well. Of course, Storm Corrosion is the antithesis of an upbeat record! I love going into sound textures, but I think one of the things that came out of playing with the band live is the incredible energy and joy, particularly playing with Marco [Minnemann] and Nick [Beggs]. I feel like I want the next album to be a bit of a reaction to Grace for Drowning. I always want every record to be distinctly different and I had the idea that I wanted the new record to be a little more in-your-face.
The other part of what you’re talking about is the move away from metal. After Fear of a Blank Planet, the metal thing for me was played out. The Incident began to move a little bit away from metal. Storm Corrosion completely rejects the notion of metal and even rock. Grace for Drowning also rejected the whole metal thing which I had been so sated with from about 2002 to 2007. There is a search for me now, creatively, to find ways to be upbeat and in-your-face without having to rely on metal and “Luminol” was the first attempt at that.
You’ve said before, when talking about your solo albums, that Insurgentes was inspired by the music that you grew up listening to in the Eighties, while Grace for Drowning came from the music of the Seventies that you discovered later. As someone whose musical sensibilities were developed around that time, how would you explain the massive difference in sound between the music of those two decades?
If you go back another decade, to the late Sixties, you have the most significant moment in popular culture, which is the elevation of music from a popular, populist form of expression to an art form almost overnight (well, it seems like it was overnight in retrospect). Suddenly, there is a shift in the whole way that people think about popular music. I would say that the year it all coalesces is 1967. You have Hendrix coming on the scene. The first Pink Floyd album, the first Doors album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
What happens is that musicians, who were previously writing throwaway pop songs, were saying we believe music can be looked at in the same way that cinema or literature or paintings are. It can be a serious art form. That changes everything. Suddenly there is a whole influx of musicians who would never have thought to play pop music before saying that pop music can be serious. So then you have bands like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis with musicians who, in any other era, would have been playing classical music or jazz music, or going into painting or literature, saying they want to make pop music. And then you have the move towards album-orientated music rather than single-orientated music. For years, that prevails and becomes the dominant form in pop music. Jethro Tull, for example, is selling millions of records and changing the way people think about pop music.
But unfortunately it reaches a point in the mid Seventies when it is too big for its own boots, pompous and pretentious. And that’s why you have the reaction against that, which is punk, new wave and a return to basics, which I think needed to happen. At the same time, you have other developments like the birth of MTV. Now what’s ‘music television’ going to do? Of course, it’s going to put the emphasis back on image and artifice, taking it away from artistic expression. It is all about how you can sell yourself in three minutes.
You also have developments in technology, like the first synthesisers and samplers, so people are now making electronic music in their bedrooms. So the emphasis moves away from musicianship to creativity or ideas. Then there is the birth of the compact disc in the early eighties. CD is a more utilitarian form of presenting music. It’s more like a piece of software than a piece of art. All of these things change the perception of pop music again. Even things that were happening in politics at the time, like Thatcherism, make thing shift back to artifice and money. And for 10 years it hadn’t been. And that’s why I think there was such a massive difference in the music between the Seventies and Eighties. You could write a book about that. It was so different.
The Porcupine Tree back catalogue is remarkably eclectic. But the one that perhaps stands out the most is 1992’s Voyage 34. How did that album [or EP as it was at the time] come about?
The whole point about Voyage 34 was it an exercise in genre. In that sense it stands apart from the rest of the catalogue. I don’t know what it was like in India, but back in the early Nineties, there was an explosion in ambient music, a fusion of electronic music and techno music with the philosophy of people like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. I thought there was an interesting opportunity to do something that would bring progressive rock and psychedelia into that mixture. I wouldn’t say Voyage 34 was a technical exercise, that makes it sound like a science project, but I was a one-off experiment in a particular genre in which I knew I wouldn’t be staying for very long.
I was given a tape of a guy having a bad trip in the Sixties. It was an anti-LSD propaganda album and it was perfect to from a narrative around which I could form this long, hypnotic, trippy piece of music. And that was Voyage 34. Even at the time, I think that sort of music was already passing. Music that is too attached to a trend very soon starts to sound very dated. I was always interested in existing outside the bubble of whatever was hip, and that kind of music was very briefly hip. Voyage 34 sits inside that bubble. I’m still very proud of it. It was a unique piece of music, but of all the catalogue, it’s one of the pieces which relates most closely to the era that it was created in.
Was Porcupine Tree your outlet for unquestioned experimentation?
I guess so, because No-Man was my day job. It was paying for my existence as a musician, while Porcupine Tree was a side indulgence thing. The whole history of my life is of things starting as side projects, then becoming the most important thing. It happened with Porcupine Tree and it’s now happening with the solo albums. In a way that’s good, because it means that things grow in a very organic, natural way. They aren’t planned. I didn’t plan for Porcupine Tree to take up 15 years of my life but it did. At that time, No-Man was very much the priority. Around the time of Voyage 34, Porcupine Tree was beginning to overtake it and I found I was doing more interviews about Porcupine Tree than about No-Man.
It was a labor of love, with no expectations and no fan base to speak of. The moment you have a fan base, is the moment you start to lose a little bit of your freedom. The greatest thing of all is to make music without having a fan base because it’s the most pure form of creation. I experienced that most recently with the Storm Corrosion album I did with Mikael [Akerfeldt] from Opeth. Since it was a new project, generally people didn’t know what to expect and that’s very liberating. It means you can create music in a very pure, unselfconscious way. With Porcupine Tree at the time of Voyage 34, that is what I was doing. I had no idea of my demographic. I didn’t care. That, in a way, is when you create the most interesting music. Not necessarily the best, but the most interesting developments in your career happen when you start new projects.
Does that mean that there is a danger that Porcupine Tree might fall by the wayside?
The honest answer is I don’t know. The solo career for me now is probably the most important. I think about it more than anything else, I’m more focussed on it than anything else, I enjoy it more than anything else and I’m brimming over with ideas. Whereas with Porcupine Tree, I’m not quite sure what to do with the band next. We’ve made 10 albums over a period of almost 20 years. The problem is, when you establish such a strong brand or trademark, and you spend years building it up, people expect you to become a machine, endlessly putting out an album, then touring. I promised myself many years ago that I would never ever allow myself to let this become a job. For me, it’s still about being very selfish and doing what I want to do. I know I’ve been fortunate that there seems to be enough people out there who respect me enough and still want to listen to whatever I do. Right now all my thoughts and energies are wrapped up in the excitement and the buzz I’m getting from the solo work.
What do you think is the common musical ground between you and some of your younger fans, whose musical sensibilities were developed in the last decade?
I think these days, because of the internet, in some ways people are more open minded. Or at least have that capacity. Music, particularly, has almost been liberated from the whole process of marketing. Not completely, but largely speaking, there is more off-the-radar music available. When I was growing up, if I wanted to hear a band like Porcupine Tree, how would I have done that? You won’t hear us on the radio, you won’t see us on the TV, people don’t write about us very much. How would I have discovered a band like Porcupine Tree? Now it’s easy, because you have social networking and music available to download, whether free or paid for. I think that has been a good thing for music, at least underground music, because anyone, whether it is a 12-year-old girl living in India or a 60-year-old guy living in Utah, can get into any kind of music without a barrier.
The internet has created an important shift. I don’t think young people identify themselves with music genre like they used to. When I was growing up, you were into metal or ska or reggae; in the Nineties you were into grunge or into rap, and that kind of defined your look and attitude as a person. I don’t think music is the thing that defines young people now. It’s other things. So music has become a level playing field and people just like what they like. I don’t think it occurs to a lot of people who like Porcupine Tree that it is a progressive rock band. I think that’s great.
At my solo show last month, it was fascinating looking at the audience. You had young girls, old guys, metal kinds, old hippies, guys that are more into the alternative side and I love that. I like that most people who like it don’t ask themselves what genre it is. I think that’s something that, in a way, does go back to the late Sixties, when music, for a very brief period of time became open. If you look at Woodstock Festival, there was a range of bands on. And everyone was digging all of them. Now I think festivals are more aimed at genres. You have the big metal festivals, the big pop festivals. There are still a few, like Glastonbury, that are open, but that is the exception. I think we’re getting back to that openness, which is possibly an explanation to your question. I told you I talk a lot!
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone India, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson said that you were keen to remix their 1973 album A Passion Play. He seems to have it in for that album, one that many prog fans hail as a masterpiece.
I think Ian is melting. I had the same thing with Robert Fripp. These guys were brainwashed for 20 years by the media. They were told that their music was old fashioned, that they were hippies, that they were irrelevant, that no one wanted to listen to that stupid pretentious music. We’re talking about a period from 1977 through to quite recently.
Things began to change very recently. The process began with Radiohead’s OK Computer and bands like Muse and The Mars Volta coming through. The media’s attitude to progressive rock began to mellow a little. It really began to kick in around five years ago. There’s never been a better time since the original era for that music to be accepted and listened to without prejudice.
One of the best things I can do is to take albums, not necessarily the established classic albums like Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and get people to actually take them seriously. I did that with a King Crimson record called Lizard. I think that is the greatest thing I did for a long time. One of the things that I am the most proud of was to take an album that everyone thought was a worthless piece of junk and make people understand it is a work of genius. That made me prouder than any of my own music. And I want to do the same with A Passion Play. I think that album is underrated, undervalued and I’m going to get Ian to re-evaluate it. It’s not the most immediate, but there is something about it that is pure intense art and it deserves to be noticed. I am really interested to see what people will make of it this time around.
It is a disheartening feeling when an artist repudiates an album that, as a listener, you have a very personal connection with. It feels like you lose something.
I think what you’re saying is absolutely right, but I also believe the artist has every right to disown something.
But is criticism from the press a good enough reason?
That’s the question in the case of this album. I think the reason may be nothing to do with the music but everything to do with the way the music was received and damned. I think that was the case with Lizard too. There are some records which I would quite understand why an artist would want to disown because they’re just not very good! [laughs] But this is obviously not one of those records.
I feel the same way about the Yes album Tales from Topographic Oceans. That’s another one I would love to get my hands on and make people re-evaluate. For 20 years, progressive rock was treated as a joke by the media and there were certain albums that were trotted out as examples of why progressive rock was so awful and they were things like Topographic Oceans, Passion Play, Rick Wakeman’s various solo records, and I think some of those albums were very unfairly put into that. But I think things are changing. Even the journalists who damned these records are saying, you know what, these were extraordinary records- experimental, completely reaching for the stars. In an era where so much music is bland and generic, and it hardly feels like anyone’s trying, those records start to sound even more special to me. So I’m hoping that Ian will at least partly re-evaluate it when I get my hands on it.
So it’s a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’?
He said to EMI that he’s happy for me to do it. EMI are keen, so yes, I think it’s quite likely that it will happen.
How would you have reacted to an album of yours receiving almost universal negative criticism?
Well, I’ve never scaled those heights of public awareness. I think if you get to a certain point in terms of success, then the British way very much is to have the knives out for you ready to stick them in the moment you make a wrong step. There are a lot of people who resent me because they perceive that I am too big for my boots, that I’ve set myself up as Mr Prog, and of course, I haven’t at all.
There are not many people who specialise in progressive music who are in the mainstream who will talk about progressive music unapologetically. There’s me, there’s Mikael from Opeth, the Dream Theater guys, but that’s about it. And not even really in the mainstream, just sort of poking our toe in the mainstream. So I become a spokesperson for a type of music that I didn’t set myself up to be. As soon as you get a reputation, some people will be ready to shoot you down. We had some bad reviews for The Incident because it probably wasn’t as strong as it could have been. I think the records before were a little bit stronger.
The moment the internet was created, you had the opportunity to go out and read bad shit about yourself. I could Google my name and I’ll find some guy on a forum saying I’m talentless, that my records suck, that I’m a charlatan, blah blah blah… In fact, more than one guy, lots of guys. The trick is this – don’t look for it, and don’t read it. I tell our manager not to send me reviews. Not just the bad reviews, even the good ones. Even there, there’s usually something that will annoy you. Like they could compare you to somebody that you don’t like. I try, as much as possible to exist within a vacuum. But it’s very hard to escape it. Sometimes fans come to you after a show and say something. The problem with fans is sometimes they act like you’ve done something wrong. Of course, you haven’t done anything wrong, you just haven’t written an album that’s connected with them. It’s not your fault, it’s not their fault, but sometimes people present it as if you’ve made some terrible error in making an album they don’t like. That’s one of the things that’s really my bugbear opinions as fact.
Your albums are clearly very carefully structured in terms of song sequence. Is this something that happens retrospectively, after you have enough songs for an album, or do you write songs with an idea of a sequence?
I think both of those things are true. For example, I’m now writing the new record. “Luminol” is one of the songs and as soon as I wrote “Luminol,” I knew it was going to be a great opening track. I hadn’t written anything else. Then, about four or five songs in, I wrote a song that I knew was going to be a great closer. Sometimes songs present themselves in a way that suggests closing song or opening song. The rest of the songs happen in a retrospective way, when you’ve got everything and you fit the jigsaw puzzle pieces together. I also think in terms of sides of vinyl because I grew up in the vinyl era. I think, ‘This would be a great track to open side two with.”
The new Storm Corrosion album has a quite minimalist sound, and even has elements of drone, which is a common harmonic device in Indian music.
I’ve discovered Indian music more recently. When I was absorbing the drone as a teenager, it was from things like Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh and Krautrock stuff, and then later on, discovering industrial music and power electronics, bands like Throbbing Gristle and the use of pure noise. Well, more pure texture. For me, when you say drone, I think of something that has a note to it, but drone can also be pure texture, white noise. I use a lot of that too. From a very early age, I’ve liked the idea of music being reduced to pure texture. I still say Tangerine Dream’s Zeit is my favourite album of all time. To this day, I listen to that record at least once a month. It has no melody, no rhythm, it has very little in the way of harmony. It’s pure texture and sound and it takes me to a place that no other music takes me.
In recent years, I’ve picked up a lot of Ravi Shankar albums on vinyl. I’m sure to a lot of Indians, he’s like the Indian equivalent of a Paul McCartney! Everyone knows him [laughs].
Speaking of India, three years on, what do you remember of your visit?
Can’t wait to go back! That’s the summary of the experience. I loved it. We were only there for two days and it was too brief. I absolutely loved it. Crazy, crazy place and I love crazy places. A lot of passion for music which, to be honest, you don’t get in England these days. Great to see young people that are so passionate about rock music. The women were beautiful, the weather was wonderful, the food was great, what can I say? I loved it! In fact we’re trying to get the solo tour to go to India next year.
How do you think it would be received?
The one thing that my solo show doesn’t have that a Porcupine Tree show has is the metal, which is a doorway for a lot of young kids. It has more of a jazz aspect, which may be a turn off for some of them. But one thing that it does have over Porcupine Tree is that it’s even bigger and even better. The idea behind the show is, at every point in the show, something new is happening. It’s not just six guys getting up on stage and playing for two hours. There is a cinematic quality to it. We spoke earlier about creating an album in a narrative way, and I think the same way about a show. I want to tell a story with the show.
Finally, what is the current situation with Blackfield? Is your decision to leave it to Aviv Geffen based purely on lack of time?
Aviv has written the new record now. It’s his project now, although I’m still helping him – I’m mixing the record and singing one song on it. I didn’t want to be holding him back. One of the questions people always ask me is ‘How do you do all these things?’ Well, the answer is: I can’t. Now that the solo project is taking up so much time, I had to leave Blackfield to Aviv. I had to do that so I could focus on what’s important to me now, my solo career, my remixing work and Storm Corrosion. And I do want to get Porcupine Tree back together at some point.