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Steven Wilson: ‘I Didn’t Even Know What Instagram Was!’

The UK prog musician on embracing social media, playing “strange” festival lineups and his upcoming shows in India

Nabeela Shaikh Sep 28, 2016
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Steven Wilson. Photo: Lasse Hoile

Steven Wilson. Photo: Lasse Hoile

In 1999, British prog rock act Porcupine Tree released a cynical, space rock-leaning opus that took on business of selling oneself in the music industry. The now-inactive band’s frontman Steven Wilson explained in an interview to music publication Aural Innovations #7 in 1999, “The moment you finish the album you suddenly have to go from being an artist to a businessman…This whole kind of idea that you’re supposed to be this artist but you have to do all this other bullshit stuff, like sitting down with the record company to discuss how we’re gonna market this album. And at that point your record becomes a product…” A decade and a half after the release of Stupid Dream, Wilson still holds similar views about the tragedy of creating art and selling it. He says over the phone from London, “If you’re someone that is artistic and creative, why should you have to be someone who thinks about marketing? Why should you have to be thinking about the business side of things? The answer is you shouldn’t be.”

Nonetheless, the prog musician has embraced social media in recent years even as his five-album old melancholic prog-rock/jazz solo act has had a clean sweep among fans. Closer home, a Facebook post by Wilson in May that mentioned tentative India shows sparked an explosion among the local fan base—a cult following that has quickly grown since Porcupine Tree made their India debut in 2009. Says Wilson, who now returns to headline the Shillong and Pune editions of Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival, “It’s always a thrill to… discover that there are people that have been listening to your music and to whom the music has a very personal and emotional resonance in their lives.”

In an interview with ROLLING STONE India, Wilson looks back on his 2009 India debut with Porcupine Tree, discusses his plans for his upcoming solo shows here and learning to enjoy himself in the age of Instagram.

You first played India with Porcupine Tree in 2009. How do you look back at that experience now that you’re returning with your solo act?
Obviously at the time that I came I had no idea what to expect, having never been to the country before, as a musician or even as a tourist. So it was all pretty much a new experience for me, professionally and personally. And I had an amazing time. It was very exciting… It’s always a thrill to come to a country where you’ve never been before, and discover that there are people there that have been listening to your music and to whom the music has a very personal and emotional resonance in their lives. Without wishing to sound cheesy, in a way that’s what makes it worthwhile.

The thing about a country like India is, it’s not possible for me to sell a lot of records or CDs. So you don’t get a strong idea of how many people are listening to the music from the sales figures. I think it was really surprising to me and the other guys in Porcupine Tree. It was kind of a shock to realize how many people there were that knew and loved the music. This time around I think I’m a little bit more aware that there is a very strong interest in my work. So I’m coming in slightly more prepared this time… because I know there is a lot of expectation about the show and a lot of people are really looking forward to it, including myself.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned how difficult it was to bring the show here, because of the scale of production. Having said that, what can expect from your two shows here—not only production wise, but also the set list?
My main concern was that I didn’t want to come to a country like India and then disappoint by not being able to present my full show; it’s a very visual experience. Yes, I have extraordinary musicians with me and the songs—hopefully they have their own strength—but I think the combination of the music and the film and the spectacle and the production and the screens, that for me is all part of the artistic presentation and the whole experience. So it’s very important that we able to have that and we do have that. I think people can certainly expect quite a multimedia audiovisual experience—something that is as much about what they see as what they hear. And it’s a very immersive spectacular experience—at least I hope it will be; it should!

Steven Wilson live with Porcupine Tree at IIT Mood Indigo in Mumbai. Photo: Bobin James

Steven Wilson live with Porcupine Tree at IIT Mood Indigo in Mumbai. Photo: Bobin James

Also the fact that you’re doing two shows across two months—one this month and then December; it’s much easier in Europe but it’s quite rare for a band to be returning so soon to Asia.
It is difficult (laughs). From a travel perspective, it’s quite complicated. Basically, we come to India—Shillong is the first show and then we go to Australia, New Zealand, America, Taiwan and then we come back to play the second show. So it kind of works out well, from the point of view of being able to come at the beginning and end of the tour. I think also for me personally, having had such a long wait to be able to come to India, and having kept the fans waiting so long to come to India, I was very keen to do more than just one show, because I understand that not everyone can get to that first show. I kind of took the opportunity to come back again.

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What are some of the weirdest festival lineups you’ve found yourself on, and what were those experiences like?
I’ve done some very strange ones… My solo band don’t do this, but Porcupine Tree used to be booked for metal festivals. We did a few of these but they all felt completely wrong to me… Similarly with my solo band, this summer we’ve done some jazz festivals, some more mainstream festivals, some rock festivals. And I never will feel entirely that I fit into any of those things because… I try and make music that goes across a lot of genres and isn’t easily classifiable. I think that’s the problem with a lot of festivals because they tend to focus on a particular kind of musical genre. And I resist that. I don’t think these festivals [Bacardi NH7 Weekender] are like that, are they? They seem to be festivals right across a musical spectrum, which is great. I think last year Mark Ronson played?

I’m afraid a lot of the European festivals particularly are more focused on a particular kind of music and I don’t really like to do those festivals. I love to play festivals where the audience is coming along and they might be hearing a hip-hop act, or a metal act or a pop act or a jazz act. I think that’s part of the beauty of the music, that there’s so much variation in the world of music.

Coming to Blackfield [Wilson’s collaborative rock project], what was it like going back to work with Aviv [Geffen, Israeli musician and co-founder of Blackfield] and how has the new album turned out?
It’s great. I hadn’t intended to go back to Blackfield; I always intended that I’d come and help Aviv and play guitar and sing with it, but I got a lot more involved in this record than I expected because I was so impressed by the material Aviv was writing. In terms of the material and the songs—I think it’s the best Blackfield album so far. So at that point I was very happy to get involved and I ended up doing a little bit of writing of my own to the record. I think it’s a very strong record and I’m very proud of it. It’s always been fun working with Aviv. He’s very creative and he’s one of my best friends anyway, so there’s that kind of companionship which is very much at the heart of Blackfield. So it was a lot of fun to make the record… and I think people are going to love it.

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What can you tell us about your fifth solo album? There have been a few updates from your home studio where you’ve been writing and composing.
Yeah, I’m at the point where I’ve pretty much finished writing, I’ve written 19 songs which is a lot! Usually I’ll write 10 or 11 and then I’ll start working on the album and I’ve written 19 this time. I kind of pushed myself in a way to work, to produce a lot of music and I also pushed myself to go in a different direction this time… I don’t want to repeat myself. I think it’s important to always have a new challenge, move in a different direction and be progressive. That’s what we do. The longer you make records and the older you get, the harder it is to challenge yourself and to find new things to do that you haven’t done before. So it wasn’t easy, I worked very hard for the whole summer but I have now a set of songs which I’m really pleased with. It’s still very ambitious, very epic music… I’m going to start recording as soon as I get back from tour this December.

A lot of these updates come from your Instagram account which you started a few months ago, and have been very active. What got you on the platform and what’s your take on the “age of Instagram”?
I didn’t even know what Instagram was! (laughs) I have a young guy that works for me and his job is to make sure that I have a strong presence in social media and on the Internet, which is not a world I know very much. I don’t understand these things. So when he comes to me and says something like, “You need to have an Instagram page, err account,” I’m like “What’s that? I don’t even know what that is!” But then he very patiently explained to me why I should do it.

Sometimes things become like something like you feel like you have to do, almost like a duty and sometimes you get a lot of fun. And I must say Instagram has been a lot of fun. It’s been fun to take pictures while I’m on tour and pictures of the audience, in my studio, pictures of the band backstage.. I guess I kind of got into it. But honestly the answer to your question, the reason I started it is because my web guy told me I should! But I’m really enjoying it and as soon I get back on tour, you can certainly expect to see a lot of pictures on Instagram from the Indian trip, I’m sure that’s going to provide a lot of photo opportunities.

How important do you think it is a platform for marketing yourself and your music?
Obviously it’s very important. I think there are lots of amazing musicians, much more talented than me who find that type of thing very difficult. If you’re someone that is artistic and creative, why should you have to be someone who thinks about marketing? Why should you have to be thinking about the business side of things? The answer is you shouldn’t be. As an artist you should be able to focus entirely on the artistic and creative side. And the reality is lots of great musicians never actually become successful or become well-known because they’re very uncomfortable with marketing.

I guess while I don’t feel comfortable with it, I kind of learnt to deal with it and I’ve learnt to enjoy it… For me I suppose it is partly that I’m very passionate anyway about music and I enjoy talking about it. There’s things [like Instagram and Facebook] that if I probably wasn’t being coerced to do so, I would probably never get involved in. But I think there’s a way to find pleasure in all these things. The more you get into them, the more you understand them. I think we can make it fun and entertaining. Although I’m not the most naturally egotistical person, I kind of enjoy putting myself out there and talking about music and being on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve found a way to find the fun side of that side of business.

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