Steven Wilson Turns to Sophisticated Pop
The U.K.’s prog perfectionist discusses his “smart and sophisticated” new record ‘To the Bone,’ the India influence and more
When we ask Steven Wilson if he has any final words at the end of our 25-minute talk, he says, “Can’t wait to come back and play in India again. That’s all I really need to say, isn’t it?” The U.K. multi-instrumentalist composer, who’s gone from the psychedelic prog of Porcupine Tree to crafting poignant music of his own since 2008, visited India twice last year to headline Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Shillong and Pune and play at Bengaluru showcase Backdoors.
Clearly, Wilson went back with some good memories. It’s not just him, though. Photographer and filmmaker Lasse Hoile, who was in India documenting the musician’s stargazing, emotional performances, seemed to have – in Wilson’s words – “completely blown away” by the country. Wilson says it’s probably what led to his latest album To the Bone’s promo photos to look like he’d just played Holi, smeared with colors. He says, “We’ve talked a lot about India, about its style, creative influences on the visual side of the album.”
That’s when he tells us Hoile’s next video for a song off his upcoming fifth album – due August 18th via Caroline International – will feature another inescapable Indian influence – that of Bollywood-style choreography. Wilson says, “It’s for the biggest pop song on the record, ‘Permanating.’ We’re using Bollywood dancers for that, which sounds bizarre. If you thought Steven Wilson was going to have Bollywood dancing in one of his videos, you’d probably think it was a very strange step, but it works so beautifully.”
Why would it work beautifully? Because Wilson’s more major aim on To the Bone is creating what he calls “intelligent pop,” inspired by the likes of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. The debut single “Pariah,” which features the soaring vocals of singer Ninet Tayeb, delivers a right dose of frisson with its multi-layered stirring orchestral arrangement. It’s a cathartic listen like the very many SW songs we’ve heard before – whether it’s “The Raven That Refused to Sing” (2013) and “Routine” (2015).
‘To the Bone’ feels like a happy album in some ways. Is that fair to say?
I think you’re right. I think there’s also a lot of joy. I guess many people don’t think of my music that way (laughs). It’s quite different for me. A lot of the songs are about what’s going on in the world right now, which to me, in some ways, is very negative. The album does deal with that, but when I was working on the album I thought, ‘If I just write about this stuff that’s going on in the world, it’s going to be the most depressing stuff’ (laughs).
I kind of made the decision to find the positive in the darkness, to find the joy in the sadness and try to, in a way, say, ‘Look, the world is this crazy messed up place, but we can still find something amazing in our lives.’ That’s the message of the record, in a way.
Thematically, of course, it’s still quite dark, so I imagine that’s a big draw, to have this sort of uplifting music but with sad truths.
Leaving aside my lyrics for a moment, I think my musical inspirations behind this record are a bit different. I was listening to what might be called great intelligent pop music. Sometimes, when you use the word ‘pop,’ people have a very negative reaction to that. To me, pop is The Beatles, Abba, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Radiohead. This is all great pop music, as far as I’m concerned.
What’s interesting is that there’s a particular kind of pop music which is very smart and very deep, very sophisticated. I wanted to make a pop record that had that level of sophistication, but was ultimately focussing on good songs and great melodies that people could maybe hum on their way to work or whatever. That’s kind of what I hope I’ve created here – something which has immediacy and joy and that kind of pop sensibility but also have the depth and sophistication of a very layered, ambitious form of rock and pop music.
Watch the video for “Pariah”
It’s interesting that you mentioned “intelligent pop.” I think often, people who listen to prog or metal, the only exposure they have to pop makes them think it’s quite mindless.
You mentioned people who only listen to prog or only listen to metal. There’s a lot of very bad prog and a lot of very bad metal music as well! What I guess I’m saying is, I don’t think that… of course there’s some very shallow, very banal pop music. In fact, a lot of modern pop music would fit into that category. But there is a lot of great pop which is just as incredible, inspirational and sublime as the very best progressive rock, metal, jazz and classical. You think of the ultimate pop group – it’s The Beatles. They wrote pop songs and wrote pop music.
I’m not saying my record’s anywhere near as good as The Beatles’ records but that’s what I’m aiming to create – pop music which has that level of sophistication.
I never really understand the notion of listening within a genre, anyway. It’s something that you maybe do when you’re young? I think when you’re a teenager, you go, ‘Yeah, I only listen to metal music’ or ‘I only listen to jazz or prog rock.’ As you get older, I think those kind of barriers fall away. At least they should do. You just find yourself liking good music. If someone asked, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ I listen to good music. That’s what you should be saying (laughs). Whether that music is pop or rock, or metal, jazz or classical, country or hip-hop, it’s irrelevant. It’s music that you like, that appeals to you.
You’ve always put a lot into your artwork, packaging and album design with previous albums. This one seems to be a bit stripped back. Is that fair to say?
Well, yes and no. It’s more about me and less about conceptual artwork this time. The main difference this time, which I think is kind of what you’re picking up on, is that rather than having some conceptual front cover, I’ve chosen to put myself on the front cover.
In a way, you’re right. That does align the album more with the world of pop than it does with the world of metal or progressive rock, where artwork tends to be more fantastical and more conceptual.
Putting yourself on the album cover is something David Bowie or Prince would’ve done. It’s not something Pink Floyd would have done. I think that’s the difference. In a way, I’m saying, this record is more in the tradition of a Bowie or a Prince – it’s about my musical personality, my artistic personality.
You signed to Caroline International, a part of Universal Music for this album, but that was done after writing the album. Was it something you saw to your advantage, releasing a more pop album through a bigger platform?
I hope so. Obviously, that’s one of the motivations for doing it. It’s very hard sometimes to talk about these things, because I think fans become slightly suspicious, of the artist’s motives (laughs). We’ve already talked about the fact that the record is a little bit more direct, song-based. People can sometimes put two and two together and get the idea, ‘Oh he’s written this like this!’ As you pointed out, the record was written a long time before I started to think about the label situation. I think the simple truth is, I felt I had gone as far as I could with the old set-up, with my previous record label. They were great, but I got to a point where I felt like, ‘If this music was going to have a chance to get to a new audience, to reach new people’ and perhaps even make inroads into a mainstream audience, which I think the music deserves to, because I believe it’s very accessible, easy to enjoy music. If it was going to have a chance to do that, then I had to think about moving to a label that perhaps had a little bit more – what’s the word…
Reach, perfect word, thank you. That’s exactly what Caroline International and Universal have. I may end up in a year from now looking back at this record and saying, ‘Well it just did the same as all the other records,’ it had the same amount of sales, reached the same people. But I hope – and I’m ambitious enough to think there is a strong possibility – that this record could reach a wider audience. Of course that’s exciting to me, because music is for sharing, for as many people as I can reach with it.
There’s a very interesting flow in the middle of the album, when you have ‘The Same Asylum As Before’ and ‘Refuge’ but then it goes into ‘Permanating’ – what can you tell me about the way these songs were written?
I love sequencing records. I reckon it’s one of the things I’m better at doing. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best guitar player, but I think one thing I’m really good at, I believe, is creating a sequence to an album. There is an art to it. You can take the same 10 songs and sequence them in many different ways but if you can find the right way to sequence an album, I think you can have a magic that will not be there if you get it wrong. That magic that comes from sequencing, I reckon I’m pretty good at that (laughs).
The part you’re talking about – you go there from “The Same Asylum As Before,” which is very much a rocker, and then you’re going into something very epic and ambitious and very serious with “Refuge” and then into this moment of pure joy and pure relief with “Permanating.” That is something I thought a lot about and something I planned and tried and it just seemed to work.
One of the tricks to sequencing an album is to not let the listener get bored. This album is an hour long, that’s pretty long for an album. One of the ways you can stop them from losing concentration is to get the sequencing right. So you have music that’s constantly surprising, constantly changing and evolving, but in a way that feels natural and not too strange. I hope I’ve got that right on this record.
Watch the video for “Permanating”
Which songs from this album are you looking forward to perform live?
That’s a good question. I think “Pariah” is going to be stunning, because Ninet is going to come on tour with me as much as she can. When we’re able to do that on stage together, as a duet, I think that’s going to be quite a powerful experience. I’m looking forward to that. I think “Refuge” is going to be epic on stage. I think “Permanating” is going to be a lot of fun to do on stage. There’s also a song on the record called “People Who Eat Darkness,” it’s a real rocker, which I’m kind of looking forward to strapping on my Telecaster guitar and having fun with that.
What does the rest of the year look like for you? I’m guessing you’d want to make India a regular tour stop now.
Oh yes, very much. India is definitely high on the agenda, don’t worry. I don’t start touring until January next year. So the rest of this year is just promote as much as I can – we’re making videos for five or six of the songs on the record, which takes quite a long time too. Then I’ve got to audition guitar players, because I’ve lost my guitar player to Roger Waters’ band. Dave also plays with Roger and he’s on tour next year. So I’ve lost Dave, so I’m looking around now and we’re going to audition some guitar players. I’ve also got about four or five songs which were left over from the album, which weren’t finished in time. I’m going to start working on them for some kind of follow-up EP or just a release. There’s still writing and recording work to be done too. Plenty on the agenda.
This interview appeared in the July 2017 issue of Rolling Stone India.