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Steven Wilson: ‘Being an Artist is All About Being Selfish’

The British prog rock veteran on his halfway release ‘4 ½’, artistic responsibility and musical overload in the 21st century

Nabeela Shaikh Feb 03, 2016
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Photo by Joe Del Tufo/ courtesy of Kscope.

Photo by Joe Del Tufo/ courtesy of Kscope.

For as long as he’s been making music, Steven Wilson has been foregoing industry trends in favor of his own creative experiments. The British composer/producer/multi-instrumentalist step foot in the glitzy Eighties as an adolescent with obscure, neo progressive rock projects, and persisted through rock’s reinvention in the Nineties with art-pop, experimental music and more prog. He then whooshed through the 2000s with the intellect and cynicism of his claim-to-prog-fame congregation Porcupine Tree and in recent years has settled on building a solo career.“I don’t feel like I’m doing what I should be doing if I’m not doing something creative.  So I’m always working away,” says Wilson.

Seven collaborative projects, 30-odd albums and more than 20 years later, a bespectacled, bare-footed Wilson has found success  in the form of Grammy nominations, sold-out shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall and rave reviews. Within a year of putting out his melancholic opus Hand. Cannot. Erase, Wilson also released an interim project 4 ½ that is a compilation of tracks from over the recent years, and is already plotting his next album due in November 2017, to “commemorate his 50th year on the planet.”

In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, Wilson talks about everything, from abandoned movie scripts and grand plans for his next release to how he never seems to age.

 

Looks like I’ve caught you just at the beginning of the tour. How has it been going so far?

Fantastic! We’ve done about 10-11 shows so far; we’ve been through Germany, Belgium and now we’re in my home country England. It’s going really well.

You have a pretty packed schedule for the coming months. Do you get much time to unwind or sightsee when you’re on tour?

Yea, I do. I like to be busy, obviously. You can tell from my career that I enjoy being constructive and creative. I don’t feel like I’m doing what I should be doing if I’m not doing something creative. So I’m always working away. A lot of what I do, a lot of my job doesn’t really feel like work. I have a lot of fun with what I do—writing songs, recording, mixing, touring—and in itself it feels kind of relaxing, if that makes sense. I do also have a lot of time at home, I have a little doggy at home, I have a big record and DVD collection, so I enjoy definitely some downtime.
What has it been like revisiting older tracks in your live shows, considering fans might get their hopes up about Porcupine Tree reuniting?

The thing is that all those songs are my songs, they’re not Porcupine Tree songs; they were my songs before Porcupine Tree recorded them and before my solo band recorded them. I guess I’ve got to this stage now where I feel like I can play music from right across my career going back to 20 years or so. There are some songs I’m really proud of and some of those happened to have first been recorded by Porcupine Tree. But even then they existed before that as songs that I’d written, demoed and played all the instruments on myself. So I don’t necessarily make the distinction or draw the same boundaries that perhaps the fans would make between “This is a Porcupine Tree song, this is a Steven Wilson song.” Sometimes I even forget which song was originally recorded by my solo project or which song was by Porcupine Tree—I don’t even remember myself!

 

Hand. Cannot. Erase earned you the highest chart positions so far in your career, sold out shows in Royal Albert Hall, etc. Did you anticipate the success of the album whilst you were working on it? 

I don’t really think—when I’m making a record—about trying to please anyone else but myself, really. So I’m never thinking about commercial considerations, about what my fans or record company might expect, what might be commercially viable in today’s market. I think anyway at the end of the day, no one really knows what will sell in 2016. We’re living in very strange times, where music anyway is struggling to have a commercial profile.

I am surprised that Hand. Cannot. Erase has done so well—it’s the most successful album of my career and that’s crazy, because I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now… I think it’s just down to the fact that the theme behind the record and the kind of story of this young woman who kind of disappears—and of course the songs too—something about that really resonated and emotionally connected with people.

Hand Cannot Erase artwork

Artwork for Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Lasse Hoile.

Coming to 4 ½, was it in any way a challenge to put a release that wasn’t based on a particular concept, unlike your previous releases?

[thinks] It wasn’t a challenge to make a good, strong record. I don’t necessarily think that a record has to have a strong theme to work as a musical experience. But I think what was the challenge for me is to get it across the way I wanted to. By that I mean I didn’t want people to perceive this as a follow-up to Hand. Cannot. Erase. I was very worried about that. One of the reasons why the album is called 4 ½ is to make it very, very clear in the title that this is not my fifth solo album but a halfway album. Not that I’m not proud of these songs! These songs were basically things that were left over from the last two records, and a much older song, too. I’m proud of it, I think the songs do hang together, it is a satisfying listening experience, I hope! So for me it is definitely a kind of interim project rather than a major statement.

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“Happiness III” was originally composed for the Deadwing movie. What can you tell us about the film so far, and can we expect it to be released any time this year? 

So the script for Deadwing was written in 2003, with a very good friend of mine who was a filmmaker. We really wanted to get it made and I really was confident at the time that we would. It was kind of a very surreal ghost story. We showed the script around, we had some interest at the time and we were looking for investment to make the film. In the meantime I wrote all these songs that would have been the soundtrack to this movie and I guess it would have been the first Steven Wilson solo record, this soundtrack. So songs like “Lazarus,” “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here,” “Collecting Space” which was on my first solo record [Insurgentes] and then “Happiness III” were part of what would have been the soundtrack. And after about a year, we still hadn’t managed to find the funding, so in the end Porcupine Tree recorded a few of those songs and the other songs have gradually come out over the years. The script obviously still hasn’t been made.

The truth is myself and Mike [Bennion, filmmaker] read it again about two years ago and I think we both agreed that we could probably both do something better if we were doing it again now. So even if we got the funding to make the movie now, I don’t think we would make that movie because it’s now 12 years old and I think we could probably do better now with more experience.

Artwork for 4 1/2 by Lasse Hoile and Carl Glover.

Artwork for 4 1/2 by Lasse Hoile and Carl Glover.

Do you have any ideas in mind already for the next album?

I do have some ideas. I have actually already written about four-five songs. I don’t know about musicians yet. See next year in November, I’m going to be a very significant age, I’m going to be 50. So in a way, I’m thinking of doing something very special to ‘commemorate,’ if you like, my 50th birthday. I have plans for not just one record, shall we say, but more than one record that would come out around the same time.. that’s as much as I’m going to tell you right now.

Actually no, I’ll tell you one more thing. Because it’s going to time with my 50th birthday, I think I like the idea of it being something that would represent as many of my different musical personalities as possible. If you look back over my career and see all the different styles I’ve explored—whether it’s the more metal side, the more ambient side, the more ‘song’ side, or the more jazzy side—whatever it is, I like the idea that this next record will somehow bring all of those things together.

 

That’s interesting; it’s very noticeable that you just don’t seem to age!

I do, and I don’t know why I have been ‘gifted’ [laughs] with this particular thing, except that my mother is the same. She’s 84 and looks 20 years younger than she is, so she has a similar thing. Listen, I am a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, I exercise every day,  I don’t drink really a lot, I don’t smoke, so I have a fairly healthy lifestyle. But there are a lot of people who have healthy lifestyles who for some reason don’t look as young as they should. I don’t know, I think it’s just my mum! I guess I’m very lucky.

 

With respect to your solo material, the lyrical themes seem to have become increasingly personal with every record. Does that ever make you feel vulnerable in any sense?

I think part of the artist’s responsibility is to, in a way, expose themselves. And when you do that, I think you’re holding up a mirror to the people who listen to your music. That mirror is of course an image of yourself, but you’re asking the people that listen to the music to see if they recognize themselves when they look in that mirror. Hand. Cannot. Erase is a good example. This is an album about a fictional character that I’ve created, but I’ve also put a lot of myself into that character.

There are many things regardless of whether you’re female or male, young or old, you live in England or Japan or India, we have a very common shared human experience. We all know what it’s like to feel loss, sadness, regret, anger, joy, love, happiness, isolation…. I feel that the artist’s responsibility in a way is to talk about these things, to provide some kind of perspective and in a way some kind of comfort. I always think one of the things that make sad songs work so well and so beautiful, is that the people who listen to the sad songs understand that they’re not alone in feeling those things.

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So would you say you feel a sort of emotional responsibility towards your fans?

No, I feel an emotional responsibility towards myself.  And that sounds very selfish, but here’s the thing: I think the responsibility of every true artist is ultimately to be selfish, to make something that they themselves believe 100 percent in and not to ever think about what other people want from them. No one is going to tell me that Picasso painted paintings to please other people, I don’t believe it! I think great artists make things in a very selfish way, and lesser artists think about their fans and try and provide something to please them. For me, those people are not really artists, they’re entertainers. I don’t mean that in a patronizing way; I have a lot of respect for people who can entertain. But being an artist is all about being selfish, about being true to yourself.

Steven Wilson 2 by Bobin James

Steven Wilson in India wit Porcupine Tree in 2010. Photo by Bobin James.

What do you make of the music industry today, considering you don’t think of yourself as a mainstream artist?

I think the mainstream music industry is dreadful. The pop end of the market is of absolutely no interest to me, or anyone I know who is really passionate about music. Though there’s still a lot of great music being made, I think there’s too much music in the world now. One of the problems is with the internet and with the fact that it is quite easy now to access the whole history of pop music…Kids have so much access to the past that they tend to come out sounding like an imitation of one or more things that has already existed.

Problem number two is the proliferation of music. There is so much music in the world now, more than any other time in history. I think a lot of people have simply stopped listening and trying to find new music because they’re so overwhelmed by the amount out there…That saddens me because there are some great artists out there, but it’s very difficult for them to get themselves heard or listened to. I’m still very positive about the quality of music that’s out there, but I think the struggle now is for people to get new music heard and taken seriously.

 

So what would you say is the solution, for anyone to be heard?

I don’t know if there is one, honestly.  All I would say is this: if you are starting out making music now, try to find and emphasize what is unique about you. It’s very easy to form a band and make a good sounding quality record that fits very easily into an existing genre. It’s very easy, you can go buy the right guitar pedals, the right amp and the right guitar and you can form a progressive metal or a heavy metal band, or you can buy a couple of turn tables and a sampler and form a hip hop band. But the point is most people do that ending up sounding very, very generic. And the truth is the world really doesn’t need any more of those kind of bands.

So I think the secret for me, if you do want to make something out of a career in music, is to find the uniqueness in what you do. If you’re an Indian progressive metal band, use the kind of music of India and put that in. That for me would make it much more interesting to a European or an American audience than an Indian progressive metal band that just sound like Tool or like Opeth. And unfortunately that’s how I can describe 99.9% of bands here. Experiment more with sound, with composition, experiment more with putting different kinds of music together. In a way I think it’s the only way ultimately to find an audience, because the audience already has enough of everything else.

 

Last year you had mentioned you would be very disappointed if you didn’t get to play Indiaby the end of 2015. Is there any chance we’ll get to see you sometime this year?

You know what, I really wish, I’m always asking my manager and my agent “When am I going to India, when am I going to India?” and they’re trying, believe me, they’re trying. But the problem is my show is quite elaborate—I have screens, I have quadraphonic sound, I have films… That’s been the problem, I think. It’s been an expensive show to bring, and I think some of the promoters in India have been concerned about the cost of bringing my show. And I understand that. But listen, I’m still very optimistic, I’m almost positive it must be this year, it’s got to be!

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