Steven Wilson Talks Social Media, Lockdown Learnings and New Album ‘The Future Bites’
The British alternative artist explores shades of dance-pop and rock on his latest record, whose release was deferred to 2021
One can never run out of things to talk to Steven Wilson about. Whether it’s his recent entrance to short video platform TikTok (“I’ve spent all of 45 seconds on there,” Wilson says) or how he played a billionaire tech mogul in the video for “Eminent Sleaze” or ideas of satire and dystopia, Wilson engages without any hesitation.
The British rock veteran is known for his first act with prog band Porcupine Tree and is now flourishing as a solo artist, continually crafting intriguing blends of pop, funk, electronic and of course, rock. From Insurgentes in 2008 to stellar records like Hand. Cannot. Erase and The Raven that Refused to Sing, Wilson took a marked pop turn (perhaps even a leap towards mainstream, radio-friendly markets) with To The Bone in 2017.
Now, with The Future Bites – released on January 29th via Caroline International – Wilson gets even more ambitious when he could have as well leaned back on the familiar prog terrain that he’s spent decades finessing. For his part, Wilson says, “This time, every time I picked up a guitar, I felt like there’s nothing left for me to say with this instrument, which is understandable after 25 years of essentially writing on it. So I found myself moving more towards electronic sounds.”
Lyrically, the concept gets fairly metaphysical on songs like “Personal Shopper,” which includes an interlude (by British pop legend Elton John, no less) ironically suggesting to buy “180 gram vinyl reissues” as part of a large parody of luxury items sold to click-happy consumers. It’s not nearly as despondent as The Raven that Refused to Sing but the concept puts forward ideas of how individuals can lose their identity if they let it be shaped by technology and consumerism, especially in the 21st century. The accompanying visuals – a befuddling figure portrayed on the front of the album cover and the creation of a fictional designer brand called The Future Bites all working its way into videos for “Eminent Sleaze,” “Personal Shopper” and “King Ghost” – build up an eerie future, informed by the likes of thriller T.V. series Black Mirror. “I think we’re all bombarded every day by so much information and culture. And I think these days, it’s very important to try and stand out in whatever way you can. And so for me, that’s another reason to not simply do more of the same,” he says.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Wilson talks about the making of The Future Bites, his changing relationship with technology, surviving time off the road and India. Excerpts:
With a project that’s this ambitious, what was the starting point?
Steven Wilson: The starting point is always the same for me, which is like, what can I do that’s different? What can I do that means I’m not going to simply repeat what I’ve done before? So I’m always looking for something that’s going to inspire me in terms of it being an exciting new challenge.
I think this time around, there was no shortage of interesting subject matter to write about, because we live in, shall we say, a controversial and tumultuous world at the moment. So, there were lots of things that were kind of floating around my head in terms of lyrics, in terms of musical direction. I found myself gravitating more towards electronic sounds. In a way that kind of reflects the world that we live in. I mean, we do live in a very electronic world these days. So that I think that was really the starting point, finding inspiration from a few new keyboards I bought and some electronic sounds, and feeling like I wanted to make a more electronically orientated record.
Like all of us, you’ve probably had a changing relationship with technology too, I presume. There was a time when people would bring you iPods to smash backstage before your shows. How do you see your changing relationship with technology?
I think like a lot of people in the world today, I have a very love-hate relationship with technology. I love the possibilities of technology. But I hate the way that social media particularly has changed the evolution of our species.
I really strongly feel that this path that the human race was going along — of getting smarter and more caring and more tolerant — has been thrown off course… well, by several things, but certainly, I think social media has fed into that. It’s made us much more self-obsessed. We’re all much more aware of how we look, how we are reflected back through the kind of prism of or the mirror of social media.
It’s made us all celebrities in our own little worlds. I think that’s unfortunately tapped into one of the worst aspects of human nature; ego, narcissism, belligerence, anger, negativity. So much of what you read on the Internet is just people being negative about other people or other people’s work. We’re all able to communicate with everyone else all over the world instantaneously. And a lot of that communication is not necessarily very positive.
I’m one of those people professionally, I have to embrace technology. I couldn’t be a professional musician without being present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok… whatever it is. Do I like it? Not really, no. Listen, I don’t want to give you the idea that I loathe it. I think there are ways to have fun with those things. I found a way that to me kind of works and is fun. But there’s obviously a, you know, a very tight rope that you walk in terms of getting the balance right. I don’t know if I do or not. But I have to.
The album did get postponed from the original release in June this year. In the period that you did have to push it back, what has this given room for you, as an artist?
It’s a very valid question. When I usually finish an album, I don’t have time to sort of reflect and sit back and listen to the material and decide what might be the best sequence the best choice of material. And this time, for the first time ever, I actually had a six-month period when I could sit back and listen to it/
I wrote about 25 songs and recorded about 25 songs. As I usually do for a project, I wrote and recorded a lot more than I actually needed. I was very committed to the idea the album would not be longer than 45 minutes this time. I’ve always said 45-minute albums are the best and I’ve never followed my own advice. This time, I was absolutely adamant. I knew that I had to select nine or 10 songs that would work best for an album. I originally had a sequence which I thought works really well, way back in January last year (2019). I listened to the whole sequence again around the middle of this year (2020), and I thought there’s something about this doesn’t quite work.
At the same time, I had this beautiful song called “Count of Unease,” which I had decided originally didn’t fit with the record. I listened to it again and I thought, ‘This is such a beautiful song, this has to be on the record.’ So this is a very long answer to a question, but I think what I’m saying is that this time around, it was nice to have that time to be able to live with the music and kind of reflect on the music.
Identity is a common theme on The Future Bites and you’ve got a fair amount of satire and irony on this. How ironic do you feel you have to get before people get the point? What is it like using it as an artistic statement?
One of the things about the concept behind The Future Bites… we went with this concept of almost parodying high designer products kind, as a kind of way to discuss the ideas of consumerism in the 21st century.
And also the idea about self-identity. The point of the picture on the front cover of the album, which looks like a picture of me, and it isn’t – it’s actually a female model that’s made up to look like me – are all these ideas about perception and identity. Are you seeing what you really think you’re seeing when you look at these images? I wonder how many people really get that, so it’s kind of self-indulgent in a way. There’s another ‘self’word for you. It’s kind of self-indulgent, in a way but I love it.
But the other thing is, it’s supposed to be inclusive in the sense that I want people to get the joke and feel like they understand the joke, not to feel like they’re the subject of the joke. I’m not trying to make fun of the people that buy my records. That couldn’t be more clearly demonstrated by how, in the middle of “Personal Shopper,” we read out a shopping list and there’s like “180 gram vinyl reissue” and “deluxe edition box set,” which of course are things that I use a lot in my career. And also, I love those things! I mean, you can see my record collection behind me. I’m a someone that loves to be a consumer. Like most people in the world, I love to consume these things. So it’s supposed to be inclusive.
In terms of social media, I know that you’re now on TikTok. I wanted to know what your introduction to the platform was and what your impression of it is?
Okay, honestly, I’ve spent probably in total in my entire life, about 45 seconds on TikTok. It’s not my world, you know, but the point is that my record company and my management company and my web guy all said that you should have a presence on TikTok. My philosophy is, even if there’s only five people that discover me, that didn’t know me before through TikTok, it’s worth doing. It doesn’t cost any money. It’s easy just to post anything or rather my web guy posts. I don’t spend any time on it myself. My kids love it. They’re always on there.
What was it like working on the narrative for the video “Eminent Sleaze”? How involved were you in the visual storytelling?
Being an actor, that’s quite new for me. Usually I’m in a video, it’s just me performing the song or singing as myself. This time, I actually took on a role of this [Amazon CEO and founder] Jeff Bezos-type figure, someone who ran like a massive corporation that essentially come to take over the world, and subsequently the economy had collapsed. It’s a kind of dystopian vision of the future and I think it’s a quite conceivable one as well, where consumerism has become so all pervading, that the civilization itself collapses, and the human race becomes extinct. I love those kind of dystopian ideas. I had a lot of fun doing it.
What was it like acting for a music video?
You know, one of the first things I ever really loved as a kid was acting. I was always in the school productions. I enjoyed that side of things. Part of me is kind of a frustrated filmmaker. I have no talent at all for the visual side, part of me has always been frustrated. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the movie script [Deadwing, which formed the narrative for Porcupine Tree’s 2005 album of the same name] all those years ago. It’s because I love cinema. I love the combination of music and an image together. For me, I think that’s the strongest, most powerful combination of all. I’m not an actor, but as you can tell, I like to challenge myself, and we had a lot of fun.
What’s gotten you through this lockdown period in terms of music or just otherwise?
I’ve obviously been forced to spend a lot more time at home than I would have done. In fact, I would have been out on tour by now if things had gone to plan. I have certainly had time to catch up on a lot of music and watch a lot of movies, as I think we all have.
I think that makes isolation much more bearable. In fact, in some ways, it was fun to be told you can’t go out, you just have to sit at home and so on. Okay, I’m going to have to sit in my listening room with all my records for the next three months? How terrible! [sarcastically]. It wasn’t terrible at all. I enjoyed it very much.
One of my main fears about The Future Bites is that it’s such a topical record in some respects. And it talks about a lot. But is that really what people want to hear? I don’t know. Is that what people want to hear when they’re living through it? Do they want to be reminded that they’re living through this very difficult, turbulent period? I don’t know. Time will tell. I wonder if people actually want more kind of joyful, you know, escapist music at this time.
What else are you plotting out for 2021 since you can’t be on the road right now?
I did plan for shows. I had a very ambitious production all lined up. I hope that I will still have the chance to present that. Although I think realistically, it’s at least a year away, if that’s going to happen.
In the meantime, my biggest project right now is a book that I started working on with a collaborator. Several people over the last five, six years have asked me if I’m going to write a book or if I can write an autobiography. Some people have actually written books without my participation about me or Porcupine Tree. There are all these books been written by people and I’ve not read any of them.
But I always said that one day I would write my own book. I didn’t want it to be a straight autobiography because I think that would be very boring. I haven’t had a particularly rock and roll life. My life has been about falling in love with music and dedicating my life to trying to create a body of work. That doesn’t make a particularly interesting story in its own right. But the book is going to be more about my ideas about music, about life, more philosophical in places and even existential in places. There’s some fun chapters, I talk about the music I love as well. I draw connections between different kinds of music that perhaps people haven’t done before I talk about the fact that I’ve always been very eclectic and very curious about what kind of music I listened to, and how that’s informed my own work.
So it’s more a book about music than it is about me but from a very personal perspective, because I do recognize I’ve had a fairly unconventional path through the music industry. Hopefully that will be interesting to people.
Lastly, do you have any message for your fans in India?
I always love coming to India. When I say always, I’ve only been there twice – once with solo band and once with my band – I had such a great time and it’s one of those things where I always look forward to coming to India and meeting the Indian fans. I really hope that’s going to happen in the next couple of years, so fingers crossed. I can’t wait and I hope people will enjoy the new record. It’s different, it’s challenging, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from me, right?
Stream ‘The Future Bites’ below and more platforms here.