Latest release: To the Bone
Esteemed British musician Steven Wilson established himself through co-founding rock band Porcupine Tree whilst also launching a solo career that ran in tandem. His interests in audio engineering and production and an aptitude for mixing music contributed to his rise in prominence, most visibly through his production duties and musical contributions with career defining albums by Opeth. A prolific song writer and well respected musician, Wilson has continued to defy categorisation by exploring his own musical trajectory and continues to create albums that receive critical acclaim. Nowadays concentrating primarily on his solo work, his most recent studio album To the Bone sees him diversifying his appeal with wide ranging success globally. Loud Online recently caught up with the erudite Wilson to chat about creating and performing enduring music.
I believe that you’re planning on having several audio visual pieces in the live set.
One of the things that I have always been very interested in, right from the beginning of making music, is the combination of music and moving images. So, I have been very fortunate in the last few years to work with some fantastic film makers. I am working with a stop motion animator and a live action film director. I am very interested in presenting the music as a completely immersive audio visual experience. So, with this particular tour I am really trying to raise the bar and take it to a new level. I have multiple screens, some fantastic new content for the visual side of things and quadraphonic sound [speakers behind and in front of the audience]. The idea is really to try to reflect the way that I think about making albums which is to try to take the listener or concert attendee on some sort of musical or audio visual journey and to accentuate that story telling aspect that has always been very much at the core of what I do. It is a very immersive and very spectacular experience, it is not just five guys ambling on stage to play some music. Although, there are five guys on stage and there are some great musicians playing with me. But it has always been important to me to present much, much more than that. I have really tried to take it to new heights on this particular tour.
Presumably increasing the audio visual aspects increases the amount of rehearsal time for the show.
It increases everything. It increases the expense, the amount of thought into pre-production and certainly it increases the amount of rehearsal time. You’re talking about a very complex machine that needs to run in synchronisation. The videos and the films were made or cut to be exactly aligned to the music so for example, when you get to be performing it live, the drummer needs to be listening to a click track so that the music is in perfect synchronization with the film. Now, that creates its own problems and it creates its own limitations as regards to improvisation within the music. But, I still like to have improvisation within the music so we find ways to get around all of those issues. So, it takes a lot of preparation and a lot of trial and error trying to find the right way for all of the jigsaw pieces to fall into the right place in terms of sequencing of the show; things like what is going to start the show, what is going to end the first half, what is going to feel right to begin the second half and what feels right as an encore. All of those things sometimes take time to fall into place and not only in the rehearsal but sometimes across the first two or three weeks of a tour where I’m constantly revising and changing things around. But at this stage, we’re many months into the tour so things are running pretty smoothly.
Some listeners might immerse themselves in the audio side so much that they’ve already created a sort of visual element to the albums. Is the visual element then directing or altering their responses?
I don’t know that is necessarily true because that would suggest that if you go to see a movie then there is only one possible interpretation of a movie too and of course that is not true. But you’re absolutely right in that there is an element that the more you kind of flesh out the lyrical ideas behind a song and the more explicit you make the message then the less people are going to be able to interpret it for themselves. But I think you need to see the visuals to understand because they are still very much a lot more of what you might call being more abstract, more thought provoking and not necessarily so literal an interpretation of the music. For example, one of the songs is a song called ‘Pariah’ which is a duet with myself and a fantastic female singer from Israel called Ninet Tayeb. Now, she is not with me on tour but we have a holograph of her which appears on the screen when she is singing her part. So, it is not necessarily and interpretation of the song, it is a way of kind of realizing her role within the song in a visual context.
Her vocal work on the songs ‘Pariah’ and ‘Blank Tapes’ on To the Bone is quite incredible.
She is amazing, she is absolutely amazing. She doesn’t come and do all of the shows with me because she is a very busy person with her own solo career too but I do have a visual representation of her in the show by virtue of the video material.
You also had Mark Feltham contributing harmonica on two tracks.
Yeah Mark actually came and did a few shows with me. He did the Royal Albert Hall shows with me in London several months ago. But again, he is not on tour with us. You know what, I don’t necessarily feel that certainly in every case the music has to reflect the album versions exactly. I would love to have Mark out on tour with me the whole time but it is not possible so we reinterpret the music and the harmonica part becomes a guitar part in this case.
Everything has changed with the digital world now meaning amplifiers and cabinets can be replaced with lightweight amplifier modeling, speaker simulators and effects processors.
Yeah but I don’t particularly like them to be honest. I am a sort of a great believer in that there is no substitute for air moving a speaker cone and so I still have old school valve amplifiers. Everyone has their own feelings about digital recording and personally I love digital recording. I love the idea of being able to edit and refine and have total recall. I love that in terms of recording and mixing but I still love old analogue sounds. I love old analogue synthesisers, I love analogue amplifiers, pianos, Mellotron, Hammond organs, Fender Rhodes [electric piano] and real drums. For me, electronic music making becomes part of the music vocabulary but it does not replace it. I’ve tried experimenting with virtual guitar amplification; it just doesn’t sound as good to me as the sound of air moving from a real valve amplifier.
All of the people that you’ve worked with from Opeth to Yes, Anathema, Jethro Tull and so on would all probably be valve amplifier enthusiasts.
Yeah I think so and even some of the more recent bands I’ve worked with like Tears for Fears, all of the synthesisers that they were using in the eighties were ultimately analogue. At the same time, I love some digital or electronic music. I love a lot of music that is now clearly in the digital domain. I think that there is a place for all of these things to kind of co-exist. But, I have issues when great analogue sounds are being emulated or when people are attempting to replace them with simulations. It is like trying to replace a human being with a simulation of a human being. It is just not the same and it never will be.
You contributed Mellotron and Moogs to former Mansun front man, Paul Draper’s first solo EP [One].
I did, I don’t remember exactly what I played. I think I played a bit of Mellotron and a bit of Prophet 5 [by Sequential Circuits] synthesiser which is a classic old eighties analogue synthesiser. There is a grain or a personality that those sorts of instruments have and of course it comes from the fact that they are not perfect as indeed, neither are human beings and that is what makes us special too. I’m a big fan of Paul Draper and I have been for many years so it was great to work with him.
When you’re contributing parts and instrument sounds do you consider saving it for your solo albums?
Ah, I guess that if you are working on someone else’s song, there is no problem there because you are drawing on a musical vocabulary that you developed on your own and there is no reason why you cannot go and use that musical vocabulary on your own material too. There is an issue when you actually come to write with someone else because you are actually giving away lyrical ideas, musical ideas and melodies. I don’t tend to do that very much, I tend to find that if I am writing music then I am pretty much writing exclusively for my own records. I don’t tend to give songs away to other people in that respect.
Okay, with your most recent album, ‘Detonation’ is the longest song on there with most other songs comparatively shorter. How did the progressive rock fans respond to that scenario?
Honestly, I don’t really know. I don’t follow social media, I never read online stuff so I don’t really know. I mean, all I can tell you is that the album is definitely the best-selling album of my career and it seems to have broadened the audience out a lot more. I don’t make records for prog fans, I make records for people that love music. So if there were a few prog fans who thought it was maybe too song oriented or not conceptual enough and I am sure that there were, honestly, I would take that as a positive sign rather than a negative one. I think that it is important to always be evolving as a musician and part of the unwritten contract between you and your audience is that sometimes you have to confront their expectations. If they have decided that you are a particular kind of artist and make a particular kind of record, I suspect they are going to be disappointed at some point. Certainly in my case they are always going to be disappointed because I like to make different records and I like to change. I don’t consider myself to be a generic artist or someone that just makes records in a particular genre. Indeed, if you look at my career I have made pop records, electronic records, ambient records, metal records and sure, some conceptual rock records as well but also singer songwriter records. All of these records are things that I have dabbled in and it is all part of my musical personality. So I am not sure I know but I can guess what some of the reactions were from some of the hard core progressive rock fans. They probably thought it had too much of a pop sensibility and they’d be right but that is their problem, not mine and it is just an issue of musical preference.
People like Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Andy Partridge all came through the pop medium in a sense but have so much more to offer musically. Today, most popular music is categorised.
I think that is true and you’ve just picked three of my favorite artists of all time but I would add David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Neil Young. What is special about all of those artists is that ultimately you cannot say what kind of genre they belong to or you cannot say that they make a particular kind of music. If you try to explain to someone what kind of music Kate bush makes, I think the best you can do is say that she makes Kate Bush music. It is the same with Bowie and the same with Prince, you know and I think that is something that I have always aspired to myself; that people will just see my body of work as having created a unique musical universe that is a Steven Wilson unique musical universe. They wouldn’t just be able to categorise it as progressive rock or whatever it is that they usually try to classify it as being. I think that To the Bone is a good example of an album that kind of, in a way, demonstrates that because I guess it is not the kind of record that people might have expected me to make if they have decided that I am a progressive rock artist. But, I never was in the first place. I made some albums that were in that tradition, sure, but I have made albums in lots of other traditions as well. I think that the ultimate compliment, really, is when you get to the point where people can say that your music just sounds like it has created its own musical space, if you like.
I suppose that your bassist, Nick Beggs can be philosophical about that sort of thing too given that he was the bassist for early eighties pop band Kajagoogoo.
Well Nick is a great example of someone who has completely confounded any attempts to put him into a particular musical box. He started out as a very mainstream pop artist and ended up as a musical virtuoso with incredible respect from musicians and fans alike. Never underestimate how hard earned that kind of thing is because for so many years he was dismissed as a sort of a fluffy pop star who couldn’t possibly really play his instrument, could he? I think that he has proved everyone wrong but it takes decades to do that, I mean, I’ve been doing it for thirty years now and even now I think that people still try to put me into a category. That is after thirty years of making wildly eclectic and different kinds of records and music. That is the kind of world that we live in.
Your third album The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) was an excellent piece of work. Would you say that To the Bone has surpassed it as far as realising a musical vision?
It is very difficult for me to say as it is like apples and oranges. They are two such different records. The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) is probably the closest I’ve ever come to traditional progressive rock and I am slightly ambivalent about it for that reason. I am very proud of it but I don’t think it was my most innovative record. I think it was a record that tended to use a lot of tropes from earlier seventies music. But I am very proud of it because I think I did that very well. The title track, in particular is probably one of the best songs I have ever written whereas To the Bone is a very different kind of album. It is much more about homing in on my pop sensibility and much more about my songwriting craft rather than my conceptual rock aspect of my personality. I mean, listen, I am proud of all my records for different reasons but at the same time, in some ways I have reservations about all of my records too. I find that it is very hard to be completely satisfied with anything but in a way that it a good thing because that means that you have always got something to go forward to, to do something different or do something better.
Is that the sort of thinking that led you to use a Fender Telecaster on your most recent album as opposed to the usual Paul Read Smith guitar?
Partly, yeah. I am always looking for something that is going to take me in a different direction and one of the things you can do is to change the tools that you normally use. One of the things that I did with To the Bone is that I went out and bought a Prophet-6 synthesiser with an arpeggiator on it. Also, I picked up a Telecaster which is a very different sounding guitar to any other guitar that I have played before and definitely you can hear the impact and the influence that they had on the sound of the record.