Steven Wilson interview

"Magazines like Q, Mojo or Uncut will continue to completely ignore me as if I do not exist"

26/02/2013 @ 14:46
Steven Wilson is one of the most important personalities in today’s music and any interview with him is -at least- interesting on many levels. 30 minutes were not enough even to scratch the surface of what we’d want to ask him about and the telephone line proved to be an unexpected enemy. Nevertheless, we tried to convince him that his new album is already considered a masterpiece, while learning a few things about it and the musicians that play on it. The comparison with "Grace For Drowning", the progressive rock genre, the future of music and Porcupine Tree are among the topics that were also discussed, leaving us with even more questions than before and looking forward to speak with him in the future again.

Hi Steven, it’s a real pleasure to be able to talk with you.
Thank you.

Steven WilsonI’ve been trying to keep up with all your music endeavors for more than 10 years and your new solo album must be the one with the most universal acceptance among the fans of your music. Are you receiving also this feedback and how do you fell about it?
I was not aware that the fans have heard it [editor: the interview took place before the original release of the album]. I think the acceptance from the media and the critics is good. I know now, with 20 years in my career, that any new album that I will release some people will like it and some people will not. Some fans will be disappointed of it, some will say that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted and some will say it’s the worst and so it goes. I think probably that’s a good sign, because it means that every time I make a new record I am evolving. And when you do that, possibly, your old fans will alienate some of the things you do. But, maybe, the difference with this album is that it is closer to what people want me to be doing. It is almost a classical art rock, progressive rock album. A little vintage I’d say. I pleased a lot of my fans last time as for what they want me to be doing and I think this will do as well. But, already I’ve heard some people that don’t like the new album. They prefer me when I am working with electronic, metal sound etc. I think you wouldn’t expect to have every one like what you’re doing. But, yeah, I think you are right. I can say that for the fans this album is quite important.  

Steven WilsonApart from a lyrical concept, I think that every time you create either a solo album or an album with Porcupine Tree you have a vision, a grand idea behind it. What’s the vision behind "The Raven That Refused To Sing", if there’s one, of course?
There certainly is, yes. You’re right. I always like to have an overall idea or concept for every record. This time is based on the idea of classical ghost stories.  By classical I don’t mean a modern horror story. But the moment has to be late ninetieth, early twentieth century. So, the stories are about men, who are at the end of their life, they are stories about regret, about loss. They’re great stories that are not meant to be just supernatural stories, but firstly stories about real people. I really love ghost stories. So, I had this idea for that record to have this novel. The first two samples I wrote for the album were "Luminol" and "The Watchmaker", which are both quite long pieces. When I wrote them I had no lyrics, I had no idea of the concept, but already I wanted to do these ghost stories. I wanted to combine the music of the album with these classical ghost stories.

So, the music of "The Watchmaker" led to the lyrics and not the other way around. Because, that’s what I would have guessed...
Well, that’s right. The music was written without any subject in mind.

Steven WilsonThis time around you seem to have a more stable group of musicians around you, like «The Steven Wilson Band». How helpful was that and what difference did it make?
Well, it was very different, because it meant that I knew that I was writing the music for that group of people. That’s very different than the way I did the previous records. Both records to me are more true solo records by means that I had no idea who was going to play on them. This time around I already knew. I knew who the band would be. I knew what these guys are capable of as I had seen it. We toured long enough and I really saw that there was a certain chemistry developed between the players. So, I wanted to write music with that music bondage and that’s really what you hear on the record.  It certainly doesn’t mean that I can play some of this stuff that these guys play, but I was looking closer. I was looking closer so, I could do that by myself, because I never could have played some of these things. So, I found myself writing music for them, but I guess it was a little more complex than it might have been for one of my earlier records. But that was a challenge too. To write for them and of course review the result.

You seem to make very careful choices regarding the musicians that play with you, either on studio or on stage. Tell me one unique characteristic for each one of the musicians that appear on the album, which made you want to have him on it.
Well, ok. Firstly, when I started I wanted to have a mixture of musicians from a rock background, but also with a jazz background. My point was that I wanted to bring the kind of spirituality of jazz music into rock music. Jazz music has this kind of spirituality that rock doesn’t.  So, that’s what Theo Travis brought in the mixture. He’s an amazing, fabulously open minded musician. He likes electronic music, of course he loves jazz music, he likes rock music. So, we have a similar attract for this thing and that’s the point about him. Adam Holzman, the keyboard player; I wanted someone that understood what I always loved about the early 70s, particularly the sound of Fender Rhodes, which I happen to love. I wanted someone who really focused on Fender Rhodes, the amplifiers and everything. Adam was really comfortable with the idea and I loved it. Marko Minnemann, the drummer. I always start with the drummer. If you don’t have a good drummer then your whole band is not going to have the right feeling. The thing about Marco is -apart from being an incredible musician- the look upon his image is pure. You look around Marco and you can see it. He has that huge grin in his face. That’s great, like he’s in a party. And that becomes accepted by everyone else in the band. Everyone starts to play with the same feeling as Marco. Nick (Beggs), the bass player. He’s someone I normally found from the Steve Hackett band. Nick is a wonderful character. A great player, but also a wonderful person, a lovely character. And I think that’s also important in a band. Then there’s Guthrie, my lead guitar player. What I like most about Guthrie is that he’s one of these guys that can do vintage stuff, he can do shredding stuff, he’s really fast and he can play any of the other parts right, but that’s not what I wanted him in my band for. And the good thing about Guthrie is that while he is doing all that stuff, he totally understood me when I told him “Guthrie, I want you to play that one note that will break your heart”. And he played the one note that broke my heart. He certainly could do that. He totally understood what I feel about playing less and more emotional stuff for the listener. There you go. That’s a little bit for every one of them.

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)A lot of people claim that the keyboards on the new album are the best ones than any of your previous works. Would you agree? And if yes, what made the difference this time around?
The playing, or the sound? Or everything?

Oh, I’d say everything...
I think, firstly, it has to do with having Adam on the record and his keyboard parts. Secondly, I’ve made a decision on this record to only use specific keyboards, so I think that overall you’re listening to very kind and very organic sounds like the Hammond, like the Fender Rhodes, like the clarinet, like the mellotron. You know, the mellotron for lots people reminds of early 70s or late 60s vintage stuff, but for me the mellotron is an all time instrument. It has a quality that is very organic. It doesn’t sound electric, although it is electric, it doesn’t sound electric. On the album I had Robert Fripp’s mellotron, which is an original 1963, I think, MK2 mellotron. It’s very-very old, has done so much work on it, but has a wonderful, wonderful feeling. So, maybe that’s what you get. The sounds and playing of the keyboards is less electronic and more classic rock.

Steven WilsonFrom what you’ve been saying, I get the picture that you were kind of the maestro of the band, more than anything. Could this could be the album that you’ve been involved less in playing various instruments than in the past?
Yeah, very much. For a long time I’ve decided that my ambition was to remove myself from handling the performing part. At my last tour, I loved the fact that for the first time I could just play the guitar. Not only, as I had the singing parts and I played some keyboards, but there were long parts where all I had to do was more hold on or just do the singing, so I could be something like the musical director. And that’s what I always wanted to do. I started out 30 years ago and I fell in love with music, because I really wanted to be a producer, or a musical director, or a writer. Not just a guitar player or a keyboard player or a singer. But, what happened was that I couldn’t find anyone else at that time to play with. I couldn’t find anyone willing to play the music that I wanted to play. So, I had to take control and I had a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But, now, I found finally that I can be the producer and the writer and the musical director. And the thing is that I can hire these extraordinary musicians of a much higher level than I could ever reach and that’s really what I always had in the back of my mind, what I always to do.

Is it my impression or did the process of remastering the King Crimson albums influence your songwriting?
You mean reximing...

Steven WilsonYeah, of course...
The King Crimson and the Jethro Tull. Very much, very much. Let’s take for example the overwhelming feeling of remixing an album like "Thick As A Brick" by Jethro Tull, which I did remaster. Let’s say I do that for some days and then go back to write some stuff for my solo album. My head is still full of "Thick As A Brick", it’s full of the sounds of that album, it’s full of the whole world that is really there. And that happens with whatever I’m working on. I think at that point your head is so full of all the music you’ve been listening that it goes naturally. So, there is a very strong influence from the work of doing remixes and I know that it happens. I let it, I love that anyway. I’m happy. And I think you definitely can see that.

"Get All You Deserve" DVD is absolutely fantastic and up to now it seems that you enjoy a lot playing with those guys on stage. Are you planning to keep them as a permanent live band?
Well, I hope that. The thing is I’m a solo artist now, which means that I am hiring these guys. That’s not to say that are only doing this because of the money, of course they are loving it too. But they are working as solo and they have a lot of other people that they’re working for too. So, I have to hope that when I’m on tour or writing an album that they’ll be available. But they’re not always. So, I have to get other players to fill in as replacements. Right now, I have decided that I want to play with these guys, but at some point I’ll probably have to find other players. That’s part of the bad side of being a solo artist rather than being in a being in a band.

Steven WilsonAlso, I consider "Grace For Drowning" a masterpiece as well, but there were a few people claiming that it was maybe too ambitious, being a double album. What do you think of it in comparison with the new one?
I don’t really know. I really love "Grace For Drowning". That was an album which definitely was quite long, it was more than 80 minutes of music. I’ve always loved those albums, I’ve always loved double albums. The artist really has more space to expand. But that’s always what happens with double albums as you have people saying 'oh it would be better if it you’d take this or that out'. I decided that I wanted to make an album that would be full of ideas, full of different directions, different styles. Everything from electronic pieces, to piano ballads, to long progressive songs, all that writing stuff. And I wanted to try that and have fun. I think the new record probably feels more like it has its own style all the way through.

Now, I’d like to make a statement that your new album is a 'progressive rock milestone' album, as it contains all the elements of the classic progressive rock era and beyond. How do you feel about this statement?
Very much it is disturbing .I think time will tell whether it’s a great record or a good record or a milestone or a masterpiece. I think it’s not, but I’m not thinking it at this time. What I would say is that I hope it doesn’t sound like a retro album. I hope it still sounds like a record that was made in 2012. Because, I’m not really into doing musical retro stuff. Of course, I understand that there are lots of things that have the clearly the classic rock sound and I accept it, but in the long term I thought they were deliberate. So, at the same time I want to have references to the past that are truly all there and you can hear them. I hope that is clear.  

Steven WilsonIn my opinion sometimes you don’t need time to tell you how great a record is, especially when you have something as good as your new album...
You’re very kind to say this.

Then, do you feel the time has come for progressive rock sound to make the step to bigger audiences or has it established its own elite?
I think it’s moving very slowly, probably for the last 15 years or so. I think Radiohead’s "OK Computer", that was a landmark release. It changed a lot of people’s idea for progressive rock. Since then you had bands like Muse, like Sigur Ros, like The Mars Volta, all of them have sold a lot of records, but have also been great artists. And that’s how it has slowly been gathering  a momentum. Every time I make an album I feel it’s a little bit easier to get attention. You know, we had some obstacles back then. It was almost impossible to get any attention from the media with music that had progressive, psychedelic, space rock or any art rock background. So, every time I make a new record I think it’s a little bit easier, a little bit more important. Not a big change, but just a little bit easier, a little bit more important. I think that shows there are more people that care to listen to a new album on the classic rock sound. And I think that’s a good sign. Because I think people want it. As life gets more and more led by technology, by iphones, by internet, by each of them and all of that, I think more people care to listen to progressive rock.

Steven WilsonTo me, it feels likes that getting attention easier every time makes justice for artists like you...
Well, yes, it’s nice, because I’ve been around for a while and for a long time I’ve been ignored. Not much really, but again I know that this album will be ignored in my own country by magazines like Q, Mojo or Uncut. All of these magazines will continue to completely ignore me as if I do not exist. So, I think that will open the way in the U.K. ...I’ve got used to that. But, at the same time, I’ve been accepted as an artist by more people.

You know you are one of the most wanted persons in the industry for producing, mixing or even judging the sound of albums, but you chose to have someone else producing the album. On one hand there’s no need to ask why someone would want to work with the producer of "The Dark Side Of The Moon", but on the other I have to ask what was the role of Alan Parsons on the overall product?
Well, he didn’t produce "Dark Side Of The Moon", he engineered it and he engineered my record. He wasn’t the producer. The producer on my record is me. But, your question is still valid, because I understand what you ask. Firstly, I didn’t want to engineer it, Ι wanted to be the musical director. I wanted to concentrate on being able to direct music, not worry about the recording process. At the same time, I wanted someone that knew how to do it. I wanted someone who would knew how to record it in a way that it would sound more organic and analogue.  And Alan was on the top of my list, because he’s familiar with working that way and he’s a fantastic in using all the vintage analogue equipment. I’m not, I don’t know how to use that stuff. Because, I grew up using computers and newer technology. So I don’t know how to do it. But I wanted someone who did. Alan was definitely at the top of my list and I’m lucky that he was available. We had a great time with Alan on board.

Steven WilsonNow, there’s a great debate that the success and the quality of your solo works might be an indication of the end of Porcupine Tree. In a recent interview you said that you didn’t have a clear vision for "The Incident" and you’re not so sure about the future of the band. What’s really going on?
Well, I don’t have any good news and I don’t have any bad news. I think people get attached to the idea that bands they listen to should be going on forever, just making albums the fans. But, for example, you wouldn’t expect to have the same job for your whole life, you wouldn’t expect to work with the same people for your whole life. I don’t think that would be real. I felt like l wanted a new job, I wanted to work with new people, I wanted to have new challenges. I felt that after continuing albums for 15 years we did some fabulous work, we toured the world, then it was time to stop, at least for a while. At the same time I feel like I am exactly where I want to be with my solo project.  So why would I stop? Why would I go back now? That’s what’s now in my head. But you know what? I’ll still work with these guys, I just don’t know when.

Steven WilsonNow, with the financial crisis we listen to experts of economy making macro analysis for the shape of economy to come. As you are considered an expert of music and specifically rock music, would you like to make an estimation of where the music industry, but also music on artistic level is going to? Is "Sound Of Muzak" still relevant?
Well, I’m afraid it is. Because, most of the times people listen to music in a very comforting way, like playing it in the background while doing something else that you have to do. And I don’t really see or hear enough people engaging with music in a critical level, in a way that I believe you get the most out of music. But I think this is changing slowly. You see, one thing that I like is that I see young kids that are coming to me to get vinyls signed. Not CD, but vinyl. I think this is real good because they didn’t have any connection with that stuff, they didn’t grow up with vinyls like I did. But at the same time, they’re me getting the vinyl and I am excited that are listening to music on an analogue form and then hopefully reading the lyrics, paying attention at the artwork. So, I think that something changes for the music slowly from the past. About the industry, I see absolutely no future for the labels; I think they’ll disappear. And I think you have more and more options to get directly to the listener. But it’s harder to get it out. I think it’s the worst time for the last 15 years, not only because it’s hard to sell records, but also because there have never been so many people playing music. Go on myspace, go on bandcamp, go on soundcloud... there are millions of people. I think there are 5 million bands only on Myspace. And the problem is 'how does the listener know what to listen to?'. It’s very, very hard for any young listener to make it through this chaos.

Ok Steven. That was it. Thank you for your time. Hope to see you soon in Greece.
I’ll be, hopefully, there this year.

Chris Karadimitris