Steven Wilson captures daunting times with bold and beautiful prog-rock
The perfect mixture of ambition and accessibility.
Steven Wilson discovered his love for music by the age of eight. While learning how to play the guitar and experimenting with his first cassette record player, he probably wouldn’t have guessed that he’d be called the “king of prog prog” later on. He dived into the world of becoming a professional musician by the age of fifteen, and numerous acclaimed band projects and a successful solo career later, Wilson is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the post-rock genre and beyond.
Self-taught Wilson developed two bands simultaneously in the beginning of his career. No-End and the Porcupine Tree released their first records in the beginning of the ’90s, with growing success from release to release. Wilson alternated between the two projects, acting as both musician and later also as the producer of Porcupine Tree, a role that he also pursued for other artists. The band’s critically acclaimed albums, like Deadwing (2005) and Fear of a Blank Planet (2007), made them essential in their genre. The project was put on hold in 2010, as Wilson wanted to concentrate on his solo career.
What started with a number of cover songs in the early 2000s led to Wilson’s solo debut Insurgentes in 2008, which was accompanied by an eponymous documentary. The follow-up record, Grace for Drowning, came along in 2011. Wilson went on his first global solo tour and received a Progressive Music Award for that album. Solo-works three (The Raven That Refused to Sing, 2013) and four (Hand. Cannot. Erase, 2015), were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed records. On both tours, Wilson’s loyal fanbase rewarded him with several sold-out shows in the Royal Albert Hall in London.
His fifth record is, as he says himself “in many ways inspired by the hugely progressive pop records that I loved in my youth (think Peter Gabriel’s So, Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring and Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love). Lyrically, the album’s eleven tracks veer from the paranoid chaos of the current era in which truth can apparently be a flexible notion, to observations of the everyday lives of refugees, terrorists and religious fundamentalists, to a welcome shot of some of the most joyous wide-eyed escapism I’ve created in my career so far. Something for all the family!”
We met Steven Wilson in mid-June in Berlin to talk about his newest album, To the Bone.
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Steven, on your new record To The Bone, you give tribute to the records of your youth. Was that something you did intentionally or did it evolve in the process of making new songs?
I always look for an evolution from album to album. When I started working on songs, the first ones sounded pretty much like they could have been on the last album. That didn’t work for me. Gradually, I developed a few songs that, to me, had something. I realized that I was drawing more on my songwriting side than I had before.
My latest album was more like conceptional rock music, lots of love songs and this kind of stuff. I thought this time I wanted to write more direct, and draw more on my pop sensibility. One thing I love about all the albums I grew up with is that they were very immediate, very accessible, with good pop melodies. But, if you chose to engage with them on a deeper level, you would find interesting lyrics, dark subject matter, good musicianship and ambitious production.
And you know what? There are not many records available these days, at least that I am aware of. Albums [from] artists like Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Prince or even Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It is hard to imagine that a record like Thriller would be so accepted by the mainstream today. It would be considered too strange. Which is a shame, because I love these records, and I think these are really smart records. So, I wanted to make something that didn’t sound like those records, but kind of had a similar philosophy.
It feels like To the Bone is a snapshot of the life we live at the moment. You tap into topics like extreme religion, refugees, paranoia, how technology affects our lives and much more. When you approach these topics, what perspective do you like to take when you write your lyrics? Are you the observer, do you draw from actual experiences and encounters?
I tend to write like I was writing a short story. Writing a song like, ‘Oh, isn’t the refugee crisis terrible, Mr. Politician you should listen up and do something,’ that is what some musicians do and they do it very well, but this is not me. I tend to rather create a character.
For example, in a refugee camp. I look through the eyes of the character [in the song 'Refugee'] and talk about more emotional issues that are involved rather than the abstract ones. Like being separated from your family, being misplaced, missing your wife and kids. I’m essentially writing a story about a particular unique individual, and of course I’m putting a lot of myself into that. So, how would I feel in that situation? There are a lot of human universal things like confusion, fear, nostalgia, and all of those go into those characters.
It sounds like a tough approach for you. It also reminds me of the way actors work their way into their characters.
Yes, method acting, I guess there is a little of that. For years I used to write about things I don’t understand, rather than the things I do understand. I don’t understand a serial killer, so I write a song about a serial killer. Religion, I don’t understand religion, so I write a song about someone who is very religious. As a writer I am not trying to understand them, but to understand why these people exist in our world today and what role they fulfill.
Mainstream pop lyrics don’t have too much space for deeper, more political messages. Do you think is that OK? Should musicians have a more critical eye on the world they live in?
I wonder if things are about to change a little bit, because the world that these mainstream pop stars have ignored for a long time has now come to them. If you think about what happened in Manchester a couple of weeks ago [where an Ariana Grande concert was bombed], I’d like to think that it wouldn’t be possible for these pop stars to continue to pretend that is not going on.
You can’t keep on writing songs about boy, girl, girl, boy, I mean banal songs, because I think your audience, eight-year- or fourteen-year old girls that listen to your music, are going to want to hear you confront these subjects.
But maybe they don’t, maybe they just want escapism, I don’t know. I kind of understand that attitude about escapism, but I feel like they have had that for a long time now. It doesn’t have to be quite so banal. It can still be joyous, uplifting pop music with serious subject matter.
Another topic connected to that is technology. You mentioned before that all the gadgets of modern times make people very passive, that you yourself sometimes have to restrain yourself to not fall into the passive pattern as well. Do you think there will come the time when people are sick of it all? How convenient can our life become?
I wonder. I mean there is no doubt in my mind that the human race is in the prospect of evolving into something different, in a very short span of time, in an evolution that has been bought on us by technology. When I was kid, which was not so long ago, pre-internet, pre-cell phones, there wasn’t a lot of technology in my life. And now when you are a little kid, your life is completely about technology. You are engaging and communicating with your friends over chats, facebook, instagram, twitter, or whatever it is. I don’t think anyone knows where it is exactly going to end up. But I think that there is always a reaction to whatever becomes the norm. Young people are really good at it is rebelling against things they don’t like. And I’d like to think that, we’ll see some people going like “this is not real life, I am really not socializing through social media, in fact it is very antisocial, I am not actually in the same room and I am not actually communicating with these people.” And I like to think that that can happen, and it will happen. It hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it is the next step, I really hope so.
How has technology affected the way you are making music?
I mean, I grow up with it. I was little bit too late to grow up in the old world. I learnt to make music with the very early generation of computers. My making of music as always involved technology and computing and sequencing and all of this stuff. But I also recognized that there was something very special about the old ways of making music. I love what I can do with technology, editing, recording sounds and the same time, I also think if you take that to its conclusion you end up with something that could have been done by a computer. That’s what most modern pop music sounds like. It’s so machine tooled, it is so perfect, so slick, it doesn’t have anything human left. My approach to music is and has always been trying to combine the two worlds trying to play with technology but still try to represent the personalities, the musicians, in the music. One thing I really miss in much modern music is that the musicians are not recognized, it is all about the vocals. The musicians could be anybody! When was the last time you heard a musician actually have a personality coming through on a pop record? I love good musicianship, the personality of the guitar player, the drummer, the bass player. That is something that is maybe old-fashioned, but it is what I grew up with and that is what I love. So my hope is to use modern technology to make a modern record that is about the modern world, but still retains the old ways in the sense of keeping the personality the music.
Pariah is definitely a favourite of mine on the new album. What can you tell us about the song?
It is a song that I wrote very specifically to be a duet between myself and a singer from Israel called Ninet Tayeb, who is an incredible artist. I’ve known Ninet for a while, she appeared on my last album, but this time I specifically wrote with her voice in my head. It is very much a song about a guy, looking at the world, asking himself what is the point of me getting up in the morning? The woman is saying, don’t give up, there is still so much you have to look forward to. The very sentiment is about encouragement, positivity, but also personal issues people face in the modern world, this weariness.
What was very special about the song for me was that we sang it together in the studio facing each other. That was scary to me, because Ninet is a real proper singer, I don’t think of myself as much of a singer. I mean I write songs, and I sing my songs, but to actually be singing that song facing each other, was very emotional. I think it really comes through that there is a very strong emotional resonance between the two characters. I’m very proud of that song.
Since we talked about my favorite song: Do you have a favourite track on the new record?
At this stage I am proud of the record as a whole. If there is one track I would be especially proud of it would be the song Permanating because it is the one that is the most different for me. It’s me showing my influences of things like ABBA and little bit of Daft Punk, a little bit of Beatles as well. It is pure joyous pop! It is not something I do very often, I’ve never really done it before. I think I did something really different and I hope I did it in a way that is convincing. Some of my fans are going to hate it, I know that. But these are the songs that make me post proud, because they are different. So that one for me, is special.
Was there a track you struggled with, that took a long time to write or produce?
The hardest one to write, well, that is good question. There is a song on the album called Refuge which is a song about the refugee crisis. That one was hard to write because it is all about the dynamics and how the track climbs up to a satisfying peak. Those things are hard to get right. That took a long time experimenting in the studio and playing with structures, to find the musically most satisfying arc.
Around a year ago you decided to release your music on streaming platforms. How do you feel about your decision now?
I resisted for many years, partly because I wanted to encourage people to listen to the albums as a musical journey. When you go to a movie you watch it from beginning to end. I wanted my albums to be similar to that. When it comes to streaming the whole nature of playlists and taking songs out of context arises. One thing that happened when I switched my label was that they said “You have to be on streaming services”. To be quite honest, I didn’t really know what they were. So the first thing they did was sending me to a seminar. I spent the whole day feeling like an old man, and they taught us about streaming. I was pleasantly surprised by it. Afterwards, I started to create my own playlists and thought, yeah, this is fun, I get to be my own DJ! I enjoyed it, and I started to see that there is a fun side to it. Everybody who makes music wants to reach as many people as possible. I’m no different. I know if I want to reach an audience between 15 – 25, and I’m not streaming services, I don’t exist for that audience. I found a way to enjoy being there and at the end of day I am happy when people will hear the songs. On that album particularly songs can be taken out of context. I am not so precious about this album being listened to from beginning to end.
You once said that a dream of yours would be to make music for a movie. Not so long ago a trailer for the video game Last Days of June was released. How did that collaboration came along and how was it to make and experience your music in this different context?
Very moving. Honestly when they approached me a couple of years ago, I had no idea about computer games, I had never played a computer game in my life. I thought they were all violent, guns and car chases. But I thought, what do I have to lose? So I said yes to being a part of this. And I kind of forgot about it for two years. It takes a lot of time to develop a game. I had really no expectations, when I went up to their offices to see what they had done. And then it was just so beautiful. It is like piece of cinema, and the closet I have come to scoring a whole film. To hear my music in that context is really moving, very emotional, and you get really attached. It is a very gentle, emotional, powerful, intense experience. Again, this another thing I’ve learnt a lot about recently, like in the streaming world, and now in the world of computer games. To be involved in a game like this is amazing and I am very curious to hear what people will make of it.
You announced a tour for next year. When you are on tour, what do you like to do in your freetime?
I usually use most of my time on tour to catch up on movies, TV shows and books. There is always something else to do when you are at home. I get movies and books, they pile up on my desk and by the bed, and when I go on tour I just take them all with me. I end up catching up on everything and I come back educated on everything I have been missing.
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