August 16, 2017 Interview – Steven Wilson
True art has no compromise, it follows the vision of the creator until the final brush stroke. That in mind, it is not to say an artist cannot connect with an audience, in fact, the deepest connection more than likely occurs when the art is sincere and from the heart. Such is the case with the stunningly accomplished English musician Steven Wilson.
A singer, songwriter, and producer, Wilson has built a career on his own terms, attaining success with his band Porcupine Tree paving the way for future endeavors including Blackfield as well as a diverse solo career. Defying the confines of genre classification, Wilson has dabbled in various styles of music and is set to return with perhaps his most Pop sensible album to date, entitled To the Bone. Tapping into his inner instinct as a composer, To the Bone is yet another example of Wilson’s ability to evolve. Recently we caught up with Wilson to talk the development of his career in music, his outlook toward creating, the concept behind To the Bone, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – Over the three plus decades, you have built one of the most respected names in Progressive Rock from Porcupine Tree, to Blackfield, and your solo work, to your vast amount of production. Through it all, what has this musical journey been like for you?
Steven Wilson – Well, you know it’s been something that’s been characterized I think by a constant sense of needing to change and needing to evolve and develop as a sort of creative person. You use the word progressive, this is not a word that I ever use. I understand that I do have albums in my catalog which people very firmly consider to be from that tradition. I’ve made albums of Ambient music, I’ve made Pop records, I’ve made Extreme Metal albums. But it’s true to say that the albums I’m most well-known for and I’m most successful with have tended to be the ones that are, that share the sort of DNA of what most people think of as Progressive Rock style.
But, of course, on this new record I’m trying, again, something a little bit different, and I’m trying to tap in a little bit more to my songwriting sensibility. Some would say my Pop sensibility, while I know that word to some people is a kind of pejorative term so I can’t use it in a very advised way (laughs). But yes, that’s tapping in perhaps more to my songwriting style and feeling that continuation of that kind of journey and that need to change, and to in some ways confront the expectation of my distinct audience.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, and as you mentioned, you have been very diverse over the years, beyond Progress Rock. Do you feel that diversity has been an essential part of your longevity as a musician?
Steven Wilson – Oh, yes, definitely. Absolutely. When I was very young I grew up in a house with all sorts of different kinds of music. I never had acknowledged that idea of music genre and I never understood that concept of musical snobbery. Many are very open minded, but there are also many people who tend to focus on a specific genre in the way they listen to music, and if you are a musician, the way that they make music. I never understood that and I think it’s one of the reasons, as you kind of pointed out, why I’ve never, at least not so far, run out of steam. I still have as much passion for making music.
I’m slightly less prolific than I was, maybe ten years ago, but still pretty prolific. I still make a lot of music. I think one of the joys for me is that I don’t approach music in a kind of generic way. I approach it simply as a kind of natural consequence of all the stuff that’s spinning round my head. Whether it’s Jazz or Progressive Rock, or Metal, or Pop, or Ambient, or Singer-songwriter music. You’ll find it actually all in the music if you choose to, it’s all there. So that’s one of the reasons why I’ve tended to resist the categorization, which, of course, is another way of making sure that your career is very short (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – (laughs) As you said, you can definitely hear all these styles in the music. You can hear the different influences throughout the years. It has been quite some time since Porcupine Tree was active. Seeing you devoted a great deal of your time and passion into the band, do you look back on the Porcupine Tree years fondly?
Steven Wilson – Very much. I think, like all bands, we made good records and some not so good records, and I take the blame for the not so good ones because I was the principle songwriter and I was always responsible for the direction of that band. But to me, my solo records just feel like a continuation of that band, which, of course, started as a solo project anyway. The first three Porcupine Tree albums were solo records, and, to me, it seemed like a continuation.
I know fans are very keen on being this sort of, you know, a distinct sort of division between Porcupine Tree and my solo work. But actually, the direction I’ve taken with my solo work is probably the direction I would have taken the band in anyway because the band always reflected my changing interests. It was a little bit harder in a band to change style because you have to get everyone on board. I think that’s principally why I wanted to be a solo artist, so that it would be easier to evolve and change quicker. But otherwise…to a larger extent, it just seems like a continuation for me. That’s not to say that the other band members didn’t have a strong influence, they did. I think largely for me, it’s been something that has formed the foundation of the musician that I am today and the solo records that I make.
CrypticRock.com – In the wake of Porcupine Tree, you began to embark heavily on solo works and, since 2009, you have released a list of full-length albums and EPs. Now you are set to return with your fifth studio album, To The Bone. What was the writing and recording process for this new album?
Steven Wilson – Yeah, so this is a record, as I touched on earlier, which is more focused on my songwriting side of my personality. So a lot of what people might call the conceptual Rock elements have taken a little bit of the forefront this time. I wanted to make a record like albums I refer to as sophisticated Pop records. Intellectual Records that were accessible and had great Pop songs that made it easy to enjoy and lots of singles, but at the same time, if you chose to engage with them, you could also get a lot more out of them.
“Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, also Prince records, Depeche Mode. There is a long list of records from that decade that I rate very highly as records which work on a number of levels, accessible but also sophisticated. My goal with this particular record, To the Bone, was to try to tap in a little bit more to that kind of philosophy of music making. Make records which were easy to enjoy, strong melodies, strong catchy choruses. At the same time, if you wanted to go deeper, you’d find very deep lyrical subject matter, you’d find very cinematic production, you’d find great musicianship and, of course, take a lot of the things people kind of associate with my records through to that kind of new style and new direction. So that’s what To the Bones is kind of about.
The process was similar in some respects but very different in others. For example, this record is more of a true solo record because I ended up playing most of the guitar, most of the bass, and most of the keyboards myself. I relied less on the kind of band sound I had on the previous couple of records that had more a band identity. This time it was more of a studio construct and overdubbing a lot more. Also, I worked with a co-producer for this first time—a guy called Paul Stacey who very much also stamped his identity on the sound of the record. So it was quite a different experience, I think.
CrypticRock.com – The record is accessible, it is a very fun and easy listen. That said, there are very strong songs. There seems to be an underlying theme about life amidst these songs. What served as your lyrical inspiration? Lyrics stick out such as “I’m tired of Facebook,” and things like that. These are interesting lyrics. Tell us a little bit about the lyrical influence.
Steven Wilson – I think that this strand runs through the album, really. In a way this is kind of all set up by the very first speech that the American girl makes at the beginning of the album. All the lyrics reflect this idea of truth. Now, I think truth is something as a concept that is kind of out of reach. Can you ever really establish what truth is? I think that a lot of the subject matter of the album deals with the idea of truth. Whether it’s in the context of a relationship—just two people who have a completely different perspective on the relationship—and that idea of you creating your own truth. And I think a lot of the time truth is actually nothing of the kind. It’s actually perspective. We all have our own perspective on life. And we call it truth, we call it “our truth,” but, of course, that’s in a way that’s almost a contradiction to call something “your truth.” That cannot be. Truth should be a singular reality.
So that idea that you can have two different people in a relationship or hundreds of different people, or politicians with different ideas of what truth is. That doesn’t make sense. So actually, what I think what people call truth a lot of the time is actually perspective. So, a lot of the songs kind of deal with that idea of truth as perspective—whether it’s the truth of the terrorist, or the truth of a religious fundamentalist, or the truth of a politician, or the truth of the refugee, or the truth of the individual in a sort of romantic relationship. So examining that idea of truth and perspective from all these kind of different directions. So I do think, as you say, that does kind of give the album some kind of unity of subject matter.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly does. That is a very good point you raise right there. We as people spend so much time butting heads and arguing with one another about “our truth” when, as you say, there are so many different perspectives. Just imagine how much better life would be if we started to realize that a little bit more.
Steven Wilson – Yeah, so I think—in a nutshell—that principle is proved best of all when you look at religion. I’m not religious at all, I don’t believe in those kind of fairy tales. But there are thousands of different religions all of the world and they all believe that their idea of religion is absolutely the only truth. Of course, there are thousands of different religions and they all believe equally in their having the one truth, which is absurd. That can’t possibly be the case. You cannot have a thousand different versions of the truth. That simply does not make sense.
So I think it’s something very specific to human beings that we all kind of create our own reality and we attach the word truth to that, but in fact what we’re doing is we’re creating a perspective. Not truth. And that perspective is something that’s built in through our gender, our religion, our politics, our race, all of these things affect our truth or our perspective. It’s one of the reasons why the human race is going so wrong at the moment.
CrypticRock.com – Very true and very accurate. We could go on about this all day, but back to the music before we get too deep (laughs). Seeing that you have shown various different sides of yourself musically through the years, do you find listeners’ reactions vary to each new piece of music you put out?
Steven Wilson – To be honest, I’m not really aware of the reaction. I have a policy of not ever reading stuff online. Occasionally, of course, I’ll see reviews. People send me reviews from the media. Again, I kind of try in a way to avoid those. In a way, this comes back to the previous point about truth and perspective. Everyone has their own perspective. There are people out there who believe I should only be making “Progressive Rock,” and they may potentially be quite upset by some of the songs on this new record. But that’s not something I accept. In fact, I completely refute that. The idea that I work in a genre, going back to our earlier conversation, I completely reject that idea.
I think, in a way, the most important thing an artist can do is to create what they do in a complete vacuum and you do not take on anyone else’s agenda. You don’t listen to what your manager wants, you don’t listen to what your record company wants, you certainly don’t listen to what your fans want or expect from you, because that way lies a kind of creative stasis, a kind of creative death. I think artists that do that unfortunately do suffer from that. They start answering to their fanbase, they start making music to please their existing fanbase, or to maintain some kind of commercial success. I think that’s when the art tends to go out the window. You become an entertainer. You’re no longer an artist. And I don’t accept that at all.
To answer your question, I try, really, to avoid anything affecting what I do. In some ways that’s very selfish, but I think that’s kind of what an artist is. An artist is a very selfish human being because an artist is someone that really can only create what they create. To please one person, which is themselves. It’s almost a contradiction that you then have to go out and try the best way you can to try to sell yourself and to make a career and to be financially stable and supportive so that you can carry on being selfish and doing what you do. I guess I’m one of those people who, in a very fortunate way, has found a kind of path through the industry where I actually do what I want.
I’m very selfish about what I do and the way I go about music and I’m constantly upsetting and disappointing my fans who would probably like me to still being doing, whether it’s Porcupine Tree or doing Metal music, or more Prog Rock style maybe from my last couple of records. I’m very good at upsetting those people (laughs). It’s the only way I can feel, you know, content, and like I have integrity about the way I do my thing. I think I’ve been very lucky about the way I’ve been able to navigate my way through this thirty years without having to think about compromise. I’m not sure how many people manage to pull that off, really. It’s not really something I’ve tried to do. I’ve been very lucky it’s worked out for me.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. That is something very fortunate. As you said, there are not many artists who could do that. That also has something to do with the type of audience you have. There are some artists which perhaps maybe are more on the mainstream where their listeners are a little less forgiving.
Steven Wilson – Yes, for sure. I think I’ve also paid the price. No question. I’ve paid the price for my selfishness, which is I’m very much outside of the mainstream. I think that if you don’t conform and if you don’t make music which can be easily generically classified or if you don’t make music which people can very easily be digested and understood, you certainly do pay a price for that. It does become a lot tougher to reach, shall we say, a wider audience, I’ve accepted that a long time. By the way, even accepting that doesn’t mean I don’t still try. I still try with every album to reach the largest possible audience I can. There are songs on this record that will have, you know, confidence, and given the right set of circumstances, could reach a mainstream audience and become “hits.”
I still try. We make videos, we release singles, we do all the promotion. But at the same time, I’ve also accepted over the years that there’s something about the way I do the things. Something about the way that I do consistently change and kind of shed older fans and gain new fans because of the changes in the music. For example, ten years ago, at the peak of Porcupine Tree’s popularity, the audience was very Metal orientated. Now, I don’t think I get any Metal fans at my gigs at all. But I think the audience has, nevertheless, maintained a sort of equilibrium because new fans in the meantime have come along that like different kinds of music, and different aspects of what I do. I kind of trust in that sort of way that the audience regenerates, but that I’ll never really be what you might call mainstream, or maybe it could still happen. Certainly, to this day, you could never call what I’ve achieved as being something that’s happened within the Pop mainstream.
CrypticRock.com – Right, and that is definitely not a negative thing at all. On the production end, you have worked with a long mixed list of artists from Tears for Fears to Roxy Music, to Anathema, and Opeth. What do you take away from all these sessions you have been a part of?
Steven Wilson – First and foremost, I don’t work with anything tand I don’t take on anything that I don’t genuinely love. This comes back to my idea of being very selfish and not having to compromise. All of the records I mix—or in the case of these older records, remix—they’re all things that I have genuine passion for musically. So firstly it’s a lot of fun, in the simplest explanation.
Also, as you kind of hinted at, there’s also a lot of stuff I can learn particularly whether I’m mixing Tears for Fears, or Roxy Music, or some of these albums from the ’70s also, completely different recording philosophy to the one that I grew up with. I grew up in the age of digital recording, although I’ve been doing this a long time.
Even at the beginning of my career, digital recording was kind of established already at that point. So I grew up with recording on computers, and it’s been great to go back and remix some of these classic albums that were made on tape and in the analog domain. To figure out a bit more about how they made those records, about how they approached making those records, both in terms of arrangement and recording philosophy, I’ve learned so much. I have learned so much by having to figure out how to recreate some of these sounds they were making in the mixing process. It’s been a privilege, but it’s also been an incredible education, and without going into specifics, because there’s too much to talk about, there are many techniques I have learned which I then applied to my own music. That’s what it’s all about for me. It’s about continuing to develop and evolve and never closing off yourself to learning new or old techniques and being able to apply them to what you do.
CrypticRock.com – That is very fascinating considering, as you mentioned, you take away something from everything. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of these genres, what are some of your favorite films?
Steven Wilson – Yeah, I’m a massive fan. Sci-Fi is obviously a very broad church. I’m not a big fan of things like Star Wars and Star Trek, but at the same time, if you talk to me about movies like Blade Runner (1982), or there was a movie that came out a few years ago called Under the Skin (2013). It is with Scarlett Johansson and directed by a British director called Jonathan Glaser. One of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen in my life.
I think you would call that Science Fiction, although it’s obviously much more than Science Fiction. These kind of movies like Blade Runner and Under the Skin and perhaps movies like Mulholland Drive (2001) that are more surreal than Sci-Fi. To me, one thing they all have in common is they all kind of tap into the idea of the logic of dreams, this surrealist aspect to them. They tell us a lot about how the world that we live in, while kind of referring to imaginary worlds and this idea of science-fiction. I adore those movies and they’re a very big influence on my music.
In terms of Horror, a recent movie I thought was fantastic was Get Out, the Jordan Peele movie which I know has been massively successful. I thought that was an extraordinary modern take on the idea of Horror. But then, you know, I also grew up with movies like The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987). Those classic zombie movies. I love those, too. I guess I have a real passion for those kind of escapist Horror movies, as well. But I think my favorites are the ones that tell us something about, you know, us. They tell us something about the world that we live in while kind of on the surface appearing to be Science-Fiction or Horror movies, and I think that’s a special thing that those kind of movies can give to us.
CrypticRock.com – No question. To add to that, you mention zombie movies such as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), even Night of the Living Dead (1968). Those are underlying commentaries on society. Dawn of the Dead is perhaps the most striking commentary on society and that is visionary because it was in 1978, prior to the massive consumerism that overtook our culture.
Steven Wilson – Yeah, that is a great example. Zombies themselves are kind of a political thing, aren’t they? The whole idea—one that becomes more relevant by the day—that the human race is effective. In the words of Rogers Waters, has kind of amused itself to the point of catatonia, and politicians can control us because we’ve become so passive, and so kind of amused by trinkets, whether its computer games, or cell phones, or reality TV, that we’re actually completely unaware of what’s going on in the real world. So the zombie movie, in a way, is a perfect way to sort of discuss those topics. As you said, George Romero was completely way ahead of the curve, you know—in the ‘60s, in the original movies—just so way ahead of his time. Those kind of movies, I think I really admire the most. The ones that, as I said, on the surface appear to be escapism, but actually they’re nothing of the kind. They’re completely about the human condition. That, to me, continues with Under The Skin.