Steven Wilson has an air of mystery – detractors may say: misery – about him that somehow contradicts the British artist’s apparent omnipresence. Even when Wilson’s not involved in any of the multiple recording projects which he so elegantly juggles and doesn’t delve into remixing another classic album, Steven’s name can’t escape the music media space.
Such attention conceals the real person behind this guru aura, but there’s none of it when you sit and speak to the man: unlike his stage persona, an alienating one, Wilson’s as warm and open as only a musician who creates for people’s pleasure, as opposed to for the sake of art, can be.
More so, there’s a genuine human touch on Steven’s latest album, “Hand.Cannot.Erase.”, which has brought him another round of Progressive Music Awards nominations: something that he’s grateful for yet feels uneasy about. And it was this point that set our conversation – its focus being Wilson’s core motivation and methods as key to him as a person – in motion.
– Steven, people see you as a prog avatar these days…
– …but how do you feel about such a title?
I don’t even know what it means. I don’t even know what prog is. What is prog? It’s not a word I ever use by myself. “Prog” is short for “progressive” but I don’t think I’m progressive. What is “progressive”? Music that’s genuinely progressive hasn’t been around for a long time now. To me it seems like everyone is now using a very well established musical vocabulary. You can’t do anything really new – it’s almost impossible to do something which is really groundbreaking and innovative – all you can do is use the existing musical vocabulary and try to create something that has enough of your personality in it that it seems somehow fresh. So there is no such thing as progressive rock, and I never use the word “prog” or “progressive” with relation to my music. But I’m aware that there is a subculture of people who like a certain kind of music which, for me, has an association with conceptual rock and telling stories through music. I understand that I’m part of that tradition but how do I feel about it? I feel flattered, of course, but I feel quite ambivalent as well.
– Since you mentioned personality… How would you describe yourself as a person? I mean people see this veneer of a highly intellectual guy, but what do you hide underneath it?
I like to think that I think quite deeply about things, but intellectual? What does that mean? Well, I don’t tend to like mainstream culture very much; I’m always more interested in things that are not necessarily in the mainstream, whether that’s cinema or literature, or music – you’ll always find me looking for things that are on the edges of consciousness. Does that make me intellectual? I don’t know! For me, it’s just about being curious – it’s about being curious about the world; and if you’re curious about the world that you live in, then I think you have to look beyond what mainstream culture has to offer, because usually that’s the least interesting thing – whether it’s music or cinema, or literature. The least interesting work is the work that is in the mainstream; the most interesting stuff is the stuff that you have to search out. So I’ve always been curious… and people have this idea of me as an incredibly serious individual, but I’m not really – I’m very happy and I’m always laughing and joking with the guys in the band – but the music is very serious, the work is serious, and the presentation of the work is serious. Everything about my job I take very seriously, and I try to do it at a very high level of quality, [because] it’s a quality of experience. And this is another reason why I think people have this idea of me as an intellectual.
Also, I don’t reveal a lot about my personal life. I don’t have a personal Facebook page, I don’t have a Twitter thing; I don’t believe in telling people stuff that’s not important about me – they don’t need to know about me and my family, my personal life, my sexuality, and all this: that’s not important – the music is the important thing. And actually, I think this is something that’s changed in the last twenty years or so, because that’s the way it used to be, it used to always be that way. If you wanted to see what David Bowie looked like, you had to go and see him in concert or on TV – you couldn’t just Google him and find out what he had for breakfast that day. I think that this world that we’re living in now where we have a lot more access to the people whose music we listen, who we see in movies or on TV shows, it’s taken a lot of magic away. So I try to keep a distance between my private life and the world, and I think for some people that makes me come across as very serious and anti-social, and I’m not at all.
– Standing outside of the mainstream, as you say, what do you think of being fashionable? Well, at least that’s my impression that it’s “the thing” now – to like Steven Wilson.
The thing is, I will fight as hard as I can to push myself into the mainstream, because I believe that my music is easy to enjoy, I think it’s not difficult music and actually there’s still a lot of people out there who probably would like what I do but they have never heard of me. And so, every day is a fight for me to push myself so that more people can be aware of what I do. So although, on one hand, I’m saying I feel very outside of the mainstream, I would love to live in a world where what I do was the mainstream. I would love to live in a world where David Lynch movies were the mainstream and not “Fast & Furious 7.” I would love to live in a world where really creative, intelligent, engaging art was in the mainstream, and I think it’s always a fight for people who work outside of it to push themselves as much as they can into the consciousness of people. And very occasionally it will happen. Sometimes, you have a kind of freak album or a freak movie or something which is an art house project before for whatever reason it crosses over into the mainstream, and that’s when things start moving forward, and you get positive change in culture.
– Was that a reason for your swtiching from introvert to extrovert, at least on stage? Was that a conscious change?
Not really. I think I just became more confident, and I’m happier now doing what I’m doing than I was before. When I started out making music, I never really planned to be a frontman – I didn’t even want to be a singer! I wanted to be a record producer; I wanted to write and make music – I didn’t want to perform it, I didn’t even want to step on stage in the beginning! So I felt very shy and very uncomfortable about it, but over the years I’ve begun to enjoy it; and having this band, my solo band, now – they’re so good, and the show is so spectacular – I feel incredible joy to be on stage, to be a part of that, to be the center of this incredible multimedia experience. I have so much fun playing it, and I think the fun now begins to translate itself through the way I interact with the audience. So it’s partly confidence and partly the fact that I’m enjoying making music more than I ever have.
– Do you feel your audience has changed, too? Before, it was more depressive males and now there are more and more female fans.
(Laughing.) Yes. Yeah! Absolutely. Lot more young kids, lot more women, young girls: it’s really changed. I think part of the problem with the band, PORCUPINE TREE, was that we had this reputation of being some kind of progressive metal group, and I never really thought we were metal, but we tended to have as you say rather serious middle-aged male audience. But what also has made a difference is that the lyrics I’m writing now are much more emotional and much more sensitive, and I find that women particularly tend to respond a lot more to lyrics. Men tend to get obsessed with “What kind of Mellotron is he using?” and “What kind of time signatures is he playing in?” but women will always say, “What are these lyrics about? What does this song mean?” And I think I’ve been more direct with some of my lyrics and my solo work, particularly songs on “The Raven That Refused To Sing” and some of the songs on this new record. But isn’t it great to see? Who doesn’t want girls at their show? (Laughs.)
– Given the seriousness of your shows, how is it working with players like Nick Beggs, Guthrie Govan and Marco Minnemann who, with all their brilliant musicianship, can be stage clowns? How do you tame them on-stage?
It’s amazing to work with musicians that play with such joy. And lest we forget, music is about expression of joy, as well as other things, too, and these guys… not only do they play with joy but they’re able to play in the spirit of improvisation, so they never play the same thing twice. One of the problems I had being in bands in the past – NO-MAN or BLACKFIELD, or PORCUPINE TREE – was that everything was always the same every night, because we weren’t really improvising. I’m not an improviser, you know, I can’t think that fast, but people like Guthrie and Marco, and Adam [Holzman] the keyboard player, and Dave [Kilminster], who’s playing guitar with me tonight, kind of reinvent the music every night – the solos are different, the notes are different – and that’s keeps it much more exciting and fresh for me, too, cause every show is unique. You described them as clowns, but they play with passion, and every night is a new experience.
– So what’s your take on the current tendency to over-intellectualize prog? Many musicians seem to have this concept of the genre as very serious music.
It’s stupid! Listen, if you impose any restrictions on the creative expression, it’s a problem for me. It’s a problem for me. My whole career, people have tried to tell me that I play this kind of music or that kind… In the early days, they said I played space rock, and then they said I played progressive rock, and then they said I played progressive metal – I’ve never acknowledged any of those things. If you look at my new records, there are electronic pieces on there, there’s pure pop, there are acoustic ballads, and, yeah, there are some long progressive pieces, too, but I think one of the problems I have with any musician… Listen, I tell you something! Sometimes, I get kids come up to me after the show and they want to give me their demo: “I’ve made this album. Can you listen to it?” And I have this test, I say to them, “What kind of music do you play?” And if they can tell me what kind of music they play in a word, I throw the CD away. If they say, “I play progressive rock,” – in the bin! If they say, “I play progressive metal,” – in the bin! If they say, “I can’t really describe it,” I’ll listen to it because to me that sounds like there could be something interesting in this song. A lot of what’s exciting about music is when you get new hybrids, you get different forms of music that you can combine to create something new; I find that more exciting than just playing the generic form of music – generic music is not interesting to me.
Going back to the beginning of our conversation, I believe one of the reasons why people hold me in high esteem in this scene is because actually I haven’t tried to be generic, I haven’t tried to make generic progressive rock, whatever that is. That is what has helped my music to have such a reach beyond just people who like progressive rock. One of the important things about it is, if you’re fan of that kind of music you have to accept that it is a very, very, very small scene, and that it’s important for us just to go beyond the immediate confluence of the progressive rock scene. Now, I would say, over the last twenty years you’ve seen RADIOHEAD do that, MUSE do that, FLAMING LIPS do that, SIGUR RÓS do that; all of these bands have fairly strong links, to me, to the great Seventies conceptual rock music, but they’ve gone way beyond that and they’ve reached a new audience – in the way “The Dark Side Of The Moon” did in the Seventies. And I like to think that’s what in my own little way my music is also doing. But to do that you have to almost ignore the fact that you are expected to play in a particular genre, because that for me is creative death, creative bankruptcy.
– And what about this thing that I call “the IKEA approach”? I mean, if you listen to the old groups, like GENESIS, and hear Peter Gabriel sing, “Hey, babe,” you feel that he was a fan of soul, and YES started out as a rhythm-and-blues band, but today those who play in this genre take a bit of GENESIS and a bit of KING CRIMSON and they don’t go to the roots of it. These artists don’t build anything but buy something already prepared, right?
This has to do with what I was saying: there’s so much music now exists in such a narrow sphere, in generic classification. In the early Seventies, you had bands like ROXY MUSIC who were influenced by Fifties rock ‘n’ roll music, but then they had the glam thing, and they had a progressive rock thing, and they had jazz, and experimental avant-garde music – you had someone like Brian Eno who’d come from serious electronic music – and you combine all those things and you create this hybrid, something that nobody’s seen before. The problem is that now everything has been done, everything has pretty much been done now, and it’s very hard to conceive a completely new form of music – at least, one that anyone would want to listen to anyway. So what we’re all really doing now, as I said, is drawing on this established musical vocabulary. Like I said, I don’t think of myself as appealing to just one particular audience, I don’t think of myself as making one kind of music, and I have come across the mentality that you’re talking about where some fans would come up to me and say, “I don’t like such and such song on your new record, cause it’s not progressive,” as I’ve somehow made a mistake by making that track which doesn’t appeal to their particular narrow, generic taste. I should say I think these blueprints that were laid down in the Seventies by bands like GENESIS and YES have become a prison, have become a very negative influence on that creative experimentation and that kind of forward-thinking music. So that’s what you call “the IKEA approach” – which is, you simply take a blueprint of one band and you try to emulate it as closely as possible – and when I started, I was doing that, too: when I was 23, 24 years old, I was making records trying to sound like PINK FLOYD. Maybe it’s something you have to work out when you’re young, to wear your influences on your sleeve.
– Meanwhile, you’ve become a go-to person when it comes to remixing the classics. But what kind of classic should it be for you to become interested in doing this? It’s kind of obvious with CRIMSON, but you also worked on a TEARS FOR FEARS record…
The simple thing for me is, it’s got to be an album that I know and love, and that’s my only criteria – I’ve got to know it and I’ve got to love it! I grew up with TEARS FOR FEARS – you know Eighties is my generation; I was a teenager in the Eighties – I grew up with XTC, THE CURE, JOY DIVISION, and a lot of those bands are big part of my musical DNA, too. So I started out doing [remixes of] mostly progressive rock bands, because that was what I was known for, but what’s been really nice over the last couple of years is that I started to work with bands like XTC, TEARS FOR FEARS, SIMPLE MINDS, ROXY MUSIC and some other things that I can’t tell you about at the moment. If somebody says to me, “Would you like to remix this album?” as long as I can honestly say I’m a fan of that record, that’s the important thing.
– What most people don’t realize is that remixing is a creative process, too. But are you trying to recreate the original experience of a given work or create your own, subjective view of it?
Okay, it’s very difficult but there’s two things here. Firstly, if you’re mixing an album for the first time that’s never been mixed before, then I think you can – I can – be very creative and I can make any suggestions with regards to all aspects of the sound of the record. But if you’re mixing an established classic – say, for example, "Aqualung" by JETHRO TULL; this is an album that has sold millions of copies, and there are people for whom it is almost like a sacred text – in that case my goal is to be as faithful to the original mix as I possibly can be. So what I’m doing is not so much creative, it’s almost a detective work: you’re listening to the original mix and trying to figure out how they did this, how they did that, to recreate it – but hopefully, with a lot more clarity because the technology now enables us to make these mixes have more clarity and separation. Not everyone likes it – some people still prefer the analog sound, you know – but certainly with an album like “Aqualung,” on the remix that we did in digital you can hear things that you could never hear in the original, but it still sounds superficially like the original. It’s not like I’ve added a different processing to the sounds or I try to make the drum kit sound like an Eighties drum kit, so I’m still keeping the very dry Seventies production, trying to keep all the analog effects, the analog reverb, all those things. It’s more a question of trying to be faithful, so you’re not messing with people’s memories, cause sometimes, if you’ve got people who’ve been listening to these records for forty years, the last thing that they want to hear is some young guy’s – younger guy’s – idea about how it should have sounded in the first place. To me, the analogy is like cleaning the Sistine Chapel, you know what I mean: you’ve got these beautiful, beautiful Michelangelo murals or whatever, and you don’t want to change the concept, you just want to make them shine in a new way so people can appreciate it in a new way.
– What did you learn from doing these mixes?
Oh, a lot. A lot. The thing is, when I listen to those mixes – and most of those albums were originally made on tape, analog tape – there’s a lot of techniques that I never learned, because I grew up with computer recordings and I never really learned how to make records using tape on analog equipment, so I never happened to figure out, usually by just listening and experimenting, how did they do that, how did they do this. And a lot of those things that I had to figure out in order to be able to remix those records have then become techniques that I can bring to my own records, so I expanded my repertoire of production techniques if you like.
– Moving on to your latest album, why there are periods in its title: “Hand.Cannot.Erase.”?
I don’t really want to explain that! One of the reasons why I don’t want to explain is that it does have a meaning to me but, as I said earlier, I want to keep some of the magic, some of the enigma of music, which is so important to me.
– This enigma is somehow kept in an entry from the blog that accompanies the album: “Recently I’ve been haunting myself.” This line could come from the protagonist but also from you. So do you find that you’re looping back to something that you’ve done before while moving forward?
Of course. The past is a very important influence on what I do. The past is a very important influence on what everyone does, you know. You learn from your mistakes, you… One of the biggest influences on me is not wanting to repeat myself, so in that sense as an artist you can haunt yourself, because some people will say your best work is what you did ten years ago, and I never agree with that. I mean from my own, personal perspective, I might have made a great record but do I want to make the same record again? No! I want to do something completely different again. But there are fans who would have preferred me just keep making the same record over and over again, because they love that record. To me, it’s a question of trying to avoid it, and if you look at all of my four solo records, they’re all very different, and I love that about them: I love that each of them has its own musical world. So that sense of haunting yourself with your past is actually a way of moving forward.
– Can that haunting imply that you think of yourself as of a ghost which relates to your “Raven” album?
Well, the “Raven” album was a reaction to my father passing away, and it brought me very close to thinking about mortality and my own life. I’m in my mid-forties now so, being realistic, I’m more than halfway through my life, and it’s when you start thinking about those things, when you start losing parents, then you start thinking, “What have I done with my life? Am I doing what I want to do with my life? How much time have I got left?” It became a very dark time for me so, in a sense, there were a lot of ghosts at that time haunting me – from my past and future, and present.
– One of your lyrics goes, “Download the life you wish you had”: do you live the life you wish you had when you were just starting?
To an extent, I do because when I was a kid all I dreamt about really doing was be able to make records for a living, and I’m doing that! Not only that, but I’m working with a lot of the people that inspired me to be a musician in the first place, whether its XTC or KING CRIMSON, and I could only dream that one day I’d be working with these bands I grew up listening to. So to that extent, I do have the life, and I’m very happy in this life, but at the same time – I’m coming back to something we were talking about earlier – there’s always something more over the horizon that you haven’t quite got to yet. One of the interesting things, and I’ll use an analogy here, is that you can look at a point in the distance and say, “That’s where I want to be,” but when you finally get to that point, what do you see? You see another point in the distance. You’re always looking at the next horizon. So here I am: I’m doing what I want to do, I’m working with all these amazing musicians but I’m still thinking, there’s still a lot of stuff I can do. I’d love to do a movie soundtrack, for example – I’ve never done one before, so that’s one big ambition for me that I haven’t fulfilled yet – I would love to work with a director on a film and do the music for film. There are always things to keep you dreaming.
– Was it difficult to make the things you do financially viable?
Yes, yes. It took me ten years… I became a professional musician in 1992 or ’93, and for the first ten years it was really hard, then I had to do music for commercials and a lot of other stuff I didn’t want to do just to be able to keep my music pure and free. But I would say, the last ten years have been much easier, and money has been the last thing I would ever think about, worry about. Luckily, I have a good fanbase now.
– There’s a line in “Routine”: “Keep washing, keep scrubbing”… Is that what it takes to keep the music pure?
There’s certainly a lot of work involved in being a professional musician, and that’s something that the fans don’t realize. There’s a lot of routine, and there’s a lot of just discipline. Going to the studio every day to write, to record, to work, to promote, to mix, and then to tour. All the wasted hours of traveling, waiting around… It is a kind of repetition, it’s a repetitious lifestyle. At some point I’m going have to go back to the studio and start working on my next record; that will be a really painful… not painful – it will be a very methodical, hard work. It’s a hard work.
– And you’re preserving it. You keep all the mini-sites dedicated to your albums running.
Oh, I would love to say I personally do that but I have someone who does that very good. For me, as long as there are stories on the road, as long as we’re presenting “Hand.Cannot.Erase.” concept, it’s important for me that the website, the live show, the music, all these things are working together.
– Does your writing process involve synesthesia?
Very much, yeah. For me, as soon as I hear music, as soon as I have new music, I see it in my mind as images. So let’s just say that every song for me, from the moment I have the very beginning of it, the very beginning of a lyrical idea, I see a movie in my mind, I see a film, I see the cinematic equivalent of that song. And it’s always been frustrating to me because I’ve never been good with visuals: I can’t draw, I can’t make films. But I’m very lucky now to have people that do that wonderfully well, collaborators like Lasse Hoile and Jess Cope. The first thing I do is I send them my new song and say that I’ve got this idea and this is how it’s going to look, and those guys go away and create these visuals which are the things that started out in my mind.
– You surely listen to the music for inspiration and to know what’s going on, but do you have anything in the “guilty pleasures” category of listening?
Guilty pleasures? I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures. I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about enjoying any music. Bands like ABBA and THE BEE GEES, and CARPENTERS, and the great Seventies pop bands that my mom and dad used to listen to, some people will consider them to be guilty pleasures but I don’t. I think they’re as good as any music that’s ever been made. So it’s difficult for me to understand why it’s guilty pleasures, something I should be ashamed of listening to. There is nothing I’m ashamed of. If I like something, I’m proud to like it.