You might know him as the mastermind behind British prog-rock outfit Porcupine Tree, the producer behind some of Opeth’s best albums, as droneweaver Bass Communion, the man who brought some of progressive rock’s finest albums back to life in 5.1 surround sound or simply by his solo work as Steven Wilson. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve been following experimental or progressive music in the past two decades then chances are you’ve listened to something he’s worked on. With an unbelievably tight schedule, it was a chance of a lifetime to be able to get a chance to talk to him prior to watching him hit the stage and perform as part of his latest solo record’s tour and this is how events ensued…
By: Mohammed Ashraf
Photography: Isabell Etz
Call me a Steven Wilson fan boy and I will nod in approval, for this man single handedly changed the way I perceive music and in turn
life altogether (as I bet he’d done with so many others). It was June 2006 when, after hating almost every disc and mp3 in my collection, I’d decided to check out this band, oddly named Porcupine Tree. Seeing the progressive rock/metal tag and fearing it will end up being another ninety solo per song extravaganza á la Dream Theater or Symphony X (as those were the bands anyone would tell you to check out if you wanted an intro to the genre at the time) I pressed play and “Trains” played. To describe my reaction in plain simple words would be damn near impossible, but the result was that almost sixty plays and six hours later, I’d found my savior and definitely my favorite band ever. Genres and tags began to mean even less than they’d ever meant; light collapsed onto Earth and a plethora of sounds and sonic possibilities unfolded before my eyes with every listen to a newly acquired album under his or one of his many projects’ names. While before that day all I seemed to hear was the muzak; music, real and genuine, came back at full force into my life. In case this introduction doesn’t get you off your feet checking out his stuff, maybe after reading the following you will…
First things first, Grace for Drowning! Did you ever imagine it would be such a huge hit with fans and critics alike given that it’s considerably different from your previous albums?
I knew it was good, obviously I wouldn’t have released it if I didn’t think it was good. I knew it was good and I knew it was one of the strongest musical statements I’ve ever made. I had a hunch that the people among my fan base that prefer the old school progressive side would like it a lot, what came as a surprise to me is that even the people outside of that world seemed to think that it’s one of the best things I’d ever done. To get some more interest from the mainstream media was surprising to me with this record because I thought that this record was more one for the fans. But you know, I have been in this business for twenty years now and what I’ve learned is that most of the time, well pretty much all of the time, you’re the worst person to judge your own work. Things that I’ve done that I thought were perhaps on the weaker side, people have absolutely loved and others that I consider the very best of my writing and for some reason they’re not that popular, people have not got at all. So, I guess Grace for Drowning is one of those rare occasions where I thought it was very strong and most people seemed to agree and got a lot of critical acclaim, and I am not used to critical acclaim. My music is what I usually think the press aren’t interested in, but they gave it a pretty good time so that’s great!
But I think since Porcupine Tree released Fear of a Blank Planet (Roadrunner), the press seemed to start taking notice of your music
We started being taken more seriously after that record, but British music press was still pretty snobby about the idea of progressive rock or whatever you want to call it. But Grace for Drowning perhaps because it was less attached to the metal world it was taken more seriously. I think the British music press still thinks that if it’s got a metal aspect to it then it’s a bit childish in a way…
Unless it’s Iron Maiden of course,
Unless it’s Iron Maiden. But this album is more organic and is less about metal, more about other textures like keyboards, woodwinds, strings and keyboards and maybe that’s why it was taken more seriously. To answer your question, yes I was very happy, fantastic!
Speaking of textures like woodwinds and strings and that jazzy element that is so apparent on the album, is that a sound that you are going to pursue further. Like is the next album under the Steven Wilson name going in the same vein?
I think the next album will be different, I have already written about sixty, seventy per cent of the next record and we will be playing about fifteen minutes of new music tonight so you will be able to make up your own mind (Note: they played it and my mind is made; it’s absolutely epic! Read more about the performance after the interview). It’s a continuation, but it’s different. It’s hard to say, the band that are playing with me tonight are going to be pretty much defining the direction it goes in, because now I have a band. In the previous records I didn’t have a band, I was making the music and finding people to play it this time I have a particular band and the people in the band have their own personalities so they’re making me think in terms of writing for them so that is changing the sound of the music a bit. That said, the jazz element is pretty much there, two of the guys in the band, Theo [Travis] and Adam [Holzman], are jazz musicians so that element is still there. All I can say is that the next album is going to be pretty epic, I have written about five or six songs now and they are all eight, nine, ten minutes long and the one we’re playing tonight is even longer, so they’re quite involved, quite long, quite progressive, quite jazz…you’ll hear for yourself. (Note: Get to know what I thought of it here)
Another element that differentiated Grace for Drowning from Insurgentes and most of your work with Porcupine Tree and No-Man is the fact that the lyrics seemed to be quite personal, almost autobiographical whereas in Insurgentes they were…
…abstract and deliberately so. Most of the lyrics on Insurgentes weren’t supposed to mean anything, just to add texture like another musical instrument. This time some of the lyrics are personal and others about things that I have been fascinated with for years, like serial killers. Songs like “Index” and “Raider II” are a continuation of that fascination; what makes people kill, what creates serial killers and then we have other songs that are very personal. I think one of the major differences between writing this and Insurgentes is that I have moved out of the city and moved into the countryside. I lived in London for twenty years and two years ago I moved to the countryside. I moved to a place where I can look out the window and I can see trees, rivers, cows, sheep and that’s very different from looking out the window and seeing suburbia. That put me in a very different place and songs like for example “Deform to Form a Star” contain a lot of natural imagery and I think that just literally comes from a feeling of how I felt like I was drowning in the city and now I have reached a state of peace or grace after moving out, which is where the album’s title comes from. Things slow down, not my output, but life slows down, I’ve got a little doggie now and all of these things have changed my perspective and changed the flavor of the words.
Speaking of lyrics, the concept of “Collecting Space” seems to have popped up in your lyrics in the past, in songs like “Mellotron Scratch”, “Futile” and you even had a song titled “Collecting Space”, so what does it mean?
It’s hard to explain. It’s kind of metaphor for me, it’s to do with the process of making up your personality I suppose. The idea of collecting, accumulating cannot only be applied in the literal sense, like collecting objects, but also the act of collecting experience, aspects of your personality. So for me the concept of collecting space is a metaphor for the creation of a personality of a character, collecting things from space from air; friends, experiences, aspects of yourself hat define you as a person. I don’t know if that makes sense.
So how come you’re touring after Grace for Drowning and haven’t toured after Insurgentes?
It’s a very good question, I think I said when I did Insurgentes that I wasn’t going to tour until I had two albums of material to draw music from. If I toured Insurgentes, I would’ve probably struggled to put a whole show together, I would’ve had to draw from songs by Porcupine Tree and Blackfield to make the show long enough. I didn’t want to do that. When I went out with my tour, I wanted it to be like a statement of intent, no music from other projects, just solo music, so I had to really work until I had two records before I had enough material. That was one reason; the other reason was that after I put out Insurgentes I started working straight away on the next Porcupine Tree album (The Incident), but this time around Porcupine Tree isn’t active and it’s a big thing and months of preparation went into it; the visuals, the quadraphonic sound system. It took lots of meetings, lots discussions and there was no way I could’ve done it in between a Porcupine Tree tour, it needed like a year just to finish making the record, promoting the record and starting the tour.
And will there be a live DVD of this tour?
Yeah we shot that two weeks ago in Mexico
Oh that’s cool, makes sense with the Insurgentes being named after a street in Mexico
Yeah, exactly. We still have a lot of mixing and editing to do so it should be out around September. (Pre-order the live DVD Get All You Deserve here)
So after Grace for Drowning, comes Storm Corrosion, which is one of the most highly anticipated records among metal and rock fans…
Even though it’s not a metal or a rock record
Yes exactly! I heard the single “Drag Ropes” and it has nothing to do with neither of you
Nothing at all! Nothing. At. All. But you know what? I think the thing about metal and rock fans, particularly now, is that they are looking for something more. I speak as one myself, I’m a rock and metal fan, I’m kinda bored of generic rock and metal music and I get a feeling that a lot of the fans are looking for something more spiritual, or perhaps more unconventional. I mean how many times can you hear the same metal guitar sound, metal drum sound; it’s a very over familiar musical vocabulary, at least it seems to me, and one thing you can say about Storm Corrosion whether you like it or not is that the musical vocabulary is new; it’s very unusual.
I watched the video with a couple of friends and we were left sitting there with mouths gaping, trying to understand what was going on
Yes, the first time you see it, you’ll be like “what the hell is this?!” and that’s probably the most conventional, straight forward track on the record, which is why the record company chose it as the single *laughs*
Oh so you don’t choose the singles?
No, the record company said this is the one. I think it’s one of the best songs on the record, well there are six tracks on the record, I think they’re all the best songs on the record, but this is the most obviously accessible track on the record.
And it works very well with the video
Oh I think the video is amazing!
Yeah it’s like a Tim Burton movie gone terribly wrong
Well that’s because Jess [Cope] who directed the video worked with Tim Burton on Corpse Bride so this is where she comes from, but the original idea was to have it like a child like fairy tale. Like a very dark, macabre children’s story and all the music has that feeling to it, so the video for me perfectly reflects that childish, dark, twisted world.
Well this question has to come up at some point, because from what I heard, the song sounds like a very dark folk song and I could imagine some god awful genres and tags being thrown its way. The worst I could come up with is “ScotWalkerCore”, so how would you describe Storm Corrosion’s music?
I like to call it Twisted/Beautiful. It’s a very beautiful record but it’s very twisted and dark; it has everything from the most organic of instruments like woodwinds and acoustic guitars to pure electronic noise. For me, it’s almost like an orchestral record; it’s very orchestrated with the strings, vocal arrangements and guitars. Then again everything you can say about the record you can say the exact opposite about it too. You can say it’s beautiful but it also ugly, it’s very organic but it’s very electronic, you could say it’s easy to get into, but at the same time it’s pretty difficult to get into. It’s a folk album but it’s anti-folk, I mean there are things on this record that folk artists would be appalled by. One of the greatest things about it is that ultimately it’s uncategorizable and I love that about it, I wish more people would make music like that because it bores me when I hear an album and I can say *snaps his fingers* it’s a prog rock record *snap* it’s a metal record *snap* it’s jazz *snap!* it’s hip hop, I like the idea of blurring these lines and not enough people do that.
Off the top of my head I can think of Sigur Rós, people would say they’re post-rock or ambient, but they’re not…
They’re Sigur Rós!
So maybe it’s going to be “Storm Corrosion”?
In a way yes, there just aren’t enough of those bands. I mean you mentioned Scott Walker, and for us Scott Walker was like the touchstone for this music, not that we copy him but just the way that for him nothing was too ridiculous. There’s nothing that we could’ve suggested to each other on this record that the other would say “no, we can’t do that, it’s ridiculous”. It was almost the opposite, we would be like “go further!” and I think that the bravery of Scott Walker is something that has been very inspiring to us.
And is Storm Corrosion something that you and Mikael (Akerfeldt) are going to pursue further or is it just a one off thing?
We didn’t even discuss that, we made the record and we’re happy it’s out but I would be surprised if Mike and I didn’t get together and try making another record. Again, it could be something totally different but I will be surprised if we didn’t write again together.
And what did you think of the album having leaked before its release date, I think it absolutely sucks!
Yeah, everything leaks, Grace for Drowning leaked, The Incident, the latest Opeth album. It’s one of the sad things that the release date these days is the most irrelevant date, because by the time the release date comes everyone had already heard the album anyway. Unless they deliberately say they aren’t going to listen to the album until it’s officially released…
Yup, I am waiting for my vinyl!
Exactly, and there are more and more people like that these days. They’ll say you know what, I won’t download the album, won’t check the clips on iTunes, won’t even watch the video. They want to wait until the day of release, get the album, put it in their turn table or CD player and listen to the album. I can totally relate to that, but it’s sad that most albums are practically old by the time they’re released.
So now that you’ve finished your collaboration with Mikael, are there any other artists you would like to collaborate with in the future?
That’s a difficult question, I think Mikael for me is possibly the person I have the most obvious connection with, but there are people who I’d like to work with in a production capacity. There are bands that I really like but I think I could help production wise…
You mentioned Tool once
Yes I was just going to say Tool! I think they’re a great band but I think there’s something in there that they’re missing and I know that Tool fans are going to hate me for saying this, I mean I saw messages from Tool fans saying “Who the fuck does Steven think he is to say that?!” but all I am saying is that Tool’s music could be more layered and more textured…
That was pretty obvious in 10,000 Days in my point of view, some jam sections in the longer songs seemed like they were going nowhere and sounded a bit muddy
Yeah they could have more going on. I think the whole guitars, drums, bass works but maybe now is the time they could start adding more things to the mix. There are also some records from the past that I would like to remix in 5.1,
You’ve already done King Crimson and Jethro Tull, right?
Yeah I’ve done King Crimson, Jethro Tull, the first couple of Emerson, Lake and Palmer records.
In terms of collaborations, I would think it would be very interesting to have you and Kevin Moore (OSI, Chroma Key, former Dream Theater keyboardist) collaborate on something
I’ve only know Kevin quite peripherally, I’ve only heard the album I worked on him with and I remember that I enjoyed working on him on that first record. I love his voice, which is why I didn’t understand why he wanted me to sing on “Shutdown” *laughs*. He is obviously a very creative musician.
Yeah and Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree drummer) worked with him on the last two records, they’re pretty decent
Oh yeah I remember seeing that, I should check them out.
Speaking of Gavin Harrison, we can now move on to Porcupine Tree! It’s now been almost three years since you guys released The Incident, so is there anything in the works right now?
No, not really. We haven’t split up and with no intentions of splitting up, but it seems like each one of us is working on different things at the moment; Richard (Barbieri) has just released an album with Steve Hogarth, Gavin is touring with 05Ric and Colin (Edwin) has also released a couple of records, so nothing is going to happen this year, maybe next year. I think it’s a matter of when we all feel it’s right and I think we are all very much in agreement that it’s time to reinvent the sound at this point. I felt with The Incident for the first time, even though it’s a good record, that we are starting to get stuck in a certain sound and for me the peak was really Fear of the Blank Planet and In Absentia. The Incident didn’t strike me as having anything new so it felt like it’s time for a change.
That’s exactly what I was going to ask next, because Porcupine Tree started off as a spacey, kinda old school prog band which ended with Signify then transitioned to a more song structured approach with Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun and the latest incarnation was he more Metal inclined sound of your last four albums, so can we consider the next album as the start of Porcupine Tree Mark IV?
I think it has to be, otherwise there’s no point carrying on. I think it needs to be reinvented, I don’t know how yet, but there’s no point of us making another record of that style and we all agree on that. So the time taking off to do other things is important. Not that I want to give an impression of my solo work being a side project, because it’s not, I think it’s the most important one, but Porcupine Tree is still very special for me, of course it’s been the most successful of all the things I’ve done, not by design but it just seemed to connect with the most people, but I never want to get in the situation of making records just to please the fan base, which a lot of bands do, in fact it’s what most bands do, making records just to please the fans, I think I’m more selfish than that. I think you’ve got to take the Scott Walker approach, when have to say something say it, whether it takes five years or ten years and I think our fans are the kind of fans that will still be there, like Kate Bush fans or Peter Gabriel fans they’ll still be there, or even Tool fans, I mean how many years have you been waiting for a tool album?
And when the Tool album does come out everyone will listen to it, so I hope that our fans will be there when we release on ourselves.
Yeah, they definitely will. So do you think the next Porcupine Tree album will take from the improv jazzy elements of Grace for Drowning?
I don’t think so, because there’s one band member who hates jazz, so I don’t think that element will be likely to appear on the record but I’m sure that when we do sit down to make the record you will probably hear the influence of the stuff each one of us has been doing, because that’s part of the plan, each one goes does his own thing pick up some new influences and come back and we put those together again. I am curious, I don’t know what kind of music we are going to make, but there will definitely be no metal aspect, I think the metal thing is done. Just that metal guitar sound is boring.
I think this must be similar to what Mike felt like when they made The Heritage,
It seemed to be like an album that divided a lot of fans,
Yes, 50% loved it the others sent him death threats!
Oh yeah. Of course not the other 50% but a small minority did send him death threats, the Beavis and Butthead kind of fans. But that for me is a sign of a true artist, someone who is prepared to confront all the expectations of his fan base, not shying away from risking having everyone hate the album and deciding not to buy it. For him, it was more important to feel more fulfilled artistically. I think if Opeth had made another typical Opeth record, it would’ve been a mistake, so he did exactly the right thing at the right time. And you know what, they might have lost half their fan base, but they are starting to make new ones who had no interest in Opeth’s older sound.
So we’ve mentioned your solo stuff, Storm Corrosion, Porcupine Tree and now to Blackfield, you’re only producing the next album?
I won’t say producing it, I am only helping him, a bit of singing, guitar, mixing whatever it takes but I am not going to tour, it’ll be too much, I’ll kill myself, would just run myself to the ground. I won’t tour Blackfield anymore but I will do anything to keep the name going.
And I guess Welcome to my DNA was also written almost entirely by Aviv (Geffen)
Yes, except for one song. I just don’t think that writing the kind of style that Blackfield make is where I am at write now
You want something more experimental
Yeah, exactly. I don’t think I am really good at writing 3-4 minute conventional songs, I think I can do it, but it’s not what I do best. For me to write a self contained 4 minute pop song is fairly unusual , I don’t I can do it very well, but occasionally I can come up with a good one.
But how do you separate your mindsets with all these projects, like I remember last year you released Grace for Drowning then two weeks later you released Bass Communion’s Cenotaph!
This may sound bizarre, but to me Cenotaph relates very closely to Grace for Drowning in terms of atmosphere, they’re both very dark, very brooding and in fact some of the music from Cenotaph is used in the live show. There is something about them is that there are some ghosts involved, I can’t explain it. But the simple answer is that each project is very different in terms of sound, like Bass Communion is about twenty minute long static soundscapes whereas Grace for Drowning has is about structured pieces of music, they only relate through feeling.
So I have to ask this, are there any plans of bring your or Porcupine Tree’s tour to Egypt?
I’d love to! I’d love to bring this show to Egypt, but no one has ever asked us to come to Egypt.
Seriously?!! (practically screamed it)
It’s funny that one of the questions that we’re often asked by fans is “why don’t you come to my country?” or “why don’t you come to my city?”, it’s not my decision. I don’t go on a map and say “Oh, I’m definitely not going there!” I hear from my manager and my agent that we got offered a show, like we had in South America, and I was like “Great!” and it was the first time I’ve ever been to South America , so if my manager comes to me and says we got offered a show in Cairo and its financially justifiable, I’d love to come. I don’t know if they’d let me in though…
Because you’ve been to Israel?
Yeah, will probably need to change my passport, but it shouldn’t be a problem. But if they’d let me in, I’d love to come to Egypt, I’d love to go to Beirut as well, I know I have lots of fans over there, of course there will be logistical problems but we can get around them.
Perfect! Final question, of course you know that there are millions of bands coming through in almost every genre, what would you recommend for startup bands to make it in music?
There’s no answer to that question, no answer. Firstly, you’re right, there is more music than ever before, too much, and most of it is
Exactly, and the problem when you’ve got too much music, the people outside of the music world who just want to listen to music get to the point when they “this is too much, I am not going to listen to anymore music”. This is what happened with MySpace, four years ago, it was big news, Arctic Monkeys broke through on MySpace and what happened then, is that overnight, five million bands decided that this was the time to break through as well. So you had five million bands on MySpace so the consequence was that everyone abandoned MySpace, you couldn’t move without a band telling you “please listen to my demo!” and of course, FaceBook appeared as well. There’s too much music, how do you break though? Well, I’ll tell you one way, to give you the best possible chance, is try to be different. Because so much music is so generic and so much like a load of other music, why would anyone want to listen to it? My best advice to anyone who’s starting out in making music is first of all, don’t even think about trying to have a career, don’t think about it, because number one: it’s so hard these days to get a career in the music industry and number two: if you start thinking about wanting a career in music you’ll start making your music to please other people with what you think you need to do to have a career. I never did that, I mean I’m not a great example, because it took me so long and I am still nowhere near selling as many records as I’d like to be, but at least I have a career. I never thought about making music for anyone else but myself and that’s the reason I’m still doing it, twenty years later, because I don’t think anyone else sounds like me. I think a lot of bands have that big hit record and many bands start copying them and the original band gets forgotten, that never happened to me. There are some who tried and I can hear the influence or the legacy of Porcupine Tree in their sound, but it’s not the same. My sound is one that’s very hard to copy while there are a lot of bands who breakthrough are easy to emulate and do get copied. Another thing for me, is that my audience is generally not a young audience and I’d say the problem with bands whose music is aimed at the youth culture is that by the time the band’s released their second or third album, their audience has already moved on to other artists or kinds of music. Again, I don’t have that problem, my fans range between 50 year old guys to fifteen year old girls and I love that about it, it wasn’t planned but it seems to be that way. To summarize: do it for yourself, do it because you love it and if, by accident, your music connects with an audience, great but there’s no career route in music anymore. Record companies aren’t signing artists anymore, unless it’s shit like American Idol, because it’s easier for labels that way; sign an artist, sell a million records, then dump the artist and sign another one.
Special thanks to Sirendurai, Linn Hutchinson, Dave Salt and Isabell Etz for making this possible.