Outcast from the Mainstream

An Interview with Steven Wilson

by Stephen Humphries

21 September 2010

Photos: Lasse Hoile 

Why do you think it is that, generally speaking, men seem to have a different relationship to music than women?

Porcupine Tree’s audience is predominantly male although you can at least claim to have more female fans than Rush. Why do you think it is that, generally speaking, men seem to have a different relationship to music than women? Men tend to be very geeky about music—as exemplified by the characters in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity—and it’s a vital component of their lives whereas women, for the most part, don’t obsess over music.
Women don’t obsess about things they way men do. They obsess about people in a more emotional way. Men obsess about inanimate objects—collecting CDs or DVDs or stamps or trainspotting. That’s part of gender/sexual politics. You’d have to ask a psychologist or sociologist exactly why they think that might be.

I have to correct you on one thing, though. We don’t get a lot of females in America, but America is unique in that respect. We’ve just been to Greece and we played to as many women as we played to men. Here’s the difference: In Greece and certain other places where we get much more of a mixed audience, we do have more mainstream exposure. I think men, because of the aforementioned sense of geekiness, are more likely to search out something not in the mainstream. They will trawl the Internet and find those more obscure, underground acts.

I think women respond more to the songwriting side of the band, perhaps less to the complex, progressive side of the band. But women love songs such as “Lazarus”, “Trains”, and “Time Flies”. I think that makes sense because these songs are easy to enjoy. I think that’s part of why I think Porcupine Tree has a broad audience. At the end of the day, at the root of what we do, I hope, is a greater quality of songwriting. That separates us from some other bands that you could say are progressive. But then, I don’t know why that isn’t true of Rush, too, because I think Rush have written some great lyrics and pop songs over the years.

Another thing I’ve noticed—and this might explain why Rush don’t have a big female audience and Porcupine Tree have at least a large one—is lyrics. Women care about lyrics. More so than men. If I’m doing an interview and I’m asked about the lyrics, it’s more often than not a female asking. Men tend to focus on musical direction [and] the concept. I think one reason why females have got into the band, and not so much Rush, is that Rush lyrics tend to be perhaps a little bit less emotionally raw than mine. I’ve never written about space or sci-fi or any or those things that people think you must do if you’re in a progressive rock band. I’ve always written about women and emotions and love affairs.

Well, my next question is actually about lyrics. You’re written many songs with social and cultural commentary but, unlike your Israeli partner in Blackfield, Aviv Geffen, you’ve never written a purely political song. Is that something you’d consider doing at some point?
Well, it depends what you mean by political. If you mean political in the sense of sloganeering, I can’t imagine I’d ever want to do that. But I have written songs about the politics of the industry I’m in. A song like “The Sound of Muzak,” for example, is very much a critique of the music business we’re in today.

“Four Chords that Made a Million” from Lightbulb Sun is another example of that…
These are songs about the politics of being in the music industry because these are things I know about. I don’t like the kind of artist who feels they have a right to tell people what you should think, who you should vote for. The difference between me and Aviv is that I didn’t come from a country with such a traumatic history. I’m sure I might feel differently if I had grown up in Israel. But I didn’t, I grew up in a very comfortable middle-class world. I guess I’m more focused on how human beings interact than I am on how politicians try to run our lives.

Since Fear of a Blank Planet, which you’ve said was a very lyric-driven album, you seem to have become less focused on lyrics in your songs and put the emphasis on the music itself. Is that because it’s harder to bend the music to fit a lyric than writing a melody first and then coming up with a vocal part?
Music is peculiar in that lyrics can be almost irrelevant. If you look at some of the greatest pop songs in history, the lyrics are incredibly banal. It’s not about the lyrics, per se, it’s about the musicality of the lyrics. It’s about the way that the sound of the lyrics integrate with the music. Many people have tried to invest their lyrics with something that does read off the page as poetry. But there comes a point where the lyrics as poetry begin to have a negative impact on the musicality. I try to strike a balance. If something works and its quite banal, I’m quite happy to leave it.

It’s interesting because on both the solo albums I’ve done—the one I’m doing now and the one I did before—my approach was just to use stream-of-consciousness words. I didn’t try to write lyrics and I didn’t try to retrospectively think too much about what I’d sung and what I’d said in the lyrics. That worked really well for me. It’s very different from the way I work in Porcupine Tree, which is very considered. I try to make every line at least stand up on the page.

It’s the idea of the voice as another instrument, isn’t it? It’s the feeling in the voice and the natural emotion that carries through.
Exactly! The epitome of that is one of my favorite records of the past 10 years: Sigur Ros’ second record. He’s singing in his own language. Not Icelandic. His own language! He just sang gobbledygook. But the feeling and the power of the voice is so strong. You go back to Marvin Gaye who could just sing, ‘Baby, baby, baby’ ad infinitum and it felt like the most moving thing in the world. Then you have singers like Bono who can write pseudo-political preachy lyrics and they’re just so pompous. They don’t touch you emotionally any way at all.

You’ve declared your love for pop music such as Donna Summer or ABBA. What do you make of the contemporary pop music landscape dominated by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry?
Pretty depressing, because it’s all generic. You can buy boxes that can make you sound like you sing in tune, even if you can’t. You can buy boxes that, at the push of a button, can give you the drum sound from a record that you like or a particular keyboard. It’s too easy, now, to sound like other people.

The epitome of that is American Idol where everyone appears to want to sound like Mariah Carey or Kelly Clarkson. That kind of style of singing has become a blueprint and so many people try to emulate that. You ask yourself how well someone like Tom Waits or Neil Young or Nick Drake would do if they went on American Idol. They would be laughed out of the audition. So we have a generation of artists coming through now believing that they should aspire to being generic. What I loved about pop music of the past—particularly artists like ABBA or The Carpenters—was that they were so unbelievably distinctive. I’m thinking back to an era where Marvin Gaye sounded nothing like Stevie Wonder, nothing like Aretha Franklin, nothing like Otis Redding. Now, even the white singers want to sound like that generic black R&B Soul voice. It’s boring.

There are some interesting pop acts coming out, but they do tend to be coming from the underground. Everything Everything make incredibly complex pop. Very ’80s, almost like Scritti Politti.

In the ‘80s when Madonna—the forerunner, the prototype to Lady Gaga—was around, there was also inventive, creative mainstream pop. Bands like the Police, the Talking Heads were riding high at the top of the charts. Now, the top of the charts are dominated entirely by the American Idol/Lady Gaga end of the music industry. We don’t have a creative mainstream anymore.

Of course, being cynical, I relate it all back to the whole download/iPod generation. People don’t have the patience anymore to stimulate themselves a bit more intellectually.

Did you see any other exciting bands at the festivals you played this summer?
I was able to watch LCD Soundsystem from the side of the stage at Roskilde. I’m a huge fan.

Where did you get your musical ethos of constant artistic development from?
I get it from the bands I grew up liking the most. Because they reinvented themselves time and time again. I grew up with King Crimson, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Pink Floyd—artists that were constantly reinventing themselves, almost from album to album. I loved that. I loved that sense that I wasn’t going to be disappointed and get more of the same when I bought a new King Crimson or Bowie record. And that sense that sometimes you had to work a bit harder to get into a new record because it wasn’t more of the same.

I also got that from moviemakers. Stanley Kubrick! This was a guy who never made the same genre twice. He made the greatest sci-fi movie all time. He made the greatest black comedy of all time. He made the greatest period drama of all time. He made the greatest horror movie of all time. He made the best Vietnam movie. Ok, maybe not the best one, but certainly up there. He was a big inspiration to me, too. His whole ethos. I feel the same way: ‘I made that kind of album, now I want to make a different kind of album.’

How have you managed to maintain that ethos when so many others have become stale or devolved into nostalgia acts?
How I keep that up, I think, is about still being very passionate about listening to music. Not just listening to music, but also experiencing new things all the time in my life, from traveling or seeing new movies or reading books. I understand, in a way, why some artists lose that. They start families. I totally understand. Once you’ve got a family, your priorities change and your focus changes. You no longer have the time for the so-called frivolous things in life. I don’t have a family. I’m not particularly interested in having one. I’m free, in a way, to stay like the way I was as a kid. I’m still passionately searching out things that will inspire me, to keep regenerating my own muse.

I interviewed Robert Plant recently and he stressed the idea that he always wants to remain curious about things and learn new things. Consequently, every record of his career sounds completely different.
It’s interesting that he used the word ‘curious.’ In the movie [Insurgentes], I say I believe that curiosity is the most underrated and undervalued human attribute. So many people lose it, and lose it very early in their lives. Think about how many people you know, and that I know, whose musical tastes have arrested about the time they stopped being a teenager. It’s almost like their curiosity or their sponge-like ability disappeared overnight. By sponge-like, I mean the ability to soak up new ideas or sounds or new things. People become hard. They end up searching for the things that they have already absorbed.

Aging isn’t just a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. So often you’ll see people retire from work and once they start sitting around and doing nothing, mental atrophy sinks in.
I think there’s a stigma attached to curiosity as if it was almost a sign of immaturity. In a way they’re right, because curiosity is something we associate with childhood, when we are naïve and approach everything with that sense of wide-eyed innocence. As we get older, we feel like that’s almost a sign of immaturity.

If you think about it, curiosity is that admission to yourself that there’s something you don’t know and you don’t understand but you would like to know more about it. The majority of people, when they grow up, associate that with being a kid and they should somehow be above that. That, unfortunately, is when—to use your expression—‘mental atrophy’ starts. You have to stay in touch with your inner child. I sound like a hippy now! I’m kind of like a big kid in a way. All of the good things I associate with being a kid, the innocence, the curiosity, that passion for life.

* * *

Portions of Steven Wilson’s conversation have been abridged and edited for structure and flow.

Stephen Humphries is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer for magazines such as Filter, Under the Radar, and American Way. He is currently writing his first novel.

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