An Eclectic Master Craftsman: An Interview with Steven Wilson

[29 March 2009]

By Stephen Humphries

If The Guinness Book of World Records had a category for “most prolific musical artist”, Steven Wilson would have a lock on it.

Best known as the singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer of Porcupine Tree—a progressive rock band in the truest sense of the term—Wilson also lends his multi-hyphenate, multi-tasking skills to side projects such as No-Man (art rock), Bass Communion (ambient electronica), and Blackfield (indie pop rock). And that’s when he isn’t producing bands such as Opeth or remastering the King Crimson back catalogue in 5.1 surround sound. When a fan recently updated the British musician’s complete discography, the PDF file totaled 750 entries across 369 pages.

In short, Steven Wilson makes the likes of Joseph Arthur, Ryan Adams, and Conor Oberst look like laggardly slackers.

Somehow, the 41-year-old human gyroscope has carved out additional time to create his first solo record, Insurgentes (K-Scope), an album with more diversity than the Periodic table of Elements. Over the course of 55 minutes, Insurgentes encompasses plaintive piano ballads, metallic industrial noise, mathematical progressive rock, giddy pop, metaphysical psychedelia, and fuzzy shoe gazer anthems. As Wilson puts it, “This really is the first time I can say this can be an album under my own name because this is the first time I can say, ‘This is every aspect of my musical personality.’”

The miscegenate mélange coheres surprisingly well and reviewers—such as Rolling Stone’s David Fricke—have hailed the album as “among the best” of Wilson’s many records. Britain’s Classic Rock magazine called Insurgentes “a beautiful and mysterious record that, were it to bear the logo ‘Radiohead’ on its cover, would already be hailed as a masterpiece.”

Indeed, though Wilson is fêted by the likes of Rush’s Alex Lifeson and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew—all of whom have appeared on recent Porcupine Tree releases—he is hardly a brand name in the mainstream music world. That’s rapidly changing. Wilson now has the clout to call up David Sitek of TV on the Radio and commission a remix of a track from Insurgentes.

Chalk that up to the success of Porcupine Tree’s ninth album, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic), an intelligent concept piece about teenage alienation amid the information overload of the long-tail era. (Here’s a prog band that, refreshingly, takes its literary cues from Bret Easton Ellis rather than Tolkien.) Fear of a Blank Planet entered the Billboard charts at #59 and has since sold over 250,000 copies worldwide, boosting the band to theater and arena-sized venues.

Wilson is also garnering renown as an outspoken opponent against MP3s and P2P file sharing. During the making of Insurgentes, Wilson and longtime visual collaborator Lasse Hoile made a documentary that, among other things, examines how digital files have dulled a younger generation’s appreciation for high-fidelity audio. In the YouTube trailer for the film, Wilson devises cruel ways to destroy multiple iPods, their burnt and twisted corpses serving as effigies for what Wilson derisively dubs “download culture”.

PopMatters recently called Wilson at his home outside London to discuss the making of his solo album, his prodigious work rate, and why he’s not holding his breath for a party invite from Steve Jobs.

So, how many iPods were harmed during the making of Insurgentes?
About 10, I think. But each one in a different way. We used a sledgehammer, blowtorch, shotgun, wood chipper. We ran over one in a car. We tried to make it funny with a bit of a theme through the film.

Can you encapsulate the statement you’re making against “download culture”, of which the iPod is the ultimate symbol?
I’m not trying to say that the iPod is inherently bad. There are some great things about iPods and download culture. The fact that people are arguably listening to more music than ever now, and probably more wide ranging in terms of what they’re listening to than before. And the convenience aspect is wonderful. But what concerned me is that no one was really raising the problems of iPods. There are some really serious issues for me. I can break it down into three basic categories.

Number one, the quality issue. I really wonder if people realize what shit they are listening to when they listen to an MP3. The best analogy I can come up with is the idea that, if you took someone to see a beautiful painting in an Art Gallery, and you stood them in front of the painting so they could see the texture of the paint, the colors coming off the canvas, the power and the depth, of that masterpiece, and then you took them out of the Art Gallery and you showed them a photocopy of the same painting. Now, the thing is, you can still appreciate, even from the photocopy, that it’s a masterpiece. It’s the same with an MP3, you can still appreciate it’s a great piece of music and you can still enjoy it, but the quality of experience is so much lower. So much lower.

What was depressing was reading this week in the British music press that some professor has done a survey and found that young people prefer the sound of MP3s to high-resolution audio. They’ve become accustomed to this rather hollow, metallic, compromised, compressed sound. I can sympathize with that. I still love scratchy old vinyl. I just don’t think there’s any comparison between that and MP3s.

That’s point number one. Point number two is the whole issue of the compromising of the packaging of music. I realize, in some ways, it’s kind of fetishistic thing to associate the presentation of music with the presentation and packaging. But having said that, if something is a beautiful piece of art in terms of its musical content, why shouldn’t it presented as something beautiful in terms of its visual content?

Growing up in the tail end of the vinyl era, I still remember buying albums in beautiful gatefold sleeves with lyric sheets, and pull outs, and inserts, and textures. I miss that. I suppose kids these days don’t care about that, because they’ve never had it. The idea that music is reduced to a few software files is an ugly concept.

The final issue I have with iPods is what you might call the playlist mentality, the jukebox mentality. In my experience, it seems, a lot of people have their iPod on shuffle or they create their own playlists. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that my albums aren’t meant to be listened to in that way. They are created as musical continuums. I put a lot of thought into the idea that someone will listen to my record from beginning to end and I can take them on a kind of musical journey. So, the idea that somebody might program my music in a play list or they might have their iPod on shuffle and hear a track from Insurgentes after a Coldplay track, and then followed by a Britney Spears track, or whatever it is, again is an ugly idea to me.

For me, it’s the same with all technology, or most technology: It’s one step forward, and two steps back.

MP3s and Download Culture

Photo: Lasse Hoile

T Bone Burnett, the producer of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand, has also been publicly outspoken about the poor sound of MP3s.
Neil Young also has refused to release his new box set on CD. At one point, he was only going to do it on Blu-Ray disc because that was the only audio format that could recreate the quality and the resolution he demanded from his music. He even hated CDs. In fact there are still some albums of Neil Young he has never allowed to be released on CD. So god knows what he must think of MP3s. I imagine they must be Satan’s spawn to him. There are some purists. I’m not the only one.

On an airplane, do you pack a good old-fashioned Discman and a batch of CDs to listen to, then?
I simply don’t listen to music in that way. When I’m on a plane I might watch a movie or something. I suppose people who are passionate about cinema might say the same thing, and in that sense it’s a kind of hypocrisy: I’m watching a movie on a little screen on an airplane. I know David Lynch, for example, has said anyone who thinks they’ve watched a movie on an iPhone is completely fooling themselves. They haven’t seen the movie.

I don’t listen to music in that way. I’m very old fashioned in that I like to listen to music on a great system. I like to be perusing the artwork while I’m listening to it, and I like to be focused on the listening experience, not checking my emails or jogging or reading the newspaper. I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m a musician and that’s my life. I wouldn’t expect everyone to be as passionate about how they experience music as I am.

I’m happy to play devil’s advocate. There are a lot of people who think I am over reacting. But the best way sometimes to make a point is to be fairly fundamental about it.

You’re a big fan of both Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, two bands that released their past two albums as free downloads. Would you consider doing that with the next Porcupine Tree album?
Well, Radiohead can afford to, and we can’t. That’s the simple truth of the matter. They didn’t actually release it for free, they said, “choose your own price”. I think it’s important to note that. A lot of people did pay and they made a lot of money out of releasing their album for so-called “free”.

But Trent did, in fact. He released The Slip as a free download. One thing I would say is that it’s very easy when you’re a multimillionaire, and you don’t need to worry about money, to give music away. It’s also easy when you’re a new band and you don’t have to make your living from music and it’s a passion, to give your music away.

The kind of artist I am, and the level Porcupine Tree is at, we do have to make a certain amount of money to continue to do what we do. We’ve never sold a million records. I’m not saying we’re struggling; we do OK now. But we cannot afford to spend a year of our lives making a record and giving it away. Some people will take it for free anyway, you have to accept that now. There are still a lot of people out there who like to invest in us and will pay for the record and we appreciate that.

Robert Smith of the Cure recently criticized Radiohead for their pay as you like model. Smith said, “You can‘t allow other people to put a price on what you do, otherwise you don‘t consider what you do to have any value at all, and that‘s nonsense.” What’s your take on that?
I heard, actually, and I don’t know if it was ever public, that Radiohead considered that a failed experiment. I think they thought—and I’m reading between the lines, here—they thought that people would have a conscience and would feel guilty taking something for nothing. And, in fact, something like 70 percent of people had no conscience and did take it for nothing. The interesting thing there was that they did subsequently release a copy of the record and the record still went to number one in both America and England. Even having given away the download for free, there were still hundreds of thousands of people who preferred to have a physical copy of that record. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s not. Maybe some kids still prefer a physical thing.

On the Robert Smith thing, I didn’t know he said that. I don’t know. What price do you put on music? It’s a very subjective thing, isn’t it? There’s a lot of music out there that I think is worthless and people should be giving away—American Idol and that kind of crap. And yet you can go down to your local record store now and find the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue for about $5. Record companies now are putting CDs in stores at such crazy prices, because they have to, I guess. That, to me, seems to be devaluing the Zeppelin catalogue. No one should feel any question about spending $20 on a Led Zeppelin album. That’s not even a penny wasted. But five cents spent on a fucking American Idol singer is complete wasted money. I’m happy to pay $20 for a Cure album or a Radiohead album.

A Prodigious Musical Creator

The updated Steven Wilson discography totals 369 pages as a PDF. Do you know of any other professional songwriter who is as prolific as you?
Do I? Er… no. I think Frank Zappa at his peak, possibly, was as eclectic and was as prolific. Here’s a guy who could make anything from a serious classical record to a kind of doo-wop record to a rock ’n’ roll record and, quite often, would do everything in the same year. I flatter myself to include myself in his company, but I suppose he would be the closest kind of precedent I could come up with.

When was the last time you wrote a song?
A few days ago, because we’ve just finished writing the new Porcupine Tree record. We start recording on Sunday. [March 15.]

People regularly express surprise and admiration at your immense productivity and you’re often asked if you ever sleep, or if you ever take vacation. You’re in the studio when many of your peers are out playing golf—what drives your work ethic and why do you think more songwriters aren’t as prolific?
I can only hypothesize why. Firstly, I do get a very strong work ethic from my father, who is a very hard-working guy. You know, I come from a fairly middle-class, well-off family, but certainly that wasn’t the start my father had. He came from quite a poor background. I think I got quite a good work ethic from him.

The second answer to that question is that it doesn’t seem like work. It really doesn’t seem like work to me. I think, in a sense, it’s such an honor and a privilege to be able to do this and make a kind of a living from it. To be able to say, “this is my job”, seems like a dream. So, because it doesn’t seem like work to me, the idea of “time off”, doesn’t really come into it. I love so many different kinds of music that it’s always been important to me to be able to explore those different kinds of music if I wanted to.

Some days I wake up and want to make drone music. Some days I wake up and want to make pop music. Some days I wake up and want to make progressive music or heavy metal. Maybe that’s the reason I’ve had to be so prolific. Because, unlike many musicians who are quite content to mine one particular seam in style terms, I’ve never been happy to do that. I’ve had to be prolific to express the different sides of my character.

I think you follow the Robert Plant model, as it were, of always looking for new musical territories to explore rather than looking over your shoulder at the past. A lot of other musicians are content to stay in a comfort zone and make variations of the same record over and over again.
Yeah, I don’t really understand that. I think even within the space of a two-year period between two albums of say, Porcupine Tree or Blackfield or No-Man or anything, the changes are significant. What I mean by that is that changes in me as a person are not small. We’re talking about new music heard, new films seen, new books read, new experiences, new relationships forged, new friendships. It seems extraordinary to me that those things would not affect the output. So, to me, what feels very natural, that the music should change and must change, is a reflection of the fact that the person must change and does change.

You’re in so many bands and you’re probably the main musical director in most of them, so what was the impetus to finally create a solo album after all these years? What did you hope to achieve musically that you couldn’t in your other projects?
I was talking a few moments ago about how I have all these different musical personalities and different styles of music that I like to explore. It occurred to me, while I was making this record, that I’d never really made a record which encompassed all of them. In other words, every record I’d made had been an aspect of a musical personality.

This really is the first time I can say this can be an album under my own name because this is the first time I can say, “this is every aspect of my musical personality”. With one possible exception, actually, which is the metal aspect, which isn’t really represented on the record. There are heavy moments and it’s a very dark and twisted record, but probably the metal aspect is probably the only aspect that isn’t represented.

The first single, “Harmony Korine”, is named after the experimental filmmaker. What’s the song about?
Well, it’s not about him! [Wilson laughs.] It is and it isn’t. It’s a funny thing. I was thinking about this because people were asking me about lyrics on this record and what they mean, and why the lyrics aren‘t printed in the book of the CD. There’s a very good reason for that. I really didn’t want people, this time, to read the words divorced from the music. They are used in a way that is part of the texture of the sound, part of the fabric of the music.

Of course, the Beatles, when they did Sgt. Pepper’s, started this thing where you had to have your lyrics printed on the sleeve. And I think, “Why? Why do people expect lyrics?” Because lyrics are not poetry. They’re not really supposed to be read divorced from the music. They are part of the music. And if you mishear the lyrics, or can’t quite figure out what I’m saying, then so be it. That’s fine. Which is a very roundabout way of getting back to your original question. There’s a lot of surrealism on this record. The lyrics were largely improvised. I’m a big fan of cinema and I’m a big fan of surrealism and Harmony Korine is someone who works in surrealist cinema. So, the idea that you can take an object or a title and put it together with another object or another thing that has no connection to it, and present it in a way—in this case, the title “Harmony Korine” has no connection to the song at all—that’s a very surrealist approach.

Which sounds like a very pretentious way of saying that I just put a title that has no relevance to the song. [Wilson laughs.] But I like that. I love his films. I love his name. He has a very beautiful name in some ways in contrast to his films which are sometimes quite dark and gritty.

Improvizing lyrics is a really interesting approach and it reminds me of how David Bowie often used to cut out random words and them paste them together in some sort of coherent syntax—taking into account grammar—to create lyrics. Ever thought about trying that?
I have kind of used that approach. That actually really comes from William Burroughs and Bowie wasn’t the only person to use that. Scott Walker used it as well. You do come up with really interesting images and I do think that kind of Brian Eno thing, which is about improvisation is, yes, anyone can do that. But the artist is the one who makes the decision of when it works and when it doesn’t. So the skill really becomes the editing process. You can come up with pages and pages and pages of random images and word associations, the skill of the artist is knowing when it works. I improvised a lot of lyrics on this record and some of it was shit. I would go back and redo those lines in the same way, improvising the words until I felt I had a full body of words. Obviously when you improvise, it’s not all gobbledygook. There is something in your sub consciousness creating these images. It’s almost like a dream logic you’re applying because when you dream it’s random association. There’s no planning. It’s the same with lyrics. There are meanings there, but I’m probably as unsure about the meanings as anyone.

Exploring Light and Shade in Music

Photo: Lasse Hoile

A constant theme in all of your projects is playing up musical contrasts, exploring light and shade in music. Insurgentes experiments with a lot of dissonance and noise—where has that influence come from and why has it crept into this record in such a big way?
Noise is very much an acquired taste. It’s not something I could ask members of, say, Porcupine Tree or Blackfield or even No-Man to embrace. But being a solo record and deciding to make a song-based record, it was inevitable that my love of noise and texture would play a big part in that. I think that is one of the main things that does differentiate it from the collaborative projects.

Noise is not something relates to. Pure noise is something that some people don’t even think of as music. I’ve always loved pure sound. I never made a distinction, really, between music and sound. Let me explain what I mean by that. I grew up near to a train station and the sound of the trains became a very important part of my world. It was a very musical sound to me. And when I hear that kind of a sound, the sound of a train, it sets off all kinds of feelings in me. Nostalgic feelings. Is that not what music does?

Of course, anyone who has sat down to watch a movie is constantly being manipulated—in the nicest possible way—by pure use of sound and noise. It’s not just the music, it’s also the sound design. Certain directors more than others, of course. David Lynch is very good at using pure noise, pure drone, to create a sense of dread and to create a sense of mystery. I think we are all susceptible to the idea of noise as a musical device, whether we’re aware of it or not.

The very first Porcupine Tree album, On the Sunday of Life, was essentially a solo record as you played everything on that record. This time around, you’ve brought in other musicians—Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, Japanese koto player Michiyo Yagi, Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison, to name but a few—rather than trying to do it alone. You seem to enjoy giving other talents a chance to shine, too.
I made most of the record on my own for quite a long time and then I got the other guys involved toward the end of the process. I think it was partly a reaction against the whole idea of a making a solo record. On a solo record, by definition, you don’t have other people to turn to if you want a second opinion. It’s very easy to disappear up your own posterior when you do that!

What I used as a kind of substitute to that was to invite other musicians to perhaps give me other perspectives on the material, and make it fresh again for me, and take it in directions that perhaps hadn‘t occurred to me. I didn’t tell any of them what to play, I just literally said, “here’s a track, do something”. Almost always they’d come back with something that would be surprising, fresh, and stimulating to me.

Who are some of the musicians you’d like to have guest on your various projects?
It’s interesting because we’re thinking about people to remix tracks from Insurgentes at the moment because we’re doing a remix project. There are people that, historically, I would have liked to have met and worked with during their peak, or people who have passed on. Frank Zappa, for example, a huge idol to me. Or Miles Davis. There are people who did create extraordinary music that I don’t think are really at their peak anymore.

But there are people around who are making really exciting music at the moment. I’m a huge fan of Trent Reznor. Some people give him a bit of stick, but I think Trent Reznor [of Nine Inch Nails] is one of the greatest producers of the last 10 to 15 years. Not the greatest songwriter, but, in terms of production, I think he’s pushed the envelope of production—certainly in the mainstream—probably on a par with Radiohead. I would love to work with Trent Reznor, he’s one of my production heroes.

Richard James, the Aphex Twin, has kind of disappeared now, but he’s another guy who changed my idea about music. His approach to electronic music and his attitude toward everything is very arch. That appeals to me very much. There are many artists I enjoy listening to, and we’ve just approached some. Actually, David Sitek from TV on the Radio has just agreed to do a remix. He’s amazing. He’s passionate about music and he wanted to do it.

What can we expect from the next Porcupine Tree album? I hear that it’s a continuous piece of music over 55 minutes.
That’s going to be one disc. We’ve also got some short pieces, which we may put on a second disc. I’m not sure, yet. We’re certainly going to record everything and we may do a double, or we may just put a single long track out as the whole album. It’s kind of a brave or a stupid thing to do. But, you know what? I think the climate is better now than ever to make those kind of gestures because singles, radio, video are more and more irrelevant as every month goes by. If bands are going to make ridiculous/ambitious/pretentious pomp—whatever you want to call it—we’re in an era when you can do that now again. It’s not just about radio and creating these pop songs anymore. That, in a way, is a return to the ’70s and I’m very happy about that.

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