Grace Under Pressure: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson
Grace for Drowning

Steven Wilson is music’s answer to Chuck Yeager: He’s continually striving to break sound barriers.

On his second solo album, Grace for Drowning (released September 27 on K-Scope), the frontman of the rock band Porcupine Tree has forged an unusual sonic alchemy of progressive rock, textural electronica, piano-pop balladry, soundtrack-like soundscapes, doom rock . . . and jazz.

When a rock musician admits to a new jazz direction, you’d be forgiven for conjuring up images of a cheesy confection akin to Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey. But Wilson had a specific template in mind: King Crimson’s pioneering 1970 album Lizard.

Lizard is basically Robert Fripp’s solo album”, explains Wilson, who recently remastered the King Crimson back catalog in 5.1 surround sound. “King Crimson had broken up. It was just him. What did he do? He didn’t get in a load of rock musicians, he got in a load of jazz musicians. That’s really the approach I took with this record.”

Taking advantage of Porcupine Tree’s current hiatus, Wilson recorded the album with some of Britain’s top jazz musicians, including drummer Nic France, guitarist Mike Outram, and Theo Travis, a flautist and sax player who has worked with Fripp, Soft Machine Legacy, Gong, and some of Wilson’s previous projects.

But the biggest change wasn’t Wilson’s musical company, it was his own modus operandi. A musical Magellan who is constantly exploring the exotic sounds inside his head, Wilson is accustomed to mapping out each musical coordinate prior to recording. This time, Wilson encouraged his musicians to improvise their solos. He even instructed Nic France to treat each song as if it were an extended solo rather than focus on holding down a groove.

“Another interesting thing about the Crimson records is that none of those drum tracks were cut to a click track”, marvels Wilson. “The drummer is speeding up and slowing down all the time. In a way that is not rhythmically precise but is musically exciting.”

Relaxing in a New York studio control room that resembles the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (albeit with expensive teak paneling), Wilson stresses that he has never been a fan of instrumental virtuosity for its own sake. Indeed, most tracks on Grace for Drowning sit in the sweet Lagrange point between the often-opposing gravitational forces of melodic songcraft and showboat musicianship. The result is an ambitious double album filled with audibly tactile textures.

“I was really focused on one thing on this record, and that was the beauty of sounds”, reveals Wilson who, at 43, seemingly hasn’t aged in 10 years. “The tone of the snare drum, which you don’t hear in metal music. To hear the breathing of woodwinds and the creaking of old mellotrons and Leslie cabinets and a real choir. A very kind of organic palette of golden sounds, which is something I associate with that period of experimentation and searching of the early 1970s.”

For all its modern flourishes, Grace for Drowning deliberately harkens back to the sound of early progressive rock bands such as Henry Cow, Van der Graaf Generator, Dr. Strangely Strange, Yes, Caravan, and Jethro Tull. Not coincidentally, Wilson has recently created 5.1 mixes for the latter two groups.

“If you analyze what happened to progressive rock after punk came along–and there have been various resurgences and revivals of progressive rock since then–they’ve all eliminated jazz from the equation”, says Wilson. “Jazz is the forgotten element of that music. When bands play progressive rock now, it’s more clinical, it has that metal sound–and I’m including some of my own music in that category, too.”

Wilson’s vast discography encompasses a wide variety of bands and ongoing collaborations. Though he is best known as the leader of Porcupine Tree (a band whose “progressive metal” tag barely describes its stylistic range), Wilson’s extracurricular activities include the art-rock group No-Man, the pop-rock band Blackfield, the Krautrock of I.E.M., and the minimalist drone electronica of Bass Communion. Throughout his work, Wilson has often created brooding and ominous music. Grace for Drowning certainly has its fair share of dark elements, but it is just as often resplendent with exultant, joyous sounds.

“You’ll notice the use of choir on some of the songs”, enthuses Wilson. “It’s almost over the top on ‘Postcard’. It’s almost like a Hollywood moment. Sickly sweet. That’s new for me–to not be afraid of being even a little bit kitsch in a way. Because there’s always a danger, when you do things like that, that people will accuse you of being pretentious, pompous, over the top. I don’t care anymore.”

Wilson is so proud of the record that he is mounting his first-ever solo tour, which arrives in North America in November (for tour dates, see The concerts will feature big-budget production values, including screens that will spool specially made videos for songs from Grace for Drowning, as well as videos for Wilson’s 2009 solo album, Insurgentes. (Notably, Grace for Drowning is the first-ever new rock album released primarily as a Blu-Ray video disc, with music in 5.1 surround sound and accompanying video content.)

Yet Wilson is all-too-aware that his solo music faces an enormous challenge finding a mainstream audience. Last year, Porcupine Tree sold out Radio City Music Hall in New York City–just a few blocks away from the studio where Wilson is sitting this late July afternoon–but the band scarcely attracted any media attention for that show. The band’s 10th album, The Incident, breached the Top 25 album charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but Porcupine Tree hasn’t garnered much airplay.

“If I had been an equivalent artist in almost any other genre, I’d probably would have done a lot better than I have because I chose to work in the progressive rock–or, rather, it chose me”, muses Wilson. “It’s the hardest music, a) because of its reputation, and b) because it’s music that, by definition, requires more listening attention to absorb and to engage with.”

Nevertheless, the British musician says he is thrilled with the devotion and engagement of his fans who, he says, tend to buy the entire back catalog. Besides, he’s reached a point of acceptance–though not acquiescence–about the lack of greater mainstream attention.

“The album title came from reading stories and accounts of people who have had near-death experiences with drowning”, says Wilson. “They all say the same thing: They got a point where they stopped struggling where they reached a point of calm, of grace. I like Grace for Drowning as a metaphor for my life. I don’t really care anymore if I’m successful or if I’m going to be more successful than I am already. I’d still like to share my music with more people. But I’m not stressed about it. I’m making the best music I’ve ever made now because I feel totally liberated from trying to please anyone.”