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An Eclectic Master Craftsman: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Stephen Humphries
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.

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