An Eclectic Master Craftsman: An Interview with Steven Wilson

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.