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An Eclectic Master Craftsman: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Stephen Humphries
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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