A Specialist in Dying Arts: An Interview with Steven Wilson
Steven Wilson talks with PopMatters about a restored love for adventurous pop, the challenges of writing a simple song, and the role of a musician in addressing political tumult.
In a brief making-of documentary video for Porcupine Tree's 2005 album Deadwing, frontman Steven Wilson opens a gate and walks down a slim alley to the back door of Livingston Studios in northern London. Pressing a call box, Wilson waits for a voice to squawk. When it does, he replies, "International pop star." He looks away after saying the phrase as if he's just uttered the most ridiculous sentence of his life.
The music that Porcupine Tree would go on to record in Livingston Studios sounds nothing like the music of an international pop star -- except, maybe, for the pretty, piano-led "Lazarus", a sing-along classic at Wilson concerts still today. But beginning with In Absentia, Porcupine Tree's 2002 breakthrough LP, Wilson has become the closest thing to an international pop star in the worlds of progressive and art rock.
His albums sell in the hundreds of thousands. He's sold out massive venues like the Royal Albert Hall. Even as his music eschews the mainstream, preferring lengthy instrumental odysseys where others would re-establish the hook, Wilson continues to draw sizeable crowds. He has the rare luck in the music world: total artistic control and no requirement to compromise, all the while earning his biggest public appreciation to date. The password to Livingston Studios may well have been a prophecy.
If Wilson ever harbored the hope to be the Next Big Thing on the mainstream charts, To the Bone, his fifth solo album and first for the Caroline imprint of Universal, stands as the perfect means of connecting with a mainstream global audience. Leading up to the LP's release, Wilson framed it as a shift to pop-oriented songwriting, with infectious choruses and sterling melodies taking precedence over the exploratory instrumentalism for which he earned his renown.
Considering the devoted fan base of progressive rock devotees he's amassed over his illustrious career, it's unsurprising -- if regrettable -- that some of those fans took poorly to the announcement that To the Bone would represent a turn to pop. Negative criticisms zeroed in on "Permanating", perhaps the most unabashedly pop offering Wilson has ever written. As if the song's staccato piano chords and soaring falsetto weren't saccharine enough for some Wilson diehards, the music video for "Permanating", directed by Andrew Morgan, one-ups the buoyant optimism of Wilson's lyrics with a liberal dose of Bollywood dancing. Smiles abound, two words rarely if ever used in describing Wilson's famously morose music.
Speaking to Wilson shortly before To the Bone's global release, I ask him if he's tired of fans expecting him to put out one type of music, given his well-documented proclivity for changing from album to album. His initial response is positive. "I certainly think that's a healthy sign," he explains, "Because it means I can still surprise people, and by extension disappoint people. Everybody has their own idea about what kind of record they want me to make, which partly derives from all the different styles I've used over the years. People don't always know where I'm going next, and for me, it's always important to change."
For Wilson, the important thing to note in the criticisms of "Permanating" is the number of those criticisms -- notice that I earlier used the word "some". "I haven't read any of the feedback [to 'Permanating'] online. I'm aware it's going on, and I'm aware there's some controversy, which is a good thing. But the majority of people are very positive," Wilson says, "and probably have embraced and are interested in it. The problem with the internet, of course, is that it's always the ten percent of people that are unhappy and shout the loudest that make the biggest splash. One thing I've discovered over the years is that if you're on tour and talking to fans after the show, and you're shaking hands with people, taking pictures, and enjoying their company, it won't matter if upon meeting fan #100 on the day that you had a cold, or an argument with your girlfriend, or whatever, you're a bit short and mean to them. That's the guy that will go on the forums and say things like, 'Steven Wilson is such an arrogant asshole!' The other 99 people that you were nice as pie to won't say anything! Because, you know, why should they?
"So with the response to "Permanating", I think there's a degree of that phenomenon happening. It's a small minority that feels quite entitled to the view that I should make the kind of record they want, but they make the biggest fuss online. I suspect, anyways."
More interesting than the minority of contrarians shit-talking "Permanating" for its earnest pop is a possibility still unrealized in Wilson's career. Although enormously successful in the realm of progressive and art rock, Wilson has never seen the summit of the pop charts -- intentionally, of course. But the jubilant "Permanating", more than anything he's ever conceived, could easily be a one-way ticket to chart success given the right circumstances. I ask Wilson if he's ever thought about what it would be like to become an overnight chart success, and how that could clash with his reputation as an anti-mainstream artist.
For Wilson, pop success isn't tantamount to creative compromise. "I don't think there's any musician on Earth who, if you asked them, 'Would you like your music to reach more people?', would say no. With a song like 'Permanating', I'm aware it has mainstream potential. That song, 20 or 30 years ago, would have definitely been a hit. I'm not so sure about 2017; things have changed so much. 'Permanating' is a new doorway into my musical world. Some of the people who walk through that doorway may find that the rest of the stuff is not what they want.
"But some of them will probably like the rest," he continues. "If 'Permanating' becomes the doorway through which people access the entirety of my catalog, I don't think they'll find music that's so obscure, difficult or avant-garde. Many of my best songs are ones that are accessible and easy to enjoy. Should 'Permanating' become the conduit for people who don't know me to experience my musical world, I say bring it on! I'm not ashamed to have written a classy pop song that can reach a mainstream audience."
"Growing up", he adds, "I was as in love with pop stars as anyone. Prince and [David] Bowie were pop stars, very much in the mainstream, and they were my idols too." Attendees of Wilson's most recent tour (for 2015's Hand. Cannot. Erase.) got to see his admiration for Prince and Bowie brought to the stage. He performed Prince's "Sign O' the the Times", which he released as a part of his Cover Version series, and Bowie's "Space Oddity" as onstage hat-tips to his recently departed heroes. Wilson even dedicated Porcupine Tree's "Lazarus", a song which includes a character called David, to Bowie.
Wilson has on numerous occasions described "Lazarus", along with as the equally elegiac title track from his 2013 jazz fusion-inflected solo LP The Raven that Refused to Sing, as some of his best songwriting. This may come as a shock to his fans and even those who only know his work peripherally. Wilson gained his fame by putting together intricate, usually lengthy songs, like Porcupine Tree's "Anesthetize" (17 minutes), "Arriving Somewhere (But Not Here)" (15 minutes), and equally daunting songs on his solo albums like "Raider II" (23 minutes) and "Ancestral" (13 minutes). When the name "Steven Wilson" gets dropped, the first genre people are bound to think of is progressive rock, a style not known for its concise, melodically straightforward songs. For Wilson tunes like "Lazarus" and "The Raven that Refused to Sing" present their own challenge, even if they aren't liable to build layers of calluses on Wilson's fingers for all the notes he must wring out of his guitar.
Pop songwriting, when done well, proves as difficult if not more so than imagining a lengthy instrumental jam. Call it music's twist on Occam's Razor: the simplest approach becomes the most taxing one. When it came to compiling a whole album of pop-oriented material, Wilson found the task uniquely vexing, yet not in a way fundamentally removed from his prior work. "I think all of my albums have been difficult to write. I'm sure lots of other musicians have the same thing. The specter of the blank page, the need to pluck something from the air that wasn't there before: I find those really hard, no matter the album. I think it gets harder as you get further into your career, due to there being more stuff that you've already done and don't want to repeat. In that process, your standards also get higher; you become more aware of your own clichés and how to avoid them. The whole process of writing songs becomes more elusive no matter what."
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The recording process for To the Bone was in part defined by extracting economy from a bulk of planned music. "Prior to the process of recording To the Bone," Wilson says, "There was a lot of music I had put aside because it wasn't what I was looking for. So I had twice as much music to find these 11 songs that I felt worked as strong, melodic songs, as opposed to my natural inclinations, where I go more into tangents and write longer, complicated pieces of music. Whenever I found myself going in that direction, I had to start anew and find a different way to write the music. I couldn't quantify it by saying it's the hardest I've ever had to write, but it's certainly one of the hardest things I've ever written."
Fortunately, for whatever difficulties Wilson faced in plotting out his first pop solo album, he had one advantage: total freedom. The Raven that Refused to Sing and to some degree Hand. Cannot. Erase. were written with Wilson's live band in mind, a semi-rotating cadre of top-of-the-field instrumentalists including Nick Beggs (bass), Guthrie Govan (guitar), Dave Kilminster (guitar), Marco Minneman (drums), Craig Blundell (drums), and Adam Holzman (keyboards). To the Bone features contributions from many of those musicians and others, including the fiery-voiced Ninet Tayeb, but Wilson approached the music as a solo artist unencumbered by any particular band formation. Each track stands on its own.
"Most of the guitar and keyboard playing on this record is done by me. In that sense, To the Bone is more properly a 'solo' record, in contrast to some of my other quote-unquote solo records, which feel more like band records," says Wilson. "There are other musicians involved, but the recording process began with the view of taking each song as its own separate entity, and saying, 'Okay, what kind of sound world do we want here? What kind of musicians do we want here?' Those questions highlight my original motivations for becoming a solo artist in the first place. I wanted to get away from the dynamic of having the same group of musicians on each record. Part of the fun of being a solo artist comes from being able to switch between musical forces and personalities. This time around, it's definitely more along those lines: different drummers, different musical lineups on each track, and more of myself on each track."
Of the many contributors that grace To the Bone's hour-long run time, Tayeb stands out most of all. Following on the heels of her show-stopping performance on the Hand. Cannot. Erase. centerpiece "Routine," Tayeb's dynamic voice providing grandiose swells ("Pariah") and melancholic beauty ("Blank Tapes") to further color the album's sonic landscape. Speaking with me, as in every other venue where he's talked about her skills as a performer, Wilson is effusive.
"I've known Ninet for a long time," he tells us. "I have a longstanding relationship with the country of Israel stemming from the Blackfield project, which involves my friend Aviv Geffen, who's also from Israel. I spent extended periods of time living in there. Ninet was a big, big star in Israel; when she was young, she won one of those TV talent competitions and became an overnight celebrity. Everyone in Israel was aware of her at the time, myself included. She was 19 at the time, and she was forced to do what other people in that same position are forced to do: make a pop record and play to the mainstream. But I've watched her completely reinvent herself over the past ten years as an artist, and she has completely turned her back to that part of the industry. She taught herself how to play guitar and writes her own songs. There's a really cutting-edge alternative sound to her music now. She has an extraordinary voice and charisma.
"When I was looking around to find someone for the song 'Routine', she was one of the first people I thought of. I tried a few different people for that song, but her performance was the version that straight away caused the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. I've been lucky since then to get to know her better, to have her tour with me, and see just how jaw-dropping her talent is. She's an incredible person."
Although Tayeb has come into her own as a songwriter, recently performing around the globe for her 2017 solo disc Paper Parachute, she didn't co-write the two songs on which she duets with Wilson. But this doesn't mean that her presence didn't inform Wilson's songwriting. "In contrast to 'Routine'", he explains, "where I didn't know for who I was writing the music or lyrics for, I knew I was writing 'Pariah' and 'Blank Tapes' for Ninet. So in that sense, she changed the writing process for me, given that I knew the musical skill she is capable of."
Just as Ninet's connection with Wilson influenced his songwriting, so too does Geffen's. Earlier this year, Wilson rejoined Geffen to release a new Blackfield album, Blackfield V, marking the first time the two worked as an equal duo after two albums spearheaded almost entirely by Geffen (2011's Welcome to My DNA and 2013's Blackfield IV). To the Bone's ethereal second track, "Nowhere Now", echoes of the pop stylistics of IV. I ask Wilson if the proximity for the recording and release of both Blackfield V and To the Bone resulted in any songwriting overlap, to which he says, "That was definitely a coincidence. Blackfield has been focused on the art of the concise pop song from the beginning, the main reason for that being that's what Aviv does so well. Blackfield V was almost entirely written by Aviv; I contributed one song, but it's largely from a compositional point of view his record. Aviv has been an influence on me as a friend and a songwriter. I have a lot of respect for his abilities in the realm of classic songwriting."
Blackfield, Wilson's project with Aviv Geffen
But as Wilson is quick to remind me, Blackfield doesn't stand as Wilson's only connection to pop music. "The straightforward pop approach has always been in my music. Every album has had at least a couple of direct, melodically-focused pop songs on its tracklist -- I'm using 'pop' here in the broad sense here, of course, in the way that the Beatles or David Bowie are pop. Like any artist, I go through 'waves' or 'phases' in my career where I'm drawn to one approach over the other, and it just happened that Blackfield V and To the Bone came to be during a time of renewed interest in pop songwriting in my career."
A Steven Wilson pop album was bound to happen, due not only to Wilson's recurring interest in the format but also in the very nature of his solo career, where the operating principle is "genre irrelevant." In Wilson's words, "There's always a potential for any kind of music to manifest in what I do for my solo career. With To the Bone, you'll find hints of everything from electronic music to singer-songwriter balladry to punk/metal riffing -- it's all there. Sometimes, it's more or as interesting to make an album that is purely focused on one thing. The solo project should be more about mixing it up, but there might come a time where I want to make an album that's purely electronic music, and I have made records like that. Or I might want to make an album of industrial noise or acoustic ballads. The reason why my solo records get released under my name alone is because they encompass all facets of my musical personality.
"In a way," he continues, "Porcupine Tree fulfilled that role beforehand, and in some ways, the solo project continues the music of that band. But Porcupine Tree, like any band, was a democracy, so there were musical elements that I couldn't have incorporated because the other guys wouldn't have liked it and vice versa. I see the solo project as containing facets of all of my musical endeavors."
The creative freedom afforded to Wilson as a solo artist hasn't quelled any desire for collaboration, which makes up the bulk of his recorded output before his solo debut, 2008's Insurgentes. When it comes to balancing solo and collaborative work, Wilson stresses the word "contrast". "Because I have such strong facets of my career that don't involve my solo work, which does take up most of my time by far, when I go into a collaboration I really relish that environment. When I go and make an album with Aviv, I'm very happy that he's written most of the music, and I can be involved as a kind of musical arranger and collaborator.
"It's no coincidence that since my solo project has taken off, other collaborations have receded to the background. Porcupine Tree hasn't made a record since 2009 and No-Man hasn't made a record since 2008. I feel less need now to be creatively involved in something other than my solo work. My solo work fulfills the musical needs I have now. So by extension, when it comes to other projects I like filling the role of contributor."
As Wilson's solo career continues to expand, transporting him around the world and back again (including a short series of 2016 concerts in India), he continues to find the time not only to collaborate but also to delve back into his increasingly vast archive of music. On recent tours, Wilson performed numbers from the Porcupine Tree discography, including some rarely played deep cuts. Given how Porcupine Tree served as the springboard for Wilson's solo career, one might chalk this up to playing the hits. Wilson, however, sees this catalog mining a different way.
"I always pick the ones that I feel are relevant. Otherwise I wouldn't revisit them, even if they were really popular. If a song didn't fit where I was now, or I didn't feel like I was the person I was when I wrote a particular song, I couldn't genuinely perform it. I'm lucky to have a large back catalog from which to choose material. Fortunately, I don't have the Hit Single Syndrome, where I have to go out and play 'Don't Fear the Reaper' at every concert because that's the song everyone knows me for. I don't have that problem because I've never had a hit like that, and as a result, I've been able to be selfish about the way I cherry-pick the songs from my back catalog. I'm going to continue doing this on my next tour; I've already started browsing through songs from the Porcupine Tree era that I've never played as a solo artist, which I hope to re-vamp for the new shows."
Just as Wilson doesn't confine himself into a single genre mold, he also doesn't treat songs he's written for past or present bands as fixed objects. After I ask Wilson about his decision to incorporate Porcupine Tree songs into his solo live shows, he is quick -- and politely assertive in the way only English people can be -- to correct me. "If may be a bit pedantic, when you say 'I play Porcupine Tree songs', I'm not. I'm playing Steven Wilson songs that happen to have been originally recorded by Porcupine Tree. They're still Steven Wilson songs; it's not like I'm doing a cover version of someone else's song. The way I feel is that the songs I choose to play with my solo band are all my songs, but it just happens that some of those songs were initially recorded with another group."
Along with some tunes from the Porcupine Tree days, attendees of Wilson's upcoming To the Bone tour can expect a characteristically rich visual component to the live show. Wilson has long commissioned films for his songs, which lend a conceptual richness to his performances that in part explain why Porcupine Tree was ranked one of the best live acts in the world, irrespective of genre, by the generalist publication Music Radar in 2011.
The videos released for To the Bone thus far maintain the striking, avant-garde aesthetic that Wilson has long exhibited; he regularly cites David Lynch as a major influence on his music. That Wilson continues to invest in music videos, and music films further reveal his commitment to his craft, as the 21st century is no longer the era of music television. Throwing weight behind music videos, however admirable, comes across as antiquated in 2017. But to Wilson, the visual will always accompany the aural in his work.
"I've always been interested in visual interpretations of my music. If you see the shows I put on, you'll know that visuals always feature in the most immersive elements of my shows. Now, you're right," he says to me, "music TV is pretty much dead, no one watches music videos on TV anymore. However, the biggest streaming service in the world, YouTube, is video-based. So there does exist a medium for music and image to work together in harmony. In many ways, they're still the most potent artistic combination.
"I grew up loving cinema just as much as I loved music. I've always been excited about the possibilities of music and film together. I've been very lucky to work with people like Lasse Hoile and Jess Cope, who has done animations for my shows before and is making two new ones for the upcoming tour. I know what I like, and I have ideas, and people like Lasse and Jess understand those ideas when I communicate them. So on the one hand, I acknowledge this is a dying art, but then again making albums in the way I do is becoming a dying art. I specialize in these dying arts, and I've got a whole bunch of fans who appreciate it, which means I'll keep doing it as long as they enjoy it."
The opportunities for people to experience Wilson's music is now greater than ever, thanks in part to Wilson's decision to finally allow much of his music on the streaming service Spotify. Those who know the history of Wilson's cynical statements about the music industry might choose to see any deal with Spotify as commercial capitulation. Certainly, Wilson doesn't see his music being on streaming services in an entirely rosy light. "It's been okay," he says of now seeing his albums up on Spotify. "It's a whole new culture, and it takes awhile to build that up. I did resist streaming for awhile, in some part due to ignorance, as I didn't know much about the models of the industry. Now, I acknowledge that if I want to share my music with as many people as I can -- which most serious musicians will admit to wanting -- I have to participate in streaming.
"I've found ways to enjoy it. I have a playlist on Spotify -- not of my own music, but rather the music I'm listening to. I enjoy sharing that with my fans, turning people on to other stuff. In instances like that, I find ways to be positive about streaming."
In an interview with Stephen Humphries for PopMatters, Wilson recalled playing Prince's "Sign O' the Times" to a crowd who, by and large, clearly didn't know Prince's music. Wilson attributed that lack of familiarity partially to Prince's refusal to allow his music on streaming services, which continues to crowd out all other media as the primary means of experiencing music for 21st-century listeners. Wilson remains steadfast in this view in looking back on the short time that his music has been available to stream.
"The reality is, if you want to reach the younger audience these days, you have to be on streaming services," he notes. "You just have to be, especially when like me you want your music to reach as many people as possible. It's still a bit early to say how things will go, but my music is doing good on Spotify, and I'm more actively engaged in it this time around." All of Wilson's talk about streaming gravitates to the language of utility and necessity, not that of artistry. Streaming may be the main way people connect to their favorite music now, but in Wilson's tone, one can still hear a slight lament for the days when people invested in physical CDs and vinyl, a topic of significant importance to Wilson.
To the Bone captures Wilson's opinionated side, although the music industry can luckily count itself out of his crosshairs this time around. "Detonation" and "People Who Eat Darkness" are character studies of modern terrorism. "The Same Asylum as Before" points out that, no matter who gets elected, we all end up stuck together in the madhouse that is modern society. Wilson tries to understand the global refugee crisis on "Refuge". Politics have always figured into Wilson's lyrics, but To the Bone features his most direct statements on hot-button issues to date. In an era where the entire Western project of civilization seems to be coming undone, typified by the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the decision for Britain to leave the European Union, the need for politically engaged art feels more pressing than ever, which Wilson acknowledges as a key factor in the lyric writing process behind To the Bone.
"There's definitely an element of needing to reply to the circumstances of the present. It wouldn't be irresponsible, but it would have been strange to have not touched onto these things. If you look at the history of pop and rock music, there are certain times where the music really thrived as a music of protest and rebellion. Folk music started as protest music, as did punk, which arose out of a political anger. There are certain movements in music that derive from political or social rebellions. Maybe that's what's been missing for the last 25 years or so. It's kind of nice to see that coming back, to see musicians coming out and saying that we should be engaged with the major ideas and problems of the modern day.
"What's going to be really interesting to me is to see how mainstream pop artists are going to start talking about these things. I'm thinking specifically of what happened at the Ariana Grande show in Manchester a few months ago. With that attack, terrorism infiltrated the core of the mainstream pop world. I'm curious to see if that world can continue to ignore it as it has -- it's completely ignored it. I'm wondering if pop icons like Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Harry Styles will start talking about these problems because their fans really need to know about these things, need to be thinking about these things."
Grandiose progressive pop that takes on the major issues faced by the world: Wilson's task on To the Bone is no small one, even for a man who makes his living on big musical feats. Should Wilson remain a titan of the underground for the rest of his career, he will have lost nothing but the chance to fill larger venues -- and based on the upward trajectory he's taken in his solo career, stadium gigs aren't out of the question for him.
Over ten years after Deadwing, the thought of Wilson being an "international pop star" still hits like a joke. But with To the Bone, superstardom might be closer than ever. But rest assured that even if Wilson achieves pop success, he'll never give up on being progressive. He has too much fun moving forward.