Steven Wilson is one of the most influential players in modern Progressive Rock. Rarely at rest, he permeates the genre with his finger in many pies: Porcupine Tree, his recent solo albums, No-Man, the new Storm Corrosion collaboration with Mikael Akerfeldt, re-mixing classig Prog albums, Bass Communion, Headphone Dust and of course his numerous production credits.
Living in Brussels, I was delighted when the lovely Ancienne Belgique was added to the Grace for Drowning Tour and I saw an opportunity to grab a face-to-face interview and a concert review, for which the promoters happily agreed.
We had 20 minutes allocated, but as Steven said when we began “I have to warn you, I like to talk a lot”. Indeed he does and it was one hour in the end. Steven openly and with good humour, and very often with his tongue in cheeck – so read the following with that in mind.
I asked Steven to pick five of his favourite songs from his body of work and his thought and choices can be heard on DPRP Radio here. The transcription for this will be added in the coming days.
Interview and photographs for DPRP by Dave Baird
Hi Steven I’m Dave from DPRP – the Dutch Progressive Rock Page – you have heard of us, right?
Yes yes, I have heard of you… I think…
Hmmm, let me quote you “Grace for Drowning has been voted the album of the year and the Steven Wilson Grace of Drowning tour the tour of the year by the Dutch Progressive Rock Page poll, a site I didn’t know”; you do know we’ve interviewed you four times, right… Dementia?
No, not dementia… It may sound ridiculous, but usually I don’t know who I’m talking to. You are actually an exception because you told me who you’re coming from, but usually I just get a stream of people – I make it sound like I do a lot of interviews, actually I do do a lot of interviews… normally people get wheeled-in, I speak to them for 15 minutes and I have no idea where they’re from. But yes somebody sent me that link, so now I am very familiar.
Four times though, really?
Yes indeed, twice with Porcupine Tree, twice solo, going back to 2001, so we’ve been on you for some time!
Oh, my bad, I’m really sorry.
No stress, we were laughing about it. Anyway, opening obvious question, how has the tour been?
It’s been amazing, I’ve never had so much fun touring before. The funny thing is, that when I started touring it was under duress; I never wanted to be standing up in front of people, I never wanted to be a front man, I never wanted to be performing musician. I wanted to make records, be a producer/writer and so the live aspect of what I do kind of came by necessity, and under some kind of duress.
So for many years I really didn’t enjoy it something I did under protest, but in recent years not just with this and also with Porcupine Tree I have begun to enjoy it and I think that this, for me, has really been the greatest live experience of my life. I’m loving it, I’m loving every second of it and that’s extraordinary to me relative to where I started out, in relation to my attitude to performing live.
For many years you adamantly denied that you were a part of the Prog scene, has that now changed?
Yes and no. What you have to understand about that and put into context is that the whole idea about what is Progressive Rock has changed almost beyond recognition in the last twelve years, probably since the turn of the millennium. For many years, Progressive Rock was something that was only listened to buy rather serious men with beards, who published fanzines and ran websites, and listened to their old Genesis or Yes albums, or bands that created homages to that, in the wake of the Neo-Prog scene. And I felt so removed from that, that for me, the idea that I would be associated with that scene seemed wrong. Because I was this into bands like Massive Attack and Portishead, Radiohead and I was thinking this is Progressive music isn’t it, not this kind of old Neo-Prog stuff.
So I kind of tried, in a way, to distance myself from what I perceived as the rather narrow definition of Progressive Rock and it wasn’t just me that had this perception, that was pretty much the perception for most people. Whether you talk about the British music press, the American press, the media, most people who were outside of that scene; that was their idea of Progressive Rock, it was Marillion, it was Fish standing up on stage in face make-up doing a homage to Supper’s Ready; that was most people’s idea of Progressive Rock.
And things started to change, and they changed about the time that Porcupine Tree started to break through into more mainstream audience with albums like Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. Radiohead released OK Computer which I think changed a lot of people’s ideas about what Progressive Rock could be, Massive Attack released the Mezzanine album, The Mars Volta emerged early in the Millennium, bands like Tool started to take on more overtly complex, Progressive ideals, King Crimson toured with Tool.
I do really believe that OK Computer was the Trojan horse, that was the album that snuck under the radar, that journalists found themselves hurling all sorts of superlatives at before somebody said, “hold on this is Progressive Rock”. And it was too late by then, it was like “but we’ve already said this album is a masterpiece!” Yeah, you have and you’re right, and oh by the way this is what Pink Floyd were doing 20 or 30 years ago, if not literally then certainly from an ideological and and musical point of view. From a conceptual point of view this is exactly what Progressive Rock was about.
I think that was in ’97 and I think that since then, over the last 15 years, there’s been a gradual erosion of prejudice against Progressive Rock and if you witnessed the reaction for example to the latest reissues of albums like Dark Side of the Moon, In the Court of the Crimson King and some of the other Crimson catalogue, the reissue of Aqualung that I recently worked on which came out a few months ago, which got extraordinary reviews, not just in the Progressive Rock minded publications, but across-the-board. Across-the-board amazing reviews – one the greatest albums ever made. Same with the Crimson stuff, same with the Floyd reissues and I think now Progressive Rock has been rehabilitated and not just rehabilitated, but it has been reinvented by a whole generation of fans who now turn around to bands like Porcupine Tree and say hey those guys doing it first and I think that has meant that retrospectively now I can see that perhaps my protestation about not wanting to be associated with that was more to do with the perception than the reality.
I think I was probably aware of that at the time although I may not have admitted it to myself. Aligning yourself with Progressive rock at that time was a very, very dangerous game to play, but it isn’t any more. Maybe that sounds like some kind of careerist thing and perhaps it was, but it wasn’t a consciously careerist thing.
Let me get this straight, I still don’t think saying that your a Prog Rock act is maybe the greatest thing you can say if you want mainstream attention, but let’s just say that the prejudice against it has certainly diminished significantly, significantly. Bands like Elbow come out and saying they were listening to Genesis when they were kids and all of that stuff gradually goes away this stupid, stupid prejudice.
So I think at the time perhaps in a more careerist way I was aware that it would’ve been a mistake to… That’s a very convoluted answer to your question, but it’s not an easy question to answer!
It’s going to make good reading though
Well I hope so and I hope people kind of acknowledge that. Maybe some people won’t remember about 15 years ago, I mean when I started my career in No Man and later with Porcupine Tree, it was the worst, the most reviled music – largely by the media. But also by a lot of people who consider themselves to be music fans and listen across a lot of genres would still not go anywhere near what they perceived as Progressive Rock. Unless you’ve lived through that era as a musician or as a journalist, or whatever you’ve done, you cannot possibly understand how much things have changed. And it’s great.
I’m thinking back to the 80s and 90s – I call them the wilderness years – of course you had Marillion, but at that time I saw them as a bit of a Genesis clone. Looking back I think they were rather good.
Yeah, you had Marillion and I liked them too at the time, but they were hated by the music press. Sounds liked them and Kerrang liked them.
They were still pretty successful though
They were very successful, but only when they kind of started to incorporate more popular elements, and I think they did it very well. I think they are one of the few Progressive Rock bands that have ever managed to make the leap from Progressive music to more mainstream, popular music. It’s a very hard trick to pull off because most Progressive Rock fans view any sort of move like that with extreme suspicion.
Yes, absolutely, but I don’t that’s necessarily true, I think some bands have done it very well and they’re one of the few. So they straddled that divide very well, during a very brief window when it seemed possibl. But it emerged that they were a one-off, no one else came through in their wake. Some tried, no-one else was able to pull it off.
Not on that scale, that’s for sure
Yes, sorry, not on that scale.
Well IQ are still going strong
I remember that name at that time, I might even have seen them at that time as I was a young kid going to see a lot of bands. I remember that there were a number of bands that actually got deals, maybe they were one of them? I remember Pallas got a deal, also with EMI, and made an album which bombed horribly and I think at that point the major record companies realised that Marillion were a freak, a one-off freak, and that was the end of that. Then Marillion had a hit with Kayleigh, which was a kind of much more populist sound. But anyway, getting back to your original point, the 80’s certainly was a bad time and the 90’s I think even worse, up until the aforementioned Radiohead.
Then we had Dream Theater came along and made quite a big splash
You see, you say that, but I’d never heard of Dream Theater until probably long, long into the Millenium…
Until Jordan called you?
Until Mike actually rang and said “Do you want to come and support us?”, and I don’t think I’d heard of them, or if I had I thought they were some kind of American Heavy Metal band. I didn’t particularly like what I heard, and I still don’t really. I don’t think American Progressive Rock has been anywhere near as successful as European Progressive music; I’m still to this day waiting to hear an Amercian Progressive Rock band that I think have got anywhere near the creativity and charm of the European counterparts. I think they approach it from a different point of view, more kind of technical, Berkely Music School point of view, but that was never the point about it for me.
In fact, very often for me, some of the best Progressive music was made by non-musicians, think of somebody like Roger Waters, great conceptualist, Peter Gabriel, again a great conceptualist, not a great musician, but fantastic at coming up with extraordinary ideas.
So I was never really aware of them, when did they come through?
1992 was their breakthrough year with the single of Pull Me Under
Weren’t they pushed more as a kind of AOR FM rock band?
Maybe, but at the time I saw them by chance on MTV one day and my jaw just hit the floor. I liked it and I’d never heard anything like it before, they went their own way, less commercial actually
I don’t know any of the early stuff, but I get why people like it – for what they do I can imagine that there could be nothing better, tremendous musicianship, production valus and everything, but I’m a non-musician and I like non-musicians making music. I’m more interested in Brian Eno than I am in Stevie Vai, that’s where my tastes lie.
But yes, I wasn’t really aware of them, but I guess in a way that they were were flying the flag in the 90s
That’s quite interesting though because you look at some of the more recent Porcupine Tree stuff it’s quite technical in places, you’re not messing around there
It’s not really technical, to be honest maybe probably sounds like it. Listen, I can’t write technical music…
Well it does sounds pretty technical
I think so, but maybe is Gavin
Yeah maybe it’s Gavin makes it sound more technical than it is. I can’t do technical music, I don’t particularly like technical music. I like things to be interesting and thought-provoking, and I like polyrhythms. I like things that perhaps play around with rather than just the basic 4/4 rhythm. I like things in 5/4; the opening track tonight is in 21, but to be honest it took a musician to tell me it was in 21. I wrote it and then: “What time signature is that in? I don’t know you tell me”, and then they kind of work it out and tell me.
I guess I’m coming at it with some kind of idiot-savant perspective, Making music that *sounds* complicated, but I’m not trained I’m not writing it to be complicated and just writing what sounds good to me.
So you were just born with it?
Well I listen to quite a lot of music that is quite polyrhythmic and perhaps complicated, and I like some of that music. So naturally it becomes part of my musical vocabulary, without necessary understanding why.
Despite all of this, you’ve had quite tremendous commercial success and you’ve got a pretty large, and loyal fan base. Why do you think this has come about, other than perhaps the fact that you write a good tune?
Well, I think that’s the answer. I think that probably at the end of the day I value melody quite high and I like good songs, I also like complicated musical journeys, but I don’t see the two as musically exclusive. I think this again comes back to… if you look back at the original wave of 70s Progressive Rock bands, the ones that have endured the best are actually the ones that were the least technical musically and wrote the best melodies. Pink Floyd are the quintessential Progressive Rock band for many people and there’s nothing complicated about their music great melodies, great atmosphere, great texture, great emotional resonance to the lyrics and the vocal parts.
And I think, for example I think we’re one of the only bands associated with the whole scene where you see a lot of girls in the audience and I think that again this is testament to the fact that women tend to respond more to the emotional and lyrical content, guys are the ones responding more to technical complexity and musicianship, and in a way I’ve always liked the combination of both, in a way. But also, I think the other answer to your question is that I work very hard. 20 years now and you say wide commercial success? I still consider my music to be very much underground it’s not in the mainstream; you won’t hear it on the radio, you won’t see it on MTV…
I remember seeing an article about Porcupine Tree on BBC main website so there is some breakthrough
Occasionally there will be something that pops into the mainstream, but then compare that to say most other stars of music, a band like that will emerge and suddenly he will see them everywhere. There’ll be booked on all the big festivals, MTV on heavy rotation, programmed on all the radio stations, Pitchfork will be giving them front covers, Blender magazine, Revolver, but every single thing that we have achieved has been done with a lot of hard work.
And a lot of investment, not just financial investment but emotional investment, physical investment in terms of constantly going out and touring, building and building and building. People say I’m a workaholic, but I think I had to be, I had to be just to get to this stage now.
Are you now in a position where you can do whatever you want from an artist perspective, without having to worry about it too much?
I think I’ve been in that position for a while, probably I think since the early albums with Gavin: In Absentia and Deadwing. Porcupine Tree started to ignore any… Because we signed to Atlantic around that time and the funny thing is one of the great ironies, going back to one of the earlier points, is that when we signed to Atlantic I think the immediate reaction of our fan base was “now they’re going to sell out”. And we actually did the opposite we made In Absentia, which I think was one of our most ambitious and one of our best records. I think at that time I just really started making records for me, well I say that but I think I’ve always, I think I’m incapable of making records anybody for anyone else than myself.
That was actually my next question, why do you make music and who is it for
Well yes, but the thing it that you do make music of course to share. I think there’s a natural element to human nature that if you make something that you really believe in, there’s a natural impulse to want to share it and have people feel the same way about it as you do. Not everyone has that, but I think that for most people that create art, the natural inclination is to have an exhibition – if you’re a painter, to make a movie and haven’t released at the cinemas if you’re a filmmaker and to have an album to sell as many copies as you can if you’re a musician.
But, there is a point at which you start to think in those terms and that point should never be reached at any time during the creative process. The creative process should be completely selfish and in a kind of vacuum from that from those considerations. Okay, once you’ve finished the album then you sit down with the record company and say: okay how can we sell this, what we got here to work with? Is there anything we can put on the radio? No, okay so that’s forget that , maybe we can do a streaming clip on the Internet instead…
So I’m very aware that you have to think in that way, but I don’t let it impede, or at least I don’t think I ever let it come into the creative side.
Musically, what fulfils you, what makes a good album from your point of view?
That’s simple from me, I don’t like generic music…
Four Chords that Made a Million…!
Yeah… Well that wasn’t one of my best songs, but I like the sentiment of it. If I hear a piece of music and I can immediately recognise the genre, the influences involved, then it’s kind of boring to me. If I hear something that’s like “I don’t know what the hell that is, where’s that come from?”, then probably it would draw me and even though I may not like it first time I hear it. The famous example I give, I don’t know if you know the record, but the first time I heard Trout-Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart. The first time you hear that record it’s like, what the hell is that? And it’s the quintessential record like that because it is the product of an extraordinary imagination and it sounds superficially like they’ve got no clue what they’re doing. But there’s something about it that drew me in, as many people find with that record, and maybe listen to it a second, third or fourth time and then it clicks. I like records like that and to be honest it gets harder and harder to find those records, but I still to find them occasionally. Things that blow me away.
With your shift towards more experimental music, do you fear that you may lose some of your fans along the way?
Do I fear it, yes. Do I let it stop me? No. I think… actually here’s what I believe: as soon as you have anything that you could call a solid fan base, whether it’s a hundred people or a hundred thousand people, at that point it doesn’t matter what you do, you disappoint some of those people. The reason for that is that most people, not everyone, but most people will never love an album by the artist they like as much as the one they discovered that band with, or from the same period.
Take Porcupine Tree for example, for the people that discovered that band with In Absentia or Deadwing, nothing we ever do will match up to that. The people that discovered Porcupine Tree with Signify, nothing will ever quite match; they might quite like the other albums, but they will always say “I discovered you with Signify, I really love that album”. That’s normal, I have the same thing with artists I like.
There’s a certain amount of nostalgia I think?
It’s partly nostalgia and it’s partly that for something to turn you on to band the first place, it must connect with you on such a deep level. At that point you have a point of reference for that band so everything is now compared to the album that turned you on to that band in the first place. So I think in a kind of philosophical way I accept that every album I make will disappoint some people and for some people it will be a new discovery – they’ll discover my music for the first time and that may become their favourite album of mine, and some people will consider it to be up to my standard; “yes he’s definitely made a record that’s up to his standard “, you know?
And I think know that I accept that now, and I think the other thing that’s important to know about is this – because of the way that the music industry works, we’re always focused on a current release of an artist, but actually if you go forward in time then we retrospectively look at an artist as a continuum of work. For example, Neil Young. Neil Young has released 45 years worth of work; some of his albums are terrible and some are masterpieces, but you look at the whole Neil Young continuum of work and it’s a great body of work.Bob Dylan is another example, very kind of patchy.
There’s always a tendency to think of an artist’s releases an album that we don’t like then you write them off, but very often those artistss can come back with something very precious. The reason I’m saying this is that I accept that at my art and my creativity tends to move around a lot musically. This current work for example, Grace for Drowning, it’s definately much more appealing to old-school Progressive Rock fans, the metal fans didn’t like it at all. The opposite it’s true with an album like Fear of a Blank Planet, the Progressive Metal fans loved it, but the old school Prog fans said it was far too simplistic and adolescent sounding; well maybe not quite as pompous as that, well maybe some of them were…
So there’s a sense in that… I told you I talked a lot… And this is another very convoluted answer to your question, which is basically that I accept now, 20 years into my career, I accept that no matter what I do some people will be disappointed.
I started with Stupid Dream in ’99, but my favorite Porcupine Tree is Fear of a Blank Planet.
So that disproves my theory…
Do you have any roadmap, endgame or master plan with your music, or are you just going where your creativity leads you?
Yeah, pretty much, I don’t try… let’s just say I have no idea what is going to happen in my life between now and when I come to write the record I don’t know where I’m going to travel, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know what people I’m going to meet, I don’t know what music I’m going to discover, I don’t know what movies I’m going to see, and all of these things are the food, if you like, for the output the input to provide the output; I guess it’s that way for most people.
So it’s a hard to have a road-plan when you don’t have a road-plan for you life. Music is a direct, or it should be in my view direct kind of mirror of your life – your emotional state, your circumstances, your thoughts, your ideas, or things that piss you off, things that make you happy at that given moment in time. Now how can I say what’s pissing me off and make me happy in two or three years time? I can’t. Now as it stands I’ve actually already written most of the next solo record, which is my next major project so can talk about that, but what I can’t talk about of course the one I’ve yet to write.
Yeah of course, of course I think probably every writer does. Not just a parody, but musically speaking I think you always have the fear of the blank page. I sit down today, with a blank page, and I want to create something from nothing to start the ball rolling with a new project. Is there anything going to come out? Is there anything left to say? Is there anything I haven’t already done? And I think that in a way, those negative thoughts become positive thoughts because they push you in new directions, at least that’s the way it works of me.
I think that every ten songs that I write, nine well maybe not songs, but ideas that I come up with, maybe a chord sequence or a lyric, nine of them I throw away because I realise I’ve already done that. It may not be that they were bad, but they just felt like they were retreading territory that I’ve already visited. Some fans would prefer that but I did that, they want me to do the same record – back to their favourite album again which you could never do again so of course it’s pointless. I think that there is a need that very, not unique to me, but it’s definitely something that perhaps puts me out of step sometimes with the fans is the fact that I’m not interested in doing the same record again; I want to do something completely different, and in a way kind of confront the expectations that they have.
So this idea of becoming a parody of yourself, or repeating what you’ve done before it’s kind of an ugly idea to me.
Talking of producing things that are unexpected, Storm Corrosion has just come out
Well yeah, that’s a perfect example of doing the opposite of what people may expect. Not just what people expect, but what people wanted; some people wanted a Progressive metal supergroup, but I’m not interested.
Maybe they got some idea after hearing Heritage and Grace for Drowning…
I think it did, I think some people were primed, but you know there’re still some people who are going on the website and saying “What the fuck is this? Were’s all the Progressive Metal riffs?”, but again like I said you earlier, it doesn’t matter what you do, you will always disappoint some people.
Is Storm Corrosion likely to be a one-off, or are there still some creative juices to flow?
I think it’s very unlikely that myself and Mikael will not at least try to do something else together, because we had a great time doing this record and it wasn’t a struggle, the music came quite easily. So I will be very surprised if we wouldn’t at least try to do something, if not a follow-up to Storm Corrosion then something completely different, but I’m sure we’ll definitely write together again.
After hearing it a couple of times, I got the impression that it was closer to Heritage than Grace for Drowning
You see, lots of people have said the opposite and I think that’s kind of testament to the fact that the albums are kind of connected. Lots of people are said to me that it sounds like Grace for Drowning and that they don’t hear enough of Mikael in it and some people said the opposite. I think the bottom line is that in fact it is pretty much fifty-fifty between the two. It’s funny how people hear things in different ways. But then some people come to it from the perspective of being an Opeth fan, some people come to it from being the perspective of being my fan and so everyone has an agenda. Of course some people know are familiar with both of our catalogues.
For me, when I hear it, I hear it very much as fifty-fifty.
It has a real feeling of menace about it. Sounds a bit corny, but it makes me think of some of the old Hammer Horror films not the Dracula films, but the more creepy satanic ones.
Well that’s interesting because Mikael and I watched some Hammer Horror stuff. The visual and cinematic influences were very important to us; we were always watching stuff before we were going to make music and we did watch some old episodes of Hammer House of Horror, the 80s TV series. You can pick up box sets of the whole DVD’s under 10 quid and some of the episodes are pretty fantastic.
Generally you deal with dark themes in your music: despair, depression, loss and death. Not just lyrically, but indeed in the soundscapes you create. Where is all that coming from?
I think its a natural thing for human beings to have some kind of interest, if not obsession with mortality. I think one of the reasons we get depressed and we become unhappy at certain points in our lives, is that we know that we only have a limited amount of time. I believe we’re the only species on earth that is aware of our own mortality. There’s nothing to tell me that my little doggy, for example, knows that one day she’s going to die and that’s wonderful for her, because it means that every day is not measured against: What have I achieved? Am I happy? Have I met the right girl? Should I have kids? Should I not have kids? Is it too late? Dah-de-dah-de-dah-de-dah… And these are the things that tend to ultimately make us miserable.
Yeah, not living in the present basically
Yes and measuring, why aren’t I happy? Is it too late? Am I running out of time? All these things, it’s a terrible burden to carry for the human race, which is largely why were so fucked-up. And I think that one of the great things about being able to create something, whether it’s music, painting or film, a book or whatever it is, is that you can use them as a kind of exorcism of those kinds of fears. Some people do with sport, some people play squash or go to the gym.
I think one of the advantages of being a creative person is that you can pour all of that misery and scorn, and anger, and melancholy, and depression into songs. And that’s what I do. So consequently my music gives the impression that that is me, and it is me, but it’s only the part of me that you hear in the music because in a way, getting that out in a kind of cathartic way means that I can allow more of the other side of me into my personal life.
So people sometimes don’t understand how I can be like that…
Well I can latch on to that because I personally find melancholic music very uplifting
I’ve always said the most sad music it is actually the most beautiful…
Hammill is a master of it as well
And he’s actually quite a happy, jolly chap! And I think that’s another thing, you talked about sad music being uplifting and that’s also down to the fact that what the sad music tell us? It tells us that we’re not alone in feeling these things. It makes us feel like we are part of a collective consciousness and were not isolated in feeling shit. Or feeling depressed or feeling angry.
Consequently and conversely I think that happy music to make you feel really miserable, I just don’t feel like this, it’s making me more depressed. Sometimes happy music or spiritual music, for instance take some of the Beach Boys songs, some of those are really wonderful, so I like Isn’t sometimes, even Hammill’s written happy songs, he’s written a song called “happy”. But I think at the wrong time it can make you even more depressed
Given all the cinematic influence and feel that your music often has, have you ever considered doing a proper soundtrack?
Well you have to be commissioned to do a proper soundtrack…
I suppose you have to make yourself available?
Well I’ve tried and I’d love to, I think most musicians would…
For a horror film I guess?
Not necessarily a horror film, but something that would suit the darker edges. I look at some relationships that some directors have now with musicians, the relationship Trent Reznor has this relationship with David Fincher. I love the soundtracks he’s dome for Social Network and and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and for me that’s a perfect combination of image and sound they seem to fit together perfectly together, musician and film maker. But there aren’t many opportunities like that available really.
I could imagine your work would fit very well with some of the early David Lynch films
Well David Lynch is the guy that a lot of musicians would love to work with. David Lynch does a lot of his own soundtracks. I think it’s one of those things where you just have to wait until the director happens to be a fan of yours and invites you, and that’s how it was with David Fincher, he was a fan of Nine-Inch Nails and invited Trent.
And also Sofia Coppola when she did virgin suicides she was a fan of Air so she got them to do that amazing soundtrack. So I’ve never been invited is the simple answer is of course I am up to it.
The word is out that Porcupine Tree is on ice for the moment?
Yes we’re not doing anything right now.
Is it just a pause or is it over? People are asking the question…
I think that’s way too a melodramatic way of putting it, I wouldn’t see the point of doing anything so dramatic as saying it’s finished, because it hasn’t it’s, more of a hiatus.
Is this so unusual? Eeeeerm, no we haven’t broken up, we’re not talking about making another record right now, there’s nothing sinister about that. I’m not quite sure what people want to hear, but the band has not broken up.
You have become one of the most revered and influential people in the Prog world, I guess you know that?
I don’t think there’s a lot of competition is there? In terms of people actively working?
Well you seem to be in demand for this Midas touch you has every thing you’re involved with does very well. Like a seal of quality, if Steven Wilson has’s his name against it. How does that make you feel as a person?
I’m not necessarily aware of that, if that’s true then it’s very flattering. I have worked hard and I work on a lot of things. I was being a little bit facetious when I said there wasn’t a lot of competition, of course I know there are a lot of other very wonderful musicians out there working, but I don’t think there are a lot of musicians like me, that have spanned the original Progressive Rock world and the contemporary Progressive Rock world. So I think what happened when I started to get involved in King Crimson, Jethro Tull and those kind of bands, I became more accepted by the community as a whole. I think they saw that has some kind of seal of approval; if Robert Fripp would let me work on Crimson’s Lizard…
So suddenly I kind of rose a little bit more in prestige with the older school Progressive Rock fans who perhaps before that had seen me as some kind of charlatan. I don’t know, I’m hypothesizing now. That’s probably helped my standing a little bit.
But also there aren’t too many people who stand up today and say I play Progressive Rock that get into the top 40: Dream Theater, Opeth, my stuff, is there anyone else? And so I think I wasn’t perhaps been completely facetious when I said there’s not much competition that isn’t a lot of people that are at a flying the flag in a very unapologetic way in the mainstream and saying “I play Progressive rock and its fucking great!”
How did all this re-mastering come about, did Bob Fripp just give you a call one day?
Not quite the opposite, it was the managers that put us together because he was sceptical. I thought it would be great, so I was keen and there was a manager involved who was managing Robert at the time and he said, “You know what Steven Wilson would like to do your stuff in 5.1” and Robert said “No, I’m not interested in that, that’s a lot of rubbish and it’s gimmicky”.
I said to this manager, why don’t you get me the tapes of one of the albums and I’ll do a couple of test tracks for him. I knew he’d love it. I new he’d love it because I know that anyone who hears their music and 5.1, if it’s done with sympathy and I mean in a sympathetic way it can’t fail to love it. It sounds great, suddenly your music is in three dimensions when before it was only in two.
I’ve never heard 5.1
It’s fantastic I mean it’s like going from mono to stereo, but more so because you go from two stereo speakers to 5 speakers. I do say with the caveat that has to be done by someone who really loves the music, I’ve heard some remixes done by people who clearly were employed by record marketing men, who had no sympathy for the music and did kind of hack-jobs. And because I love the music so much and because I know it better than they do. I say that in respect of most Progressive Rock fans that I know the music better than the people that made it do, because the the people that made it haven’t listened to it 40 years. I haven’t listened to my albums in years, unless I have to remaster one of my old albums I would never listen to it.
So I’m taking on an album like Lizard or Islands, which Robert hasn’t listened to in 40 years, and has got this idea in his head that it was a failure and I’m playing it to him and saying “Robert listen to this album again in 5.1 that I’ve lovingly kind of come to as a fan” and one of the greatest vindications from me was having Robert Fripp acknowledge, retrospectively that Lizard is an important piece of work in his catalogue, and not as he previously said, an unlistenable mess. But I think it took somebody like me who is a fan and an apologist for that album to actually bring that kind of love to it.
In doing these remasters…
Re-mixes, I don’t do re-masters…
Sorry re-mixes… you’ve been listening to these albums probably more and in more detail than maybe anybody’s ever listen to it
And I still love it, is your question going to be: have I lost my love for it?
No the opposite actually, did you discover things, did you learn something for yourself?
Totally, absolutely. Everything I do in terms of collaborating with other artists I do because I want to take something from it too; which is kind of selfish in a way. For example, I would never be interested in just being hired by some group of young kids who just want to sound sonically more impressive, but to me the music is not that different from what I do and believe me I get a lot of requests are those kinds of things, bands getting the demos “hey, we are really influenced by Porcupine Tree, would you like to produce us?”. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to be involved in some kind of copy of my own work?
So the projects I take on are the projects that I think I can learn something from myself, whether it’s working with a death metal band in the shape of Opeth 12 years ago, or working with Crimson or Jethro Tull, Anathema and the like. These bands that I think are great and I think are very different to what I do, although not completely different, but in the sense I think they have their own style and I can steal all their ideas 🙂
Any more re-masters in the pipe?
I don’t do re-mastering
Shit, you got me again. Okay, cure my ignorance what’s the difference?
Remastering is when you take the existing mix of an album, you can add a little bit of treble… it’s like what you can do on your own stereo. You can take a CD off the shelf, into your own player and using the treble and bass controls on your amplifier you can change the tone of it, that’s mastering. That’s all mastering is. Well that’s not entirely all mastering is, one aspect of mastering is EQ; treble, bass, midrange, the other aspect of mastering is compression and limiting, to try and give the impression that something is more powerful and punchy – or not. I’m actually moving away from this, Storm Corrosion was unmastered, I didn’t do any mastering because I didn’t want any of that bullshit going on and I wanted to retain all the dynamics.
That’s killed a lot of records these days…
Yeah it’s gone too far. There’s a swing back in the opposite direction now which is great, it is better for music. So that’s mastering, that’s all mastering is. I think there’s a lot of people that think mastering is some kind of black art, but all it is, you’re adding treble, bass, midrange.
Mixing is going back to the original multitracked tapes where you have bass-drum separate from the snare-drum, separate from the guitar, separate from the bass, vocals and without any of the effects: reverberation, echo, compression, EQ and you can start to mix the ingredients together again in a completely fresh and contemporary way. But the way I approach it is that I don’t want to modernise the music, I want to be faithful to it, but with the added benefit of modern sonic clarity.
So what’s the end-goal?
Sonic clarity. When I do the new stereo mix, because with most of these projects the surround mix is part of a package, which also includes a new stereo mix. With the stereo mix I’m just want the music to have a bit more air around it. With digital now you can get that.
Aqualung for example which originally most people acknowledge was a very poor mix; it was very muddy, the drums were very sort of muffled, the bass was not there in the mix, so those are things that we could fix in the re-mix. We got more presence in the bass and drums have more clarity, the cymbals are louder – you can hear the clarity in the cymbal work, the guitar is a little bit louder. All of those little things, but they’re not things that fundamentally changed the mix. I’m not going to say “you know what I don’t like this guitar it doesn’t work lets take it out, then you know let’s put the vocal on the left of the speaker because in the original it was in the middle”. I’m not about that, I’m more – okay where have they got the vocal on the original mix let’s match it. How loud is the guitar in the original mix? Let’s try and get close to that and those are the things that a fan would consider. I’m a fan and I don’t want to change what’s painted in the Sistine chapel I just want to clean it up a bit.
Your original question: have I got anything else in the pipe? Well I’ve just done the first two ELP albums ELP and Tarkus, they’re coming out in July. Yes there are other things, but those are the only two things I can talk about right now.
You could do with working on some of the old Yes albums, Relayer for instance, lovely album, sounds crap
What happens now?
Well there’s a further solo album, well actually we did film a show in Mexico two weeks ago so I have to edit that for DVD blu-ray, but then after that it will be pretty much all about the next solo record.
Steven now chose five of his favourite songs from his body of work and described what made them special to him – you can hear this on Andy Read’s DPRP Radio show.
Thank you very much Steven
And you’ve just given one hour of your very precious time to DPRP
Well at least now I really do know who you guys are!