STEVEN WILSON: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
(Photo borrowed from MusicPlayers.com)
They say “never meet your heroes.” I don’t think they say anything about interviewing them.
For decades now, Steven Wilson and his many projects have been consistent sources of inspiration and joy to music lovers, audiophiles, and regular people alike. Like many musical masterminds, Mr. Wilson prefers to let his work speak for itself, but that isn’t to say he’s ever been short for words. In the intimate 20 minutes I had to speak with him it became clear that there was far more to the scruffy, bespectacled man in the blurry photos than I’d been led to believe. Steven is a relentlessly thoughtful and honest individual whose words deserve every bit as much attention as the impressive music he creates.
To start off, I wanted to wish you a very belated congratulations on the new release. It’s apparent almost immediately that this is a very different record than Insurgentes in terms of style, production and content. Could you talk a little bit about what drove this departure?
Thank you. I think the main difference between Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning is the core of where the music is rooted. In the case of Insurgentes, that album was very much rooted in my love of the music that I grew up with and that was actually happening at the time in the ’80s, the so-called post punk bands (the Cure, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance). My music then started from my love for that music. This new music comes from my love of the music that I went back and discovered – going back into the ’70s and late ’60s and discovering music from the so-called original explosion of progressive rock. No one called it progressive rock at the time, but the generation of bands that came out of the post Sgt. Pepper explosion in creative, ambitious album-oriented music. The root of Insurgentes was in the ’80s and the root of Grace for Drowning was the early 70s. You can’t imagine a more different — in terms of two decades next to each other — two decades being more different musically and philosophically than the ’70s and ’80s. I think that’s why the records sound so distinctively different from each other.
I was going to say that even though it does have that seemingly earlier King Crimson influence in some places. The songs themselves sound very modern to me, which is maybe some of your external influences. One thing that I was going to ask you about is that it seems that in general there is a little bit of a fusion influence on some of the songs. Is there a certain degree to which they were improvised more than other projects?
Yes, lots of improvisation on this record. I think that you’re right to the point of the influence of jazz music, because the thing about jazz is that you don’t put a jazz solo in the middle of his solo. You don’t say to a jazz soloist “oh we only have 8 bars for this solo”. The solo goes on for as long as it needs to in order to tell the story or in order to express whatever the soloist wants to express. It’s that kind of more spiritual and more loose spiritual vibe that I definitely tried to bring into Grace for Drowning. The solos tend to run on a bit longer, they are improvised, there’s a lot of instrument interplay between the instruments, and the songs have less defined structure. They are allowed to breathe a little bit more.
As far as the King Crimson influence, I would say only on two tracks, but there is a strong influence on the long piece from Crimson. Again, that comes from that early ’70s explosion of . . . what’s so nice about that period is that there’s a lot of crossover between the world of jazz and rock music particularly in the early ’70s. Jazz bands were doing rock music for the first time and rock musicians were taking on more jazz music for the first time. At the end of the day, that’s really what I’m trying to do – get a little bit of that feeling back again. You don’t hear a lot in music these days that has that jazz spirituality. It’s like jazz has been erased from the fabric of modern rock music, and I miss it. I really miss it because all the music that I really love has that inspiration from jazz as well as rock.
Very cool. Along those lines: what are some of your . . . if you had to pick just a couple or maybe one of the sprawling collection, what tracks are you most personally proud of on Grace for Drowning?
Wow, that’s hard.
[Laughs] It’s a good album.
I’m so proud of it as a whole. In many ways I don’t look at albums as individual tracks. I look at them as musical journeys. It’s hard to pick them apart, but if I had to I would pick definitely the song called “Index” that I’m really proud of. It’s a long piece that’s kind of a landmark for me. There’s a song called “Remainder of the Black Dog” which is very dark, quite complex, and quite long with lots of inspiration from jazz music as well as rock music. I think those songs are my top picks from this record. There is also “Belle de Jour” which I’m really proud of. It’s a short instrumental but it’s very beautiful.
It’s funny that “Index” came to mind first because listening through the promo with some friends, “Index” immediately stood out. It’s a really cool song.
I’m really proud of that one.
You also mentioned something interesting on how you view albums as an entire journey and not just a little piece of this and that. One question that I was going to ask you that I think goes along with that is that you’ve long made yourself a critic or doubter of the iPod generation and the creature comforts that seem to facilitate the disconnect between people in our high-tech age. I can probably guess, but I’m curious to hear, what you think about Spotify and the streaming direction that music seems to be heading towards.
Obviously this is a very difficult area because it’s very complex. The thing is with what we might call download culture and streaming culture is that there are a lot of positives about it in that a lot of music is now very easily accessible to a lot of people in a way that it never was when I was a kid. It was a struggle to find a particularly experimental piece of music. It was really difficult to come across experimental music or to hear it. Now it’s very easy for kids or anyone to go online and hear anything from Frank Zappa to Miles Davis to Bauhaus or whatever you want to name. From the most extremely experimental music to the most mainstream music, it’s probably easy to find on the internet with a few clicks. You have to say that that is a good thing.
The downside to making things too easy boils down to something much more fundamental about the human condition that is, and I believe this, things that come too easily to human beings, human beings don’t really appreciate. It’s the things that we have to fight for that we tend to appreciate more and we tend to immerse ourselves in more. I think we live in a world where so much is easily available from music to information or whatever you want to use or say, it’s probably easily accessible now. The world doesn’t get any smarter. The world gets dumber and dumber and more and more shallow. It seems to become more and more about convenience and less about art and individuality. I think this is something fundamental to humanity that we need to fight for things to feel that they are special. I think to take the microcosm of music, there is more available to more people more easily for less money than ever before. Does the music get any better? No, it’s actually getting worse. New music is getting more generic, more banal, and blander. I look to the ’70s when music seemed to be absolutely [Inaudible]. It was hard to make music. You had to really commit yourself to it. The people listening to that music had to go out and invest in records, take them home and immerse themselves in the music. Now it’s far too easy with things like Spotify to stream an album and listen to one song – not even one, just listen to the first couple of seconds and go “oh, I don’t like the sound of that” and never listen to it again. The reason you’re never going to listen to it again is because you’ve made no investment in it at all. You’ve made no investment in time, energy or money. When you’ve made no investment in something, you have no real stake in it. You have no real commitment to getting whatever it is that you might be able to get out of it. You dismiss it in a couple of songs and that’s the problem for me. With my music, because I think my records are the kind of records that you have to listen to 3, 4, 5 or 10 times before you can even begin to get what you’re going to get out of them. Spotify and downloading doesn’t encourage that kind of commitment or that kind of investment in time and energy to anything.
There’s your answer.
I thought that what you said about humanity having to fight for its own importance was really beautiful. I definitely agree with that point that it’s here right now, it might be a 77 minute album and I don’t like minute 1, forget it.
That’s the problem.
Switching gears just a little bit because I want to get as much of the collective Steven Wilson experience in there before you have to take the stage: you have, in your career, become almost as well-known as a producer given your production résumé with Opeth, Orphaned Land, and Anathema (those are just a handful). You’ve become almost as well-known as a producer as you have as a musician. How is it that you seek out a new client or how is it that a potential client catches your ear?
The simple answer is that these jobs, if I can call them “jobs”, don’t seem like work to me. They are a lot of fun. I don’t really go out and seek them. One of the byproducts of establishing myself with my own records is that I seem to, for whatever reason, get a reputation as someone who appreciates sonic quality and sonic excellence in my records. That’s true. That’s one of the most important things to me, sometimes (it can be said) to the detriment of the songwriting. The production quality and this idea of the album as a musical journey and a musical experience became very important to me and other people started to notice that on my records. They started to come to me and asked me to help them with their records. I very naturally fell into that. I must really enjoy that because at the end of the day, what I love most of all is producing. I enjoy writing, but there’s nothing that I love more than going into a studio and beginning to play with sound, having ideas and appraising those ideas and making everything sound sonically satisfying. People began to come to me about 10 years ago and that continues to build because the more records that I do, the more recognition I get for being the person to go to if you want that kind of sound. That’s great because I love doing it. I never want it to take over from making my own records because my passion is still to create the music, write the music, play the music and produce the music. As a byline to that, I absolutely adore working with other musicians. One of the great things about my job is collaboration. Travelling to other countries to meet other musicians and to work with other musicians from other cultures, countries and backgrounds is the spice of life. I’m having a ball.
Excellent. That’s very cool. I have a little bit of a quirky question for you. A buddy of mine, not so long ago (maybe two years ago), saw Porcupine Tree in New York. I think he had a copy of Stupid Dream that he was interested in getting signed. I think, allegedly, on his behalf, he said you made a comment that it was a Russian bootleg. So there are obviously phony copies of your music circulating and popping up in possibly legitimate sources. Has this been a problem for the band? Is this something that you encounter very often or is this just a freak thing that happened?
Yeah. I wouldn’t say that it’s a big problem. It’s a much bigger problem for much bigger bands than Steven Wilson or Porcupine Tree. I think it’s a problem for everyone. Russia has become the center of pirating of CDs and DVDs or anything in fact. Some of them seem to make their way, I guess through eBay, into other countries too. I’ve seen a few over the years, but I’m not going to say that it’s a big problem because it’s not. I’ve seen maybe a handful of these copies over the last few years. In a way, it’s quite flattering that someone would consider you worthwhile to bootleg or pirate. It’s annoying when someone brings you what is clearly a pirated copy. It’s not the same quality printing or pressing that you have from a legitimate copy. That’s kind of irritating.
Sure. I would love to make records with people like Trent Reznor. I’m a big Trent Reznor fan. He’s someone that I’ve admired for a long time as a producer. He’s been a big inspiration to me. Beyond that I think I would like to collaborate not with a musician but with a film maker. I would love to score a movie. I would love to be in a position where I could sit down and work with a director on creating a soundtrack to a film. I would say that at the moment that would be on the list of unrealized dreams, to be in a position to create a movie soundtrack. A couple of directors I would love to work with are people like David Lynch or Christopher Nolan. I’m kind of hoping that one day that I will get the opportunity to do that.
Very cool. That definitely seems to be a direction in which music is heading – the multimedia universe. That’s really the bulk of the questions that I had. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I hope that everyone will get the chance to listen to the Grace for Drowning album if they haven’t already because I’ve worked very hard on making a very spectacular work of multimedia experience of film and music. There’s a fantastic band that I have working with me. We’ll start the second leg of the tour early next year coming back to America and doing the West Coast next time. I hope you all get a chance to come out and see the show and hear the record if you haven’t already.
Excellent. That was one thing that I wanted to hint on, what people who haven’t yet seen the show could expect from the tour. I know it’s now an “Evening with Steven Wilson.” You mentioned that it wasn’t going to be supported with nationally touring acts.
It’s not really a rock and roll show. It’s a show. I don’t know how to explain it really. It’s an experience. When you come into the concert hall at the beginning of the evening, there’s already something happening visually and musically that’s all part of the experience. It’s really been conceived as a multimedia experience as a show. It’s a little bit unconventional in that respect. It’s certainly deliberately so.