Interview: Steven Wilson

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By Mark Derricutt

There's no denying that at my core, I'm a lover of progressive music - whether that means I love "prog" music or not is a question for another day, and is a topic which I touched on whilst talking to Steven Wilson the other week regarding the upcoming To The Bone show at Auckland's Bruce Mason Centre.

In the somewhat amusing spot of timing - after recording this interview, Steven won both Album of the Year and Artist of the Year at the 2018 Progressive Music Awards - the irony being how much of our conversation surrounding how it's only other people who call him a progressive musician - so let's skip the riffs and get right into the discussion:

Steven: Hello

Mark: Hi it’s Mark Derricutt from Libel Music here, good to talk to you again.

Good to speak to you to, how's it going? When did we last Speak? Just before we came last time?

Just under 2 years ago when you came out for Hand.Cannot.Erase tour

My first time to New Zealand, I remember.

How much of the show do you recall?

Um, wow, you know what? Not much… I definitely remember walking around the city a lot, but the shows themselves… the problem is a lot of the time, the shows themselves - concert venues around the world, are pretty much the same everywhere you go. Audiences can sometimes be different, but I don’t specifically remember the show - was it good?

I did photos and a review, it’s a great show. Unfortunately of the effects/video screens didn’t quite work as well with the stage lighting depending on where you were in the venue, but the music and your performance was great - and awesome to finally to see Porcupine Tree live, and the solo material.

Ok, so hopefully we fix those technical gremlins this time around.

Obviously there was enough good reception that you’re actually coming back so that's good.

Absolutely, I’m looking forward to it.

Since then we’ve had the new Blackfield album, and of course the new solo record ‘To The Bone’ which came out last year. How’s the reception of that been going down? I see there’s the continued progression to more pop oriented songs, but not sacrificing any kind of, I guess “prog” musicianship and quality…

Yeah, I think the one thing that’s worth saying right from the outset I’ve never been interested in being a generic artist. I’ve never said I was a progressive rock artist. I’ve never said I was any kind of artist. I’ve simply said ‘I make Steven Wilson music’. I think if anyone understands anything or has experienced my back catalogue - they’ll know that there have always been pop songs, singer/songwriter ballads, electronic pieces, metal tracks, jazz oriented pieces. I think what people have acknowledged tho is that there’s always been, with all of my records pretty much there's been this conceptual element, this kind of storytelling element.

So all of these different musical genres have kinda come into that, come into play, in creating these kind of musical journeys. And I think people definitely think of those things, the story telling aspect of things, it’s very much a hallmark of progressive rock. So it doesn’t seem to matter what I do, people still see me as that kind of artist.

Now that’s fair enough, I kind of expect that and I’ve come to terms with that a long time ago, but I have NEVER said I was a progressive rock artist. Other people have TOLD me I’m a progressive rock artist, so when people get upset if I’ve done a pop song, and some people (a very small minority) with “To The Bone” got upset that there was more of a pop sensibility, then my only response is that is ‘you should have expected this’ because I never said I was any kind of artist in the first place.

So the answer to your question is - “To The Bone” has done phenomenally well for me,. It’s by far the best selling record of my career, and in an era when record sales are in decline, I have to take that as an incredibly positive thing. And it’s also opened me up to a new audience as well because there’s a lot of people coming along to the shows that are not familiar with by history and my background as a more conceptual artist. And they might have heard “Permanating” on the radio, or “Pariah” on the radio, and just liked it and bought the record and come along. And I love that. I love the fact that the audience is broadening out, and does it really matter what kind of genre your perceived to belong to at the end of the day.

Not really I guess, Permanating was one of the songs I was actually going to call out and say was the most popiest, danciest track that I’ve heard from you - and it’s one of my favourites from the album.

Me too. And you know what? The funny thing is - whenever we do that live, it’s by far the most popular song for every show now… or at least it gets the best reaction of any song that we do. And yes - it’s probably the one that caused the most controversy when the album was released, amongst shall we say… I don’t want to disrespect these people you know, but there are some people obviously that have a very, a more shall we say ‘tunnel vision’ when it comes to what kind of music they want to listen to. And some of those people have become my fans over the years and they would like me to make a particular kind of music, and they were very upset by that song. But I think even they - when they hear it live, they kind of succumb to the infectious joy that the song has. At least I hope so.

I was going to say, that song - plus some of the other songs such as “The Same Asylum as Before”, where that is also a kind of restrained… it’s got heavy pieces that break out into craziness, but between those two songs and the whole gamut of the album - there is progression thru the album, so it’s still - progressive music, and to call out one song just seems ludicrous to me.

I think you’re right. I think that’s part of the problem with the whole concept of singles, or radio songs, now Permanating, Pariah, and Song of I were the three, and I think Same Asylum too. Those four songs came out before the album as kind of singles… well what I think of as a single isn’t really a single anymore is it. You don’t get a physical release, they were released online is what I’m trying to get at. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head - because songs in isolation, particular from an artist like me, where I think very hard about the story telling aspect of the album, the sequencing of the songs, the way an album unfolds from beginning to end. So a song like Permanating which might work perfectly in the context of a record, which may be bookended by much more intellectual and darker pieces of music - when you just take that out of context maybe to some people it sets alarm bells ringing.

But when you hear it in the context of the record, I think it does fit in very well with the flow of the record. And as you say - the whole kind of arc of the record still has something that is quintessentially progressive about it which I think is this story telling aspect, the idea that your taking the listener on some kind of journey through different moods and motions, musical textures, different lyrical subject matter, and that’s very much present on “To The Bone” as much as it has been in my work.

So the last time we spoke, there was a comment that you made several times through out our discussion that really kind of spoke to me and has stuck in my head for the last two years, and has weaved its way into how I see, even my day job with software development, it was about “whatever you put into the song it has to be in the service of the song”. It’s not just about throwing how many chords or solos we can put in if it makes the song terrible, and I was going to say The Same Asylum As Before kind of hit on that. It’s a very restrained, or constrained song that focuses on where things are going until it breaks out and then gets pulled back…

I think you’re right, and To The Bone is an album where I really tried to focus on that principle, that aesthetic because as you say, a song like The Same Asylum is quite compact. And yet there’s a lot in it, there’s a lot going on in that song. But it’s all within a 5 minute time span and so, it’s almost deceptive to look at the time and go “that’s not progressive rock because it’s only 5 minutes long”. But it fact there’s a lot going on there, there’s a lot of ambition, there’s a lot of sophistication, and there’s a lot going on in the production, the arrangement, and yet the song itself is accessible, and quite compact and you can listen to it purely as a piece of (hopefully) catchy pop music. And I love that because in a way that’s what I always aspire to.

I grew up in the 80s and I love 80s music - and I think the 80s sometimes gets a bad rap. You know because there was a lot of very, what you might call “experimental and sophisticated pop music” around in the 80s. And I think back to artists like Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk and Prince. And I loved these artists growing up as a kid and one thing I loved about them was that the songs were very accessible and very easy to enjoy, but at the same time there could be something also quite sophisticated and sometimes quite dark going on lyrically. And so in a way To The Bone was taking that model - the idea that songs could be compact, and accessible, but without having to sacrifice any of that ambition or sophistication.

So the upcoming show is on November 12, at the Bruce Mason Centre on the North Shore of Auckland, unfortunately I’ve not going to make the show which is a shame, it clashes with Def Leppard/Scorpions and I’m already booked into that.

Are they on the same bill?

Yes - Scorpions are opening for Def Leppard

Wow, ok. I can totally understand, that sounds like a great show.

Is that something that you as an artist, when shows get booked - I guess you as an artist don’t necessarily know what's happening with actual bookings or is that purely management, looking at what other shows are around that they don’t want to clash with?

I’d like to think so. Obviously it’s not me - it would be the local promoter, so the local promoter would have looked around at what else was happening and I guess they would have decided that the crossover between Steven Wilson’s audience and Def Leppard’s audience is not substantial enough for it to be an issue. And yet here you are - torn between the two shows. So there’s always going to be a few people…. I guess, you know - it’s one of those things where nowadays, I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand but certainly in London now, every night of the week there are a hundred bands playing, and inevitably you’re going to be going up against someone else for your ticket sales… your audience. And in a way that’s part of why I put so much effort into the production side of the show, because I do think that with so many artists out there touring these days, cause a lot of the time these artists are touring because they can’t sell records anymore.

So touring is where there bread and butter and their income comes from. So there’s more bands than ever touring out there these days so I kinda felt like one of the things I wanted to do with my show was make it a kinda visual spectacle as well as an audio spectacle. And try and add value to the show in that respect, because I am very much aware that people have a choice, every night of the week in London people have a choice, or every night of the week in any city people have a choice about what they’re going to spend their money on in terms of a ticket for a live show. So I’ve tried to make it something that’s more than just 5 musicians ambling on stage to play you their latest album, and definitely with the To The Bone show, it’s definitely gone up to a higher level visually than it has been before.

Right, so what can we expect from the show - mostly To The Bone material or are we going to hear older material as well?

All of the above really - it’s obviously based predominantly around To The Bone as the current record, but actually it’s a long show - it’s close to 3 hours. And you can understand from that that there’s going to be a lot of other songs from previous records, so I’m in a very fortunate position where I have a substantial back catalogue now. And one of the great things I think about my career, although it might not seem so great on the surface, but it is in a way, is that I’ve never had any hits. And one of things about not having hits is that there’s nothing that people are expecting me to play, at least that’s the way I feel.

There are people who come to the shows that want to hear their favourite songs, but I don’t have a “Purple Rain”, I don’t have a “Comfortably Numb”, you know what I mean? I’m kind of free to pick songs from across my back catalogue and a lot of it is just down to whim really. Songs that I feel that I want to play, songs that maybe I haven’t played for many years that I’d like to revive. Songs that I think would suit my current musicians, songs that I think maybe resonate well with the same subject matter of To The Bone, and all of those things come into play when I’ve selected the current set list. But it really is a journey into my back catalogue - not only my solo material, not only Porcupine Tree. I also do Blackfield, the bottom line for me is all of these songs are Steven Wilson songs, and that’s really the only criteria - if it’s something I wrote, then I feel like it’s a candidate for performance.

So you mentioned potential line up changes? Who's currently in the touring band currently?

It would have been the same as last time, except for my guitar player, cause I lost my guitar player Dave Kilminster to Roger Waters cause Roger Waters went back on the road. Dave had come from Roger’s band in the first place, so Dave went back - understandably I was unable to compete with either the wages or the number of people he would be playing to every night, so I totally understood that. So Dave is gone and I have a fantastic new guitar player - a guy called Alex Hutchins, who again is going to blow people away. He’s absolutely stunning. Otherwise my regular band - Nick Beggs on bass and stick, Adam Holzman on keyboards and Craig Blundell on drums. All exceptional world class musicians, and all of them have fans that just come along - bass players, drummers, keyboard players, guitarists just come along to see those guys play. So I’m really honoured to have them, we talked about this earlier - playing in the service to my music, it’s an incredible honour.

Cool, so I think that’s all of my questions and I don’t want to keep you too long - but what's next? The last time we spoke you’d just been finishing up the Blackfield album, and about to work on To The Bone, is there To The Bone Pt 2 coming soon or something new?

It won’t be To The Bone Pt 2 - I tell ya the next thing that’s coming is a concert film that was recorded. It’s the basic show I’m going to be presenting in New Zealand and Australia on this tour down under. It’s also going to be released as a Blu-ray DVD around 2nd November, so by the time we do the shows that will be available - and that was filmed at the Albert Hall in London during a 3 night run in March. So if people come along to the show and like it - they can immediately get a souvenir of this show, albeit filmed earlier in the year. That’s the next big thing for me, and you know I’ve already started writing for the next record. I don’t want to do To The Bone Pt 2 like I didn’t want to do Hand.Cannot.Erase Pt 2. I’m never interested in repeating myself, quite the contrary so I’m searching for a new direction, something that will excite me, and hopefully confront the expectations of the fans in a good way..

So no electronica/dubstep then?

Listen - never rule it out. I mean, I think the thing is, obviously now people are very familiar with my, whatever I do - I think it’s recognisably me. I have a musical vocabulary and I think people recognise that. So I hope they also acknowledge that within that vocabulary anything can come into play. We talked about this already, the pure pop, the songwriter aspect, the metal aspects, the jazz aspects, the ambient aspects, the more progressive aspects. I think all of these things can be a part of my music, and electronic music has been there right from the beginning.

I wouldn’t say I’m going to make a dubstep track, but elements that may hint at that could always pop up the music. And I’m never adverse to that, always looking to new ingredients to blend into the mix if you like, so that’s kinda what I’m doing right now. I guess I’m trying to find that way forward, something that’ll be a little bit fresher and won’t simply sound like more of the same, because that’s something that I’m very much against - the idea of just churning out more of the same - every album for me has to have a reason to exist in the back catalogue.

Excellent, so I think that’s all the time we have, so it’s been great talking to you.

Absolutely, it’s been great to speak to you again Mark, I’m very sorry you’re going to miss the show this.

You’ll just have to announce another show.

I hope so, listen if this one sells out which I hope it will then we’ll get an invitation to come back sooner rather than later this time.

AN EVENING WITH STEVEN WILSON

Brisbane - Thursday 8th November - Eatons
Sydney - Friday 9th November - Enmore Theatre
Saturday 10th November - Melbourne, Palais Theatre
Monday 12th November - Auckland, Bruce Mason Centre

Tickets via https://davidroywilliams.com/tours/steven-wilson-2018/