An interview with Steven Wilson on his new album, success and conceptual rock

Steven Wilson is generally considered a progressive rock musician. His music is complex, has long songs and values musicianship. But Wilson himself is clearly not a fan of the classification. “There’s no such thing”, he argues. “You cannot be progressive in this modern age. It’s 2015 now, as musicians we’re all working with a well established musical vocabulary. I look back at the history of rock music, and that’s 60, 70 years at most; it’s a very young form of music, really. But still, I think every possible extreme or hybrid has been explored. I haven’t heard anything genuinely fresh and inventive since probably the 90’s.”

“There was an explosion in electronic music coming out of the late 80’s and in the 90’s”, he goes on to say. “You had forms of music like IDM, trip hop and all that stuff, and I could see music that was probably innovative at that time, but in the 21st century, I have to say there hasn’t been anything genuinely innovative or progressive. So I don’t think it’s right to call it progressive, and by the way, none of those bands in the seventies ever called themselves progressive rock. I’ve worked with some of these bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, and I’ve spoken with guys like Steve Hackett, and I’ve asked ‘Did you ever call yourselves progressive rock?’ and they said ‘No! It was something the press sort of came up with, some time around the mid to late seventies, to kind of bundle us all together’. So I have an issue with it being called ‘progressive’ because it’s not progressive anyway, and it’s certainly not ‘prog’; that’s such an ugly, ugly word. I call it ‘conceptual rock’ because for me it’s rock music that’s more interested in the album as a musical format, and it’s interested in telling stories. And I think these are the hallmarks of the kind of music you’re referring to when you say ‘progressive’. I don’t think my music or anyone’s music is ‘progressive’ in 2015.”

When I suggested that the label progressive might apply more to an individual artist’s willingness to change their own sound than to pushing back the genre’s limitations, he still rejected the label. “I would use the word ‘evolve’, he countered. “I have evolved as a musician, but still I wouldn’t say my music was genuinely genre breaking or innovative. It’s always been using an established musical vocabulary. And listen, I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I think sometimes people get obsessed with the idea of innovation, and they’ll point at bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as being incredibly innovative, but of course we look now at those bands with the benefit of hindsight with very rose-tinted spectacles, and forget that Led Zeppelin stole most of their stuff from the Chicago blues guys, and The Beatles stole an awful lot from American rock ‘n roll of course. I think there is a tendency to revise through looking back at the history of rock music. You look at bands like Nirvana now, who did, in a sense, freshen up the sound of rock music, but they were just a three piece heavy metal band. I think that personality is more important ultimately, especially in this day and age, and I think I’m someone that has a very strong personality in my music. You could listen to any of my records and, hopefully, you will come away with the impression that this is a Steven Wilson record, and ultimately it sounds like no one else. But if you analyze it, of course, there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about what I do. I think that just injecting it with a strong sense of personality is what makes it unique.”

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Certainly, the label ‘conceptual rock’ fits his latest album. Inspired by the real life story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a British woman who cut off her ties to her friends and family and disappeared, only to end up dead and forgotten in her apartment for two years before being discovered. Her story resonated with Wilson, who built his album on the themes of isolation and the fallacy of modern technology.

“It’s a very extraordinary and shocking story,’ he says. “It’s one of those very modern stories who tend to haunt you and it certainly haunted me. It became somehow symbolic for me of life in the 21st century, of life in the age of the Internet, and specifically life in the heart of a city in the 21st century, and how easy it’s become to disappear. With all those social networks, that speed of life, and all that technology that supposedly brings us closer together, it’s still remarkably easy, probably easier than at any time in history, to be invisible. Particularly if you choose to be invisible, as Joyce Carol Vincent chose to be: largely cut off and disconnected from other human beings. But it’s extraordinary that you could do that while literally living a few feet away from hundreds of thousands of people. And so it became symbolic for me I guess, of this whole sense of disconnect that we have in the age of the Internet and the modern world. And it kind of seeped through to the writing for me and into many other areas I’m interesting in, like nostalgia of childhood, regrets, technology, and isolation. All those things are prevalent on the record.”

This kind of intricate music requires careful planning as the interaction between the instruments is so elaborate that it can’t be left to chance. So Wilson, (he admits to being a control freak) came into the studio with very elaborate demos for each song. “I can’t even set foot in the studio without having a pretty clear idea of exactly what I want for the arrangements and the structure’, he explains. “But, having said that, it would be pointless for me to employ these wonderful, world class musicians and not allow them to express their musical personalities. As on all my solo records there are a lot of solos, so there’s a lot of space for musicians to express themselves. And apart from allowing a specific period of time for a musician to solo, I don’t define what those notes are going to be. Apart from guiding them in a particular kind of direction, those are completely their own musical voices that you’re hearing. So I think there’s a lot of room for the guys to express themselves.”

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

Writing is also a complex process for Wilson. “I write surrounded by everything. I can’t write on the road, I’ve tried, and it’s very hard for me. I do my best and most inspired writing when I’m in my studio, surrounded by instruments. Something about the nature of the music means that I need to be able to pick an acoustic guitar then pick up a bass, sit down at the piano, program a drum rhythm, or you know, work with a sound texture, sometimes in the same piece of music. In order to really get a full picture of how a song or a piece of music is going to work, I certainly have to understand in my mind what the drum is going to do, what the bass is going to be doing, what the guitar, what the keyboards, what the backing vocals are going to be doing. It’s not like folk music or pop music or country music where you can just come in with an acoustic guitar and say ‘Here’s the song’, you know. This is a kind of music that is all about the interaction of the whole band, so I do make fairly advanced demos where I program the drums the way I want them to be, and I play the bass the way I want it to be, and all the keyboard parts. It is a kind of music where all the parts have to be sympathetically working together.”

I noted that more than at probably anytime in his career, the influence of the classic conceptual rock bands of the 70’s  permeate the songs. But Wilson says it wasn’t an intentional goal, nor is it his remixing work with Yes and King Crimson that seeped into his writing. “That’s always been in my musical personality anyway, you know? I grew up in the 80’s, in this kind of strange time where I was going back and discovering the classic conceptual rock music of the 70’s, and at the same time the music that I was listening to and all my friends at school were listening to was the music of the 80’s. We were listening to bands like The Cure, Joy Division and Tears For Fears, Sonic Youth and all this stuff. But at the same time I was discovering this amazing kind of music from the previous decade, so my music has always been this kind of mixture of things, modern and classical. And that influence from the golden age of conceptual rock has always been there in my music, right from the very, very start. It’s in my DNA so it’ll always come out.”

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

“I just make records, and my musical personality will come out,”he continues. “But I think there’s something about the nature of this record that encouraged me to perhaps be a little more expansive in drawing from all the different aspects of my musical personality. This is a story about this young woman who goes to live in the city, and of course straightaway you’ve got a more contemporary setting there, which suggested to me more use of electronic sounds; almost industrial sound design in places. Also it’s the story of woman’s whole life, from childhood to an inter point. So when you’re telling the story of someone’s whole life, you’re going to use many different feelings and emotions, so there’s everything on this record from pure guitar pop to electronic music to longer more conceptual pieces.”

This journey through a woman’s life guided Wilson in his writing, as he tried to represent different aspects of her life. “I think the music always comes from the story. So I wanted to create songs that had a sense of nostalgia of childhood,anger and confusion with the modern age, melancholy, songs that had a sense of loss in them. I’m not aware of picking particular styles to work in, but the story kind of suggested them, and led me down some roads, you know. I think there’s even some singer/songwriter sensibility going on in part of the record. It’s one of the interesting things to me that in creating this female character, and I’d never written through a female character before, I’ve put more of my own autobiography than perhaps I’d ever put in character before. There was something almost liberating about choosing a character that was female; in a sense it meant I could be more honest about my inner thoughts and feelings. And I find that interesting that it should be the case.”

All through our conversation, it’s obvious that Wilson is not a brooding person, yet his music usually dwells in the darker recesses of human psyche. I asked how he explained his attraction to those sort of emotions. “Even when I was a kid, I was always drawn to the darker, melancholic things”, he told me. “I wasn’t interested in happy cheerful music; I was more interested in things that were slightly dark, even in books or films. I always found those things the most beautiful and uplifting conversely. Or perversely. It helps us understand that we’re not alone in feeling these things, and that is a good feeling. You only have to look at what young kids get into. They get into metal music, and horror movies; that’s something about being a teenager. And that kind of obsession with mortality and death is right there from the moment we become adolescents. And I think there’s something quite beautiful and uplifting about sad music. I see it in my audience every night; we play very sad pieces of music, and people are weeping sometimes, but almost weeping with joy, with a sense that you’re not alone in feeling these things. I suppose that for me it is a kind of cathartic process. You’re right that when you meet me, I’m not this kind of morose and miserable person (laughs). But I think that part of that is because I have this vessel that I pour the negative side of myself into, and that’s my songwriting. So the music tends to be the other half of me, the half that’s melancholic and depressed. And it serves its purpose because it means that I, myself, can be relatively balanced, happy and well adjusted. At least I think so!”

Steven Wilson and his band are currently on a really successful tour that will see them play two shows at the Metropolis. I asked him if they allow themselves to play around with the song arrangements, but he explained that with all the multimedia visuals in the show, they have to stick to at the very least the blueprints of the songs. “One of the things that’s fun about playing live is that you can keep things fresh, and you can reinvent the music from night to night; it can evolve and change through improvisation. And I have such fantastic musicians in my band that they are very much able to improvise ideas on the spot.”

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

Steven Wilson. Photo by Lasse Hoile

“But at the same time, the show is very multimedia driven; there are films, projections and things that have to be connected very closely to the music. Some of the films are cut almost to the frame to how the music and visuals unfold, so you need to have a degree of synergy with the music, which means it can’t be completely open ended. But within the music there are solos and opportunities for improvisation to keep things fresh, both for the band and the audience. Because some of my fans come to multiple shows on a tour, and the last thing you want them to feel is that they’re watching a rerun of a show they’ve seen and that certainly isn’t the case.”

Despite a solo career on the rise (his albums have progressively charted higher and higher), Wilson remains realistic about the current state of the music industry.  “I’m always surprised that even on person wants to listen to my music. But at the same time, and I am a massive contradiction, I’m also frustrated that so few people are even aware of my music, and I’m talking on a global mainstream scale now. I’ve never felt my music is particularly difficult; I think it is quite accessible. I think that if I’d been making this music in the seventies, I’d have sold millions of records. As it is, I sell pretty well; my new album sold some 150,000 records, which in this current climate is amazing, especially when you consider that my music gets zero mainstream coverage. Zero: no radio, no TV. That is frustrating; as I said, my music isn’t that difficult and  impenetrable, it’s just that people don’t have a chance to hear it. But at the same time I’m eternally grateful that there IS an audience which continues to build, which is kind of in contrast to the way the music business is heading, which is in decline. So to be able to buck that trend and say ‘you know what? Every time I go out I sell more tickets, I fill bigger venues, I sell more records’, that in itself is an incredible victory in this climate of the music business.”

Wilson made his name as the leader of Porcupine Tree, but the band has been on hiatus since Wilson released his second solo record “Grace for Drowning”. Does his solo success spell the end for the beloved group? “To be honest that would have never had an impact anyway,” he says. “I’ve never done things for that reason; if that was the case I probably would have continued Porcupine Tree cause it was doing very well and it was on the ascendency. But musically it became… I think it came to a point where I felt it’d served its purpose. For me the motivation is always what’s the right thing to do musically. So the success or lack of success of anything would have no impact in my interest in doing something else. But the truth is I’m having an incredibly good time with my solo band; I think I’ve got one of the best bands on the planet right now. The shows are exactly what I always wanted to do with the multimedia and the quadraphonic sound. I think I’m making the best music of my career; there’s very little motivation for me to go back. I think it would be a step back.”

“But you know what? I never say never. I might make another album with Porcupine Tree one day but the truth of the matter is that if I did, I think it would be a side project to what is clearly the main purpose of my musical career right now.”

Wilson has plans to keep touring up to June 2016, as the demand for the show has been plentiful. And a new album? “I’ve got some vague ideas of what I might do for my next record but they are vague at the moment. I’m just kind of enjoying the ride, right now. The show is so good that I want to keep it on the road for as long as I can, really.”

Steven Wilson will be at Metropolis on June 27 and 28 as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.  Tickets are on sale on Ticketmaster (http://www.ticketmaster.ca/Steven-Wilson-tickets/artist/1616063?tm_link=seo_bc_name)

 

Jean-Frédéric Vachon maintains the website Diary of a Music Addict.

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About Jean-Frederic Vachon

Jean-Frederic Vachon is a pop culture aficionado who mainly writes about music, here on Montreal Rampage and at his site Diary of a Music Addict. But given the right subject, he also likes to cover comics, video games and hockey. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts