Steven Wilson made his name leading progressive rock legends Porcupine Tree, but since 2003 he's been making a move towards releasing music under his own name. His third solo album, "The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)" is a collection of introspective ghost tales which deal with some of our biggest fears: loss, regret, and mortality itself.
With an unexpected shower of snow putting rehearsals for his forthcoming tour on halt, Steven spoke to use about his quest for immortality, working with legendary Pink Floyd engineer Alan Parsons and guitarist Guthrie Govan, and his next great ambition: to score movie soundtracks in Hollywood.
UG: Is there a different kind of pressure working on a solo project with your name on compared to, say, Porcupine Tree?
Steven Wilson: It's my third solo record. I kind of hesitate to call it a project. For me it's more than a project now, this is what I do. In a way this is what I've been working towards for a long time.
This is the first LP I've made... well actually what I'm about to say is not entirely true but we'll come to that in a minute. I was going to say this is the first solo LP I've made with a band. It's not entirely true because actually Porcupine Tree also started as a solo project and became a band, so this is in a way history repeating itself.
This is the first time I've made a record under my own name but with a group, if that's not a contradiction in terms. And thats a very big change for me, from doing the first two solo albums, writing in the abstract without necessarily having particular musicians in mind. Now I'm in this position where I actually have a touring band, and I'm very much aware of the personalities of the touring band and their chemistry. All those things came into play when I was developing the music for this record. This is a very different feeling to be writing for particular musical personalities for a particular band.
In terms of the subject matter, or the conceptual side of the record, it's based on this idea of short ghost stories, supernatural stories, however you want to call it. But more in the classical sense - not in the modern sense but more in the sense of late 19th century, early 20th century gothic tradition. The more victorian tradition of ghost stories that almost come from the nursery. The fairy tale aspect of ghost stories. The idea of regret, and loss and fear of mortality, and all those things that we're all obsessed by, whether we know it or not, because these are the things that we measure our life. These are the things we use to measure our happiness or unhappiness. The fact that we know that one day we will cease to exist. So this whole thing gave rise, as far as I can tell, to the idea of the classical ghost story. The fireside ghost tale. [On this album] each song is based on its own story.
Why are you drawn to these themes?
Everything that we do in life, we measure against the fact that we know we've only got so much time in which to be happy and to be in the right relationship, to be in the right job, and all these things. I think we're either unconsciously or consciously aware all the time that time is tick-tick-ticking away.
I think the classic ghost stories deal with these ideas of... firstly of fear of mortality, but also the ideas of loss and regret. Regret, particularly for me, is a very strong one. The idea that you can get into your old age, or even the end of your life, and look back and say: 'I wasn't with the person I should have been with, I wasn't doing the job I wanted to do that made me happy, my life didn't go the way it should have done.' That's incredibly tragic to me.
I don't believe in anything after this life, so I believe that this is the chance. This is the only chance we've got to be happy and make our lives mean something. For me, I don't believe in anything after this life, so the ghost for me is not a literal thing, it's more a symbolic thing. It's a very beautiful idea. It can be scary but it can also be a very beautiful idea, and encapsulate this idea of regret and loss.
I wonder if part of the reason you produce and create so much music and output for other people to buy - it's almost a document of you and your life. Is that you trying to find a way to somehow be immortal?
That's certainly part of it. I've asked myself that question. In fact, many years ago I wrote an album called "Signify" about this idea of all the various ways that we can come to find some significance in our own life. Or ways to fritter away that opportunity, and be somehow insignificant. I think it's something that's been there for a long time with me.
I am quite prolific, and I do have a very strong work ethic - some would say hyperactive, and all these things - pick you own word. But I think you're right; all that stuff in a way does come from this sense of time passing, and there's never enough time so you should make the most of it. For those reasons, I've always had this slightly guilty thing at the back of my mind whenever I'm not working. I can't just sit and watch TV, and I can't just lie on a beach, and I can't do nothing for very long. I think that is partly this obsession with, as you say, wanting to leave something immortal.
I don't have a family, and I'm not particularly interested in having kids, so in a way perhaps the work, the music I make is some kind of alternative to the idea of having a family, or having progeny. Your work, your albums, your music becomes in a way my progeny. The thing that will live on after I go.
You recorded the album with Alan Parsons. Was that a life ambition?
I certainly grew up listening to his music. I wouldn't say I had any burning ambition to work necessarily with Alan. I don't have any burning ambition to work with anyone really, my path takes me where I go. I've been very privileged to work with some people who were very important to me growing up, and formative influences, and Alan would certainly be one of those.
The idea to have Alan really came from this idea that I wanted the album have a more organic, almost a 70s feel to it. I'm a great believer that records sounded the best in the 70s. I don't really like the sound of most modern recordings, including most of my own. I just don't like the sound, and I love the sound of 70s records. Not just from the progressive tradition but from any genre, whether it's singer-songwriter albums or jazz albums or pop albums for me the 70s is the like a golden era of recording.
I had this idea that I wanted to work with an engineer that was familiar with working in that way. Alan was the top of my list, because Alan is the guy that, lest we forget, not only worked with the Beatles, but also recorded what for many people is the best sounding record of the entire 70s, if not ever, in "Dark Side of the Moon". Whether you like the music or not - and I do, of course - you have to concede that it's a beautiful sounding record. It just sounds golden, organic, natural... choose your own description.
Alan was top of my list of people that I wanted. Luckily he knew who I was, and was already a bit of a fan, so there was a mutual thing there already. It was great to work with him.
I have to say, I didn't spend a lot of time seeing what he was doing [from an engineering perspective]. One of the great things about hiring Alan Parsons is that I can let that side of the process go a little bit. I'm a bit of a control freak normally, so it was quite unusual for me to be letting go of a whole part of the recording process. But it did free me up to be more of a musical director, and more work in the production way, and not have to worry about where are the microphones are set up, which compressor we're going to, and all that stuff. I implicitly trusted that this guy knew what he was doing. Because he's Alan Parsons, right? So that was nice, to be able to leave him to get on with it, and having time to come into the listening room and just hear that it sounded great. I've never been in the position where I felt I could delegate that much responsibility, but you're never too old I guess.
My next question was going to be 'How much did you learn from his from an production and engineering perspective?'
Absolutely nothing! You have to imagine the situation as being 'We're all out in L.A. recording in this wonderful studio, and there's the big live room where the musicians are all set up, including myself, and we're all recording the album pretty much live in the studio.' So I'm in this room with the musicians, and Alan is on the other side of the glass recording everything. So I'm not really aware, necessarily, of what he's doing until I go back in and listen. I didn't really learn anything, is the truth, but I didn't feel I needed to. It's a nice precedent, and one I hope I'll repeat, where I'll have someone like that who can take care of that stuff for me, so I can be more involved on the creative side.
How did his engineering compare with your expectations?
In the end the sounds he got on the record are exactly what I wanted. I didn't want the album to sound retro for the sake of it, but I wanted sounds that, for me, I think of as timeless. The musical palette we were using was timeless things like piano, hammond organ, fender rhodes, mellotron, harmony vocals, acoustic guitars... no really overdriven sounds. Edgy sounds, but not overdriven in that modern metal way. So it was a more organic, natural, timeless palette of sounds. Alan is someone who knows how to get the best out of those sounds.
You make quite emotionally driven music. Was there a moment during the making of the album which actually made you cry?
Well, there was a couple of moments in the recording process where I was very moved by solos that were being played. I have extraordinary musicians in my band, and the solos can very often surprise me and totally blow me away. Just in terms of the lyricism, and the expression, and the way they resonate with some of the subject matter. Which can be quite sad - the subject matter is quite melancholic on the record. Some of the solos did really move me a lot. And that's the way it should be; you should be moved by the performances. Very often, I find, when you get to the point when you're recording the album, sometimes it becomes too much of a technical, scientific process. It should be an emotional one too. I guess I'd forgotten about that. I've always approached the recording process in a more technical way. But this time, because it was all done live in the studio, and it was very fresh, there were really moments of powerful emotion, yeah. Which is a wonderful feeling.
Do you want to namecheck anyone in particular on that point?
Guthrie [Govan] played a solo on the end of "Drive Home", for example, for three minutes unbroken, and it's absolutely sublime. It was an unbroken single take. When I say we did a single take, we did four or five takes, but on each one Guthrie reinvented the whole approach to the solo. Each take was complete in its own way, there was no editing, no dropping in at all. "Drive Home" was one of those moments where I was really overcome at the end of that, because it was so beautiful, and so extraordinary, and that transcended anything that I would have ever have imagined or hoped for with that song.
"The Raven That Refused To Sing" video has a very personal story. To what extent is it based on your own experiences?
The question is difficult to answer. The story is not about me, but I think it's fair to say that as a songwriter, when you write any song, you do put a lot of yourself into it. Otherwise, people just wouldn't believe it. It would seem somehow fake. I think the simple answer to your question is no, it's not about me, I didn't lose a sister when I was young - I don't have a sister, I've never had a sister. But at the same time a lot of the sentiment, a lot of the feeling is absolutely from me.
This is one of the songs about this idea of loss and regret. Here's a guy that has got to the end of his life, and at the very beginning of his life he lost his sister. He's never been able to recover from that fact, and never been able to emotionally bond with any human being as long as he's lived. He's now at the end of his life, and so his life has been just one long feeling of loneliness and loss. I think that's something that everyone can connect with, and that's why I think the song and the video is having such a strong impression. Most people watching the video haven't lost their sister when they're a kid, but everyone understands the feeling of loss and the feeling of loneliness, I think. Almost everyone.
It's not autobiographical, but a lot of the emotional resonance come from the feelings that I have experienced in my life.
You've been writing ghost stories to go behind some of the songs. Was that difficult?
Yeah, it was hard. I mean, it was fun, but writing is not easy. I remember when I was writing reviews for Rolling Stone and Classic Rock magazine, I would spend like a week just working on my one review. Going back and revising it, and I wonder how some of these guys manage to produce like 10, 15, 20 reviews every month. I have more respect for those guys now because I found the writing quite hard. Similarly so with the ghost stories; it was a constant process of revising and re-evaluating, trying to make it read in the most logical and poetic way, I guess.
You're booked up with a tour until May. What comes after that?
More tours! We go up to the end of May and do Europe, South America and North America till the end of May. Then we have a bunch of festivals over the summer, and then we do the whole thing again starting after the summer - we do a second leg of Europe and a second leg of America. I'm pretty much expecting this whole solo album cycle will take me to the end of the year
What will come after this album cycle?
My biggest unfulfilled ambition is to do a movie soundtrack. I have an agent now in LA, finally. For my next big project I would love for it to be scoring a great movie with an interesting director and interesting script. That's pretty much top of my list of unfulfilled goals right now. That would be my ideal thing to do next, but I don't know. That's still probably quite a long shot.
I wonder if there's any names in the hat for a movie yet?
No. I can pitch for a few things, but it's like anything: breaking into something new is incredibly hard. Once you get your foot in the door it gets a little bit easier, so I'm at the point where I need to get my foot in the door. So no names at all. I'm not attached to anything at the moment, but we'll see. I think it's still a very long shot, there's probably hundreds of people just like me all trying to break into it the same way. I'm realistic, but that would be my number one choice, all things equal, if I could actually choose what I would do it would be to score a movie.
You're a writer, musician, performer, engineer, journalist... which are you best at?
I'm not the greatest musician, I'm not the greatest singer, I'm not the greatest frontman. I can do a little bit of all those things. But I think what I probably am quite good at is producing and mixing records. That's where my real expertise would lie. And I do really enjoy that, I must say. I love working remixing some of these albums from the 70s and 80s that I've been doing the last few years. I love that. Not only because I think I'm not bad at it, but also because I find that I learn a lot from doing that too. I pick up stuff from doing that that I naturally then use in my own music. If I had to pick one thing it would be production and mixing. You've been making music for decades now. What is the biggest lesson you've learned, and how has it proven useful?
The biggest lesson I learned was quite early in my career: never, ever do anything to please anyone but yourself. I realise I've been quite lucky in my career, because that's quite a selfish way to go about things. It does make it very hard to have a career in the music industry.
The music industry generally expects to some degree of compromise from you. It's almost like a pact with the devil: 'We'll give you a career in the music industry, but you must do this, this and this, and you must make these compromises. And I never have.
That's not true; I did in the beginning of my career, but I realised early on that it made me very unhappy whenever I made even the slightest compromise. So very early in my career, in probably the mid 90s, I had a psychological moment when I put my foot down and said 'No, I'm just going to make the music I want to make now. If people don't like it and people don't buy it then fine, I'll do it in my spare time and go off and sell double glazing. I've been very fortunate that I've never had to fall back on plan B. I realise that it's much easier to say than it is to do it, but I've certainly found that trying only to please myself has been the best way for me to make myself happy and also to build a fan base who respect that side of me.
But it's taken me a long time. That is the price you pay; if you want to go down that route, expect it to take 20 years to get to the point I've got, because that's how long it's taken me! 20 years to get to this point, and I'm still a long way from being anything like a mainstream artist. That is the price you pay if you want to do your own thing.
"The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)" is available from Burning Shed.
Interview by Tom Davenport Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2013