Steven Wilson, the songwriter, singer, guitarist and producer for prog band Porcupine Tree, has a lot on his mind. In the same way that his band likes to branch out into extended jams, the musician likes to launch at length into the things he's thinking about. Recently his mind has been fixed on the idea of his second solo album, a dark and fascinating journey full of instrumental madness and vocal gems titled Grace For Drowning. Wilsonwho's life was changed one long ago Christmas when he heard Dark Side Of the Moon and Donna Summers' Love To Love You Baby, presents his parents had given to one anotherimmersed himself in the guitar and learning the craft of songwriting.
The approach to Grace For Drowning is old schoolput a bunch of musicians in the same room at the same time and let magic happen. That live sensibility is at the heart of the album and came to Wilson after remixing the catalogs of Jethro Tull and King Crimson in 5.1. After listening to these albums at length and realizing that all albums back in the day were recorded live, he wanted to pursue that tradition on his solo album.
The guitarist is currently on the road in support of Grace For Drowning and with a little down time between gigs, he held court and talked at length about the album, his past, the state of the music business and living in Israel.
UG: Do you think the influences you've cited from the late 60s and early 70s were distilled on the first Porcupine Tree album, On the Sunday Of Life?
Steven Wilson: I guess I can. I mean I could say that about any record I've made. I can hear the influences that go into my music on every record I've ever made but sometimes they're more oblique and sometimes they're less obvious to other people than they are to me of course. I think what you're talking about with that particular record is an album where the influences were more obviously referenced almost in a kind of pastiche way, which was a deliberate thing. I was doing that music for fun after all at the time. So yeah, I can certainly still hear the source material that I was drawing on for those songs.
What was that source material?
Well, when I was a teenager in the sort of 80s, I went back and discovered a lot of music from the years that you've referred to like the late 60s and early 70s. What you might call or what I kind of look back and see was the golden era for album-orientated music. The kind of explosion and creativity that came out of the late'60s when rock music was really raised to the level of an art form for the first time. Or pop music as it was called then cause there was no such thing as rock music obviously. But popular music became for the first time something that people actually would consider an intellectual pursuit; something beyond the throwaway. And so you have this incredible explosion from Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds onwards and perhaps through the punk rock era 10 years later. Almost too many to mention reallyalmost anything from that era I kind of have a soft spot for.
You mentioned that On the Sunday Of Life was just recorded mainly for your own benefit but it did end up selling more than 20,000 copies. Did this tell you there was an audience for your music out there and propel you forward?
I think you've kind of summed it up exactly. When I was doing that music, which was the early '90, it seemed on the surface to be the worst possible time to be trying to make that kind of music. Everyone was listening to Nirvana and Soundgarden and allof the sort of new grunge. Even the idea of a guitar solo seemed like it was completely outlawed. You couldn't do things like that alone 15-minute long tracks and extended improvised guitar stuff. It seemed like the worst possible time but as you suggest what I found was actually there was a lot of other people like me that kind of missed that creativity and missed that ambition in music.
That became the audience for Porcupine Tree?
I guess from that point on I began to gradually collect those people in terms of building up a fanbase. It wasn't easy to do that because there was route to those people. This was pre-Internet and there was no magazines writing about music and there was no radio stations playing that music. You certainly couldn't get that music on TV. So that process of building an audience and finding those people became a word of mouth one and a very organic one that took literally years for me if not decades.
The first song on On the Sunday Of Life was Music For the Head, an instrumental track. Did you know that instrumental music would be a big part of what Porcupine Tree moving forward?
Well it wasn't really conscious because at the time I was just making the music for fun. I was making the music by listening, as I said, and drawing on the music that I loved and the music I was listening to. In the case of a track like that, I can point to bands like Gong or do you know the band Quintessence from the early 70s? Yeah, bands like that that kinda use that drone and the Indian mysticism with flutes and woodwinds and psychedelic textures. It wasn't a conscious thing. To be honest, a lot of that music was made just to play to my buddy and there was no sort of conscious effort to make a statement. Because Porcupine Tree at the time was not gonna be more than a one-off thing. It was just gonna be a one-off fun project and then I was gonna move on to the next thing. It almost became a victim of its own success.
In 1995, Porcupine Tree released The Sky Moves Sideways, which had more of a band approach than you simply playing all the instruments?
Yeah, I think it began to kick in more on the following album, Signify, because that was really the first album that was a band from beginning to end. The Sky Moves Sideways was like a transitional record. It's not my favorite record. It's the one where I think I came closest to kind of sounding like too much like the music that I was drawing on from the past. And by that time I think I was more committed to the idea of trying to do something more genuinely progressive in the true sense of the word. So that was a gradual process. I think most people do thatmost kinds of young musicians tend to spend a few years working through their influences and actually finding their own personality in the midst of that. I spent three or four albums doing that. I kind of worked through my influences and I began to find a voice of my own, which really came to the fore I suppose when I started to work with other musicians. When you start working with other musicians by default you tend to get more of a kind of melting pot so the influences become more oblique and they become more of a blend. And you tend in that respect to start to develop more of a unique voice as a kind of unit.
With Stupid Dream in 1999, you wanted to concentrate more on the simple act of songwriting as opposed to the more instrumental-based music on the earlier albums?
Yeah, I think so. I think the earlier years were characterized for me by this idea of the extended composition that was largely based on jamming or textures or drones or space rock or whatever you want to call it. I felt I could draw towards learning more about song craft and the construction of songs and actually creating hooks and choruses and using vocals in a more kind of solid way. So when I came back, just to preempt you slightly, when I came back later on to making the longer form of composition, it wasn't in the same way that I'd been doing in the early years. They were much more structured and they had that kind of songwriter's discipline that I guess I explored and learned on the earlier albums like Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. So it was certainly an important step, yeah.
You have cited Stop Swimming from the Stupid Dream album as being one of your favorites. Why?
It had a kind of spirituality; it's a song, which for me, feels very spiritual. There are billions and billions of songs out there of course and not all of them will touch you in a way that say, Brian Wilson's songs touched me. And I think the quality you're looking for is that kind of spiritual quality he managed to get on his best work and other people get too. When I listen to people like Nick Drake I feel that or John Martyn I feel that. And Stop Swimming for me was the first time I felt like I'd kind of done a song which taps into that kind of quality that really touched and really moved people. Not just through the lyrics but also through the whole feeling of the music. So it still remains to me one of the landmark things in my career.
Mikael Akerfeldt from Opeth says A Smart Kid from the Stupid Dream album is his favorite Porcupine Tree song. You produced Heritage, the last Opeth album and Mikael has played on Porcupine Tree records.
Mikael's one of my best friends. The thing about Mikael and myself is we both arrived at a similar point from completely different starting points. When he was a kid it was death metal and when I was a kid it was psychedelic music, progressive music and Krautrock. We both kind of arrived at the same point and that gives us a very interesting dynamic together. Not only thatwe both have a very similar role in our respective bands. We both understand each other and we can sympathize with each other about the problems of trying to hold a band together but trying to be what you might call a benign dictator. He's one of the few people I know, well hes the only person I know that will completely understand what I go through and ditto with me vice versa with him. I totally understand his position and we also totally understand the position our respective bands [have in] confronting the expectations of our audience. Now he's done that several times with his fanbase and it's never easy to do something, which kind of shocks or surprises or confronts the expectations of your fanbase.
Fans don't typically want major changes from the bands they follow.
You get a lot of criticism. In his case he had death threats.
That's what you get you're dealing with a lot of dumbass metal kids. And I understand that too because for me it's always been about not resting on your laurels and it's always been about trying to progress in the true sense of the word and trying to move forward. And because we kind of meet so well on that kind of basic ideology, I think we find making music together is a lot of fun. We do please ourselves and I think that's what all great artists really should do.
You did the Storm Corrosion project with Mikael.
It's done and to the record company.
The Lightbulb Sun album in 2000 was a return to the more experimental elements of Porcupine Tree?
For me that album was almost made too soon after Stupid Dream. No, that's maybe the wrong way of putting it. It was made very soon after Stupid Dream so it almost feels like the other side of the same coin. I think I'd written those songs almost before Stupid Dream had come out. So for me they almost feel like two parts of a double record. The big change of course came with the following record, In Absentia. That was the big step into something new. So Lightbulb Sun was probably what you'd call a consolidation record.
Where We Should Be from Lightbulb Sun has a beautiful example of your approach to acoustic guitar. Have you always been interested in the acoustic nature of the instrument?
I love a lot of acoustic guitar singer/songwriter type artists whether it's Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or the aforementioned Nick Drake or John Martyn and those kind of people. I guess I've always loved very organic sounds and in a way you can hear be coming back into that on the new record, Grace For Drowning. More kind of organic golden palette of sounds. Not so much in guitar terms on this new record but in terms of other sounds. But certainly at that time, yeah, I was kind of falling in love again with the idea of the troubadour and the singer/songwriter.
You work with Gavin Harrison for the first time on In Absentia.
In Absentia was all written before Gavin came on; even the drum parts were kind of programmed. But it's one of those times sometimes in life when everything comes together. I'd written these songs and I was very much more interested at that timehaving worked with Opethin the idea of combining a more kind of brutal or metal aspect back again into the fabric of the music. At the same time Gavin came along and Gavin was a very different drummer to our previous drummer, Chris Maitland. He was much more of a powerhouse and he was much more technical. He had more of a contemporary edge to his sound so it was just one of those really lucky things that he just came in and he played those songs and just blew everyone away and everything just kind of came together. And of course it was the first record we made for our new label and we got signed to a big American label for the first time [Lava Records]. Gavin was the final piece of that equation in a wayhe just totally raised the bar in terms of not just the drumming but just the musicianship right throughout the band. Everyone was listening to Gavin and saying, Fuck, wow. We really need to step up our game.
In 2007 you worked with Robert Fripp on Nil Recurring and Way Out Of Here on the Fear Of a Blank Planet album.
Robert had actually been out and toured with us in America and Japan as a kind of opening act just doing his Soundscapes stuff. I think probably the first time we did that was 2005 and it was great just to be on the road with him and get to know him and obviously being one of my big heroes from my youth, it was an unbelievable thrill. And he was incredibly generous as a person. I don't mean literally, I mean in a more kind of metaphorical sense and being generous with his time and his advice and just as a human being. He said, I'd be honored to play on your record so it became like a no-brainer. OK, you're on the record. For me that was the beginning of almost this process, which over the last five years has happened almost by accidentalmost building a bridge between the music that I make and the music I grew up listening to. Building a bridge back by working with a lot of these guys that I used to listen to as a kid whether it's Robert or Alex Lifeson or Ian Anderson. And I feel like I've almost built a bridge back to that era when I was sitting in my bedroom listening to those guys. It's an incredible feeling and I've learned so much also about what I thought I understood that I liked about that music and actually I wasn't entirely right in some respects.
What do you mean?
Grace For Drowning has been almost a record where I've discovered for the first time things that I hadn't really realized before about the way that those guys made records. And I'm sure we'll come to that in a minute.
"Porcupine Tree was just gonna be a one-off fun project and then I was gonna move on to the next thing. It almost became a victim of its own success."
Absolutely. You went back and remixed the King Crimson and Jethro Tull albums in 5.1. That must have been an amazing experience for you.
Right. Absolutely amazing and not just for the obvious reasons. As I say one of the reasons it was so amazing for me is what I learnt. I go back and I get these master tapes and I'm able to go inside the music and actually begin to learn more about how they actually made those records. Now the way they made those records is very, very different to the way I was taught to make records or the way I learnt to make records. Cause I learnt to make records in the kind of the beginning of what we call the computer recording era. Things like going into a studio with a band and just setting up and playing as a group, I never really did that; I never did that on any of my albums. It was always about overdubbing and meticulously kind of analyzing every aspect and controlling everything and having the drummer play for example to a tempo track so he never speeded up and he never slowed down.
That wasn't how Crimson and Tull recorded.
Well, those bands never did that. And you know what? The records sound betterthey just sound better. The drummer is speeding up and slowing down and the band are not always together; the singer is sometimes out of key a bit and the records just sound fantastic. There's leakage on all the instruments from every other instrument because they're all in a studio; they're all in a room playing together. I mean all that stuff is everything I was told you shouldn't do and everybody from my generation was told you shouldn't do: get complete separation; have the drummer play to a tempo track and all that stuff. Tune the vocal with Auto-Tone or Melodyne or whatever it is. Those guys never did that on those records and those records are the best records we've ever had in my opinion. In my opinion those records, the early 70s records if you listen to bands like Crimson or Led Zeppelin or whoever that is, those records will probably never be bettered. And they had none of that shit going on.
So you could hear all the isolated drum tracks and guitar tracks on all those King Crimson and Jethro Tull records? Martin Barre's guitar sounds?
Yeah, I can hear exactly what's going on and to be honest I can hear just how really sloppy they are. And they're great! They're great sloppy. Yeah, they're all over the placethey're out of time and out of tune but the writing is fantastic and playing is fantastic and the tones are terrific. You mention Martin Barre from Jethro Tullon Agualung his guitar tone is just beautiful. All it is, I don't know what it is but it's just a Les Paul through a Fender amp [an old Hiwatt] or whatever he's going through and it just sounds so organic and so beautiful. Anyway to cut a long story short, all this shit was kinda stuff that I tried to learn from for the benefit of this new record, Grace For Drowning. I kind of applied a lot of those principles for the first time in my career really to making a record. And I think consequently made one of the best records I've ever made. So you're never too old to learn I guess is the lesson to learn here.
The approach on Grace For Drowning for more of a live approach?
A lot of the music on that record was made with a bass player, drummer, guitar player and Theo Travis played sax and woodwinds live in the studio. No click tracks. Not on all the record but there are a lot of sections where it's recorded in that kind of old-fashioned way.
What about a complex song like Deform To Form a Star?
That one, no. That one was more kind of laid out first structurally in the studio and then the musicians replaced the demo parts that I did. Tracks like Sectarian and Remainder the Black Dog and big parts of Raider II, the long piece were cut live in the studio.
When you hear the performances on those songs, can you hear that kind of throwback to the live process from those 70s records?
It's one of those things that I don't think it's necessarily obvious in a very conscious way. Cause I wasn't aware necessarily of it when I listened to those old records before I worked on em. I wasn't necessarily aware that the tempos were changing and the band playing live. But then you start to realize that actually there are things about it. There are things about music that cannot necessarily be analyzed but it's a kind of glue that happens when you get musicians playing together in a room. You can do something in a much more disciplined, controlled and contrived way and superficially you think it's the same but it just isn't. I think we come back to that word I used earlierthe spiritual thing. The spirituality in the music, there's a grain in the music and you almost can't analyze it and you can't hear it on a kind of superficial level. But I think there is a warmth and a golden feeling on this new record that I haven't really captured on any records before. And to answer your question, yes, I can hear it. I can feel it.
You've worked with different guitar players on Grace For Drowning like Trey Gunn and Marcus Reuter. Do they bring out different aspects in your own playing?
The thing about inviting someone to contribute to your record is there's no point in inviting someone and then telling them what notes to play or how to play. That kind of defeats the object doesn't it? I love to invite people that I know are gonna surprise me and I love to invite people that I know are gonna come up with ideas that I would have never have come up with myself. So in a way the worst thing you can do when you ask someone to play on your record is give them too much direction. So I kind of try on veering on the side of giving very little direction. But I'm very lucky to be able to work with musicians that are far superior to me as musicians so then I become the producer, which is kinda what I like to be anyway. I like to be, Here's the songwhat do you feel like you want to play on this song? And then they'll play and you'll say, That's great and maybe we can just try it this way and you kind of nudge them a little bit more in a particular direction and that's fantastic and I love doing that. It's just like being a kid in a candy store. Working with musicians like Trey or Steve Hackett or Robert or any of those guys, they're just so distinctive and they're so imaginative anyway. So you're just kind of nudging them in a direction you feel works for your track.
Track One features one of your great guitar solos. Are you a better soloist today than you were yesterday?
Listen, I think I have a style of my own. I'm not trying to denigrate what I do completely but I think my strength is as a writer and a producer. But I think when I pick up a guitar, listen, I'm no great guitar player but I think I have a sound and a style. So occasionally I quite like to break out a solo and the one on Track One, I'm really proud of that. It's got a nice feeling to it but put me in a room with Mikael Akerfeldt working on a project together, it's obvious he's going to play all the guitar parts. But when I'm in a room on my own occasionally I like to pull the guitar off the wall. Am I better than I was in the past? Probably not because I just think that the reason I never got any better was I never really practiced and I'm not really interested in that. I'm the kind of guitar player that picks a guitar up when I need itI don't pick it up just for the pleasure of playing. And that's the difference between me and quote-unquote proper guitar players. I mean I've seen Robert Fripp practice four or five hours a day being on tour with him. I know Mikael picks up a guitar and plays several hours a day just for the pleasure of it. I don't but I tell you what I do doI go to the studio and I write songs and I play around with the sonic possibilities for fun. So that's my muse and that's where my art goes, I guess.
The music you do on your solo records is not interchangeable with Porcupine Tree music?
Yeah, definitely. One of the great things about being in a band can also be one of the downsides about being in a band. It's something we touched on earlier, which is this idea that you are a group of people who all have to find common ground. Now that's great because that's what gives a band its sound after all. You find the place where you all crossover and you find the place where you can all agree and that's the music you all enjoy playing and that becomes your style and your identity. And that is a strength no question. But at the same time there's a lot that falls outside of that common ground and not just for me but for all the guys in the bandthere's a lot that falls out of that common ground. That creates this need in a way to express yourself outside of the band unit.
"For me it's always been about not resting on your laurels and it's always been about trying to progress in the true sense of the word and trying to move forward."
Grace For Drowning falls outside of that common ground of Porcupine Tree?
Grace For Drowning for me, for example, a lot of it is drawn from my love of the influence of jazz music. Not necessarily jazz in its pure form but the influence that jazz had on the original generation of progressive musicians on bands like Crimson and Tull. A lot of these guys were musicians that had grown up learning to play jazz, blues and classical music. So that's an important kind of aspect of what I think made that initial burst of progressive music so special is that these guys had not learnt to play rock music but they learnt to play jazz music or classical music. But they were making pop music for the first time. And I think I wanted to tap into that with this record. So I went to a lot of musicians that were not necessarily associated with rock. People like Theo Travis who is a jazz musician and the drummer, Nic France, who plays most of the album is a jazz drummer; he's not a rock drummer. And I think you can hear thatit's a very different approach to drumming than a rock drummer would take. Now the reason I say all this is because I know for a fact in Porcupine Tree one of the guys hates jazz! So I could never have gone to Porcupine Tree with a lot of these ideas because I wouldn't ask them to play anything that they didn't feel comfortable playing.
You've been vocal in the past about the cruel nature of the music business. How do you feel about it here in 2011?
Creativity and ambition in music is no longer championed by the mainstream. Now there was only a very short window of time when it ever was and it's kinda the time I've already referred to: the '67 to '77 period. There was a 10-year window there where creativity and ambition was actually something the mainstream embraced. It never happened before and it never happened since and I don't think it will ever happen again. That's unfortunate but in a way as a musician or an artist you just have to disconnect yourself from that and accept it and it's difficult to doI know it's difficult to do that because it's very easy to get bitter and twisted about it. With so much shit in the mainstream that seems to effortlessly sell gold and platinum and is on MTV and get on the radio. That's a constant frustration for anyone that believes in what they do but you can let it eat you up and ruin your whole kind of career if you dwell on it too much.
But you do think about it?
You can tell that I'm still a bit bitter about that, in a way I would have loved to have been making music in that era we talked.
You wish you had been born at a time where you were releasing albums alongside King Crimson and Jethro Tull?
Yeah, I think I would have had a lot more fans if I'd been releasing these albums in the early 70s than I have managed to get. That's not to say that I don't have a good fanbase; I do now. But when you think of albums like Aqualung, that's sold like eight million copies. Let's face itif Aqualung was released today, it would struggle to sell 80,000 copies or 8,000 copies. That's just a sign of the times and that's something I've kind of had to come to terms with.
But you must be satisfied with your solo career and Porcupine Tree's place in the world?
I'm pretty happy with careerI have a good fanbase and I do exactly the kind of music I want to do. And I don't have to worry about selling my soul to the devil to make a living. You know what? I think even that is really hard these days. I started 20 years ago and it was still hard then but it was still possible. Now I really wonder if it's even possible. I really wonder. If a musician today could come along and do something truly spiritual and creative without compromise and manage to make a decent living out of it, I really wonder if it's possible anymore. That's a really depressing thing to say and I hope I'm wrongmaybe it is still possible. But let's just say it's certainly got even harder since I started.
You lived and recorded in Tel Aviv. What drew you to Israel?
Um, that's a good question. I just loved it. The best answer I can give you is that I think it's the absolute antithesis and opposite of England in every respect. When you grow up in England you're taught to be very polite and you tend to inherent from your parents this kind of shy reserve that the English are very well known for. And I went to Israel and the people there were very honest and very rude in a way I kind of like. It kind of completed my personality. I learnt so much from being with these people and I tell you I'm a lot more confident than I was five, six years ago. I think it's because I have a little bit of the Israeli in me now and I think there is a good thing about that. They have an incredible passion for life that English people don't have and I think it's something to do with the whole kind of political situation and the fact they're surrounded by people that really don't even want them to exist and would very happily see them all disappear off the face of the earth. And it gives them an incredible passion and a joy in life and living their lives in a kind of day-to-day way. I didn't appreciate that until I went to Israel for the first time. So there's the answer to your question.
Any plans for a new Porcupine Tree album?
Actually not reallyI'm havin' too much fun with this. I'm out on the road with the Grace For Drowning band and I'm having so much fun and loving this. Obviously Porcupine Tree will get back together but I don't know when. I think if we do a record together now we always try and raise the bar and sort of aim high and do something bigger and better than we've ever done before. So I couldn't put a time scale on it. I don't like working like, Oh, we've got to have an album on the market by September. I don't like that kind of stuff so we'll start making a record and eventually it will come out is all I can tell you.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"60s and early 70s was the golden era for album-orientated music."