Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It
“ I am winning that battle, but it's hard, and I'm constantly reminding people that this is not a side project; it's the most important thing I've ever done. ”
There was a time when progressive rock really meant what its name suggested: progressive music, music that pushed the boundaries of what rock music was, often by integrating elements of classical music and jazz into the mix. Milestone groups ranging from better-knowns like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator all provided the opportunity for musicians to apply their diverse musical upbringings to create something that Chuck Berry and Bill Haley couldn't possibly have envisaged when they first began playing the music that would come to be known as rock 'n' roll. Lesser-knowns like Hatfield and the North, Caravan, Soft Machine and Gong further explored the nexus of electrified music with the aesthetic and, in some cases, the language of jazz; even groups like Procol Harum and Fairport Convention were considered to be progressive artists, as they looked to incorporate classical music, in the case of Procol Harum, and traditional British folk music, in the case of Fairport Convention.
Four decades later and, if anything, progressive rock has experienced a revival that may not sell the kinds of records it used to back in its late- 1960s/1970s heydaybefore the advent of punk rock turned many of its fans fickle and they deserted it in droves and made it into a niche music- -but it has resulted in an unexpected resurgence of interest, thanks in part to the power of the internet in creating global communities joined together by common interests. This new golden age has seen, alongside a bevy of new acts, the revival of many legacy acts, some still capable of creating new music that stands alongside their 1970s classics, like Van der Graaf Generator, others capitalizing on past glories but ultimately proving to be mere bloated shadows of their former selves, like Yes. Rather than suggesting music that's progressing, in many ways progressive rock has fossilized into a series of subgenres that, rigidly defined and proprietarily protected by their fans, may be great music but all too often function with both feet firmly planted in the pastrather than having at least one of them stepping forward into the futureforgetting what the music is really supposed to be about.
Steven Wilson, since going solo after 20 years of fronting Porcupine Treea group that began as a solo project in the most DIY sense of the word but later became a group when the guitarist/keyboardist/singer/writer needed a band to play his music live pines for the days when progressive rock music meant more than stylistic pigeonholing. Since his first solo recording under his own name, 2009's Insurgentes (Kscope), he's progressed in leaps and bounds. 2011's Grace for Drowning (Kscope) was a major compositional statement, one which also reflected Wilson's experiences as the de facto surround-sound remix "go-to guy" for groups like King Crimson, as well as his recent work with Jethro Tull, Caravan and Emerson, and Lake & Palmer.
But Grace for Drowning was more than a leap forward for Wilson as a writer and performer; his subsequent 2011 and 2012 tours in support of his two solo recordings have seen the formation of a band that brings a whole new language, a whole new vibrancy and a whole new degree of unpredictability to his music. It isn't jazzit isn't even, as some fans say, "jazzy"; but with a group whose collective resume includes work with everyone from Soft Machine Legacy to Miles Davis, Wilson has a group whose approach to the music irrefutably speaks with the language of jazz, albeit in a more progressive-rock context. If progressive rock has, for its fans, often been a gateway drug to jazz, then perhaps it's time to consider the reverse, and let jazz become a gateway drug to progressive music.
- Bringing the "Progressive" Back to Progressive Rock
- Keeping It All Together
- The Perils of Going Solo
- Doing It Old School
- And That Leaves ... ?
- Large-scale Show on Small-scale Budget
- Lasse Hoile
- Anti-synthetic, Anti-snob
- Lizard and Remixing the King Crimson Catalog
- Never More Open, Never More Generic
"The whole idea of the band was to try and bring back this idea of the influence of jazz on progressive music," says Wilson. "The reason I say this is because I've felt, for many years, that it's part of the history of progressive rock that's been written out. If you go back to the original wave of progressive rock and the so-called progressive musicians (though they never called themselves progressive musicians), you see the influence of two forms of musicjazz and classical musicbasically instigating that whole generation of musicians. And, of course, it makes perfect sense because there was no precedent for musicians of that caliber going into what was then pop music, throughout the 1960s. Of course, you have to look at Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney and John Lennon, all aspiring to be great artists, but they didn't necessarily have the caliber of musicianship that you suddenly had come '68, '69 and '70.
"Suddenly, you had people who had been trained as jazz and classical musicians deciding that they were going to be pop musicians," Wilson continues. "That was a point in time that will never be repeated, because we all grow up noweven jazz or classical musicians knowing the Led Zeppelin catalog, The Beatles' catalog. So this was a once-in-a-generation moment when musicians who had little understanding or knowledge of pop music decided they were going to experiment with electric music. I always felt that the post-'70s generation of progressive music kind of forgot that whole thingforgot that whole aspect of jazz music being a very important influence, particularly on bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Magma and the whole Canterbury thing. But if you look at the post-'70s progressive-rock bands, bands whether it's a band like Opeth or a band like Marillion, it's just not there. It's not there, and one of the things that really came home to me when I was working on the Crimson catalog was, 'Wow, this is jazz music, in a way.' This is obviously musicians who've grown up completely enamored with and immersed, not in the world of pop music, but in the world of jazz music. And that's part of what makes that explosion of creativity and ambition so powerful and potent.
"The reason I say all this is that my idea, with this band, was to have musicians from both worlds," Wilson concludes. "I wanted to try and bring back that fusion. Fusion is a word that's got a different connotation now, but that's not what I mean. [Saxophonist/flautist] Theo Travis is someone I've known and worked with for many years, and there is a very strong element of woodwinds in the last record [Grace for Drowning]. [Keyboardist] Adam Holzman was recommended to me on very short noticeand, of course, as soon as I heard he was Miles Davis' keyboard player, I thought, 'This guy could really get it.' I called him up, we talked a bit, and I saidbecause he was in the last Miles band, which was more synthesizer oriented'What I love is the more organic early '70s Miles: the Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), the Fender Rhodes, the ring-modulated electric piano.' And he said, 'I totally love that; that's exactly what I love to play.'"
In addition to recruiting Holzman and Travisboth leaders in their own right with their own discographies and the saxophonist also known for his duo work with Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Gong and the Soft Machine alum group, Soft Machine LegacyWilson brought in Marco Minnemann, a staggeringly powerhouse drummer whose own discography as a leader has been largely overshadowed by work with higher-profile artists like keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson, guitarists Mike Keneally and Alex Machacek, and ex-Crimson alumni touch guitarist Trey Gunn and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. Bassist/stick player Nick Beggs came to Wilson's band with a reputation for flexibility and groovehis first major group, Kajagoogoo, scored a massive 1983 hit with "Too Shy," and he also garnered acclaim for recent studio and live work with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. Every one of these players has proven himself to be an exceptional musician, documented on the limited- release CD Catalog | Amass | Preserve (Self-produced, 2011), which featured guitarist Aziz Ibrahim, and the just-released live DVD/Blu-Ray/CD Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012), with guitarist Niko Tsonev in tow.
One look at the personnel on Grace for Drowning confirms Wilson's penchant for bringing players equally comfortable in the jazz and/or classical worlds into his own sound world. But, while Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess contributes some fine piano work to tracks like the instrumental "Sectarian" and lengthy "Raider II," Holzman's contributions come from a completely different place. "The original wave of progressive bands was pretty much drawn from the jazz and classical worlds. Jordan comes from a classical tradition, and that is the difference between him and Adam," explains Wilson. "Adam definitely comes from the jazz tradition. What they have in common is that they both grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but at the end of the day, they come from two very different places. I like them both, but I think one of the things that I love about jazz is the spiritual quality that this kind of sensibility brings to rock music. I've always loved it; I don't think I was necessarily acknowledging it so much until I started working on the Crimson albums. Suddenly it all came home to me again that, other than in the very beginning, when it was more psychedelic, and there was a little bit of improvisation going on, Porcupine Tree had become quite regimented, quite clinical. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. That's the sound of the band. But I realized that I was missing something in my own music, which made me fall in love with a lot of these bands. And not just progressive bands, but some of the Kraut Rock bands, for example, with that spiritual qualitythe improvisation, the living for the moment."
The guitar spot has proved problematic for Wilson, though his recent recruit, Britain's Guthrie Govan, finally looks to be a player on the same exceptional level as Travis, Holzman, Beggs and Minnemann. "The guitar position has proved the only problematic one so far, but I think I got the right guy now," says Wilson, a feeling borne out by clips from Wilson's recent studio sessions, recording the follow-up to Grace for Drowning, due out in early 2013:
That this core group has remained together since its inception speaks volumes. "I want to feel, when I get onstage, that my guysmy musicians, my bandare inspired by what I'm asking them to play. Not to blow my own trumpet, but there aren't a lot of things like this around for musicians of this caliber these days. One of the problems for great players is they do get stuck in this kind of, for want of a better term, 'jazz-fusion-guitar/drum-clinic ghetto.' And I think it's truer now than it was, certainly in the '70s. There were a lot more gigs where great players could play good material, also showing their own chops. There aren't many things like that around these days; maybe guys like Peter Gabriel, the kind of artist that musicians would love to play with. For years, Frank Zappa was, of course, the guy that everyone wanted to play with, but he's no longer around.
"So," Wilson continues, "while not putting myself on that level, in my own way I'm offering these guys a chance to show off what they can do within the context of what is, hopefully, good musical material. I can't think of anyone else that a guy like Marco [Minnemann] or Adam [Holzman] would be really, really inspired by, and I suppose that's one of the reasons why I've been lucky enough to get these guys. I would probably be having a lot more trouble keeping all of them if there were," Wilson says, chuckling. "But luckily for me, there aren't a lot of gigs for these guys."
Wilson appreciates that it's a leader's responsibility to keep a band together, a sentiment that echoes Dave Liebman's 2011 All About Jazz interview, where the saxophonist said:
"I'm very proactive as a leader, because to keep the same guyswhich, through thick and thin, I try to insist uponwe don't have a lot of work and we don't make a lot of money, so the only thing I have is that they're playing with me, and the challenge of this music. Because it's for the music. I'm not trying to make it like we're carrying a cross here, but it is for the music. My job with these three guys is to make it so that there's a challenge and a reason to come out and play with me.
"I think one of the things we forget is that there are no musicians who get into the business to make money," Wilson says. "I've never met one; if there are any, I've still yet to meet them. People get into the music business because they have fallen in love with the idea of making music. They may ultimately become, by necessity, more financially minded, but the reason we all got into music in the first place is because we're in love with the idea of being able to express ourselves on these instruments."
With the new record being engineered by renowned studio wizard Alan Parsonswho, in addition to his own successful career, engineered megahits like Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest, 1973) and Al Stewart's Year of the Cat (RCA, 1976)this is the first time Wilson has written with this group in mind, and they'll be spending plenty of time together in 2013, when he embarks on a world tour for the forthcoming record that will take up much of the year.
And Wilson couldn't be happier, though he had no idea, when he put this group together, that it would be as good as it has turned out to be. "I was surprised at how good it was," says Wilson. "Even removing myself from the equation, it was fantastic. I didn't really realize, until the first time we walked onstage for a show we did in Polandeven at that stage, having rehearsed with the band for two months, worked everything out ad infinitum with the lighting designer and the sound guy, planned everything, choreographed everythingeven at that point, I really didn't know if it was going to work or fall flat on its face.
"You can only rehearse so much," Wilson continues, "but when you walk onstage there are things that are still completely unknown and unexpected. I pretty much realized, by the end of the first show, that this was something special. But not just the bandthe whole concept; we did a dress rehearsal, and I thought, 'Do I look like a dick? Is this really ridiculous?' And you just don't know until you see the looks on the faces of the audience; then you know, 'OK, this is working.' You see the jaws drop, and you think, 'OK, they're really digging this.' It was scary, because at that moment I walked onstage, I'd put a lot of money into it. I'd put a lot of time into it, and my reputation was on the line. I'd hired people, but I had no idea if they were going to gel together, and I was lucky. I was lucky. You can plan, and you can rehearse, but there's always going to be 50 percent of it that's just pure chance."
Wilson is no stranger to taking risks, but with Porcupine Tree's success growing almost exponentiallyfrom its debut, On the Sunday of Life (Delerium, 1991) through to its last studio recording, The Incident (Roadrunner, 2009)Wilson acknowledges that going solo under his own name has been a chancy proposition despiteor perhaps because ofthe popularity he's achieved with PT. "It's not easy; it's very hard," Wilson explains. "When I was going to do my first solo tour, I was told by Steve Hackettsomeone who has had very good experience with of this whole kind of thingthat when you go out on your solo tour, expect your audience to fall by 80 percent. So expect 20 percent of your audience to go with you, and it doesn't matter how much you are associated with it.
"Roger Waters found this when he left Floyd," Wilson continues. "In this business, brand name is everything. You can be the guy that writes everything, produces everything, plays everything, but the minute you stop using the brand name and go out under your own name, you lose so much of your audience. It was a brave thing for [Jethro Tull]'s Ian Anderson to do it with Thick as a Brick 2 (Chrysalis, 2012); he was probably tempted to do it as a Tull record, but he didn't. These kinds of things economic things, commercial thingsin my situation, I did better than a lot of people expected; we probably had about 50 percent of the people that bought Porcupine Tree records buy my solo records. It was amazing. I was very pleased with that, but it's tough getting people to take it seriously, that this is not just a little side project. That's also a struggle, but I'm winning that battle, and I don't want to make it out like I'm not. I am winning that battle, but it's hard, and I'm constantly reminding people that this is not a side project; it's the most important thing I've ever done.
"In a way, it's history repeating itself, because that's exactly what happened with Porcupine Tree," Wilson continues. "The first three albums were de facto solo records, other than the occasional guest performance. The band came together in order to play live. I liked the way it sounded live so much that I decided to make it a band and started to write with the band in mind. So, in a way, it's simply the same thing again. The difference, this time, is I decided that I had the confidence to do it under my own name.
"And the other difference is that Porcupine Tree was, in many respects, an exercise in genre; this is not," Wilson concludes. "Porcupine Tree is something that was very much something designed to explore my interest in psychedelic and progressive music at a time when it was commercial suicide to even have a song that was more than five minutes long. Now I don't think that's true; actually, I think it's kind of a trendy thing now to be in a progressive band. The interesting thing here is that if you listen, particularly with my first solo album, there is as much the influence of my love of noise music, industrial music, electronic music and drone music. I think that's one thing that could never have happened with Porcupine Tree. When you have a group of musicians, you're inherently a democracy; the area you all meet on is, by definition, relatively small. By that, I mean the area upon which we can all agree this is the kind of music that we want to playbecomes relatively small. And that, in a way, is what gives the band its identity. And I'm not knocking it. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing that makes us different."
Grace for Drowning, and the material subsequently played on tour, is more intrinsically eclectic than anything Porcupine Tree has done. There are hints of fusion in the instrumental "Sectarian" references to recordings like King Crimson's Lizard (DGM Live, 1970) (which Wilson remixed in stereo and surround sound for the 40th Anniversary Series edition, released in 2009) or the 25-minute epic "Raider II," albeit filtered through Wilson's own prism, and one of his most flat- out beautiful songs on "Deform to Form a Star." But if the studio recording was a milestone for Wilson, live, the music has taken on more life, greater breadth and depth, even as the arrangements and overall length mirror the studio versions.
"It's different every night," Wilson confirms. "The arrangements are generally the same; there are the same number of bars for this and the same number of bars for that. But what happens is different every night; Marco is incapable of playing the same thing the same way twice [laughs]. Adam and Theo are similar; they come from the jazz world, where you don't repeat yourself. It's a really great combinationthe discipline and form of rock music but with the freedom and spirituality that comes from jazz improvisation. That is something that is still evolving, and now, with us finally making a record together, I'm hoping we'll be able to take things to the next level. This will be my music but played and contributed to by the band."
Just as Wilson harks back to the spirit of progressive music of the '70s, his plans for recording the new album are similarly old-school, with the band recording the album live off the floor to capture its immediacy and interaction, and Wilson then using some additional time to layer overdubs. "We're going to LA for a week," says Wilson. "I've written seven pieces for the new record, four of which are ten-plus minutes, so it's quite a lot of material. We'll spend one day each, working on each track as a group, and then the band will go home, and I will spend another week overdubbing, and that'll be the record.
"It'll be quite old-school, and the reason I've hired Alan Parsons is because the way those guys made those records in the '70s is kind of a lost art," Wilson continues. "It's an art which is dying because we do have this new generation of producers and engineers who are used to ProTools and making records on computers. You get each musician in, in turn, they play to a click, and they don't interact with each other. You get separation, but I'm fed up with that. I've done records like that for 20 years, and now I realize one of the reasons I love those old '70s recordings: so much of it is because the drummer is speeding up and slowing down; there is leakage from the guitar into the drum mikes; some of the guitars are out of time and out of tune; not everything's perfect. And that's what make those records live and breatheor, at least, it's one of the reasons why they live and breathe. So the combination of Alan and this group performing the stuff live off the floor, this is another risky thing for me. But one thing I've learned from last year is that it's paid off for me, trying to challenge my established habits. It's worked great so far, so we're going to keep on doing it.
"One of the reasons why think it doesn't happen in the rock- and pop- music world is that the musicians are just not good enough, and I include myself in that category," Wilson admits. "If I was in a band of people all at my level, there would be no way we would consider making a record like this, in this way. I think that's another thing that was brought home to me by working on all those records [surround remixes]: how good the bands were and how they could do it. This band can definitely do it; I'm going to be in the control room a lot of the time for these sessionsI'm not even going to be playing. I'm writing the material, and I'll sing the material, but I'm going to be taking more of a director's role a lot of the time because they're way better musicians, and in a way, I have always dreamed of being in this position. Zappa was so good at it; his players were always much better musicians than he was. He had the ideas, and he wrote the music, but he got other people to play it who were better at playing it than he was. At the same time, it was kind of mutually beneficial; they all enjoyed playing music by the guy who had the ideasthose fantastic ideas.
"What this has done is make me raise my game as a writer," Wilson concludes. "Because the stuff I've written for this band to playI mean, it's not complicated, but it's more complex than anything I've written beforeI think that to be able to write for musicians of this caliber does make me start to think, really, at the very peak of what I'm capable of imagining and writing. That's been great to challenge myself. What can I write that Marco will actually find difficult to play? Not a lot. I'm not trying to suggest I'm writing difficult stuff just for the sake of it, because I really loathe that whole concept of complexity for its own sake. But at the same time, I like stuff that works on both levels. I like good songs that also have a level of intricacy, which means you can appreciate them from a musical perspective as well. And that's something I'm definitely doing for this record that I've never been able to do before. I mean, Gavin [Harrison, Porcupine Tree drummer] is extraordinary, but myself, Richard [Barbieri, keyboardist] and Colin [Edwin, bassist], are all more restricted in terms of our musical technique, so we have to limit ourselves in terms of what we can play and what we can pull off in a live context. With this band, it's a whole different ballgame, and I'm loving that."
But beyond the issue of whether or not Porcupine Tree could play Wilson's current music is the question of would or should it do so. Back to Wilson's discussion of brand name, there may be more risks in going out under his own name now, with Porcupine Tree's 20-year history, but there's also more freedom and, paradoxically, more control. "I think the difference is that I would never ask the guys in Porcupine Tree to play music that I did not feel they would enjoy playing" says Wilson. "Whereas the difference, when you're hiring guys, is that although you still want them to enjoy playing the music, because they know it's my thing, they are more willing to try their hand at something else. Sort of like, 'You know, it's not what I'm into, but you know what? I'll go with it and I'll play it.'
"When you have a band that's been together as long as Porcupine Tree, there are all sorts of internal politics, and I simply wouldn't want to be performing something with them if I didn't think they were enjoying it," Wilson continues. "By definition, that then becomes the band sound, and although that is limiting, I use the word in the sense that it can also be positive. Porcupine Tree has a very distinct sound which people instantly recognize, and that sound comes from what we can all agree to play. Another way of putting it might be to say, if you took an artist like Frank Zappa, can you imagine a catalog that eclectic being made ever by the same group of musicians? That sort of democracy is just not possible. Only a solo artist could create such an eclectic catalog. In many respects, he's been my role modelto be able to be in a situation where I can surprise people with my next move. I think that's the difference. I mean, this is a band, but it's not a band [laughs]; and this time I'm going to keep it that way."
So where does that leave Porcupine Tree? On discussion boards, there are those who still see Wilson's current work as a side project away from PT and expect that he'll reconvene the group at a later date. Wilson has, in the past few years, stretched himself with projects also including No-Man, with singer Tim Bowness, Blackfield, with Israeli singer/guitarist/keyboardist Aviv Geffen, the solo drone/electronic music project Bass Communion and his recent Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner, 2012) duo with Opeth singer Mikael Akerfeldt. The success of Grace for Drowning and his new band is leading to, if not less work, then certainly a greater focus on what he considers most important to him.
"For me, right now, the things that are really enjoyable are the solo project and continuing to work on remixing classic records," Wilson says. "Those things have become the most enjoyable over the last three or four years. I never wanted to feel like that my career was becoming a machine, and the problem with the rock music world is that happens a lota lot of my friends are stuck in this tour-album, tour-album rut. That's not why I became a musician. I became a musician because I love making music, I love making different kinds of music, and I love making different kinds of music with different people and traveling and meeting people. That's what I love the most. Doing the remixing work has enabled me not only to work with a lot of people but also to meet and get to know a lot of the people who inspired me to make music in the first place. And doing the solo thing, for me, has been so inspiring, has made me confront a lot of my own habits and break patterns that I could easily have fallen into.
"I think one of the worst things I could've done would have been to go straight off the back of the last Porcupine Tree record into another album, another tour," Wilson continues. "It was just beginning to feel like it was becoming repetitive, like a sausage machine. I'm probably about halfway through my career; I've been doing it for 20 years, and let's say I've got another 20 years. Time to get into some different things, you know? And it's funny, again, how much resistance there is from the fan base. You know, I've done this for 20 years, I've made plenty of albums with this band, and I want to do some different things now, and really, there have been some quite hateful and offensive responses, though fortunately in the minority.
"It's a cliché for an artist to say that the new album they're working on is the best thing they've ever done," Wilson continues, "but in a way it's logical because whatever you're doing at the moment is the thing that reflects most closely where you are in your life and your emotional state in that moment. I feel very remote from things I made five years ago, let alone fifteen years ago. I don't recognize the person that made them, and the reason I don't recognize that person is because I'm not that person anymore, so it makes sense that whatever you're working on now is closest to your heart.
"But the fans' relationship to the music is very different from your own relationship," continues Wilson. "Some people take it very personally and are taking the Porcupine Tree thing very personally. I'm not particularly inspired to make a record with Porcupine Tree right now; therefore, the worst thing I could do would be to make a Porcupine Tree record. Who wants to hear a Porcupine Tree record made by people who are not really inspired to be making a Porcupine Tree record? The answer: a lot of people; there are a lot of people who would rather I made an album with Porcupine Tree that I'm not really into than an album under my own name, which I'm really inspired to make. I can't change that fact.
"Thankfully, this is a minority," Wilson concludes. "And I think most people do get it. I think I've engendered a career in which people expect the unexpected; certainly, with Porcupine Tree, we've reinvented the band several times, and so people have come to expect that. But, again, it's amazing how much the brand name is in some ways more important to people than even the sound changing. If you do something with a different name, it's more upsetting than if you completely change your sound. It's very strange to meall the politics that go on. Anyway, I'm working hard; I'm almost trying to overachieve, I think, even with the tour. I'm going out with a production that's even bigger than Porcupine Tree. I'm overachieving to try and convince people to take it seriously. And I think I'm winning the battle."
When Wilson took his Grace for Drowning tour to Montreal in the fall of 2011, beyond an exceptional band performing exceptional music were equally exceptional production values, despite the performance hall's being roughly one-quarter the size of the 3,000-plus-seat venue that Porcupine Tree would normally have played in that Canadian city. The 800-seat Corona Theatre may have been smaller, but the visuals, the sound and the overall concept spoke of something much larger. Wilson may be focused on the art, but he's also aware of the practical realities, and with some modern technological help he was able to make a tour that felt big but on a small group budget. Things like using an iPad app so that his onstage guitar tech could adjust the monitor mix from the front-of-hall soundboard, rather than having a monitor-mix engineer onstage, meant one less body on the toura significant saving. And the use of a gauze-like curtain in front of the band for the first four songs added a unique visual at a relatively low cost.
"I think one of the things that modern computer technology makes possible is to do things that are not that different to what the big guys are going out doing," Wilson explains. "Right from the beginning, I've always been committed to the idea of the concert as a show and not just a gig; it's an audiovisual thing. Part of that came, from years ago, of being very self-conscious about the fact that I basically just stood there onstage and played. So you start thinking, 'Let's try and give the audience something to look at,' and you start experimenting with slides and lights and visuals. I got more into that while, at the same time, I've become more confident as a performer over the years; I started to enjoy performing a bit more. But, at the same time, the possibilities of presenting a kind of audiovisual experience became much easier because the technology made it possible.
"We are actually using quadraphonic sound," Wilson concludes. "It's not hard to get the promoter to install a couple of extra speakers in the back of the hall, but it does take some thought about what's really going to those back speakers, and not everything works in that context. These things are not hard to do if you just put your mind to it, and that's what I did: I choreographed the whole show on paper before even a note of music was played. And my kind of brief to the lighting designer and others was that we were going to do [Pink Floyd]'s The Wall (Harvest, 1979) on a budget. That was kind of my thing: we were going to try and present something in a small auditorium that had the same impact as going to see The Wall in an arenaand on a budget. It's surprising what you can do with a few laptops and the most important thing, of course: imagination."
Wilson's Montreal showand Get All You Deservestarted and ended with music from Bass Communion, which has released nearly a dozen albums since its inception in 1998 with I (3rd Stone, 1998) through to the recent Cenotaph (Tonefloat, 2011). With a still rear-projection image from Lasse Hoile (Wilson's Danish visual-artist partner)a cloaked body that slowly, almost imperceptibly over the course of an hour, moved closer and closer as show time approachedrather than simply listening to some random music over the PA system to occupy time before the show, Wilson's performance actually began the moment the audience entered the hall, slowly insinuating itself first into the subconscious and then the conscious mind.
"That was one of the ideas right from the beginning," Wilson says. "I said, 'I don't want a support band.' The moment I walk into the auditorium, I want the show to have actually begun. But you're walking into a kind of environment-like installation or something, where you're part of it. But, again, it's amazing how much resistance I had from the audience. Some members of the audience hated it, saying 'Why are we having to sit here with this boring drone music and a static image?' And the answer is: 'You're not; you're not supposed to stand there and watch it,' but some people did. The idea is that you're a part of the environment; it's a textural thing for methe visual is part of the texture, the audio is part of the texture.
"It's amazing how many people hated it and said they were bored, that they thought they were supposed to stand there and watch it, but that was not the idea at all," Wilson continues. "That was, again, an attempt to get away from the traditional show with a support band or a DJ playing; I hate that. The idea is to make it so that the moment you walk in and the moment you leave, you've basically gone into a different world, making the transition from that into the performance and then out again. I even have an idea for the next tour that will take it to another level."
For those who liked the idea of a performance being more than just a group on a stage, playing music from an artist's recordings, Get All You Deserve reflects Wilson's multifaceted, multidisciplinary interests. With Hoile, Wilson has also developed a visual signature, one that has graced Porcupine Tree covers since In Absentia (Lava, 2002). "I've been very fortunate," says Wilson, "because, for many years, I had all these kinds of ideas in my head, but I had no personal facility to actually create them. I'm not a filmmaker, I'm not a photographer, and I struggled for most of the first 10 years of my professional careernot just with live performance but with simple things like album covers.
"Then, around 2001, along comes Lasse," Wilson continues. "Basically, he was a fan who submitted some things which totally blew me away. I looked at the pictures and thought, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I imagined. That's what I see in my head, those kinds of relationships.' I think you're lucky if it happens once to you in your career that there's that kind of symbiotic thing between you and another musician or you and another artist, or you and another discipline, in this case. And that's exactly what happened with Lasse. I know that I can just explain what the song is about, what I see in my head and perhaps some cinematic references, and he'll go away and come back with something that's exactly what I'd hoped for and imagined it would be. That is such a rare thing to find. I've never had that with a musician, ever. The closest I've had with a musician is with Mikael Akerfeldt, who is the singer with Opeth; he has similar kinds of ideas and musical tastes. But really, Lasse is the closest I've ever gotten to that kind of symbiosis, and it's fantastic because it means that we are able to collaborate on these kinds of audiovisual experiences."
In addition to providing the onstage visuals for Get All You Deserve, Hoile also directed the concert film, and it's helped to create something identifiable not just musically but visually as well. By sequencing the music carefully, introducing evocative imagery throughout and paying attention to every minute detail, Get All You Deserve is a potent live document of Wilson and his band. "I am trying to create the sense of a journey throughout the show," Wilson explains. "What I mean by that is different things are happening all the way through the show. So there's not a sense of stasis at any moment. Just when the show seems like it might be settling, some other new kind of gag will come along, whether it's a new film, or it's me coming out with my gas mask or whatever; something else is always grabbing the audience back in. I think that's important.
It's also important, Wilson continues, "to recognize that there are more bands out there on the road now than at any time ever before in the history of rock music because, firstly, there are just more people out there making music than ever before. It's relatively easy to get yourself set up at home, making music, and the next logical thing is to go out and play live. But the other reason is, of course, that you can't make money any other way. You have to go out and play on the road if you want to be a professional musician. So there are more bands out there than ever before, and the competition for the small amount of money people have to buy concert tickets is phenomenal, so you really have to give something. You have to make something that differentiates you from everyone else.
"I think that I was aware of this right from the beginning when I wanted to go out and do my first solo tour," Wilson concludes. "I could've so easily have just gone out with a guitar and an electric piano and done this sort of Peter Hammill [of Van der Graaf Generator] thing; I could have easily done that, and I think that, for a lot of people, that's what they expected. But I said, 'No, I'm going to go out with something even bigger than I did with Porcupine Tree, and hopefully everyone that comes along will go away talking about it to their friends. I think that, with that word of mouth, it will be interesting to see if it's actually worked this time around."
Based on the crowd in Montreal, and the sold-out show at Mexico City's Teatro Metropolitan, where the Get All You Deserve was recorded, it sure seems to be working. And as modernistic as the technology driving the performance is, underneath it all is an organic sound that, curiously, comes from instruments that some people would have trouble thinking of as such. "It is bizarre. I think of the whole musical palette from that era [1970s] as very organic, and a whole load of instruments which are electric instruments that sound and I know it sounds like an oxymoronorganic to me. The mellotron, for me, is an incredibly organic-sounding instrumentthe kind of scratching sound of the tape heads going down on a piece of analog tapethese things for me, at least in my terms, are very, very organic. In a way, they're not electric even though they are. They're not synthetic; I think that's a better word. They're kind of anti-synthetic, so they really feel like flesh and blood: living, breathing instruments. And they don't date, for me. In fact, those instruments sound timeless to me. I would put Hammond organ, mellotron and Fender Rhodes alongside the grand piano as kinds of instruments of sound that don't seem to date at all; they have a certain golden quality."
If Get All You Deserve reflects a confluence of organic sounds, stunning visuals, musical unpredictability and layered writing, performed by a band that brings its own mélange of styles to the table then, among Wilson's exceptional sextet, the biggest surprise may be Nick Beggs. "Nick is someone a bit like myself," Wilson explains. "He doesn't really get the musical snobbery thing at all; for Nick, playing in Kajagoogoo or with [singer] Kim Wilde is just as much fun, just as inspiring as playing with [bassist] John Paul Jones, my band, or with Steve Hackett. And I've always felt that, too. When people talk to me and they ask me what my influences are, I mention people like Abba and The Carpenters, and the kind of reaction I get sometimes is a chuckle or a sarcastic kind of 'knowing.' And I'm not being sarcastic, I'm not trying to be postmodernist, and I'm not trying to be ironic. I think those records are extraordinary. Abba's Arrival (Polar, 1976) is just as extraordinary as any progressive rock or so-called serious record. And I think that Nick is totally like that, too; he gets just as much buzz from playing with Nik Kershaw as he does with Steve Hackett as he does with John Paul Jones as he does with Kim Wilde as he does with me, and I like that about himthis complete lack of musical snobbery."
What's been particularly noteworthy about Wilson's solo career is its synergy with his remix work on the King Crimson catalogtwo seemingly different pursuits that nevertheless seem to be informing each other. His surround mixes have gone beyond simply providing a new way to hear the music, however; instead, Wilson has, in most cases, repositioned them with the kind of clarity and transparency that allows them to be better appreciated by those who might have dismissed them the first time around ... and that sometimes even includes the artists themselves.
"Lizard is incredibly congested," says Wilson. "One of things I said about Lizard that I still think is actually true is that it is an album that stereo could not contain; there is so much going on in that record that it simply was not possible to somehow capture it all within the stereo spectrum. I think I implicitly knew that from the beginning, because I remember when Declan [Colgan, head of Panegyric Records, releasing the Crimson series] said to me, 'Which album do you want to do first?' And I said I wanted to do Lizard first.
"I think I'd done Discipline (DGM Live, 1981) as a test, but when they said were going to do the whole project, I said to Robert [Fripp] and Declan, 'I want to do Lizard.' And they looked at me like I was demented," Wilson continues. 'Why do you want to do that record?' And I said, 'I'm gonna change peoples' minds about it,' and one of the things that I'm most proud of is that I think we did it. We did change peoples' minds about that record; I hear people raving about that record now. For years, people dismissed Lizard as Crimson's 'problem child.' Robert was one of the people who also dismissed it. I think one of the reasons that it never worked as well as it could have was that the original stereo mix was not great to start with, and even more so because there was so much information in the music; it was just crying out for a multichannel treatment.
"I kind of approach the 5.1 thing like an idiot savant," continues Wilson, "because I've never listened to anyone else's 5.1 mixes, and I just approach it with the point of view of what seems right. What I was really surprised to find, in retrospect, is that what I thought was right, a lot of other people listening to it thought was right as well. If you go from mono to stereo, you don't have things whizzing between the speakers just because you can; why would you do that in 5.1? I love the simple beauty of sound. Forget the musician. Just the sounds are beautiful: hearing the decay of a beautiful piano note and all the harmonics it throws off, the sound of hitting a note. It's a beautiful sound in the hands of a great musician. That's the best possible thing in the world.
"I don't understand people who make these rules for themselves," Wilson concludes. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'You shouldn't remix albums; you shouldn't tamper.' 'Uh, okay, why exactly?' The answer: 'Because that was the way they [the artists] intended it.' No, actually; if you talk to Robert, you'll see that a lot of those [Crimson] records were mixed under duress, under time constraints and under financial constraints, with all kinds of inter-band politics going on. So they were never mixed the way they wanted, and now they are. People said that about [Jethro Tull's] Aqualung (Chrysalis, 1971), and I found that what was on the tapes sounded very good. I think that one of the great things about that particular mix is that it proves that what they recorded in the studio was very good, it was just the mix that had gone wrong. And you can do a lot now; you can do so much with modern technology to make things sparkle. I'd love to do Soft Machine's Third (Columbia, 1970)."
Lizard was a transitional album, as Frippthe only remaining original member by this timestruggled to find a stable touring lineup. The result, with a wealth of guests including pianist Keith Tippett, cornetist Mark Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, was the closest thing to a jazz record Crimson ever made. "I think there are many things to say about Lizard," says Wilson. "It's the only album in the King Crimson catalog that's basically a Robert Fripp solo record, and I think that is one of the things that makes it so very distinctive. For years, Robert really didn't enjoy listening to it or talking about it, but I think he's since come to appreciate it. I've never been particularly interested in pure jazz; I don't dislike it, it's just not my thing. But I love jazz hybrids. I love music that has elements of jazz, whether it's the ECM catalog or progressive rock bands like Magma, Crimson, Tull and some of the Kraut rock bands. But that idea of combining music seems to be less easy to do these days. I think part of the reasonthe same problem, probably, that was always thereis how do you sell music that is not generic?"
"One of the things that's interesting about the era we live in now is, in some ways, it's never been more open, because it's liberated from the control of the record companies, and it's liberated from the control of television and commercial radio," continues Wilson. "But, at the same time, I feel music has never been more generic. And I think that's one thing that was kind of uniqueI was going to say unique to the early '70s, but it's also true of the early '80s. When I go back and listen to so- called post-punk bands like Joy Division, Magazine and XTC, I feel that they have more in common with the early '70s progressive rock bands than they did, in hindsight, with The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
"If you analyze what Joy Division did, it's very weighty, lyrically," Wilson continues. "It's all about the human condition, and the songs are both portentous and pretentious. And all this stuffit's progressive rock; it's absolutely prog rock. It may not be played with the same musical technique as a band like Pink Floyd played 10 years earlier, but it's still basically progressive rock. Or at least that's the way it seems to me. So the early '70s and early '80s, for me, are kind of parallel, in a way. But what we've lost now is that people don't necessarily work too much across genres anymore, and I think the audience is partly to blame for that because there's incredible resistance to creating music that goes across genres. Some people talk about my music being jazzy now; well, some people don't like that.
"The problem with rock music and dance music is that they are quite resistant to changing the format of a performance," Wilson concludes. "You come along, you go to the bar; you get your beer, stand and watch the support band for 30 minutes; you go to the bar again and see the show; you scream a lot for the band and they come back for an encore. It's a very traditional format. The fans are quite resistant, and I like the fact that the electronic and jazz worlds are much more open."
Still, Wilson seems to be making headway. One of the most exciting tracks on Get All You Deserve is "Luminol," a new tune that's both a sneak peak at his forthcoming studio record and the first tune he's written with his band in mind. "Yeah, that was an experiment," Wilson admits. "It's funny; I did this once with Porcupine Tree, where we went out and played a whole new record before we went into the studio. It was something that people did all the time in the '70s, and I understand why people don't do it now, because the whole download culture has unfortunately made people paranoid about performing new material. But in 2007, before we did Fear of a Blank Planet (Roadrunner, 2007), we said, 'Fuck it, let's go and play the whole record. We haven't recorded it yet, so let's road test it.' It's amazing how much more the music starts to live and breathe when you finally go into the studio to record it. You have explored all the possibilities.
"The interesting thing about that is that it's another thing that I pretty much realized from remixing these old recordsthe Crimson, the Tull, the ELP all the records I've been doing the last few years," Wilson continues. "A lot of these guys were recording these albums almost on the fly. They'd be out doing shows six days a week. They'd be playing the songs, and the studio was just something they popped in on when they had a spare day. And they would cut exactly what they were playing on the road. They'd set up in the studio as a band, the engineer would get a basic sound, they'd play their setthey'd play exactly the same set that they played the night before or two days beforeand the engineer would mix it, and that was it. That was an album.
"Now it's become the other way around," continues Wilson, "which is, you basically go into hibernation and write an album, you record it in a fairly clinical way, and only then do you start thinking about playing live. But, of course, only when you start to play live does it start to really live and breathe, and I've realized that hearing these guys play some of the music that I recorded on Grace for Drowningand I thought that recording is pretty vibeynow they've gone to a whole new level. So that was part of the reason for going out and playing "Luminol" live; it's an old-school thing to do.
"I also liked the idea of documenting a band at its inception, which is not something that usually happens," Wilson concludes. "This is a band that has not even made a studio recording together, and yet we've made a live DVD. And I'm sure we'll only get better and make more and more live documents. But I think it was an interesting thing to do, to document this. You don't really know it's going to work until it's actually performed in front of an audience. My manager, Andy [Leff], was there that night, and Lasse was there that night. But to me, what was surprising was that by the end of that show, everybody felt that it was just one of those moments in life when it was pure luck, and it all worked out so well."
Wilson is currently busy working on the new album, set for release by the beginning of March 2013, when he'll hit the road for nearly a year of heavy touring. In the meantime, Get All You Deserve and video clips from the new recording dates make one thing clear: that the serendipitous confluence of Wilson, Holzman, Travis, Govan, Beggs and Minnemann, already at the top of their game, is going to make 2013 a year to remember for fans of progressive music that may not be jazzor even jazzybut which leans heavily on its risk-taking spirit, improvisational heart and linguistically sophisticated mindset.
Steven Wilson, Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012)
Storm Corrosion, Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner, 2012)
Steven Wilson, Catalog | Preserve | Amass (Self-produced, 2012)
Steven Wilson, Grace for Drowning (Kscope, 2011)
Bass Communion, Cenotaph (Tonefloat, 2011)
Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, Complete I.E.M. (Tonefloat, 2010)
Steven Wilson, Insurgentes (Kscope, 2009)
No-Man, Schoolyard Ghosts (Snapper, 2009)
Bass Communion, Loss (Soleilmoon, 2006)
Blackfield, Blackfield (Snapper, 2004)
Porcupine Tree, In Absentia (Lava, 2002)
Porcupine Tree, Lightbulb Sun (Kscope/Snapper, 2000)
Porcupine Tree, Stupid Dream (Kscope/Snapper, 1999)
Bass Communion, I (3rd Stone, 1998)
Porcupine Tree, The Sky Moved Sideways (Delerium, 1995)
Porcupine Tree, On the Sunday of Life (Delerium, 1991)