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Steven Wilson: Intuitive Indulgences and Pop Proclivities

John Kelman By

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I've always admired the great pop art form. It's not what I do best probably, but now and then something will pop out and I'll say, 'You know what? That's pop and I'm proud of it and it's completely me.'
The trajectory of Steven Wilson's career, since stepping away from his longtime band Porcupine Tree to go solo, has been nothing short of remarkable. Since interviewing him in 2012 for the release of Get All You Deserve (Kscope, 2012)—an audio and video document of his world tour in support of Grace for Drowning (Kscope, 2011), his second solo album following 2009's Insurgentes (Kscope)— Wilson has released a third studio recording, 2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope). Following yet another world tour, he released the EP Drive Home (Kscope, 2014), a collection of single edits, alternate versions and live tracks. All this, in addition to continuing his work as a surround and stereo remixer of not just classic prog now, but also pop groups like XTC, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds and Roxy Music.

But it's not the volume of his accomplishments that is remarkable; if anything, Wilson has simplified his life in recent years by focusing on just these two things (as if that's not enough). What's most extraordinary has been the continued, increasing success of his solo career. That The Raven has become not just the biggest selling album since he's gone solo but the biggest selling album of his entire career is almost paradoxical to its old school, hardcore progressive rock nature.

"I was as surprised as anyone that The Raven did as well as it did. That was a willfully uncommercial move. It had absolutely nothing on it that was even remotely acceptable to the mainstream, and yet it's become the most successful album of my whole career; it's the best-selling record I've ever done. It's extraordinary. And what that tells me is: the more self-indulgent and willful I am, the more likely the album is to appeal," says Wilson, chuckling. "It almost gives me license to keep doing my thing. Not that I'm capable of anything else, but it's still nice that it can have some appeal beyond just the hardcore fans.

"I could never have contrived or predicted that this would be the case," Wilson continues. "And remarkably, it's still selling. It's the only album I've ever done in my whole career that has not tailed off. Usually, you make record, you sell well in the first couple of weeks and then sales nosedive. This is the one exception, so far, in my career. This record has kept on selling. I know there's the word-of-mouth thing which, of course, helps keep it going...and the live shows."

As successful as The Raven has been, there's every reason to believe that his new studio album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope, 2015), will do even better. "This is my first full-blown narrative conceptual album," Wilson explains. "I've always had themes to my records, but this is the first that I've done which tells a story from point A to point B—a much more complex thing to do. The music and the lyrics have to have this very symbiotic relationship and they have to be satisfactory within themselves, but they also have to tell a story in the right order. So it's been quite difficult to put it together, but I'm very proud of the the way it's come out.

"The inspiration started from a news story which I remember hearing about 10 years ago, in the mid-part of the last decade, of this lady called Joyce Carol Vincent," Wilson continues. "She'd been found dead in her flat in North London and she'd been there for three years undiscovered—which is already extraordinary. But then I discovered, when I watched the documentary Dreams of a Life—which came out two or three years ago and was a lot more about her—that things were even more extraordinary. I think, when you hear a story like this, your first assumption is usually a little, lonely old lady—and, of course, I also jumped to the same conclusion. But what the documentary explained is that it was actually quite the opposite: this was a young, attractive and popular young woman, which makes the story even more shocking and even more extraordinary.

"And so, you try to understand and decode how something like this could have happened," Wilson concludes. "How could someone disappear so completely whilst living in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world—someone that is apparently popular and has friends and family? So the album began from the point of view that I wanted to write a story about a character very loosely based on Joyce Carol Vincent," Wilson continues. "A character that basically grows up, moves to the city and begins this process of making herself invisible—withdrawing and isolating herself from the 20th century and from the rest of the human race. So the whole concept is really this inner dialogue that this young lady has with herself as she kind of observes the 20th/21st century from her vantage point. Really, that was a gift to explore all sorts of my obsessions that people have probably observed from my earlier albums."

Few male artists—songwriters or otherwise—manage to successfully capture the female experience. British sci-fi writer John Wyndham did it well back in the 1960s with his groundbreaking short story, "Consider Her Ways," but most men cannot help but imbue their perception of being a woman with some aspects of being male. Wilson manages to do so with some of his most poetic lyric-writing to date, and an album that will both satisfy his hardcore progressive fans while, at the same time, bringing in new ones with an album that is, overall, more contemporary than The Raven, with elements of electronica and, yes, even pop music as part of Hand. Cannot. Erase.'s 65-minute runtime.

"One of the things that inspires me the most is kind of a negative/positive in a way, which is the need to not repeat myself," Wilson says. "I think people would look at the success of my last record and suggest that the obvious thing to do right now would be to do The Raven, Part II. But the whole idea of that is anathema to me, and I think I've an inbuilt aversion to repeating myself; that's a strong impulse.

"Second, I think the story itself—as, indeed, was the case with The Raven and the theme of that record—informed the musical palette and musical style of Hand. Cannot. Erase.," Wilson continues. "If you look at The Raven, which is obviously based on this idea of a group of almost classical ghost stories—supernatural stories—that suggested to me a more vintage, almost old-fashioned sound.

"Then we come to Hand. Cannot. Erase. This is absolutely set in the 21st century—absolutely set in the modern age—and so I'm thinking about a completely different palette: electronic sounds, almost industrial sounds. And you've got the progression of someone's life—the whole range of emotions and periods that someone's life represents. So I think it suggested that a more diverse sound, an almost electronic element, needed to be a strong component."

But there's more than just electronic elements like drum loops and ambient textures; along with hardcore near-industrial/metal passages of thundering power, there are also moments of near folkloric simplicity...and of haunting beauty. For the first time, Wilson employs a choir that, as the album comes full circle and reiterates its opening themes, takes the album out on an appropriately ambiguous note with a blend of ethereal, almost heavenly voices and increasingly spare piano that mirrors the album's final lyrics: a letter written to the lead character's that says so much with so little:

"Hey brother,
Happy returns,
It's been awhile now I betcha thought that I was dead.

But I'm still here,
nothing's changed....nothing's changed.

Hey brother,
I'd love to tell you I've been busy
but that would be a lie,
'cause the truth is,
the years just pass like trains...
I wave, but they don't slow down...they don't slow down.

Hey brother,
I see the freaks and dispossessed
on day release,
avoiding the police.
I feel I'm falling once again,
but now there's no-one left to catch me.

Hey brother,
I feel I'm living in parentheses
And I'm in trouble with the bills.
Do the kids remember me?

Well I've got gifts for them
and for you and Sorrow,
but I'm feeling kinda drowsy now
so I'll finish this tomorrow."

As Wilson's poetry has reached a new high so, too, has his singing. Never a singer to draw attention to himself with either affect or displays of vocal gymnastics, his singing on Hand. Cannot. Erase.—as subtle as ever—is still some of the most emotive he's ever done, in his characteristically understated and nuanced fashion.

"A lot of vocals that end up on my records are what you call scratch vocals," Wilson explains. "The thing is that I do them pretty much as soon as I've written the song. You're right there in the moment; you've just written a song and you're right in touch with the sentiment of the words that you've written. I've learned over the years to always record my demo vocals properly, because there is a very good chance I'll never be able to better them. And that's certainly the case with this record. I'm not aware of raising my game with the vocals on this album, but the longer I go on with his solo project the more confident I have become as a singer."

That Wilson's confidence as a singer has increased with his solo project might seem odd, given his long-time role as singer (and guitarist) for Porcupine Tree. But while the difference might seem subtle, in truth it's not. "This is no disrespect to Wes [John Wesley, who regularly gigged as Porcupine Tree's touring guitarist but only occasionally recorded with the band]," Wilson explains, "but Wes was always brought into Porcupine Tree as more of a backup guitarist and I was the guy who was doing solos and lead parts most the time.

"So I was very much still 'the lead guitarist,'" Wilson continues. "There wasn't a moment in a Porcupine Tree show where I could put the guitar down and be a front man. Now I have these guys in my band where there is very little reason for me to have an instrument at all, because these guys are capable of doing everything. So I'm free to stand up without any instruments. And that's something psychological: it's my name; it's my band. It's not Porcupine Tree and I can't hide behind this kind of group identity. This is my name on the marquee so this is my show. So I'm now the ringleader—the director. And that was a big leap for me psychologically, and I think a building confidence over the last two or three years in terms of growing into that role and fulfilling that role, rather than hiding behind this group identity or hiding behind being a guitarist."

The truth, for most guitarists, is that they can stand on a stage and do almost anything, but it's to a great extent about being able to hide behind the instrument, because put them onstage without a guitar...and it's frightening prospect. "It really is," Wilson says, laughing. "I mean, the first time I did it I was really scared: 'What are you supposed to do with your hands...what the hell do I do with my hands?' [laughs]. So I developed these kinds of hand movements as a start, just to give me something to do. So yes, it is a bit of a shock, but two or three albums and two or three tours in and I'm really beginning to feel comfortable. So maybe I'm feeling a little bit more like a singer rather than a musician who happens to sing a bit."

As Wilson prepares to hit the road in support of Hand. Cannot. Erase., his touring band is essentially the same as on The Raven's world tour—albeit without woodwind/reed multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis, who only plays a very small role on Hand. Cannot. Erase. Still, while the rest of the band—guitarist Guthrie Govan, keyboardist Adam Holzman, bassist Nick Beggs and drummer Marco Minnemann—will be on much of the tour, as has happened before, there will be some changes when Wilson hits the Americas, with both the guitarist and drummer off to fulfill commitments with their own band, The Aristocrats.

"One of the issues with having a solo band is that you cannot always rely on having the same people available," says Wilson. "Guthrie actually chose Dave Kilminster—who, for the last few years, has been standing on top of The Wall being [Pink Floyd's] David Gilmour on [ex-Floyd bassist/singer] Roger Waters' tour, so he may actually be known to millions of people, even though they may not realize that they've seen him play before. Dave was recommended to me by Guthrie, who said he was the best possible replacement; they're old friends, they played together in a band in the early days, they have a very similar approach and they're about the same age. The only difference, I think, is that Dave has little bit more of a kind of old school approach to playing; but I don't think that will be a massive change.

"I think Craig Blundell is somebody who's never really made a name for himself as part of a band; he's more of a clinician," Wilson continues. "He works with Roland and Premier, and he's been doing clinics for years. He's pretty amazing; I auditioned a bunch of guys, and as soon as I saw him play I realized there was something in him that reminded me very much of Marco—a certain fire and energy that is difficult to fake: you either have it or you don't.

"When I originally had to find a substitute for Marco on the last tour, I had a guy named Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and he was fantastic," Wilson concludes. "But Chad could not be any more different than Marco in style; very laid-back in a good way, but it changed the whole sound of the band. I think this time I was looking for somebody with a style that was much closer to Marco so it wouldn't be as much of a shock to the system. So for me, Craig and Dave are both very good successors, and I don't think—I mean, I won't know until it happens—but I don't believe the sound of the band is going to change that much."

With its blend of prog, electronics, pop, folk and more, Hand. Cannot. Erase. may be Wilson's most diverse album to date. As past albums have reflected, to some degree, the remix work he was doing at the time (Grace for Drowning, for example, deeply reflective of his remix work for King Crimson's 40th Anniversary Series), there's little doubt that the broader purview of Wilson's current remix work—ranging from Yes and Jethro Tull to XTC and Simple Minds—has impacted the end result of Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Still, it's not as direct as people might think...and the simple truth is that Wilson's interests go far beyond even the broadest reaches of progressive rock...and rock, period. "I'm sure people have this idea that I just listen to progressive rock all the time when, actually, quite the opposite is true," Wilson says. "I listened to progressive rock when I was kid; I don't really listen to it now. I listen to electronic music; I listen to pop; I listen to classical; I listen to jazz; I listen to Japanese noise music. All these of things get mixed up in my head, mixed up in my musical psyche, and they come out in a way that's not necessarily self-conscious.

"If you are going to the studio every day for two weeks and you are immersing yourself in Tears for Fears or XTC, and on the fifteenth day you go into the studio to write a song for your own record, your head is still full of this music," Wilson continues. "So I think it's very natural that whatever is buzzing around inside my head—if it's King Crimson one year, Tears for Fears and XTC the next—I do think they naturally come out in the work."

And if Hand. Cannot. Erase. is, indeed, Wilson's most stylistically diverse yet at the same time most paradoxically cohesive record ever, there's still plenty to appeal to the hardcore progressive fans. One particular set of tracks that will send shivers up the spine of even the most jaded progster is "Home Invasion" and "Regret #9," which Wilson describes as: "in the space of 11 minutes it begins as death metal, morphs into jazz fusion, shifts down a gear into funk, then a couple of more traditional Moog and guitar solos, all rounded off with a piano/banjo duet."

If it's not an unreasonable question to ask exactly how something like that happens, the answer is, perhaps, not that unexpected: "It's really tough to answer," Wilson says. "The description I gave was kind of a retrospective analysis of something that actually was very intuitive. It's not like I intentionally make these decisions when writing a song; this is not the way. That piece of music unfolded unconsciously in a very intuitive way and and it was only when I sat back and looked at it and analyzed it that I thought, 'This is pretty odd, because this is funky and this is metal...' It really just comes back to this thing about it being a reflection of all of the music that's swimming around in me.

"So one of the things I have to get used to is making music and putting it out in the world and people coming to me and saying 'This is really influenced by dah-dee-dah,'" Wilson continues. "'Well, actually no, it wasn't, though I can see exactly why you would say that.'"

"So a lot of it is almost working through me on an unconscious level," Wilson concludes, "I wasn't aware that I was doing anything particularly strange—the way I was fusing those different styles—but when I step back and listen to it I can hear all that's going on in there. Because the trick is to make it seem cohesive—to stop it from sounding like some kind of Frankenstein's monster—and that is what I hope I can achieve through the strength of this album.

"I can tell you literally what I started with," Wilson continues. "'Home Invasion' started with that first Mellotron motif. I bought myself a real Mellotron about 12 months ago, and that was really inspiring to write on actually. So, the very first thing you hear before the metal bit comes in, that was my starting point. As to how the rest of it came together? I wish I knew...but I don't. I wish I had an intelligent and articulate answer, except that one idea leads to another. Every idea tends to suggest the next idea, and where that comes from I don't know. For me, I guess, it's partly to do with my love of music, but also my love of literature and cinema. That I have a very strong sense of structure and storytelling—and I don't mean literally, I mean in terms of the music, through the music. Things occur to me. I don't know why but they do."

But what is clearly Wilson's most important modus operandi is that he not try to do anything more than not repeat himself, and allow whatever muse that drives him—and whatever inspires him, whatever the source—to take him where it will. And that can, for as broad-minded an artist as Wilson, mean just about anything.

"I think, over the years, that I've come to realize that what I should never be thinking about is career moves...what the right thing is to do for my career," Wilson asserts. "I do have a great love of pop. I grew up as much with ABBA as I did with Pink Floyd. I've always admired the great pop art form, whether it was Brian Wilson or Björn and Benny or The Carpenters; I have as much admiration for that. So occasionally I can turn out a pop song and it's not something contrived. It's not something done as a career move; it's done because I genuinely love pop. It's not what I do best probably, but now and then something will pop out and I'll say, 'You know what? That's pop and I'm proud of it and it's completely me.' And I think that's the case with this record."

Photo Credit:
Lasse Hoile

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