Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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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 heyday—before 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 past—rather than having at least one of them stepping forward into the future—forgetting what the music is really supposed to be about.

Steven Wilson, since going solo after 20 years of fronting Porcupine Tree—a 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 jazz—it 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.

Chapter Index

Bringing the "Progressive" Back to Progressive Rock

"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 music—jazz and classical music—basically 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 now—even 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 thing—forgot 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 notice—and, 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 said—because 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 Travis—both 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 Legacy—Wilson 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 groove—his 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 quality—the 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.

Keeping It All Together

That this core group has remained together since its inception speaks volumes. "I want to feel, when I get onstage, that my guys—my musicians, my band—are 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 guys—which, through thick and thin, I try to insist upon—we 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 Parsons—who, 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 Poland—even 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 everything—even 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 band—the 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."



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