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Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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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."

The Perils of Going Solo

Wilson is no stranger to taking risks, but with Porcupine Tree's success growing almost exponentially—from 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 despite—or perhaps because of—the 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 Hackett—someone who has had very good experience with of this whole kind of thing—that 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 things—in 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 play—becomes 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 combination—the 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."



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