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Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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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."

Doing It Old School

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 breathe—or, 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 sessions—I'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 ideas—those 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 play—I mean, it's not complicated, but it's more complex than anything I've written before—I 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."

And That Leaves ... ?

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 model—to 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 lot—a 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 me—all 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."
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