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Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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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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