Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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Large-scale Show on Small-scale Budget

When Wilson took his Grace for Drowning tour to Montreal in the fall of 2011, beyond an exceptional band performing exceptional music were equally exceptional production values, despite the performance hall's being roughly one-quarter the size of the 3,000-plus-seat venue that Porcupine Tree would normally have played in that Canadian city. The 800-seat Corona Theatre may have been smaller, but the visuals, the sound and the overall concept spoke of something much larger. Wilson may be focused on the art, but he's also aware of the practical realities, and with some modern technological help he was able to make a tour that felt big but on a small group budget. Things like using an iPad app so that his onstage guitar tech could adjust the monitor mix from the front-of-hall soundboard, rather than having a monitor-mix engineer onstage, meant one less body on the tour—a significant saving. And the use of a gauze-like curtain in front of the band for the first four songs added a unique visual at a relatively low cost.

"I think one of the things that modern computer technology makes possible is to do things that are not that different to what the big guys are going out doing," Wilson explains. "Right from the beginning, I've always been committed to the idea of the concert as a show and not just a gig; it's an audiovisual thing. Part of that came, from years ago, of being very self-conscious about the fact that I basically just stood there onstage and played. So you start thinking, 'Let's try and give the audience something to look at,' and you start experimenting with slides and lights and visuals. I got more into that while, at the same time, I've become more confident as a performer over the years; I started to enjoy performing a bit more. But, at the same time, the possibilities of presenting a kind of audiovisual experience became much easier because the technology made it possible.

"We are actually using quadraphonic sound," Wilson concludes. "It's not hard to get the promoter to install a couple of extra speakers in the back of the hall, but it does take some thought about what's really going to those back speakers, and not everything works in that context. These things are not hard to do if you just put your mind to it, and that's what I did: I choreographed the whole show on paper before even a note of music was played. And my kind of brief to the lighting designer and others was that we were going to do [Pink Floyd]'s The Wall (Harvest, 1979) on a budget. That was kind of my thing: we were going to try and present something in a small auditorium that had the same impact as going to see The Wall in an arena—and on a budget. It's surprising what you can do with a few laptops and the most important thing, of course: imagination."

Wilson's Montreal show—and Get All You Deserve—started and ended with music from Bass Communion, which has released nearly a dozen albums since its inception in 1998 with I (3rd Stone, 1998) through to the recent Cenotaph (Tonefloat, 2011). With a still rear-projection image from Lasse Hoile (Wilson's Danish visual-artist partner)—a cloaked body that slowly, almost imperceptibly over the course of an hour, moved closer and closer as show time approached—rather than simply listening to some random music over the PA system to occupy time before the show, Wilson's performance actually began the moment the audience entered the hall, slowly insinuating itself first into the subconscious and then the conscious mind.

"That was one of the ideas right from the beginning," Wilson says. "I said, 'I don't want a support band.' The moment I walk into the auditorium, I want the show to have actually begun. But you're walking into a kind of environment-like installation or something, where you're part of it. But, again, it's amazing how much resistance I had from the audience. Some members of the audience hated it, saying 'Why are we having to sit here with this boring drone music and a static image?' And the answer is: 'You're not; you're not supposed to stand there and watch it,' but some people did. The idea is that you're a part of the environment; it's a textural thing for me—the visual is part of the texture, the audio is part of the texture.

"It's amazing how many people hated it and said they were bored, that they thought they were supposed to stand there and watch it, but that was not the idea at all," Wilson continues. "That was, again, an attempt to get away from the traditional show with a support band or a DJ playing; I hate that. The idea is to make it so that the moment you walk in and the moment you leave, you've basically gone into a different world, making the transition from that into the performance and then out again. I even have an idea for the next tour that will take it to another level."

Lasse Hoile

For those who liked the idea of a performance being more than just a group on a stage, playing music from an artist's recordings, Get All You Deserve reflects Wilson's multifaceted, multidisciplinary interests. With Hoile, Wilson has also developed a visual signature, one that has graced Porcupine Tree covers since In Absentia (Lava, 2002). "I've been very fortunate," says Wilson, "because, for many years, I had all these kinds of ideas in my head, but I had no personal facility to actually create them. I'm not a filmmaker, I'm not a photographer, and I struggled for most of the first 10 years of my professional career—not just with live performance but with simple things like album covers.

"Then, around 2001, along comes Lasse," Wilson continues. "Basically, he was a fan who submitted some things which totally blew me away. I looked at the pictures and thought, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I imagined. That's what I see in my head, those kinds of relationships.' I think you're lucky if it happens once to you in your career that there's that kind of symbiotic thing between you and another musician or you and another artist, or you and another discipline, in this case. And that's exactly what happened with Lasse. I know that I can just explain what the song is about, what I see in my head and perhaps some cinematic references, and he'll go away and come back with something that's exactly what I'd hoped for and imagined it would be. That is such a rare thing to find. I've never had that with a musician, ever. The closest I've had with a musician is with Mikael Akerfeldt, who is the singer with Opeth; he has similar kinds of ideas and musical tastes. But really, Lasse is the closest I've ever gotten to that kind of symbiosis, and it's fantastic because it means that we are able to collaborate on these kinds of audiovisual experiences."

In addition to providing the onstage visuals for Get All You Deserve, Hoile also directed the concert film, and it's helped to create something identifiable not just musically but visually as well. By sequencing the music carefully, introducing evocative imagery throughout and paying attention to every minute detail, Get All You Deserve is a potent live document of Wilson and his band. "I am trying to create the sense of a journey throughout the show," Wilson explains. "What I mean by that is different things are happening all the way through the show. So there's not a sense of stasis at any moment. Just when the show seems like it might be settling, some other new kind of gag will come along, whether it's a new film, or it's me coming out with my gas mask or whatever; something else is always grabbing the audience back in. I think that's important.

It's also important, Wilson continues, "to recognize that there are more bands out there on the road now than at any time ever before in the history of rock music because, firstly, there are just more people out there making music than ever before. It's relatively easy to get yourself set up at home, making music, and the next logical thing is to go out and play live. But the other reason is, of course, that you can't make money any other way. You have to go out and play on the road if you want to be a professional musician. So there are more bands out there than ever before, and the competition for the small amount of money people have to buy concert tickets is phenomenal, so you really have to give something. You have to make something that differentiates you from everyone else.

"I think that I was aware of this right from the beginning when I wanted to go out and do my first solo tour," Wilson concludes. "I could've so easily have just gone out with a guitar and an electric piano and done this sort of Peter Hammill [of Van der Graaf Generator] thing; I could have easily done that, and I think that, for a lot of people, that's what they expected. But I said, 'No, I'm going to go out with something even bigger than I did with Porcupine Tree, and hopefully everyone that comes along will go away talking about it to their friends. I think that, with that word of mouth, it will be interesting to see if it's actually worked this time around."

Anti-synthetic, Anti-snob

Based on the crowd in Montreal, and the sold-out show at Mexico City's Teatro Metropolitan, where the Get All You Deserve was recorded, it sure seems to be working. And as modernistic as the technology driving the performance is, underneath it all is an organic sound that, curiously, comes from instruments that some people would have trouble thinking of as such. "It is bizarre. I think of the whole musical palette from that era [1970s] as very organic, and a whole load of instruments which are electric instruments that sound—and I know it sounds like an oxymoron—organic to me. The mellotron, for me, is an incredibly organic-sounding instrument—the kind of scratching sound of the tape heads going down on a piece of analog tape—these things for me, at least in my terms, are very, very organic. In a way, they're not electric even though they are. They're not synthetic; I think that's a better word. They're kind of anti-synthetic, so they really feel like flesh and blood: living, breathing instruments. And they don't date, for me. In fact, those instruments sound timeless to me. I would put Hammond organ, mellotron and Fender Rhodes alongside the grand piano as kinds of instruments of sound that don't seem to date at all; they have a certain golden quality."

If Get All You Deserve reflects a confluence of organic sounds, stunning visuals, musical unpredictability and layered writing, performed by a band that brings its own mélange of styles to the table then, among Wilson's exceptional sextet, the biggest surprise may be Nick Beggs. "Nick is someone a bit like myself," Wilson explains. "He doesn't really get the musical snobbery thing at all; for Nick, playing in Kajagoogoo or with [singer] Kim Wilde is just as much fun, just as inspiring as playing with [bassist] John Paul Jones, my band, or with Steve Hackett. And I've always felt that, too. When people talk to me and they ask me what my influences are, I mention people like Abba and The Carpenters, and the kind of reaction I get sometimes is a chuckle or a sarcastic kind of 'knowing.' And I'm not being sarcastic, I'm not trying to be postmodernist, and I'm not trying to be ironic. I think those records are extraordinary. Abba's Arrival (Polar, 1976) is just as extraordinary as any progressive rock or so-called serious record. And I think that Nick is totally like that, too; he gets just as much buzz from playing with Nik Kershaw as he does with Steve Hackett as he does with John Paul Jones as he does with Kim Wilde as he does with me, and I like that about him—this complete lack of musical snobbery."
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