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Steven Wilson: Luck's What You Make It

John Kelman By

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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."

Lizard and Remixing the King Crimson Catalog

What's been particularly noteworthy about Wilson's solo career is its synergy with his remix work on the King Crimson catalog—two seemingly different pursuits that nevertheless seem to be informing each other. His surround mixes have gone beyond simply providing a new way to hear the music, however; instead, Wilson has, in most cases, repositioned them with the kind of clarity and transparency that allows them to be better appreciated by those who might have dismissed them the first time around ... and that sometimes even includes the artists themselves.

"Lizard is incredibly congested," says Wilson. "One of things I said about Lizard that I still think is actually true is that it is an album that stereo could not contain; there is so much going on in that record that it simply was not possible to somehow capture it all within the stereo spectrum. I think I implicitly knew that from the beginning, because I remember when Declan [Colgan, head of Panegyric Records, releasing the Crimson series] said to me, 'Which album do you want to do first?' And I said I wanted to do Lizard first.

"I think I'd done Discipline (DGM Live, 1981) as a test, but when they said were going to do the whole project, I said to Robert [Fripp] and Declan, 'I want to do Lizard.' And they looked at me like I was demented," Wilson continues. 'Why do you want to do that record?' And I said, 'I'm gonna change peoples' minds about it,' and one of the things that I'm most proud of is that I think we did it. We did change peoples' minds about that record; I hear people raving about that record now. For years, people dismissed Lizard as Crimson's 'problem child.' Robert was one of the people who also dismissed it. I think one of the reasons that it never worked as well as it could have was that the original stereo mix was not great to start with, and even more so because there was so much information in the music; it was just crying out for a multichannel treatment.

"I kind of approach the 5.1 thing like an idiot savant," continues Wilson, "because I've never listened to anyone else's 5.1 mixes, and I just approach it with the point of view of what seems right. What I was really surprised to find, in retrospect, is that what I thought was right, a lot of other people listening to it thought was right as well. If you go from mono to stereo, you don't have things whizzing between the speakers just because you can; why would you do that in 5.1? I love the simple beauty of sound. Forget the musician. Just the sounds are beautiful: hearing the decay of a beautiful piano note and all the harmonics it throws off, the sound of hitting a note. It's a beautiful sound in the hands of a great musician. That's the best possible thing in the world.

King Crimson—Lizard"I don't understand people who make these rules for themselves," Wilson concludes. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'You shouldn't remix albums; you shouldn't tamper.' 'Uh, okay, why exactly?' The answer: 'Because that was the way they [the artists] intended it.' No, actually; if you talk to Robert, you'll see that a lot of those [Crimson] records were mixed under duress, under time constraints and under financial constraints, with all kinds of inter-band politics going on. So they were never mixed the way they wanted, and now they are. People said that about [Jethro Tull's] Aqualung (Chrysalis, 1971), and I found that what was on the tapes sounded very good. I think that one of the great things about that particular mix is that it proves that what they recorded in the studio was very good, it was just the mix that had gone wrong. And you can do a lot now; you can do so much with modern technology to make things sparkle. I'd love to do Soft Machine's Third (Columbia, 1970)."

Lizard was a transitional album, as Fripp—the only remaining original member by this time—struggled to find a stable touring lineup. The result, with a wealth of guests including pianist Keith Tippett, cornetist Mark Charig and trombonist Nick Evans, was the closest thing to a jazz record Crimson ever made. "I think there are many things to say about Lizard," says Wilson. "It's the only album in the King Crimson catalog that's basically a Robert Fripp solo record, and I think that is one of the things that makes it so very distinctive. For years, Robert really didn't enjoy listening to it or talking about it, but I think he's since come to appreciate it. I've never been particularly interested in pure jazz; I don't dislike it, it's just not my thing. But I love jazz hybrids. I love music that has elements of jazz, whether it's the ECM catalog or progressive rock bands like Magma, Crimson, Tull and some of the Kraut rock bands. But that idea of combining music seems to be less easy to do these days. I think part of the reason—the same problem, probably, that was always there—is how do you sell music that is not generic?"


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