Something Else! Interview: Steven Wilson on classic ’70s sounds, prog’s rebirth and his amazing new album

When neo-progger Steven Wilson says he loves the texture and scope of music from the 1970s, he doesn’t just mean classic recordings by the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. He means all of it — ABBA, jazz, the Bee Gees, all of it.

This newfound passion is directly related to the Porcupine Tree frontman’s tandem career as a first-call mixer on Crimson and Tull reissues from that era. In examining those albums from the inside out, Wilson grew to appreciate their flaws as well as their long-touted strengths. In fact, he’s come to think that those things are inextricably linked.

All of it fed into the recording of his most accomplished solo project to date, this week’s Kscope release The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). Wilson joined us to discuss the project, the modern reevaluation of progressive rock, the dangers of performing barefoot and more in an exclusive, very rangy new SER Sitdown …

NICK DERISO: Take us into the creative beginnings of The Raven, which is very much about loss and how we deal with it. Does that relate to something specific going on in your own life, or was it simply a topic that intrigued you?
STEVEN WILSON: It’s a bit of both. I don’t think there is anyone on the planet that can say they are not at least familiar with the idea of obsessing with their own sense of mortality. We’re all, in a way, slaves to this idea — well, not an idea; it’s a reality. The reality is, we know that one day we will cease to exist. And I think, in that sense, we measure everything we do in life against the fact that time is tick, tick, ticking away. I think those things, loss and the concept of regret, for me, are very poignant. To have gotten to the end of your allotted time on Earth, and to look back and feel you didn’t do what you should have done, and you weren’t with the person you should have been with, and the job wasn’t the one you enjoyed — all of those things make for an extremely sad, but again rather poignant human condition. So, this idea of loss, the idea of regret, the idea of a fear of mortality, the idea that time is always ticking away, and how happiness and unhappiness are measured against that fact, for me that’s all at the root of the concept of a ghost story, or the story of the supernatural. These are people that have passed on but who, in a way, have refused to let go of life for various reasons. So, they are very humanistic stories.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Steven Wilson always sought to balance mournful laments with these boisterous interludes, and he’s never done a better job of balancing the two impulses than on ‘The Raven.’]

NICK DERISO: There are moments when it’s as if you’re bringing listeners into one of those ages-old ghost stories — and even the title seems to reference Poe. Did you go back to those books for inspiration?
STEVEN WILSON: Not so much Poe. I mean, “The Raven” is a very famous Edgar Allan Poe story, but the symbol of the raven is ubiquitous in lots of supernatural and horror fiction. It’s a symbol of mortality, it’s a symbol of impending death. And there are many other symbols, too — things like the moon. The ghost itself is a symbol of various paranoias. I think what’s nice about those classical ghost stories is that they are ultimately stories about human beings, about people in situations and relationships and jobs that are not completely satisfactory. I certainly did go back and read a lot of short stories from the early 20th century — in fact, some time after Poe. There’s a school of British writers from that time, people like M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen — who I guess, in their own way, were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. But they had a very peculiarly British twist, a kind of intellectual approach to the idea of the ghost story — very understated, as only the British can do. I loved that. I started out, in fact, by trying to do my own kind of stories in that kind of vein and style.

NICK DERISO: Musically, The Raven very much feels like a love letter to the earliest days of prog rock, but with your own personal touches. Have you been lucky to live in an age of critical reevaluation for that period?
STEVEN WILSON: I think that’s been happening, for at least the last 15 years. Ever since Radiohead kind of snuck in with their trojan horse, OK Computer, people have been reevaluating what early-1970s, ambitious, album-orientated music can mean — and its relevance in contemporary music. You only have to look to bands like Muse, and the Mars Volta, the Flaming Lips, Opeth and my band Porcupine Tree to see that the influences of that era of music — and let’s bear in mind that no one called it “progressive rock” at the time, no one. It was simply underground music, it was ambitious music. It was album-orientated music. It was the idea of taking the listener on some kind of musical journey, rather than being limited to the idea of the three-minute pop song. That whole form, I think, has been in the process of reevaluation at least since OK Computer. The ice has slowly been melting. And, at the same time, the Internet has, in a way, given people — particularly, young people — the opportunity to discover music without the so-called tastemakers of record companies, marketing men, MTV and radio stations telling them that they shouldn’t be listening to that stuff. So, you have now a generation of kids who are listening to King Crimson, and listening to Led Zeppelin, and listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and many bands that aren’t as visible — and they are arguably equally as valid — who came from that same tradition.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Fans of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson’s old band project, are directed toward a terrific new live document — since it’s probably the last you’ll hear from them for a good long while.]

NICK DERISO: Explain how writing for this group changed the complexity of The Raven. It is, in many ways, the most ambitious thing you’ve ever done.
STEVEN WILSON: I think that’s right. There certainly is a sense of reaching for something that I wouldn’t have reached for before, because I know these guys can play it. It’s as simple as that. There’s always that sense that I can hear stuff in my head, but I wouldn’t necessarily normally write it — because I would also have to be the one playing it. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where I no longer have to think like that. I have what you might call a musical director’s role, in my solo project. I’m not the main guitar player, for example. So, that’s very different from how I would write for Porcupine Tree or Blackfield — or any of these bands where I play guitar. They’ve liberated me from having to think about “well, can I play it?” So, the music does have a sense of reaching for a slightly higher level of sophistication in the playing. But that’s not to say I’m trying to write complicated music, or technical music — because I can’t stand that kind of thing. At the same time, if I think I can reach a balance between something that has a very strong emotional resonance and something that also features musicians expressing themselves at a very high level, then for me that’s something worth striving for. I think you’re right. I think this album does have that feeling.

NICK DERISO: It also feels like the new band has opened up things for you, from a performance standpoint. Are you coming into your own as a frontman?
STEVEN WILSON: I think I’m getting better. You’re right, of course. The fact that I’ve got these extraordinary musicians behind me does, in a way, give me more of an opportunity to think about being a frontman. And that’s for two reasons: Firstly, they’re so good that I feel incredibly confident when I stand at the front of the stage. Secondly, of course, I no longer have to play so much of the show with a guitar around my neck. I can sit down at the keyboard, I can stand up and just try to project and sing the stories. It doesn’t come easy to me. I never had an ambition to become a frontman. There’s something inherently bizarre about standing up on stage with 1,000 or 2,000 people staring at you. (Laughs.) That just doesn’t come easily to me. Over the years, I’ve gained more confidence about the idea of performing and projecting the songs. But, certainly, this band has given me the opportunity to consider that side of it much more deeply.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2012’s live set ‘Get All You Deserve’ showcases new music from Steven Wilson, even as it unscores his growing maturity as a frontman. We got together at the watercooler to discuss.]

NICK DERISO: You’re still performing barefoot. Surely, there have been some mishaps over the years.
STEVEN WILSON: Not so much these days. My stage crew, very considerately, cleans the stage. But in the old days, when I was playing small clubs with Porcupine Tree, I would come off some of the filthiest, most unhygienic stages in the world. I would have nails, bits of glass — once, I had a syringe — stuck in my foot. I had to go have an injection. Those days, thankfully, are gone now. But I have paid the price, in a way, from wanting to feel my most comfortable on stage.

NICK DERISO: Is that something that goes back to your childhood?
STEVEN WILSON: I’ve always been like that, so it does begin at childhood. I’ve basically always run around in bare feet, ever since I was a little kid. I’ve never been comfortable wearing shoes. I’m not wearing shoes now! (Laughs.) I find that, at every available opportunity, I would rather be bare foot. I guess that’s something that’s always been with me, ever since childhood. I don’t know why.

NICK DERISO: Even while assembling this band and mounting a tour, you’ve been working as a supervising producer on a series of well-received reissues. Yet, when you got ready to do your own album, you brought in Alan Parsons to work as an engineer. Why was it important to you to have new ears hearing this?
STEVEN WILSON: With Alan, it was more a question of wanting someone who had experience of a specific era of recording. I mix records, and I mix records that were recorded at that time, but at the risk of stating the obvious, I wasn’t the one who recorded them. And that is something that I don’t have a great deal of expertise or experience in. When I wrote this album, and you’ve already referred to the fact that certain aspects do reference what you might call the golden era of early-1970s underground rock music — art rock, jazz rock, whatever you want to call it — I wanted to work with someone that was experienced in recording at that time. I am a great believer that the records from that era sound the best that records have ever sounded. I don’t really like the sound of modern records, including my own. I love the sound of 1970s records — and not just the kind of records that I make. I love the sound of jazz records in the ’70s, I love the sound of singer-songwriter records in the ’70s, I love the sound of pop records in the ’70s. For me, there have never been better pop records than those made by bands like ABBA, the Carpenters and the Bee Gees. They sound beautiful. So, there was a sense of wanting to work with someone that had experience and made records at that time. With Alan, this was the guy that not only worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd, but also made some extraordinary records under his own name — which, whether you like them or not, all sound fantastic. They sound organic, natural, beautiful, warm, golden. Pick your adjective. So, Alan was at the top of my list. I wanted, in a way, not to have to worry about the recording side of it. I just wanted to be more of the musical director, the producer, and to know that there was a guy on the other side of the glass that was doing a wonderful job of documenting everything. And that’s what he did.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Blackfield’s ‘II’ found Steven Wilson moving further away from the dark sensibilities of Porcupine Tree, immersing himself in more approachable, at times quite beautiful melodies.]

NICK DERISO: In an age in which everything is punched in, overdubbed and shared via the Internet, you gathered your working band in a single room to perform and record The Raven. What are the benefits of doing things the old-fashioned way?
STEVEN WILSON: This is interesting, and it’s something that very much came about as a consequence of working on the back catalog you referred to — the Crimson albums, the Tull albums. I started to notice that one of the things that should have been really obvious, but wasn’t until I actually went inside the music, is that this is a bunch of guys in a tiny room, all facing each other, playing live. Sure, they would go back and overdub a vocal or a keyboard part or a flute part, whatever it was, but ultimately 90 percent of what you were listening to was live. One of the reasons those albums sound so exciting, so vibrant, is because of that. The drummer is speeding up, and slowing down. The singer is not always in tune. The guitar player is fluffing notes left, right and center. And you know what? It sounds fantastic! It sounds like human beings, relating in a room. There is a chemistry there that you simply don’t get when you control everything to the Nth degree, and do it in a more modular way. Now, that modular way is the way I have always made records. So it was a bit scary, actually — honestly — to suddenly say “I’m giving up this control. I’m going to record this pretty much live in the studio. I’m not going to control every aspect. I’m not going to care if it’s not perfect,” because I realize now that that’s what I like about these records that I’m talking about. There is a kind of danger, or edge, to the records because they’re not perfect. They can sound beautiful, like pieces of art. But the performances have to be edited, in an effort to be perfect. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. When you do that, you end up with something that is kind of very bland. It’s lost all the blood and guts. That was an epiphany when I was working on all of these old records. I really missed the feeling of that in a lot of modern records — so I hope, in a way, we’ve gotten a little of that back on this one.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Adia

    Great interview! So glad to hear of other bands who keep things old school! New is not always better.