Steven Wilson: Standing on the Branches of a Giant Tree
Steven Wilson has been the leader, front man, singer, guitarist, and composer of Porcupine Tree for over two decades, while also recording music in some fashion since 1983, when he was 15. Now 45, after decades of impressive collaborations that span work in a myriad of genres with No-Man, Blackfield, Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, Bass Communion, and, recently, his historic collaboration with Opeth leader, Mikael Akerfeldt, on the Storm Corrosion project, the prog rock king returns with his third solo album, on the heels of 2009’s Insurgentes and 2011’s Grace for Drowning.
The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) is a six-track tour de force, combining the best of the modern progressive rock template, Wilson’s own unique compositional genius, and some of the hallmarks of improvisational music. For the first time, the British artist appears to have found a sound, an idea, a concept, a series of songs, and an opportunity to bring in all of his numerous influences and own sublime musical inventions into a singular statement. The work is vigorous, robust, dynamic, subtle, atmospheric, dark, melancholic, and, yes, quite profound and beautiful, too.
The special edition of The Raven also includes a 128-page booklet filled for the first time with ghost stories by Wilson, and illustrations by German artist, Hajo Mueller. These stories are intertwined with the lyrical content of the songs, and help serve as a literary and visual signpost as well as a landmark storytelling device all its own, which echoes back to some timeless era when the dream world somehow co-mingled with our own.
Wilson has also been recognized as one of the finest producers and engineers of the last three decades, and his work with his many projects, has spawned a parallel life re-mixing the catalogues of King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and numerous other classic bands, all with one clearly defined common denominator—these acts knew how to use the album as an art form, and experimented and perfected the sound of music as progressive rock.
It would take the length of this interview, perhaps two or three more, to properly document the recorded output of Wilson’s long career as a sound wizard who happens to write some fairly memorable pop melodies, gorgeous tone poems, esoteric mindwarps, and raging rockers, as well as some of the modern era’s most complex yet dynamic long-form, multi-part songs, some lasting as long as 55-minutes, but all engaging in a way that is always interesting, always fascinating, always deeply honest, and, yes, always bearing the unmistakably unique Steven Wilson trademark. His music can appear so inspiring and uplifting in a way that defies easy definition that the lazy observer can come to a false assumption. And, as the man himself states in this often philosophical, introspective, and always engaging conversation: “I don’t do drugs. I just dream.”
Jambands.com captures some of those inspired interpretations here, as well as several other Wilson musings. In the end, if new to the Wilson canon, one should start with his latest solo work for a clear and definitive statement of his current artistic mindset. And if one, like this writer, is a longtime fan, one should, again, turn to the new album, for even more time with a very generous and very dear old friend. Indeed, the work endures.
RR: Today, I was listening to The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) for about the fifth time over the last few days, was on the final track, the title track, and I received an e-mail stating that the video had just debuted for that song, so I had a bit of a synchronicity right there. I have been moved by your music and lyrics in many ways over the years via your numerous projects, and this video had quite a profound impact on me, as well. What are your initial thoughts on it?
SW: It’s beautiful. The girl who did the video, and her partner, did a video for me once before for the Storm Corrosion project I had last year, and they did such a fantastic job. I knew that they would be right for this particular project because I wanted something with almost like a vintage, fairy tale-like quality. They’ve used this very traditional, almost old-fashioned style of stop-motion animation, which, for me, resonates very well with the actual feeling of the story and the record, which all have that feeling. Some would say vintage, I would say timeless, there is timelessness about them.
RR: It ties in with the fact that it goes back to your childhood when you would find some old book in the back of an antique shop somewhere?
SW: Yes, that’s what I told Hajo [Mueller], the illustrator. I said, “Imagine you’ve gone into the darkest, dustiest corner of an antique book store and you’ve pulled out this book that is probably a hundred years old. Imagine how that would be illustrated.” That was kind of my brief to him.
RR: Your first two solo albums were each a leap forward and a consolidation of the ideas that you had over the years with your various projects. But, your latest work seems quite inspired in a way that demands a few listenings to really appreciate the complexity of the tunes. It was as if I couldn’t believe how strong the work is, and I had to convince myself that you had outstripped yourself, yet again, on a very unique and original work. You used the word timelessness, and I don’t want to call the latest work a masterpiece just yet, but it is a definitive statement at this point in time for you as an artist. At the time of the recording, were you aware that you had moved into an area which is groundbreaking and new for you?
SW: I think I’m aware, but I’m not thinking in terms of “You know what? I’m now going to do something really groundbreaking.” Honestly, all I’m thinking is that I want to do something that interests me. That’s all I’m thinking, and that’s all I’ve ever thought, really. I don’t really like to repeat myself. That’s the first thing. I don’t like to make the same record more than once. On the rare occasions when I have felt that I was kind of repeating myself—it hasn’t happened often; it’s happened a couple of times—I really didn’t feel good about it. I think, for me, it’s important to feel this constant sense of evolution and challenge.
There’s been so many things about this whole experience that have been different for me—the fact that I’m working with a band, the fact that we recorded the album pretty much live in the studio, the fact that we did it in California, the fact that we recorded with Alan Parsons. All of these things made the experience different to any other experiences I’ve ever had making an album. I think, at the end of the day, that’s all I’m looking for—I’m looking for the things that will make the experience unique and different and feel like there’s a challenge and something to keep me interested in continuing making records.
Beyond that, I have to be honest, sometimes in your career…I mean I’ve made like 20, 30 albums in my career, and I think they are all good. When I finish them (laughs), I think they’re all good. Otherwise, I wouldn’t release them. But, I’ve become aware that sometimes, some albums seemed to click better with more people than others. No matter how much I might feel strongly about an album…for example, I absolutely adored the Storm Corrosion album I did last year, but that was an album that very much divided people. I kind of expected it would; it doesn’t mean I like it any less. This album I like just as much as that album. I wouldn’t say I like it more, I wouldn’t say I like it less; it’s another step in my career as a musician. But, I’m already getting the feeling that this album is seeming somehow to click in a way that the last few albums that I have made haven’t clicked. So, there’s something magical that happens, and you can’t plan it, and you can’t consciously decide “O.K., now I’m going to make a definitive, groundbreaking album,” because every album I approach with the same enthusiasm and the same passion as every other.
I guess what I’m saying is that I am really happy that this album seems to be…a lot of people seem to be considering it a landmark album in my sort of career trajectory. That’s a fantastic feeling, but I guess I don’t feel any more strongly about it than any other album I’ve made, which is to say that I feel very strongly about it (laughs)—if you see what I mean. I feel very passionate about it, but I always feel that about every record.
RR: You mentioned your work with Mikael Akerfeldt on the Storm Corrosion project, which created a certain mood and atmosphere that I found to be powerful. It was also a complete album experience, which resonated with me, too. That ‘complete album experience’ was very much present on your recent re-mixing projects—for example, the King Crimson catalogue with Robert Fripp. Did the work on those classic albums influence the direction of your current artistic choices?
SW: The simple answer is, well, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean, again, that it was a conscious thing. Here’s the thing—if I’m spending, say, three weeks of my life, 14 hours a day, re-mixing an album like Thick As A Brick by Jethro Tull, which is exactly what I was doing, by the way, when I started to write The Raven That Refused to Sing, I was just in the process of finishing off a remix of Thick As A Brick, I had worked on this album every day for three weeks for 14 hours a day, I finished the record, I take the weekend off, I go back to the studio on Monday, and I think about writing my record, my head is still full of this music. It is still full of Thick As A Brick. It is still full of [King Crimson’s] Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, or whatever it is that I have been working on for the previous few months. My head is full of it, it’s buzzing with it—all the ideas, all the inspiration, all the influences from that music is still buzzing around in my head. I sit down to start writing my record, and, of course, that particular feeling and that particular sound is going to manifest itself through my writing. And I think that’s normal.
Any artist—his or her output is basically a product of his or her input. If I’m sitting around reading a lot of ghost stories, which I was at the time I was making the record, obviously, that’s going to become a theme in the lyrics, which is exactly what happened. I think this process of creating something from nothing—people talk a lot about inspiration, and sometimes they ask me questions like, “Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you create something?” The point is that actually nothing is ever created from nothing. You cannot just pluck something from the air. You cannot look at a blank page and expect to fill it with completely unique thoughts. I do believe (I’m not being facetious when I say this) that the artistic process almost always starts with stealing, stealing from something else. You can call it whatever you like. You can call it inspiration. You can call it influence. Stealing.
You start with basically something that you already know and you already like and you take that for the basis of your own art. But, of course, over a period of time, you hope to filter that through your own personality and your own experiences to create something which has something about it that is uniquely you. But (laughs), at the end of the day, you can’t create something from nothing. You have to start from somewhere. I’m no different than anyone else. I start from the basis of “You know, wow, I really love that track I’ve been mixing for King Crimson. That track is great. Maybe, I can do something like that.”
So, I think this is a very long way to say, “Yes,” to your question. Yes, of course, that work has informed the new record.