Steven Wilson: Standing on the Branches of a Giant Tree
RR: You wrote two ghost stories in the book, which accompanies the album, “Luminol” and “The Birthday Party.” You also co-wrote a ghost story, “The Raven That Refused to Sing” with Hajo Mueller, from an original idea that he had.
SW: He’d written this story, which was about this old man who lost his sister when he was very young, and a raven stopped to visit him. I loved the basic fairy tale quality of that, so I basically took his original story and re-wrote it and added ideas of my own—the idea that the raven became the manifestation of the dead sister, and that the sister would sing to him when he was young and, so, therefore, he feels that if he can get the raven to sing, then it will be proof to him that the raven is the manifestation of his sister. So, it turned into more of a classic fairy tale. His story was incredibly depressing and incredibly dark. It was wonderful, but I felt that it was almost comical. It was so depressing (laughter), so I kind of turned it a little bit more into a fairy tale, gave it a little bit more of a classical feeling, but it is basically his original concept.
RR: Some of your music over the years, including this current work, is melancholic, but it is very beautiful music, while also being very inspirational. I find that to be a strange dichotomy—when you can touch upon a melancholic feeling, or vibe, or touchstone, and, yet, make a listener have a very life-affirming moment, too. Are you aware of that particular feeling in your music, too?
SW: Yeah, absolutely. I think you are touching on a universal there, which is that anything that is sad and melancholic and somehow manages to encapsulate part of the human condition is going to make you feel good. The reason it makes you feel good is because I think subconsciously it makes you understand that you’re not alone in feeling these things, that we are all part of a collective, and that, ultimately, we all share the same kinds of experiences and feelings. We all know what it’s like to be sad, depressed, and melancholic. We all know what it’s like to be in a relationship that’s not going anywhere, a job that doesn’t make us happy, whatever it is that is making us sad, we can relate to someone when they write about that, when they sing about that, when they make a film about that, it kind of makes us understand that there is something beautifully tragic about the human condition. Again, I think it’s all tied to this idea of mortality.
One thing I love about ghost stories is that they are also quite beautiful in their own way. The classical ghost stories are scary, of course, but they are also very beautiful because, effectively, they are ultimately about this idea of mortality, about regret, and about loss. The ghost becomes a symbol of regret and loss, for me, and fear of mortality.
The thing is that all of us on this planet, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we measure everything we do in our lives against this kind of tick-tick-tick of our life basically passing by, and I don’t know if animals are aware of their own mortality, or if human beings are the only creatures on this planet that actually know one day they are going to cease to exist, and the incredible burden that is to carry around with you particularly if you’re sad, lonely, or depressed because time is ticking away, and you’ve got only so much time to fix that. I think subconsciously everything that we do relates back to that idea of mortality. Every piece of art, every love affair, everything we do in life in terms of career and relationships and all of that stuff—it’s all measured against this idea that we’ve got so much time to make sense of our lives. I think that is the tragedy and beauty of the human condition, isn’t it? At least it seems that way to me.
RR: Absolutely. That is very profound. It is also almost like other creatures on this planet have a Zen-like ability just to ‘get on with it’, even if they knew what was going to happen. Whereas, the rest of us, there is some sort of self-sabotage going on, or something that happens where one can’t quite get to where one needs to go.
SW: I think because we are aware of our own mortality, we realize that we kind of implicitly accept that we cannot possibly do everything. We can’t. We just don’t have time. We don’t have enough years to achieve everything we want to achieve. Someone told me something really interesting the other day, which is the word “decide”—every other word in the English language, or many other words in the English language, that end with “cide”—suicide, homicide—are to do with killing something. In a way, the word “decide” also has something to do with killing something. It’s killing your options. It’s making a decision, and it’s therefore, by definition, cutting out the other options. And there is something about the decision-making process that becomes some form of sacrifice, becomes some form of way of moving forward that, ultimately, may lead to this idea of regret—you can’t do everything, you can’t be with everyone you want to be with; you can’t be a novelist, a writer, a filmmaker, a musician. God knows I’ve tried, trust me. (laughs) You can’t travel the world and meet everyone in the world, but, you know, you’d like to. You just can’t do those things. So, this idea of making decisions again ties back to this idea of mortality and there’s only so much time you’ve got to squeeze all this stuff into. It’s amazing how much time we spend thinking about things and not doing them, and then we realize that it’s too late, so this kind of idea of regret comes back. For me, regret has the most pathos of all to it—the idea that somebody would get to the end of their life and say, “I wasn’t with the person I should have been with, I didn’t have the job that made me happy, I wish I had done this, I wish I had said that”—it’s such a tragic thing, but at the same time, so beautiful, that kind of emotion, regret.
RR: Well, let me ask you this—I believe it has been 30 years since you’ve been actually recording music in some fashion. I am not sure how you, personally, track it back to the origins of your career. Do you track it all the way back to your childhood? Or, do you recognize 1983 as when you started? Regardless, do you stop, and think that you’ve been able to do things that have made you happy? Compared with most modern musicians, you have accomplished quite a lot of admirable work. As you said earlier, each time you finished an album, you were thinking that was a good album at that time, so I would imagine that when you look back over the last 30 years, you may stop and pause and think, “Wow, look at how far I have gone.”
SW: I do feel that, but it’s one of the strange things about setting yourself goals and setting yourself ambitions. When I was 15, and I was starting out making music in my first bands at school, always looking at the horizon, and thinking, “Wow, I really wish one day I’m going to be there,” looking off into the distance, and this thing way in the distance, “and, maybe, one day, I’ll actually make an album, and have a fan base, and go out and play live, and people will actually listen to what I do and care about what I do.”
And then one day, you find that what you were looking at in the distance on the horizon is now where you are. But what do you see when you get to the horizon, and you look into the distance? You see the horizon. (laughter) Whenever you get to a point in the distance that you were looking at a few years earlier, you’re still seeing the same thing in the distance. In that sense, you’re always looking forward.
If I can ever objectively analyze where I started and where I am now, I can say, “Yeah, I’ve achieved a lot. I’ve made some great records. I’ve met wonderful people. I’ve toured the world. I have fans that are very loyal and love what I do.” But, I am still looking at the next horizon. I think that is what drives me, in a way, and I suppose, ultimately, what that means for me anyway is that it is a very personal quest. All this other stuff at the end of the day is great, but it doesn’t really change my process. I’ve always wanted to keep things interesting for myself and, in a way, I wonder if that isn’t what being an artist is all about—isn’t being an artist actually being incredibly selfish? Isn’t being an artist pleasing themselves, and not anyone else? If you start trying to please other people and thinking about success and money and status then you’ve become an entertainer. Being an entertainer is not what I want to be.
I like to entertain people with my art, but I think there is a distinction. Objectively speaking, I can see that I’ve traveled a long way since I started, you know, but, in a way, I haven’t really traveled anywhere at all because I still feel the same way, and I still feel like I’ve got just as much to learn as I ever did.
RR: That’s great because it doesn’t seem like the word “complacency” is in your vocabulary. What you said about ambition is interesting because of your various collaborations with Mikael Akerfeldt, not only on the Storm Corrosion project, but your work producing and/or engineering Opeth albums. You both appear to have two completely different personalities, but mesh well in the studio with a multiple set of ideas. Indeed, you both have the uncanny ability in your respective careers of not doing what people expect you to do, or to duplicate what you have done before, instead going off into a new and fascinating direction. Have you two musicians ever talked about that concept—this is why we shouldn’t do this, and this is why we shouldn’t do that? Or, do you talk about what interests you at that moment?
SW: I guess we have talked about it. What’s great about having the friendship with Mikael is that we are encouraging each other to be more like that—exactly what you just described. It’s much easier when you have someone like that who is a very close friend that is also like that. If you ever have any doubt like “Should I really be doing this?” The other guy will say, “Yeah, of course, you should. Fuck what people think. If it’s important for you to do it, then you do it.” It’s important to have someone like that—someone that is a foil for you, someone who is encouraging you to have the courage of your convictions.
The other thing about Mikael and about myself is that—I think it sounds like an obvious thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway—we love music. The reason I say this is because a lot of people in the music industry that make music don’t. They really don’t like music. They probably did once; when they started out, they really liked music, and they formed a band, and they released a couple of albums, and they got a record deal, and they became famous, and at some point they actually stopped really loving being able to make music, and it became their job. You can almost hear the point when that happens in career trajectories of a lot of great artists. They begin to stagnant, and you can almost identify the exact point of which music is no longer their passion, it’s become their job.
And I’ve got to tell you, that’s never happened with myself, and that’s never happened with Mikael because every time we make a record, it’s almost like it is a sacred thing. If you’re going to make a record, you’ve got to make it, and really love it, and really believe in it. If you don’t, if you are just in the business of creating product to keep the bandwagon going, I’m not interested in you, and I don’t want to work with people like that. Mikael is exactly like myself in that respect. And I think this comes back to the earlier question about, you know, actually being an artist is quite a selfish pursuit, and it should be. You should really only think about pleasing one person and that’s yourself. Because if you are doing it for the wrong reasons, people are going to pick up on that. People are going to hear it. I really believe this. If I made a record that I wasn’t completely sincere about and passionate about, I think people would hear that I was faking it. I really think that. It’s important to me that people don’t hear that I’m faking it. And I know Mikael is exactly the same.