Steven Wilson: Standing on the Branches of a Giant Tree
RR: Porcupine Tree’s The Incident has a series of tracks, which are essentially one long song, clocking in at 55 minutes, and there is a patience to explore various ideas—be it musical or lyrical. Which is quite striking to me because most music these days has to be in your face, or else the listener loses interest very quickly. What I have always appreciated, and this goes back to your work in the early 90s, is that you are taking the time to explore an idea on an album, and the idea is never rushed in any way. This also brings me to the thought that the 70s featured “the Golden Warmth” on recordings, which is echoed in the sound of your own albums, especially The Raven. Did listeners have more patience in the 70s to experience those longer, complex ideas?
SW: Well, I certainly think that in the 70s when a lot of this very groundbreaking music was being made music was something that was still very much part of the way people defined their personality, and it was part of mainstream culture. By which I mean that music was, pretty much starting with Elvis Presley and The Beatles, music was something that actually changed culture. It changed society. It’s been a long time since music had that power. I would say the last time music had any power like that was probably the grunge scene. Grunge influenced everything from fashion to movie-making to commercial-making. That’s over twenty years ago now. Music has long, long, long since lost its power in that sort of sphere. It has become something which is usually experienced in a more passive way. It’s background music when you’re in the gym, it’s background music when you’re on the train, it’s background music when you’re jogging, it’s background music when you have your dinner party, and that’s obviously not the kind of music that I make, it’s not the kind of records that I like to make.
I like to make records in the way that people used to that are intended to be engaged with—not in a kind of pretentious, intellectual way, but to listen. The funny thing is that people still do that with movies. The funny thing is that I find that people are quite prepared to put aside two hours in their evening, either to go to the cinema and see a film, or to sit down even at home with their home cinema setup, turn off the phones, turn off the lights, and watch a movie for two hours. Why don’t people do that with music anymore? Obviously, some people do, but I’m talking about something that is generally accepted in culture. People very rarely will sit down, and say, “You know what? I’m going to sit down for the next 45 minutes, and I’m just going to listen to this music. I’m not going to reply to e-mails, not going to check my text messages, not going to have the T.V. on with the mute on to check it with subtitles. I’m actually going to sit down and listen to this music with no other distractions. And I believe that was something that people did a lot in the 70s.
It was why albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Tubular Bells, and those kind of records could prevail and sell in such massive quantities because people not only responded to that kind of music, they wanted that kind of music. So, it’s tough. I think there is a subculture now, a substantial one, it’s still a small one, but it’s substantial, if that’s not an oxymoron, of people who do still want to engage in music in that way and at that level. And, not just old guys like me and you (laughs), but young kids, too. There’s almost a trend now within young kids, a small one, for buying vinyl and really engaging music on a deeper level. So, I think it’s like anything in society when there’s a big swing in a particular direction, there’s always a little bit of a pendulum swing back in the opposite direction, too. I do feel that. I feel that there’s more and more people appreciating what I do every time I come out with a new record.
RR: You spoke of this solo band being unique, while it is also unique for you to record live in the studio and in California. Describe the demo process, and how that worked when you passed the music on to this particular group of musicians. I would think it may be different from your process with other projects, right?
SW: Sure. I demoed the stuff much in the way I’ve always demoed stuff. I’m a little bit of a control freak. I find it difficult…I’m not the kind of guy that just brings in a song that is just strummed on an acoustic guitar. I bring in a demo that’s got all the drum parts, all the bass parts, all the keyboard parts (laughs), all the vocal harmonies, and everything is already worked out because, firstly, I’m a control freak, and, secondly, because I can’t really feel the music until I know exactly what everyone is going to be doing and how all the parts are going to interlock and fit together. You see, O.K., on one hand, that’s kind of limiting for the musicians that you bring the music to, but on the other hand, it’s not because what I’m looking for from these guys particularly is to then take that basic structure and basic kind of idea and arrangement and take it to another level. The thing is with all these guys, when they step up to take a solo, for example, and there are lots of solos on this record, that’s completely them that you’re listening to, that’s completely their voice, and their improvisation that you’re hearing, so I’m not controlling what notes they play in their solos. There is still a lot of room for these guys to express their own musical personalities within the structure, and I think what I really tried to do with this record is try to find a balance between structure, almost in a way between the traditions between rock music and jazz music.
Rock music is traditionally quite structured, it’s quite clinical, it’s about patterns, it’s about riffs, it’s about how many times do we go around this riff, and how many times do we go around that riff, and jazz is kind of the opposite. Jazz is like, well, you know, the conversation is as long as we want it to be, the solo is as long as I want it to be.
I think what I tried to do, starting with Grace for Drowning and definitely continuing through to this record is to try and strike the right balance between those two disciplines, if you like—the control and the structure and the arranging of rock music, which, of course, is what I’ve pretty much always worked in, and the freedom of musical expression and spiritual expression that jazz musicians tend to bring to the table. I do feel that there’s quite a nice balance between those two things on this record.
RR: I recently saw a bit of film with Alan Parsons in the studio with you recording this latest solo album. That image brought to mind that I was seeing two monoliths right there, in every way, of masters of classic recorded sound, in the same shot, and it made me think of seeing something amazing like Jimmy Page and George Martin in the same shot in the studio. What was it like to work with Alan Parsons in the engineering context? He hasn’t really worked in that way in quite some time.
SW: No, he hasn’t. I’ll tell you—obviously, the questions that are coming up a lot at the moment are: “What was it like working with Alan?” “What did you learn from Alan?” “What did you see him doing?”
RR: Well, what did he learn from you ?
SW: Not a lot, and I’ll tell you why. When you hire Alan Parsons, you almost say to yourself, “Now I’ve hired Alan Parsons, I don’t need to pay attention to how the record’s being engineered (laughter) because I implicitly trust this guy.” So, if you imagine the situation we had—we had the studio, we had the main room where the band was set up, we were all playing together live, we were all facing each other, and on the other side of the glass in the other room is Alan recording the record. I don’t know what he did, but it sounds good (laughter). I’m kind of in the room with the guys being the musical director and the producer because I completely and implicitly trust the guy on the other side of the glass who is doing a great job. So, I didn’t really notice too much about what he was doing, but every time I would come into the control room to listen, it sounded great! Fabulous. Just let him get on with it.
In that sense, the control freak in me finds those things hard to do in a way, to let go of part of the process, but with someone like Alan, I obviously feel a lot more comfortable and a lot more secure about letting go of that process because this guy is like second to none. That was a good feeling—to know that I could, in fact, delegate something like that to somebody and not have to worry about that. Maybe, that’s another reason why the record sounds as good as it does because, this time, I wasn’t trying to be everything. I wasn’t trying to be the engineer, the producer, the guitar player, the singer—I let some of the process go, and I was able to, perhaps, be a little bit more focused on the really important stuff, which is the music and how the music was being performed by the musicians.
RR: It’s interesting that you consider yourself a control freak and, yet, you are considered one of the best modern collaborators. I do understand how the two concepts can be married to each other. For example, getting back to the idea of the imagery on The Raven matching up with the music and lyrics, how did you conceptualize your ghost stories, which come with the album, and how did you get the illustrator to collaborate with you, so that vision could come together, so well?
SW: Hajo Mueller is a German artist, and I’ve known Hajo for a few years now, and actually Hajo’s been sending me his self-published books of his illustrations, his prose, and his own stories. I’ve always felt that they are absolutely wonderful, and I’ve been waiting for the right project to come along where I could work with Hajo on it from beginning to end. This seemed like the perfect project for Hajo because Hajo’s style has an almost childlike fairy tale quality to it, but it’s also very dark, very surreal, and very melancholic. I thought it was just perfect for this particular project because as soon as I had this idea that we were going to do a book of ghost stories in musical form, I immediately thought of Hajo because if you are going to do a book of ghost stories, and you want it to feel like it’s something from a hundred years ago, you don’t really use photography. Photography is pretty much what I’ve always used on almost every project that I’ve ever done. It has been photography-based until this one.
The reason I didn’t want to go with photography is because I did want this feeling—this is like the way a book from 1904 would have been illustrated. This is the way that Lewis Carroll or Edgar Allen Poe would have been illustrated. Photography at that point became kind of irrelevant, so I knew that I wanted illustrations. As I said, I had known Hajo for a few years, and I was kind of waiting, really, for the right opportunity to collaborate with him. In fact, some of the visual ideas we have in the special edition come from things I already knew from his self-published books. I would see something and say, “You know what? We should definitely use those characters and that kind of idea you’ve got there that you published in your previous book. We could use that. We could steal that for this song here.” That was the way we worked. He’s a bit like me. He’s incredibly fast and very prolific, producing all these ideas, and it was almost a question of sifting through to find the ones that resonated the strongest for me with the music and the lyrics.