Steven Wilson: Standing on the Branches of a Giant Tree
RR: You touched upon an important aspect—the concept that an artist must be selfish. I think that also describes why I enjoy your music so much. A dream is a singular experience for the most part. One doesn’t normally dream as part of a group consciousness. When one is in a dream, sometimes the perfect song is heard, and then, when one wakes up, the song is forgotten. I think that is my highest compliment. Your music sounds like something that transcends those two fields of consciousness—the waking life and the dream life of an individual, at least to me. I think that is why the ghost story aspect of The Raven has such a strong hook because you have stories about people in the here and now, and then you have beings from other dimensions. I hear your music in both states of consciousness.
SW: Number one, that’s very flattering, thank you. Number two, that does make sense to me because I’ve always felt that all the kind of art that I respond best to, or strongest to, has an element of what I call ‘otherness’ to it—something that is a little bit not of this world, perhaps almost surreal is a word that I would use, but dreamlike, also.
It’s funny. One of the questions I get asked a far amount is the drugs question. People listen to my music, and a lot of the times they assume that I must be a stoner, or doing something because I have these ideas that don’t obey the rules. I don’t write songs in this sort of conventional pop form. The songs unfold, very often, in unpredictable ways. I think the way a lot of people can explain that to themselves and then ask me to validate their theory is “Oh, must take drugs.” I say, “I don’t take drugs. I just dream. I’m in touch with my dreams.” The stuff that happens in your dreams is a lot crazier than anything you’ll experience under the influence of drugs. If you can tap into that, if you can tap into what I call “dream logic”—which, of course, there is no logic in dreams; that’s the beauty of dreams—dream logic is fascinating, it’s a wonderfully inspiring thing. I think to be able to tap into that, like for example, filmmakers like David Lynch, I’m a massive admirer of, and he is someone that I think totally taps into dream logic.
And I’ve always tried to do that with the music, too—tapping into that slightly surreal, illogical, unpredictable world of dreams, which has nothing to do with drugs, and nothing to do with artifice. It is what the mind does when it is left to its own devices.
*RR: I recently spoke with Chris Squire about some of the classic Yes albums, so when I heard the first track, “Luminol,” on your new album, I thought, “Wow, Chris Squire would really think this is a strong track [because of its powerful bass presence early on in the track].” As we spoke about earlier, in the last few years, you were part of various re-mixing projects of classic 70s albums, including Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and ELP. Were you aware of what may have specifically come from those sort of influences when you were writing and recording the new solo album?
SW: Here’s the thing. There’s no easy answer to this question because some of the reference points of course I’m aware of and others I’m not. The reference point you’re talking about on the opening of the record—it opens with a very strong, very upfront lead bass riff—to be honest, there are only two or three bass players in the world that have (laughs) ever done that. So, the reference points are going to be Chris Squire and Geddy Lee. I can’t think of anyone else that have ever done stuff like that. Almost by definition if you have a strong lead bass with a lot of treble on it, playing riffs, and very upfront, people have said to me, “Geddy Lee” or “Chris Squire.” And they are both right. It is basically a guy playing a Rickenbacker very upfront, playing a lead bass riff. I’m definitely aware of those reference points. But at the same time, the riff that Nick [Beggs] is playing there is not a riff that either of those guys have played. It’s more of a reference to a particular sound, or a different approach.
I’m also very much more confident, perhaps, than I would have been five or ten years ago in referencing things like that because now I feel more confident that anything that I do is still, ultimately, going to sound like me anyway. And that’s an important threshold to cross. For example, there were a lot of things that I didn’t do, perhaps, in the 90s and the last decade because I was afraid that they would be perceived as derivative, or sounding too much like someone else. I threw out a lot of ideas that I actually instinctively liked. Now, I guess I’m a little more confident, a little bit more bullish, and some might say (laughs) more derivative. I’m leaving these reference points a little bit more obvious because I guess I feel more confident that actually, anyway, it sounds like me.
This is borne out by things because I played stuff to Robert Fripp. There’s a track on the album called “The Watchmaker.” I was influenced by the early Genesis sound, the 12-string guitars, the way they were used. I think you know what I’m talking about.
RR: Steve Hackett.
SW: You do. I’m sure you do, yeah. The way they were used is a very chime-y 12-string guitar. That was a starting point for “The Watchmaker.” I played it to Steve, and I said, “Steve, have a listen to this, and tell me if I’ve really ripped Genesis off here.” He said to me, “It just sounds like you .” He didn’t even hear the Genesis in it, and the same thing happened with Robert Fripp. I guess if these guys can’t hear it, then maybe I shouldn’t be worried about it. I don’t know if the reaction to the album will bear me out on this or not. But those reference points, yes, I’m aware of them, but I think, ultimately, I think anyway they are re-fashioned into something, which transcends, at least I hope so, and just becomes my sound.
RR: I didn’t intend to imply in any way that your work is derivative. I hope that, if anything, over the last hour we have spent together, you have understood that.
SW: No. No. I guess I’m being preemptive here for what other people may say because you’re absolutely right. I think when you hear that [bass in “Luminol”], one or two names will immediately pop into your mind—Geddy Lee or Chris Squire. And, of course, I’m aware of that. I’d be lying if I didn’t say to you that when we were in the studio, I was saying to Alan, “Make it sound more like Geddy Lee. Make it sound more like Chris Squire.” This goes back to what I was saying to you earlier, everything starts off, actually, ultimately, being taken from somewhere else. You start off with reference points, and you hope that in the process of the artistic process, you will transcend those reference points. They are important reference points. No question.
RR: “The Watchmaker” has so many different layers. It’s a tone poem, it has atmosphere, and a time and place. You mentioned your intricate, well-crafted demos. How do the individual musicians learn those parts? Are they learning it section by section, and then you are running through the entire track as a whole?
SW: These guys in this band that I am very privileged to have together right now are so good, they are so good, that you send them the demo, and the next thing you know, it’s like easy for them. They have all the parts, and they’ve written them out, and they say, “Maybe, we can play a bit like this, Steve,” “Can I try this and that,” and they are coming up with all these ideas that I haven’t thought of, and really taken the music to the next level. Yeah, the demos—everything’s there, and these guys are able to listen to them once or twice and play it back to me as if they have been playing it their whole life. That’s how good they are. [Author’s Note: And, at long last during this formidable and insightful conversation with Wilson, it would be highly shameful if one did not note the fantastic musicians who accompany Wilson on his new solo work: Guthrie Govan, guitar; Adam Holzman, keyboards; Theo Travis, flute/sax; Nick Beggs, bass; Marco Minneman, drums. Wilson, himself, sings and plays Mellotron, keyboards, guitars, and bass guitar on “The Holy Drinker,” while Jakko Jakszyk, Wilson’s sometimes Blackfield band mate, lends additional vocals on “Luminol” and “The Watchmaker.”]
RR: To this day, you can’t read and write music.
SW: No, I can’t. The thing is, as time goes on, there becomes less and less need to do that. With computers now, you can play something into a computer, and it will print the music out for you, so there is even less reason to do that.
RR: Which is also why some people want to know where you get your inspiration, and that makes your creative process fascinating, and makes me think of how you hit upon your next idea. When you are going through your project possibilities, like right now, are you already thinking, “O.K., I know where I want to go next?”
SW: Actually, no. Sometimes, at this point, I have got a clue, and sometimes, I haven’t. This is an occasion when I don’t really have any great plans, or a master plan about where to go next. Right now, I just want to go on the road with this music, and we’ll see. As I said to you, I think it’s very important to me that there is always a sense of something different to do with each record. I don’t know what that will be right now.
RR: Speaking of your travels and relating it to your success with your work, how does it make you feel when someone approaches you who has been impacted in a positive way by the music you have made over the years? Is that a burden, or is it something that frees you up as an artist? Or, finally, is it something that must be moved to the background, so it doesn’t impact your art?
SW: I think one of the really amazing things about my career, particularly the last five years, is being able to bridge between the two generations of this kind of music, whatever you call it. Most people call it progressive rock, but whatever you want to call it. One of the most wonderful things in my life is being able to almost be a bridge between the original generation—the guys who kind of wrote the blueprints, in a way—but, also, be someone who is creating new music in the same tradition. Of course, that’s been wonderful for me because of how much I’m able to learn from the former to bring to the latter. Of course, you hear, we’ve already talked about those reference points, but one of the reasons my music has gone the way that it has over the last couple of records is because of what I have been able to learn by being able to actually go inside the music and actually understand it a little bit more from the inside, and actually going into the master tapes, and hearing all instruments in isolation.
I’m talking about the Crimson records and the Jethro Tull records and actually being able to hear the way they put the music together. And just a very simple thing, like we talked about, the fact that I did this album live in the studio with the band, or playing together in the same room. I’ve never done that before. I never thought to do it before until I started to realize that a lot of what I loved about those early records was there was this feeling of chemistry and electricity of a band playing together in the studio. Never made a record like that before. I’ve always done records in the way of the 80s and 90s technique—get each instrument in separately, and control it and analyze it to the nth degree of detail. I realized how much I was losing making records that way. So, it’s been a real education, and I think that’s been the secret for me the last four or five years about why my art has continued to evolve and been so much fun.
RR: This has been one of those moments where I straddle the fine line between music journalism and being a genuine fan. It’s been a deep honor to get a chance to speak with you, Steven. I doubt that I could adequately put into words how much your music and lyrics have meant to me over the years, and how much I respect the choices and directions that you’ve taken over the course of your career.
SW: Thank you so much, Randy. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you, too, and I’m really grateful for the support of people like yourself. I’ve got to say it has not been easy these last (laughs) 25 years. It’s been a war of attrition, and it’s always chipping away a little bit more with each album, I feel. It gets a little bit easier, but it certainly helps having people like yourself waving the flag, as it were.