“I’ve always liked records that surprise you in some way.”
Steven Wilson was on the phone describing his musical listening tastes, but he might also have been summing up his career ethos.
Long known for his work as leader of progressive metal titans Porcupine Tree, Wilson has now released four solo albums that both challenge and reward listeners.
Wilson’s 2013 release, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories), each song based on tales of the supernatural, received universal critical acclaim. His newest offering, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is inspired by the true story of Joyce Vincent, a woman who died alone in her London bedsit, her remains not discovered for over two years.
The man is a true visionary, and one of the few artists keeping the spirit of the concept album alive—a rare exercise in an era where consumers are obsessed with downloading individual singles for their shuffled playlists.
It seems that Wilson’s brain operates on a different level than many of his contemporaries, fusing influences from cinema and literature to forge comprehensive works that function almost as audio novels.
“I’ve always felt a kind of analogy between telling stories across an album and telling stories across a full-length feature film or a full-length novel,” he remarked.
In concert, Wilson uses quadraphonic surround sound and incorporates elaborate visuals to create an immersive experience.
He is also a sought-after producer who’s been tapped to remix the back catalogs of numerous acts such as King Crimson, Yes, XTC, Tears For Fears and Roxy Music.
During our recent phone discussion, Wilson elaborated on many topics, including his current tour and the inspirations behind Hand. Cannot. Erase. Excerpts from the conversation appear below:
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s been amazing. I don’t know what’s changed since last time, but something has. What was sometimes a little bit of a struggle in the past, this time I think that all but three shows out of 30 have been sold out, which is amazing to me. So I guess something is on the move, in a positive direction.
What would you attribute that to? Do you think there was great anticipation for Hand. Cannot. Erase. after all the buzz that The Raven album received?
I think it’s partly that. I think The Raven was a very successful record for me and reached people over a period of time rather than immediately. So there was a lot of interest up front for the new record, and so far the reviews have been fantastic. So I think it’s a continuation of that effect where the word of mouth continues to be good, the shows have been getting good reviews, and it’s all kind of working in a positive way for me right now.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. was inspired by the true story of Joyce Vincent. Why did her story resonate with you so much?
I think the story, on the surface, is very shocking. This young woman dies in her apartment in north London, and her body is not discovered for over two years. Now your first reaction to that is, how on earth is this possible? The more I thought about it, the more it began to make some sort of ugly sense to me. We live in a world now where we are, on the surface, more connected than ever before—we have the internet, social networks. We live in cities surrounded by millions of people. Yet at the same time, we seem to be more disconnected than ever. That process, that contradiction in terms, is fascinating to me. The more technology seems to facilitate the connection with human beings, the more it seems to drive us apart, the more it seems to alienate us. And for me, Joyce Carol Vincent became such an incredible symbol of this. This was not the little old lady in the street with her bag full of empty bottles. This was a young, popular, professional woman, and yet she was able to completely erase herself from the consciousness of other people. And that is an extraordinary story that, to me, is somehow symbolic of life in the city in the 21st century.
How much did you relate to Joyce on a personal level? Did you see much of yourself in her?
Of course. I think we all do. You only have to turn on the news, and you see stories about terrorists, pedophiles, wars, people being murdered in their own homes. And all of this stuff engenders a sense of fear, paranoia, and confusion. And who doesn’t understand the impulse to say to themselves, “I don’t want to step outside my front door anymore—I just want to stay here in my little cocoon, because I feel safe here.” And I think we can all kind of relate to that, the notion of withdrawing from interaction with other human beings.
The fact that her family didn’t know she was deceased is a symbol that there’s far less personal interaction between people in today’s society, even among your own loved ones.
Yes, or if there is interaction, it’s on a very superficial level through things like Facebook and Twitter. Which in itself is kind of a fantasy life—it’s an illusion of interaction, not real human interaction. Something I’ve written songs about for a number of years now is the idea of how the internet, cell phones, computer games, and all the technology that supposedly makes our lives more convenient, more pleasurable, are actually robbing us in a way of our ability to interact socially.
It seems that technology has even affected the concert experience, in what I’d consider a negative way—instead of people paying attention to the band, they’re busy tweeting and posting on Facebook that they’re at the show, instead of actually enjoying the moment.
Yes, and I see a lot of that. Another thing that concerns me is the amount of people who come to a show, who apparently are quite happy to have paid the ticket price, but then watch the entire show through the viewfinder on their cell phone while they’re recording it. And it’s not only them seeing the show that way, it’s the person standing behind them who’s seeing the show through their viewfinder as well.
Right, they’re actually ruining other people’s enjoyment of the show.
Exactly. And again, it’s a kind of irony and a very antisocial behavior. But I think that my audience is probably better than some, in the sense that if you come to my show, you’re probably coming to engage with the music. I don’t think that’s necessarily true if you go to a Kid Rock show, for example. People who come to a Steven Wilson show, I like to believe that they care a little more about the music and are looking to engage with it on a fairly deep level. So I see less of that [cell phone use] than perhaps some more mainstream pop artists do, but still it’s concerning, and not the greatest trend in live music experience.
Let’s talk about your current tour. The projected images that you incorporate into the show are always a key component of your live performance. Could you discuss the visuals you’ve created?
We’ve spent as much time on the visuals as we do on the music. For me, Hand. Cannot. Erase. was always something I saw as a multimedia project. I’ve always loved the combination of music and image—I think it’s the most powerful artistic combination of all. Almost as soon as I was writing these songs for the new album, I was seeing in my mind the kind of films that would accompany these songs. And I wanted to create something that people would perhaps not expect to get at this level. Maybe if you went to see Pink Floyd or Muse or someone playing in a huge arena, you’d expect a really extraordinary audio-visual extravaganza. But you don’t normally expect it if you go see someone at a 1,500-seat theater, and I wanted to do exactly that. I wanted to create something just as immersive and just as magical. I have quadraphonic sound and the visuals and these world-class musicians with me.
It’s definitely exciting for fans to hear your concerts in surround sound. But when you’re playing a wide variety of venues, that each have different sizes and their own acoustics, how challenging is it for you to present your music that way and ensure it’s mixed properly to suit each venue?
Very challenging. But the challenge is actually not mine, it’s my front-of-house engineer. His name is Ian Bond and he’s been with me now for 15 years, and he shares my vision for creating something extraordinary that people don’t expect. And as you suggest in your question, every night has its own logistical problems, such as where do you put the speakers? Can you fit the screen onstage properly? All of these are logistical issues that my crew faces pretty much every day. Every day they’re in the venue at 8:00 in the morning, figuring out all these issues. And they will always find a way. That’s what makes the show work.
I appreciate that the audio engineer in you always shines through, and that you meticulously craft your concert presentations.
Yeah, I think for me, the art is paramount. The presentation of the work is paramount. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but I actually sometimes wonder to myself how true that is for a lot of other people in my industry. It’s not about maximizing your profit margins. It’s not about celebrity. It’s about creating the most magical experience you can for the audience.
And of course, I have that philosophy because I still get that buzz from music, cinema, and literature. I still get a buzz if something transcends and creates this incredible feeling. That’s what I want to create, at the absolute highest level of quality. It’s why my records sound as good as I can possibly make them. And it’s the same philosophy when it comes to the live presentation, for sure.
One of the unique things fans talk about when it comes to your live performances is that you’ve always played shows barefoot. I’ve always been curious if you’ve ever stepped on anything unpleasant over the years.
Oh, yeah. These days, no, because I have my own carpet that I put down. The first thing that goes down on every stage is a carpet to protect my feet. But in the early days, wow! I would come off stage with nails, glass, once I came off stage with a syringe stuck in my foot and I had to go get a tetanus injection. So, really scary stuff. When you’re playing at the club level, some of those stages are absolutely disgusting. These days, I’m happy to say I’m playing in slightly cleaner environs. But in the early days, there were certainly some unfortunate incidents onstage.
Thankfully, no more emergency room visits after your shows these days.
No. That used syringe was definitely the low point!
You were talking earlier about how the fear of technology is a prominent lyrical theme for you. But when it comes to the recording studio, do you actually embrace modern technology for making music?
Oh, yes. Here’s the thing—I grew up in the era of digital recording. I didn’t grow up in the analog era. I started making records in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Basically, Pro Tools had just come out, and the early generations of recording software were available. And they were affordable to me in a way that analog technology was not affordable to me. So, I learned my trade, so to speak, in the digital domain. And I think I got pretty skilled at making records sound good within that domain. If you put me in an analog recording studio, I wouldn’t have a clue of what to do, and that’s the truth.
And I do go into analog studios with almost all my records to do the main performances. But I always hire an engineer who knows exactly what they’re doing. That’s why I’ve hired guys like Alan Parsons and Steve Orchard, who did the latest record and was Paul McCartney’s sound engineer. But when I’m finished with the recording process, I’m mixing and editing almost exclusively in the digital domain. Because that’s what I know, and that’s what I’ve grown up with.
You’ve really tried to keep the true spirit of the album alive. That’s a rarity these days, as we live in an age where people download individual songs, and don’t listen to albums in their entirety.
I’ve always felt that music was just as capable as telling stories as the worlds of cinema and literature are. And I don’t accept the idea that you shouldn’t expect your audience to engage with an album in the same way that they engage with a film or novel. Nobody sits down and watches a movie by watching a five-minute scene in the middle of the film. Nobody sits down with a novel and reads chapter 7 or chapter 12 and then throws the book away.
Why do we do that so often now with albums? Why has the art of listening to an album as a kind of narrative disappeared, while people are still quite happy to watch a movie from beginning to end? To me, music was always equally capable of storytelling. I guess it’s partly because of the type of albums I first heard as a kid—things like Dark Side Of The Moon and Tubular Bells, records that my father would listen to. And growing up, I was massively interested in cinema and literature and I would listen to music while I was devouring books. So, they’ve always been kind of connected in my mind anyway. And I think I said to you earlier that almost as soon as I’m writing a song, I’m already seeing the movie in my mind. I think, how will this song fit into my movie? It’s almost that I feel more like a director than a songwriter.
Musically, it seems like you went for a more ethereal sound for the latest record, versus what we heard on The Raven.
The previous album, The Raven, was more of a vintage-sounding record. Partly because the idea behind the record was more of a classical ghost story, and to me that suggested almost a vintage or old-fashioned sound. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a story completely set in the heart of a metropolis in the 21st century. Straightaway, that says to me, you’re going to need more of an electronic sound, you’re going to need a greater range of musical textures. This record has a lot of different styles on it—it’s got pop, it’s got electronic music on it, complex pieces, singer-songwriter ballads, and it’s got elements like the sound of rain and kids, etc. And I think that all really comes from the concept of the story, so the sound of the record all grew out of that.
I know you’re very busy at the moment with touring and promoting Hand. Cannot. Erase., but are you involved in producing or remixing any other records right now?
Not really. To be honest, the next year is pretty much wall-to-wall touring for me—we’ve got shows booked up until next February. So it means I won’t be in the studio much, if at all. There are some projects I completed last year, some remixing of classic albums, that have yet to be released but will be coming out over the next 12 months or so.
Are you able to reveal what those albums are?
I can tell you the ones that have been officially announced. We started on the Roxy Music catalog—the first Roxy Music album is coming out in surround sound soon. It was very exciting to get to work with those guys. And I started on the Tears For Fears catalog as well last year. Songs From The Big Chair came out just before Christmas, and The Seeds Of Love will hopefully be coming out this year.
Steven Wilson will perform at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ on May 24, the Keswick Theatre in Philadelphia, PA on May 28, and the Best Buy Theater in New York City on May 29 and 30. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is available now on Kscope. For more information, go to stevenwilsonhq.com.