A Conversation With Rock’s Anti-Entertainer, Steven Wilson

It’s Steven Wilson’s sonic world, and we’re all just living in it.

The London-born artist has been making music since 1983, notably with progressive metal outfit Porcupine Tree, side projects like Blackfield, No-Man and Storm Corrosion, and more recently as a solo artist.

He has consistently demonstrated the ability to push musical boundaries, creating complex, intellectual works that provide an oasis in a rock music landscape too often marred by uninspiring, cookie-cutter acts.

The past year has been a particularly busy one for Wilson, who received worldwide accolades for his 2015 release Hand. Cannot. Erase.—a nuanced concept album inspired by the true story of Joyce Vincent, a woman who died alone in her London apartment, her remains not discovered for over two years.

A tour for that record, performed in quadraphonic surround sound, saw Wilson playing to packed houses around the globe and visiting countries he hadn’t toured in previously.

On January 22, Wilson released the mini-album 4 ½, so titled because it marks an interim release between his fourth solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase. and next studio work.

The six tracks on 4 ½ are mostly tunes that didn’t quite make it onto Wilson’s previous records, as well as a remake of Porcupine Tree’s 1998 track “Don’t Hate Me,” now performed as a duet with Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, who lent her haunting vocals to Hand. Cannot. Erase.

The mini-album is an eclectic journey though somber guitar mood pieces (“Sunday Rain Sets In”), British Invasion-inspired pop (“Happiness III”) and pulverizing rock jams (“Vermillioncore”).

Wilson’s latest round of concerts will feature Tayeb on several dates, as well as Hand. Cannot. Erase. performed in its entirety.

Prior to hitting U.S. soil for a string of March shows, Wilson chatted with me via Skype from his England home. The affable Wilson give me the backstory behind the 4 ½ tracks and his unfinished movie project, and explained his internal struggle against writing pop songs.

The interesting thing about your new release is that it’s more of a loose collection of songs, whereas your full albums are strongly tied to one particular theme or concept. It’s interesting to hear tracks that came from different time periods and origins, yet still flow nicely together.

I think it’s very possible to make a satisfying listening experience even if the tracks don’t necessarily have a unity. There’s something about the art of sequencing an album that’s always been very precious to me. One of the things I learned very early on, as someone who had fallen in love with music, is how much I liked albums that felt like that they were telling stories. Even if they weren’t necessarily doing it through the lyrics, there was something about the way the music flowed and unfolded that could still give you that feeling. And I’ve always applied that to everything I’ve done.

I’m in love with the instrumental “Vermillioncore,” and I can’t wait to hear that in concert. Could you describe how that song came together?

It was a bass line that I came up with during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions, and I didn’t really know what else to do with it at that time. I thought it was a really interesting bass line. So, when we came to do the new release, I felt I really needed to make use of it. It’s what you might call a sound design piece in the sense that there’s a lot of music there. There’s almost a “drum & bass” feel to it in places, and that’s partly because I’m working with drummer Craig Blundell, who very much comes from that world. He’s able to bring a more contemporary, electronic approach to the way the drums interact. It’s still very much a piece of rock music, but it’s nice to bring other elements in. It’s a very dramatic piece in concert. I think you’re going to enjoy it a lot.

“Happiness III” is a song that you had sitting around for more than a dozen years. Can you talk about the origins of that song and why now was the time to release it?

That song is funny, because I’ve revisited it for almost every project I’ve done since I wrote it. And it’s always ended up on the substitute’s bench, so to speak. I think part of the reason is that it’s direct and quite pop, and also quite accessible. And because of the way I am, I’m always suspicious when I come up with things like that. It’s almost like shooting myself in the foot, but if I come up with anything that’s even remotely catchy or commercial or seem like it might have the potential to cross over to a mainstream audience, I’m immediately suspicious. I think, “This is not what I do. I do these weighty, conceptual things—I do not write pop songs.” So, occasionally when I come up with one, I’m always very wary about it.

That song was written for what was going to be the soundtrack to a movie script I wrote with a friend of mine, Mike Benyon, called Deadwing. Now, Deadwing has a very strange history and of course some of my fans will be very familiar with some of it, as I made an album by that name with Porcupine Tree. But the original Deadwing would actually have been my first solo record, and it would have also been the soundtrack to this movie that we hoped to get made, but we never did.

While we were shopping the script around, trying to raise the money to make the film, I was writing these songs that I truly believed would be the soundtrack to this movie. Those songs have gradually emerged over the years. “Lazarus” was written for that project, “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” was written for it, and then there were songs on my first solo record Insurgentes that were also written for the soundtrack. And “Happiness III” is the last song I wrote in that batch. It’s a song I’ve always been very proud of, but never been able to find a place for on one of my large album statements. The new record finally gave me the opportunity, simply because it isn’t trying to be a cohesive, conceptual record. It gave me the opportunity to bring in these songs that I haven’t been able to fit into other projects. Let’s just say, if I didn’t put it on this record, then I couldn’t imagine that I would ever put it on any record.

You mentioned how when you’re writing something in the pop vein, you’re distrustful of it. Is that because you feel your fans will be too shocked as it’s not the sound they expect from you?

In the nicest possible way, I don’t care what my fans expect. I don’t mean that I don’t value my fans—of course I do. But I don’t believe you can ever be thinking about your fans when you create, because that is the downward spiral. If you start getting too obsessed with what fans want or expect, that’s not a good thing. And I don’t think that’s what an “artist” does, anyhow. That’s what an “entertainer” does. I don’t consider myself to be an entertainer—pretentious or not, I consider myself to be an artist. And I think an artist can only work in the sense of trying to please themselves, and that’s what I do.

I think that when I write something direct and to the point, my tendency is to stick something in them that makes them more clever. Sometimes that’s not always the best thing. Sometimes you need to trust that something is very simple and you should just leave it alone. My instinct is to always make things more complicated than they perhaps should be.

You can overthink things at times.

Absolutely. Sometimes the first thought is the best thought. I guess that’s the struggle I always have within myself.

I think that “Sunday Rain Sets In” has a very cinematic vibe to it and would make really great soundtrack music. Why did you feel it didn’t particularly fit on Hand. Cannot. Erase.?

I love that track. And for me, I think of it as my “spy movie” thing—it’s got that ‘60s tremolo guitar, that John Barry-esque feel. So in that sense, it seemed a little too pastiche-y for me. It was originally a middle section to “Three Years Older,” the track that opens Hand. Cannot. Erase. It was originally in the middle of that, and the whole track slowed down. Sometimes things just interrupt the flow.

You mentioned the world of cinema, and I think it’s very interesting to draw analogies with cinema. I’ve heard directors talking about movies they’ve made, and they say, “This scene we shot was my favorite scene in the movie, but when we came to edit the movie, it just didn’t fit, so we had to take it out.” I think that’s the case sometimes with music tracks—you can be really proud of them, but sometimes they break the momentum of an album.

Recently, it seems that you’ve been revisiting some of the older Porcupine Tree material. Some deeper cuts, too. When I saw your show last year, you performed “How Is Your Life Today?” which you’ve only performed a handful of times ever, and “Trains,” which isn’t often played. At this point in your solo career, what’s your inspiration to delve back into the Porcupine Tree catalog?

Here’s the thing—it’s not Porcupine Tree material; they’re Steven Wilson songs. The fact that the songs were originally recorded by Porcupine Tree isn’t that relevant to me. The bottom line for me is that these are my songs.

So, in your mind, you don’t differentiate between your various recording projects?

You know, sometimes I don’t even remember! I was talking the other day about “Don’t Hate Me,” and I had to remind myself that it was originally done with Porcupine Tree. And you and I were just chatting about the Deadwing thing, and a lot of those songs that ended up on that record were going to be my first solo album. So to me, they’re Steven Wilson songs. I don’t make the distinction that I think the fans make. And I understand why the fans do that, but to me they simply exist as my songs.

We’re doing “Don’t Hate Me” right now, which I’ve rerecorded for 4 ½. And I did it in a way that’s closer to the way that I originally intended it. It was first intended as a duet between two different characters, so it’s nice to do it as I first imagined it.

You used the term “deep cuts.” I think there are certain songs that I thought maybe got overlooked at the time and weren’t performed a lot. The fans never really talked about them that much. So, to me it’s nice to do some of this material. There’s another song I’m doing called “Sleep Together,” which I always thought was one of my best tracks ever. And in my mind, we’re doing it better than it’s ever been done. In a way, we’re reclaiming some of these slightly deeper cuts and presenting them for reappraisal.

I frequently read reviews that describe your shows as “transcendent.” From your perspective, up on the stage, what makes for a great show for you and the band?

I would use the word “immersive.” The whole experience is supposed to be completely immersive. It’s very much a multimedia experience. There are obviously a lot of visuals, and there’s the quadraphonic sound system, which places you inside the music in a way. We talked about the idea of sequencing albums, and I apply that to my show. I want the show to feel like a journey, and a satisfying continuum of music. So I think a lot about the set list, the flow of music, and the way the visuals work in tandem with that. And I think people really come away with feeling like they’ve had a cinematic experience. From the moment people enter the concert hall, I want them to feel like they’re entering my world.

Earlier, you were speaking about the Deadwing movie. What was the fate of that project?

It was written 12 years ago, and at that time you needed major financing even to shoot what we be a modest production. We were looking for big money, and it was difficult at that time to get someone to give big money to two first-time script writers. We showed it around a lot, we got some interest, but we were never able to get anyone to pull the trigger. In the end, I guess we kind of gave up. I think if we’d written it now, it would be different. You’ve got people shooting films on iPhones now. We sat down and reviewed the script a few years ago, since you can make movies a lot cheaper now, we thought maybe we should revisit it. But I think we both felt that the time had passed, and we’d write a very different script now. It’s something we might still do. We might take some of the original ideas, and try and write something fresh and hopefully better.

Where do you stand in terms of creating a new full-length album? Are you writing currently?

I’m always thinking and always writing. I’d like to do something special for my 50th birthday, which is at the end of next year. I want to release an album on that day, if not two different albums. I’ve written some songs already. They are stylistically quite different, I would say, to what I’ve written before. And so, I’m gearing everything to this idea of my 50th birthday celebration and releasing material on that day.


Steven Wilson will perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 5. His mini-album 4 ½ is available now on Kscope Records. Go to stevenwilsonhq.com for more.