Steven Wilson in Hamilton, Ontario the night before this interview was conducted. (PHOTO: Paul Barrie)
Sunday, November 25th, 3:30pm @ London Music Hall (backstage) – London, Ontario
KB: One of the things that struck me was that last year you ended up on British Breakfast Television and I sort of thought to myself “This is something I thought I’d never see.” Are there any milestones, particularly ones that might not be obvious, that you’ve passed in your career that you can think of?
STEVEN WILSON: I mean, it’s interesting that you think it’s something you thought you would never see. And I totally understand why you wouldthink that, and I think a lot of people think that. And the simple reality of that is, if I had achievedwhat I’ve achievedin any other musical genre, I would be – I wouldn’t say ubiquitousin the mainstream – but I would certainly be quite evident in mainstream pop culture. If I played hip hop music, if I played R and B music, if I played electronic music, and I had sold the number of records I’ve sold and the number of ticketsI’ve sold, and done the number of tours I’ve done and I’ve had the Grammy nominations and all this stuff, I would be – I wouldn’t say a fixture of mainstream pop culture – but most people would know who I am.
The reality is that when I do pop up in mainstream culture it is an aberration and it is unusual and it shouldn’t be.
I’m not disagreeing with what you said – it’s absolutely true. I think most people were like “Oh my god!” you know, “He’s on mainstream daytime television. That’s really weird!” And of course, the reality is that it’s only weird because of the kind of music I’m perceived to play. I come from a background of conceptual rock music, you know, classic rock – whatever you want to call it. And that music, largely, these days, is completelyinvisible in the mainstream. And, like I say, if even an artist that had sold much less than me was a hip hop or R and B artist you’d probably know them – the name would be a lot better known than my name is for example. And it’s a shame that that’s the case but it is the case. I think thatwe’re all slightly surprised when rock music these days makes its presence felt in popularmainstream culture.
You know, I describe Metallica these days as the biggest underground band in the world. Or, Iron Maiden – the biggest underground band, you know – these are two of the biggest underground bands in the world. They’re completely invisible in pop culture – completely invisible. Okay, Metallica – occasionally you might hear one of their songs in a movie or something. But generally speaking they are a cult band. They’re a cult , comes to your city and sells out a fifty-thousand seat arena. And yet, if you see them in daytime tv, it’s bizarre – somethingabout it kind of jars.
KB: It would be something like Bruce Dickinson [lead singer of Iron Maiden] talking about his planes or something…
STEVEN WILSON: Yeah, something like that. But if it’s actually them going on to talk about their music on a daytime tv show, it’s bizarre. But it’s not bizarre if an R and B act or a hip-hop act or somebody like that goes on mainstream tv to talk about their new album. And that’s something that’s really happened, I think, since the turn of the millennium. Because even I think in the 90s, it wasn’t so unusual for rock music to be in the mainstream. We had grunge music then, certainly in the UK we had Brit-pop, Brit-rock, and bands like Oasis werevery much at the centre of pop culture. Bands like Pulp, bands like Blur – these bands were at the centre of what was happening in pop culture.
And at the turn of the 21st century – sorry, I know this is getting completely off the topic of my music, but I find this stuff interesting – at the turn of the millennium, gradually these musical forms started to retreat from the mainstream. So you get to the point where Steven Wilson pops up on breakfast TV in 2017 and it’s like, it’s like you’ve entered the Twilight Zone. It shouldn’t be that way.
KB: Is it perhaps comparable to what happened with the neo-progmovement in the eighties where you had groups like Marillion selling a million records and people were going “What the hell are these guys doing” in the charts…
STEVEN WILSON: I think the best analogy for me is what happened with jazz music. Jazz music in the first part of the 20th century was pop music. Kids would go to a dance, they would be dancing to Glen Miller or a big band. They’d be dancing to jazz music, or [doing the] Charleston, or whatever it was. And then rock and roll came along.
The equivalent to rock and roll these days would be hip-hop culture or R and B – it’s just pushed rock music right out of the mainstream. And I think rock and roll did that with jazz, in the fifties and sixties. And so now jazz music is very much the music of the aficionado, it’s the music of people who like jazz -they follow it, they’re obsessed with it – but it’s completely outside of the mainstream. Although Kamasi Washington’s making a case for a come back in jazz.
But generally speaking that’s the way rock music has gone. So, jazz [was] dominant for fifty years, rock and roll music [was] dominant for fifty years. Now it’s the time of hip-hop culture and deejay culture and R and B, and rock music now is struggling to kind of maintain a foothold – you know, it still sells; I still sell tickets, I still sell records. Like we said, Metallica, Iron Maiden – still two of the biggest bands in the world. Roger Waters is still one of the highest grossing artists in the world.
So, it still sells tickets, but it’s a strange time where perception of the music that people listen to, the real music fans listen to, and the music that actually is part of the fabric of our lives have completely diversified. If you go to see a movie, if you watch commercials, if you wander into a clothes store in the high street, the music you will hear is R and B, hip hop, rap, whatever it is – that’s the music now that has formed the fabric of the popular mainstream. And that has happened during my lifetime – in fact, that has happened during my career. Because when I started in the early nineties, it was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins – that was the dominant music. So, it’s been really strange and fascinating and obviously a bit depressing to see how that has unfolded during my career. So a lot of the time – sorry, I know this is a very long answer to your question- a lot of the time I feel like I’m having to work twice as hard just to stand still every time in terms of the amount of interestI get from radio, tv, mainstreammedia. Particularly in America – America’sthe worst of all. There is no-one that wants to write about rock music, there is no-one that wants to talk about rock music on the radio. If there are rock stations, they’re classic rock stations. They just want to play it endlessly – they just want to play Aerosmith, REMs Losing My Religion – endless, like oldies, not interested in new rock music at all. And even when a new rock band comes along, like Greta Van Fleet, it has to be so much a pastiche of an old band, but it’s almost pointless.I don’t know if you’ve heard that band.
KB: Yeah, I know the comparison – it’s pretty obvious.
STEVEN WILSON: It’s almost pointless what they’re doing. I mean, they’re doing very well, because kids want to go and see a band that recreates the sound of Led Zeppelin. But in terms of the overall trajectory of pop music and rock music, it’s a footnote – it’s irrelevant, it has no importance at all. So, it’s like going to see a covers band. It’s like going to see a band covering Led Zeppelin, or Rush or someone.
So…I’ll let you ask your next question.
KB: Continuing on with some historical comparisons regarding your career, I can remember watching a webcast about 16 or 17 years ago, around the time of Lightbulb Sun or StupidDream and an individual had asked you to explain what the meaning of a song was, and I recall you stating that you didn’t really like to explain what songs were about. But certainly with recent albums, there’s a lot more – I don’t want to call a “message” per se – but you know, you’re engaging, there’s something behind the music that you’re communicating more directly…..
STEVEN WILSON: Probably true, probably true yeah.
KB: …and explaining. Would you say that that is a deliberate change or personal growth?
STEVEN WILSON: I think these days it’s hard to be someone who makes art, music, film, painting, poetry, whatever it is you do – writes books – it’s hard to be someone that does that and not engage in with what’s going on in the world, even if it’s in a very, sort of, impressionistic way. You know, some people want to write science fiction movies, science fiction books, science fiction concept albums, but of course the beautiful thing about science fiction and I think when it’s most powerful is when it’s very obviously analogous to the world that we live in. So, it’s dystopian, it’s talking about the world we live in in a kind of science fiction context. Personally, I’ve never been interested in movies like Star Wars, for me that’s just Cowboys and Indians. But take a movie like Blade Runner or Under the Skin or Personal Shopper, those kind of movies, those science fictionmovies that absolutelyare about this dystopian world that we live in, just abstracted, just one step away from the world that we live in to make us think about the world we live in.
And I think that’s really interesting – that it’s difficult for anyone now, I believe, I think it’s difficult to write or create anything without at least referencing what’s going on in the world because it isn’t good – it’s not good! [laughs]And I don’t think anyone would, you know, disagree – well maybe people living in the deep south of America would think everything’s awesome – but generally speaking, I don’t think anyone could look at the world right now and think it’s going well. It’s not. So, maybe as I’ve got older – you know, they say as you get older you become a little bit more grumpy, and a little bit more conscious of the world that you live in and the legacy that you leave, after you go, after you pass away. I’ve got children now – albeit my step-children – but still, that makes you think about the world in a different way.
And then I think there’s another answer to your question which is that I just think I’ve become a little bit more confident about being more direct with the songs. And that just comes with practice, you know – being able to say things that are very direct but still have a kind of poetry to them. And, I like that – I think it’s nice when you can encapsulate, without wanting to sound pretentious, it’s nice when you can encapsulate the human condition somehow in a single line in a song.
There’s a couple lines I’m really proud of, you know – or I feel like I’ve really [thinks for a few seconds]. There’s a song on the new record called Song of Unborn. “It’s not the years you’ve passed, it’s the moments that last forever within you.” I think that’s really beautiful – and I don’t come up with those lines very often, but when I do I’m really proud of them! Or, “I’m tired of Facebook, I’m tired of my failing health, I’m tired of everyone, and that includes myself.”
So those things for me, they’re the things that I can point to and say “Yeah, I’m actually proud of that.” Because that says something, I think, that speaks to everyone, or that has the potential to speak to everyone, and hopefully people can see something about their own life reflected back at them in those.And I think to be able to come up with those lines, which are these like little jewels – you know, I wish I could come up with them all the time and I can’t, but occasionally if I do come up with something like that, I’m really proud.
KB: In other words, it’s music that has a universal message, or that has a resonance, as opposed to in the past more obscure lyrics that people would be filling in with their own meaning.
STEVEN WILSON: And I think that stuff can work, too. I think that stuff can work really well, One thing I do – I think I find I do more – is I don’t…I hope I don’t preach in my lyrics. What I do is that I write stories, sometimes about characters, sometimes about myself, and in a way I think the more – and I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again because I think it’s really true – the more selfish you are as an artist, the more people can read themselves into what you’re talking about. What I mean by that is, if you try and talk very broadly about the world that we live in, politics, wars, all this stuff that’s going on, I think it can be quite cold and a little bit impenetrable. But if you make it about yourself, I think it’s easier for people to empathize and see themselves reflected in that.
So there’s this kind of paradox going on that the more selfish I am, the more self-indulgent I am about the way I write the songs, the more insular I make them, the more potential there is for people to really see themselves. Because we do have this kind of shared, you know, experience, don’t we?
KB: On to more recent things. You’ve recently released the Home Invasion concert film – it has been very well received. Were there any concert films, or even non-concert films that you had in mind, especially considering the fact that this film has a lot of cinematic technique involved (i.e. split screens etc.) as opposed to just shots of musicians?
STEVEN WILSON: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, I mean, for me my two favorite live performance films are not in a venue, and I would say Sigur Ros’ live performance video dvd where they’re performing on the side of a mountain in Iceland and then at a school hall, and then Live at Pompeii, the Pink Floyd one. And there’s something about the fact that both of those are not in a concert venue that I think makes them more cinematic and more watchable in kind of repeat terms, because the landscape becomes part of the appeal of them. I would have loved to have done something like that, but it wasn’t practical, unfortunately – we did look at it.
KB: Did you have a location in mind?
STEVEN WILSON: We had a location, yeah, we had a location and it was just so expensive to get the gear there and do it- I’m not going to tell you where it was, ‘cause we might still do it one day. So, for practical reasons it came down to we’ve got to film a show in the venue, andI’d kind of resisted that for the last three or four tours, because it always came up – should we do a live thing. So, I don’t think it’s possible to capture, you know, what’s going on – the screens, and the quadrophonic sound, all this stuff. So, in the end, I was talked into it partly because the Albert Hall is such a special venue. It does have a magic to it. And also the fact that I was doing three nights there meant thatby the time we filmed on the third night, I think we felt quite comfortable, having already played the two previous nights. “Ok, this feelsquite natural, comfortable now.” That made it kind of less self- conscious for me. “Ah! Oh god, we’re filming tonight!” You know – because we’d already done two shows there, so it’s “Ah! it’s another show, it doesn’t matter, you know, just relax!” And hopefully that relaxed feeling comes across.
And I think you picked up on it already – one of the things I encouraged the guys that were editing it, “Think of this as a piece of cinema. I don’t want you to just think of this as five blokes walking on stage – let’s show them doing their thing. Think of it as a piece of cinema.” So you do have split screen, and you have overlays, and you have slow motion, and you have blurring effects, and you have this more impressionistic approach to the film, to the editing. And to me – ironically- that makes it more like the feeling of being there than if you just had a static, you know, well – not static – but just cut aways and things. For me, that makes it closer to what it’s like to being at the show.
KB: What also might be a factor is that you’ve had some specials on YouTube or Yahoo. So there’s documentation out there for those who want to see it, as opposed to doing what other groups like Dream Theater have done, releasing a triple set nearly every tour it feels like. With those other online broadcasts, there is stuff out there.
STEVEN WILSON: I guess so…I guess so. You know, I grew up in the eighties and it was, for me, as a fan of the bands I was growing up with, the norm was you would get a live album [pauses]…Maybe every four or five studio albums there would be a live album. And then they would make another four studio albums. And then there’d be another live album.And it’s got to the point now where some bands it does seem to me they do one studio record and then there’s like three live DVDs.
And, after a while, it becomes a bit more of the same, more of the same, more of the same. So I guess come from the old-fashioned tradition where you’ll do an official live document every three or four albums and you make it really special and you make it count. And I think that comes from growing up in a climate where the…you know, I remember Rush used to do like four studio records then they’d do a live album, and it would be a double. And then of course, the other beautiful thing about that is that the repertoire in that period has completely changed.
KB: It also bookends periods, and signifies perhaps a change in style…
STEVEN WILSON: And my previous DVD concert film I think is from2011, and I think I’m right, in saying there isn’t a single song which is common to both. I’m thinking now….
KB:…very few if any…
STEVEN WILSON: I don’t think there’s any song that was on that first concert film that is on that second concert film. And I like that fact.
KB: I’m also thinking of the fact you can go online and see set lists of the show, often while the show is still going on. Has this impacted your set lists? I’m keeping in mind, as well, that you have stated you are justifiably proud of this set and tour – is this why the setlist has remained virtually the same?
STEVEN WILSON: It is a show. And what I mean by that is it’s a show which has been very carefully sequenced and choreographed. Now, there is flexibility within the show to change things up. For example, a couple of nights ago, in Montreal, we substituted about seven or eight songs, because we’d been to Montreal this year already. So, for example, here tonight – I’ve never been to this city – now, I know it’s very near to Toronto, I’m sure there are a few people that will have travelled. But generally speaking I’m imagining most people who’ve come here tonight won’t have seen the show before, so we’ll probably do something, what I will call our “A” set tonight, which is the show that’s in the concert film [Home Invasion] – a variation of it. Tomorrow in Toronto, because we were there in April, we’ll do something a bit different. So, I’m very proud of this show.
One of the things that happens when you tour, I think….You know, when we first got together to rehearse for this tour back in January, we did rehearse about four hours of music. But, inevitably, there was a particular sequence that felt better than all the other sequences. It’s like putting an album together- when you start putting the tracks together, there’s something that feels really satisfying about a certain flow and about a certain track selection. And, I guess in a way, I’ve fallen into that trap, you know. I just love the way this show flows, and that’s pretty much the show that’s on the Home Invasion concert film. Thatshow justfelt really satisfying- the way it kind of just unfolded.
KB: Having a similar set also means that a lot of people who haven’t seen the show get a chance to see it .
STEVEN WILSON: Yeah!
KB: And if people come again, they know what they are getting.
STEVEN WILSON: I mean, I’m kind of caught between two stools. If you go and see a show in the west end in London, for example, of course that show is the same every single night. And some people go back time and time again and see that show. And then you go to the other extreme, a band like GratefulDead, where you never knew what songs that you would get to hear them play every night. [pauses]And I’m kind of…I like that idea, I love the idea, that fans can come and they don’t know what they’re gonna hear. But at the same time, I also like the idea that there’s a particular show which feels the most powerful in terms of the dynamics and the flow. So I’m kind of caught between the two things. I’d love one tour just to go out and be able to just change the set every [show] – maybe one day I’ll do that, just rehearse like six hours of material, and just go out and just “You know, tonight we’re gonna start with this. And we’ve never started with that” – just so the fans would never know what’s gonna come. At the moment the show is pretty much the show.
KB: Wrapping up, you have stated in other interviews that you feel that the current lineup of touring musicians is one you feel very confident with. Is the plan to stick with them as long as possible, either in studio or in concert?
STEVEN WILSON: Not necessarily. I mean, like, for example on To the Bone I didn’t really use the band as much I had on the previous records. The previous two records were very much band records. [On] To the Bone I used different drummers, and different guitar players.
KB: For the 4 1/2 ep you used live recordings/backing tracks of a few songs as a basis.
STEVEN WILSON: Exactly, yeah, it [To the Bone]wasn’t like that. I played most of the guitar myself, I played most of the keyboards myself.
The record I’m working on right now, again, is very different. I think that they will all be involved, but not to the extent that I think those albums like Raven and Hand Cannot Erase were like the sound of a band in the studio cutting a backing track – which they very much were. I’ve moved away a little bit from that. So…[long pause] I don’t know the answer. I think it depends how the studio record turns out.
In the back of my mind I feel like maybe it’s time to change things up a bit. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing the band, but changing the approach maybe. I don’t know. I think in terms of what I’ve been doing
with the live show at this level, I’ve taken it as far as I can within the sort of financial constraints, you know. If I had the kind of budgets that Roger Waters or Muse had, I’m, you know…But, what I’m doing in this level, I’m pushing it as far as I can, really, with the screens and the quadrophonic sound and the musicianship. Considering I’m playing relatively still small venues. So I’m thinking,“Well how can I – what can I do next time that would be different again.” And I’ve haven’t figured that bit out yet. I don’t know the answer to your question. We’ll see, yeah!
I’m all about reinventing myself, and I’m all about…because I get bored with my own music, too, like a lot of people do, I’m sure – get bored. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t wanna allow myself to fall back on my own cliches. I wanna push myself and try different things all the time, no matter how much resistance I get from my own fanbase and there is always resistance to that. I kind of thrive on that in a way.
So – it’ll be different again. I don’t know how yet, of course.