Interview with Steven Wilson

Przemysław Stochmal,

Interview with Steven Wilson

ImagePrzemysław Stochmal: First, I’d like to congratulate you on your magnificent new album „Grace For Drowning”, I’m sure your fans (and not only your fans!) will love it, as I myself do. On the album, one can hear your fascination with psychedelic and progressive music of late 60s and early 70s. On the gracefordrowning website you mention King Crimson as an inspiration. You said working on King Crimson remasters made you consider hiring jazz musicians to take part in the recording.

Steven Wilson:Yes, pretty much so. I think, one of the things I’ve really learned from working on the remixing of the King Crimson catalogue, and be able to going inside the music and actually I begin to understand a little bit more about how those records were created and one of the things I really understood about the band at that time was how much the importance of jazz music was on the creation of the… Basically, lots of the beginnings of the progressive e rock scene, particularly on a band like King Crimson, which was very much, I tell you so, rock music being played by jazz musicians, and musicians like Ian McDonald and Michael Giles – these are jazz musicians and I think that’s one of the reasons why that music has a special quality to it. Because they play very different way and they approach the music in a very different way to the way the rock musicians would approach, playing rock music. So, that was really one of the starting points for me and what I wanted to try to do was to actually rather than get traditional rock musicians to play the material, actually have people from the jazz scene play the material, to see if I could capture a little bit more of that kind of spirit and that’s pretty much the way it works out.

PS: You split the album into two 40-minute parts, which was a common thing to do in the early days of prog rock. Did you intend to get back to the classic prog rock trends in this way, or was it to serve some other purpose?

SW: Well, it wasn’t something that was specific to progressive rock, it was something specific to the whole era of vinyls. The vinyl era meant that many artists had a kind of limitation on the amount of music they could put on to one record to about forty to fifty-five minutes, that applies to all music, not just progressive rock So, a lot of musicians were thinking in terms of creating this kind of musical journeys or musical stories that would unfold and play out over the period of about fifty five minutes or less. And I’ve always loved that, I think that’s just a very good length of time to kind of immerse yourself in a listening experience. It seems about the right time to be able to concentrate on one kind of music, on one band. So I think that’s no coincidence with so many classic albums which seem to come from the great era of vinyl. Relatively few classic albums have come from the CD or download era. And I think it has something to do with the fact that the albums tended to be about fifty minutes long in the 60s and 70s, and 80s as well. That seems to be a really nice and comfortable length for an album to unfold.. But I had a lot more music than forty minutes. So…, I had about ninety minutes of music, so rather than try to release two albums in a short period of time, which was the possibility that I didn’t think about, or rather than maybe take a few songs off and make like a seventy-minute long cd, I decided to a kind of sequence it as if it was two final LPs, you know, two separate listening experiences, the two separate occasions in a way.

PS: I’d like to ask you about a track that, from what I know, you planned to put on the new album: the old song called Cut Ribbon. Why didn’t it appear on the record eventually? Do you feel it wasn’t the right time for it?

SW: It’s always a problem with that song, every time I’ve worked on it. I passed that song, it’s 2001, and every time I’ve worked on that song it just… It’s a great song, I’m really really proud of it, but it just never fits. And it is basically a metal song, you know, and this album is moving away from my interest in metal music. So to put “Cut Ribbon” on this record it would have been out of place, out of context and it just seems wrong. I mean I had it on the album until literally the last minute and I was playing the album to people and that was all I’ve always thought, they said, oh, it just didn’t fit and I had to agree in the end. So I reluctantly again have had put it back on a shelf. It seems to be a fascinating, awesome song.

PS: But do you think there would be a chance for that song in the future maybe?

SW: I hope so, I probably end up, you know, because I can’t imagine I’m ever gonna go back to do anything quite like that again, I can’t imagine go back to do the metal stuff again. So I think, probably, it will come out as like a download release or something, you know, something on its own. So it doesn’t really have any other songs that could go with it at the moment and that’s the problem.

PS: You invited many special guests to the recording; some of the names had appeared on your earlier records, some of the names hadn’t necessarily been associated with you, I mean the names like Steve Hackett or Nick Beggs. Could you tell me how you met these artists?

SW: I met Steve last year at the festival called High Voltage. I was backstage and he found me playing. And we just got talking and we got on really well and went out for dinner a few times. I’m a big fan of his solo work, I was never really a big Genesis fan but I love Steve’s solo records that he made after he’d left the band. So we talked a bit about those and he then asked me if I would come and play with him at his concert in London, if I would come up and play guitar on a song called “Shadow of the Hierophant”, which is a very old song of his, I was really, really very enthusiastic about it, so I played that in London and he did come out and played with us. So, he then kind of returned the favour by playing on my record, so that was it, really. And Nick was playing with Steve, Nick plays in…, he’s been in his band too so I got to know Nick pretty much around the same time, you know. And he’s now a bass player in my touring band.

PS: Did those great figures like Steve Hackett have any writing input on what we can find on your albums? What was it like in case of Steve Hackett?

SW: Well, not writing in a sense of giving like any of the chords, the words, the melodies, not really those things, but the one thing about asking great musicians to contribute to record is if you want them to obviously interpret and come up with their own ideas. For example the drummer on the record, Nic France, jazz drummer, I mean, he just basically improvised it the whole time, you know and I choose the bits that I like. And I think that’s pretty much the way I work with most musicians. There would be no point in getting a great musician like Stephen to play and then just telling him exactly which notes to hit and when, you know. That’s not the reason to get Steve Hackett to play on your record. You get Steve Hackett to play on your record because you want Steve Hackett to do what Steve Hackett does. So, you know, with all these musicians, I usually just tell them to improvise in a way, doing their thing over my composition and then I choose the bits that I really like and kind of edit them in a way that it makes sense to me in the arrangement.

PS: And what can you say about the musicians who are going to appear on stage with you? How did you involve Marco Minneman and Aziz Ibrahim?

SW: Well, I just really contacted people I’ve known for a while, that I knew would be fantastic. It’s a simple story, there’s no great story. Most of these guys I’ve known for years, in some case, Aziz I’ve known for fifteen years, never worked with him before but always admired him. So, this being the first occasion I really had to be able to think about who would be in my kind of dream line-up for a band. And people like Aziz, Marco were my first choices, so it was amazing, flattering that they actually agreed to do this with me.

PS: Many people know you’re a great fan of vinyl records, not only their sound, but also the graphic design part. You said you have high respect for this part of presentation, as you once put it. From what I know, the entire Pocupine Tree catalogue has been released on vinyl.

SW: Yes.

PS: The new album that you are releasing is going to appear on vinyl as well.

SW: Double vinyl, yeah.

PS: Do you think the evident return of vinyl records in general is just a temporary fad, or there is a chance they will return for good?

SW: They already have returned for good. Vinyl is the only format that I know of that is actually rising in popularity. It’s a small market, but it’s a growing one. And what’s really interesting - it is not just old people like me that are listening to vinyls, but young kids. And when you see like young kids are getting into vinyls, then you know that this is something that’s going to be around for a while. I mean the appeal for young kids, when they like a band, you know, when they really get into a band, they really like to buy in to the whole kind of thing, you know, with something beautiful that kind of a represents their love of the music. And CD just doesn’t do that anymore. I think CD’s are just too kind of plastic, and their can’t really represent heart, they’re close to software in a way, whereas a vinyl is something beautiful, you know, like kids who used to buy posters to put on the wall, you know. I think the vinyl, a beautiful vinyl, 180 gram, gatefold sleeve, all that stuff... It’s another way of kind of showing their allegiance to the band that they love. And it sounds good, and there’s also something very romantic about the whole feeling of playing the record, putting the record on a turn table. And when you see kids that are getting into that, then you know that it is not just nostalgia. In my case you can say that’s just nostalgia to when you were a kid and it’s partly that, but I think also when you see young kids getting into it, it cannot be just nostalgia in their case because they haven’t grown up with vinyls. So in their case it’s something that actually is genuinely coming from a passion for the format, and the presentation, and the sound, naturally encouraging. So I think if anything, vinyl is gonna get stronger, I don’t think it’s gonna be a major part of the market again, but it certainly seems to be growing and it will become, I think, a significant thing.

PS: Some time ago, two documentaries appeared that featured much information about you, your career and views: the excellent, semi-documentary “Insurgentes”, and a brilliantly shot No-Man documentary “Returning”. Do you have any plans for making a similar documentary on Porcupine Tree?

SW: Many people have tried [laughs]... The thing is that the band is four people and in order for documentary to be made on Porcupine Tree, all four of those people would have to agree. And I can tell you that at least two of them would never allow that to happen. Don’t ask me why, and that’s not for me to answer, that would be for you to ask them. So it’s something that would have happened by now because many people have approached us about doing it .. But we don’t have an agreement on doing it. And it’s easy when it’s just me, I mean Insurgentes was just me, No-Man’s was just myself and Tim, all were both into the idea. So it has to be a democratic decision and unfortunately the Porcupine Tree, the band as a whole, as a democratic whole wouldn’t agree to do something like that.

PS: And what about releasing some archives? I’m sure a lot of fans are anxiously waiting for you to revisit also some of the audio and video archives of yours. What is your attitude to practising things like that?

SW: Well, I think I make enough records already, to be honest. You know, I have boxes and boxes and boxes of live recordings from the desk, the audience, I have multitrack recordings, over the years. And one day I would probably like to go through them all and master them all and mix them all and compile a fantastic boxset of archive material going right back to 1993. But it would take probably a year of my life to do that. And that is the year that I would right now rather spend making a new music.

PS: You’ve been spending a lot of time remastering classic prog rock albums lately. You have taken on such giants as King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Caravan. Could you tell me something about your future plans in this matter?

SW: Well, I’ve been remixing, not remastering, it’s a very big difference. I think many people think remastering remixing are the same. I’ve actually been going back to original multitrack tapes and remixing the music. Remastering is just taking literally the existing CD and putting a bit of treble or a bit of bass on it or something. We’ve actually gone back to the original tapes and found the original multitrack, stereomixed it, 5:1 mixed it and mixed tracks from the reels that had never been mixed before, throw all outtakes, alternate versions. It’s been a lot of fun and I loved doing it. There is a lot more offers coming in to do things like that now, because of the success of the King Crimson remixes. A lot of other people have approached me and so far I’ve only really agreed to do Caravan and Jethro Tull. There’s a couple of bands that I would love to do if they approached me and that could still happen. I’m not gonna say they are but obviously there are some bands are very very close to my heart, that I’m a big fan of, that I would jump at the chance. But I only really want to remix the albums I really feel passionate about. You know, albums I know, I kind of grew up with and I know like the back of my hand, those are the kind of albums that I’m doing right now. And it’s fantastic, it’s such an honour to do that and I’m having such a great time and learning so much as well. And being able to meet more other people like Robert Fripp and Ian Anderson is fantastic, it’s like a dream come true. So I would love to do more of those kind of things. So all I can tell you is the moment if I wanted to continue doing that and there were some other bands who’d approached me, I think I’d be doing some more stuff like that, but I can’t tell you who, obviously.

PS: What about the Storm Corrosion project? Do you have any specific plans to release an album with Mikael Akerfeld? What kind of music would it be?

SW: Actually, that’s the album I’m working on right now and it’s almost finished. I’ll just have another two weeks work to do because Mikael is going on tour with Opeth in a couple of weeks so we try to finish the record and it’s gonna be finished in the next couple of weeks and it will be released in April on Roadrunner Records. What kind of music is it? Well, all I can tell you is if you listen to “Grace for Drowning” and you listen to new Opeth album “Heritage” and then you can kind of imagine something even more curved, stripped down and kind of beautiful and spiritual. I guess that’s a kind of  I suppose as I can describe it right now. It’s the beautiful record. It’s still very dark, obviously, and full of melancholy that the people know from his work and my work but it’s a very beautiful, very orchestrated record. There’s a lot orchestral instruments: strings, woodwinds, lots of acoustic guitar and the vocals of course. It’s coming in April, so people will be able to hear it very soon.

PS: So, as you say, absolutely no metallic climates?

SW: It’s the anti-metal album. Anti-metal, there is nothing on it you could possibly associate with metal. But then there’s nothing really on Opeth’s new record, on my new record I didn’t really put anything you could associate with metal. But this is album is even less metal than both records.

PS: I’d like to ask one more thing about Porcupine Tree and No-Man – when can we expect the return of these bands?

SW: Porcupine Tree – we’re getting together in January to start thinking about where to go next. I think we wanna do something a little bit different with the next album. Not sure what yet, but we’ll start thinking about that writing, coming up with ideas from January. So I would hope there’ll be a new record some time next year, towards the end of next year if that process goes well. And No-Man likewise, I’m discussing with Tim some ideas for what we’re gonna do next year. A kind of our twentieth anniversary coming up of our first album next year, so we’re thinking about doing something maybe historical, archival, maybe doing a new version of an old song or something. So yes, we’re always talking about possible No-Man project, we’ve always been a little bit slow with No-Man, making album every four-five years or something like that.

PS: Is there any chance No-Man will ever play live again and visit such countries as Poland?

SW: I really hope so. We did three shows a couple of years ago, it was a lot of fun. And yeah, I thinks there’s a chance you know. Maybe next year, maybe to the twentieth anniversary or something, we’ll do something. You never know, keep your fingers crossed.

PS: Thanks for the interview and see you at October gigs in Poland!

SW: Absolutely. Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you. 
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