Humans thrive on the idea of classification. Be it race, ethnicity, beliefs or in this case musical taste. It is inherent in our make up to categorise, monitor and classify but what if you didn’t want to? Having gone rogue from the musical norm Steven Wilson is somewhat of a musical anomaly. Having flirted with Metal in his early years with outfit Porcupine Tree, had a dance or two with electronica in Bass Communion and gone full exploration in Incredible Expanding Mindfuck the man is a musical chameleon. Able to camouflage himself to match whatever musical surroundings he might want to inhabit. Each piece of the puzzle has a specific meaning, every album a reason for existing, so what exactly is it that makes Wilson want to go down yet another different path? What is the catalyst for change,for a new evolution.
“Good question! Well, how do I know? In some ways, its not something thats conscious I just think that its a feeling that I need to enthuse myself, to excite myself. I need something thats going to incentivise myself in a way to want to make a new record. Its a lot of work! Its very hard work, writing, recording, mixing, mastering, promoting, touring thats a big commitment. I think the first thing is that you need to be engaged with it yourself as a musician. You need to be excited by what you’re doing and I think I’m the kind of musician, that really, really needs to change.”
“To keep it interesting for myself. I say that because there are some artists and I’m not criticising them at all, there are some artists that seem to thrive on essentially arriving in a formula and exploring that formula across a career. Not really changing with that formula, thats not me. I guess I feel like if I’m going to make a new record, there needs to be a reason for it to exist in my catalogue and take its place in my work if you like. I feel like every record has to have its own very distinctive personality in its own kind of world. Its something in a way that has been a constant through my career. This time around I think I felt like, the last couple of records had defined a particular approach a particular sound. I wanted to do something completely different. In a very selfish way!”
The mere idea of influence is somewhat of a misnomer for the likes of Steven. Perhaps reading slightly more into it than we should, citing Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Talk Talk as just some of his influences for To The Bone. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, Wilson has more than admitted to his indulgence in pop and its sensibility. Contrary to most, the artist hasn’t had the genre classification that shoehorned him into a sense of limitation. Giving him an unrestricted ability in turn not limiting this ideology solely to his music, the man has brought this philosophy into not only his creative world but also his world of listening.
“The reason those albums are kind of notes for what I was trying to do was because, there is a golden era for me. The eighties gets a pretty bad wrap but I think that the eighties was a fabulous time for music because there were a lot of these kinds of records around, which to me, felt like they had the idea, the kind of ambition and the accessibility in perfect balance. Its not something we hear a lot these days. If you look at the world of mainstream pop its all very banal, very conservative. There doesn’t seem to be any ambition at all for me in pop. At the same time we have a very rich world going on in the underground.”
“What we don’t have are these kind of records that for me were, very prevalent in the eighties where ambition and accessibility were not mutually exclusive. That you could make records that were full of great melodies, great hooks, have big hit singles on them but at the same time there was no sense of dumbing down. If you wanted to engage in the lyrics, there would be a very dark subject matter, if you wanted to enjoy great musicianship, that was going on. If you wanted to immerse yourself in very cinematic production or experimenting with new technology, that was all going on too! Albums I mentioned, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, So by Peter Gabriel, these for me are great examples of those ambitious but accessible records. I saw To The Bone taking a leaf, without wanting to pastiche those records but taking a lead out of the kind of approach of those records.”
With music currently as it stands it seems that we have indeed reached a creative zenith. Reaching a point where a genre of music associated with expansive possibility, is instead regimented, measured by tradition rather thriving on originality. Ironic then, that the ideal of what Prog stands for is something that has grown into being anything but progressive. Stuck in a rut where the past is all governing, the entire idea of being in a true sense progressive has been lost. Forgoing creativity for a replica of what was deemed to be “progressive” in the seventies , as influence is now inescapable music is now instead governed by a sense of identity.
“Progressive is one of those words that has unfortunately become an oxymoron, to be progressive these days is not really what people associate what they want. I’m talking about a minority here, the real hardcore. Theres a minority where Progressive means adhering to a blueprint which was basically laid down, sometime between 1969 and 1975 and you don’t deviate from that blueprint. Ok, you might combine a bit of Metal into it but basically you stay into it. That is an oxymoron. To be called Progressive but constantly referring back to the past is an oxymoron. Now, in a sense in 2017 we have arrived to a point where all music really does reference the past and its impossible not to. The musical vocabulary has been established for a long time now. It hasn’t really moved forward. Certainly if you look at the Rock music world, innovation is something that is largely something of the past now. I think that what is important now is personality.”
“You can still make music that references the past and use an established musical vocabulary but you can do it with panache and personality so that it sounds fresh again. I think thats kind of where we’re at now in 2017. Its all about making records that have a strong, unique identity and whether thats my personality coming through, my own lyrical concerns which pop up time and time again. My own production technique or musical cliché, all the things that people associate which are all just as present on To The Bone as they have been on any of my records. Those are the things I think that give me now a unique place in the music world. Not this idea of trying to be Progressive or Prog because its kind of irrelevant. Its not really possible to be truly progressive. I would love to be proved wrong!”
With both albums previous, The Raven That Refused To Sing and Hand Cannot Erase following a concept, it could be argued that Wilson was perhaps slipping into this idea of a pattern. Having always wanted his work to stand for something specific, with each record speaking its own mind rather than regurgitating the works of others or reflecting his own past himself, once again Wilson challenged his own convention with a brand new idea for his album To The Bone.
“Well I don’t think that I have completely changed, when there is a concept album that comes along, its not because I’ve gone searching for a story or a concept to base the record around. Its because, I apologise if this sounds pretentious but its really true, its because the story has almost found me and suggested itself to me. I find myself writing a set of songs which are all connected to the same story but those kind of things come along once in a while. When they do, they’re like a gift! Fantastic, I’ve got a story here that I can base a whole album around. I wouldn’t want to contrive to make every record a narrative driven record.”
“It happened in Hand Cannot Erase and that was a real gift that story. Its just a beautiful thing that worked so well as an album. This time around, I found myself just writing songs that are still thematically related just not to that extent. I wrote about the world that we live in. Whether it was the refugee crisis or religious fundamentalism, terrorism or this whole Donald Trump era of post truth and fake news. In a sense all of these songs are connected because they are all about perceptions of truth. The way that we define our own truth, the way the religious fundamentalists define their truth, the politician defines their truth, the refugee defines their ideal truth. All of these truth’s are nothing of the kind, they’re all really perceptions. Your perception is something that is drawn through your gender, your religion, your politics, your race, your upbringing, the country you come from. All of those things come to define your definition of “truth”. This album still in many respects strongly thematically connected. So I don’t think its actually that different from the kind of approach that I have taken on say, Hand Cannot Erase.”
A master of the musical collaboration, Steven has banded together with numerous fantastic musicians along with talented artists. From the likes of Jordan Rudess, Guthrie Govan to Theo Travis and Hajo Mueller none would prove to have more of a profound effect on Wilson as that of collaboration put forward with Lasse Hoile. Now synonymous with Wilson’s art, Hoile has become as much an essential part of the Steven Wilson creative make up as the man himself. Through the many years of working together, could it be that Lasse has indeed also become just as essential part to Steven as Steven is to Lasse?
“You’re absolutely right Tristan, I think that in a sense when you find someone that you really feel a strong affinity with, that can be a musician, it can be another visual artist, there is a strong sense of connection there and it becomes a very symbiotic thing. You’re absolutely right. The images have always been very important to me, not just Lasse’s but I’ve talked about before about cinema and the impact that visual art has had on my music. You only have to listen to the music I think to understand that there is a strong influence there from cinema and from the visual arts. Lasse of course has been one of my best friends and one of my biggest collaborators and I think that we have both influenced each other over the years. When it comes to cinema and photography, we both like similar things. I can talk to him about David Lynch movies or Stanley Kubrick movies. I can talk to him about the photography of Man Ray. We have a shared visual vocabulary and a shared musical vocabulary too! I think its become a very symbiotic, very healthy connection which is why it has endured , well fifteen years now I have been pretty much working with Lasse.”
Having released several polarising singles the cinematic “Song of I” and the euphoric “Pariah” it was with the release of “Permanating”, schismatic to the likes of a Prog fan, that got everybody talking. Receiving air play from Radio 2 led people to speculate just where exactly this pop sensibility had come from. In a fiendishly clever move, Wilson has seemingly reinvented himself once more with an element that has always been prevalent in his music, keeping his fans guessing. Perhaps hard to stomach for the fans of Prog, this pop sensibility has always been apparent in Wilson’s musical vocabulary. Citing his mother and father’s musical diet as one means, its once again a hallmark of the man’s originality.
“I’m playing devils advocate here. I’m kind of with you, I don’t quite understand why people do. Perhaps its because “Permanating” has a sense of joy? Which perhaps Hand Cannot Erase might not have had because “Hand Cannot Erase” is still quite a morose subject matter. “Permanating” is pure joy. Its something which, again has always been a part of my musical DNA. Its very well known now that I grew up in a house where my parents listened to ABBA and Pink Floyd and both of them for me, very early on, were part of my musical DNA.”
“I didn’t distinguish because you don’t when you’re ten years old! Its the music you like! I didn’t really see the difference between ABBA and Pink Floyd until much later on. I became aware of these musical snobberies that exist around certain genres. In a way, that is something fundamental to the way that I think about music. I never really understood this idea of musical snobbery and I have come up against it sometimes in my career. When I make a song like “Permanating” for me I’m just tapping into something that has always been there. As you correctly pointed out, the pop sensibility has always been there but I think that what is different about “Permanating” is perhaps the sense of joy that comes through the song. Which is something that some people just don’t like! I’ve heard some people say I liked Steven Wilson happy when he was miserable. The point is I was never miserable! I’ve never been a miserable person but my music has tended to dwell a little, well a LOT, more on the melancholic side of life. This thing has always been in my DNA and I think some people really have taken obstruction to joy! A minority but the minority always shout the loudest and make the biggest scene don’t they!”
Unpredictable in his musical nature, Steven Wilson is no doubt one of the most influential artists of his time. Endlessly searching for innovation in an era where innovation is all but a thing of the past. Akin to a cryptic David Bowie, reinventing image, the mystique of Wilson’s work will forever keep the public guessing. Poised now to finally reveal his cards to the masses, To The Bone is yet another calculated reinvention whilst also a subtle expansion of something that has always been there and like you might have come to expect its no less magnificent.
Steven Wilson’s To The Bone is out August 18th via Caroline. Steven will be touring throughout the UK in March 2018.