I had the privilege of speaking with Steven Wilson on his “Grace For Drowning Tour” recently. We canvassed musical ideas, what the tour and solo album meant for him, Storm Corrosion (a project with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt), and so much more. Enjoy!
Happy belated birthday! How was your birthday on tour?
Steven: I had a week off in England, so I had a quiet time at home, really.
Good to hear. This is your first tour under your name and your name only. How has it been different from previous tours with Porcupine Tree, Blackfield etc?
Steven: Well, it’s the first time I’ve actually gone out and played the music that is absolutely, 100% me. There’s no compromise; it’s exactly what I wanna do, it’s exactly what I wanna play, with the musicians I wanna be playing with. That makes it a very special experience for me. Being in a band, in a unit where four people have a democratic say in the sound of the band, is great, but at the same time you always end up slightly compromising your own ambitions and creativity to be a part of that band. It’s not just with me, but with everyone in the band. That’s true of Blackfield, Porcupine Tree; it’s true of any band. So to actually go out and do this music that I wrote with no one else in mind except to please myself, really, has been an amazing experience for me. I love it.
I was at the show yesterday. I have to say it’s probably the best show I’ve ever been to in my life, and I’ve been to quite a few concerts, so congratulations on that!
Steven: Wow. Well, there you go! That’s the best reaction I could possibly expect. I’ve been hearing a lot of those reactions, which is amazing because the whole project was a risk for me, financially and artistically and I have to say so far it’s indicated that I’m getting people’s responses exactly the way I wanted.
It was great that it was as much the other musicians’ show as it was yours – a lot of the times, I felt like you were the conductor, pulling the pieces together, and of course behind the scenes, it’s all you. Could you shed a bit of light on what this album has meant for YOU? Why Grace For Drowning?
Steven: The title Grace For Drowning comes from the idea that all of us living in the 21st century are drowning in everything: drowning in information, news, marketing, politics, economics, music, movies, pornography; whatever you can think of, we’re being bombarded, day in and day out, 24/7. You think of all the TV channels you have, you think of iPhones, the Internet as a portal for information and marketing. You get this feeling that you’re completely stressed out by the amount of information, trivia, celebrities that are constantly being fired at you day after day. So this sense of drowning in the pace and possibilities of life is very palpable for anyone living in this day and age. I’m very aware of that – I moved out of the city into the country a couple of years ago to try to get away from at least some of that. So the title is really the idea of trying to find a place of peace, grace, and feeling of calm within this sense of overload that is the 21st century.
Check out the song “Sectarian” here.
Your music is available on iTunes and you have a Facebook page. Was that something you had to compromise on, with regards to the “drowning” concept?
Steven: Well, I put music on my Facebook Bandpage and Soundcloud in full resolution; I don’t normally put up compressed audio files. One of the greatest strengths of the Internet is also one of its greatest weaknesses, which is the Internet is a fantastic way to share music, to reach people with your music. You can’t turn your back on that, at least I can’t. For example, on Facebook, if I have a new piece of music or information that I wanna get out, I can get it out to 40,000 people just like that and it wouldn’t cost me a penny. That’s amazing and for musicians like myself, who are essentially underground musicians or outside the mainstream, that’s essential for us to even continue to exist and make music.
But, the downside of that coin is that if you get to a point where people are only listening to music through compressed audio, then that’s a very sad state of affairs. The way I see it, when you share music and information on the Internet, you’re basically giving people the option to decide if they want to go on and buy a physical copy of your album. I believe with most of my fans, that’s the way it works. I don’t believe most of my fans would be content with a bunch of compressed mp3 audio files.
The kind of music you do is all about music as an experience, the journey of sounds. It also reveals so much about you, almost as if there’s a bit of your soul in every piece of music you produce. Are you ever afraid or slightly freaked out by that?
Steven: It’s kind of the pact you make with yourself and the creative muse is that you expect to be able to touch people on an emotional plane, and you have to draw on your own experience and private life, if you like, to make those songs seem believable to other people. This is what I used to find odd about the mainstream pop world – you’d have 16-year-old kids singing about love. What does a 16-year-old kid know about love? Nothing! In a sense, that’s the other side, the fake side of marketing and the entertainment industry. The real creative musicians are the people that make you believe that you are sharing something quite intimate when you listen to their music. It’s a bit freaky sometimes – I get fans that are quite obsessive about my lyrics and sometimes it can be a little bit uncomfortable – but mostly I have to say it’s very flattering and it’s a kind of validation for all the passion I put into what I do.
Your performances too are much more intimate and draw a different sort of crowd, the kind that listens for the most part. On this tour, you had a veil in front of the stage for the first half, which made you seem kind of distant, and when it came down in the second half, it was like, “Oh hey, there he is!” Any explanation for the veil?
Steven: I like it – that’s the explanation. I like the effect, the slight detached quality the first four songs have, I like that we can play more with light, shade and depth. Those songs after all have a sense of alienation, feeling slightly removed from the rest of the world, so I think it works. And when the curtain does come down, there’s an incredible release. So there is a sense of building up tension, detachment and alienation. I love it; I think it looks absolutely fantastic. As a concert-goer myself, I like to see a show with dynamics, depth and changes. I don’t want to just look at the band strumming on their instruments for two hours – that’s boring! The simple answer to your question is, the show is cast in the image of my own making, and that’s what I would like if I went to a show.
You’ve cited Pink Floyd as one of your early influences. For Grace For Drowning, I’ve heard King Crimson, Univers Zero… What was your biggest influence for this album?
Steven: It’s difficult for me to analyze those things. There’re a couple of tracks that are obviously influenced by Crimson, but probably only two out of twelve. In my own mind, I have many reference points that I can hear myself, but probably that the people who listen to the music wouldn’t pick up on. The Crimson reference is more obvious, I think they might’ve picked up on that quite a lot. I listen to so many different kinds of music and it all goes into the melting pot. I don’t necessarily analyze or self-consciously decide at the beginning of a project, “Right, this album is gonna be influenced by such and such.” So it happens in a very organic, unplanned, un-self-conscious way and I’m sometimes surprised when people come to me after an album’s release and say, “I hear this and this,” and I’m like, “Really? That wasn’t something I was conscious of.” They could well be right because after listening to music as I have done for over 30 years now, I’ve listened to a lot of music and it comes out sometimes in expected ways and sometimes unexpected ways.
I’ve been doing this for 25 years now; I guess I feel like anything I do will ultimately sound like me anyway. I’d say the biggest influence on the music now tends to be the music I’ve made in the past, in the sense of not wanting to repeat that. That becomes quite a strong influence in itself – the will to not repeat yourself. Very often, I sit down and start writing a piece of music and I throw it away because it’s like, “Ah no, I’ve done that before.” So that becomes one of the strongest influences on the new music – the will to not go into places you’ve already been.
I feel like you write a lot of songs from, for want of a better word, a “freak’s” point of view, someone with a troubled mind, the one society shuns – for example, “Index”, “Sentimental”, “Way Out Of Here”. Is there a reason for that?
Steven: I’m fascinated by the things I don’t understand. I’m fascinated by people whose minds seem to work in a way my mind cannot fathom. “Index” is actually based on a book written in the 60’s by John Fowles called ‘The Collector’. It’s about a guy who basically traps butterflies, kills them and mounts them on the glass to be gazed at as inanimate objects, and he extends that philosophy to the way he looks at women and that is a very disturbing thing. But we all know the world has a lot of people like that in it, people who are unable to empathize with other human beings as anything other than objects for their own gratification, however that may be achieved. Unfortunately we see more and more of that kind of dysfunctional behavior in the world. I’m fascinated by that because I don’t understand it, because it appalls me, horrifies me, but I suppose I want to try to come to terms with the fact that these people do exist, and that’s why I write songs about them.
I write songs about other things I’m fascinated by but don’t understand – drug culture, depression, iPod and download culture – all of those things I don’t really understand but I write songs about them in order to try to at least reconcile myself to the world I live in. “Index”, for example, is one of the songs performed behind the screen, and for good reason – it’s an extremely disconnected, alienated, dysfunctional individual singing that song, so for me that works beautifully with the screen and the disconnect with the audience.
That’s fascinating. Well, you’ve had a documentary out, Insurgentes, and your videos are really artistic stories in themselves. Have you ever considered making a fully-fledged film?
Steven: Yes, I have. In fact, a friend of mine and I wrote a movie screenplay that was gonna be called ‘Deadwing’, but we never managed to get financing to actually make it. That’s the problem with the movie world – the sums of money involved are much greater than the sums of money required to get an album out. We still show that script to anyone and everyone we can, in the hope that one day we can get that off the ground. But you know, beyond that, I would love to soundtrack a movie. I would love to be invited by a great director to work with him or her on doing a soundtrack for a movie. That’s one of my unfulfilled ambitions – to do a soundtrack for a movie by David Lynch or someone else I really admire as a director.
Who is your favorite director?
Steven: I love David Lynch and what Christopher Nolan’s doing. Somehow Christopher Nolan can make huge-scale, Hollywood-scale movies like Inception and the Batman movies but they still have something about them which has got the European feel – he’s British of course so he has a slightly different perspective. They seem to be darker and somehow more intelligent. I really love his approach to movie-making.
So Storm Corrosion – that’s a dream come true for most of us. Can you tell us a bit more about the project? What was it like working with Mikael?
Steven: Well, I’ve known Mikael for about 11 years now – he’s one of my best friends. We get together and we drink wine and we go record-shopping and we come back and we start to make music so it’s a very, very easy and relaxed process, I guess. It hardly feels like we’re working at all, which is great because that’s the way music should feel – it should feel like a natural, pleasurable experience, to create music. If you asked me 3 months ago about the project, I would’ve said something like, “Expect something unexpected,” but now that Heritage and Grace For Drowning have come out, I think people have got a much better idea about perhaps where Storm Corrosion will be situated in terms of its style, because it’s almost like a third part of a trilogy for us. Heritage, Grace For Drowning, and Storm Corrosion I think will be seen as a trilogy of albums that all come from a very similar place.
I’ve always known Porcupine Tree and all your work in relation to Opeth, so I felt Grace For Drowning’s artwork, the apparitional figures etc, was very reminiscent of what Travis Smith did with Opeth’s Ghost Reveries and Watershed. Was any of that intentional?
Steven: Well, Lasse Hoile does all the artwork, and I only know Travis’s work through the Opeth records, but I think there’s probably a similar kind of aesthetic at work there, yeah.
Check out the song “Remainder The Black Dog” here.
Do you have any other prospective collaborations in mind?
Steven: Well, I’m doing a lot of work these days remixing classic albums from the 70’s – I’ve done King Crimson’s and Jethro Tull’s stuff. I have to say, I love doing that, and I think I’d love to do more of that. I’m getting a few more invitations in that area. That’s a lot of fun for me because it’s almost like going full-circle, because these were the albums that created my musical DNA, y’know, when I was a kid listening to these records. That was what created me as a musician. And to be able to take these albums and clean them up a bit and give them a 21st century polish, y’know, that’s fantastic. So I’m definitely gonna do more of that kind of thing. I wanna do the solo tour as much as I can – it’s so much fun, I definitely wanna do more of it early next year. We’re already looking at doing another round of this tour. Beyond that, no I haven’t really got anything particular but I’m sure something will come along, I’m sure.
That’s really cool. I was just thinking of Steven Wilson and Trent Reznor” or Maynard Keenan or something.
Steven: Ah wow, that would be amazing, but that would have to come from Trent, not from me! I don’t even know if he’s aware of my work, but I’m a big fan of Trent’s. Yeah, that would definitely be something I would jump at.
And even like Imogen Heap, because she does a lot of electroacoustic stuff which I felt there was a lot of in Grace For Drowning, sort of musique concréte.
Steven:Alright, I know her name; I’m not familiar with her music but people have mentioned her to me. She seems like a really interesting artiste, yes.
Any messages for your fans?
Steven: If you haven’t already and you have the chance, please do come along and see the show because it’s not what you might think. I think when I announced the solo show, people assumed I was gonna be coming out with an acoustic guitar playing “Trains” and even less. And you’ve seen the show now, so you know it’s a very big production, with a fantastic band; it’s a very visual experience. I believe it’s the most ambitious concert I’ve ever staged. So if anyone has got a chance to see it and they’re not sure, I really hope they change their minds and come along and see the show.
I really hope so too. I know for this tour, people would’ve been like, “Yeah, Steven Wilson, but it’s no Porcupine Tree!”
Steven: No, it’s better than Porcupine Tree. [Laughs] As a show, it’s even more spectacular I think. It was important to me that this show could not be dismissed as, “Oh, it’s just a little side-project.” So, in a way, I almost over-compensated by creating a show that’s bigger and better than anything even Porcupine Tree has staged. And of course hopefully the people who come along are gonna spread the word; I figured that’ll have to be the way it works. It’ll take time to build up through word of mouth, but that’s happening and I’m very pleased with that.
And I think that’s definitely the mark of a good piece of work, when it doesn’t feel like a side-project, but just another piece of work or something that’s even better than what your main focus has been on.
Steven: See, the funny thing is I never thought of Porcupine Tree as my main thing anyway. It was one of many projects that I started over the last 20 years; it just happened to be the one that became the most popular. But to me, musically, it was really only one part of me, and this is coming back to your first question – the thing about the solo tour is it’s the first time I’m representing ALL of the aspects of my musical personality. Y’know, the jazz, the progressive, the psychedelic, the industrial, the piano ballads – it’s all in there. The only thing that isn’t in there is the metal which Porcupine Tree has done more of. But apart from that, in many respects, the idea that Porcupine Tree is my main thing is a historical perspective rather than the creative one. It could’ve easily been just a little cult thing, but for whatever reason it took off and became successful. It’s great but I didn’t plan it that way.
Thanks so much for your time, Steven!
Steven: My pleasure. Nice speaking to you, Carmen.