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Interviews   

Steven Wilson sends the metal mindset back to the foundry


Some interviews are so interesting you don’t even know how to introduce them. People who read us regularly are used to read outstanding quotes from the interview under each picture. You have no idea how difficult it was to pick these quotes from this interview: Steven Wilson got a lot to tell. About the evolution of the music industry and the “iPod generation”, the independence of an artiste from his fans, creativity in general…

And he’s never at a loss for words. Lately, he’s been very critical towards metal, a genre he considers not creative anymore. During this lengthy interview (more than forty minutes), we went back at length over his comments so he could expand on his points, on which we are waiting your reaction in the comments part.

Then we talked about all his current projects: a solo album, his project with Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), and not to mention of course Porcupine Tree’s future.

Enjoy.

« It took me twenty years of experimenting and exploring with my bands and my solo projects before I actually felt like I was ready to try and bring all of the aspects of my musical personality together, and to make it seem cohesive and complete, and not to sound like a schizophrenic mess of ideas. »

Radio Metal : With all the different projects you have, how do you manage to write music differently than with your main band, Porcupine Tree?

Steven Wilson : Porcupine Tree is a band, obviously, it’s a band of four people. Even though I’m writing most of the music for that band, I know who I’m writing for. So I have a certain idea in my mind about what the other guys in the band will respond well to, what they will enjoy playing and what they won’t enjoy playing, or what they won’t respond so well to. That, by definition, means that the music for Porcupine Tree is kind of limited, but in a good way. I think the limitation of a band, in a way, is what gives a band a sense of personality, a sense of identity. The Porcupine Tree identity is very much defined by what we can all agree we want to play. But outside of that, there is a lot of other music (not just for me, but for the other three guys, too) that we all would love to explore that we know we can’t in Porcupine Tree. So in a way, the writing for my solo work represents music that I don’t think I could ask Porcupine Tree to play. And that’s liberating, because it means I can explore all sorts of other avenues and styles that I wouldn’t explore within that band.

Isn’t it frustrating to not be able to write the kind of music you would like to write for Porcupine Tree?

It would be frustrating if I didn’t have my solo project. If I was only doing Porcupine Tree, yes, I would be frustrated. But because I’m not, it’s actually kind of nice, in a way. When I’m writing for Porcupine Tree, I know I’m writing in this particular area – and that’s good. It means I have a strong sense of direction, I know who and what I’m writing for. And I don’t feel a sense of frustration, because I now also have my kind of parallel career. In fact, I have several parallel projects, but the solo one is my main thing outside of Porcupine Tree. So in that sense, it’s a very healthy kind of situation, because I don’t have the frustration that I might have if I was trying to put all of my work into one basket.

Why did you wait so long to start a solo career?

It’s a very good question. The answer is complicated. In a way, many of the things I’ve done over the years have started off as solo projects. Porcupine Tree was a solo project, the first two albums are just me. In a sense, Porcupine Tree became a band over a period of time. And that’s happened a couple of times, with other projects too. I suppose the question would be more: why have I now decided to actually release music under my own name? And the answer to that question is, I think it took me a long time to have the confidence to bring all of the various aspects of my musical personality together and for it not to sound like a complete mess. This record is very eclectic, very diverse; there’s a lot of different styles going on there, from industrial to progressive, to electronic, to psychedelic, to jazz… And to bring them all together, to make it all sound like it’s one thing, is not easy. I think it took me twenty years of experimenting and exploring with my bands and my solo projects before I actually felt like I was ready to try and bring all of the aspects of my musical personality together, and to make it seem cohesive and complete, and not to sound like a schizophrenic mess of ideas. That’s the best answer I can probably give you.

« I lived in London since I was like twenty years old. For twenty years, I lived in London and wrote and developed music while I was looking out my window and seeing suburbia and pollution and the city and all this stuff, chaos and stress and everything. Two years ago, I moved out to the country, and the difference in terms of my day to day routine and state of mind is huge. »

What was your state of mind while writing this new album, Grace For Drowning?

Quite different to any state of mind I’ve been in before while writing. About two years ago, I moved out of the city for the first time in my professional career. I lived in London since I was like twenty years old. For twenty years, I lived in London and wrote and developed music while I was looking out my window and seeing suburbia and pollution and the city and all this stuff, chaos and stress and everything. Two years ago, I moved out to the country, and the difference in terms of my day to day routine and state of mind is huge. Now I’m looking out my window, and I’m seeing trees and fields and horses and rivers. Also, I’m going to work much later at night than I used to. I used to be quite disciplined: I would work for 11 o’clock in the morning to about 6 o’clock in the evening every day. Now, I don’t even start working until late in the evening. It’s a very different feeling to be working late at night, it’s very peaceful in the countryside. I think I hear that in the music. I think I can identify that there’s a feeling in the music that is different, because of the difference of environment. It’s a countryside atmosphere as opposed to being a city, suburban atmosphere.

« I think the problem with metal is that it’s become such a generic musical vocabulary now. […] It’s been a while now since we heard metal really kind of reinvent itself, and I think it needs to. »

A few months ago, you said in an interview that you were bored with metal. You also said that “a lot of metal is not really very heavy” and that other artists manage to create heaviness on a record without detuned guitars. Do you think that the aggressiveness and the heaviness in metal is superficial?

I think the problem with metal is that it’s become such a generic musical vocabulary now. There are so many records, thousands of records every year, using the same guitar sound, the same drum sound, the same vocal approach. I think a lot of the power of metal, or of any kind of music actually, comes from when it breaks through into something different, when it develops a sense of edge. I think it’s been a while now since we heard metal really kind of reinvent itself, and I think it needs to. One of the things about metal is that it’s very good at reinventing itself; it’s managed to do it several times over the last forty years or so, since Black Sabbath or whoever. But right now, I have to say I haven’t found anything really fresh from metal for a while. I’ve kind of become a little bit less interested in the standard metal vocabulary. And I think one thing I realized is that a lot of the truly dark and evil and twisted-sounding music is not created with heavy, detuned guitars. It can be created with things like choirs, woodwinds, mellotrons, saxophones. All those things you can hear on my record, actually. ‘Cause the record is quite dark, it’s quite oppressive and claustrophobic in places. All of those dark textures, those evil and twisted textures, come from instruments that are very far removed from the vocabulary of metal. I don’t believe it’s possible with metal to shock anyone anymore. Metal musicians could take the most detuned, distorted sound, the most evil-sounding screams and growls, and people now would just shrug their shoulders, because it’s such a generic, clichéd musical vocabulary.

It wasn’t always, you know. When Bathory first came out twenty years ago, or Burzum, or whoever, there was something genuinely sick and shocking about them at that time. Now, twenty years later, I’m sorry, but the world doesn’t need another metal band influenced by Burzum. The world doesn’t need another thrash metal band influenced by Master Of Puppets. The world doesn’t need any more bands like that, yet thousands come out every year, and there’s nothing new about any of them. I must confess I haven’t heard all of them, so there might be exceptions, I’m no expert. But that’s the way it seems to me. And I know I’m not alone in this, ‘cause I’m speaking to a lot of other musicians. Mickael from Opeth, for example, he’s not interested in metal right now. And I speak to a lot of metal journalists, and I think they feel kind of similar. Right now, metal is in a period where it needs to go away, almost reinvent itself and come back. So I think people like myself and Mickael are turning away and trying to make records using other musical forces. I don’t know how you feel about that. You’re a metal journalist, what do you think about that?

Yeah, I can agree with you. Metal is not as subversive as it used to be, because people are not using detuned guitars in order to create an emotion, but because everybody’s doing it.

I don’t mind if metal musicians don’t sound aggressive or brutal. I don’t have to, they can sound melodic. But I guess what I do mind is that the general texture of most metal music is too generic now. I would love to see more metal bands experimenting with the kind of basic feelings of metal, but maybe just don’t use the same guitar or drum sound the whole time. There’s almost like an established musical vocabulary now, which every metal band tends to use, with the same guitar sounds and all that. There’s something still quite metal about Opeth, even though they’re not metal, they don’t make metal music. There’s a certain vibe or sensibility that you can still say is metal. And I like that. The metal bands could develop and use other sounds, ‘cause right now that metal sound is not interesting to me.

At the beginning, metal was a very free music. The problem is that today, there are a lot of rules for metal musicians: you have to play very fast, hate genres like hip-hop or rap, hate Metallica’s Load, love Master Of Puppets, etc. There are so many rules, and I think metal is no longer free today.

Yes, I think you’re right. The word you used, “rules”, is really the key there. There shouldn’t be rules. Music cannot evolve or develop if it’s kind of limited by a set of parameters or rules. And I feel like metal music is, right now. Ten years ago, there was an incredible explosion of invention and creativity in metal, with bands like Meshuggah, Gojira, Opeth, these progressive metal bands. Fantastic music. And then some of the doom metal bands, like Boris and Earth had great, really innovative sounds. But it’s been a few years since I’ve heard anything that’s kind of fresh. I think you’re right when you say there are too many rules. You shouldn’t have rules in music, it’s kind of the enemy of creativity, in a way.

The 9-minute song you posted as a teaser on the website of the album features a very creepy atmosphere with a very obsessive piano melody. And there is barely any guitar. And still, this song is very heavy and a lot more creepy than any black metal band. Do you think you managed to create that type of feeling that most metal bands fail to create ?

Like I told you, I think being heavy is more of a state of mind. In a way, it has nothing to do with guitars. If you listen to the first Black Sabbath album, which I think is still the heaviest album ever made, the sound is quite sparse. There’s one or two guitars, drums, bass and voice. There’s something deeper in it that makes it heavy. If you listen to some classical music, composers like Ligeti, or Scelsi, or Stockhausen, that is heavy. So bands who don’t even use guitars can be much more… Maybe “heavy” is a wrong word. I think we could use the word “creepy”, or words like “twisted”, “spooky”, or “evil”. Sometimes it has to do with the tonality, the intervals and the chords. The first Black Sabbath album, and the first track on this album, are great examples of what we now call “the Devil’s interval”, which is a kind of atonal interval that immediately creates a sense of dread and evil. It’s been used many times by many bands over the years, but if you use it in a certain way, with a certain instrumentation, I think it has more a sense of power and heaviness than just doing it with a detuned guitar. I understand exactly what you mean, and I think you’re right: that song is very creepy, even though there’s hardly any guitars on it. It has a sense of unease and dread about it. And that’s something that’s got nothing to do with heavy metal or evil music; it’s to do with harmonics, melodies, chordal intervals, and more specifically, with the atmosphere.

But before I stop on that, there’s another thing I want to say: if you go and see horror movies, very often they rely a lot on the soundtrack to create this sense of doom and dread and oppression. How many horror movies do you know have heavy metal soundtracks? I can’t think of any. And yet, horror movies have music that very often is some of the most twisted, dark and oppressive of all. It has to be, to create the right feeling for the movie. Most of the scores for horror movies are electronic or orchestral, and yet, they are very oppressive and very dark, and probably what you would call quite heavy. I think that’s quite important a thing to acknowledge: heavy metal sometimes is not really very dark music. It’s quite accessible, in a way. A lot of heavy metal music can be quite pleasant on the ear. I think Black Sabbath and the early Burzum records are quite sick and disturbing, but nowadays, metal is quite accessible and quite pleasant, compared to what you can do in classical or electronic music.

« I don’t think it’s possible to be creative in only one media. I think you’re creative or you’re not. […]I’m always having ideas for movies, books and all these things, but the thing is that I don’t have the talent to do those things. »

Is Lasse Hoile the visual artist that fits your musical universe best?

Yeah, I think so. When I see his work, it kind of captures the images I have in my mind when I’m making the music. That’s a very rare thing, to find someone that is able to represent the music visually. It’s hard to explain music in visual terms to people sometimes, what you have in your mind when you’re creating music. It’s very hard to express that. So when Lasse comes by with images that are very close to what I imagined, that’s a very rare, special thing. I’m very lucky to be able to collaborate with him.

How do you work with him? Does he just listen to the music and then draw something, or do you give him clues or keywords?

We have a shared love of cinema. We both have similar tastes in cinema, particularly quite obscure European films, surrealist films. Sometimes I would be playing the song, talking to him, and I’d say: “You know that scene from that Tarkovsky film from 1972, you know that scene from that Fritz Lang movie?” And he’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, straightaway. That’s important, we kind of have a dialogue through our shared knowledge and love of European cinema. So there’s a lot of references to European cinema in the videos and the work, which some people pick up on, and some people probably don’t. To us, that’s a very fertile area to be inspired by.

What are the movies you saw recently that inspired you?

I loved that movie “Inception”. Did you see that? I loved, I thought it was a really intelligent film. It’s like a blockbuster, but a really smart one. Other movies I’ve liked recently… I liked “Enter The Void” a lot, that’s a French movie. There was a couple, I can’t recall.

Is it important for you to have this duality between the music and other forms of art?

I don’t think it’s possible to be creative in only one media. I think you’re creative or you’re not. If you’re creative and you chose to be creative in music, then it’s only natural that you would also have some ideas about visuals and writing, too. You may not have the skills to actually realize those ideas, but… I’m always having ideas for movies, books and all these things, but the thing is that I don’t have the talent to do those things. But I think that creative instinct that I have for writing songs could just as easily be directed into photography or painting or writing a novel, if I had the talent. I think creativity is just something that you have, and you can apply it to almost any media, if you have the tools to do so.

You’re working on a very special show to present the music of this album and that’s why there is no support act. What can you tell us about this show?

I don’t want to give too much away, ‘cause I want it to be a surprise. But anyone who’s seen Porcupine Tree play live knows already that in that band, there’s a commitment to using films and multimedia, screens and projections, that kind of stuff. They’re making the visual side of the show quite important as well. Let’s just say that for the solo tour I’m planning, I’m hoping to get that to the next level, to create that same sense of darkness and atmosphere, but using screens and films and projections. I’m also very committed to this idea that the show will kind of start the moment somebody walks into the room. The moment people walk in, there will be something happening: video, sound… In a way, it will be part of the evening, and in that respect, I didn’t want a support band. If I can use that word, I want the spell to be maintained from the moment they walk into the room, to the moment they leave the concert. So I’m trying to create an immersive feeling of being part of something. Not just for the performance, but also for the time before and after the performance. The whole environment will be part of the show.

« I want the spell to be maintained from the moment they walk into the room, to the moment they leave the concert. So I’m trying to create an immersive feeling of being part of something. Not just for the performance, but also for the time before and after the performance. The whole environment will be part of the show. »

You declared: “For me the golden period for music was the late sixties and early seventies”. That’s an opinion you share with Mickael Akerfeldt, but also with Daniel Gildenlöw from Pain Of Salvation, that released a full length album with a very seventies vibe. Have you considered working with him?

Yes, I’m quite an admirer of Daniel. I particularly loved his last couple of records, and he knows that. I would love to. I’m a great fan. Great singer.

About Storm Corrosion, the project you have with Mickael Akerfeldt, you declared: “The music we’re making together is actually nothing like either of us made before”. Could you describe what we can expect from this record musically then?

Well, I said that before Heritage and before Grace For Drowning. Now I have to revise that statement! (laughs) I think Heritage and Grace For Drowning have quite a lot in common with what we’ve done together. I would tell you to listen to these two albums and imagine something perhaps even more orchestral, beautiful and spiritual. It’s still quite dark, with the kind of melancholia that people associate with both of us. But it’s perhaps something even more stark and beautiful. It’s almost finished, in fact, it’s the record I’m working on right now. I’m just finishing the last two tracks, before Mickael goes off on tour. It’s due to be released in April on Roadrunner. Again, I don’t want to give too much away about it, but I’m afraid it’s a very anti-metal album! If metal fans are expecting some kind of progressive metal super-group, I’m afraid they’re gonna be very disappointed.

Do you think it’s possible that both Porcupine fans and Opeth fans hate this record?

No, because in a way, Porcupine Tree fans and Opeth fans always expect the unexpected. And I think both Porcupine Tree fans and Opeth fans are quite open-minded. The new Opeth record is getting a very good reaction from fans and journalists. Not everyone, of course; some people are disappointed that they’re not making death metal anymore. But generally speaking, Mickael’s been very pleasantly surprised by how well the album’s been received. The fans of these bands are very open-minded, and both bands have had moments of melody and beauty in the past, so it’s not completely unexpected. It’s not like Slayer making an orchestral album, is it? I think Opeth and Porcupine Tree fans are very used to hearing moments of orchestral beauty and stuff. So some of them will be disappointed and some of them will love it, it’s as simple as that.

Do you think it’s possible to see you on stage with this project, despite the really tight schedule you and Mickael have with your respective bands?

It’s not something we thought about, because I don’t know how we’d do the music. It would be difficult to do it, although probably not impossible. We haven’t thought about it. Right now we’re just finishing the record and planning to get it released this spring. I wouldn’t say it’s never gonna happen, put it that way.

Can you give us an update on Porcupine Tree’s future?

We’re planning to get together in January to start writing the next record. That’s all I can say at the moment. I don’t know which direction it’s gonna go in, something a bit different from the last few records, I think. But I can’t say much more than that, because I honestly don’t know the answer myself! All I can tell you is we’re gonna start working towards a new record, starting in January.

And can you give us an update on your work as a producer?

I’m not doing productions, I’m doing a lot of mixing these days. I mix albums for people. I mixed the new Opeth record and the last Anathema record. I’m also remixing a lot of work from the seventies; I’ve just done two albums for Jethro Tull, we mixed it in surround sound. I love doing that, it’s a lot of fun. The problems with productions is that it can be a three- to four-month-long commitment to work with another band. I don’t have that kind of time, really. But mixing is a shorter commitment, and you can still be very creative and do a lot to influence the sound of the record. So I love doing that, it means I can collaborate and meet and work with other musicians.

« An artist is not someone who caters for his audience. That’s what an entertainer does. […] Being an artist is a very selfish thing, it has to be; it should be a very selfish thing. »

Since the musical industry has changed, do you think that people today really listen to full-length albums as an entity, or that they just see it as twelve songs on a record?

I think it depends who you talk to. There’s definitely a lot of people out there that still love the idea of a musical journey, of a musical continuum. Because otherwise, I wouldn’t be selling any records! (laughs) I think there’s still people out there who value the idea of listening to an album as a kind of musical journey. The way the record is sequenced is taking the listener on a travel, through different emotions, textures, feelings and dynamics. There are people out there who still love that. The problem of course is the iPod generation. Some people have their iPods on shuffle, they create their own playlists. And those people I guess will never really get the full impact of an album like Grace For Drowning or Heritage or whatever, because they don’t listen to it in a way that truly reflects the artist’s intention. But at the same time, I like thinking that, even if people aren’t listening to the full album, the songs still stand up. If somebody listens to a song from Grace For Drowning out of context, I hope they still think it’s a good song, and I hope they still enjoy it. But to get the full experience, it’s better, in my opinion, to sit down and allow yourself to be taken on a musical journey. I actually think that kind of audience is growing now, because some people are a bit tired and bored of iPod culture and playlist culture we’ve had for the last ten years now. I think there are people who are genuinely looking for something a bit more substantial, and in a way, mourning the passing of the great album era of the seventies, with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Why aren’t those kinds of records around anymore? In a way, there are, and bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree and me are making those records. I think we’re seeing an increase in the number of people that really value that approach to making records. At least that’s the way it seems to me. I hope that’s true.

Do you think that nowadays, bands are discouraged to write those kinds of big albums and content themselves with writing songs and putting them on a record, because those who are going to listen are people from the iPod generation? Do you think they no longer make the effort of creating a real record experience?

That’s just stupid. That’s like saying Picasso should have painted more beautiful watercolors and sunsets, because that’s what people wanted to hang on their wall. That’s not what Picasso did, is it? If you truly consider yourself to be an artist, you should never ever think about what people want. An artist is not someone who caters for his audience. That’s what an entertainer does. If you want to be an entertainer, great: go and entertain, go and give people what they want. But that’s not what an artist does. For me, an artist is someone that basically creates something to please themselves. If other people like it, that’s great. We work really hard to reach as many people as we can with our art, and there’s no harm in doing that. But I think there is a lot of harm when you start making the music and writing the music considering what your public would want from you. That’s a very slippery slope, I think. In a way, that’s an enemy of creativity. Being an artist is a very selfish thing, it has to be; it should be a very selfish thing. You have to make music in a pure way. If other people like it, that’s great; if other people don’t like it, then that’s unfortunate, but at least you can say that you created your art from the heart and soul. So I don’t buy that. If people are making music for kids to listen to on their iPods, what the hell is it that they find interesting in being a musician in the first place? That’s like a betrayal of everything to me, of the gift of being able to make music in the first place. This catering for the lowest denominator thing seems kind of vile to me. But I guess some people do indeed do that. But I don’t know anyone that does, I must say.

You declared: “We keep fighting to try to infiltrate the mainstream any way we can”. It looks like you have a very different idea from “pure” metalheads who just think that mainstream music cannot be authentic music…

That’s such bullshit, isn’t it? The best-selling bands of all time, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, The Who, the Doors, the Rolling Stones… The list goes on and on: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell… These are some of the biggest-selling artists of all time, and these were amazing artists, who created some of the most pure and genuine music ever made. And yet these were bands that were huge mainstream successes. So I’m not buying that at all. If you make something really special, there’s no reason why it can’t appeal to a lot of people. You can also make something really special that will only appeal to a small audience. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the music, it’s just to do with the style of music. I never thought of my music as being particularly avant-garde or difficult. I suppose that’s the difference with the metal bands; a lot of metal musicians would never really cross over, because it’s too extreme.

There’s a certain purity in that, too, and I can appreciate and admire that. But Metallica prove this wrong, don’t they? The Black Album is probably their most successful record, but Master Of Puppets sold millions of copies as well. And then, that music seemed to be very pure, very honest in its own way, and uncompromised. And yet it was a massive mainstream success. I think it depends on the kind of music. It’s probably true to say that certain kinds of music have to exist in their own bubble. In order to remain pure, they have to remain kind of underground. I can’t imagine Sunn 0))) being a mainstream crossover success. I wouldn’t want them to! But at the same time, I think there’s no reason why a band like Opeth or Porcupine Tree couldn’t actually sell a million records. There’s nothing particularly inaccessible about the music, at least to my ears. It’s very beautiful music that anyone could appreciate. Maybe I’m kind of consoling myself, but that’s the way I feel.

Interview conducted on friday september 16th, 2011, by phone
Transcription : Saff’

Steven Wilson’s Website : www.swhq.co.uk
Porcupine Tree’s Website : www.porcupinetree.com



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