Steven Wilson: The joy of being alone

There’s no longer any doubt that Steven Wilson is giving priority to his solo career, to the detriment of Porcupine Tree, whose future is more than uncertain. He says so himself in the following interview, which he granted us to talk about his new record, Hand. Cannot. Erase. The man exudes enthusiasm regarding the freedom he enjoys now that he’s not, strictly speaking, constrained by a band.

His artistic freedom allows him to embark into risky, ambitious projects, in order to try and make things move forward, or at least to try something new. Paradoxically, his current musical mood will delight fans of Blackfield and Porcupine Tree, thanks to a few metal overtones that we’d thought we’d never hear again, considering Wilson’s comments on the genre a few years ago.

The music on this album serves a theme: isolation, inspired by the sad story of Joyce Carol Vincent, whom Steven Wilson sees as a symbol of the quirks of modern society. Speaking of which, there’s a paradox in what he says: on one hand, he deplores the progressive loss of human and social interactions, but on the other hand, he confesses to being happier as a solo artist that in a band. His imaginary character, who chooses solitude in order to be happy and observe the world, probably has a lot to tell us about the artist and his own complexity.

« It’s a question of how the modern world gets to a point now where it’s so fast, so confusing, so frantic and so painful to some people to even concentrate that they prefer their own company and they prefer to isolate themselves. »

Radio Metal: All band members of the previous album are playing on your new album Hand Cannot Erase. Even if this is a Steven Wilson album, do they have an involvement in the writing of the music?

Steven Wilson: No. They’re not involved in the writing of the music but they are certainly suggesting ideas in terms of arrangements. And I think that’s important to me because there would be no point in having musicians at all if you would just gonna tell them exactly what you want them to play. You want some degree of inspiration and you want to be surprised! I mean, I’m working with incredible musicians, really world class musicians, so of course I’m looking to be blown away, to be surprised by what they might bring to my material. At the end of the day, I think that it’s quite normal for… If you look at most solo artists over the years, they have a regular group of musicians. Whether it’s Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Frank Zappa, whoever it is, all of these guys tend to have a certain group of musicians that they can trust, rely on and feel comfortable working with. So I guess that I’m no exception to that rule.

Last time we spoke you said that « the direction of Porcupine Tree isn’t something [you’re] completely in control of.” Would you say that you found back a similar situation now with your solo project to what you had with Porcupine Tree with the first few albums, when the band only rested on your shoulders and before it became an actual band around 1995 and with the Signify album?

Yes, I think that’s probably partly true. Of course there are wonderful things about being in a band but there are also limitations. And that limitation is, as you kind of suggested with your questions, the fact that you have an increasingly small area of music that you all agree that you want to play together. And that was certainly the case with Porcupine Tree. It became increasingly hard for me to bring in material that was, if you like, outside of the established Porcupine Tree style. That, ultimately, is what led me to believe that I couldn’t continue with it and that I needed to get back, as you say, to the way it was at the beginning where every album would actually be a massive development and a change and an evolution. That’s certainly been the case with my four solos albums. They are all very different to each other and they all represent a very different approach, concept and philosophy. And I felt slightly with Porcupine Tree that we began to have an ever decreasing musical depth and musical breadth and that was a problem for me. So yes, I think that your evaluation is probably very accurate.

You described your new album as less jazzy and more reflective to all of the different material in your back catalogue, and it actually is. Was this done on purpose?

I think it was a consequence of the story, the concept behind the album. For example, if I contrast it with my previous solo album, The Raven That Refused To Sing, the concept behind that record was this idea of it being almost analogous to a book of old fashion ghost stories, almost something from late 19th century, early 20th century. So because of that, I think the music took on more of an old fashioned, almost classical sound. And that’s no coincidence. I think that did come very directly from the choice of subject matter. And here with Hand Cannot Erase we have an album which is very much about a modern world. It’s about living in the city in the 21st century. Not only that, it’s a story which encompasses a whole lifetime. Because of that, you have many different styles. You have many different moods. So whereas The Raven was almost exclusively focused on this rather melancholic mood, here we have a record which has everything from joy to anger to loneliness to depression to disillusionment to confusion… And many other things too. And it’s also a record which reflects the environment it is set in. So there are more industrial elements, there are more electronic sounds on this record, there are harder hitting metal riffs on this record than I had on previous records. And so consequently, a lot of that does refer back to things [I did in the past]. Somebody said to me today that they thought that one of the tracks on the record could have been on a Blackfield album, which I think absolutely is true. Somebody also said that another track could have been on a Porcupine Tree record, which I think is also true. So I think there is a sense of eclecticism in the album, representing all of the different phases of my career so far.

And like you were mentioning, we can hear more heavy guitars than on previous albums. Is this something that you were missing or is it just a consequence of the concept like you were saying?

Well, you know, I change, all the time. I change in the music I listen to and the music I want to make. The record I make now will be different to the record I’ll make in two years and it will be different to the record I made two years ago. If you’d asked me two years ago: “Will you have any metal riffs on the record?” I would have said – and I did say, because people asked me – “No, I got bored with metal. I feel like I’ve done that, I’ve been there.” But you know what? Here I am two years later and I’ve kind of begun to enjoy metal a bit more again. It’s starting again to creep back into my music. And I think that’s the same with everyone else! Everyone else goes through – should we say – phases in their life, where they enjoy particular kinds of music and they are inspired by different things, and then you get to a point where you’ve had too much of something and you don’t want to hear it for a while, you don’t want to listen to… I… Listen, I listened to lots of metal for a period of time in my life and it was a big influence on the sound of Porcupine Tree for a while, for example, but when I finished Porcupine Tree, I didn’t want to play metal anymore. I felt like it had become too generic and you know what? Here I am five years later and it’s beginning to be quite inspiring again to have the occasional heavy metal riffs, and I’m enjoying it again. So I think it’s just a question of phases in your life and the fact that different things appeal to you at different times. Things become fresh and they get boring and then they become fresh again…

I remember actually an interview we had together four years ago for the album Grace For Drowning, and you were explaining how bored you were of metal. So you’re saying that you enjoy metal again, does that mean you recently listened to metal albums?

More so than I have for about five years. Let’s just say it’s become part of listening diet again. Yes.

« We call it social networking but of course it’s anti social networking »

The lyrical concept of the album is inspired by a very sad story about Joyce Carol Vincent that disappeared one day and no one noticed it. She was found dead in her flat in January 2006, and evidence suggested she had died around December 2003. It has been speculated that she had been a victim of domestic abuse, this being the reason for her cutting off contact with her friends and family. What motivated you to use this story as the base of the album?

Ok, well, I think that what originally appealed to me was the idea of a young woman being able to disappear completely whilst living amongst millions of other people, and how that became for me something very symptomatic or symbolic of what it means to be living in the city in the 21st century. And how, actually, the human race is very good at using technology particularly to disconnect and isolate itself from the rest of the human race. Of course we live in the age now of the internet and it’s quite possible now with the internet to stay in your bedroom, never venture outside of your bedroom and in a way interface with the rest of world through you internet portal, through social networking, through media… That is not necessarily a good trend. And for me, the story of Joyce Carol Vincent became very symbolic of that. Here’s a young woman that was not a lonely old lady, she was a young attractive popular woman who had certainly a potential to have a lot of friends and to be dating, having boyfriends and she also had family… And yet, she was someone who was able in a way to isolate herself to the extent that she could die in her flat and no one would miss her for more than two years. That to me is extraordinary and tragic but it also says so much about the modern world in the 21st century. My character isn’t Joyce Carol Vincent. My character is a fictional construct but she is nevertheless a woman that chooses to observe and isolate herself. So I had this image of this woman looking down from a block of flats and seeing and observing the rest of the world. And I wanted to be able to, if you like, use that myself to make observations about modern life and isolation and loneliness and the internet and family life and all the things that this concept kind of froze up for me. But the one important thing to say about my story is that it doesn’t end tragically. It has a more ambiguous ending. My character disappears and there is the implication that she chooses to disappear. And there’s even a little suggestion of a sci-fi element to my story. But certainly the Joyce Carol Vincent story was the inspiration for the beginning of my story.

And did you want this album to say to the listener that loneliness is something that is more complex than it seems and that maybe we should be more careful with our entourage, even if the people seems popular, attractive, happy, etc.?

I think it’s more complicated and I think it’s not to do with loneliness either. I think it has to do with isolation. And I say that because I think that some of these people that do choose to isolate themselves don’t feel lonely; they feel disconnected, and there is a difference there. In fact, some people find it actually hard and painful to interact with other human beings. So it’s not a question of loneliness. I think it’s a question of how the modern world gets to a point now where it’s so fast, so confusing, so frantic and so painful to some people to even concentrate that they prefer their own company and they prefer to isolate themselves. And I see that as only something that will increase because we now have a generation of, you know, young kids coming into the world for whom the internet is normal, it’s a part of their everyday existence, and social networking is part of their everyday existence. And for these kids, face to face interaction, actually spending time with other human beings is almost seen as something unnecessary, in the same way some kids now don’t understand why anybody would bother to learn how to write! “I don’t need to write, I have a computer keyboard!” And I think that the same is now true of the music business: “Why should I have to pay for my music? I can get it all free online!” The movie industry: “Why should I have to pay for a movie?” The same is true. “Why should I have to go and socialize with my friends? I can connect with them on Facebook or through Skype or Twitter or whatever it is…” And I see this as a not particularly good trend in modern life, in the way that the civilization is evolving.

Do you feel disconnected like that, yourself, sometimes?

I think everyone has times in their lives, you know, maybe we’ve been invited to a party, to a show or to a dinner with friends and we think to ourselves: “You know what? I can’t be bothered, I just much rather stay and watch TV. I can’t be bothered.” Because, you know, the thing about being sociable and interacting with other human beings is it does require some effort. Of course it does. It requires some energy. And it’s very easy to become more and more passive, the more the technology makes it easier for us to be passive, and to actually connect with the world in a very passive way. It’s no surprise that we have an increasing amount of people that are overweight because people don’t have any reason to get off their sofa. So there are also those issues that go here and I think that most people, if you say to them: “Do you understand the motivation to isolate yourself and simply never step outside your front door ever again?” Most people will at least understand how that could happen. And I certainly do relate to that too.

That’s interesting because I read a couple of interviews with Porcupine Tree’s drummer Gavin Harrison and he was saying the same kind of things. Did you talk together about that subject?

I’m sure I’ve spoken about it with Gavin. I mean, you know, I think that anybody now that thinks in any depth about the world that we live in will always come up with this same issue, which is the more technology we have in the world, the more potential there is for disconnection and isolation. I mean, we call it social networking but of course it’s anti social networking. It’s a piece of software and that means we don’t actually have to socialize at all. Because it’s not face to face and we can do it from our bedroom, from our computer portal. So I’m sure I talked about it with Gavin. I think most people of my age that I know and have socialized with have similar views and ideas about the modern world, yeah.

« I think there’s not enough pretentiousness in the world of rock music these days. »

Musically, the beginning of the album is very light and, as the story and the album go, it gets darker and darker. Was the progression of the music meant to perfectly match this story?

Yes, in a way. I mean, there’s always a slight conflict between trying to make a satisfying musical experience but at the same time trying to tell a story, and sometimes the two things do fight against each other. It’s a bit of a balancing thing. But the simple answer to your question is “yes”. This is not necessarily a miserable story. I don’t want people to think this is a miserable story. This is a story about a woman who has an incredible happiness in her life, particularly in her early years, and gradually becomes a little more disillusioned and feels that she wants to be alone and isolates herself, not necessarily in an unhappy way. This is why I say the album is not necessarily about loneliness because the album is about someone who chooses to be alone, not someone who desperately wants human interaction, in fact quite the opposite. So it’s about a woman who gradually realizes that she is happiest on her own and at that point she becomes a character that is able to observe the world that we live in. For me, she becomes a vessel in which I can talk about a lot of these things and observe the world the way I see it. So, the music does have an incredible joy to it and it does have some quite joyful moments. It’s not a completely depressing and melancholic record, by no means.

The album is written from a female perspective. How did you manage to find the right tone and to put yourself in the shoes of a woman?

Well, the simple answer is: I don’t know if I did find the right tone [chuckles]. I guess that the women who will listen to the album will tell me if it’s convincing or not. But you’re right, it wasn’t easy but it was important to me that it was a female character. And it was important to me to give myself a challenge. One of the things about making an album every two years is that I’m very, very reluctant to repeat myself and to make the same record that I might have made two years ago or even ten years ago. So I’m always looking for a new challenge. And for me, I think that one of the biggest challenges this time was to have, not just a female perspective from the lyrical point of view, but to also have a female presence on the record, musically, too. So I have a female singer and I have a female actress who reads the story on the song “Perfect Life”. So there is actually a female presence on the record too and I tried to write lyrics for these women to read and sing, and hopefully something that will be convincing. Ultimately, time will tell if it’s been successful or not. It wasn’t easy but I did what I could! [Laughs]

Did you receive some advices about that from women friends of yours?

Yes. If I’m writing songs, I’m playing them to both male and woman friends. I’m always looking for feedback and if a female said to me they were convinced with something I didn’t believe in, then I would obviously take that on board, yeah.

Can you tell us more about singer Nina Tayed that we hear on the album, how did you get in touch with her?

She is a friend of a friend of mine, of Aviv Geffen, who I had the band Blackfield with and I knew about her on the net because she’s a famous singer in Israel. I heard her sing and was always very impressed by her voice. When I wrote the song “Routine” and I decided that I have to be able to do it as a duet with a female singer, it won’t work unless I have a female singer, then I had three or four different singers do a version of the song for me and Ninet’s was the version that completely blew me away. And I think the reason it completely blew me away is that she did something that I didn’t ask her to do. She did something that actually surprised me, which comes back to when I talked about my musicians: I’m looking to be surprised, I’m looking to something that perhaps is not necessarily what I expected or what I asked them to do. And Nina was the one that did that. I absolutely loved it, so I knew that she was the one.

You’ve been quoted saying that one of the influences for the album was Kate Bushes album The Dreaming. Apparently, this is the album that gave you the idea to use a solo choir boy. Can you tell us more about that? What does this album represent to you?

First I’m a massive Kate Bush fan and always have been, and if I had to choose one album of hers as my favorite it would probably be The Dreaming. But I think, more importantly for me, she’s the kind of artist that will do things that you would never expect in the context of a pop record. One of those things she does on that record is she has a solo choir boy share the vocal with her on the song called “All The Love” and I always thought that this was one of the most extraordinary thing to have on a pop record. The sound of a solo choir boy is not a sound that you normally expect to hear on a pop record or a rock record. And I always loved the sound of that, particularly the way it worked with her voice. And so I decided this time around: I have this interesting concept about a female and, you know, there’s something about the sound of a solo choir boy that is quite a sensitive feminine sound, so I thought this was the perfect context and opportunity to follow in her footsteps, if you like, and try to incorporate in the sound of this record the sound of a solo choir boy. And I’m very proud of the way it worked. It’s a beautiful moment.

« I’m having a great time and my records are selling better than porcupine Tree records ever sold, so there’s not even a financial motive to go back to a band situation. »

Last year you ended a Facebook message saying about this new album: « Pretentious, and proudly so! »…

Yeah [laughs].

Do you consider that an artist needs to be pretentious in order to make great music or great art in general? That there’s no need for humility when it comes to creating art?

No, I don’t say that. I think it’s quite possible to make great art without being ambitious in that sense. I mean, AC/DC is probably still making great records but that doesn’t mean they’re being pretentious. But let’s just say this: I think there’s not enough pretentiousness in the world of rock music these days. And let me put that another way: I don’t think there’s enough people who are being incredibly ambitious with the way they make records and I miss that. Because if you look at the seventies, the sixties, the eighties, even the nineties, there were many artists that were making incredibly ambitious records. And sometimes those records would fail. I think part of the thing about being pretentious or ambitious is [that you’re] almost overreaching yourself, doing something where most people would look at you like you were insane and saying: “You can’t do that!” You know, like the Kate Bush thing with having a choir boy on a rock record: “You can’t do that!” But thank God there are people who do and do kind of have this ambition, and are prepared to fall flat on their face and fail utterly. And I guess I’m one of those people; I’m always prepared to make a record that some other people would be considering as an absolute failure, like: “What the hell is he trying to do there?!” But I guess I miss more of that sense of overreaching and being overambitious and being pretentious because I think it was responsible for a lot of the great records and innovation in history. Where would we be if the Beatles hadn’t been pretentious? You know what I mean?

Last year, Mikael Åkerfeldt said that both of you agreed on the fact that you wanted to release a second Storm Corrosion album. Do you have any news on that?

The short answer is no because, obviously, he’s very busy and I’m very busy now with my record but I certainly would love to get back together with Michael and see what comes up, yep. But I think realistically, it won’t be for a while longer yet.

Back to what you were saying earlier about Porcupine Tree: making a new Porcupine Tree record would imply that you would be ready to work as a band, which you haven’t been for the last couple of years, but are you maybe now starting to picture it? Do you start missing the effervescence of creating an album with a band?

Honestly, no [laughs]. No, not really. I think some of the fans probably miss it more than I do. You know what? I’m not ruling out going back to a band context but, right now, I’m having a great time and my records are selling better than porcupine Tree records ever sold, so there’s not even a financial motive to go back to a band situation. I think I will find it difficult to go back to a band now. But, at the same time, I’m not ruling out going back and doing maybe one more record, it could be interesting as an experiment to see if there was still something more to say in that particular context. And I know that some people become very attached, you know, there’s a certain romance of being in a band. The band is a very romantic notion to the fans. But you know what? It wasn’t nearly, really, as inspiring to me as it should have been towards the end and that was a problem for me. And I don’t really miss it, that’s the answer. But it doesn’t mean that we won’t do it again one day.

You recently wrote a song with Mariusz Duda of Lunatic Soul and Riverside to pay homage to Alec Wildey, a 26 years old man who sadly succumbed to cancer this August. He was a fan of your work and he was involved in the Porcupine Tree and the Steven Wilson street teams. He had asked you to set one of his poems to music with Mariusz. You even considered letting him play the drums on the song but sadly, he passed away only a few weeks later. I guess this must have been a very painful song to write. How did you manage to finish the song after Alec passed away?

The simple answer is that we agreed to do it before, obviously, Alec passed away and so I think there was something that had to be honored. It was actually kind of a nice thing to do because we knew that it was the thing that would have made Alec the most happy he had ever been. So, although there was a sense of tragedy about the situation, there was also a sense of joy and a kind of cathartic experience, if you like, about being able to finish the song knowing how much it would have meant to him, and also knowing that it would raise a lot of money for various cancer charities. So I’m really proud and happy that we were able to do that. I’m only sorry that Alec didn’t get to hear it; that’s the only sad part of the process of creating this song.

Interview conducted by phone 19th, january 2015 by Philippe Sliwa.
Retranscription and traduction: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo Pics: Lasse Hoile (1 & 5), Susana Moyaho (2), Ben Meadows (4).

Steven Wilson official website: stevenwilsonhq.com.

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