It was not just a matter of personal affinity, or a liking for one another’s music, that brought Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt together. These two men agree on many subjects, like their views on religion, most notably, their musical tastes and their opinions on the evolution of music. In this respect, they can truly be defined as soul mates, in the purest sense of the word, devoid of the amorous connotation usually associated with it.
In this interview, among other things, Steven Wilson restated his opinion regarding the evolution of metal and confirmed that Mikael Akerfeldt does indeed share it. As for the rest, he told us a few anecdotes on the making of this album and gave us a few useful pieces of info on what to expect next, the future of his collaboration with Akerfeldt, his solo project (the next album appears to be almost ready) and Porcupine Tree, which he insists needs to reinvent itself.
Radio Metal : When we last interviewed you, a few months ago, we talked about the fact that you find metal boring nowadays. Recently, we heard that Mikael Akerfeldt gave up the death metal band Bloodbath. It looks like the two of you are getting bored of metal music. Do you think that this common state of mind is what gave you the idea of working together?
Steven Wilson : The thing is, Mikael and myself have always shared a love of early 70s, progressive music, of fairly esoteric records and fairly esoteric artists. One thing we were very much both in agreement of was that the musical vocabulary associated with metal music didn’t really have anything new to offer. For us, anyway. I would love to hear some young metal bands doing something genuinely new and ground-breaking with their music. But I have to say I haven’t heard anything new for a few years now. I think, because we’re both very curious people, we’re always looking for new ways to express ourselves. And we thought that metal was the last place where we would find a way to express our creativity, at this time in our lives anyway.
Is this album a reaction to what bothers you in metal? Did you write this record trying to get as far as possible from heavy metal?
I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings about this: we were not reacting against metal at all. Metal was the furthest thing away from our minds. I haven’t listened to metal for many years, and Mikael is the same. When it comes to the music we listen to and that we love, it’s not metal, and it hasn’t been for many years. So it’s not like we set out saying: “You know what? Let’s really piss off the metal fans! Let’s do something really anti-metal!” It really wasn’t like that. It was more that we simply relied on our musical instincts. I’m not against people who love metal, it’s just not where I’m at personally. It wasn’t a grand statement against metal, it’s simply that it’s not something that particularly interests me at the moment – nor Mikael either.
At the beginning, you described Storm Corrosion as very surprising for both Porcupine Tree and Opeth fans. Since then, Opeth’s album Heritage and the Steven Wilson album have been released, and you said that, considering those two albums, Storm Corrosion wasn’t that surprising. Do you regret that those two records came out before this one? Would you have preferred to released it first, in order to really surprise the audience?
No, I think it’s probably better. I think it’s worked out better in the end. Had Storm Corrosion come out maybe a year ago or two years ago, I think it would probably have got a lot more of a negative reaction than it has. It seems to me that people were a little bit more prepared and a little bit more willing to accept the direction of Storm Corrosion because they’d heard Heritage and Grace For Drowning. For me, the album is very much a kind of final part in a trilogy of records. I guess I’m moving away from the more conventional rock music vocabulary into a more orchestrated, organic world. So I don’t regret it, it’s worked out very well in this order. I think the album that had the hardest time was probably Opeth’s Heritage. I think Mikael had a very hard time with the metal fans, particularly, accepting their record. But he knew he would, he expected that. But I think in time, this record will come to be seen as a classic and a masterpiece, as all Opeth’s albums are.
Isn’t it sad that you have to prepare fans to a big musical change, like you did with those two records before you released Storm Corrosion?
It’s just human nature, isn’t it? The nature of music fandom and music fans is that, very often, they fall in love with a band or a particular artist, and they really would like… I’m talking generally, that’s not everyone. But a vast majority of the fanbase would prefer the band to keep making the same record and the same style of music over and over again. That, to me, is not interesting. I like artists that tend to be more interested in reinventing themselves, in experimenting. I think one of the things that you accept when you go in that direction is that you will lose some of your fans with each new release. Some of your fans will not understand and not accept the direction you’re going. But the important thing is, if you consider yourself to a true artist, you have to be selfish and you have to follow your own instincts. Is it sad that Storm Corrosion needs to be explained to people before they can accept it? I don’t think it’s sad, I think it’s inevitable. I think it’s just human nature. Human beings find change very difficult. They find change is something that can be quite an awkward thing to adjust to. It applies to music, it applies to life, it applies to everything.
Is it hard from you, since you come from the metal world, to present your music to new fans? How do jazz or 70s rock fans react?
I think one thing is changing in this modern age: people are becoming much more open. Now that we have the Internet and we have access to so many different styles of music and so many musicians and bands, all online, I believe that people are less generic in their musical tastes. I’m sure there are still metal fans who only listen to metal, and there are probably some jazz fans that only listen to jazz. But I think that kind of approach to music is changing. There’s a lot more people out there that just like good music. They don’t necessarily draw boundaries. I know the metal audience can be very focused on what they believe is great music. But I also think that most metal fans are quite open-minded, because metal music itself is quite a diverse scene. You even have ambient metal now! You have extreme metal, ambient metal, doom metal, post-rock… It’s a very flexible form already. So I think people who listen to metal are generally quite open-minded people. That’s certainly my experience anyway.
At the beginning, Mike Portnoy was part of this project but was excluded because you felt the music would have little room for drums. But in the end, there are some percussive elements and Gavin Harrisson played on the album. Why didn’t you call Mike Portnoy back, since he wanted to be part of the project initially?
I don’t think Mike would have liked this music. I might be wrong, but I don’t think it would have been his kind of music. Gavin’s the drummer for me, anyway. I think Gavin is one of the top five drummers in the whole world. And he lives about ten miles from me, so it was easy for me to get Gavin involved! I might be wrong, but I don’t think Mike would’ve liked this kind of music. I think he’s more of a metal/rock guy. But maybe I’m wrong.
So you didn’t even try to call him back?
No. I’m not really a fan, to be honest, of...[he hesitates]. Anyway, Gavin is someone I thought would be perfect for this particular style of music. He loves jazz music. He’s not really a metal drummer, although he can do that. He’s a very flexible drummer.
How did you discover the work of Jessica Cope, who directed the video for the song “Drag Ropes”, which was released a few days ago?
It’s one of those wonderfully happy coincidences. I was in the Roadrunner UK offices, and we were trying to come up with an idea for the video. I said: “What would be really cool would be to have some kind of shadow puppet or animated thing”. And one of the girls in the Roadrunner office said: “Oh, you know, my sister does that! My sister works with Tim Burton!” And I’m like: “Really? Wow, that sounds perfect!” So we looked for some examples of her work, and it was exactly what I had in mind. It was just a happy coincidence: she’s the sister of one of the persons who works in the record company. I definitely know it won’t be the last time we work with her, because I think she’s done an extraordinary job, a fantastic job.
Since it is a very elaborate and very artistic video, what was your involvement in the story? Did Jessica have complete freedom on that?
I gave her a rough storyline, and I explained what I had intended with the lyrics. It’s almost a fairytale, a very dark, macabre fairytale, about a witch. Someone has been accused of being a witch. She took that and elaborated on that, and she came up with the basic storyline. It was a collaborative work, I did give her the idea behind the lyrics.
There’s heavy criticism about religion in that video. Do you think religion still has as much power as we see in the video?
No, but the video is set in a time very far in the past. I almost think of it as being set in the 14th or 15th century, the era when witch hunters were going out, accusing people of being witches. They were being hanged and drowned for being witches and heretics, or Satan worshippers. So it’s kind of going back to a darker time in history, if you like. But the answer to your question is, I’m very anti-religion, as in Mikael. I still think it’s one of the worst influences on the human race. I don’t think it has as much power as it used to, certainly not in Europe. But there are some places in the world where it still does have incredible power. It’s not just religious power, but political power, too. And that, I find, is an extremely dangerous influence on humanity.
On another subject, will you tour with Storm Corrosion?
Not this time, no. I think, maybe, if we get to the point where we make a second record, we might think about it. But right now, I’m on tour with my solo album, and Mikael’s on tour with Opeth for most of the rest of this year. So it wouldn’t be possible anyway. And also, I’m not sure how we would do it. I’m not sure what line-up of musicians could recreate this music live. You heard it, so you know it’s very fragile, orchestrated music. I’m not sure how we would do that in a live context. But maybe, if we get to do a second record, we’ll have a better idea of how we might do that. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the future, but we’re not doing it for this record.
So you do plan to record other albums with that project?
Because we’re so happy with this one, we’ll certainly get together again and start writing together. Whether it will be something completely different or a second Storm Corrosion album, I don’t know. But I would be very surprised if Mikael and myself wouldn’t at least try again to collaborate on something, because we had a great time. We’re so proud of this record. There’s something about it that’s so pure and so outside of everything else. It feels like it’s so much removed from the rest of the music world. We’re very proud of that fact. Yes, we’ll definitely try, I’m sure.
Can you give us an update on Porcupine Tree? Did you start writing some material for the next album?
No. There’s nothing I can tell you, really. There’s no plans at the moment. I’m really having a great time with my solo project. I’ve written about 75% of the second record, which I’ll start recording soon. For Porcupine Tree, there’s no plans, but it doesn’t mean anything sinister – it just means there’s no plans. We will definitely get back together at some point, but it’s not going to be anytime soon, I don’t think.
Do you think that Storm Corrosion and your solo album will have a musical impact on this record, or are you thinking differently when you’re working with Porcupine Tree?
I think Porcupine Tree needs to reinvent itself somehow. I don’t think there would be any point in Porcupine Tree getting back together and making another record in the same style as we’ve explored over the last three or four records. So when we get back together again, we’ll be looking to find some new direction. And I have explored different directions with Storm Corrosion and Grace For Drowning, and the other guys have had their own projects over the last couple of years, and they’ve explored other styles, too. So the answer is probably yes, I think there will be some continuation between what we’ve been doing outside of the band and what we’ll do when we get back together.
Do the other members of Porcupine Tree share your opinion on heavy metal?
None of us really like heavy metal to start with! I think I was the only one who was really into metal. Actually, no, Colin likes metal. I was the one who brought metal to the band in the first place. I still like metal, I still enjoy some metal records. I just think right now in time, it needs some new direction, and I’m not finding it in the music. I’m waiting for the band to come along who’s going to blow me away with something new in metal.
Would it be possible for Porcupine Tree to give up the progressive metal you’ve been playing in your career?
I never thought we were progressive metal to start with! For me, progressive metal is Dream Theater. We were a progressive band that used many elements from many other kinds of music in our songwriting. That could be metal, electronic, ambient, industrial… For me, they were all part of the musical vocabulary. But I never described us as a progressive metal band. I never really understood that kind of genre myself – or liked it much, really.
Interview conducted on may, 4th, 2012, by phone.
Transcription : Saff’
Album : Storm Corrosion, out via Roadrunner Records
This post is also available in: French