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Steven Wilson, The Progressive Music Legend, Talks To Stereoboard About His Solo Work (Interview P1)

Tuesday, 06 December 2011 Written by Ben Bland
Steven Wilson, The Progressive Music Legend, Talks To Stereoboard About His Solo Work (Interview P1)

In this, the first part of Stereoboard’s interview with Steven Wilson, we discuss his solo work including his recently completed solo tour and his latest album “Grace for Drowning”.

Well, first of all Steven, it is a massive pleasure for me to be talking to you. You’ve just returned from your first solo tour. How do you feel that went?

I loved it. I had a lot of fun. We did something quite different to what I am used to doing and it was raising the bar for me in a way to do something that was not just a show under my own name alone but also something more ambitious than perhaps I have ever done both musically and visually. It was sort of the opposite of what you would normally expect from a solo tour. Usually such tours are stripped down, perhaps to just the individual with an acoustic guitar or a piano but in this case I went for a six piece band. Hopefully the result was quite memorable.

Well I certainly thought so at the London show. You assembled a great group of musicians to play on the tour and on the album. How do you go about selecting the people who play your music with you?

The people on the album are mostly people I have known for either many years or a few years. I think I am at a stage in my musical career now where I have a pool of musicians who I can call upon to play. I respect them and I trust them and I know they will give me something that will be what I am looking for, but also paradoxically that will surprise me in some way. I want people to come to the table with suggestions rather than it just being a case of me telling them to play things in a really specific manner. Those guys are all like that and I think that came across live too. A lot of that live performance comes from the interaction between the band members, mixing things up and changing things around. I mean, some of the guys were new to me. Obviously I have been working with people like Theo Travis (sax/flute) for years. Marco Minnemann was new for me. I mean, he is not on the record. He is someone I met after the record came out. He was introduced to me by Jordan (Rudess) from Dream Theater. He said I had to check him out and when we met we got on so well that it made sense to have him in the band. I mean, he is like an engine on the kit at the back of the stage, really driving the show on. Adam Holzman (keys), as well, was recommended by Jordan. Jordan has really been a star in terms of recommending musicians for me this time around. He was working in New York and had played with the likes of Miles Davis. He spans the progressive rock and jazz worlds, which is exactly what I was looking for.

I noticed that you acted more as a conductor and band leader than you usually do on stage. Did you enjoy having other musicians come in and play the music so that you could focus more on the overall performance?

Yes, definitely. It meant I could actually perform more. Particularly as a singer, being able to deliver the words in a way that is more demonstrative was great for me. Rather than having to focus on playing guitar parts or keyboard parts I could just sing a lot of the time and give the words the attention they deserve. I think the way you put it is very good. I was like a musical director sitting back and listening to the band play. That was very different. Usually I always have to concentrate with Porcupine Tree. I always have to think about what pedal I am supposed to hit, etcetera. Sometimes that has meant that the vocal side has had to take a little bit of a back seat unfortunately so yeah, it was really great to do it like this.

I for one thought “Grace for Drowning” was an incredible record. I haven’t actually read a single bad review of it that I can remember. How proud does that make you?

It is funny people ask me that. I am often not particularly aware of the reaction it has received. I always try to make things as good as I can and that I would like to listen to. I am enormously proud of it of course. For some reason…this record seems to have…captured something that people wanted at this time, more so I think than other records I have made in the last five years or so. I mean, those albums are all albums I am proud of and they all have their fans but this one seems to have been more universally acclaimed. I am not sure I approached it in any different a way to other records other than the fact that I spent more time upon it.

I mean, I have this reputation as a bit of a workaholic and someone who releases ten albums a year or whatever but in reality that isn’t really true. Actually the last record I made before this one was “The Incident”. There was the Blackfield record but I didn’t write that, those were Aviv’s songs that I just played on. I have pretty much worked on this record for two years straight. In the meantime all these other records that I have been involved in have come out, whether that is Anathema or King Crimson or Opeth or whatever, but I am just involved in those. I am not writing for those bands. For two years all my creative energy really went into “Grace for Drowning”. I think this record, in particular, seems extremely uncompromising in comparison to other albums I have done. Not that any of them have compromised but this one especially is very ambitious and experimental.

ImageI think there is a sense that at this time in the history of rock music…with all the download culture and all the reality bullshit…that people seem to want this record and this kind of music and musical statement from me….and that’s brilliant for me. I think this record is the kind of record that really taps into the music I fell in love with when I was a kid, in particular the mix between jazz and rock music. I think people forget the influence jazz had on ambitious rock music towards the end of the sixties and in the early seventies. That is why I think there was such an extraordinary run of albums at that time. Trying to tap into that spirit has been run of the fundamentals of the album. People seem to have picked up on that and my passion for that.

Sorry, I am aware that this has been an extremely long answer to your question! In summary, yes I am happy but I am not necessarily that aware of it because I do not read reviews much. I try and cut myself off from that side of things but I cannot help but get an impression of what has been said and I have had lots of people telling me how much this record means to them and that is a great thing for me and it makes me very proud.

Steven, when I first heard you were releasing a solo album I remember being surprised because of the vast range of other projects you have had. Now that I have heard both of the solo records though I think that perhaps your solo material wouldn’t fit comfortably into any of your other projects after all. What’s your take on that?

I think that is part of it. More broadly I would say that it is very difficult in any of my other projects to bring all the aspects of my musical personality together as I can do on my solo albums. Now, without question, Porcupine Tree is clearly my most commercially successful and best known musical project but that is not through design. That is just something that happened. Porcupine Tree is an aspect of my musical personality. Bass Communion is an aspect of my personality, etcetera. I think the thing about my solo project is that it is the first time I have tried to combine all these different parts of my musical personality. There is my interest in jazz and in industrial music and in progressive rock and in drones, in pop music even as well. It is the first time, in a way, that I have been able to bring everything to one project. In a way, that makes sense because all the other projects are collaborative with the exception of Bass Communion and they involve other musicians. I wouldn’t want any musician that I played with to have to play music that they themselves didn’t like and didn’t want to play. I mean, for example, there is one member of Porcupine Tree who really detests jazz music. I would never be able to bring that element into Porcupine Tree, for example. Similarly, in Blackfield, Aviv is very committed to the idea of the three minute pop song. He does not like things that go on for ages, which are too long in his view. All my other projects have something of me in them, quite a lot of me, they are still collaborations and thus I still have to be aware of what the others are thinking. With a solo project I am liberated from that. For the first time I think the whole breadth of my musical personality has been touched upon.

With regard to touring then, what plans do you have for your solo work? I know there are lots more people out there who want to see your shows.

Well, at the moment I would say that I am totally committed to the solo project. I am immensely proud of the album and of the tour we have just done to support it and I think…well, actually I know that it is only the beginning. We have started booking the next leg of shows going into 2012 which I think are going to be really fantastic. I have actually also started writing new solo music as well. This music is specifically written for Adam and Theo and Marco and co to play. That is not what I was doing on the record so much. On the record I wrote without particular musicians in mind most of the time but now I am really pleased with this line-up I have got to play my solo music and I think that having a solo band I want to write for means I am sort of in that pocket creatively at the moment and I think that it is a good place for me to be.

I have been wondering, with regard to one song on the new album “Raider II” in particular, how you go about composing such monolithic pieces of music at times. I mean, that song is over twenty minutes long and is incredible in terms of its musical density…

I don’t know really to be honest. I don’t sit down and say “today I am going to write a twenty-five minute track”. Without wishing to sound pretentious…the music tends to take me wherever it takes me. In the case of the track you mentioned, “Raider II”, it just kept developing and taking on new layers. I kept thinking that there was something more that could develop out of it. The original demo was about twenty minutes long, without me even being aware of it. The music did not feel that complete until it was about that long. I mean, there is a tradition obviously in progressive music of songs being very long but I did not deliberately set out to write a very long song at all. Many progressive pieces tend to be more like musical journeys than anything else. A piece of music that would last a whole side of vinyl – that sort of thing! I guess I have always been drawn back at times to music that takes the listener on a journey and “Raider II” does that I think. This is certainly one of the longest and most epic of all. It has a strong influence from my work with King Crimson. On this particular song I think that is quite prevalent, although hopefully in quite a contemporary way. My head was kind of full of Crimson at the time with big mellotrons and jazz influences and long pieces. So undoubtedly that did have a major influence.

The second part of Stereoboard’s interview with Steven Wilson, in which he discusses his broader role in the progressive music scene and many of his other projects, will be published soon.

“Grace for Drowning”, the second Steven Wilson solo album, is out now.

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