Interview with Steven Wilson
Ahead of his forthcoming Belfast and Dublin concerts, I was delighted to catch up with the legendary prog musician, composer, and producer Steven Wilson to discuss amongst other things his musical inspirations, the pressures of remixing a classic album, and his Dorian Grey-like ability to look like a man half his age.
What are your earliest musical inspirations and how did they affect you?
My earliest musical memories are of hearing my parents playing records, and I was lucky that both of them had great musical taste. My mum listened to Frank Sinatra, Abba, The Carpenters, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, basically the great pop music of the late 70s, and my dad would play conceptual rock stuff like ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and ‘Tubular Bells’. At that age, I had no concept of musical genre or musical snobbery, so it was just all magical to me, and in many ways that is still the way I feel now. I don’t really understand the concept of listening within a genre or making music within a set of stylistic limitations.
As well as being a self-taught composer you are also a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who among other things can play guitar, piano, bass guitar, autoharp, and flute. Do you have a favourite instrument?
I would say that my favourite instrument is the studio. I like to be surrounded by ALL my instruments and technology. I love to create songs and soundscapes and to me, it doesn’t really matter whether that involves programming drum machine or picking up an acoustic guitar or sitting down at the piano. They are all the tools I use to do it.
I once read somewhere that you hated guitar lessons. Is that true and what changed your mind?
Yes I was forced to take guitar and piano lessons as a kid, but it was long before I had been inspired by the idea of making music so at the time it was just academic and boring to me. Even later when I was into music I found it tedious to have to learn how to play other peoples music, and to this day I really can’t play anything but my own songs.
My guitar teacher was very frustrated with me because he would give me homework to learn a classical piece, and I would come back the following week having done nothing to learn it but instead offering up some terrible original composition! I suppose I’ve never really been very good at doing things in the “proper” way, I always felt I wanted to go my own way.
You’ve worked extensively with bands such as Yes and Jethro Tull on remixing their back catalogues. Were you a fan of both bands to begin with and do you feel like there is a large burden of expectation put on your shoulders by both the band and their fans to deliver the end result?
Yes I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to remix classic albums by Tull and Yes, but also Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Roxy Music, Free, XTC, Chicago, King Crimson, etc. My only rule is that I must really like the music I’m remixing, so, for example, I’ve been offered albums to remix that are considered classics, but they didn’t personally appeal to me so I didn’t feel I was the right person to do the job. When you take on a classic album I believe you have to bring the fan’s perspective to it, because that’s predominantly who you are creating the new mix for, people who know the album almost like a sacred text.
Out of all the bands you’ve been involved with over the years you’re probably best known for your work with Porcupine Tree. What were the origins of the band and have you any plans for future touring or recording together again?
The band started a solo project, and the first three albums were mostly just me playing all the instruments myself and became a band later on. That’s significant because I always really thought of myself ultimately as a solo artist, I’m just not very good as a team player, I’m too much of a control freak. Seven years ago, I decided to break away from the band format, which gave me a lot more creative freedom. I certainly would have no desire to go backward and be involved in a band again.
‘To The Bone’ was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. To my ear, there’s a lot going on there which covers folk/pop/rock and world music. Was that development deliberate or did it progress as you wrote and recorded the album?
I agree there’s a lot going on in this record, but I’m not sure how deliberate I can say the mixture of styles is because it comes back to me not really being able to think in terms of genre. I’m quite naturally drawing on a lot of different inspirations, filtering all the musical style and approaches I like through what I hope it a distinctive personality of my own.
But yes I would say often in my music there are singer-songwriter, folk, and pop sensibilities, the side of me that really just wants to create timeless melodies and catchy hooks, even when it’s ultimately wrapped up inside the more conceptual storytelling approach.
After almost 30 years in the music industry how do you find it a challenge to keep the music fresh?
Sadly, I do feel it’s hard to do anything which seems new or truly original these days, the musical vocabulary of rock and pop forms is well and truly established, and has been for some time. Perhaps if there is originality and new things being done it’s in hip-hop and electronic music, it’s difficult to imagine how that’s even possible with rock music.
But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to create new music with a relevance and personality, plus of course, the world we live in is forever changing, so as a lyricist it’s important to reflect that.
You’ve now passed the half-century milestone yet you have got the looks of a man in his thirties. Any hints, tips or recommended face creams?
Haha, well I don’t really drink, I don’t smoke, and I’m a vegetarian, which all helps. But maybe the most important thing is I really love my job. Even if it is stressful sometimes, I acknowledge that it’s been a real privilege to be able to do the thing I love most every day of my life and to get paid for doing it.
There are many stories of how people compromised their ideals in order to make a career in the music industry, but I’ve been very lucky that I’ve never really had to do that. So I’m very happy to settle for being a “cult” artist, not having to deal with the pressures of being in the mainstream or a celebrity. It’s made me happy and being happy keeps me looking younger I guess.