Regarded as a visionary and one of the driving forces behind the modern progressive rock/metal movement, Steven Wilson, the man who created Porcupine Tree, is an eclectic and prolific artist who is able to tap into the pure emotional heart of his music as well as the intellectual side without compromising either. Witnessing a Steven Wilson live performance is to be engulfed by mind-bending visuals and a bombastic aural surroundscape. His latest album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is perfectly built for the live stage. Actually, scratch that: the album is so ambitious and enveloping that it requires a special stage setup in order to pull it off in a way that’s true to Wilson’s vision. So when Wilson tours Australia this month, he’s brought with him a quadraphonic PA system as well as multimedia visuals for a truly immersive experience. Accompanying Wilson is a collective of world class calibre musicians: Guthrie Govan on lead guitar, Adam Holzman on keys, Theo Travis on flute and sax, Nick Beggs on bass guitar and Chapman Stick, and Frank Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman – drums. I caught up with Wilson on the eve of the tour to talk surround-sound, the guitar, the creative process and the shifting musical landscape.
I understand you’re using a surround-sound PA for this tour.
Yes. Basically the show is in many ways the most ambitious live event I’ve ever staged. Some people may think that because I’m doing a solo tour it’s more stripped down. In fact, no, the opposite is true. In many respects I’ve taken the philosophy of what I was doing with Porcupine Tree, with the film and the visuals, and taking it one step further. So we have films, multiple projectors, but we also have a quadrophonic sound system, to try to create a more immersive feeling to the audio and the whole experience. And that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, because I’ve made a name for myself as someone who has made many surround sound mixes in the studio, so it felt like a logical step to extend that to the live context, and actually try to create that kind of three-dimensional audio experience in a concert setting.
What form does that take? Is it a matter of saying ‘okay, this instrument’s coming from this corner, this instrument’s coming from over there..?
Well it’s not as simple as that because it can’t be as simple as that. The problem with quadraphonic sound is that every room you go into is different. Every room has its own dimensions and its own logistical and acoustical issues. So we have to be very careful what we put in surround sound. And what I’ve found is you don’t use the rear speakers all the time, so most of the music is still coming out of a conventional stereo PA, but certain sounds will appear from behind you. It might be a sound effect, it might be a particular keyboard sound, it might be the sound of a choir entering the sound, it might be a particular vocal effect or something. So the surround is used quite sparingly, but when it is used it’s incredibly effective. And it’s proof against the inherent problems that every room has. I think if you start putting too much stuff in the rear speakers you start coming up against all sorts of issues with space and dimension. And you can’t predict where people will be. Some guy’s always going to be nearer to that speaker than another guy is. So you have to think about all of those limitations.
So what material can we expect on this tour? Is it all solo material?
We do one song from Porcupine Tree, but effectively this is about the solo material.
It must be really liberating to go out there under your own name with material that’s pretty recent and getting the kind of response I’ve been seeing.
I know what you’re getting at, because it’s quite a foolish thing to do, in a way, to walk away from a n established, successful band and brand, and drop all of that material and basically come out with a new band and play material which is new. And I think that in a way I’ve earned that kind of opportunity to do that, by virtue of the fact that I think anyone who’s followed my career has kind of learned to accept that I’m someone who needs to constantly evolve. I can’t just stand still, and I need to make every record different and I need to keep changing the approach. And I think that if you’ve discovered my music and you’ve bought into it, you kind of accept that as part of the deal in a way that you wouldn’t accept that if you were a fan of AC/DC. With AC/DC you expect the same. I think my fans have kinda got used to the idea that you expect something different each time, almost to the extent that if I don’t do something different, that’s when I get criticism. If I make two records that are a little bit similar to each other, the fans find it a little bit surprising. So I think that’s something that’s been earned, or people are very used to that idea over the years, and it’s a great situation to be in, not necessarily being bound or tied to the past.
There’s also an element, of course, where if you haven’t had any hits – and I’ve never had any hits – there can be a silver lining to that, which is if you don’t have hits you don’t have to play anything. You can do whatever you want. So although I would love to have had some hits over the years, the fact that I haven’t means you don’t have that kind of millstone where I have to keep playing a particular song every show.
Well you look at when Metallica did the Black Album shows where they played it in reverse order so they would finish with “Enter Sandman,” because the weight of that song is so heavy in Metallica’s context that if you start with that, where the hell do you go?
Well, that’s also true. And I’ve always felt that with a live show you should approach it in the same way you sequence an album. You’re looking for the most dramatically satisfactory arc in the way that the music flows. I always look at albums in that way and I kind of look at live shows in that way too. You want to have highs and lows in all the right places.
The band you’re using says a lot about you as a solo artist in that they all have their own identity and it’s nice that you’re sharing your stage with these guys and letting them step up and do their thing. I imagine there’s a lot of room for improvisation throughout the show.
Not only is that part of the show, that was almost fundamental to the whole philosophy of putting this band together. I wanted improvisation in a way that I had never had in my other band. When you have bands that play things note for note every night, which is what I’ve had in Porcupine Tree for example, it is a bit dull for you and it’s also a bit dull for the fans if they come to multiple shows, and some of them like to follow the band. If everything’s exactly the same it gets a bit dull, and built into this band from the very get go was the idea that every show would be unique. There would be elements of the show that would be completely fresh every night. Now if you connect that with what we were talking about earlier with the use of visuals and quadraphonic sound, those are not easy bedfellows because you’re trying to do something quite ambitious and quite structured and quite planned with the visuals, and the visuals are all tied to the music, and the editing is to the frame, you know. To tie that together with a band that can improvise is not easy, and that had to be something that was almost built in from the very beginning. I had to think about how we were going to do this. How are we going to have structure, and films that are connected to individual microsecond elements in the music, but also have this opportunity to go off and explore and improvise. So that’s built in to the concept of this band.
So tell me about Guthrie Govan. I remember when he was writing for guitar mags and it was like “There’s something here in this guy. We’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.”
What you’re saying is really interesting because honestly, I’d never heard of him. I think the only people that knew Guthrie were people who read guitar magazines (laughs). And I think the problem sometimes with guys like Guthrie – and Guthrie is absolutely extraordinary. I was introduced to Guthrie by my drummer Marco because they’ve got this band together called The Aristocrats – he’s extraordinary! Not only is he a brilliant technician, he’s also someone that completely understands how to do the right thing for the music, and those very often don’t go together. You have extraordinary technicians who are somehow unable to do anything except inspire other people to also achieve Olympic levels of guitar technique. But that’s not music. That’s not music That’s Olympic sport. And there are too many musicians out there that approach the guitar, and the drums, and the bass, as if it’s an Olympic sport. What I love about Guthrie is he doesn’t do that. If I ask him to play two notes for ten minutes, as long as he understands why he’s doing it and he agrees it’s the right thing for the song, he’s just as happy to do that. I love that about him. The thing with Guthrie and the thing with a lot of these guys that are very well known within the circle of great musicians, is that you’ll never break out of that unless you’re actually in a band that go beyond simply appealing to the muso mentality. And I think that’s a problem with Guthrie: he’s never been in a band before that’s reached beyond that kind of muso sensibility. And he’s been discovered now by all my fans that are not interested in the technical feats of guitar playing, but know an amazing player when they hear one, and respond to the emotional quality and the feel when he’s playing. And that’s wonderful, to see him now being discovered by people that just love good music, not just people who are impressed by his incredible technique. And it is incredible.
The feeling I get from him is that he’s just a stream of music and someone happened to put a guitar in front of it.
He’s one of the most naturally intuitive musicians I’ve ever seen. It’s like he doesn’t even have to try. Now, I’ve been on tour in the past with guitar players like Robert Fripp, John Petrucci from Dream Theater, and when they’re on the road these guys practice six, seven hours a day. Guthrie doesn’t even touch his guitar! It’s just amazing! I said to him ‘Why don’t you practice?’ And he says ‘When I walk on stage I like it to be like I’m being reintroduced to an old friend, and it’s a pleasure to see an old friend again.’ But to anyone else that idea of not needing even to warm up is just mind-blowing. But he really doesn’t. He doesn’t touch the guitar until he walks on stage. And that to me is a sign of a truly natural, intuitive, creative musician.
What’s your personal relationship with the guitar?
My relationship with the guitar has always been slightly odd because I never thought of myself as a guitar player. I thought of myself as a songwriter, a producer. Actually, I can simplify even further: I thought of myself as someone who made records. And when you make records, particularly when I started making the music I was making, everyone I know wanted to be U2 or Metallica. No-one wanted to make music like I was making. So in order to make records I ended up having to teach myself how to do things that perhaps I wasn’t necessarily interested in per se, but I was interested in them as tools, part of my tool kit for making these records. Playing guitar was one of those things I did. Playing keyboards, playing bass, learning how to program a drum machine, learning how to produce, learning how to mix, learning how to sing, learning how to write lyrics. All of these things were part of that, part of what I needed to do. What happened was subsequently, I became known as a guitar player because I ended up being the guitar player in Porcupine Tree, which is my most well-known project. And the reason I ended up being the guitar player in that band is I couldn’t find another guitar player. I could find a keyboard player, a drummer and a bass player but I couldn’t find a guitar player, so by default I ended up being the guitar player. I could have also been the keyboard player had the situation been different. So I’ve ended up being known as a guitar player but I have no great desire to be a guitar hero and I’m very, very happy to now be the second guitar player in my band, and to give Guthrie the limelight. I mean, anyone in a band with Guthrie is going to be in the shadow of Guthrie anyway. That’s inevitable. But I still play a little bit of guitar on stage, and I enjoy playing guitar on stage. But I play as much keyboards and bass onstage now as I play guitar. And I effectively, really, am liberated to be the frontman or director of proceedings, which is a way is what I wanted to be anyway: to be the director, to use a cinematic analogy. And I’ve finally managed to contrive a situation where that’s what I can be.
And I imagine that connects the live show in another way to the creative process of writing the albums to begin with.
Absolutely. I mean, I probably write on keyboards as much as I do on guitar, and in fact maybe it was always that way. I but I think even more-so I think I’m just as likely to write things and present the demos to the band based around things I’ve come up with on a keyboard. So I think your’e right. I think that does reflect, in a way, the creative process for me. So it was always slightly misleading that I was standing up on stage with Porcupine Tree with a guitar around my neck the whole night taking all the solos, or a lot of the solos. I think it gave people a false impression that I had some kind of aspiration to be a guitar hero, when in fact I was very happy to step aside now and then and let Guthrie be ‘The Guitar Player’ and let me be the master of ceremonies.
If you don’t want to go too deep into guitar talk that’s cool, but what are you using? What are your babies?
The tool, for me, applies in the sense that if you give me an instrument I’ll write you a song. So I’m very happy with my Paul Reed Smith guitars. The company have been very kind to me and given me some beautiful instruments, and I’ve bought some too, and so I’m very happy with my trusty Paul Reed Smith guitars. I have recently found myself very inspired by using an Ovation guitar I was presented with, which my stage tech suggested I string Nashville-style. Do you know what Nashville style is?
Yeah, like the higher strings of a 12-string.
Yeah. It’s like the strings that are on a 12-string that are added to the original strings. It’s a six-string but it has this very high, crystalline structure to it because obviously the strings are a very high gauge. And I found that incredibly inspiring, and you can hear the inspiration of that guitar on a song like “Watchmaker.” So the Nashville-strung Ovation has become a very important part of my guitar arsenal on this record and the new one I’m working on right now. But in terms of the electric guitar the Paul Reed Smiths are my trusty instrument.
One thing that’s always struck me about your music is that I need to listen to it, really absorb it, then maybe put it down for a little while, because the moods it conjured up can be so intense that it’s like, it can wipe out my whole day emotionally. What does it do to you writing this stuff?
It’s definitely one of the ambitions of the music, to create an intense experience. That goes without saying. I’ve always felt that in a way the album, the idea of an album or the idea of the musical flow and the musical continuum, can be really analogous to cinema or to literature. And the thing is, when we think of the world of cinema or literature, we tend to think of the long form. We think of the world of cinema as being 90 minutes or a 2-hour experience. We think of the world of literature as being the novel. Obviously there are short stories and short films, but I think primarily we think of the world of literature as one based on the long-form novel, the way we think of cinema as being based on the long-form movie. And I think for me I’ve always felt the analogy was there with music, and music could embody the same intensity of emotional rise that I love about great cinema and great novels. And the more intense and dark sometimes, and the more difficult… I mean, it’s interesting that you picked up that you sometimes have to walk away from it. I’ve always been attracted to the more difficult end of art. I’m not somebody that’s particularly interested in seeing what they call a popcorn movie – a big dumb blockbuster where you kind of disengage your brain. I’m more interested in something I can engage with and reflect on on a deeper level, and perhaps am slightly confronted by and that is not always easy to watch or to listen to. Those are the things that appeal to me, and I suppose that’s what makes me make the kind of records I make. I’m looking for that same kind of experience. And you’re right when you talk about having to engage with the music, and I think it’s one of the problems that I have with my career, that I’m kind of making music in an era when it’s not fashionable to engage in music at the level that it was perhaps fashionable to engage with music in the 60s and 70s. We do all live in a world now where life is faster, all about convenience, sound bites, and I don’t think people are necessarily conditioned to engage with music in a way that I would like them to be, and the way that I was when I was growing up. So that’s something I’ve had to accept. And I had to accept that my audience would therefore be a smaller cult audience, and it’s hard to cross over to the mainstream.
It’s hard to persuade people to giving themselves over to having that experience, and it’s a very rewarding one but it’s not one that people are necessarily going to willingly go to if they’re used to pop songs!
But people still do it with cinema. And this is what I don’t necessarily understand, or that I have a little bit of difficulty accepting, is I think people are still quite prepared to sit down in their living room or go to a cinema and commit themselves to a film for 90 minutes or two hours. And they’ll turn off their cellphone and they won’t check their email and they won’t be texting their friends and they won’t be talking to the person next to them for 90 minutes, and they’re prepared to give themselves over to, sometimes quite intellectually stimulating films. But it seems to me that in the world of music that trend is something of a lost art: that music is something you have on in the background, or you have on your iPod when you’re jogging, or you’re on the bus, and you don’t really engage with it the way you would with a movie or with a novel. I think that’s unfortunate. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that the only thing you’re required to bring to music is your hearing, whereas with literature and with movies you’re still using your visual sense as well, so you’re kind of more distracted away, if you like, from other things that can distract your visual sense. But with music you can be doing other things with your eyes, and I think that’s what takes people away from being engaged in music so often.
Speaking of novels, the topics you explore and the level to which you do it, and the eloquence with which you do it, I’ve often wondered if you have any experience as a writer. Did you study writing at university, for example, or is it something that just comes out?
Only that I love literature. I love reading, I love writing, I loved it when I was a kid at school. English was my favourite class. And again I think if you’re creative in one field it’s kinda natural that you can turn your hand, to an extent, to be creative in another field, because the impulse to be creative is not necessarily something confined to a single art medium. If you look at the records and the way they’re presented you can see they also have an interest in visual stuff: the presentation of the artwork, the presentation of the live show, even things like the website. These are things that because I’m a bit of a control freak I find myself involved in all these things. So I find that the creative impulse that’s involved in music can equally go into things like the artwork, the website and in the case of The Raven That Refused To Sing, creating this book of ghost stories. And there’s a good example of a connection to the literary world. The album was very much conceived as a book of short stories, and the special edition of the album is actually presented as a book of ghost stories, and the kind of book that you would find almost as an antique: a book of classical gothic ghost stories. And I love that. I love the way that you can mix media and art. We have the book, the videos, the live show, we have films, and it all comes from the same place.
How do you see the connection between artist and audience now with social media? There’s a more direct dialog than ever before.
This is a very interesting thing though, because one of the reasons that the music industry, or certainly rock music has to an extent died over the last ten years, is because – and I’m not disagreeing with you by the way, but I’m presenting an alternate perspective here – one of the reasons rock music is ultimately dead now is that the enigma, the unspoken contract between the audience and the, in inverted commas, ‘rock star’ has disappeared: there is something very special about the idea of ‘the rock star.’ The almost untouchable enigma that somehow creates this magic that you can’t understand where it comes from. And the best example I can give you is I can remember growing up listening to Black Sabbath albums in the 70s and thinking that people like Ozzy Osbourne were these kind of gods that came from another planet. And then The Osbournes came on TV in the early part of the 20th century, and now all I see is an incoherent fool that falls off his chair. And there’s something not right about that. The enigma has gone. Why is it these days that the rappers and the gangster hip hop artists are now the rock stars, and the rock stars are no longer the rock stars? Because when grunge came along in the early 90s there was something about grunge that was very much the antithesis of the rock star mentality. These guys were guys who just put on jeans and a t-shirt and were kind of like working class guys, just the same as their audience. That was great for a while but I think it was also the end. And what you’re talking about, the whole Twitter, social networking mentality, it works great. It means you can have a small audience and you can be basically communicating directly with your audience. But I think it’s become a kind of Faustian pact in that it’s also been the thing that is responsible for the fact that rock music has become more and more insular and less and less about the enigma of the rock star. Which is why in the 80s we had musicians like Prince, Michael Jackson, these unbelievable icons – these people were not human beings! They sold millions and millions of records. And if you want to look at one person that has managed to keep the enigma, it’s Prince. How does he do it? He still has no interaction at all with his fans. He has people removing his videos from YouTube every day, and I think that’s one of the reasons why he still has his enigma, and he can still sell out 30 nights at the O2 Arena in London.
STEVEN WILSON AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Melbourne: Wednesday 2nd October, Billboard
Sydney: Thursday 3rd October, Metro Theatre
Brisbane: Saturday 5th October, Tivoli