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Steven Wilson Wonders “Where Has Experimental Pop Gone?”

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Steven Wilson is no stranger to metal, though he’s never made a proper metal album by himself.The singer-songwriter and guitarist began playing music at the age of 10, and started the modern progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree as a lark. That project went on to tour the world several times over as a full band, and incorporated harsh metal guitar tones into its 70’s progressive rock revivalism and atmospheric experimentation.

Invisible Oranges readers may know him better as the producer behind the boards of Opeth’s golden run of albums from Blackwater Park through Damnation. His fingerprints are all over those records. Wilson played keyboards and contributed backing vocals to each of those records. He also sang a duet on one of the band’s best songs, “Bleak”.

Those days are over. To the chagrin of some fans and the cheers of others, Wilson disbanded Porcupine Tree in favor of a more adventurous solo career, one that further experiments in jazz and post-punk. Opeth haven’t worked with Wilson recently, though Wilson did mixing work on Heritage and Pale Communion, and he and Mikael Åkerfeldt collaborated on a single album as Storm Corrosion. It is this writer’s opinion that Wilson’s greater input remains the missing ingredient in Opeth’s past three records.

Wilson remains creative and prolific, releasing a steady stream of new material, touring frequently and continuing to work as a producer, as well as maintaining a well-run website. He frequently offers eclectic musical recommendations via an ongoing playlist archive. We spoke with Wilson before his performance earlier this year in Portland to speak about the deaths of Prince and David Bowie, and what it’s like to live in a future where our biggest musical innovates are passing away without leaving proper successors.

I’m not actually certain if you’re aware of this scenario, but I tried to interview you the last time you were in the United States.

Right, I was very sick, wasn’t I? I really was very, very sick, which is a very unusual thing for me. First time I ever had to cancel a show, in fact, in my whole career. I hope that never happens again.

Yeah, hopefully not. You did wind up playing a show with you not singing.

Well, I tried to sing, but I tried to distribute the rest of the songs out to various other people in my band, which was the New York show, of all shows. Obviously, I really didn’t want to be in that situation, but fate had other plans for me.

Looking back on it, because now there’s some actually high quality video of that show, I remember watching and I actually found it interesting as a fan.

Well, it’s unique. Obviously, the thing about doing a show like that is, to me, it was not fun because I didn’t feel I could give 100% of what I wanted to present to the crowd. But I think once people understand that you’re going ahead and you’re playing the show under duress and you don’t want to let them down.

Of course, there’s something about that show that made it absolutely unique. In fact, some of those songs were sung by Ninet [Tayeb], my female guest singer. She sung some of those songs, probably, for the first and only time and she’s amazing. So I think a lot of people got a thrill at the fact that they were seeing something that would never be repeated. I suppose in that respect it made the show special for them, which I’m happy about.

I wish that there were a recording of it on the board because as time has grown on, one of the pieces of your recorded music that I’ve found myself reaching for more and more is We Lost the Skyline, the acoustic live album where you did the show anyway even though you didn’t have all the equipment.

Okay, that was at Park West in Florida, wasn’t it?

It was.

Yeah.

You released the on the board recording and played some deep cuts and some of my favorite songs of yours that you don’t play so often, especially not recently. I guess I was wondering if you could revisit, just for my edification, that scenario briefly.

The show in 2007 where we did the unplugged type thing. That was a similar scenario in the sense that the plan had been to present a full band performance and we arrived at the record store and realized that wasn’t going to be possible for logistical reasons but also the size of the stage and all that.

It’s one of those things, and I think this is where you’re coming from with the New York Beacon show, as well. Sometimes you are presented with a problem and you can turn that problem into an opportunity to do something unique, different. But the problem, also the issue, for me, is of course is those things are unprepared. If you know anything about me and you know anything about my music and about my history, you’ll know I’m a bit of a control freak. So when I’m presented with something that is off the cuff, unexpected, it’s a little bit scary.

But I think the two occasions that we’re talking about here, the unplugged show and the Beacon show, rose to the challenge and turned into something unique and special despite my fears. That acoustic performance was so much fun and so good that I decided, having heard it, to release it. That’s testament to how much I was pleasantly surprised by how that particular occasion turned out.

I don’t think the same is true with the Beacon show. I have got a recording of that show, but, to me, it’s quite painful to listen to. Not because Nanette didn’t do a fantastic job, but because it just takes me back to how bad I felt and how sick I was on stage. It was more a question of ‘let’s just through it rather than let’s enjoy it’, which I mean I really did enjoy that acoustic performance back in 2007. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the Beacon Theater performance. It was a tough thing for me to get through.

I completely understand that. That’s something that I’ve grown to admire that you rise to the occasion, which many bands, I think even bands I also quite admire, would probably just cancel in both of those situations.

Yeah, and part of me was saying that. But the other part of me is saying, there are people that have been planning that trip for months and have traveled in from, in some cases… I don’t know, I don’t think this is unique to me but it seems to be something which is definitely a hallmark of my audience, is they will travel from different continents to see particular shows.

At a show like the New York Beacon show, that show itself has a cache. It has a prestige a bit like the Royal Albert Hall in London. People will travel from Australia, from Asia, from India. I’m aware of that. People have booked hotels. They’ve booked flights. For me just to say, oh you know, like Keith Richards, “I’ve cut my finger. I am going to cancel the show,” I’m very aware of the ramifications of that to the people that have been planning the trip for months.

I’m glad that we were able to present something. I’m glad that we were able to turn it into something which in some respects will perhaps live on in the memory even more than the regular show would’ve done.

I first received my first record of yours, In Absentia, as a gift from my uncle who’s quite an eclectic record collector. He impressed that taste on me as a young man. He thought it was very important. So when he heard I was very into Motorhead, he bought me one of your CD and he said, “Okay, let’s try and broaden the spectrum a bit.” And I’m glad he did.

I bring him up because the other group that he really, really gravitates to is Marillion, who also inspire this world crossing devotion from fans. He followed Porcupine Tree for a string of three dates. He has traveled a great distance to see Marillion a few times. I was wondering if you have any inclination as to what is it about your writing or your singing or what is it that you have and, maybe, Marillion also has that inspires this kind of dedication.

Firstly, I think we are somehow removed from the mainstream and when you don’t have a particularly strong mainstream profile the people that discover your music tend to discover it exactly as you did, by personal recommendation, by word of mouth.

I think that makes the fan base stronger and much less fickle. It means they’ve discovered you for one reason and one reason only, which is that they like and something about what you did, musically appealed to them. It wasn’t about marketing or promotion or hype or wanting to be seen to be liking what everyone else was liking. It was something unique about the music that appealed. That’s the first thing.

I think the other thing that certainly I can think of is that we’re somehow outside of generic classification. There are people that would try to put me in boxes, but I resist them. I think, ultimately, what I do is I play, Steven Wilson music, whatever that might be.

Now that, of course, is one of the greatest strengths and one of the greatest weaknesses of being outside of genre, is you’re very hard to market. Which comes back to the first thing, if you don’t necessarily fit easily into generic classification, that’s a marketing man’s nightmare. It makes you very hard to sell. It makes you very hard to position in the mainstream where everything, pretty much is about generic classification.

I look at my fan base and they’re a very odd bunch. It’s very difficult to characterize exactly who my fans are. I’ve just been to India a couple of weeks ago. I played to 14,000 kids all under the age of 25. Tonight in Portland, I’m expecting it’ll be a slightly older audience. I think it’s very much across the board in terms of who discovers this music.

I will see Nine Inch Nails t-shirts. I’ll see Radiohead t-shirts. I’ll see Marillion t-shirts. I’ll see Slayer t-shirts. I’ll see all t-shirts all across the board, all sorts of musical genres, from people who come from all sorts of musical tastes and backgrounds.

Again, that taps into the first thing I said, which is that when you don’t feel part of a group of people I think, in some respects, you can make it even more passionate and even more obsessive. It’s like your thing. It’s like no one else understands it, but I do and that creates a real sense of loyalty that you don’t get if you’re a more generic mainstream artist.

I think it’s also to your favor probably, that it’s obvious that you come by this eclectic nature of your music pretty honestly. I follow the playlists that you put up on your website. Are there any playlists of yours that you feel particularly proud of or that you particularly revisit or think about again?

Well, the playlists, they’re not themed or anything. They’re literally just whatever I had been listening to at any given time. I was going to say, I don’t have kind of patterns to my listening. I suppose I do like anyone. I’ll go through periods where I’ll I go through a phase where I listen to a little jazz music or I’m listening to a lot of ambient music. But generally speaking, those playlists are of themselves very eclectic because my listening has always been very eclectic.

I think, ultimately, the bottom line here is curiosity. I’m still very curious about music and I’m very curious about the possibilities of discovering music that I wasn’t aware of before. One thing I’ve found over the years is just when I think I’ve discovered everything from the past that I could possibly discover, there can’t possibly be anything else left that I haven’t discovered, is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by an artist. Perhaps, an artist with a massive back catalogue that I was completely unfamiliar with.

I love that feeling of having discovered, of opened a door into a whole new world, a whole new artist. I like to think, in my own way, the playlists over the years have provided some of those doorways for some of the fans to walk through.

I’m sure there are some people listen to some of the things on my playlists who say, “What the hell is this rubbish?” But sometimes it can work both ways. The one thing I would say is the playlists are a completely honest reflection of whatever I’m listening to. I’m not trying to be a hipster. I’m not trying to drop the right names at the right time. I’m just as happy to put Kanye West alongside ABBA, alongside some of obscure kraut rock, alongside some obscure classical music from the 20th century. I’m not trying to be hip. I’m not trying to be obscure.

By the way, I have been accused of being both by people who follow the playlist and it’s really not the case. My listening has always been that way. Ever since I was a teenager, I would go down to my local library and I would just take out records that I liked the look of the cover or the instrumentation or something about it looked strange or surreal. I would discover music just by chance and, again, without any consideration for listening within genre. Now that’s been a pattern that really has followed me right through my career.

I am one of those people who you did open a door for. My readers probably don’t know this because I’ve never covered this artist on Invisible Oranges in-depth, but my big musical obsession this year has been Prince.

Me too, me too.

Really?

Absolutely. I mean, I grew up with Prince. In the 80s, which is when I was a teenager, Prince was the… now we talked earlier about artists being in the mainstream. Here’s an artist that was absolutely a mainstream pop musician, but, at the same time, making extraordinary experimental music. I think that is something which I really miss from modern pop music.

With the exception of perhaps someone like Kanye West who, whether you like him or not, I think he’s kind of strange and he’s in the mainstream. There isn’t really a lot of what I would call experimental mainstream anymore. When I was growing up there was, absolutely, these artists like Prince or like The Police or The Talking Heads who were making very strange records but having number one records.

It doesn’t happen anymore. It really doesn’t happen anymore. Radiohead’s, probably the closest we have. But I think Radiohead’s still, in many respects, an underground band. So in the sense that the bands like The Police were having number one pop singles and Radiohead don’t have big singles. They don’t have radio songs anymore.

I think Prince epitomizes that for me. When he passed away I remembered how much that music had meant to me right through the ages, right through my teenage years. How I’d followed him from Dirty Mind through to Lovesexy, that whole period, which I think is one of the greatest runs of pop records ever made by any artist.

I’m reading a Prince book right now on the road. Matt Thorn’s very detailed examination of his whole catalogue. Really enjoying it. And every night we’re playing “Sound of the Times”, on stage, as the first song call. So he has been very much the artist of the moment for me, yeah.

I had the opposite experience with him. I was a teenager in the early 2000s so downloading was possible but streaming was not and I knew that he had huge discography. It was so big that I didn’t know where to start, aside from Purple Rain, and of the 80s run, I actually like Purple Rain some of the least. And because he was so anti internet he did not make it easy to get his material.

No, he didn’t.

In retrospect, I appreciate that, but I never got to know him because I didn’t know where to start. Then for a brief period right after he passed you could hear all of his music on YouTube. That was when your playlist came out and I just went down bullet point by bullet point. You did provide this wonderful skeleton for my list that’s now evolved way beyond that.

That’s interesting that over this distance we could have this similar appreciation with almost completely inverse backgrounds to the artist.

I think the time difference between when you were a teenager and I was a teenager is key for that very reason. That kind of music in the meantime had essentially disappeared from the mainstream. Partly, as you say, because of his own actions. But I think it’s also true to say the difference between say 1985 and 2005 is immense, in the sense that experimental music had in that period essentially disappeared from mainstream culture. In the 80s, in the mid-80s, there were these incredible pop records coming out that were radical but were also incredibly accessible and were being engaged with by a mainstream audience.

Tears for Fears, Songs From the Big Chair. Massive, massive, massive record. Peter Gabriel, So, a massive million selling record. But both of these records, in their own way, are quite odd and quite experimental. Certainly, sonically speaking.

I think Prince fits into that too. To be fair, in the time you were growing up, I think he wasn’t making the best work that he had done in the 80s. In the 80s, it was astonishing. It was almost like that sense of anticipation. What is he going to do next? How is he going to blow my mind next? Every time I set myself up for disappointment, he would prove me wrong and come out with another reinvention of his sound and another stunning pop record.

I’ve missed that. I’ve really missed that through the 21st century. I’ve missed being able to follow artists in that way.

Just while we are talking music lover to music lover, are you aware of an artist called Autre Ne Veut?

I am not, no. Autre Ne Veut? I’m not familiar with this artist at all, no.

He’s a young man from Brooklyn. Prince is a touchstone, but he’s also making pop and vaguely R&B music in a very experimental way. He’s not big. But when you’re listing these things off to me, he’s someone who checks all those boxes for me. He’s got a record called Anxiety that I think is a masterpiece. If that’s a thing that you like me are jiving on, you might like it. 

As I said before, I am very curious. I am always open to new things. Over the years, I have tried to find a successor to Prince. I’ve bought records by D’Angelo, for example, who I thought was really interesting but just left me a bit cold. I think, as I say, part of the thrill of someone like Prince was that he was the biggest popstar in the world at that time. Also, along with Michael Jackson and Madonna, he was a massive, massive popstar. So it felt like you were following someone that was not only making music was changing the way, the whole of pop music. It was moving.

In a way, it’s interesting because I played tribute to Prince and I play tribute to Bowie on stage in my show and I think, in many ways they are equivalent, 70s and 80’s and the Beatles would be 60s equivalent. These were artists that were at the very top of their game creating what was very clearly pop music but doing it in a way that was still blowing minds, changing perceptions, and changing people’s ideas about what pop music could be. So for me, those three prevail over those three decades in a very similar way.

It’s the same way that Prince sometimes gets overlooked. I think partly because the 80s gets overlooked. We are very fond these days of looking back to the 60s and 70s with these rose-tinted spectacles. But sometimes I think we overlook what an extraordinary decade also the 80s was and Prince was preeminent really in that decade.

Yeah. But I’ve got a bias. We usually cover extreme heavy metal music. So, of course, everyone involved in that genre has a supreme hard-on for the 80s.

But what’s funny is a lot of the musicians I talk to have this tremendous frustration with the genre because a lot of artists emulate what was experimental before them and so they don’t experiment in the slightest. It’s this microcosm of problem of experimental pop music versus mainstream pop.

Now the same problem repeats across hip hop, across heavy metal. It’s not pop. It’s a zeitgeist that extends even into my niche area of the universe, and I struggle with that.

I think you’re right. I think it’s true across all musical genres. And I think part of the problem may be that word itself. Genre. What we really need these days is people to stop thinking about playing heavy metal, stop thinking about playing hip hop and just make music. Just allow their natural curiosity to lead them to perhaps cross genres.

I think that, because to be fair it is very tough these days to make anything to that anyone is going to listen to and say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like that before.” In fact, I might argue, it’s almost impossible to do that because we are 50, 60 years now into the history of pop and rock music. We have pretty much covered everything. Pop has essentially begun to eat itself.

But I think the dominance of 60s and 70s influence is problematic, as possibly in the metal world the dominance of 80s influence is problematic. Are we ever going to hear an extreme metal records that will rival Reign in Blood or Master of Puppets? Probably not. I mean, I’m from the perspective here from someone who is much more ignorant of the genre than you are, certainly. But I think those two records are so dominant on so much more than contemporary metal to me.

It’s a shame in a way that we don’t see more people experimenting more and perhaps trying to create hybrids of music.

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I came across an interview you did for TV in Quebec after the Montreal Jazz Fest, which interestingly enough, Prince headlined in 2013. And in that interview, you brought up this idea of not enjoying the term progressive to describe your music, and rather thinking about your music in terms of storytelling. I wanted to explore that idea with you for a moment. 

I think the idea for me is that there is an analogy between the way I approach music and the way that a movie director or a scriptwriter or, indeed, someone who writes novels, would approach what they do, in the sense you are not trying to encapsulate what you do in a three-minute pop song. You are working more in the long form, and you are looking to take the listener on some kind of journey across 50, 60, 90 minutes in the case of a movie or 300-400 pages in the case of a novel. It’s all about dynamics, it’s all about this idea of scenes.

Let me explain what I mean about that. If you take a pop song or rock song, almost without exception it encapsulates one emotional state. So, the song will be sad, or the song will be angry, or the song will be joyous. What’s interesting about music when it’s more analogous with the world of cinema or literature is it can adopt some of the ideas from that, in the sense you are telling stories by changing the emotional state of the music from scene to scene. So you can have a long piece of music or a flow of music which one minute is kind of happy, in the next minute it’s sad, in the next minute it’s angry. So you’re creating dynamics and different emotional states to take the listener on this musical rollercoaster or music journey in exactly the way that filmmakers do.

You know, cinema is all about juxtaposing different emotional states. So, you have a happy family and then something tragic will happen and the happy family will become sad, and then they will go through their grief and then they become angry. Whatever it is. Whatever the story is they are trying to tell it’s all about that sense of dynamics and emotional dynamics. I see no reason why music shouldn’t adopt that same philosophy. And to be fair, it has. I think in the world of classical music, for example, that certainly happens. It’s also true to say that there was a movement in the 70s, which we now call “progressive rock,” of which that was kind of a characteristic, a strong characteristic, longer pieces of music, more conceptual. So, I think one of the reasons why my music gets lumped in with that a lot is because people don’t know what else to call it when it’s kind of music where the songs are longer and perhaps have these in different sections and different emotional states to them. I think it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction to say, “Well, that’s prog rock.” But you know for me, it’s just as much about pop music and electronic music and metal music and jazz music. So that was kind of where the idea, I think, of this cinematic analogy came from anyway.

Have you seen Nick Cave’s movie? Not his most recent movie that just came out a few weeks ago, but his movie from last year, “10,000 Days on Earth”?

I have not, no.

It’s very good. In the opening scene, he has a monolog about songwriting and storytelling and their similarities and their differences. So, I guess I was curious to ask how do you tell a story in music?

How do I tell a story in music? I have no idea. I think that’s the problem. It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. People ask me all the time, particularly young kids ask me all the time, “How do you write music?” And the answer is if I knew that, I would bottle it and sell it because it’s one of those intangible things. How do you fill a blank page? You must have this as a writer and a journalist yourself. The blank page is a very, very scary thing. How am I going to fill this blank piece of paper with something worth reading or worth listening to or worth watching that hasn’t been written or recorded or filmed a million times before? How can I, in this totally over populated world, write something which is worth somebody’s time to engage with? That is a very scary thing and I always think I have written my last song. I never have the confidence going into the writing process that I’ve got anything left to say. Luckily, so far, I’ve managed to consistently prove myself wrong. It’s been hard and I don’t know still to this day what the secret is, except, I think to remain curious about the world, to remain curious about other music, about movies, about literature, about news, about politics, about what’s going on around you, your friends, your family. I think these things all become input and they all conspire to make you, hopefully, a unique person with a unique perspective on life and the world and to ultimately influence your output. But I have no idea beyond that, really, how that process works. It’s a very, very tough question to answer.

What’s got you curious right now?

Wow, I’m going to have to look at my own playlist to remind myself. I mean, I’m on the road now and it’s funny that things change on the road. Your listening tastes tend to change on the road, I find. It’s very different to what I would listen to when I’m at home, for example.

I’ve heard people say that.

I just spent two weeks on an airplane, so I’ve watched a lot of movies. I find it’s a really good opportunity to catch up with seeing things because I don’t get the chance to see a lot of movies when I’m at home. So I’ve been watching movies and seen a few that I really like, I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies. As always, there’s a lot of crap. But I’m just looking at my playlist now. What have we got there? We’ve got some Zappa. We’ve got some Sisters of Mercy, going back to the 80s again. We’ve got some Miles, we’ve got some Talk Talk, a bit more 70s and 80s, got the new Nick Cave album there, and we just talked about Nick Cave. It’s interesting you mentioned Nick Cave, because I think he would absolutely fit into that category we were talking about a few minutes ago about an artist that somehow removed from generic classification.

Yes.

And has an obsessive fan base, not a massive fan base, but certainly a fan base that will follow him wherever he goes, and I think that’s something hopefully that I would also have now, that people will follow me even if it looks like I’m going in an area where they may not necessarily normally listen, they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt, and they will listen.

There is someone on my playlist that I really love a lot by a female rapper called Moor Mother, and it’s called Fetish Bones. It’s a bizarre time travel concept album, and I’m not suggesting it’s for everyone but it’s certainly a very, very strange record. It’s almost got elements of Sun-Ra, free jazz in it. It’s got elements of industrial music in it. It’s got elements of hip-hop in it. And she kind of raps this weird story about going back in time and seeing her own ancestors murdered, and it’s very dark . A very, very peculiar record. So that would be one of my tips. Check out Moor Mother’s Fetish Bones.

That sounds awesome.

Sounds fucked up. It’s interesting and definitely worth hearing. It’s not an easy album to love, but it’s definitely fascinating.

This article has been amended to show Wilson’s mixing credits on Heritage and Pale Communion, and to properly spell the name Ninet Tayeb.

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