Steven Wilson (Steven Wilson)
Article by Riccardo Coppola - Publish on: 22/01/16

You're publishing your new album "4½", a collection of outtakes from the recording session of your last two records. What has convinced you to give form to these songs?

Well, firstly in some ways they are songs that I've left over from albums. But not in a way that sounds too negative, because I'm very proud of these songs. It's not always because a song is inferior that it does not end up on an album, sometimes it is just a question of context, that a song does not quite fit in with the flow of the record or does not quite fit thematically with the concept of the record. You should probably know, every album of mine has a kind of story, an overriding theme or concept to it. So sometimes there are songs like these that just don't fit, but I'm still very proud of. The idea originally was to do some kind of EP which would use these three-four songs that I've left over from the writing sessions for hand.cannot.erase. But obviously now it's grown into something a little bit more than that, because I've also included some other tracks from the previous record, and even older songs too. It has become a full lenght album, of 37 minutes. It's also nice to have some new music to play, 'cause we are going back on tour next month.

How much have you changed the songs when you started to work again on them?

It depends on the songs. Some of them are pretty much exactly as they were, and some of them required a lot of writing. For example, one song, the fifth song, all I had actually in hand.cannot.erase was a bassline. This kind of bassline I kept playing, I kept repeating, and I didn't really know what to do with it. So it was until this summer, when I sat down and wrote the rest of this piece of music around this bassline. And then, on the other hand, there's another song, "Sunday Rain Sets In", which was completely recorded and finished during "Hand. Cannot. Erase." sessions. So it really depends on the song. Some were finished, some were in a very early tentative state.

The album comes out with a very cryptic and simple title. Why did you choose to leave it basically unnamed? Do you think of it as a "minor" release?

Well, it should be. What I don't want is people to think somehow this is a follow-up to hand.cannot.erase. This is something really meant more for the fans, it's what I would call an interim release. And I've done this in the past before: you have this kind of space of two or three years between albums, so it is an opportunity to release something. It could be a dvd, it could be an EP, it could be a remix project. In this case the interim release is an album. But it's an album of pieces that for whatever reason didn't belong to one of the major albums. So, for me "4½"'s nature is very explicitly in the title of the album: it has not to be considered the fifth album, it is very much in between the fourth and the fifth album.

The presentation of your album has always been fundamental to get in the mood of your music. What can you tell me about the artwork surrounding "4½"?

It has been more difficult this time, because obviously the songs are not connected, in the way they usually would be in one of my albums. When you have a strong theme for a record, the artwork is obvious... Well, it's not obvious, but you could at least know what kind of things you are looking for. And I didn't really have a strong direction for this, but I decided that I wanted something that would continue the idea of the characters from one of the songs on hand.cannot.erase. A song called "Perfect Life", which is about these two sisters and the kind of relationship and connection they have in their teenage years. So I wanted to do a cover that again used these two characters. And I also wanted something that would have the feeling of being somehow outside of time. If you look at the cover image, I think it is very hard to say definitively whether the photograph is now, or it is fifty years ago, or it is a hundred years a go. And I like that, I like that ambiguity, it gives a slightly surreal quality, that you can't quite place it in time. So I had that image, and then called my designer that came with this wonderful idea to create a kind of symbol using the "4½" title. So we had this lovely kind of outer sleeve which has the "4½" symbol cut out, and the photograph kind of shows through. It's kind of like a nice conceptual design thing going on with the record sleeve. It's very beautiful actually, especially on vynil.

 

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Can you tell me something about the lyrical topics you touch in the songs? Are they linked to the ones in "Hand. Cannot. Erase."?

Three of the songs are obviously instrumental, so there is no lyrics. The other three songs... it's interesting because they come from three completely different eras. "Don't Hate Me" was written in 1998, "Happiness III" was written in 2003, and "My Book Of Regret", is a new song, you know. What they all have in common is the same basic idea of loneliness and isolation, being lost living in the heart of a city, the feeling of isolation being surrounded by millions of other people. Which is, of course, something that hand.cannot.erase also shares. So I think there's a continuity between the songs. "Dont' Hate Me" is going back almost 20 years. But "My Book Of Regret" is about the same subject matter, this idea of increasing isolation from other human beings, through social networking, through technology, through paranoia, confusion and loneliness. So, there is something that very much connects these three songs on this record, but not really through design. I think it is very much accidental... basically I tend to come back to the same subject over and over again.

Was it difficult to write from a feminine point of view? Has this experience enriched, in some way, your sensibility as a songwriter?

Well, I think writing for me is really hard anyway. I don't know other people, but for me it is incredibly hard, particularly lyrics I find it really hard, I spend a lot of time struggling to create the words. Eventually I come up with something I'm proud of, but it's not easy. I would say, actually in a way, having a strong character made it a little bit easier. Having this very strong female character and having to write through her, made it a little bit easier for me to write, this time. So in a strange way, although it should have been -as you could point out- a real challenge... and it was, you know, it was a challenge. But although it should perhaps have been harder, in some aspects it was actually a little bit easier, to write through this character.

Music composition is always a kind of dictatorial practice. Do you craft your music keeping in mind the individualities that will surround you in your projects? Or do you just follow your inspiration loosely?

I've done both. I've written albums pretty much with the musicians in mind, and I've written albums completely self-concerned, without really thinking about other performers. "The Raven That Refused To Sing" and "Hand.Cannot.Erase" were kinda written for my band, but that's not always been the case. The first two solo records I've made, for example, weren't written with any particular musicians in mind. And I've just started writing now for what I hope will be the fifth record... I'm in the very very early days at the moment. But I'm not really thinking in terms of particular musicians, I'm just trying to find the direction, to find the sound, which should be different from the previous records. Again, I think it varies a lot, I've certainly experienced both situations.

switw201603I've gathered very different answers to this question in the past: do you feel that your priority as a musician is being in the studio recording new songs, or being on a stage providing live music to people?

Unfortunately, if you take the live performance aspect without the other, then you're talking about really just going out playing the same songs over and over again for the rest of your career. And of course there's plenty of bands effectively doing that, you know, they just go on playing the hits all the time. That's not me. I'm most inspired, I'm most happy -I'm also most frustrated, because it's not easy, as we've already discussed- when I'm writing, and creating, and making records. Making records is what I fell in love with initially: being a producer, being a director, being an author. The live side for me is an extension of that. You create the record, you create this body of work, and then you present it to an audience, to the fans, in a live context. But you have to be creative, and creating is about going back to the studio, and writing, coming up with new ideas and fresh inspiration. I would find it very hard to separate the two elements anyway. It's all part of the season cycle of being an artist: you spend some of your time in isolation writing, you spend some of your time in the studio with your band collaborating, then you spend a lot of your time promoting, talking to journalists, meeting people one by one, then you spend some of your time playing to hundreds of people every night. So it's almost like a season cycle going on, and that's one of the things I love about my job, this constant shifting cycle happening. Sometimes I am on my own in my studio writing, sometimes I'm playing to a thousand people in a room. I would hate to feel I had to choose one over the other... but, if I had to, I would probably say I feel most happy being in the studio.

Exploring new musical landscapes is always somewhat risky when it comes to critical reaction. What's the comment that makes you upset the most, when you see people's reaction to new music?

I really don't read comments. Perhaps the very reason is that I read things in the past, and they irritated and annoyed me. So I don't read reviews, I don't read any of the comments people post on social media. I don't read my facebook page, any of that stuff. I find those things incredibly distracting. It's has nothing to do with the art at all, it has all to do with your fans' own agenda and your own fans' preconceptions. I know there are some fans of mine that would like me to make "hand.cannot.erase." part 2, I know there are some of my fans that would like me to go back to Porcupine Tree, I know there are some fans that would like me to make more electronic music, or more metal music, or more progressive music, more old school 70s style music. The point is that everyone has different ideas, and different agendas about what they want me to be, about what they want the artist they follow to do. And you just simply cannot listen to any of that, it's just noise. And I think one of the things about being an artist is you have to be incredibly selfish, because that is the definition of an artist. You don't create your art to please people, you create your art to please yourself, and to in a way hold up a mirror to your audience and say "This is me, this is what I see, do you recognize yourself? And if you do, maybe you'll find some affinity with my music, some affinity with my art". And I continue to do that, and I recognize that every time I make a new record, there are some people that will be disappointed with the direction I've gone in, and there will be other people that will be absolutely elated with the direction I've gone in. And you simply cannot please everyone. So I think I've past the point where you really go upset about things, I don't really read things anyway. And I think that you're upsetting people, then you're probably doing the right thing. If you're not upsetting people, then you're trying to please them too much, and -at least for me- that's never a good thing.

The definition of the "prog" term has somewhat crystalised to the reproposition of good old cliches. In your opinion, does it still make sense to define with this label the most experimental alternative outfits? Do you feel that term can be a sort of burden for an artist?

Yeah, absolutely. It's not a term I've ever used myself. I don't call my music progressive rock. That's what other people do. If I had to refer to my music, I would call it conceptual rock, art rock or something. Listen, here's what I think: I don't think it's possible to be progressive anymore. You can't be progressive. You can't be progressive, in any musical genre. The musical vocabulary that we all use to communicate, whether we are in metal bands, in country bands, in hip hop bands, or in conceptual rock bands, whatever what we are doing... the musical vocabulary is well established, and so has been for some time. The idea that music can be progressive, I believe in 2015 is redundant. You can make music which still seems fresh, because you can put enough of your own personality into it, so you give the listener a different perspective. I believe there is a Steven Wilson sound, there's something about what I do that sounds uniquely me. But at the same time, if you analyze the vocabulary I'm using to communicate, it is all familiar, it should be familiar to everyone. Because there's nothing in there that hasn't been done or heard somewhere before. I just hope that my personality is strong enough to make it seem like a fresh perspective. And I think that's what all musicians do now. The idea of prog that I really hate, is this idea that prog music has to sound like 1972, like what Pink Floyd or Genesis were doing in 1972. There is a sense that prog music is somehow crystalized in a particular time and era. But I feel that Radiohead are progressive, I think Massive Attack are progressive, I think Opeth are progressive, I think Aphex Twin is progressive, Nine Inch Nails were progressive. I think it's similar to the way "punk" has become kind of abused as a term. Prog or progressive has also become almost like a blueprint for something rather regressive, I would say.

 

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You've been around in theatres for your latest shows. Do you feel more comfortable in this kind of venues?

Well, I've done both in my tours. There are some shows in standing venues, and some in seated venues. I have to say I feel less comfortable in a seated venue. I still enjoy it, but I do miss the feeling of interaction that you get from having a standing audience that wraps against the stage, able to show they're enjoying it. Because sometimes when you're playing in a seated theater, everyone is very self-conscious and self-aware, and you don't really get a strong impression that the audience is reacting or enjoying the show. So I probably enjoy it less, but I also acknowledge that in some ways my show, as it currently is, is suited better to a seated audience, because it has a lot of visual elements to it, there are films, there are screens, there is a quadrophonic sound system. It tries to be a massive musical and visual journey. So I acknowledge that the seated theatres work really well for my show, but at the same time I have to say that I don't feel as comfortable with that situation -as a performer- as I do when I'm playing for a standing crowd.

Any live projects for the near future?

Well, there's still a lot of touring to do, relating to the current record and also to the "4 1/2" record that is about to come up. We're going back on the road next month, we'll be in Italy at some point in spring. So there's still a lot of playing to do, and then as I mentioned before, I'm just beginning now to develop thoughts and ideas about where I'm going next, with my next studio project. There is always the possibility for collaborations and things going on, but I would say that my priority is my solo work, and continue the touring, and making new music on my own name.

Would you please leave a message to our readers and to your fans?

Well, just to say I'm gonna be back in Italy in a few months now... 26th of April we're in Trieste, and 27th we're in Firenze. This current tour is kinda being quite different. We're playing a lot of different songs, something that we hadn't played before in Italy. So please come along if you can, and keep listening, keep enjoying.




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