Element of Surprise:
Steven Wilson Puts the Bone In
In some ways, the 2017 album To the Bone introduced a more user-friendly Steven Wilson. Certainly, Wilson’s fifth solo full-length features a good deal of the musically ambitious progressive rock styles that led to his being named Prog Rock King by the 2015 Progressive Music Awards in London. But the record also finds Wilson displaying his knack for writing accessible, popular music, the sort of songs that in an earlier era might have earned the label of “radio-ready.” But for the 51-year-old Londoner who just released a 2CD+Blu-Ray live set, the pop textures of songs like “Pariah” and “Blank Tapes” merely represent the pop side of his myriad talents.
For the open-minded fan, the musical journey upon which Wilson has been traveling is a fascinating one, full of perhaps unexpected twists and turns. But for the music fan who prefers an artist who crafts a specific approach and then sticks with it, Wilson’s work maybe too challenging. “Everyone loves AC/DC, but they’ve basically been making the same record for 40 years,” Wilson offers by way of example. “Which is fine.” But that approach isn’t one he’s likely to adopt.
Wilson mentions the names of just a few of the many artists whose work has inspired him: Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Prince. He describes the unifying characteristic as “that category of people [who] constantly reinvent themselves, constantly confront the expectations of their existing fan base.” He says that such artists “constantly shift the goalposts around, so their fans never really know what’s coming next.” And he acknowledges that approach is a tightrope walk.
“To pull that off time and time again over a career is really difficult to do,” Wilson concedes, “because every time you make a new record, you run the risk of basically losing your existing fan base and not necessarily regenerating a new one.” But for the artists who follow their own muse – and for their fans – the creative rewards can ultimately be greater. Those artists “stand the test of time the best,” he believes, “because their catalog becomes this kind of constantly surprising trajectory.”
In an interview clip included on the Blu-Ray version of Wilson’s new Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Wilson forthrightly acknowledges that some of his longtime fans actively dislike To the Bone. He goes so far in the live introduction to “Permanating” to remind the audience that after the Beatles, the greatest pop group ever is ABBA. After launching into the irresistibly catchy tune, he welcomes a colorful troupe of Bollywood dancers onto the stage; at one point during “Permanating,” the dancers run in a circle around Wilson. That’s not the kind of entertainment fans signed up for when they bought the heavy prog-metal of Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet or The Incident.
While Wilson is careful not to compare himself or his work to that of, say, Neil Young, he makes a point about Young’s body of work. “You may not necessarily like everything in it – and I don’t like every Neil Young album – but I totally respect his right to have made all of those career choices. And I’m still fascinated by the fact that he made those career choices.” Wilson feels similarly about the work of Frank Zappa. “I don’t like all Zappa records, but I own them all,” he says. He says that the mere existence of some works that he might not personally enjoy remains part of the artist’s overall appeal. “And I hope my fans have come to expect that about me, too,” he says.
And for anyone who’s been paying attention to Wilson’s multifarious projects, none of this will come as any surprise. I first interviewed him in October 2007, while Porcupine Tree was touring the U.S. in support of Fear of a Blank Planet. At that time, Wilson had just begun work on his first solo album, Insurgentes, released a year later. And he previewed the eclectic approach his solo work would take. “It’s an album of all the pieces that have never fit into anything: anything from almost singer/songwriter-based material, to electronic, to disco, funk…all those sorts of things,” he explained. “So I’m going to put them all together in a kind of indulgent, eclectic mess.”
But though Wilson’s work does cover a lot of stylistic ground, his music is rarely what most would describe as indulgent. “In my past career, you’ll hear the point at which metal becomes a part of [my] vocabulary,” he says. “You’ll hear a point at which songwriting and harmony singing become much more prevalent in my work, and you’ll hear points in time where electronic music, pop music and jazz influences all have become part of the fabric of the music.”
And as he surveys the musical landscape, Wilson sees much yet to explore. “I’m working on new material for my next record right now,” he says, “and it’s going to be different again. Because what’s the point of repeating yourself? For me, there has to be a reason for every new album to exist in the catalog. There’s no point in simply making another one of what you’ve done before.”
While Wilson nearly always has very specific ideas about how a piece of music ought to sound (“I am a bit of a control freak when it comes down to it,” he admits), the songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist frequently collaborates with other artists. Many of his long-term and/or ongoing projects have been the product of teamwork: no-man (with Tim Bowness), Blackfield (with Aviv Geffen), Storm Corrosion (with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt). Even Porcupine Tree – in its earliest incarnation when Wilson was still in high school – was a collaborative effort with friend and classmate Malcolm Stocks.
Wilson’s embrace of pop and his willingness to share the spotlight has resulted in a clutch of guest vocal spots by (and duets with) Israeli vocalist Ninet Tayeb. Tayeb’s lead vocal on “Routine” and “Ancestral” from Wilson’s 2015 release Hand. Cannot Erase. set the stage for her increased participation on 2017’s To the Bone. Tayeb’s breathtakingly expressive (and technically impressive) vocals on “Pariah” also demonstrate Wilson’s facility at writing vocal parts for a singer with a much different range than his own.
For the title track of To the Bone, Wilson wrote the music, leaving the lyric composition to Andy Partridge, formerly of XTC. “If I’m going to go into a collaborative process, then I want it to be just that,” Wilson says. “Compromise is the wrong word, but you give and take, and you allow for the other person, and their style, and their preferences, and their musical personality. The beauty of collaboration is that you do get that kind of melting pot of influences, inspirations, experiences and musical personalities.”
It’s impossible to predict where the creative restlessness that characterizes Steven Wilson’s work will lead next. But in the brief interview snippet on the Home Invasion Blu-Ray, he reveals that it’s a long-held dream of his to eventually score a film. Such a project seems like a natural progression for Wilson, whose work always conveys emotional content, with or without words.
In late 2017, Wilson did provide the soundtrack to the video game Last Day of June, but he notes that collection of songs “was almost entirely drawn from existing material.” Wilson’s brief input included creating instrumental mixes of songs that had appeared on his solo albums and doing some editing to tracks. He admits that director Massimo Guaraini “knew he wanted the kind of music I was already making.”
A more straightforward film project would present a greater opportunity – and a more significant challenge – for Wilson. He’s clearly up to the task, should circumstances develop in that direction. “I would certainly relish the opportunity to work with a director – one who has a strong vision – on a movie,” he says. And it turns out that Wilson’s already staggeringly huge official catalog – 40-plus studio albums, more than 15 live albums, numerous compilations and limited-edition releases plus scattered EPs, singles – doesn’t even include some of his most commercially accessible work.
“The first ten years of my career, actually, I did a lot of music for commercials,” Wilson reveals. “It was one of the ways I kept myself going, because I was making records that nobody was buying in the early days.” Though he says that in some ways he found the experience soul-destroying, it helped him develop his songwriting skill.
Wilson also learned a lot about songwriting from picking apart and assembling classic albums. He’s an in-demand remix engineer, with more than 30 projects to his credit. Wilson’s work in this area breathes new life into 1970s records by Caravan, ELP, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Hawkwind, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, Steve Hackett and Yes. His list of 5.1 Surround remixes of ‘80s albums includes Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair, XTC’s Nonsuch and Skylarking and Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain. For him, those projects represent “an opportunity to understand how those musicians made that music, and for that then to become a part of my toolbox, if you like, for creating my own music.”
Asked if there are other back catalogs to which he’d enjoy applying his remixing and remastering skills, Wilson says that as far as progressive rock, he’s probably finished. “I don’t think there’s anything left [to remix], really,” he says. “But I think there are certain catalogs that would sound wonderful remixed into multichannel sound.” He mentions some intriguing names, Prince, Bowie and Zappa among them. And Wilson would love to take a crack at Kate Bush’s recordings, but says that’s not likely to happen. “She’s not interested in SurroundSound,” he says. “I have tried. But not everyone is [interested], and that’s totally fair enough.”
The To the Bone tours began in late January 2017, and when complete will have taken Wilson and his band to North and South America, Great Britain, Europe, Russia, India, Israel, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; 140-plus dates in all. In a 2010 interview, Wilson and I discussed his prodigious output and busy schedule. “What I do barely feels like work to me,” Wilson responded. “People ask me, ‘Are you a workaholic?’ I respond that to be a workaholic, you’ve got to feel that what you’re doing is work. Making records, that’s not work. It’s fun, isn’t it?” He clearly feels similarly about playing shows; in the Home Invasion video interview Wilson admits that while he doesn’t consider himself a natural performer, he’s come to truly enjoy playing onstage in front of audiences.
But in an age where fans have come to expect an unprecedented level of interaction with their favorite artists, Wilson draws a sharp line. “The way the modern world is and the way the music industry is now,” he observes, “there is almost required a certain amount of access to personal life, simply in order to promote your work.” He says that he embraces that reality “a little bit. If you don’t make yourself available on social media, then to a lot of people, you simply don’t exist.”
Wilson has his own Instagram page, which he maintains himself rather than handing the task off to an assistant or label employee. “But I don’t post a lot there,” he admits. “And I certainly don’t post pictures of me and my family having breakfast, which some people do.”
Wilson aims for a balance between accessibility and privacy. “I do have a line which I won’t cross in terms of my personal life,” he says. “So it’s been a bit of a learning curve, a bit of a try-it-and-see. I try and keep my personal life still very private, but also give the fans the sense that I am a human being and that I am … kind of … interacting with them.” He concedes that there’s no right or wrong way of addressing this subject, and that ultimately it’s up to each artist to sort out a level of fan access that feels right.
While some artists grant unprecedented access to their followers, Wilson notes those that refrain from doing so. “The Radioheads and [Pink] Floyds of this world still pretty much have that mystique about them, because they don’t give the fans any access at all,” he says. He agrees that artists on that level of fame don’t exactly need to open up. “They’re massively successful,” he says. “But someone like me who’s not massively successful, I guess I do still need to make myself available to the fans to an extent.” In the meantime, the man referred to as “the most successful British musician most people have never heard of” is staying true to his musically restless spirit while writing pop songs that are earning him a larger audience.
Photo by Hajo Mueller.