If you like progressive rock and haven’t heard of Steven Wilson 1. You are doing it wrong and 2. Go and listen to his music now. With a career spanning twenty-five years and mutiple different bands, Steven Wilson is one of the most exciting musicians around. His 2015 album Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an epic journey through the chaos and isolation of the modern world, based around the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old Londoner who died in her bedsit in 2003 and was undiscovered for nearly three years. I got the chance to have a talk with Steven about his approach to this album and his plans for the future.
I read that you didn’t like playing guitar very much when you were young. I imagine that’s changed quite a lot, but I was wondering if there was one instrument that you play that you feel most allows you to express yourself.
Well it’s interesting that you picked that up because I’ve become known as a guitar player but really to this day something’s still the same, which is that I’m not necessarily interested in being a musician, I’m more interested in making records. Just to clarify exactly what that means to me – when I originally fell in love with the idea of being a musician, I fell in love with the idea of really being a producer. I wanted to make these big sonic, musical experiences, musical journeys, so being able to play, whether it was guitar or piano or being able to sing or bass, those were things I kind of had to learn that would become the tools that would enable me to create these records. So without wishing to evade your question I suppose the answer would be, the instrument I’m most interested in is the studio – being in a room full of instruments and ways to manipulate those instruments, to process those instruments in order to make finished albums – and that’s really been the case right from the very beginning. I never wanted to be a guitar hero, I never wanted to be a singer or a frontman and those are things I’ve had to kind of adapt and pick up in order to achieve this overriding ambition.
You’ve lived in various places from Hertfordshire to London to Tel Aviv. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is of course very concerned with what it’s like to live in the modern metropolis. How much does setting affect your songwriting and the way that an album sounds?
I think we all have to acknowledge now that we live in the digital age; we live in the world of social networking and the Internet and that has changed everything. When I started in the music industry it was still necessary to go and live in a big city. If you wanted to make your living as a musician you had to be in London or LA or whatever. That’s no longer the case – it doesn’t matter really where you live and the reason it doesn’t matter is that you are effectively living everywhere simultaneously because you have access to your fans or your potential listeners wherever they may be in the world. I think that’s made things much easier for musicians but the downside is that we now live in a world where there is too much music and everyone is able to make music. You can go and buy a relatively cheap piece of software and you can make your album at home and you can make it sound great but the problem is, how do you get people to listen to it? As a listener we are constantly bombarded with new music all the time and I think that a lot of people just simply have stopped listening for new music – so it’s a constant battle. I love the fact that the Internet has made making music and reaching people easier in one sense, but on the other hand the proliferation of music – and also when you connect that to the era of Spotify and streaming and mp3s and downloads – those two things connected slightly conspire to devalue music in a way that is not good. Like anything I think it’s one step forward and one step back.
There’s obviously quite an engaged listener experience that you have in mind when creating an album. Do you feel that online streaming disrupts that?
I think it’s harder to engage with music that doesn’t exist as a physical thing. It’s something to do with the way that we work as human beings that just downloading music – 1s and 0s onto a hard drive – you simply don’t engage with it in the same way as something you can hold in your hands, look at the artwork, read the lyrics, if it’s vinyl you can take it out of the record sleeve, that whole ritual of playing the record, and we simply don’t engage with music in the same way when it’s just something streamed off a website. And I think also, if you add that to the fact that all of our lives now are more and more crazy, more and more busy, with more and more things demanding out attention, whether its our cellphone, our internet, our job, our friends, updating our Facebook profile – whatever it is we’re doing, music is having a harder and harder battle to come to the forefront of our attention. So if you’re someone like me that kind of makes the equivalent of a feature film in musical terms – I don’t write three-minute pop songs, I make these kind of feature films for the ears or novels for the ears – it’s really hard to get people to engage with music without distraction for that length of time. And that’s kind of a battle that I have.
I feel like that really shows in all the effort that’s gone into the packaging [the album comes with imaginary childhood drawings, school reports, polaroids, and a teenage diary] and the blog that accompanies the album. Obviously a huge amount of work has gone into making the character of Hand. Cannot. Erase. feel as real as possible. How did you navigate the fact that this was a story that had actually happened to someone?
Well firstly the inspiration for the story of course was the real life events of Joyce Carol Vincent, but that was really only a starting point for me. What I found fascinating about her story was not necessarily the way she died, but how does someone get to that point where they can be on the surface of it a popular, attractive young woman, and yet somehow completely disappear from view to the point that no one questioned it? I think that although my character is kind of a fictional character, it’s based on that question: how does this happen? And one of the reasons I think this album has resonated so well with so many people is that everyone can understand in a way how this can happen. Living in the city in the twenty-first century can be an incredibly lonely, isolating experience. And again we come back to this idea of social networking and how that gives the illusion of people being connected – but of course it is an illusion, you’re not connected. I think that again it’s something that everyone kind of implicitly understands about life in the twenty-first century – that there’s a lot of bullshit and fantasy of living this life and projecting this image of yourself to the virtual world; and at the same time we have this young woman who disappeared and no one questioned it. I found that fascinating, heartbreaking and somehow very symbolic of how life has developed in the digital age.
The photos from the blog are beautiful and I think that the use of reflections and silhouettes is really interesting as a visualisation of the self-erasure that the album is concerned with.
Thank you. We worked very hard on it – it’s one of those things where you work very hard on it knowing that it’s really for the people that will take the trouble and time to care. My philosophy has always been: don’t try to dumb it down because you acknowledge to yourself most people are never going to pay attention to this, make the record for the people that will care and will pay attention and will find something in it that will really resonate with them. And actually I have to say that a lot more people have taken the time to do that than I might have expected.
Photo credits to Lasse Hoile
This was your highest charting album to date and was extremely well received by critics and fans. How does that feel and does it impact you coming to another album?
Well the simple answer is, not really, because I’ve never wanted to be an artist that would somehow try to cater for the expectations of my listeners or the press or whoever. I think that is the definition of an artist: if you contrast the idea of an artist with an entertainer – an entertainer is someone who looks at what their audience expects and tries to give that to them and tailors what they do to please their audience; an artist is someone actually that’s only trying to please one person, which is themselves so it’s something that comes from within. That sounds very pretentious but I believe that’s true. I think as a listener or viewer or reader, you can tell the difference between someone that is creating out of some deep-seated need inside or a passion to express themselves and someone who is giving entertainment to an audience presumably for commercial reasons and I’m definitely not that person. I can’t think about my audience. So the simple answer to your question is, I have to do things very much in a selfish way. And that will continue to be the case and I will probably pay the price for that in the sense that I may sometimes make a record that disappoints my fans or it’s not what they want or it’s not what they’re expecting but I think that’s something that comes with the job description in a way.
The video for Routine came out just over a month ago – it’s very beautifully made. Like your videos for The Raven That Refused To Sing and Drive Home, it was directed by Jess Cope. How was your experience working with her different this time around?
Well we were a bit more ambitious this time in the sense that this was a three-dimensional animation – the puppets were all three-dimensional so it’s almost like shooting a movie. You can move around the room and around the characters and the puppets whereas the previous two videos were two-dimensional so they were kind of flat. Straight away that meant that everything was more complicated for Jess; it took a lot longer but I think the results speak for themselves. She’s made a very beautiful short film and it’s frustrating to me in a way that it doesn’t reach more people. It’s such piece of art in its own right and the combination of the music and the video together I think is very powerful.
Your upcoming album, 4 1/2, is made up of five songs that didn’t make it onto your last two records, as well as a rerecording of a Porcupine Tree track. Why was it that those songs didn’t quite make it on to those albums?
Not because I wasn’t proud of them. A bit like we talked about already – this idea of making more conceptual albums. What that means sometimes is that not all the songs fit into the story. For me it’s like the equivalent of a deleted scene from a movie – it’s not because the director wasn’t really proud of that scene, it’s just that he looked at it and decided there’s nothing about it that really takes the story forward or there’s something about that scene that breaks up the momentum of the story. And it’s the same for me sometimes with these songs – I can be very proud of them but when I put them in the context of the record, somehow they just don’t add or belong. So it’s been really nice to be able to go back and finish them properly and present them, you know, give them their time to shine.
And what was it that made you want to rerecord Don’t Hate Me? It was rerecorded with Ninet Tayeb, who of course did the female vocals on Hand. Cannot. Erase.
It’s funny because obviously some people talk to me of this song as a Porcupine Tree song, that song as a solo song. To me, of course, they’re all my songs and I don’t necessarily make that distinction. They existed as songs before Porcupine Tree recorded them and so for me they all seem like songs that if I want to play them, I should be able to play them. And Don’t Hate Me as a song, I was always very proud of and we started playing it actually on the recent tour. There are a few songs from my back catalogue we play out on the current tour. It was a recording we made actually live and that track on the album is based on a live recording – I redid the vocals obviously and cleaned it up a bit. I felt that there was something about the way that my band and I perform Don’t Hate Me now that is a little bit more – it’s an ugly word but I’ll use it anyway – more mature. A different kind of experience, a different take. It’s a little bit slower than the original version; I felt the original version maybe took it a little bit fast. It felt like it wanted to be a little bit more lonely, more desolate-sounding. And then the final thing I want to say about this is that it actually fits really well with the Hand. Cannot. Erase. idea, this idea of loneliness in the city. Don’t Hate Me very much is cut from that same cloth – which just goes to show you that I’ve been basically writing the same song for more than fifteen years now.
I saw in an interview that you said that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is something of a “culmination of [your] musical career.” How do you move past that? Where will you go now?
Well I’ve just gone out and bought a load of keyboards so I’m already moving a little more towards electronic – I know some of my fans would be horrified to hear that! I’m not going to make an electronic music album but definitely I want to use more electronic elements next time around, maybe do a record which focuses a little bit more on songs, makes the songs a little bit more the core of the record. The simple answer is that I don’t know yet – I’m just beginning to think about it but the one thing I do know is I don’t like to repeat myself so it’s very important to me that every album I make has a reason to exist. You know, it’s not just “Oh here’s another one of those ones that you had last time”. I’m just beginning to think about where I might go. But maybe something a little bit more contemporary, a little bit more edgy, more electronic. It’s early days yet, but something different again.
I’d just like to close on a rather trivial question in the spirit of the season – what is your favourite Christmas song?
My favourite Christmas song… gosh… well everyone likes that Pogues song, don’t they? Fairytale Of New York, it’s almost a cliché to pick that one.
I mean they’re all cliché, aren’t they?
Yeah… but that’s a cool Christmas song. Oh I know which Christmas song’s my favourite! Do you know the American band Low?
Oh, I’m afraid not.
No, ok. Right, you need to check this out – it’s almost become a standard now. It was written about ten years ago by this band from America called Low who are what they call a slowcore band – really slow but very, very beautiful. They put out an album a few years ago called Christmas and the first song on that record is called Just Like Christmas and it’s absolutely beautiful. Yeah, Just Like Christmas by Low, I would say.
Steven Wilson will be touring the UK in January.
Photo credit to Joe Del Tufo