By Howard Whitman
It may haveseemed like a risky move in 2010 when singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Steven Wilson disbanded Porcupine Tree. The progressive metal quartet was achieving worldwide success, but Wilson chose to focus on his solo career.
That gamble has paid off handsomely for Wilson, as his successful solo releases, culminating in To the Bone (2017), have built upon the career growth he achieved with his former band.
The To the Bone tour, which has played to sellout crowds around the world, has now been documented in a new concert film, Home Invasion, which was released in a variety of video and audio configurations in November.
In addition to his solo work, Wilson is also well-known for remixing classic albums for 5.1 audio by artists such as Yes, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, XTC and Tears for Fears.
Goldmine recently spoke with Wilson about the new live release, his Porcupine Tree legacy, the value of defying expectations and his opinion of a certain “Fab” remix.
GOLDMINE: We haven’t had a live release from you since 2012. What prompted you to film and record this tour?
STEVEN WILSON: I’ve had a little bit of pressure put on me for the last couple of albums to do some kind of concert film, and I’ve resisted, partly because I feel that there’s something that’s inherently compromised about trying to capture a live experience on film. What’s changed this time was that firstly, the To the Bone show is definitely the most ambitious (one) visually and musically that I’ve ever put on. And secondly, the opportunity came because of the three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, which is probably my favorite venue in Europe, if not the whole world. Being able to do three consecutive nights and film the last night, to me that made sense because it took a lot of the pressure away. Having cameras there sometimes can make you very self-conscious and a bit stressed. Hopefully it comes across in the film that I was very relaxed, the band were very relaxed. It was an opportunity I couldn’t really turn down this time.
GM: It struck me as I was watching that your work has always been cinematic and visual. Are you interested in pursuing filmmaking? Do you have any plans in this direction?
SW: I’ve been working on a script for a long time now with a friend of mine who is a very good filmmaker, and we’re approaching the point where we may be looking at getting into production, probably sometime toward the end of 2019. That’s exciting. When I was growing up, I was always as passionate about cinema as I was about music—well, maybe slightly more passionate about music—but for me, the two things were very much connected. To this day this is true: whenever I’m writing a new song, I’m more kind of “seeing” it in my head... It will be a complete package, an audio-visual spectacular. The problem with that historically is, it was too expensive to do something like that, and it’s still not cheap, but it’s becoming a lot more practical. With laptops and HD cameras, you can film stuff on your phone; it made things like that within my grasp. The technology has come so far that it’s enabled me to really not have to worry about anything but the power of the imagination. If I can imagine something, I can put it on; that’s something I couldn’t have done perhaps even 10 years ago.
GM: In the film, you implore the audience to stand up and “disco dance” before you play “Permanating” (an uncharacteristically upbeat song from To the Bone). Do you foresee your music going in a more pop direction in your upcoming work?
SW: “Permanating” is one I’m extremely proud of, but it’s a song that popped out of nowhere. Having grown up listening to bands like ABBA and loving them, I’ve been trying to write a song like that and it’s never really happened before, but for some reason it happened this one time. And I don’t know if it will ever happen again. One idea I really resist is that I fit into a category. I have never called myself a progressive rock artist. Other people have done that, and I acknowledge that I have made music that certainly fits in with that tradition; however, I have also made pop records, ambient, singer-songwriter, jazz, metal records... the list goes on. The idea that some people were upset that I created a piece of pop music because they believe me to be a prog-rock artist actually makes me happy, because those are the kind of people who really need to expand their horizons. Pop music is The Beatles, Prince, David Bowie, ABBA—some of the most wonderful music ever made. This idea that people who listen to conceptual rock music look down on pop music is a really ugly one. I take great pride in upsetting those kind of people, because they deserve to be upset. Certainly with the next record, as with To the Bone, I’m looking to confront expectations—not deliberately to upset people, but because I believe that’s what an artist should do: evolve, change, not simply repeat themselves. And they should never try and cater to their audience, because that way lies a creative death.
GM: Would you say that artists such as Prince and Bowie were role models in the sense that they always changed and defied expectations throughout their careers?
SW: Exactly. And I think the thing you cannot say about those artists is what genre they belong to. What kind of music does Bowie play? Prince? Kate Bush? Zappa? Neil Young? And these are all people that I consider to be in the very, very top of my musical inspiration, yet I cannot tell you in the case of any of them what musical genre they belong to. I think the point there is that they created their own musical world and genres. If you tried to categorize Bowie as glam or soul or new romantic, they’re all true but none of them are true. Not that I’m comparing myself to those great musicians, but I would like to be someone who also transcends that idea of being in a category.
GM: This tour found you playing some Porcupine Tree material. What prompted you to revisit that era?
SW: I don’t necessarily think of it as Porcupine Tree material—they’re just my songs. There’s material I wrote for Blackfield, Porcupine Tree, my solo records, and the one thing they all have in common is that they are my compositions, so to me they’re all available. I suppose in the early days of my solo career I was a bit more reluctant to delve into my back catalog for fear that people might not take the solo work seriously, so I focused on only playing the material from my solo career. I think it must be pretty clear to everybody by now that this is what I do, that I’m not going backwards, and my solo career is the main strand of my professional life. So I’ve been a little bit more relaxed now about going back and making the show career-spanning, not a nostalgia trip, but something which covers a lot more of my back catalog. I’m one of those guys who is in the fortunate position, in a way, of not having had any really big, career-defining songs. You might say that’s unfortunate in some respects. I don’t have a “Purple Rain,” a “Free Bird,” a “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” a song that everyone identifies me with. In some respects that’s been very liberating, and I can just cherry-pick songs from my back catalog without worrying that everyone is going to expect me to play this or that. It’s been fun to go back and revisit some of these older songs, for sure.
GM: Besides your successful solo career, you are also well-known for your remixes of classic albums. Do you have any new remix projects in the works? Are any that you aspire to tackle?
SW: I’ve had to back off of that work a fair bit because of the To the Bone album—the touring, and the success the record has been. It’s a nice problem to have, but I’ve had to put a lot of that on the back burner. I did do one very big project that I turned in this year for the German band Tangerine Dream. There’s a big 20-disc box set coming out of all of their 1970s work, and I did some remixing—stuff they recorded but never released, and a couple of surround mixes. Obviously, there are artists that I would drop maybe not everything, but I would drop a lot of stuff to work with, and they are the ones we’ve already talked about: Bowie, Prince, Kate Bush, Frank Zappa, Neil Young... if the chance came to work on any of those, I would make the time. But for whatever reason, apart from the Tangerine Dream project, nothing new that I’ve really felt excited about has fallen into my lap over the last 18 months or so. Maybe there’s something big just around the corner. We’ll see.
GM: Speaking of high-profile remix projects, what did you think of Giles Martin’s remix of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper?
SW: I don’t think it was bad. I wish I could have done it myself, obviously. I am arrogant enough to believe that I know a little bit about mixing classic albums and what the fans are looking for—at least most of them. I think it’s amazing, personally, that a band of the profile of The Beatles, the most famous band of all time, are now getting into the realms of 5.1 remixing and stereo remixing, because that’s going to open the market up in a massive way. I’ve always felt that there are a lot of people who had no interest in surround sound until their favorite album comes out in surround sound. Then they buy a surround system, and they get into it. And now they’re looking around to see who else is available, and they find Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, Tears for Fears, XTC—all of the titles I’ve been working on over the years now potentially have a new audience... I think (Martin) did a pretty good job. Of course, professionally I listened to it and said, “Alright, I would’ve done that a bit different”—and I would have done things a bit different! But hey, I haven’t gotten any invitations.
GM: One more question: What does the future hold for Steven Wilson? Where do you go from here?
SW: I’m going back on tour, coming back to North America to do a lot of markets I didn’t do the first time around on this album cycle. And I’m working on ideas for my next record, and I’m in what I rather pretentiously call the research and development phase, which is just a way of saying that I’m looking for a direction that will be different from the direction of any previous record. It’s very important to me that every record has a reason to exist in my back catalog, so I don’t want to make To the Bone part two, or Hand. Cannot. Erase part two, so I’m now in the process of searching for a kind of a musical vocabulary that I want to use for the next record. I’m meeting up with a few co-producers, people who might take it in different directions. That’s where I’m at now. I don’t want to say too much more about it right now because I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but all I can say is it will be quite different again.