It’s hard to imagine that at Steven Wilson’s first public gig, as the guitarist for his teenage heavy metal band, Paradox, that he could have been so self-conscious that he could do no more than sit at the far side of the stage and stare at the ground as he played, because the thought of eye contact with an audience was way too daunting to contemplate.
It’s even harder to imagine, for those who have seen any of his live shows over the last three decades, that he believes it has only been a mere three or four years since he has finally broken free of his self-doubt to feel fully confident in himself as a performer.
The facts are, that after well over three decades of producing some of the most influential and fascinating rock music of the modern era, the 2017 release of his latest album, To The Bone, saw him finally ascend to the top of the British mainstream album charts, and the subsequent 3 hour shows he has been performing to promote the album have seen him playing in ever larger venues to ever increasing numbers of rapt Steven Wilson fans.
This November, Steven Wilson returns to Australia for a limited number of Eastern seaboard shows, which will coincide with the release of Home Invasion, a live album / DVD documenting his triumphant sold out Royal Albert Hall performances from earlier in the To The Bone world tour.
The Upside News had the chance to speak to Steven and he seemed more than happy to share his views on his recent positive change of fortune, his latest album, and the upcoming Australian tour.
The Upside News: If we could start by going back to the 2010 Insurgentes documentary, where you were filmed conferring with a fortune teller at a tarot card reading, who tells you that ‘a sense of abundance – [will be] coming to you’ very soon.
Does the huge level of success that has followed the release of To The Bone mean you have to concede that you believe in fairground prophecies now?
Steven Wilson: (Laughs) Well, you know those kind of people are very good at telling you what you want to hear, aren’t they?
All I’ll say is, you know, I think it hasn’t been easy. I wouldn’t describe it as a struggle, but it has been a very gradual process of building an audience through releasing records and touring, and that’s a kind of old fashioned way of doing things, in a way.
I don’t know that I necessarily feel successful. Actually, it is a difficult question, because ‘success’, on one hand, would be being satisfied with what you’re doing, being fulfilled as an artist, being able to make a living from what you love doing, and I can definitely say ‘yes [I am]’ to all of those things.
But, at the same time, I’m also constantly frustrated by the fact that I don’t have more of a profile in the popular mainstream. And so, I’m what you might call, quintessentially, a ‘cult artist’. I kind of exist outside of the mainstream.
I do have an audience. I am able to tour. I am able to get quite good numbers when I put out records, and when I put tickets on sale. But, to all intents and purposes, I’m still very much an underground artist. I’m pretty much invisible in mainstream culture, and that does continue to be slightly frustrating to me.
Of course, to a lot of people, that would be their gauge of success: how often you are on television, how often you are on the radio, how often you are in magazines – and I’m not really. In many respects, I guess, I should be grateful for that fact because it has given me freedom, really, to conduct my career without any sense of compromise at all. And don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t undervalue that.
TUN: So, when you talk about the ‘frustration’ that has been sitting there, not consuming you, but being felt nonetheless, is it fair to say that this [climb to more commercial success] has been a fairly calculated process? I mean I am sitting here looking at the Transience compilation from 2016, and the K-Scope sticker on the front of the CD says: ‘an introduction to the more accessible side’ of your work. At the time that I bought the disc I thought that line seemed a bit dismissive of a large portion of your prior work. But was it, looking at it now, part of the longer-term plan to reposition you in the market place?
It was also the first album to feature a close-up picture of you on the cover. Was this all part of the strategy?
SW: Well firstly, that was the label’s idea not mine, but I thought it was a good one.
Let’s just say this – as long as I think the music itself is being made without any degree of compromise, and as long as the songs are being written, produced and recorded without any consideration for an audience, a manager, a record label, or whoever these other people are that are engaging with the music, and as long as I am making the music for myself, I have always been happy to do whatever it takes to reach a wider audience and to share the music with as many people as possible.
I just think more recently I’ve become a little bit more confident about being a front man and that is something that’s only really happened in the last four or five years – that confidence to actually stand up and present myself as a personality.
And I have come to realise that actually, that’s what fans like, that’s what they want. They want you, in a way, to be – not a popstar – but they want you to be a personality. They want you to engage with them and to put [across] some kind of strong identity, strong face, to go with the music. I think I’ve realised that in the last few years, and I’ve certainly become a little bit more confident about putting my face on the covers.
But I think you’re right also. It is a reflection that the music has become a little bit more accessible, a bit more direct, perhaps. There’s a little bit less of me hiding behind the conceptual layers, and the conceptual artwork has become less relevant to me on the last couple of records.
TUN: It’s interesting that you say that it is only in the last few years that this confidence has been apparent to you. Are you saying that up until then, inside, you were still that shy boy sitting up on the stage at school looking down at the ground while you played your guitar…are you really trying to tell us that after thirty years in the business you were still feeling that way?
SW: I’ll tell you what – it has been a really gradual process.
I know it seems like a crazy thing to say, that it’s only really changed in the last few years for me, but I’ll tell you what, there’s one thing that the increased success that the solo records have had – and remember I have only been a solo artist for about nine years now, and that I came out of a band situation where, let’s just say, I was not encouraged by the other people in the band to be that front man. Quite the opposite actually. But since I have been a solo artist I have made a conscious decision to try and be much more of a personality and a front man. And that did take me four or five years really, of touring with my solo band, and of the records having increased success, and through feeling that kind of glow, if you like, of acceptance and love from the audience, for me to really want to step out and be that person.
And it’s actually true, that it’s only been in the last three or four years that I have really started to feel that confidence.
TUN: Well, I saw your first Australian tour with Porcupine Tree, and saw the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour in Sydney a couple of years back and you oozed confidence at both so that was why it was such a surprise to hear you say that.
Can we focus a little bit more closely on the latest album now?
It’s fair to say that a number of your long-term followers were a little angsty in the period leading up to the album’s release, when information started to leak out that it was going to be slightly more commercial. In the end, it threw Ed Sheeran off the top spot [on the British charts] momentarily, so it obviously did achieve that appeal, but it must be really satisfying to you that your instinct for a change of approach was correct, and your old fans seemed to have been satisfied and retained as well?
SW: Yes, but I think in some ways that’s part of the contract. You know, the sort of unwritten contract that you have with the people who listen to your music. And, in a way, I think if that sense of confronting their expectations is not happening, then I think that is a problem because it means that you are simply delivering more of the same every time.
One of the things that I remember being a kid – and actually I still have this now as a fan of other musicians – is having that kind of trepidation you do have when an artist that you really like changes direction and you’re not sure about it to begin with.
But there’s something about the confidence you have in that artist, and in the loyalty you have for the artist, that makes you give them the benefit of the doubt.
So, you kind of go along with the change. I think that’s part of what I love about following the career of an artist over a long period of time – that they do change direction, and sometimes there is this kind of period of adjusting to that change of direction that occurs.
Maybe, even something you didn’t think you were going to like, but because it comes from an artist you have respect for, you actually grow to like. And I love that!
I mean, I look back at the careers of people who were real icons to me – people like Bowie, people like Prince, you know, people like Frank Zappa – they were people who were constantly reinventing themselves and, very much, risking disappointing their audience by not simply delivering more of the same every time. And, ultimately, I think that’s what gives an artist a long career, gives you longevity, the fact that you have regularly reinvented yourself. I love to do that from album to album.
I don’t like this idea that any album is interchangeable with any other album in my catalogue. So every album has to feel, in a sense, like some kind of evolution, or progress – well actually, not even progress – sometimes it can be just a step sideways into something completely different. And I like to think that that is pretty much the hallmark of my whole career.
TUN: I agree with you, and just like the two artists you mentioned, Bowie and Prince, I have followed your career for the exact same reason!
In the deluxe version of To The Bone there is a lengthy ‘diary’ that Stephen Humphries put together of his regular discussions with you about the genesis of the album, and there were a couple of pretty interesting things that come out of that when you read through it. One of them is that you are quoted saying to him that you were in ‘a good place, happy in your career and your personal life, happy with your current work and having a lot of fun.’ How did you manage, being in such a positive emotional mindset, to create a body of work that focused on the rise of terrorism, the widespread corruption of truth, compulsive over-possessiveness…
TUN: …It’s an album which describes a future ‘where the world is exhausted’ and there is ‘wreckage…all around’? I’m fascinated by that…
SW: Yes…but let’s not forget that there is some quite joyous music on there too…
SW: …In some respects, quite unusually [joyous] for me, because I think there is one thing that people would point to as a kind of, you know, a characteristic of almost all my music, and that is that it does tend to dwell on the darker side of things.
I’ve always felt that part of the reason that I am a fairly contented person in my private life is because I am able to kind of exorcise those darker thoughts through the music. I think that’s one of the real gifts that an artist has. And by artist, I mean not just a musician, but a film-maker, painter, poet – whatever it is you do as a sort of creative outlet – you have an opportunity to use that art as a kind of cathartic process.
So everyone has – we all have – a dark side and we all have a light side, And I think what I choose to channel – and maybe not even as a conscious decision, but it just seems to be the way the process always works for me – is the darker side, which tends to go into my work.
Consequently, I am quite a contented person in my private life. I’m not sure what I would be like if I didn’t have that kind of outlet. You know, maybe I’d be completely fucked up! (Laughs)
It kind of works, in a way as the kind of yin and yang – the work and the person – are two quite different sides of the same person in that respect.
TUN: To The Bone is certainly an album that raises a lot of questions, And one thing that does – if we can go back to the prescient fortune teller idea for just a moment – is the spoken intro to the album’s opening track. Jasmine Walkes’ spoken intro to the album’s title tune, where she talks about ‘truth’.
It’s amazing that this track was recorded before the ongoing nightmare of the Trump era really got started, and there she is questioning the way truth is now more regularly considered a malleable concept by people in power. It must give you a sort of perverse pleasure that that now seems an even more prescient comment than perhaps you first thought?
SW: Well, ‘pleasure’ would be the wrong word, of course. Because it is, in some respects, also quite depressing to have foreseen that.
But remember that when the song was written the whole election process was well under way, so we were already – all of us in this world – already immersed in a world of fake news and disinformation, and the bullying tactics of the Trump administration. Or at least, the ‘pre-administration’ as it was at that time. So, I think the writing was on the wall that that was the way that the political landscape was going.
Social media was a very powerful tool for spreading that kind of disinformation and manipulating the truth in that way.
I do think we have to look a lot to the internet for part of the reason why that’s been made possible. The internet – one of the greatest inventions in human history – is also something that can be used as a tool for manipulating people, for evil, and I think we have to recognise that and talk about that. So, of course, that’s what I am doing on this album, yeah.
TUN: Is it fair to say then that Trump was at the forefront of your mind when you wrote The Same Asylum As Before?
SW: Yeah, kind of. But also, there’s a lot of stuff going on in Britain as well at the moment with politics. I mean, the whole Brexit thing…
I think the sentiment of that song is quite simple – it doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t matter who gets in to power, you’re still stuck in the same madhouse that you were before.
Politicians are very good at promising things and then not delivering. They’re very good at telling you what you want to hear, but then, ultimately, continuing to do exactly what the previous administration did. It seems odd to me the idea that you have a vote and you can put someone into power but then they really aren’t that much different to the people that preceded them.
TUN: Well, if you have been following Australian politics you’ll know we vote and put someone into power only for the politicians to repeatedly decide they don’t like our choices and throw them out mid-term. We have had something like eight Prime Ministers in ten years…
SW: Wow! I wasn’t aware of that!
Now obviously there is a big difference between Obama and Trump – philosophically, there’s a big difference – but in many respects there is a lot of stuff that is always going to be the same. You know, with the whole issue with gun control where nothing ever seems to change. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, nothing ever seems to change.
TUN: Getting back to the album again, I thought it was an interesting pairing of tracks at the start of the album where you had To The Bone, a song which opens up with some fairly bleak subterranean imagery, then, in the second track, Nowhere Now, having it start in the same place but then launching us into the stratosphere, where, arguably, the perspective is sort of similar.
It struck me that, seeing that you had been performing Space Oddity so often in the wake of Bowie’s death, maybe your song was a sort of companion piece to the Bowie song. Was that any part of your deliberation when composing it?
SW: That’s interesting! You know, you might be right. There are certain things, I think, that creative people do, if I can describe myself as that, that sometimes we are not even conscious of ourselves.
It’s quite possible – you’re right – because I was performing Space Oddity a lot, and now you say that, I can see, yes, that there is a sense of someone drifting high above the Earth and seeing it as this beautiful thing far removed from all the politics and the terrorism, and all the bullshit that is going on down on the surface of the Earth. Seeing that actually there is a wider perspective, that the gift of life is an extraordinary thing, and that the human race has achieved extraordinary things.
So I think that the song marks the beginning of what I referred to at the beginning of our conversation – that there is a more positive, slightly more joyous and optimistic perspective on this record. I think I was conscious that if I hadn’t put this other side in, this album could have been really depressing!
Do you know what I mean? As you pointed out, there is a lot of depressing stuff – the refugee crisis, the terrorists, the politics – it’s all pretty depressing stuff. So I think, maybe subconsciously, I had to present the other perspective as well, which is that there is beauty, and there is joy, and there is extraordinary stuff going on all the time on this planet.
TUN: You say you range over a lot of depressing material, but I feel your great strength is that you present these ideas but yet have your listener feel almost uplifted by the way you present and explore the material. It’s something I often marvel at when I’m listening to your records.
We can’t leave a discussion of the album without discussing the song, Permanating. According to the Stephen Humphries diary, this was the last song that you wrote for the album, and quite clearly the most jauntily positive sounding song you’ve done. Has writing a song like this opened a conduit to you writing more in that mood and vein, or is that just a delightful one-off?
SW: Well, the simple answer to that is that I don’t know. I mean, I’m really proud of that song but to be honest I have been trying to write that song most of my career. (Laughs)
It’s very hard. Let no-one ever tell you that writing a simple, direct piece of joyous pop music is easy, because it’s the hardest thing of all to do. And as you’d probably know if you have followed my career at all, you’d all know that I grew up in a house where I heard the heavy conceptual rock of things like Pink Floyd, but also things like the joyous pop music of artists like ABBA and The Bee Gees, and I love both equally.
And it’s been a source of constant frustration to me that the other side of me has not manifested more than it has. Permanating is the first time I ever really felt like I wrote a successful piece of pure, joyous, uplifting pop music – but it wasn’t for want of trying.
And you know what? It may be the first and last time I ever manage to pull it off!
I am writing for my new record right now. I’m writing for the next record, just beginning to, and let’s just say that nothing quite like that has come along yet! (Laughs) It’s much more going back towards the darker side of my musical personality.
But listen, I’m very proud of Permanating and I’d like to think it wasn’t a one-off, but those [types of songs] seem to be very rare in my catalogue.
TUN: Can I just finish then with some questions about your upcoming tour and the impending release of Home Invasion, your DVD record of your recent Royal Albert Hall shows?
Will the DVD feature the full three-hour show that you are touring at the moment?
SW: Yes it will.
You know the funny thing is that when we cut out all my talking between songs it went from being about three hours to about two hours and forty. (Laughs) Which shows you how much I love to talk!
The DVD and the BluRay have well over three hours of material on them because we also filmed a lot of other songs that were not in the main show – we also filmed things that were part of the sound-check in the afternoon, so there is actually well over three hours of repertoire on both the BluRay and the DVD.
TUN: And will that be released before you arrive in Australia? Or will we be purchasing it at the shows?
SW: I believe it’s out pretty much the same week that I arrive in Australia. I think it comes out in the first week of November, so it should be just about out by then, yep.
TUN: And the Australian shows will go for three hours? So, the new album, if you play that in its entirety, that accounts for an hour – that will leave two thirds of the show to be drawn from other things. What should we expect? Will the remainder be drawn just from your solo career, or will it be a full career retrospective? What should we be looking forward to?
SW: I’ve got to the stage now where I don’t really think of any of the songs I’ve written as being songs that are specific to any particular band or project.
To me, right now in my career, having been a solo artist now for the best part of ten years, I just think of my songs as ‘Steven Wilson songs’. So whether they were originally recorded by Porcupine Tree, or they were originally recorded by Blackfield, or originally recorded under my own name, to me they are all, to me, just Steven Wilson songs – so I think that answers your question!
It will be a career retrospective. I go about twenty, twenty five, years into my back catalogue and there are songs associated with various projects, and not just the material released under my own name.
TUN: Fantastic! Well, I have my ticket and I am really looking forward to the two days of driving to get over to see your show…
TUN: …and I know it will be as great as your Hand. Cannot. Erase. show which totally blew me away last time you were here.
Thanks for giving us so much of your time here, and also thanks for thirty years of great listening!
SW: Fantastic! Lovely to speak to you, Ken!
Main photo: Hajo Mueller
Steven Wilson will be performing in Brisbane, Sydney & Melbourne in November 2018.
Tickets on sale from: Steven Wilson tickets
The live DVD/BluRay, Home Invasion will be released in November 2018.