Steven Wilson, to those who know him, is probably best known as the Grammy nominated creative force behind the trailblazing, modern-day progressive rock band Porcupine Tree. But he has several other titles under his belt as well.
Ever since the 1990’s, Wilson has built a reputation for himself as a multi-talented songwriter, musician and producer who has also come to be regarded by those in the know as the brightest light carrying on the torch of the progressive (he actually favors the term “conceptual”) rock tradition pioneered in the sixties and seventies by bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, King Crimson and Yes.
If Neil Young is the “Godfather of Grunge,” then Wilson has likewise (and rightfully) earned his place as the “Patriarch of Prog.”
Wilson has also arguably inherited the title of “hardest working man in show business” from the likes of James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. Prior to launching his solo career with Insurgentes in 2009, Wilson spent the better part of two decades juggling multiple projects and bands ranging from the aforementioned Porcupine Tree to Blackfield, No-Man and Bass Communion, covering genres from ambient to electronica; from metal to singer-songwriter oriented pop; and pretty much everything else in-between.
But ever since putting his primary band Porcupine Tree on indefinite hiatus following the release of their sprawling concept album The Incident, Wilson has divided his time between making a string of conceptual solo albums (the most recent of which being 2012’s stunning The Raven That Refused To Sing), and remixing albums for everyone from King Crimson to Jethro Tull. If there is any such a thing as a renaissance man left in popular music, then Steven Wilson is surely it.
His fourth solo album, the equally brilliant Hand. Cannot. Erase, is based on the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman whose strange, unnoticed death (her body remained undiscovered in her flat in London for three years), inspired Wilson to write a series of songs that illustrate a larger metaphor between the irony and isolation of life in the modern-day information age of the internet, smart-phones and social media.
On the eve of its March 3 release in the USA on K-Scope (and world tour to follow), Steven Wilson spoke to us on a variety of subjects, including the new album and tour, the rumors of a Porcupine Tree reunion and his own reluctance to accept the mantle of annoited prog-rock saviour in the modern technological age.
Let’s start by talking about your new album, Hand. Cannot. Erase. Could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the project, and how you came up with the album title?
Sure. The inspiration for the album really started with a story – a true life story – of a woman called Joyce Carol Vincent, who about ten years ago was found dead in her flat in London. She had been there undiscovered for three years.
Now that already is an extraordinary, and kind of shocking thing. But about three years ago there was a documentary film released about Joyce Carol Vincent, and it became even more of an extraordinary story when I discovered information that I hadn’t known before that came through the documentary.
Because I think like a lot of people, when I heard that story in the news, I assumed that this must be, you know, a little old lonely lady. And what transpired through the documentary was that actually nothing could be further from the truth. Joyce Carol Vincent was a young, attractive, popular woman.
So, the question of course that immediately rises in your mind is how on earth could someone like this become so isolated? And that, really to me, became a symbol of what it means to be living in the 21st century. Living in the age of the internet, living in the age of the mobile phone, and specifically living in the age of all this technology in the heart of a major city. When I thought about it, I could begin to understand how something like this, could happen. Because I think in the 21st century if you really want to disappear…if you want to be invisible…you wouldn’t go live in the country where everybody knows everyone’s business. You would go to the heart of the metropolis. And you will become invisible.
That’s what really struck me about this true life story. So she became, if you like, a kind of basis for me creating this fictional character who would be the foundation of my story.
So, how does that tie in to the album title, Hand. Cannot. Erase.?
Well, you know what? I don’t want to say too much about the album title. But I’ll answer your question, if I may, by explaining why I don’t want to answer your question.
I think one of the things about album titles is of course, you have to give your album a title. And I know that. Everyone has to give their album a title. But in a way, it’s an unfortunate thing to have to give a title to a project like this. Because in a way, you’re saying to your audience, this is what the album is all about.
Now, I could have called the album “The Loneliness Of Living In The City.” I could have called it that, because it is about that. But it is also about many, many other things. It’s about the internet. It’s about isolation. It’s about childhood, it’s about nostalgia. It’s about technology, it’s about social networking. It’s about all of these things too. So, in a way, giving a title to the album is too specific and too literal. It’s unfortunate, I feel.
So I’ve compromised by giving it a title that I think is ambiguous. It does have a meaning to me. But I don’t want to be too explicit in telling you what that is. I’d rather you kind of have your own interpretation of what that title might mean to you, given the knowledge of the story and the background of the story.
So basically, you just don’t want to give too much away there…
Yeah, I like the fact that the title has a certain mystery to it.
You mentioned isolation. That seems to be a recurring theme in your work, particularly in songs like “Sentimental,” “Drive Home” and on the new album, a song like “Perfect Life.” Is that something that is intentional on your part? Is it something that comes from a more personal perspective?
You know what? It’s not conscious, but I think every writer – whether you’re writing books, or film scripts, or songs, or whatever – tends to have certain themes that they return to time and time again. One of the things that I do return to time and time again is certainly a sense of feeling slightly out of depth in the modern age. You know, the 21st century, and with technology and all of that stuff.
Now, to be fair, that’s a subject that comes up time and time again with conceptual rock albums going right back to the sixties with albums like Tommy; with OK Computer by Radiohead; and albums like Dark Side Of The Moon in the seventies. All of these albums I think are doing the same thing. Which is, reflecting a sense of a kind of alienation from the modern age, and from the age of technology. And of course, the age of technology changes every decade, it becomes a very different place. So, I’m reflecting my time if you like.
But also, what I think comes up a lot in my music is a nostalgia for innocence. A nostalgia for being a child, a nostalgia for a time in my life, or in the life of my characters, when everything seemed kind of simpler, and full of wonder. That nostalgia has a very interesting sort of paradox going on within it. Because, nostalgia by nature is recording something that you have a really happy memory about.
But at the same time, sort of acknowledging to yourself that moment is gone, and you can never really recapture that moment again. The idea of nostalgia fascinates me, and I do have a lot of nostalgia for my childhood.
But it’s fascinating because it has that kind of bittersweet quality. And a song like “Perfect Life” is absolutely tapping into that poetry of nostalgia.
It really does tap into that quality, especially when the lyrics reference the characters listening to mix tapes of Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil…
Well of course, and when I’m writing those I’m writing completely about myself. That’s the thing. You create the fictional character, but you flesh that character out, and you make that character believable by referencing your own experience and your own history.
So, while we are talking about nostalgia, I have to ask. Since you’ve so often been described as the modern day standard bearer of “prog” or progressive rock, how do you feel about that label? Do you ever feel at all like a man out of time?
You know, I feel fairly ambivalent about it. The one thing I would say, is that I do acknowledge that my music is in that tradition, of those bands. I prefer to call it “conceptual rock.” But, the word “progressive” is a bit of a misnomer these days, anyway. Because I don’t think you can be truly innovative or “progressive” in music anymore. Everything has been done. What we’re really doing is kind of going over similar ground that has been gone over by bands in the past. But trying to do it with as much of my own personality and experience into it, so that it does seem somehow fresh again. So I am fairly ambivalent about this.
But I also have to acknowledge to myself that a lot of my music comes from a very different place. I mean, some of the music on this new record comes from my love of electronic music. Some of it comes from my love of pure pop music. Some of the music comes from my love of metal, ambient music and singer-songwriter stuff. Although I’ll concede that the overall effect is very much one of a conceptual rock album, I think the individual, conceptual parts of it come from a very wide spectrum of different styles of music, all of which are parts of my own listening experience and influences. So, it’s not a word I would use in relation to myself. But it’s a word that other people use in relation to my music. I don’t deny it. But at the same time I don’t necessarily use it in promoting myself.
Speaking of all these different styles, you’ve had a long history over your career of juggling multiple projects, that cover all of these different genres we’ve been talking about, sometimes all at once. But in the past couple of years, you’ve settled into this nice little groove of doing your solo records, while at the same time producing and remixing things for other artists. Has this been more satisfying for you?
Yes, very much so.
I think I got to a stage about five years ago where I felt I was doing a lot of things just “okay,” rather than doing any one thing particularly well. So, I kind of started to feel that I had to draw a line under a lot of those things, most of which had been activated in the nineties. You know, No-Man, Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, Bass Communion…
So, now I wanted to get into the real deal. I wanted to start what, in a sense, I had always intended to start. Which is this idea of being in control, being the director, being the auteur…being a solo artist.
Actually, that’s kind of what I wanted to be when I started, but I couldn’t be. I didn’t have the confidence, I didn’t have the resources. So I ended up collaborating with anyone that would work with me, basically. But I finally found myself in a position where I could choose who I want to work with, and I could choose which direction I wanted the music to go in with each record. And I don’t want to answer to anyone else, or compromise in any way. So, that really has all fed into where I’m at right now with my solo project. I still enjoy collaborating. But for me, the solo projects will be the main thrust in my career from now on. No question.
In the past couple of years, you’ve been able to work with a lot of the legends you grew up with, people like Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett and Alan Parsons. So what has it been like for you to work with some of your musical heroes?
Well, most of them have turned out to be very humble, very interesting, very intelligent and lovely, warm people, with one or two exceptions which I wont say (laughs). It’s always lovely to discover that the people that you kind of look up to, are actually very down-to-earth people. Actually, when it comes down to it, they don’t really understand where the music comes from either, you know? It’s a tendency of fans – the people who listen to and enjoy music – to bandy around words like genius and all this stuff. And it’s been applied to me as well. But we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re just doing what comes naturally.
It’s extraordinary to me to be able to turn around to someone like Robert Fripp or whoever, and say “how’d you create this music?” Well. I don’t know, it’s our jobs to create music, and we just do it in a very intuitive and unconscious way. They’ve all turned out to be lovely to work with, and obviously the greatest compliment of all is that they consider me to be on the same level as them. I’m one of them now, so that’s the ultimate compliment. Because the people that were my idols when I was growing up have as much respect for me as I have for them. So, that’s incredible, yeah.
Are there any other legends you have plans to work with in the near future?
I’ve done lots of stuff over the past year that has yet to come out. This year, obviously I’m very committed to my solo album and to touring the record. So, I don’t think I’ll be doing much in the way of collaboration or remix work this year. But there are a lot of albums in the pipeline that have yet to come out. I’ve remixed albums for Roxy Music, XTC, Tears for Fears, and another album for Yes. We’ve already done Close To The Edge, The Yes Album and Relayer. But there’s another album, Fragile, that I think is coming out next.
So, what can we expect on the upcoming tour for the new album?
Well, you know the album is obviously going to be the foundation of the new show and we’re going to play almost all of the new record in sequence. So it’ll be in the same order that the tracks appear on the album. We’ve got some fantastic new films that have been made for many of the songs. You know, it’ll be a great multi-media experience with world class musicians and some fantastic visuals. There will also be a couple of songs from the previous record (2012’s The Raven That Refused To Sing).
Here’s the question that you probably didn’t want me to ask, but since there are a lot of fans who want to know, I’m going to anyway. There have been a number of recent rumors about a Porcupine Tree reunion. Is it going to happen or not?
I mean, listen, I’m not ruling out a Porcupine Tree reunion. But there’s no plans for one. I don’t know where these rumors have come from. I’ve just made a new solo record, you know. I’m going to be on the road for the next year, and I’ve already got ideas for what I might do with the next record. So, there’s no plans. I’m not ruling out it happening one day. But, I mean these days, it would very much have to be a side project to my solo career. I think people need to get it out of their minds that my solo career is somehow a side project to Porcupine Tree, when the opposite is now certainly true and will remain that way.
*Article first published at Blogcritics.