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Interview: Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson
29 January 2021

Photo by Andrew Hobbs

During a Zoom video call from his home in North London, Steven Wilson seems to be in a good mood even though it’s the middle of a pandemic and his sixth solo album, The Future Bites (released on January 29), has a distinctly dystopian edge to it. Even though Wilson finished the album before the COVID-19 crisis hit, his themes of modern-day isolation are even more relevant now – and yet, starting with his first solo album, Insurgentes (2008) – as well as the work he did with the band Porcupine Tree from 1987 to 2010 – there’s a haunting beauty to even his saddest lyrics, and an immense power to his genre-bending music. Although he’s often lumped in with the prog rock scene, Wilson has actually been quite adventurous throughout his career, tackling a dizzying range of styles. On The Future Bites, Wilson explores a more electronic-infused sound, from the funky dance beats on “Personal Shopper” to the ethereal, evocative “King Ghost.” The intricate, intelligent tracks should give fans plenty to pore over until Wilson is able to undertake his next world tour.

How are you feeling as you’re approaching the release date for this album?

STEVEN WILSON: It’s slightly surreal because I’m releasing an album into a world where I can’t really promote it in any of the ways I would normally be promoting a record. So I can’t tour, I can’t do TV, I can’t do record store signings where I could meet and engage with the fans. So it feels very strange to be releasing it into this kind of world. Part of me thinks people are stuck at home, they probably want music and they’re waiting to engage with music. And the other part of me thinks, is this really the right time to be releasing an album which is essentially quite negative about the times that we live in? It’s releasing an album about dystopia into a dystopian world, in a sense. It’s odd. I think everyone is feeling the slight sense of disconnect from the world and from the rest of the human race right now, for obvious reasons. I’m very proud of the record. I think in some ways, it’s even more relevant than it would have been if I had released it a year ago. I love the fact that this album, at least to me, feels like it could only exist now. It could only have been made now. That’s not something I can say about all my albums. I think a lot of my albums have tended to have a nostalgic aspect to them, and this one doesn’t have that. I feel it’s an album that sounds completely of the now. And that might mean that it will sound very dated five years from now – that’s kind of a risk you take when you make something that feels very contemporary. But I’d like to think there’s integrity about the music I make that will always transcend that, I hope. So I’m very proud of the record. I say this every time, of course I do, but I feel like it is one of the best records I’ve ever made. Certainly one of the most relevant and contemporary-sounding.

What themes are you expressing on this album?

STEVEN WILSON: It was written right in the middle of the Trump administration and the middle of what we were going through in the U.K. with Brexit. It was a pretty depressing time. I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about the future. I found myself drawn to particular strands, two particular aspects of modern life. The first is this idea of how identity and our sense of self has changed in the age of social media. There was a time when we used to look out with incredible awe and curiosity at the universe, the stars. And now we spend most of our time seeing ourselves reflected back in our iPhone screens, through the prism of social media. Checking how many ‘Likes’ our Instagram post got, how many comments our Facebook post got, how many YouTube views we have. So in a sense, we are now living in an age where the human race, we’ve all become narcissists in a sense. We’re all self-regarding and self-obsessed in a way that we weren’t before social media. And that fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. I really do believe that the Internet and social media has changed the path of human evolution in an incredibly short period of time. We engage with the world in different ways. We engage with other human beings in different ways. We engage with news, music, movies, you name it, all different to the way it was a mere 25 years ago. One of the things I’m scared of is that I don’t think anyone really understands the long-term effects of any of this. How could we? So I’m writing a lot on the album about that. And I’m also writing, in a kind of spin-off from that, about the idea of modern consumerism. We love to consume. I love to consume. It’s fun. But we end up buying a lot of stuff that we don’t need. And so another of the strands on the record is about this idea of e-commerce and this idea that a lot of the time, we’re being manipulated by online algorithms that analyze our data and kind of use it against us to encourage us to buy these things that we really don’t need in our lives. And I speak as someone from the music industry, where this is going on, too. The whole notion of the deluxe edition box set. Which, by the way, I love. I love the projects I’m involved in. But at the same time, I also acknowledge that nobody needs the deluxe edition box set with five CDs of demos or the rare 7-inch that only came out in Guatemala for one week. And it’s not really about the music anymore. It’s about the ownership. It’s about what you tell the rest of the world that defines you as a person. I don’t have a problem with it, but there is obviously the more insidious side of modern consumerism.

Your music has always seemed very complex – you seem to make it hard on yourself that way!

STEVEN WILSON: [laughs] I suppose it is complex, but that’s the only way I know how to make music. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to impress anyone by just picking up an acoustic guitar and strumming and singing a song. I’m not that person. My skill, if you like, it’s putting together these fairly elaborate constructs with a lot of sound design and a lot of production and a lot of quite complex sonic aspects to them. And I love to do that. I think if I have a gift, it’s for that.

How did you come up with such an intricate and distinctive sound?

STEVEN WILSON: I think part of it is, since I was a kid, always having been fascinated by the magic of music and not acknowledging those parameters of, this is jazz, this is progressive rock, this is metal, this is hip hop, this is country. I remember going to school when I was eleven years old, and I found that there were these little tribes of kids. There were the kids who only listened to reggae music. And there were the kids that only listened to metal music. There were kids that only listened to the Mod bands. I couldn’t understand why there were these little cliques – I just loved all the music. I was obsessed with the magic of music. And I think I’ve never changed. My perspective on that has never really altered. I never recognize that idea of listening within a certain set of parameters – so consequently, I never understood the idea of making music within a certain set of parameters, either.

How did you make the leap from being a fan to playing music yourself?

STEVEN WILSON: I fell in love with the idea of making records. At eleven or twelve years old, I would hold a record in my hand – something from my parents’ collection. It might have been [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon, it might have been a Donna Summer record, it might have been the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Whatever it was. I remember holding records in my hand and being in awe of how this piece of magic was somehow made real. And I think very early on without really realizing it, what I’d fallen in love with was the idea of being a producer. I didn’t really fall in love with the idea of being a guitar player or a singer or being a star or any of those things. What I fell in love with was the idea that you could make movies in sound and then press them on a piece of vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and then give that to the world. I was completely enraptured with this idea. That’s what I think I’m still in love with, that idea. That was it for me, falling in love with that idea of being a creator, quite simply.

How did you take the first steps into making that happen?

STEVEN WILSON: In my family’s house, we had an organ, and we had an acoustic guitar. And my dad was an electrical engineer, so he used to make me things. He used to make me little tape recorders and sequencers. He made me a little tape recorder that I could [use to] overdub, like sound on sound, so I could play one thing and then add another thing over the top. He was a genius. I inherited none of his scientific genius. I guess in a way, he fueled my passion for this idea of being a producer, being someone who made records. I was learning things like how to overdub myself when most kids would have been lucky to just have their parents give them a guitar. I had the means to record and overdub and multitrack. It was amazing. Thanks, Dad.

Now you’ve gone on to a very prolific career. How do you stay inspired and not get burned out?

STEVEN WILSON: The simple answer is, I do get burned out and I have slowed down. You’re right, I have made a lot of records – but for example, my previous solo record To the Bone was three and a half years ago. My philosophy has shifted much more to quality rather than quantity. Part of that being very prolific was being so excited about the possibilities of collaboration and different kinds of music. But I’m not proud of all the records I put out. I wish in a way I had been a bit more selective with the music I’ve put out. So I’m trying to be a bit more selective now about what I choose to release into the world. And also, having a family now: I got married in 2019 and I have two step-children now, which is a big life-changing thing for me, so that obviously necessitates giving a lot more time to my personal life than perhaps I used to.

When you first started out as a professional musician, did you foresee that this is how your career was likely to turn out?

STEVEN WILSON: Honestly, when I think of when I started my career 25 years ago, the music industry was so different to the way it is now. I mean, the music industry has changed beyond all conceivable recognition. Forget me, just the music industry as a whole is a completely different thing, and I could never have imagined that we would be where we are right now. That’s part of the fun of the music industry: it does continue to evolve and it changes in unpredictable ways. Rock music is very much marginalized now – perhaps deservedly so. It hasn’t really reinvented itself for the best part of twenty years now, and it’s lost so much ground to urban music and electronic music. Probably rightfully so, because it really didn’t reinvent itself beyond the end of the last century, and it’s paying the price for that now. I could never have envisioned that or expected that, as someone who came from the tradition of rock music.

But now you’re one of those artists who’s credited with helping rock continue to evolve…

STEVEN WILSON: I hope so. I do my thing. I exist in my little bubble and I try my best!

The Future Bites by Steven Wilson comes out on January 29.