On January 15th, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Blackfield) held a listening session for his third solo LP, ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories),’ for the press in New York City. I was fortunate enough to attend the event and speak with him afterward about the record, his past projects, and his various outlooks.
So when we spoke back in July 2011, you were promoting your sophomore LP, ‘Grace for Drowning.’ You said that your first LP, ‘Insurgentes,’ was inspired by the “post-punk” 80s music you grew up listening to, while ‘Grace for Drowning’ was influenced by 70s progressive rock forefathers like King Crimson. In comparison to those two records, how would you classify ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing’ in terms of genre, time period, etc?
I think it’s a continuation of the ‘Grace for Drowning’ approach. The main difference for me—the main development—is that this is a band album. That’s the major difference from ‘Grace for Drowning,” which was made like ‘Insurgentes’ in that it was a true solo record in the sense that I didn’t have a band; I found musicians to play on the tracks, retrospectively, and that worked fine and I’m proud of those records, but by definition they have a less cohesive feel, shall we say, because there’s effectively a different band on every song. This time around, I wanted to basically take what had started with ‘Grace for Drowning’ and put it on the road with the band and then take that band into the studio to make sort of a sequel to that record.
I wanted to write specifically for the musicians that I had in the band, and that’s also key because these compositions are at a higher level in terms of the ability that you need to play them compared to the compositions on ‘Grace for Drowning.’ The reason for that is that I know—having toured with these guys—what they’re capable of, so I actually pushed myself to write music that I myself would have no hope in hell of actually performing! That’s really interesting because one of the things that drives me is the constant need to feel like I’m evolving and trying new challenges, so here was a challenge to write new music for people who are on a higher playing level musically and technically than I am.
I could hear it in my head and then I’d say, ‘Well, how do I get this out into the real world?’ Luckily, with modern computers, you can play one thing at one speed and then speed it up, so I was able to demo things and produce music. I think that’s they key thing for me—this is an extension of the philosophy of ‘Grace for Drowning’ in terms of taking that classic 70s musical vocabulary and fusing it with a bit of jazz and modern recording techniques and digital techniques and giving it to musicians who are used to playing together as a kind of entity.
That sounds very in-depth and calculated. So what inspired the record? What were you listening to as you were writing it?
You know, the funny thing is that one of the things that was very important about ‘Grace for Drowning,’ and I think we talked about this last time, was that I was remixing the King Crimson albums at the time. That has continued, and not just with Crimson but with other bands, like Jethro Tull, and there is definitely a sense of me being immersed more in the world of 70s recording, particularly from that genre. Going inside the recordings and being able to understand a little bit more about how they made those records. We were just talking outside about how ‘Raven’ was recorded live in the studio, and that was a very—for me, in my career, that was a revolutionary thing to do. I’d never done that before and I understood that it was one of the keys to what made those 70s recordings that I loved so much so special. There was a kind of a feeling of being live in the studio, and so that was also an evolution for me.
And what about the lyrical and thematic content of the new record? It deals with spirits and ghosts and the supernatural, right?
Yes. I was reading a lot of supernatural fiction when I started, and when I was writing the music I didn’t have any lyrics or any ideas like that. I wrote “Luminol,” which was the first I wrote, as an instrumental piece, but then I thought, ‘Okay, what am I going to write about?” Like many times in my career, I found things to write about just from whatever I was reading at the time. For example, when I was writing ‘Fear of a Blank Planet,’ I was reading Bret Easton Ellis’ book ‘Lunar Park,’ and that novel very much became the inspiration for the lyrics to that album. This time I was reading a lot of—not what you’d think of as modern supernatural and horror, but in the classical sense like with Edgar Allen Poe, as well as British writers like M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. The funny thing about those supernatural stories is that they’re not obviously horrific; there is more of a sense of brooding dread, and that’s what I like about a lot of classical books and films. I don’t like horror films, per say, but I like those films that have a brooding sense of dread that go through them. That started me writing stories in that tradition—not lyrics, but actual stories. They’ll be printed in the special book edition of the album. And so then those stories lead on to the lyrics.
I’m a huge fan of Ellis. Have you ever read Chuck Palahniuk? He wrote ‘Fight Club,’ among many other novels.
No. I’ve seen the movie, of course, but I haven’t read his work.
He wrote a book called ‘Haunted’ that’s sort of like Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales.”
Yeah, it’s about a bunch of social outcasts telling stories about death and the supernatural, too.
That’s cool. Yeah, and Ellis has always had a sort of supernatural quality, as well. I think he said that ‘Lunar Park’ was his attempt to write a Stephen King book.
You’ve touched upon the supernatural before, too; specifically, I’m talking about ‘Deadwing,’ for which you also wrote a film script. What makes you interested in the supernatural?
Yeah, we did. I suppose I like the supernatural in the more classical sense. I mean, when I was growing up, I was fascinated by ghost photography. You know, photographs of ghosts. I think, like a lot of people, I’m not religious at all; in fact, if anything, I think religion is one of the curses of the human race.
But, like a lot of people, I’m also fascinated by the fact of our own mortality and how to make sense of the fact that we are basically a blip. Our life is but a blip in time, and we have 70, 80, or 90 years if we’re lucky to try to make sense of what the point of life is. If you think along those kinds of lines, this whole issue of mortality becomes key. You only have to look at more heavy metal music and most extreme metal to realize that this is music ultimately designed to appeal to young kids and yet most of it is about mortality and death, you know? So I think that even from a very young age, there is a sense of a kind of attraction to the idea of death and mortality. I think that as you get older that sort of changes and morphs, and for me it’s become an interest in the idea of—not necessarily the literal idea of the ghost, but the idea of the ghost as a representation of what you leave behind.
The impression you make on the world and the people around you. A kind of legacy, and then the ghost becomes a great symbol for that. It also becomes a great symbol for regret, and for me regret is possibly the most tragic of all human emotions. The idea that you’ve somehow not fulfilled what you should have with your life. You haven’t been with the person you’re supposed to be with or you haven’t achieved what you should have with your work. It’s an awful, sad thing, and I think the ghost also becomes a symbol for it. It’s the spirit that refuses to leave because there’s something unfulfilled and undone. I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for so many things.
Yeah, it is. Definitely. So you’re obviously big on special editions and special packaging and basically giving people a reason to purchase the physical product instead of just downloading the music itself.
How did you come up with the deluxe edition for ‘The Raven’?
Well, it was easy, really. Once we had the concept of the ghost stories, it was a no brainer. “Okay, we’re gonna do a book of ghost stories.” I mean, that’s not exactly what we’ve done, though. We do have a book with some stories, but it also has lyrics and illustrations. The idea originally was to make a book that looks like that kind of book that you’d find in the back of an old antique store. Maybe it was written in the early twentieth century or late nineteenth century and it had these wonderful old illustrations. You know, proper drawings; no Photoshop or any of that bullshit. Proper drawings and proper old school ghost stories. The whole concept visually with the stories and lyrics came from there. The book, in a way, was the obvious thing to do.
You’re very much in demand now in terms of remastering vintage progressive rock albums.
Remixing, you mean. Remastering is very different; in fact, I was just saying out there that I don’t have any of my stuff mastered. I hate mastering (laughs).
Oh, my mistake. So how do you decide which albums to remix? Do you pick? Does an artist or label ask you do to it? Can you discuss any upcoming projects?
Um, well all of the above, really. People come to me, or Andy [Leff, manager] and I will have ideas and we’ll approach people. Sometimes musicians come to me, sometimes record companies come to me, and sometimes we approach them. In the case of King Crimson, it was an idea that came from Andy and we approached Robert Fripp about it and it happened. In the case of Jethro Tull, EMI saw how well the King Crimson reissues were doing so they came to me and said, “Would you like to do ‘Aqualung’ for its 40th anniversary?” I haven’t turned down a lot. I’ve turned down a few things, but generally speaking as long as it’s an album I can say I really love, I wouldn’t turn it down. To answer the other part of your question, there’s a lot of stuff coming out but unfortunately I can’t talk about it because it’s not up to me to announce it. It’s up to the record companies and the band.
But yeah, there is more stuff coming in and I think it’s one of those things where the recording companies and the musicians have seen how well received the King Crimson and Jethro Tull reissues were. Also, I think they understand that this is sort of their last chance to sell physical product versions of some of these heritage records. And they are heritage records; these are records that are evergreen classics, but you have to find ways to revamp them to sell them again. That’s what these record companies are doing now, and the surround mix becomes a part of that equation, which is great for me. I love doing it and I’ve learned so much from doing it.
I was very impressed with the 40th anniversary treatment of ‘Thick As A Brick.’
That was fun to do. ‘Aqualung’ was great. I’ve just done XTC’s ‘Nonsuch’ album. I’m a huge XTC fan so it’s great to be working with Andy Partridge. There are other things too, but as I said I can’t tell you about them (laughs).
I always liked their song “Dear God.”
“Dear God” is on the “Skylarking” album. I’d love to do that one. It was produced by Todd Rundgren. I think they’ve got to find the tapes somehow.
Moving onto the Storm Corrosion album, I know that you and Mikael Åkerfeldt sort of went into it with the idea of distancing the project from Porcupine Tree and Opeth. You two recorded it for your own enjoyment and exploration and you kind of rejected the notion of fan expectations. Going in, you guys expected mixed reactions from fans and critics, which is basically what the album received. Looking back now, how do you assess the success of and response to the album?
I’m not really aware of reactions to it, to be honest. There was a time when we said to each other, “Let’s not release it at all.” Then we said, “Let’s just do 500 LPs and not tell anyone that it’s us.” We had to play it for Roadrunner Records because they had Mikael under contract and they got very excited and wanted to release it, so we went along with it. The thing is, I absolutely love the album and Mikael does, too. We’re so proud of it, but in some ways every time you make an album and release it to the world, you are preparing yourself to be shot down in a way that is disheartening. I have to say that the reviews of ‘Storm Corrosion,’ at least in the British Press, were amazing. Much better than I expected. I think it’s an album that probably—it’s one album that you’re either going to get or you’re not going to get. Some people probably think it’s a masterpiece and some people hate it with a vengeance. That’s the sign of a good record to me.
Right. If you please everyone, you probably did something wrong. Something too safe.
Yeah, but I think that the problem with it was that there was so much expectation about what we might do. I don’t remember if we talked about this before, but when people heard that Mikael and I were going to do a record together—in fact, when we had the idea to do it, the idea of doing a heavy record was so obvious that we just knew we couldn’t do it. We went in the complete opposite direction, and of course the moment we did that we knew that some people we going to hate it and be disappointed with it. [Hesitates] But they’re idiots (laughs).
Well, I can definitely see—
No, no, I’m just being facetious. The point is that when you make a record—well, I’ll tell you that one of the great, surreal things about being a musician and an artist who makes records is when you make a record that somebody doesn’t like, they will do their upmost to make you feel like you’ve done something wrong. I’ve done nothing wrong; it just doesn’t appeal to that person.
And that’s absolutely fine. Now, there have been situations where people have made records for the wrong reasons, like they’re trying to appeal to their fans, in which case they deserve to be told off. But if you’re making music purely for your own muse, which Mikael and I are, then there’s no point in coming up to us and saying, “Your new record is very disappointing.” There’s no point! We love the records, so if you don’t like it, that’s not my fault and that’s not your fault. I think that’s one of the strange things, and it’s the same with reviews. You know, as they say, opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got on (laughs), right? And a review is just an opinion. Everyone on the internet who’s ever reviewed an album, almost without exception, has expressed their opinion as a fact.
No one says, “I listened to this album and it’s just my opinion, but I don’t think it’s as good as the last album.” People rarely say it that way; they always say—and I’m the same way—,” I just listened to the new record by Opeth or Steven Wilson and it’s not as good as the last record.” Fact, you know? It’s one of the things that you just have to accept. But to get back to your question, I absolutely adore the record and Mikael does, too.
That’s a good point. I hope you don’t think that I’m one of the naysayers.
Oh, no, no.
I’ve always championed its individuality and separation from what you and Mikael have done previously.
Good, thanks. Another thing is that if you don’t play an album live, you really don’t get a lot of feedback. The only way to do it is to, say, go on Amazon and look at reviews, which I have done, and I’ve seen that it’s either five star reactions or one star reactions. In a way, that seems to be a good sign.
It definitely has a unique sound. Is there ever a point when what you’re doing—be it writing, recording, remixing—goes from being fun and investigative to being an obligatory chore? I mean, you’re commonly thought of as one of the busiest people working in the genre.
Well, not really, because I don’t do things that I don’t—I’m very lucky now in my life because I have had situations in the past where I had to do things for the wrong reasons. I’m very fortunate now that I don’t have to do that. I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t really believe musically was special, but that’s not to say that things don’t become a chore at some point. Like this record? I can’t listen to it anymore. I love the music and I’m incredibly proud of it. I loved making it, but there came a point when I was mixing it that I couldn’t relate to it as music. I could only relate to it as a technical exercise. Like, is the high hat or bass drum too loud? It always happens, pretty much, that you get to the end of a recording process and you can’t really relate to the music in a pleasurable way.
But that’s different than what you’re asking, I think. I wouldn’t do anything, even as a favor, if I didn’t love it.
I remember hearing somewhere that Paul McCartney once said that he wished he could hear ‘Sgt. Pepper’ like everyone else did. He was so close to it for so long that he couldn’t appreciate it like everyone else.
Of course, and again, I think that’s one of the things you have to accept as an artist. Also, you have to realize that you’ll never be able to enjoy your own record or feel as strongly about it as the fans do. I guess that’s normal, though. I think that as an artist you always see the flaws and the things that you’d do differently, and you don’t tend to see the things that work.
Assuming that you are quite busy with all of the projects, what do you do for recreation? When do you sleep?
Well, the thing is that when I work, I work very fast. I think people have this idea that I don’t—I mean I sleep very well (laughs). I go on vacation and I listen to a lot of music and I watch a lot of movies. But when I work, I work fast, and I guess that’s something that comes with experience. Like I kind of know now how to mix records, so when I’m doing one of these remixing projects for a classic album, it usually takes me about a week to do it. It takes me five days to recreate the original stereo mix, which I try to do as faithfully as possible, unless it was just not very good. There have been a couple times where I’ve been a bit more liberated. Usually, if it’s a good stereo mix—like ‘Thick As A Brick’ was a great stereo mix—I try to match it as closely as possible. Then I take a couple of days to create the surround picture. That’s a week of my life, and I think that people think, “Okay, ‘Thick As A Brick’ is coming out, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ is coming out, and he’s not a new album coming out.” They think I did all of these things at the same time. ‘Larks Tongues’ was done in 2010, ‘Thick As A Brick’ was done over a year ago, and it took me about a week to do both.
The fact that they’re all coming out on top of each other is coincidental, but it makes it look like I’ve done nothing but work. Believe me, I have (laughs). I think I make more records than most people and I work more than a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of down time, too.
So the inevitable question, which I hope a thousand other people aren’t also asking you these days, is what is the current state of Porcupine Tree? You guys just released the live set ‘Octane Twisted,’ so it seems to still be an active undertaking.
No plans, no plans particularly. Yeah, the live album came out, although I didn’t really want it to, but I was outvoted. That’s okay, but it’s not our best performance. There’s no plans, which doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen again, but—you know, the thing is, if I said to anyone when they were twenty years old, “You’re going to have the same job with the same people in the same office for your whole life,” they’d be horrified. It’s amazing how many music fans expect—I guess because it is quite normal—you to do the same thing your whole life. That’s not why I got into music, you know? I love doing different things and—well, you know—starting new projects. I don’t mean to put it down, because I love it, but Porcupine Tree was just another project that got more successful than the other ones.
You started it yourself as a solo venture.
Yeah, and for whatever reason it took off and I put a band together and we toured for fifteen years. It kept going and getting bigger and bigger, and it was great and I enjoyed the ride but I felt that on the last record [‘The Incident’], we were starting to get stuck in a rut and I thought, “Okay, it’s time to do something different.” And it’s amazing the kind of horror, gnashing of teeth reaction that it got. But the band hasn’t broken up necessarily, so I’m not interested in making any sort of melodramatic big break-up thing. There are no plans, and I have lots of plans now for this record.
Well, all artists need a break, which usually results in a few solo outputs. I know that Gavin [Harrison] just finished working with Randy McStine on the second Lo-Fi Resistance record, ‘Chalk Lines.’
Yeah, and he’s doing a tour with 05Ric, I think. Colin [Edwin] is always doing stuff and Rich [Barbieri] is going on tour with Steve Hogarth. I mean, they’re all busy (laughs). I’ve got to say that part of the fun of being a musician is working with different people, obviously. I love the guys, but the other thing about being in a band is that you have this very small area where you all agree about the kind of music that you want to make. The good thing about this solo band is that because the guys are basically hired, that is not an issue. I don’t necessarily have to care if Theo [Travis] doesn’t like one of the tunes I’ve written, but in Porcupine Tree, it’s a band and I have to care. Everyone has to like everything we record, and that became quite restricting, actually. With ‘The Incident,’ I think it’s a good record, but I don’t think it was our best, and it was the first time I felt like maybe things are starting to repeat. It was always important to me that Porcupine Tree reinvented itself a lot, and we did.
So many times. ‘In Absentia’ was a reinvention, as was ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ and ‘Stupid Dream.’ I felt that with ‘The Incident,’ honestly, it was like “I don’t know what to do with this band now.” I don’t know what to do with it and I don’t want to make another record just for the sake of it. And I’m only saying that that’s the case now; I may feel differently in a year or two years.
Of course. Well, looking back over your career, do you have a single favorite song that you’ve written? How about one that you’re not as keen on anymore? Last we spoke, I told you that “Heartattack in a Layby” is my pick, and you seemed to agree.
I love that song.
I’ve played it for people while showing them the lyrics and they cried, actually.
Yeah, I really love it. It’s got a lovely idea behind it.
Exactly. The most painful thing is the idea of a lost relationship.
How about ones that you aren’t really happy with, which isn’t to say that you should have any choices, but—
Oh, most of them. Without a doubt. But there are some that really stand out. I guess I tend to like the ballads. They usually mean a lot to me. On ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing,’ I think the title track is one of the best songs that I’ve ever written. I always thought that “Stop Swimming” was very special, and of course “Heartattack in a Layby: is very special. I love “Sleep Together” from ‘Fear of a Blank Planet.” There’s more, but those are some of them. The ones that I’m not happy with are by far the majority. I think it’s one of those things where if there’s a song that you hear back and you don’t absolutely hate it and you can listen to it, you think, “Okay, that’s one of the good ones.” I can’t listen to any of it, really, but the ones that I can listen to and not cringe with embarrassment—usually by default—are the ones where I think, “Okay, that’s a good song.”
It’s good to be proud of at least some of your art.
Sure, sure. One of the other things is that by definition, every time you finish a record or a song, it’s a failure. I don’t wish to sound like some Emo kid (laughs), but you can never really capture in any song or album what you heard in your head. You can’t; you can’t do it with writing or painting, either. So everything is kind of a failure the moment you finish it, and so the songs that I kind of feel less that way about are the special ones.
I find that with my own music. I have an idea and there are a million ways that I could do it so I can never bring myself to settle on a definitive one.
It’s a brave man who will step across the threshold of an idea and actually make it into a reality. You’re setting yourself up for massive disappointment (laughs), and not just for yourself but it’s also that you’ll never get the reaction that you want. Listen, every time I finish an album I want everyone to tell me that it’s the greatest album they’ve ever heard. It’s never happened, you know, but that’s what you want. You’re setting yourself up. The moment you put anything into the real world, you’re setting it up. That sort of brings us back to the Storm Corrosion album.
Well, I can assure you that ‘In Absentia’ had a massive impact on me. It was the first Porcupine Tree album I heard.
Great! Here’s something funny about that album—last week, a French magazine wrote to me about doing an interview. I said, “What do you want to do the interview about? The new album?” They said, “No, we want to talk about the tenth anniversary of ‘In Absentia.’” I said, “Well, I haven’t listened to it since the day I approved the mastering. You guys probably know it better than I do.” And then they said, “Well, what’s your favorite song on it?” And I said, “I can’t…”—well, actually I suppose it’s “Heartattack in a Layby” (laughs). But I told them that I can’t remember because I haven’t really heard them since I finished the record, but I remember thinking that it was a good record. I said to myself, “This is a good record. It’s a reinvention of the band. It’s a good, solid set of songs. There are no weak songs on it.” But my whole recollection of that album is one of nostalgia and retrospective. I always thought that the best Porcupine Tree records are that one and ‘Fear of a Blank Planet,’ but that’s only going on my memory of when I finished it. I might listen back now and think, “Oh, no…”
I still think that ‘In Absentia’ is the best one, honestly, but I think that everything from “Stupid Dream” onward is classic.
I remember thinking that ‘Stupid Dream’ was really good when we did it. I think that I’ve always felt that every other one was good. ‘Stupid Dream’ was great, ‘Lightbulb Sun’ wasn’t; ‘In Absentia’ was great, ‘Deadwing’ was patchy; ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ was great, ‘The Incident’ wasn’t. It’s like every other album was a step forward. That’s the other thing about fans—there’s a particular album that they identify with because of the time of your life or—usually it’s the album that you discovered the band with. No other album will ever quite match up to it. And I know that from experience, too. You keep following the band, waiting and hoping for the same kind of kick, but it’ll never quite come.
I’ve noticed that as well. Well Steven, thanks for taking the time to speak with me again. It was a pleasure. Congrats on the new album. It’s fantastic.
Check back soon for my review of ‘The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories),’ as well as my exclusive interview with Porcupine Tree bassist, Colin Edwin.