Art as a mirror
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2012 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Steven Wilson’s second solo album Grace for Drowning reflects a restless, uncompromising creative spirit. Best known as the leader of prog-rockers Porcupine Tree, the multi-instrumentalist, composer and vocalist has created an epic tour de force. The album is informed by ‘70s progressive rock and jazz traditions, filtered through an expansive musical worldview that incorporates a vast array of other genres. Ambient, folk, pop, metal, and classical are just a few of the other influences that abound. The album’s all-star cast of contributors also speaks volumes about the manifold forms explored. Steve Hackett, Trey Gunn, Tony Levin, Theo Travis, and Jordan Rudess all bring their signature, diverse approaches to the table.
Wilson and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt are also about to release Storm Corrosion, a collaboration that will surprise longtime fans of both musicians. While their perceived shared common ground is progressive metal, the album offers a collection of minimalist, hypnotic, acid-folk-inspired songs, occasionally infused with wild and unexpected percussive and dark rock detours.
In addition, the ever-prolific Wilson also has a forthcoming live album and DVD from No-Man, his longstanding duo with singer-songwriter Tim Bowness. Titled Love and Endings, it offers fresh takes and even reinventions of No-Man tracks from across its career, as well as “Beaten by Love,” a previously-unreleased song dating back to the formative days of the act. Another current Wilson release is his ambient alter-ego Bass Communion’s Cenotaph. The record takes Bass Communion in a new direction by combining its drone-based approach with pulsing rhythms. Wilson also continues his work as a sought-after surround sound remixer, which has seen him transform classic albums by Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Caravan into immersive audio experiences.
Wilson is about to hit the road for the second leg of the Grace for Drowning tour. Accompanying him for the ride is a group of celebrated instrumentalists, including saxophonist Theo Travis, keyboardist Adam Holzman, drummer Marco Minnemann, bassist Nick Beggs, and guitarist Niko Tsonev.
Describe the creative process behind Grace for Drowning.
I approached it the way I approach all my records, which is I demo everything fairly elaborately. The difference this time is that I allowed a lot more space for accidents. Normally, when I wrote for Porcupine Tree or my first solo album, I made the arrangements quite tight. If I couldn’t think of something to do or nothing interesting was happening when I was in the studio writing music, I’d move on to the next idea. It was as simple as that. With Grace for Drowning, I took a different approach. I said to myself “Look, you know what? Let’s let this riff, bass line, drum pattern, or whatever it is just run for two or three minutes. I’m not going to worry about it getting boring, because I’m going to bring in some great musicians and let them blow.” And that’s exactly what I did. For example, on “Raider,” there are a few places in that song where there are long passages of vamping that have Theo Travis playing long flute and sax solos. Of course, I didn’t have those solos when I was working on the composition. I disciplined myself to not plan out the structures too much and allow for things to happen during the recording process. That brought forward the spirit of improvisation and jazz into the music, as well as the spiritual qualities. The soloists had the opportunity to express themselves without the restrictions of tight arrangements in which they might be told “You have eight bars here to say what you want to say.” For this album, as far as I was concerned, if they wanted to play over 54 bars or even 100 bars, they could. I wasn’t going to cut them off.
Elaborate on what spirituality means to you.
In this context, spirituality means something that comes directly from the heart or soul without any kind of intellectual process getting in the way. When you bring in a jazz musician or any soloist used to improvisation, ideally you say “I want you to say something here. Speak in the voice of your instrument and tell us a story.” By their nature, jazz musicians don’t intellectualize what they play beforehand, and for me, that’s what makes their contributions more spiritual. That’s what I love most about jazz. It’s almost like there’s no barrier in place between you and the voice of the instrument or performer. That’s something that’s been lacking for me in a lot of my work over the last 10 years. I didn’t really go there previously because it’s not something I’m good at. I’m not a great improviser. I’m more of an architect. I like to plan things out and structure them, and then put them together. With Grace for Drowning, I was moving into the next phase of my creativity, which is a balance between me as a producer, editor or architect, and being able to draw on musicians that are more spiritual in how they approach music.
I suppose as a catch-all, you could say “spiritual” just means “done for the right reasons.” What I mean by that is there is no attempt on this album to fit the music into a specific market or genre, or appeal to the existing base, managers or record companies. I’m not suggesting I’ve ever done that, because I’m pretty much incapable of doing that. [laughs] I think I have a willful streak in me in that whatever I do, I have to do it in a way that ultimately pleases me. So, being spiritual in that sense is a need to get in touch with my own soul to fulfill my own creative needs.
The music industry is full of people that are clearly not being fulfilled by their work. They do things for reasons that are perhaps different from when they started or when they first fell in love with the whole creative process. There are plenty of people doing it for the same reason as when they fell in love with music—I’m not suggesting I’m unique in that respect. But the industry all too often crushes people into thinking they have to make music to please other people. That situation is the antithesis of spiritual music. The bottom line is spirituality means something that touches you and can touch other people as well. It’s the idea that art is a kind of mirror. You create something in a very selfish way and then when you release it into the world, it becomes a mirror. If other people see themselves reflected back in what you’re doing, then there is a sense of touching people. Touching people means making people understand that they’re not alone in feeling the emotions they’re feeling. In that sense, spiritual music is about making people feel they are part of a collective consciousness. None of the things we feel in this world are unique to us, no matter how bad or good they may feel.
Provide some insight into where you’re going with your third solo album in progress.
The third album represents the first time I’ve written a solo album for a specific group of musicians. The first and second albums were made very much as solo albums with “solo” underlined. I wasn’t writing with a particular group of musicians in mind. I would write the music and then think “Maybe I can get this person to play on it. Maybe we have a flute player or an orchestra.” This time around, I’m writing for my wonderful live group. The music I wrote for Grace for Drowning took on a completely different life with these musicians playing it live. No matter how pleased you are with what you do in the studio, no matter how definitive you think those recordings and performances are, a great group of musicians can prove you wrong time and time again. And they did prove me wrong, every night. There was something special and new in the way they played the songs. One of the curses of going out and touring is you wish in a way you could record the songs now, knowing what you know about how these guys play them. So, for the next album I’m writing for those guys. It’s going to be a tighter record than Grace for Drowning. It’s going to be a bit less spacious, a bit more up, and arguably a bit more progressive. It’ll pick up more on the progressive jazz crossover tendencies of Grace for Drowning and go further in that direction.
What’s the timeline for the next solo album?
It’s not going to be until next year. I’m in no rush because there’s a lot of promotion still to be done for Grace for Drowning in terms of getting the record to people who haven’t discovered it. We’ll be touring it for the next six months at least. We’re also going to film a Blu-Ray DVD on the next tour to document the current repertoire and lineup. I’m writing with recording in mind for late summer or autumn, with a view to releasing the album in Spring 2013. So, it’s still a long way off. I’m a great believer that when you feel inspired, you should take advantage of the opportunity. I know some people think I’m an endless supply of music, but I’m not. I go through periods when I have nothing coming out and nothing to say. Right now, I feel inspired, so I’m striking while the iron is hot.
Tell me what you go through when you hit one of those challenging periods.
I get into periods when I think everything I come up with is something I’ve already done. I think that’s the main obstacle as you get older and you have more work behind you. There can be a sense that there is less for you to do in the future that you haven’t already done. That’s stating the obvious. I’m not someone who wants to repeat himself. No matter how good the music is in terms of quality, execution or composition, if it’s not something fresh or new, it’s kind of boring to me. I think that’s the fear I have: that I’ll get to the studio one day and think “Well, there’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left I want to do.” And that does happen, but it happens for relatively short periods of time. It’s never been something that’s prevailed for more than a few weeks or months at the worst.
I’m able to solve these problems in two ways. First, I’ll go out and find new people to work with. One of the reasons I feel so inspired right at this point in time is because I love how the guys in my band play and what they can do. The second way is to just go and listen to music. I think people underrate the importance of listening. I’m very much a believer that lots of the artists we consider to be past their peak stop surprising us because they actually stop listening and being inspired by music. That usually happens when people have families. A lot of musicians produce fantastic work in their 20s that’s incredibly creative and prolific. By the time they get to 30, they get married and have kids. Suddenly, the music starts to get more predictable. I think that’s because they become focused on other things and the music becomes a job as opposed to being a vocation. That’s never happened to me. I don’t have a family. I’m not interested in having a family. Some people might think that’s very tragic and sad. I don’t. It’s not for me. I’m still very much actively involved in discovering new music. I love discovering new music and I find that feeds back directly into my own work. That also holds true for books and film.
You surprised people by taking out first-rate production and a group of A-list players on your first solo tour. Describe the risks and rewards of that approach.
The obvious risk is financial. I lost a lot of money on the first tour, but I knew I was going to lose a lot of money. And I’m going to lose a lot more money on the next tour as well. In a sense, that’s the least of my considerations, although I have to be a little bit careful. I’m not a bottomless pit of money. The other risk is an artistic one—the sense that it could have been an artistic disaster. It’s one thing to go out and get top musicians and hire a fantastic sound system, projectors, and have films made, but it wasn’t until the very first show that I realized it was actually going to work. That’s when I learned it was going to be the sum of its parts and perhaps greater than the sum. I initially wondered “What if it doesn’t come together?” But I could not see the point of going out and doing a solo tour under any other terms.
There would be no point in going out and doing a solo tour without bringing to it the same level of ambition I brought to the solo albums. The albums aren’t stripped down “Steven Wilson with his piano and acoustic guitar” efforts. I guess some people would have expected me to do a singer-songwriter solo album, but obviously they aren’t that. I think it would have been equally easy for me to go out and undertake a tour with a similar approach to Peter Hammill—you know, go out and with a piano and acoustic guitar and play a few Porcupine Tree songs, a few Blackfield songs, and some solo songs. That’s not for me. I wanted to go out and do something which would eclipse everything I had done before, including Porcupine Tree. In a way, I wanted to compensate for the fact that there was a sense out there that this was merely a side project of some kind, when it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t from the beginning. I knew the solo career was going to arguably be the most important thing I would ever do. It took me almost 20 years before I felt ready to do it. I learned so much in those 20 years from doing various projects, some of which were solo works. Bass Communion is a solo project. Porcupine Tree was a solo project when I started. It became a band later on. In a sense, it took me 20 years to go out and say “This is a solo project and I’m going to do it under my own name. I’m going to bring in every single aspect of my musical personality under one umbrella, into one project.” When the time came to do the tour, the last thing I wanted was to go out with anything less than 100 percent commitment to the presentation, production, musicians, and overall quality of the shows. And it worked really well. It worked better than anyone could have expected it to, including myself. That’s why I’m carrying through to the next tour and beyond.
How are you able to sustain losing money from tour to tour?
I just announced a live CD from the first tour called Catalogue/Preserve/Amass, which is an attempt to get back some of the money I lost on it and also to finance the upcoming tour. So, the answer is I put my money where my mouth is. I’ve made some good money over the last couple of years doing the remix work and through Porcupine Tree. The last Porcupine Tree album cycle did very well for us. Now, I’m putting that money back into something I really want to spend money on. I didn’t get into the music business to make money. I got into it because I fell in love with the romantic notion of doing something remarkable and magical. I still feel that way. When I was a kid, I spent all my pocket money on albums. When I was a bit older, I spent it on duplicating tapes and sending them out to record companies and magazines in the hopes that something would happen. I’m still in that position, though the stakes are higher and there’s more money involved. I’m still in the situation in which the money I earn is being put back into something I love.
The simple answer to your question is that merchandise and live CD sales are going to help. I do believe the project will reach a point at which it’ll begin to break even, which is exactly what happened with Porcupine Tree. We toured for about five years losing money left, right and center. It wasn’t until the second Deadwing tour that we looked at the books and realized we actually broke even. That was a momentous day. I guess people might not believe that, but it’s true. We were losing colossal amounts of money. If we hadn’t been signed to Lava/Atlantic, we never would have been able to do it. Finally, we got to the point where people had gone away from the shows excited and came back with their friends the next time. I think the same will happen with the solo career.
Selling deluxe editions has also helped finance your work in a significant way. Describe how that model works.
Those really help. God knows I’ve spoken enough about the negative aspects of the Internet, but of course there is a massive positive side as well, particularly for people like myself who do rely on being able to interact with and go directly to the fan base. One of the things we did with Porcupine Tree that I have also done with my solo records is do these deluxe editions. They are very expensive to make, I’ve got to tell you. It’s not like I’m just selling these at high prices for the sake of it. However, if you can sell 3,000-4,000 of those directly to fans mail order, without any record company or distributor in between taking their cut, you can effectively finance projects that way. Marillion has been doing this since the late ‘90s. They get 10,000 fans to buy their album in advance, directly, and then they finance the whole thing. That’s a fantastic way to use the Internet to speak to fans and sustain a career which then doesn’t have to compromise artistically. I think you see more and more artists now doing that, and as they do, the music becomes more and more pure. The artists are no longer compromising for the sake of mass appeal. They become able to rely on a smaller, more dedicated group of fans who appreciate what they do. The special editions really appeal to that kind of fan. I speak as a fan myself. I love it when the artists I admire do deluxe editions, because you feel like you’re going out and buying a beautiful painting or print—something really special you can cherish. It’s a piece of art, rather than a piece of software. That’s a reason I think vinyl has come back. People have realized the difference between a CD and a piece of vinyl in a beautiful deluxe gatefold sleeve is the difference between a piece of software and a piece of art. I think the special editions are the zenith of that approach.
What can people expect from the forthcoming leg of the Grace for Drowning tour?
This is a spectacle. It’s a very visual show. The band is fantastic. Top-class musicians. They’re amazing. There are a number of visuals involved. There are multiple screens, new films, props, and even costumes, dare I say it. There’s also a quadraphonic sound system. There’s no support band. When you come into the auditorium, there is already something happening. The idea is that I want the whole show to be immersive from the moment you walk in to the moment you walk out. There are things happening the moment you walk in. And there are things happening after the show. These things aren’t part of the show, but are part of the overall audio-video experience.
You totally defied expectations with Storm Corrosion. It’s a minimalist, spacious album unlike anything you’ve done before. Tell me what you sought to achieve when making it.
I’ve absolutely no idea what we were going for. We literally walked into a studio and started to make music. We didn’t think about what we wanted to do. We didn’t intellectualize it at all. It was effortless. It wasn’t self-conscious. No decisions were made about what direction to go in. The album began to have a feeling of shape and style all on its own. All I can say is it was a direct product of a couple of things. Number one, when Mikael and I get together, there is obviously an expectation that we will do a particular kind of record. In this case, there was an expectation that we would make a progressive metal album. We’re both bloody-minded enough to know that if that’s the expectation, then we’re going to do the opposite. Secondly, There was a feeling that we were collaborating on something new. There was no precedent because it was a brand new project. This was our first album and we could set the tone any way we like. There was no Storm Corrosion album before this one and that was totally liberating.
There was also the sense that we could explore our more esoteric tastes in music. In Mikael’s case, that might be bands like Comus. In my case, that might be people like Scott Walker, Talk Talk and Steve Reich. We meet on a lot of those things anyway. It’s also very encouraging to be in the room with somebody with whom you feel you can suggest anything without them laughing you down or saying “You can’t do that. That’s ridiculous.” It was quite the contrary. We egged each other on. The more ridiculous, avant-garde or willfully obscure the idea, the more the other person would encourage the other. That’s a wonderfully creative situation to be in. It’s not something I have a lot. I have it with Tim Bowness in No-Man and I have it with Mikael in Storm Corrosion.
You mentioned the Comus influence. There’s a distinct acid-folk element to the Storm Corrosion album. Tell me why that direction appeals to you.
We both like that stuff very much. It’s a tradition that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years to the earliest folk songs. They were incredibly dark, depressing things. There’s the tradition of murder ballads—traditional folk songs like “The Unquiet Grave” or “Long Lankin” which are basically about death and people being haunted by the ghosts of their loved ones or people they murdered. This stuff is much darker than most contemporary music would consider to be dark. It’s much more about deeply-rooted fears, paranoias and superstitions at a time when life expectancy was very short. The songs reflected a fear of mortality, the specter of death, the grim reaper, ghosts, haunting, and the afterlife. I’ve always loved ghost stories. I’m talking about traditional ghost stories like The Monkey’s Paw and Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Those seem very ancient in a way in how to look at primal fears of death, mortality and haunting. I think you hear that in the music of bands like Comus and Scott Walker. A lot of the music on Storm Corrosion was made after we watched movies that you would put in a similar category as those stories. So, I think you’re right, there is that flavor that goes through the album.
Do you find yourself often confronting these sorts of fears yourself?
Who doesn’t? I believe the curse of the human race is the knowledge of death. It’s why many people are unhappy a lot of the time. We are aware of our own impending death. No-one has managed to prove to me satisfactorily that animals are also aware of death. I think human beings are unique in that we are aware of our own mortality and it casts an incredible shadow over our whole existence. If we’re not happy, we measure our unhappiness against the fact that we have a finite amount of time on Earth in order to be happy. I would say that’s why we invented the myth of religion and God—to try and come to terms with the fact that we are mortal. We invented this whole kind of mythology and fairy tales about the afterlife and God. It’s all designed to make ourselves feel better and provide comfort. Now, that’s not the only thing we’ve done in order to get comfort. Alcohol, drugs, and one could even argue culture itself, are all things done to distract form being reminded about our own mortality. The irony with art is that a lot of it does the opposite. It reminds us exactly of our own mortality. I love that. It’s what draws me to lots of music—the whole spirituality thing, and sense of mortality, and that sense of the tragedy that is the gift of life. The gift of life is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a tragic thing. Life is but a blip. It’s just a moment, really. You have 80 years or so, maybe less, maybe more, to try and make some kind of sense of this random gift of life—this strange, cruel blip in time that is your life, your ego and your consciousness. Many years ago, I wrote an album called Signify for Porcupine Tree. The whole idea was to look at the ways we try to create some significance for our own life. So, even in my 20s, I was obsessed with that—the idea of making some kind of mark.
Are you an atheist?
Yes. I guess I am in some ways your archetypal atheist. I think the whole myth of religion is absolutely absurd. I say this with the caveat that I understand it brings happiness to people who would otherwise be unhappy. There is comfort in it for people who would otherwise be tortured by their own existence and all that stuff. I appreciate those reasons and arguments, but at the end of the day, I’m afraid it’s just a silly fairy tale that mankind has dreamed up because of our fear of death. It’s as simple as that. It seems so obvious to me that’s why we created this myth. Religion, lest we forget, is a relatively new thing. You can go back as far as the Stone Age to see that man has always worshiped something, such as the sun. But the contemporary idea of religion has been around for less than 2,000 years. I’m speaking as someone that grew up with the idea that if you’re going to be religious, you’re gong to be Christian. Well, the Bible was written 200-300 years after the events it supposedly depicts. That’s certainly true for the New Testament and The Gospels. People were employed by politicians and leaders of the church to write it and that says it all to me. I’ve done a lot of reading and research about religion, because it’s something that fascinates me. What fascinates me is the compulsion or need for many to believe in this nonsense. A great deal of us seem to have this need to fall back on this crutch of faith and belief. People say to me “Well, it’s all a matter of faith. You don’t need proof.” Well, faith for me in that sense becomes a synonym for believing a lie and that’s no explanation at all.
Are you considering a Storm Corrosion tour?
No. It would be tough to pull off. It might be the kind of thing that works in seated theaters, maybe, together with a string quartet. It’s one of those things we’re not thinking about. We’re not looking beyond the release of this album. Mikael and I are both out on tour with our own things for most of the rest of the year anyway. If there was going to be a tour, it would be something we would look at much, much later on. We’d want to gauge the reaction to the album first and cross that bridge when we came to it.
No-Man’s Love and Endings, a new live album and DVD, is about to be released. Why put out another live No-Man project so soon after 2009’s Mixtaped?
It wasn’t something we gave a lot of thought to. Tim Bowness was very keen for us to get back together last October to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Burning Shed label and store. Originally, we were going to get together to do two or three songs, and it became more like seven or eight songs. On that night, we thought “We should record this because it’s a kind of one-off event.” We did and we had a great show. It was a very magical evening. When we listened back to the tapes, we thought they sounded great. We decided we should release it, perhaps as a download. Then we thought “No, it would be nice to do a physical product.” These things have a way of escalating naturally. So, what started out as two or three songs become a live album. I also think Tim was keen to make amends for Mixtaped, which he felt wasn’t his best performance. He had a cold. We fixed it up and it sounds fine, but I think there was a sense that this is the way we would have liked that performance to have gone. When you have pressure on a performance, it never lives up to the expectation. When there is no pressure, chances are it will exceed your expectations. On this particular live recording, things are much more relaxed and vibrant. It’s got much more flesh and bone to it. It feels more natural. I think Tim is particularly keen for this to be available as an alternative to Mixtaped. There’s no doubt that it’s a much better representation of the band.
What does the future hold for No-Man?
I don’t know. We have no plans at all, just like Porcupine Tree. That doesn’t mean anything, though. I think people read too much into statements like that. We have no plans, but I’m sure we will work together again. That’s all I can say.
You recently announced that you’re phasing out of Blackfield. Tell me about that decision.
That decision is the exception that proves the rule, because No-Man and Porcupine Tree are things I’m sure I will always come back to. Blackfield felt like something I wanted to step out of for a couple of reasons. Number one, Aviv Geffen is incredibly ambitious for the project and he has every right to be. But in order to do what he wants to do with Blackfield requires full-time commitment. For example, he wanted to make another record right now, which he’s doing. And he wants to go back out on tour. I said “There’s no way. I want to do my solo tour and get back with Porcupine Tree. Maybe in two or three years I can do that.” He said “Well no, that’s not fair.” And he’s quite right. I said “The best thing to do is I’ll help you make the record, but you need to put something in place so Blackfield can continue as a full-time concern without me holding you back.” I had to talk him into it. I believe it’s in his best interest. I certainly didn’t want to be in a position in which I felt guilty for holding him up. So, this was a conscious decision to step out of something in order to give Blackfield more of a chance of longevity and success.
In America and Europe, your involvement is what drew a lot of people to Blackfield. What should listeners understand about the band as it moves into its next chapter?
I think that was true to begin with. Time will tell how much that is true in the longer term. People have tended to overestimate my role in the music. For example, I had very little to do with the last Blackfield album. Aviv wrote all but one of the songs and I really just got involved during the recording and mixing process. We went out and toured it together, but really, it was Aviv’s record. I sang a bunch of the songs, which I’m not going to do this time, which is a major change. It would be a mistake for me to sing a lot of the songs on the record because then people would go out and see the tour and expect the singer who sang them in the studio to sing them live. This time, Aviv is getting a whole bunch of other people in, some of whom I think he’s planning to take on tour with him. Some great things are happening with the album. I think what people like about Blackfield, whether they realize it or not, is the sound of Aviv’s songs and his approach. They’ll realize that more when they hear the new record. It sounds very much like a quintessential Blackfield album. I have very little involvement with it.
You were just in the studio working on the forthcoming Blackfield album. What did you contribute to it?
I’m still helping Aviv. I’m doing a bunch of guitar parts. I sing one song on the record. I helped him arrange some of the backing vocals. I’m acting more in a consultant role. I suggested certain singers and discussed with him about who would be right for the album. I still feel quite protective about the legacy of Blackfield, so in that respect I’m still there. But I think it’s important for people to get used to the idea of Blackfield existing without my 100 percent participation. That’s the way it’s got to be without getting another Blackfield album for many years. I don’t think that’s fair to Aviv or fans of Blackfield.
The last Bass Communion album Cenotaph went into new territory by offering a pulse in addition to the drone. What motivated you to break from Bass Communion tradition on this one?
It just sounded good. [laughs] There’s always been a thing in my mind with Blackfield that says “There’s no point in making the same record twice.” Similarly, with Bass Communion, I looked for new ingredients for the latest album. The previous record Molotov and Haze was all about guitar and laptop. Pacific Codex was all based on recordings of gongs and metal structures. Cenotaph is all based on samples of old 78 rpm records. They’re mostly classical. I’ve processed, sampled and mutated them in various ways to create a very scratchy, ghostly feel. I tried to create the sense of music that’s beaming in from another age—something that sounds ancient, but at the same time modern. That’s why I’ve been drawn to these old 78 rpm records. I also experimented with the idea of the heartbeat. I’ve always loved what’s called intelligent techno music, which is very repetitive and hypnotic. I’m talking about people like Plastikman or Wolfgang Voigt. It’s minimal techno, but very intelligent minimal techno. It’s a musical approach I’ve never really explored myself, yet it’s one of the styles of music I love more than anything else. I’ve always loved the slightly ominous, brooding, heartbeat pulse that goes through a lot of dark techno music. In a way, Cenotaph is an attempt to combine the world of scratchy, low-fi Bass Communion drone music with an ominous, brooding heartbeat pulse. It didn’t work on all the tracks, but it worked on three of them. There’s one piece I left completely ambient.
Another recent surprise is the news that you’ve mixed Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 2, the sequel to the famous Jethro Tull album. Describe your interest in participating in that project.
It was a natural development after having mixed the original Thick as a Brick album into surround, as well as doing a new stereo mix. While we were working on that for EMI, Ian said to me “I’ve written Thick as a Brick 2.” I said “That’s interesting.” He told me about this very interesting concept of what would have happened to Gerald Bostock, the eight-year-old kid that supposedly wrote the lyrics, originally. He said it looks at what path his life would have taken. It sounded like a really interesting concept. But I’ll be perfectly honest, part of me also was very skeptical that he could pull it off. There’s always a danger in doing a sequel and it doesn’t just apply to music but to movies and books—it can never live up to the expectation if the original is an established classic, as Thick as a Brick is. I talked with Ian about it and said “If you’re going to do it, you have to do it with the original musical palette. You have to go back and use acoustic guitar, flutes, harpsichords, glockenspiels, and all the things that made the original special. You have to keep it a very organic record and almost go back to the spirit of 1972.” He seemed totally onboard with that and the record is good. I’m not going to say it’s as good as the original, but it’s a very strong piece of work and a credible attempt by one of the legends of ‘70s progressive music to recapture the zeitgeist and feeling of their greatest work.
We’re living in a time when a lot of bands are looking around and seeing that the climate has changed so much over the last 20 years. Many feel the right thing to do is perhaps go back and revisit what made their reputation. Yes famously did a return to that last year. For 20-30 years, classic progressive music was incredibly unpopular and unfashionable. I was talking to Steve Hackett about this. He feels for the first time that people actually appreciate the work he did in the ‘70s. He feels it’s only in the last three or four years that he’s begun to feel people value that work as his greatest achievement. For 30 years, he was told it was shit, that he was a dinosaur, and that the music was worthless and no-one was ever going to want to listen to that hippie stuff again. I cannot underestimate how these guys were brainwashed. Robert Fripp and Ian Anderson feel the same. They were brainwashed by the media into thinking everything they did in the ‘70s was worthless junk. It’s almost like abused child syndrome. It took a great amount of reassurance for them to begin to believe that people love that stuff and that it’s the work that their reputation will ultimately rest on.
I experienced that with Robert when we worked on the remix of King Crimson’s Lizard. He said “Why do you want to do this Steven? No-one likes the record. Everyone hates it, including me.” I said “I’m going to change people’s minds.” I’m so proud to say that happened. One of the greatest moments of my life is when that album was reissued and received astonishing reviews. David Fricke in Rolling Stone said “Lizard is revealed to be the greatest King Crimson album of all.” Mojo gave it five out of five stars. Robert was astonished. And I was vindicated because I really believed all those records that had been ignored and sidelined for years, mainly by the media, but also by fans, were really coming of age. In a sense, they were so far ahead of their time, and now is their time. They sound extraordinary. This is really key for me.
Going back to Thick as a Brick 2, now is the time for Ian to go back and do this project. He never would have considered this in a million years even five years ago, and that goes to show you how the mood and climate has changed towards this music. So, finally people like Ian, Robert and Steve feel “You know what? People do really love that work. They really appreciate it. That was my best work and my most creative period. I can still do that music and people still want to hear it.” There’s now an incredible sense of enthusiasm with regards to Thick as a Brick 2. People have told me they haven’t seen Ian this enthusiastic about a new record for a very, very long time.
Is it accurate to say these remix projects are personal missions to get the world to reevaluate albums that are dear to you?
I think so. It depends on the records—some more than others. For instance, Lizard was the King Crimson album always hidden in the closet. There was a sense that one of the reasons it wasn’t so highly regarded is because the mix was quite clustered. There was definitely work to be done in terms of sonic improvement and transforming it into something more presentable. But you honestly couldn’t say that for the first King Crimson album In The Court of the Crimson King. Everyone loves that record. They always have. It’s an amazing album. It wasn’t like I needed to go back and rework that record, but in the process of doing it, Robert and I felt there were improvements to be made in terms of the stereo mix, so we made them. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is another one that’s considered a masterpiece, but was sonically a very poor-sounding record. So, some didn’t rate it as highly as they should have. What we did with Aqualung was really make that record gleam in a way it never gleamed before. I think a lot of people, including myself, have come around to thinking that the album Is a lot better than they even gave it credit for previously. So, there is certainly something very gratifying about being able to polish what was already a diamond and making it shine in a way it never has before.
What’s your take on streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody in terms of listener experience?
There’s nothing that can make them acceptable in my terms. For me, the whole romance of listening to music is tied into what I consider the art of listening. It’s a relationship with a physical piece—the album art, the record sleeve, putting the record on the turntable or putting the CD in the CD player. It’s about a very tactile relationship with the music and a physical manifestation of music. I realize I’m very old-fashioned and I can’t help it because of the generation I come from. Spotify and the rest of the streaming services will never appeal to me. Streaming is a very ugly, unromantic, unmagical, utilitarian way of listening to music. However, I’m also someone that makes music, and one of the things about making music is if you believe in your music, you want it to reach as many people as possible. For me, making music isn’t about making money. It’s not about being a star. But it’s a natural extension of the ego to want lots of people to hear it. That’s why when I was a kid, I’d give out demo tapes. Now, you put yourself on social media sites and try to get people to come and hear it.
I would rather people listen to my music on Spotify or steal it from download or blog sites than not hear it at all. But I would also rather have them buy the album and have a relationship with a physical piece. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. In most cases, particularly with the younger generation, people are not of that mindset. They don’t understand that physical product thing. They don’t get it because it’s not something they have any nostalgic attachment to. They’ve been born into a generation in which music is something you get for free or if you pay to download it, you get it from iTunes, or through subscription services like Spotify. So, now we have this kind of global jukebox going on and it’s very ugly to me. I’m 44 years old. I grew up at the tail end of the vinyl era and love collecting. I love physical products and the idea of music presented as art. So, those are my feelings about streaming. It’s ugly, but it’s here to stay. Unfortunately, it’s going to be one of the major ways to reach people with your music. So, in that sense I have to embrace it.
There’s a lot of controversy about the minimal per-stream royalty rates artists get from streaming services. How do you feel about the issue?
Yes, it’s pathetic. The amount of money these streaming services pay is a crime. But that’s for managers and record companies to worry about. I’m a musician. I suppose the more musicians that stand up against them the better. My manager Andy Leff has been very vocal about it. I didn’t know what Spotify was until very recently. That’s how little interest I have in that whole universe. I would never pay to download an album. I would never go to iTunes to buy an album. I have no interest. I understand that the streaming situation is an issue and I know there are various initiatives designed to try and change it. How they remunerate artists is something that will probably have to change. At the moment, the magnitude of royalties paid are pitiful. They’re an insult. But you know what? It’s a step up from Napster, isn’t it?
Porcupine Tree has emerged as a distinct influence on a new generation of bands. What’s your perspective on hearing the band’s sound reflected so far and wide?
There’s a label imprint called K-Scope, which is a part of Snapper. They signed a bunch of bands that are of a sound and style, and I guess that style is something you would say Porcupine Tree is the blueprint for. It’s obviously drawing its roots from ‘70s progressive music, but filtered through everything from Radiohead to Sigur Rós to minimalist music to trip-hop. I suppose we were one of the first bands to experiment with being unashamedly in the tradition of ‘70s progressive rock filtered through contemporary influences, as well as nu metal and death metal. I guess it has almost become almost a new sound of its own.
I don’t listen to a lot of that music. I’ve never listened to music that sounds like mine. It’s funny. People quite often come up to me and say something like—and I’m paraphrasing—“Steven, here’s my CD. Please listen to my demos. You’re going to love it. It sounds just like Porcupine Tree.” What I’m thinking in my head is “Well then, I’m not going to like it. Why would I want to listen to a third-rate copy of Porcupine Tree?” I don’t actually say it out loud. But in a way, that’s the biggest turn off and the thing that would be least interesting to me. But some people think you want to listen to music that sounds like your own. While that’s not something hugely of interest, at the same time it’s flattering from an ego point of view. It’s nice to be able to look around and see there are bands citing Porcupine Tree as an influence and perhaps imitating some of what you’ve done. So, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. I’m trying to move away from that kind of archetypal sound in my solo work. I feel I want to do something different from that. I suppose it’s that fear of stagnating. I’m much more interested in creating and exploring a new sound.