Designs to Hypnotize
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2021 Anil Prasad.
Steven Wilson couldn’t have imagined how precisely his art would imitate life when creating his new album The Future Bites. The record is a piercing, satirical exploration of conspicuous consumption, social and conventional media manipulation, and our species’ increasing proclivity for relying on disinformation from dubious entities with hidden agendas.
In January 2021, we’ve hit the apex of that morass with millions of people living in isolation due to COVID-19. Currently, the majority of humanity relies on glowing screens for societal connection, much of which is funneled through self-optimizing, AI-driven algorithms designed to reinforce our own biases, and those of corporate and political entities.
Wilson’s ambitious pop constructs on The Future Bites reflect his bemusement, fascination and disbelief at the directions civilization is steered towards by technology-driven mediation. Social media influencers, defining oneself through brand affinity, the urge to collect and hoard, and obsession with talentless people “famous for being famous” are all topics the album explores with aplomb and humor.
The Future Bites also signifies the British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist’s evolutionary approach to his output. Across his multi-decade career, he’s been associated with the realms of art rock, ambient work, dream pop, and experimental music. Today, his sound is a distillation of those experiences. The Future Bites is a tightly-focused, concise release that unapologetically communicates its ideas via a contemporary electronic pop sensibility.
Wilson brought in David Kosten as co-producer with that aim in mind. Kosten specializes in recombinant pop, having helmed recordings for Everything Everthing, Bat for Lashes and The Flaming Lips. Michael Spearman, Everything Everything’s drummer, also contributes, infusing the proceedings with a minimalist, modern rhythm feel entirely decoupled from Wilson’s more complex previous efforts. Also joining Wilson are keyboardist Richard Barbieri, drummer Jason Cooper, bassist and Stick player Nick Beggs, and keyboardist Adam Holzman. Elton John makes a guest vocal appearance on the album’s centerpiece, “Personal Shopper.”
This conversation, reflecting five hours of interviews conducted across 2020, explores the lyrical and musical directions Wilson pursued for The Future Bites. It also delves into other elements of Wilson’s career, including Love You to Bits, his latest recording with No-Man, recent work under his Bass Communion alias, Porcupine Tree archival projects, and his surround sound remixes for Tangerine Dream and Ultravox.
How has COVID-19 affected you?
Well, like a lot of people, I've found a way to be creative, knowing I was going to be unable to leave the studio or the house. I was fortunate, because I'd just built a new studio in my home when it began. I wasn't unhappy to be forced to spend time in it working and finding things to do. The first thing I did was send out an email to all the managers and record company people I knew, saying, “Have you got any remix projects for me to do? Even if I told you I wasn't interested six months ago, now I am. Send them all over!” [laughs] And of course, I was greeted with the spectacle of tumbleweed, as almost no-one responded. A few things came through, but not as many things as I anticipated.
So, I called up Tim Bowness and said, “Let's do a podcast called The Album Years.” And I started again in earnest on a book project. I also spent a bit of time revising The Future Bites and added more material to the deluxe edition. I put a lot more effort, time and money into the video component of the album, as well. Part of that decision was the awareness that that I wasn't going to be able to play live, do any TV, record store signings, or appearances of any kind.
Releasing videos and promoting them on social media is the only way I've had to promote the record so far. In a way, that kind of suits me, because I've always enjoyed making great video material to counterpoint the music. But none more so than this album. There are several very high-quality videos made for this album.
I’m still hoping to be able to tour towards the end of 2021. I think we can be reasonably optimistic with vaccinations becoming available. But I do think it’s going to take years for live music to return to the way it was, if it ever does. Will people ever want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 4,000 other people in a room, sweating, again? Maybe. Maybe not.
I’ve also started working on my next record. I’ve written two songs for it that I’m really happy about.
What’s the key value of music in such complex and chaotic times?
I've thought a lot about this question. Part of me thinks, isn't it quite frivolous to be making pop music in these times? Isn't it absurd to be talking in these grandiose, pretentious terms about my art and music, when the world is in increasing levels of hysteria and chaos? But at the same time, I'm a music lover and it goes much deeper than that, doesn't it? Music is something that’s so deeply ingrained in us. It’s very important for it to be there almost like a soundtrack for everything—the good and the bad. And so it continues to be.
The new album is quite accidentally very topical in how it explores consumerism and chaos, and the way things are marketed at us. I’m not just speaking in consumer terms, but the way the news is marketed at us, too. News and marketing aren’t words that should appear in the same sentence. And yet, realistically speaking, that's exactly what news is these days. It seems to be largely marketing. The whole phenomena of fake news and marketing, the way the media manipulate things, and the way social media distorts information and news is fascinating to me. It certainly means life doesn't get boring.
I poured all of those things into The Future Bites, both in terms of the music and the whole concept around it, which I really hope is going to resonate with people.
How did The Future Bites evolve, once you chose to shift its release date from June 2020 to January 2021 due to the pandemic?
Usually, when anybody finishes an album, they deliver it to the record company right after mastering, and that’s it. You’ve closed the book. There's no opportunity for reflection, revision or anything like that.
Now, I've made a few mistakes over the years in terms of sequencing and leaving tracks off albums. The most famous mistake was leaving “Drown With Me” off In Absentia, which is one of the best songs I had from those sessions.
The truth is very often when you're at the end of an 18-month process writing, demoing, recording, mixing, and mastering, you get to a point where you can't see the wood for the trees anymore. You're more focused on things like “Oh, does the hi-hat have a little bit too much 12K on it?” or “Is that keyboard overdubbed slightly too far over to the right-hand side of the stereo spectrum in the third verse on that song?” You're not really listening to the music the way that people are going to engage with it.
And unusually, this time around, because of COVID-19, I was able to go back during the middle of 2020 and listen to a test pressing of the album knowing it didn't necessarily have to be finalized immediately. I enjoyed every single moment of the album until I got to the last track “Anyone But Me,” and it didn’t feel right. And it's nothing to do with the track. I really like it, but I just felt it didn't have the transcendent sign-off that I wanted. And part of that is because, when I was putting the original sequence together, I acknowledged to myself that I always do the same thing— I end every record with this big, chill-out power ballad. You hear that with “The Raven That Refused To Sing,” “Happy Returns,” “Song of Unborn,” and “Insurgentes.” Even during the Porcupine Tree days, I did that, with “I Drive the Hearse” and “Collapse the Light Into Earth.”
So, for The Future Bites, I thought “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to put something more upbeat at the end of the record.” And I did and eventually, I didn’t like it. In a sense, I reverted to type. But when I listened to “Count of Unease,” which now closes the album, I thought “This is such a beautiful piece of music. I can’t leave it off.” At the same time, I didn't want the album to bloat up to 50 minutes again. Something had to give, so I took “Anyone But Me” out of the running order. I think the benefit of hindsight and having six months to reflect on the album allowed me to listen to it with fresh ears.
The other thing I did was I went back and finished off a lot of songs I'd left unfinished, and added them to the deluxe edition. I had about 25 songs in various states of completion and I was able to go back and finish a few more to the point where I felt they were really good.
The Future Bites deluxe edition is arguably the most elaborate one I've ever done. The bonus disc has got six really high-quality additional songs and a bunch of extended versions. It's bang for the buck, as they say in America.
“Anyone But Me” only appears in demo form on the deluxe edition. What are your plans for the fully-produced version?
It's an album-worthy song. I didn’t want it to appear on something only a comparatively small group of people ever get to listen to. I think it's going to be a standalone single, later. There's a whole bunch of things I've held on to, including a couple of other tracks from the sessions.
These days, it’s all about continuing to keep content coming. When The Future Bites tour does go ahead, perhaps I’ll release it around that time to give me something to promote then.
What drove you to pursue the narrative overlay of conspicuous consumption and manipulation across The Future Bites?
About three years ago, I went on holiday with my wife and we stayed in a hotel one evening and were talking to someone at the bar. We discussed what we did for a living. I said I’m a musician. He told us “My job is to analyze why people put things in their shopping basket on Amazon and other e-commerce sites, but don't check out." Personally, I've got things in my shopping basket on Amazon right now that have been there for a year that I still haven't gone through and pressed the buy button for.
He’s basically trying to find out what Amazon can do to convert those potential sales into actual sales. And I'm thinking to myself, "My God, this is a job." And of course it's a job, because these things must be worth billions of dollars to companies like Amazon every year. I was fascinated by the whole idea that there are people out there behind the scenes tracking our behavioral patterns and actions as consumers.
So, I started to write this song, “Personal Shopper,” and Elton John got involved, reading the shopping list. It became the big centerpiece on the record. And I think when I sat down with the designers and I started talking about some of the themes that were behind the songs on the record, the concept immediately seemed to jump out. We just kept coming up with all these ideas like “What about if we do this with the cover? What if we do a fake customer survey and set of terms and conditions with the deluxe edition?”
It’s parodying the whole nature of high concept elitism and elite design—like Virgil Abloh marketing a brick. It’s a very banal object and simply by branding it and putting a limited edition number on it, the value of the brick multiplied by 20.
The more I started to talk about this subject with my design team, the more it seemed like this was going to be such a fascinating area for exploring conceptually and visually, and it's proved to be. I'm so happy with the packaging of the album and the whole presentation.
What can you tell me about the design team?
Notionally, the design team is a company called The Future Bites. Now, of course, in real terms that company doesn't exist. It's a construct. But it's basically parodying companies like Supreme who put logos on things and then charge $5,000 for them. I kind of love that. It makes me laugh in a way—the idea that it's not about the item anymore, it's about the marketing.
The whole presentation around the album is tapping into that idea of logos and branding. You know—the idea you can brand a roll of toilet paper and sell it for £200 or that you can capture air in a tin can and charge £500 for it. And the point is there will always be people that will want to buy into that because, as the lyrics to “Personal Shopper” say, “You don't need it, but have to concede it's making you happy, and that's all that matters to you.”
I find it extraordinary that people now almost define their personality by the bullshit they buy rather than buying records, films and books. Now, it's about things like limited-edition bricks and designer T-shirts and how much money you paid for something. I'm very curious about that. It seems to me a really extraordinary, unexpected way that the human species has evolved. And I suppose you have to go back and say, well it all started with the invention of the Internet and social media, and being able to construct a kind of imaginary life for yourself that other people will see.
We now live in a world where you can go to a place in London and have yourself photographed against a green screen and your holiday is Photoshopped in there for you. It’s all so can upload pictures of yourself in front of the Taj Mahal or standing alongside the Grand Canyon. You can hire a dress. You can even hire a virtual dress. You don't even have to buy the dress. Even the dress can be Photoshopped in for you. How on Earth did the human race arrive at this point? I keep asking myself that. And I haven't got the answer. But it's fascinating to explore these subjects through the artwork and songs.
The album campaign started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of The Future Bites' cycle’s first branded items was a face mask, which amused and offended people in equal measure. What do you make of the controversial interpretation?
We did toilet rolls too. As everyone knows, there were all those toilet roll shortages. When we uploaded the mask image, a lot of people actually took it seriously and were very upset by it, which I took as a badge of honor. When people don't get the joke, you know you've pitched it right. It really is a satirical project at the end of the day, but one that has a lot of fun behind its intent. Creating some controversy is always a good thing in my book.
In terms of the merchandise on The Future Bites site, some of it’s real and some of it’s fantasy. We had real volcanic ash soap and other items that were very limited editions. Again, I was fascinated to see whether or not we could market these things and sell them to the fan base. I don’t think I’m ripping them off, because the items are going to keep their value. They’re going to be massively collectible items in the grand scheme of things.
I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, which says a lot about the era we live in.
They really are going to be collectible. You know, “Own a piece of genuine Future Bites’ merchandise!” [laughs] The volcanic ash soap we made 50 units of, so it wasn’t going to be cheap. But it wasn't expensive either at 20 quid. I think the buyers could sell them for five times that a year from now. Maybe I'm wrong and I’m kidding myself, but having seen the way that the elite designer industry works, and at the same time, the way that dovetails with the whole music collector market, I wouldn't be surprised if these things are going to retain their value, if not massively exceed them in a very short period of time.
I love this stuff. I actually really dig it and I'm a sucker for it myself. You and I both know most deluxe edition box sets are bullshit, but we’re both suckers for them. So, we know we’re being fooled, but we love them all the same. I love the whole elite designer thing. I have some clothes like that, including T-shirts I’ve paid £250 for. I know it’s ridiculous.
There’s a very affectionate satire going on here. I’m also aware some people will find it very offensive and mercenary. It’s not meant to be.
“Personal Shopper” specifically makes fun of deluxe edition box sets. Whether you’ve been duly credited or not, much of the modern day box set construct was spurred to life by your work.
You think so?
Absolutely. The world of box sets dramatically changed after your deluxe editions emerged. Countless labels and artists cloned your approach.
In my defense, whenever I've done a deluxe edition box set, I have tried to justify not only the price, but also the size of these box sets with good content. I'm so tired of picking up box sets which are bloated out with endless variations of the same material, with two or three photos endlessly reproduced. You know—"Here's a close up of the same photo you saw on the front cover. And now here's a detailed close-up of that same photo again.”
The Raven That Refused To Sing deluxe edition was almost like a book of ghost stories. Hand. Cannot. Erase. had its whole concept with a diary, blog and all of its various inserts. To the Bone had that very extensive tour diary and photographs.
I think there are a lot of box sets out there just for the sake of it. You get the sense that the marketing people clapped their hands together and said “Okay, we're going to do a box set based on this album. It's the 15th anniversary or we've got this new record by whichever band.” They rarely seem to stop and say, "Have we got content for this box set?"
We've just been talking about this particular idea of taking an object that has no inherent value, branding it and making it of value. So, maybe that's just the equivalent in music consumer's terms—taking an album for which there’s no way you should be able to charge 75-200 quid for, but keeping it going somehow. People might complain, but they’ll buy it anyway.
Were you making fun of yourself in “Personal Shopper?”
A little bit, yeah. I mean, I'm making fun of the way the physical media industry has had to go. You cannot compete with streaming culture if it's just about the music. The one thing you can do is add value when creating these deluxe edition box sets by finding demos, outtakes, alternative versions, live recordings, alternative artwork, and other kinds of ephemera and memorabilia—all of these things that we've seen have become staples now of what people think of as a deluxe edition box set.
These things have, in a way, had to come into being because otherwise, how are you going to sell those records? Particularly back catalog. If you look at back catalog, there are people out there that bought the vinyl when it came out, the first CD edition and the remastered CD. So, how are you going to sell them that same record for a fourth or fifth time? And the answer is you do the deluxe edition box set.
So yes, I'm cynical. I love it as a consumer myself. I buy a lot of these box sets. I sometimes ask myself why I've bought them once I've got them in my hands, but I buy them anyway. And I think a lot of people feel the same way and I think the industry has, in a sense, had to embrace box set culture and 180-gram vinyl because those are the only things that still sell in physical terms.
You once joked that we’re looking at future landfill with many of these deluxe editions.
I believe very strongly that there is a very, very brief window of opportunity here for record companies to sell deluxe edition box sets. I think you're talking about the generation of people that grew up listening to music in the ‘70s and ‘80s and, arguably, through to the mid-‘90s, I reckon you could still do box sets for Oasis and Blur, and those kinds of bands, but beyond that, I think the cut off point for the kind of artists who people are going to want to buy box sets of is around about the mid-to-late ‘90s.
So, right now, you're looking at a demographic that's aging all the time that is potentially your audience for the deluxe edition box set. I believe that window's going to close in about 20-25 years. People like you and me are going to die off and that is the audience for physical media, in terms of music. That audience will be gone eventually, because the younger generation do not have that attachment to physical media that you and I do or the generation that grew up in the ‘90s do. So, that window of opportunity exists for the record companies and I think it's at its peak right now, which is why you're seeing box set fever. The number of box sets coming out is just ridiculous.
Five years ago, there might be just a few really elaborate box sets coming out every Christmas. Now, it's 50 really elaborate deluxe edition box sets coming out every Christmas, not to mention all the ones coming out through the year as well. So, it's really exploded and the reason is because the record companies realize that this window of opportunity is at its apex. Arguably, it's just beginning to tail off now because I think there's a lot of fatigue setting in with a lot of these box sets. Witness the failure of things like the Guns N' Roses box set, which was a massive disaster for the record company. I think they made 10,000 and sold 3,000. So, things like that tell you you've still got to be careful.
It's really hard to judge, I think. And one of the strange things is there's no real pattern to it. The recent Gentle Giant box set, for example, flew out and sold out almost instantly and yet, Paul McCartney box sets apparently struggle. I think it's partly to do with how much a certain catalog has been mined before that. Having said that, the Gentle Giant catalog has been fairly well mined.
There was a Bobbie Gentry box set that did phenomenal business for Universal. I think they did about 8,000 copies and had to repress it four or five times. And I think the reason it did so well is because her catalog had simply not been very well curated. I think you could say the same with the Tangerine Dream set I was involved with. That catalog had been so poorly curated that when a good box set came out, everyone was all over it, whereas people really don't feel they need yet another Paul McCartney deluxe edition.
You did a £10,000 The Future Bites ultra-deluxe one-off limited edition for charity. Explore the concept.
It’s my ultimate parody of the world of high-concept, high-design products. The idea was to come up with the most elitist Steven Wilson collectible that no-one else could have. It includes a 7” single of a song called “The Tastemaker” that only has one copy pressed. It also has things like hand-written lyrics and a Grammy nomination medal and certificate. It’s analogous to the world of art and painting, in which a painter creates something and only one person can buy the original. You can make prints of it, but only one person will ever own the painting that has the brush strokes on it.
That’s interesting and it’s almost unique to the world of painting and sculpture. In comparison, the worlds of cinema, literature and music are based on the idea of mass-replication. I like the idea of the world of music gradually moving closer, in a way, to the worlds of painting and sculpture.
Also, the audience for physical product is shrinking. Limited editions used to be 5,000 copies and now it’s going into the realms of 25-500 copies.
Doing this was a lot of fun and for a good cause, too. All the money went to the Music Venue Trust, which is trying to save grassroots venues in the UK. I made it bullet-proof in the sense that no-one can say I was taking advantage of the purchaser. Most high-concept, high-design practices don’t do that.
Did you take any inspiration from other single-pressing experiments like Jean-Michel Jarre’s Music for Supermarkets from 1983 or Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin from 2015?
I was aware of those things. Jarre also made the analogy between the worlds of art and music. There are also other precedents like XTC’s Go 2 and the artwork for Public Image Ltd’s Album. Both of them remind the purchaser, through the packaging of the record, that they’re engaged in a financial transaction—that they are essentially buying a product. I've always liked that very ironic, knowing nod to the purchaser. And my deluxe edition is riddled from beginning to end with those jokes.
You filmed a video to promote the ultra-deluxe edition at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. What made you want to situate it there?
It was about trying to create a link between the item and the cause it was being sold for. The Hammersmith Apollo isn't exactly what you'd call a grassroots venue, but at the same time it’s iconic and people across England and the world know it. I wanted to cement the idea of this venue being an empty ghost of a building. This is the world we live in now because of what we’re going through with COVID-19.
The ultra-deluxe edition sold instantly. Did that surprise you?
I wasn't completely sure it would. I had a hunch it might, because there are some fans for whom money is no object. I mean that in the nicest possible way. They’re well-off people who would see it as an investment. And because it was for a good cause, it was even more appealing.
Part of me wishes we'd done it as an auction, because we might have got even more ludicrous amounts of money for it. But I also love the fact that the £10,000 price tag is part of the packaging on the front of the box. We wouldn’t have been able to do that if we had auctioned it off.
How did Elton John get involved with “Personal Shopper?”
Originally, when I wrote the song and demoed it, I had that sequence in the middle with what I call the list of first-world consumer items. What I mean by that is a list of things we really don't need, but we love anyway. So, some of the aforementioned things we've already talked about like box sets and 180-gram vinyl are included, but also things like branded water, sunglasses, teeth whitener, and designer trainers.
And I always thought “You know what? It'd be great to get a fairly reasonably well-known voice to narrate this list.” I didn't know who. I thought maybe an actor or a musician of some sort. And then I went to see the Elton biopic, Rocketman. At the end, there's that little card that comes up saying, "Elton has managed to kick all his addictions with the exception of one." And then they put up a photograph of him holding these shopping bags. And he'd obviously been on a massive shopping spree.
At that moment, the light bulb went off and I'm like, "Of course. This guy is the most famous living consumer." Everyone knows Elton loves to go shopping. And I thought, “My God, this guy would be perfect. He's got a great voice and everyone recognizes it.”
I was very fortunate to have a mutual friend of Elton's and I sent the song to this friend and said, "Do you think Elton would be into this?" And he wrote me back and said, "I think he's going to love this." And so it proved to be. He absolutely loved the concept of it. Elton called me up the next day and said, "I really love this and I want to do this for you." So, we worked together on creating the definitive list of consumer items. There were some things he didn't want to say. For example, he's never owned a mobile phone, so he didn't want to say “mobile phone skins.” He also didn't want to say “personalized number plates.” He told me “I would never have anything like that.”
So, we arrived at this list that he felt comfortable with and he recorded it at his home in Antibes in France. He did a great job and was very engaged with it. It's one of those things where everything just came together and worked beautifully. It all just fell into place in the track.
The “Personal Shopper” video adds another humor-based component to the song. How did the storyline develop?
It wasn’t my concept. When we decided to make “Personal Shopper” into a video, we went out to a bunch of potential directors and had a lot of different scripts come in. The director, Lucretia Taormina, had the idea of criticizing consumerism and the feeling of unhappiness and emptiness it creates. But it’s not a finger-wagging indictment of consumerism, because obviously, I’m a consumer myself. I love to shop. So, there’s a part of the song that’s a love letter to consumerism. There’s a black comedy, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek aspect to the song that also comes through in the video.
The video strikes a balance of being fun but also dealing with the issue of compulsive consumerism. Lucretia came up with the idea of having a guy going around a shopping mall, possessed. He’s got all this money and he has to consume. It almost doesn’t matter what he consumes. It’s more about the buzz he gets from consuming. But then, every time he buys something, he loses the relevant part of his anatomy. I thought that was hysterically funny as a premise.
I also thought “Within 30 seconds of watching the video, everyone will get it.” That’s the thing with videos, these days—you have to get people interested within 30 seconds or they’ll go elsewhere. You have to keep them curious enough to keep watching. So, very quickly, the viewer understands what the logical conclusion of the process of the main character is going to be. But you want to see where it ends—and you know it can only end badly.
How did the forthcoming Nile Rodgers remix of “Personal Shopper” emerge?
Nile is a friend of a friend. I was chatting with that friend one day, and he said to me, “You should get Nile on your album.” And we never got around to getting Nile on the album. I was pretty set that I wanted to do all the guitar on the album myself.
After the album was finished, my friend said “Oh, you never got Nile on your album.” I thought “I didn’t, but wouldn't it be great to get Nile to do his take on ‘Personal Shopper?’” It’s got a little bit of frisson of disco to it anyway. I sent it to Nile and he loved it. He didn’t create a radical reimagining of it, but he tweaked it and made it that little bit more groovy and pop.
So, you’ve got a version of “Personal Shopper” with both Elton John and Nile Rodgers on it. Could the Steven Wilson of 2000 ever have imagined his career trajectory would have landed at the point where he would be working with people at this level?
Obviously not. Of course, it’s amazing. I don’t know what to think about it, other than I love it. I guess it tells me I have a certain degree of respect from people in the industry. They now know who I am, although there are a lot of people who have never heard of me.
I was flattered to learn Elton knew who I was before I approached him. Nile also knew who I was and was familiar with my previous projects. What’s also great is these two guys aren’t people who are part of this little niche I’m associated with, which shall remain nameless. They come from the worlds of mainstream pop and rock. That’s a real thrill and breakthrough for me.
Describe the overall musical philosophy that informs The Future Bites.
I’m very much aware when I think about my records over the last 10 years, particularly during the solo career, that I’ve created a string of homages, without necessarily meaning to. Now, that's not to say I'm not proud of the records. I am. Also, this is not to say they don't sound very much like my records. But I’m also aware you can say Insurgentes was my homage to ambitious ‘80s pop like Tears for Fears, Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel. The Raven That Refused To Sing was obviously very much my homage to classic ‘70s conceptual rock. So, I thought to myself, “You know what? Why not, for once, make a record where you just don't try and reference anything else? Just simply try and create something that is very much of the now.” The only real reference points I’ve made to my own catalog are in the sense of not wanting to repeat things I’ve done in the past.
I was looking to do something which stands as a unique entry in my discography. I'm very much conscious that it's almost impossible not to reference the musical vocabulary of the past. Of course, it's impossible to completely avoid that and people will hear things, I'm sure. But I think the difference is this time I wasn't conscious of them at the time I was creating the music and that's very different to my mindset than when I was creating To the Bone, Raven or Insurgentes when I was very conscious of the reference points and the musical vocabulary I was using.
I think having a very strong co-producer obviously helped me a lot in that sense, in terms of trying to stay on my own path, trying to make a record which sounds only like a Steven Wilson record from 2021.
What made you choose David Kosten to co-produce and engineer the album?
I've known David for a long time. We first met many years ago, when we were just starting in the music industry, professionally. We were both making music for the advertising industry. We were both competing for the same jobs in a way, but he was much more successful at it than me, partly because I went into doing my own thing and lost touch with the world of advertising. But I also was very much aware of his growing reputation as an incredibly creative and successful producer, and very much admired his work, particularly with Bat for Lashes and the first couple of Everything Everything records. I bought those records, but I wasn't in touch with David at the time. I listened to them as a fan of the music and his production. I think I was very conscious that a lot of what made those records special for me was his input.
Coming back to my earlier answer, to me, what he was doing didn't sound like it referenced the past in any obvious way. He very much created his own sound. I could hear nods to other styles of music, but it seemed like a very unique, very contemporary approach to making intelligent, ambitious pop music.
So, when I arrived at the conclusion that this is the kind of record I wanted to make, I thought David was the right person. I also know David from the past as a very strong personality that’s very opinionated. During one of the very first meetings we had about this record, I said to him “I want you to work on this record with me because I think you're really obnoxious.” [laughs] He looked a bit offended and I said, "No, I mean that in a really positive way. You'll tell me if you think I'm crawling back into my clichés, if I'm being lazy or if I'm doing something that sounds pastiche-y or not modern enough."
He kept me very much on the path I wanted to be on. We had a lot of fun making this record. I can't think of ever having so much fun making a record as we did this time. Just messing about with his massive collection of synthesizers alone was so much fun. There were whole weeks when I didn't even pick up a guitar. We were just having so much fun with the electronics, synths, plugins, and all that stuff.
Michael Spearman, Everything Everything’s drummer, performs on the album, too. How does the rhythm approach to the album connect to the overall direction you sought to take?
The rhythm approach on this record was basically to emulate machines. When I toured To the Bone, I felt as a texture, guitars were becoming less interesting. I felt people were responding more to electronic sounds and I speak as one of those people. I became less interested in the potential of guitar and more in the potential of electronics. I also became aware while making To the Bone that in a lot of contemporary pop records, the role of the drummer is now very much influenced by drum machines, even when you have real drums. Drummers have learned from them in an interesting way. I’m not suggesting this has led to creative bankruptcy. In fact, far from it. I think drummers are actually learning from the way drum machines sound and are programmed. Live drummers are now emulating those programs and loops.
If you listen to Michael on the Everything Everything records, that’s very much his style. He’s a much younger guy. He’s grown up in a world in which most pop music has programmed drums, loops and breakbeats. So, his drum style is informed by that.
I've always loved electronic music anyway, so it was definitely a deliberate approach to move away from that, perhaps more muso approach, not just in the drum department, but across the whole record. For example, most of the guitar solos are very abstract and angular, all played by me, on this record. There are no other guitar players on it. They’re part of the sound design world. All the drums, bass and electronics are, too. I didn’t want people to be aware of the performances, which I think people have come to recognize on my last few records. Those elements have a back seat on this record.
I was also aware of the whole idea of attention spans shortening and albums becoming bloated and too long. This album is also a reaction against that. I hope people get to the end of the album and feel like they want to put it on again, straight away.
What evolution do you feel The Future Bites reflects from To the Bone in terms of freeing yourself from previous attachments?
It’s about getting away from the vocabulary of classic rock, which I thought I was doing on To the Bone, but in retrospect, when I look back on that record—which I’m very proud of—I still hear a lot of baggage left over from the classic rock explorations on Hand. Cannot. Erase. and Raven, in terms of the solos and muso aspects. That’s why having David involved was so key. If I ever lapsed into anything remotely like a muso solo or what he’d consider to be noodling, he’d shut it down straight away. I needed that so I didn’t fall back on the more muso aspects, because I love them. I love guitar and keyboard solos, and big fancy drum fills. But that’s not the record I wanted to make. I also love electronic music, the simplicity of minimalism, and funk music that’s purely about the hooks.
“Eminent Sleaze” is the most funk-based song on the album. Explore the making of the track and its lyrics.
I wanted the song to have this really slow, swampy, dirty, sleazy funk groove. And the funny thing about that track is it's one of the few on the record where there's virtually no electronics at all. It's all hand percussion, live drums, Fender Rhodes, and bass guitar, but it has a very electronic sensibility about it somehow. It has live strings on it as well.
This is an example of a song where I had the title before I had anything else. I had the title written down, which is a bit of a play on the expression éminence grise. I think the moment you hear the phrase “eminent sleaze," it conjures up images of politicians. But I didn't want to write a song about a politician. That would have been too easy and too cheap a shot, I think. I wanted to write a song about sleaze as a thing, as a concept and as a quality in someone. It’s about the ability to persuade someone. It comes back to that whole idea I talked about earlier with these people behind the scenes persuading us to consume, to vote for them and to support them.
It's one of those songs where it seems to somehow perfectly encapsulate the title through the music. So, I'm very proud of it for that reason.
The song finds you stretching your vocal capabilities. You must have worked very hard on that performance.
I'm very happy with that one and “King Ghost” in terms of the vocal performances because it's not natural for me to be so expressive with my voice. David Kosten pushed me very hard in terms of being expressive, playing and inhabiting characters and lyrics, and trying to express something of the feeling behind the song in the vocal delivery. Doing it with him there producing me is unusual for me. I only did that once before, on the previous record with Paul Stacey. For years before that, I would never ever sing in the presence of anyone else in the studio.
It would be like, “Okay, we created the backing track. Now, I'm going back to my little studio on my own to work on the vocals.” The downside of that is that you don't necessarily do things that you didn't think you were capable of. But I had David there constantly pushing me to go into new areas.
Why did you previously do all your vocals in isolation?
Because I didn't really have the confidence to sing in front of other people. I never thought of myself as a singer. And that's not fake humility. I really never felt confident about singing. I don't think I have the best voice. I think one thing I've learned over the years is I do have a voice which has something about it which is unique. I can do things that sound like no-one else because no-one else has my voice. But I have to constantly remind myself of that fact because, technically speaking, I have a very limited range of what I can do. Previously, for me, it was always a case of if I'm going to experiment with my voice, I want to feel free to experiment and make a fool of myself without doing it in front of someone else.
It's a very hard thing. It's like crossing the Rubicon in a way—for me to get to that stage where I’m actually comfortable singing with a producer and sometimes making a complete fool of myself. When I’m on my own, I can say to myself “You know what? I'm going to try and hit this note.” And then I’ll realize with horror that there’s no way I can possibly hit that note. But doing that in front a producer is new for me. It’s all about the relationship you have with that producer.
The “Eminent Sleaze” video takes limited editions to the ultimate conclusion—the impending extinction of humanity as your character becomes a “limited edition of one.”
The lyrics relate to the fact that the most powerful people on earth are no longer politicians, but people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who control technology and e-commerce sectors. One of the reasons they’re a lot more dangerous than politicians is because we don’t really know what they’re doing. There’s no transparency.
The film The Social Dilemma discusses this. It features the guy who created the recommendation algorithm that’s used by all the social media companies. He talks about it as if he invented the atom bomb. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like “When I wrote the algorithm, I thought I was doing something really good for the world. Now, I realize I created something evil.” He looks genuinely ashamed that he created this monster.
This also goes back to “Personal Shopper” and the story I told you about meeting the guy whose job it was to analyze why people put things in their Amazon shopping basket but don’t check out. That’s why you as a consumer get hit with automated reminders, temporary price reductions and special offers—to manipulate you into pushing the buy button. When you’re on a YouTube page, you’re told to listen to something else. The streaming music services do the same. Amazon tells you “people who bought this, also bought that.” These algorithms are omnipresent and so powerful, now. They influence our lives very significantly.
The “Eminent Sleaze” video explores the idea that these companies like Amazon and Supreme have become so good at selling stuff to us we don’t need, that civilization is starting to break down. The video portrays a very Black Mirror-esque, dystopian future. Things haven’t hit the point depicted in the video, but people are definitely buying things they don’t need, getting into massive amounts of debt and their focus is often not on the larger picture.
The video takes this to a logical conclusion as you say. The whole gag at the end is that this is what the main character was planning all along—that he himself would become a limited edition of one human being left on the planet, because his high-concept designer products have, essentially, destroyed human civilization. It’s supposed to make you laugh, but at the same time, it does have a serious undercurrent to it.
What does the increasing bruising on your face as the “Eminent Sleaze” video progresses signify?
It’s the idea that the main character has come out of this wasteland the world has become. It’s an end-of-days scenario. We don’t know what’s happened to him before he walked into the building. Was he beaten up by looters? The idea is he’s walked in off the street back into his office and we don’t know how long he’s been away. But he’s been watching the world fall apart around him. He’s chosen this moment to return, because he knows the end is nigh. The viewer can draw their own conclusions about what’s occurred before the video starts.
“Self” is the first of two songs that dig into the impact of social media on the album. Provide some insight into it.
Lyrically, it's a song about self-identity and how the whole sense of self and how we project ourselves has changed in the wake of social media. “Self” was the last song that was written for the record and that was the one that I think David had the most input into in the sense that I brought him something that was little more than a sketch. I didn't have the chorus hook at all. He drove me crazy saying “You need to find a chorus hook.” I tried for months to find the chorus hook. Finally, I came up with the “We are self…” part you hear on the album.
Sometimes, coming up with hooks seems like the easiest thing in the world and, of course, it's the hardest thing in the world. It's the easiest thing in the world to write a 20-minute progressive rock track where you just take loads of bits that aren't really fantastic in their own right, but string them all together and somehow they take on a gravitas they didn't have when they were little separate bits that weren't really that good. But the hardest thing of all is to write a 2:55 pop song that’s completely focused with a really strong hook.
I'm not the first person to have said that to you. I won't be the last. It's a cliché to say that. And it's a cliché because it's true. What I love about “Self” is it says everything it needs to say in less than three minutes and that’s almost unheard of in my back catalog.
Richard Barbieri guests on “Self.” What made him ideal for it?
Originally, Richard was going to be involved a lot more on the album. I’ll tell you why he’s not. I was having so much fun messing about with the analog synths myself. But I had Richard on board very early on. There wasn’t going to be any muso stuff on it. It’s all about sound design and a more painterly or sculpted approach. I thought “Richard’s going to be perfect for this.”
Then, I rather kind of guiltily ended up doing most of it myself, because I was having so much fun. But when we got to “Self,” I thought “No, I’ve got to have Richard on here, because he’ll be great on it.” So, I sent him a very early demo of it, he created some wonderful sounds for it, and I’m really happy I got him on the record.
“Follower” examines the phenomenon of social media influencers. What did you seek to communicate with it?
I didn't fully understand the idea of influencers until about a year or two ago. I kept hearing the word as it relates to people who are famous, essentially for being famous, which, again, is a very Internet- and reality TV-related phenomenon.
You can have an Instagram feed, but not necessarily have any skills. Yet, the one thing you do is have a lot of followers and you're able to influence people in terms of selling brands, certain stylistic and way-of-life choices by what you post and present. And, again, I find that fascinating—the whole aspirational side of wanting to imitate someone that you don't know, that you've never met, and has no particular skills to speak of. They're not artists. They're not creative in any way, but they dress in a certain way. They drink a certain kind of drink. They eat in certain restaurants. They go to certain places on holiday and therefore they are influencers.
Once again, the question of “How did the human race end up at a point where these people can exist?” comes up. But they do. So, that's what “Follower” is about and it's quite an angry song in that respect.
“12 Things I Forgot” is the album’s most pop moment, but it also relates to The Future Bites' big picture. Describe how it fits in.
I wrote this song guiltily, sent it along to David Kosten and then I guiltily sent it along to my A&R guy at Caroline. I said to him “I'm calling it my drive-time Fleetwood Mac moment. I don't think it's right, do you?" And both of them wrote back and said, "This is a great song. You have to put this on the record." So, I took a lot of faith from that and thought maybe I'd stumbled on something.
It almost came too easily, that song. It was literally me just sitting there in the most tried and tested fashion with an acoustic guitar in my lap, coming out with a pretty melody as I was strumming along. To me, it's almost like it could be the Traveling Wilburys or something that George Harrison would have done on All Things Must Pass. But the reaction I had from people was so positive. And all the way through I was wondering, "Does this fit in with the aesthetic of the rest of the record?" The one thing I think I've come to understand about myself is that it doesn't matter what I do now, people just hear the music. So, I can have “12 Things I Forgot,” “King Ghost” and “Self” on the same record and they work together, because they all sound like me.
The other thing is that song is an outlier because it's a love song and it doesn't really relate to the themes on the record about consumerism or self-identity in the way that a lot of the other songs do. But then of course, it does. Because what is a love song if it's not a song about self, self-image, how you see yourself through your partner's eyes, how your partner sees you, and how two different people can have a completely different perspective on a relationship at the same time? So, it is a song about self and it is a song about identity. And I think it does fulfill a very important role in the album. It's a very immediate, accessible song.
What can people expect from The Future Bites Tour?
The first half of the show is going to be a presentation of the new record and it will be very multimedia-based and very digital. I know that my shows have been fairly multimedia-based, previously, but I'm taking it to a different level this time in terms of production, visuals and the whole concept around consumerism. That goes beyond what’s going to happen on the stage. The whole evening will be themed around “Personal Shopper,” high concept design and the corporation-type thing. The moment you walk into the auditorium, you will be in that world.
There will also be some things which will hopefully wrong foot the audience. They might think they're looking at something when they're not. I won't say more about it than that at the moment.
The second half will be a voyage into my back catalog. But I want to try and bring in as much new repertoire as I can. I’m going deep into my back catalog and picking out things that I haven't played before, certainly as a solo artist, and revamping the set. But that second half will be a more conventional band show.
In 2019, No-Man released Love You to Bits, which was the culmination of a multi-decade creative process. Discuss its iterations and how you arrived at its final incarnation.
Way back in 1994, Tim Bowness and I were just coming off the back of an album called Flowermouth and we were still very much in the world of lush pop. That had been our thing. We started working on a follow-up record to Flowermouth which would have been a continuation of that in a way. And while we were doing that, we got dropped by our record label and publishing company. We went through a very dark time, certainly in terms of professional relationships over the previous three or four years when we really felt like we were arriving as professional musicians. Suddenly, we found ourselves out of a record contract and I think our response to that was to create something much darker and more intuitive, which is why we ended up making the Wild Opera record.
During that period, we’d also been working on a song called “Love You to Bits,” which was 17 minutes and what we referred to as our “disco symphony.” Our idea was to do something that was a little bit of an homage to the great Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer tracks from the late ‘70s.
We put it on the shelf for years and years. Every few years, we’d say to ourselves “You know what? We really need to finish that. It was so great." Every time we listened to it we were so proud of it, but it seemed like the timing was never right because after Wild Opera, we retreated into this more kind of ambient, textural world of things like Returning Jesus and Together We're Stranger. “Love You to Bits” is a big unashamedly disco pop moment and it just never seemed to fit into what we were doing.
About five years ago, we decided Love You to Bits was going to be the No-Man comeback record. We thought we were going to finally sit down and finish it. And the first thing we did is we had a fantastic three- or four-day session in which we created the second side of the album by basically taking the first side that we already had sketched out as a starting point and creating a variation on it. Of course, during that process, it became so abstract it had virtually no relation at all in the end, apart from the main chorus line. But we created the side which I think maybe I prefer to the first side in retrospect.
We decided that this was going to be it. There was going to be an album with just two pieces—one 17-minute long piece and one 18-minute long piece. No chaff, no fat on the bones, just 35 minutes of pure disco-symphonic pop. We did all the hard work and also spent a bit of time working with a real drummer and added some overdubs and that's what you hear.
I also think there's a pattern leading up through the No-Man album to The Future Bites, as if there was some kind of deliberate move to transition into my new album, which is also a very electronic pop record. I can almost imagine “Personal Shopper” being on the same record as “Love You to Bits,” for example. So, it seems like there was almost a plan, but there wasn't. But I'm very proud of that No-Man record. If I had to pick one No-Man record, that would probably be the one.
A No-Man One Little Indian years box set is coming later this year. What will it include?
One Little Indian want to reissue the catalog, so we decided to put it all in one box set. It includes Lovesighs, Loveblows & Lovecries, Flowermouth, and all of the EPs, including Colours, Days in the Trees and Only Baby sequenced as they originally were. All of the B-sides are included. There are a few extra bits and pieces too, including tracks that were only put on compilations. We may also include some of the radio sessions we did, if we can get rights to the sessions.
I was listening to all the material again recently when I was mastering it. With the benefit of 25 years distance from it, I think we were pretty good. I realized most of my misgivings have to do with ropey production. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time and some of it embarrasses me. I’m using drum machines and loops, and I wish some of it sounded better. Some of the material sounds a little low-fi, clunky and clumsy in places. Some of the beats are a bit weedy. Now, I would know how to make them sound really strong and powerful, through using techniques like compression. But in a way, the weedy sound gives it a little bit of charm.
Today, I can be proud of about 90 percent of the music. There are only a few exceptions in terms of things I’d rather never hear again and wish I could pour into a big hole in the ground and fill it with concrete.
All of the material sounds much better than it ever has before. It’s mastered properly. Mastering is something I didn’t really know anything about the first time around. It all sounds as good as it possibly can, given the limitations of the source material.
How do you look back at “The Girl From Missouri,” No-Man’s first single from 1989?
The title song is awful, but the other tracks, “Forest Almost Burning,” “Night Sky, Sweet Earth” and “The Ballet Beast” are pretty good. We used to perform “The Girl From Missouri” live. We would finish the show with it. It was supposed be an almost Jacques Brel cabaret-like thing.
When we got the opportunity to record a single, we decided that would be the A-side. It came out very flat, pretentious and gauche. That’s how I feel about it. It was a lesson learned. Everybody has that first single they’d like to erase from memory and that’s ours. It’s not going to be in the box. It would pre-date the One Little Indian years, anyway. I think our next single from 1990, “Colours,” was where we got it completely right.
I think we had 1,000 copies of “The Girl From Missouri,” pressed. After two years, there were about 400 left in the warehouse at the label Plastic Head. Christ knows where they sold the 600. I have no idea how they did that. We had terrible reviews at the time. I guess it was a time when people still bought singles just out of curiosity.
At that point, we were well into “Colours” and “Days in the Trees.” We had found our sound and were doing well. We didn’t want those 400 copies out there. So, we disposed of them creatively. I remember we went into a telephone box and lined it with copies. We took a blowtorch to some. We made a bonfire with others. We also threw some out the window driving up the motorway.
You’ve also released new and revamped work as Bass Communion in recent times, including Sisters Oregon and Dronework 2019. What can you tell me about the process involved with those recordings?
They were both responses to invitations. I think with Bass Communion these days, this is the way it works. I don't go out of my way to create new Bass Communion music, but if a label or another artist approaches me with an idea for a collaboration of some kind, then I'll create the music for that purpose.
So, for example, Sisters Oregon was an invitation from the German label Drone Records to create an entry in their series of 10” records. It was going to be a 10” vinyl, so I knew I was probably restricted to about 10-12 minutes a side. I created the music using choral recordings, which I'd captured during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions. I recorded a lot of music with the boy choristers that I used on “Happy Returns” and “Routine.” I had them do a lot of extra stuff with a slightly pragmatic mindset thinking, “You know what? This is going to be useful, later.” And so it was.
I liked the fact that Sisters Oregon is a relatively concise 25-minute record. I think the one strand that runs through The Future Bites, Love You to Bits and Sisters Oregon is they’re all a return to a more concise way of making music. The No-Man record is 35 minutes. The Future Bites is 40 minutes. And Sisters Oregon is 25 minutes. I think I'm falling in love again with this idea of shorter-duration pieces. And I wonder if that's also a response to the way the music industry has moved to streaming platforms with shorter attention spans. I'm as guilty of that as anyone.
Going back to your question, Dronework 2019 was an invitation from a Russian label to reissue the original Dronework and I just thought, “You know what? That's a bit boring. Why don't we revisit the original piece and create two or three variations of the original piece?” I used the original layers and also sent them to Zoviet*France, a French group that worked up a mix. I took the layers and created new versions myself. It’s interesting in that it was all originally based on recordings from a single cheap Casiotone keyboard. It appealed to me as a concept.
You helmed the surround remix of Ultravox’s Vienna for its recent deluxe edition. Describe your approach for the project.
Ultravox don't get anywhere nearly enough credit for their fusion of rock and new wave synthesizer use. I think Gary Numan gets all the credit and Ultravox gets very little of it. But of course, there were other contemporary people like John Foxx who came from a rock or punk background, who wound up exploring synthesizers like the Prophet-5 and creating music that still, to this day, sounds incredibly fresh.
Ultravox’s Vienna also has the progressive rock aspect on tracks like “Western Promise” and the Kraftwerk influence on “Mr. X.” So, I was hearing influences I wasn’t necessarily aware of as a teenager when I first heard and loved the record.
I think Vienna stands up as a very unique, innovative and influential record with great songs. There’s a parallel with The Future Bites and Vienna. In both cases, the songs are paramount. Yes, you can experiment with all this technology and sound design, but at the end of the day, you have to have good pop melodies, and catchy, memorable hooks. Vienna has those in abundance.
I remixed the album into 5.1. It already sounded fantastic in stereo. I usually always do a stereo mix along with 5.1 mixes, but I wasn’t going to go up against Conny Plank’s original stereo mix.
Vienna is one of my favorite albums growing up. I think I was the right person for the job in terms of deconstructing and reconstructing it, because I knew the recording very, very well. These days, I turn down jobs on the basis I’m not the right person to do it because I’m not a big enough fan. But in this case, I certainly was the right choice.
Earlier, we discussed the fact that you remixed some of Tangerine Dream’s classic 1973-1979 output for the 2019 In Search of Hades box set. You’re a huge fan of that era. What did it mean for you to work on that material?
It was amazing for several reasons. That catalog had been so poorly served in the CD era. It hadn't been remastered since the ‘90s and even when it had been done, it hadn't been done very well. There were no surround sound mixes of this music you would think would be an absolute no-brainer for that treatment. Also, it was well known to all Tangerine Dream fans that there was unreleased music in the vault. To actually be working on getting that music to fans was incredible. As a fan, it was a project I'd always dreamed somebody would do.
Again, like Ultravox’s Vienna, rightly or wrongly, I felt I was the right person to be doing it because I knew that music like the back of my hand. And when I heard the Oedipus Tyrannus tape, I knew how to make it sound authentic. I knew how to mix that previously-unmixed record in a way that would sound authentically vintage, like it came out in between Phaedra and Rubicon, way back in 1974. I was very fortunate that the team at Universal felt the same way.
Provide some insight into how the unreleased material was unearthed.
I was told by Universal that they found half of Phaedra and some of Rubicon, but not the album art. They also said they found an outtake and the unreleased Oedipus Tyrannus tapes. I said, "Great. How much material is there?” They said, "There's about three hours of it." I was like, "Wow." And then they said, "We also found three or four hours of Phaedra outtakes." And I'm like, "You just hit the motherlode, mate." It was something that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s rare to have an archival project like that where you find so much unreleased music which is actually worth mixing and hearing.
It’s one thing with box set fever to have endless alternate versions or rough mixes. That’s all worthless to me, to be honest. But here was a project with four or five hours of studio material every Tangerine Dream fan in the world would want to hear—and hear more than once, and not just for historical interest. I think the Jethro Tull project is probably the closest I've come to that in the sense that we found so many good quality songs that were never released in the vaults. But this Tangerine Dream project was on a whole other level.
You commissioned the current incarnation of Tangerine Dream to remix “King Ghost” from The Future Bites. Did that opportunity relate to the box set project?
It did. I got to know Edgar Froese’s widow Bianca Froese-Acquaye quite well while working on it. She invited me to come see the band play at The Barbican in 2019. I think the new version of the band with Thorsten Quaeschning, Hoshiko Yamane, Ulrich Schnauss, and Paul Frick is making good music. I think their series of Sessions albums, based on long improvisations, is a modern take on the pioneering work of the ‘70s. I also have some of Ulrich’s albums and really like them.
So, I thought “King Ghost” was a very appropriate track for a purely electronic band like Tangerine Dream to tackle. It is, essentially, an electronic piece of music, but it’s also very textural. They had a go and did a cracking job.
Last year, you also released a deluxe edition of Porcupine Tree’s In Absentia. What were some of the considerations in creating it?
It's a good record. Sometimes I go back and I listen to my old work with absolute horror and all I can hear is the stuff I would do differently if I was doing it today. But with that record, I felt I had a great bunch of songs to take to the band. And one of the other nice things is being able to go back and listen to the demos and realize that a lot of the songs went through a lot of different stages. In some cases, they started off very differently to the way they ended up. I like the fact that the demos disc is specifically focusing on the songs that were quite different when they started off. So, it's not just a worse version of the album version. It's actually a very different take and perspective on the material. I hope the fans really enjoy that. And of course, there were a lot of extra tracks recorded at those sessions, too, which have come out over the years, but it was nice to bring everything together. It was also nice to make the documentary and have everyone reflect on the sessions.
In Absentia is one of the cornerstones of my back catalog, so I'm very happy to have it sounding better than it's ever sounded and in a definitive deluxe edition which provides a whole context for that period. It was a very exciting time for the band. We got a major record deal for the first time. We had a big league manager for the first time and it seemed like things were going to happen. And I think a lot of the story about In Absentia is about how they didn't happen.
We made this record which gradually became very influential and arguably created a template a lot of other bands picked up on, but it didn't go through the roof and it wasn't very successful at the time. It became a slow burner and I think now it's acknowledged as a very strong record, if not a classic record. And I certainly feel that way about it myself.
You also began releasing a series of live Porcupine Tree albums online in 2020. What criteria do you adhere to in choosing what to put out?
It goes back to your first question about lockdown. I finally had time to do what we’d always planned to do, which was release some high-quality live recordings from across the band’s career.
Every Porcupine Tree show, almost without exception, was recorded. Most of them were recorded only as direct-to-stereo board tapes, but starting from about 2005 onwards, all of them were recorded to multi-track. So, it was a question of seeing what we had that was available to be mixed that would represent an era of the band that wasn’t adequately represented. I was also looking for recordings that had a very different take on the material.
We didn’t mix anything from The Incident tour, because there’s already the Octane Twisted live album. But there was never any official live document from the In Absentia era. We found a really great recording from House of Blues in LA from that 2003 tour. But there were issues with it. It had been recorded to ADAT and the drums were poorly recorded. Gavin Harrison had to do a lot of restoration on the drums. But it’s a great performance and it represents repertoire that wasn’t previously released as a live album.
We also released the very first show we did at The Nag’s Head in High Wycombe from 1993. I’ve had that board tape for years and now it’s out. There are problems with it. The balance is a bit odd. But I love the fact that we’ve released our very first ever performance as an official live album. How often does that happen? It’s pretty well-recorded and it was a no-brainer to do.
Another obvious thing to release were the additional Coma Divine tapes from 1997. We’d recorded all three nights in Rome and played a lot of different material each night. It was easy to go and mix the tracks that weren’t included on the original Coma Divine release. I called it Coma:Coda, which I thought was a nice title.
I want to put out stuff with some degree of sonic excellence. We’re not going to put something out just because we have it, like some bands do. You know—those dodgy audience bootlegs recorded from the toilets. There is more stuff to come.
You got married in 2019 and are now a parent. How has that shift influenced your life?
It's been an incredible few years for me in the sense that my life has completely changed. Between writing To the Bone and The Future Bites, my personal life has completely transitioned. I never thought I would have children and now I’ve inherited two lovely little girls and I love it. I don’t want to come across as the “born again father,” but I love it and have completely embraced it. I'm very happy. I think one of the most beautiful things about life is allowing yourself to change, adapt and challenge your preconceptions. And obviously I've always tried to do that musically, but perhaps what I haven't done is do that in a personal way until recently. I have completely challenged my preconceptions about what kind of life I want to live—and even where I live. I always said I wouldn’t move back to London, but I’m back there and really enjoying that, too.
Having a wife and children, and moving back to the city have all been positive as far as I'm concerned. It's been a joyous time for me. I think I have a fairly unwarranted reputation as being this rather morose, depressive character and I think that that isn’t me. But that was the way I came across in public. I think part of that was keeping a lot of my private life, just that—private. But my wife Rotem is very happy to be in the public eye. My previous partner was not, so by definition my private life was very much private. So, I think I'm able to reveal a lot more about my private life than perhaps I was able to in the past.
Your family appears on The Future Bites. How did you feature them?
When I was working on tracks like “Personal Shopper” and “Self,” I thought "It would be great to have some kids on this." So, we got them on it and they’re great and loved doing it. Rotem, along with Elton, does some of the shopping list stuff on “Personal Shopper.” She’s actually saying all the stuff he didn’t want to, like “mobile phone skins” and “birth control pills.”
The big moment for my girls is in the middle of “Self,” where they and their friends all shout, "I am the universe." That was a fun moment. It was originally part of a completely different song, but we didn't use it in the end, so we transplanted it into the middle of “Self” and it works great. They pop up in a couple of other places, too. So, yeah, they're all on the album and it’s a real family affair.
What will your forthcoming book encompass?
I’ve been approached by several publishers about doing a book. I’ve explored different ways of doing one, including a standard autobiography, but I felt that wasn’t interesting enough. After speaking to some of the publishers, it began to occur to me that there’s a book to be written about my thoughts on music—what it means to be a professional musician in the 21st Century as well as the relationship I have with my fans. I also want to include some short stories I’ve written over the years. It’ll be like a compendium of sorts.
My career began in the early ‘90s, when the music industry still clung to the model it had used for the preceding 30-40 years. And now, nearly 30 years later, the music industry has been transformed beyond recognition. It bears almost no relationship to the industry I started in with Tim Bowness and Ben Coleman as No-Man. That in and of itself is an interesting tale.
The book will also have some quite surreal moments, including fantasy conversations with my father who passed away 10 years ago.
I’ve conducted my career in quite an usual way, for better than worse. I don’t think many people put up with the same shit I do from my fans. I am very good at upsetting them, by doing the last thing they expect, in a fairly willful way. In that way, you can say I’m pushing them around as well. I don’t underestimate how privileged I am to be able to do that. A lot of people would never have been able to get away with what I have, whether it’s breaking up a band that’s reasonably successful, or going from classic, conceptual, progressive rock albums to relatively streamlined pop records.
So, my fans have to deal with lots of surprises and uncertainty. But I despise the commentary that happens online in such a negative, mean-spirited way. There’s no need for that. I think a lot of my fans have to get used to the idea that they don’t always get what they want or expect. Perhaps some of them end up realizing it’s what they wanted after all. That’s my hope, anyway. I think it will be very interesting to explore these elements in the book.
There have been at least three books that have been written about me by other people. I haven’t read any of them. I don’t know what they say. This book I’m doing will definitely be different from those in that it’s a voyage into my psyche. I’m hoping it’ll be out later in 2021.
The current issues, difficulties and uncertainties about monetizing recorded music are well chronicled. Let’s invert the narrative. What are some of the more positive and empowering elements about being a musician in 2021 for you?
As you say, it's not the greatest time in terms of being able to make a living as a professional musician, particularly if you're working in a more niche genre. I think it's very hard these days. Largely, people don't want to pay for recorded music.
But I think creatively, there are so many possibilities now. If you embrace it, it's quite an exciting time. I still love the album and the idea of creating a musical journey. But I also like the fact that now music can almost be drip-fed to a fanbase and that presents some creative possibilities. You can try things out and perhaps be able to fail at something, and have that be okay.
In a way, there’s almost a parallel to the way the world of pop and rock music started. There was a time in the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s when bands would release two albums a year. The beautiful thing about that was it meant you could try something really different without risking your fanbase. If they weren’t going for it, that was okay, because there was another album six months down the line. For instance, in 1975, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music. It didn’t matter, because Coney Island Baby came out later that year.
That kind of experimentation and even experimenting almost with your fan base, holds a lot of potential. I think we have a similar possibility now. If I wanted to, I could go and do something really experimental in my studio that sounds nothing like anything I've done before. Then I can upload it and release it to my fanbase. And if they don't like it, it's not a big deal. It's not the big album statement that everything seems to be weighed down with these days. I think so much of fan discourse is about “Oh, I've listened to the new album and I don't like it as much as the last album” or “I wish you'd go back to what you were doing on that earlier album.” A lot of that is to do with the weight of expectation the album as an entity has. So, there's an opportunity to maybe bypass that a little bit, while still keeping the album format out there, too.
Remember the days when bands used to release non-album singles? I miss the era when bands would release singles that would never be featured on an album. It was an opportunity to experiment for a four-minute duration. I could definitely see myself going back to a little bit more of that kind of approach and way of thinking.
I also think the overall musical vocabulary is changing, even if the vocabulary for rock hasn’t. David Kosten introduced me to a lot of contemporary pop, which I guess I had blipped out on, because I thought of myself as the old classic rock guy. But he’d play me new stuff and I’d think “Fucking hell, that’s amazing.” He’d also play me stuff by Tyler the Creator or Billie Eilish and I’d think “This isn’t my kind of music, but what they’re doing, they’re doing creatively.” Kanye West, as much as people love to loathe him, makes music with some incredible production. I began to understand why he’s held in such high esteem. And if I can, I take some of those ideas and bring them into my own music.
I’m sure my fans are reading this, recoiling in horror at the idea that Kanye West is going to influence Steven Wilson. But you know what? There are incredible things going on in the worlds of production and sonics for urban music and hip-hop.
Now, go and listen to a song like “Bury a Friend” by Billie Eilish. Just forget that you're listening to an 18-year-old pop star. Just listen to the sonics on that record. They’re amazing. I've heard that song on a big studio system. And it's the sound of a brother-and-sister duo that know nothing about the history of rock and their music is all the better for it. They're coming at it from a completely intuitive, fresh place without any of the baggage of knowing who The Beatles or Led Zeppelin were. That's fascinating to me. They’re kids essentially using the possibilities of technology, computer recording and plugins to create a kind of music which doesn’t sound like it’s from somebody else’s record collection. It sounds like it’s coming from somewhere completely new.
Even if I’m ambivalent about the final result of some of the new music, I can definitely admire what’s going on in terms of production. A lot of that seeped into The Future Bites, no question.