The Never-Ending Staircase
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2023 Anil Prasad.
Steven Wilson’s record collection is a sight to behold. It encompasses thousands of LPs and CDs across every genre imaginable. Ambient, classical, disco, electronica, funk, jazz, minimalist, noise, pop, punk, post-punk, soul, and global music from Africa to India to Turkmenistan are just a few of the universes he explores as a listener.
Wilson’s open-minded approach as a record collector is significantly reflected in his own music. His new album The Harmony Codex offers the most diverse amalgam of influences he has embraced to date. The LP has no conventional fixed point of reference. Wilson describes it as a cinematic effort designed to take its audience on a journey through manifold emotions and constructs.
The recording’s 10 tracks explore modern pop, electronic atmospheres, fourth world soundscapes, lush balladry, spiritual jazz, and art rock, often with several of those elements seamlessly intertwined. It’s an uncompromising release that also underlines where Wilson has arrived in his professional and personal life.
The accolades and cultural resonance Wilson has achieved during his career that began in the early ‘80s are significant. He has top-10 albums across the globe, multiple Grammy nominations, and streaming counts in the tens of millions. And at age 55, Wilson is experiencing deep contentment and enrichment, happily married to his wife Rotem since 2019 and now a devoted father to two stepchildren. The knowledge that a large, dedicated audience will approach his new music with open ears, and that his familial support system has his back are catalysts for how The Harmony Codex unfolded.
The album includes an impressive array of world class collaborators who helped bring Wilson’s vision to life. Nick Beggs, Craig Blundell, Ben Coleman, Adam Holzman, David Kollar, David Kosten, Pat Mastelotto, Nate Navarro, Ninet Tayeb, Theo Travis, and Niko Tsonev are among the musicians featured from Wilson’s previous projects. Key new faces contributing to the recording include Jack Dangers, Sam Fogarino, Nils Petter Molvær, Guy Pratt, and Nate Wood.
The Harmony Codex immediately follows a highly successful period of Porcupine Tree reunion activity. The progressive rock unit reconvened after a 12-year hiatus to release a well-received 2022 album titled Closure/Continuation. The tour supporting the record saw the band playing to dramatically larger audiences than its last performance cycle in 2010, including arenas in Europe and South America.
Wilson’s other key focus as the world’s most sought-after surround sound remixer continues apace. His most recent Dolby Atmos projects include ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, Chic’s first three albums, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, Tears for Fears’ The Hurting, The Who’s Who’s Next, Ultravox’s Quartet, Van Morrison’s Moondance, Rick Wright’s Wet Dream, and XTC’s The Big Express.
Innerviews discussed the expanse of Wilson’s recent output during a Zoom conversation. In addition, he examines the visual aesthetic represented on The Harmony Codex by artists Hajo Müller and Carl Glover, explains the enduring value of physical media in a streaming universe, and provides an update on his long-term art pop duo No-Man with Tim Bowness.
You’ve said The Harmony Codex is based on a metaphor of life as a never-ending staircase. Elaborate on that perspective.
The album shares its title with a short story that was in my book released last year, A Limited Edition of One. The central conceit of that story is the idea that a brother and sister enter a building, a terrorist attack and explosion occur, and they can't exit the building. So, they're forced to go up the staircase. They get on it and it essentially becomes the M.C. Escher Penrose stairs of never-ending ascent. So, the story takes a turn from something based in reality to something based in surrealism with a very dreamlike quality. And I'm not going to say it was something I planned, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this metaphor of a never-ending staircase applies particularly to people in my age category. When you get to your fifties, you start to appreciate certain things about the passage of life.
One of those things I think you appreciate as you get older is that life is about the journey. It's not about the destination. It's not about arrival. It's about all of the things you encounter on the way. And very often a lot of the most significant things in life are the things you didn't plan or expect.
This metaphor of life being a sort of never-ending staircase doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. There's obviously the negative side of things and the pressure that life brings, particularly in the 21st century. I’m talking about the anxieties and the stresses, as well as the pressure to compete, to be financially secure, and to provide for your family. You're dealing increasingly with physical and mental ailments, too. It feels sometimes like you’re stuck on a staircase you can't escape from.
Some of the songs I wrote for the record, I initially thought, “You know what? That doesn't relate at all to the story.” I’m referring to songs like “What Life Brings” and “Time is Running Out.” But then, I realized, they do have this underlying metaphor of the passage of life and being stuck in patterns you can’t escape.
Some of the songs feel like they have an existential element that examines the idea of free will versus fate. Is that accurate?
Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly it. It’s the idea that a lot of the most incredible things about life are about fate. I sit here now at the age of 55, having been married for four years and having two stepchildren. I never planned to have children. There’s that famous YouTube clip of me saying “I’ll never have children” and that “I’ve given my life to music” that some people still point to. So, there’s a great example of something happening I didn’t expect and embracing it.
As the song “What Life Brings” says, it’s about loving it all, embracing it, appreciating it, and finding the positives in your journey. And really, it’s a pretty short journey. Life is a brief, fleeting moment. Many are driven to make some kind of existential sense of the gift of life. I feel I’ve found a pretty positive path through it.
You’re in the enviable position of having total freedom when it comes to making music. How do you decide on a direction and arc for a project before you begin realizing it?
The Harmony Codex is probably the first time, certainly in terms of my solo career, that I've had no agenda. And I say that because if you go back through my solo career, yes, all the albums are different, but there's always essentially some kind of master plan. Insurgentes was going to be my record in which I referenced my growing up with post-punk music. The Raven That Refused to Sing was my old-fashioned progressive rock album. The Future Bites was going to be my streamlined electronic pop record. I went into all of those projects knowing those were going to be essentially the directions I was going to take.
For The Harmony Codex, it was different. Right from the beginning, I was just making music and it was kind of flying off in all these different directions. I was allowing it to do that in a way that I perhaps wouldn't have done in the past. I wouldn't have been brave enough to have put in the middle of one of my previous solo records, a 10-minute track where essentially nothing happens. It's just ambient sort of texture. I would've said to myself, “No, you can't do that. People won't sit through that.”
I think there was a sense, because the album was made during the COVID-19 lockdown, that I was even less aware than ever before of the audience. I was more oblivious to the listener than at any other time. I think that was partly because lockdown created this sense of enforced isolation. So, I was making music completely in a vacuum, with just a few people listening to the tracks and providing their thoughts.
I didn’t really know if the album would hang together at the end of the day, but something in me kind of knew it would work. There was an innate sense of “Steven Wilson” about everything I was doing that meant it would all somehow seem cohesive at the end of the day. And so, it's proved to be.
Previously, you referred to your first solo album Insurgentes as the most comprehensive amalgam of your influences and interests to date. How does The Harmony Codex compare to it?
Insurgentes is still my favorite solo record. Part of me wants to say that I think The Harmony Codex is the best thing I've ever done, but part of me also knows that time gives a different perspective and that I've probably said that about every record at the time of release. Insurgentes has a very special place for me because it was definitely a watershed moment. It was breaking away from the kind of corner I felt I painted myself into, particularly with Porcupine Tree as a sort of prog-metal thing.
I was moving away from using these big crunchy riffs into something completely different. Insurgentes brought in things I’d never had on my records before, like noise, post-punk aesthetics, and a simpler approach to song structures. When I listened to Insurgentes a couple of years ago when I remastered it, I still thought it was a terrific record. It feels like I’m breaking away from patterns. I think that’s what I’ve always done with my solo career.
With The Harmony Codex, I think the word amalgam works very well. I feel it represents every aspect of my musical personality somehow. It also feels like something new and fresh. It wasn't something I could really have planned, but there seems to be something magical about this record that hangs together, yet it's all over the place. It feels cinematic at a level that perhaps none of the other records have attained.
Describe your process of defining and refining a song’s structure.
This goes into the question of what the difference is between experimental and non-experimental approaches to music. I think a lot of music that gets referred to as experimental isn't really. A lot of people's ideas of experimental music might be something very avant-garde, weird, strange, and involves thinking out of the box. And of course, that is a type of experimental music. But I think the true nature of experimental music is to allow yourself to be surprised.
With The Harmony Codex, I had had a situation in which I was making the record without being able to go into a studio with other musicians and work with them in real-time or direct them. All I could do was reach out to other musicians and work via file sharing. Essentially, I would say to them, “Here's a piece of music. I've got a vague idea, but really just do what you feel is right and send it back to me.” I allowed myself to be open to being surprised and to give away some degree of control in terms of what that person might do and contribute to the track. I don’t mean control in the sense that I can’t say anything about what they provide. Rather, I mean control in the sense that I wasn’t sure what I was going to get back. Sometimes I would be pleasantly surprised and other times I’d be surprised in a way that was disappointing. I might say, “No, that doesn’t fall into my vision.”
It really was an experimental process to put tracks like “Inclination” and “Impossible Tightrope” together. I think at least 20 musicians sent me contributions for those two tracks in particular. Some of them didn’t make the final cut. Some of their work is on the alternate version of The Harmony Codex that’s included in the deluxe edition of the album. The version of “Impossible Tightrope” on the bonus disc has an almost completely different lineup of musicians on it. But the version I used on the album felt like the right one.
One of my tasks during the making of the album was not to be directing, but to be filtering the contributions, and deciding which ones felt like they belonged together, and which ones didn't. On previous records, I've tended to go into the studio with a particular drummer, bass player, and producer and make the record with that lineup.
With The Harmony Codex, almost every track has its own musical world and its bespoke musical lineup. There are some musicians who only appear on one track. It has band lineups that only come together for one song. I think that’s another reason the record feels eclectic and diverse. You’re hearing different musicians and combinations of musicians from track to track.
How do you go about setting expectations with musicians that their contribution may not make the final cut?
There's that famous story about Nigel Kennedy doing a session on Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. He said he was at the sessions for three days with Mark Hollis and the producer Tim Friese-Greene, doing all sorts of shit. And then Kennedy finally got the album and realized the only thing they’d used was the sound of him dropping his bow on the studio floor. [laughs]
Choosing what does or doesn’t go on a track is an intuitive thing. For “Impossible Tightrope,” there was a much more impressive bass performance than the one I used. I mean impressive in the sense that it’s more musical with a lot more going on. But I kept coming back to my original demo bass part. It just felt right, and I can’t tell you why, except to say that if I used all the most impressive things I had been sent, I would have ended up with a jazz-fusion nightmare, probably. So, it’s a question of finding the space and beauty in the song using the right combination of ingredients. With “Impossible Tightrope,” I also originally had violin solos at various points and all sorts of other stuff going on. I gradually stripped it back to something that I felt worked better as a piece of music.
In terms of communicating with the musicians, I am very diplomatic. And on this occasion, I had the option to say, truthfully, “I'm not using your performance on the album, but I'm mixing an alternate version, which is going to go on a bonus disc where you will be featured.” So, almost all the performances that didn’t make the cut on the album are represented in some way on the bonus disc.
I think the musicians I work with understand the deal in that I’m experimenting and might not necessarily use what they do, and if that happens, it’s no reflection on their abilities or contributions. It’s simply what’s right for the record and vision. I’ve had some people disappointed in me, and occasionally pissed off, but I think everyone understands the situation at the end of the day. It’s better to come clean and deal with the disappointment upfront. I think musicians respect you for doing that.
Tell me about some of the new faces on the album, including Jack Dangers, Nils Petter Molvær, Guy Pratt, and Nate Wood.
With Nils Petter, I was looking for a solo voice on “Inclination” that wouldn’t be the obvious guitar solo kind of thing. And what an extraordinarily exotic sound he has. There were certain things that worked straightaway and that was one of them. With Nate on “Impossible Tightrope,” I was thinking “I want a jazz drummer that’s grown up listening to drum and bass, and Warp Records artists." Again, what a fantastic choice. He was exactly what I was looking for.
Guy appears on “What Life Brings,” which has that very nostalgic golden melancholia feel. I got to know him over the last couple of years. I also just remixed Wet Dream by his ex-stepfather, Rick Wright. Guy seemed like an obvious choice for someone that would work really well on that track.
Jack was another great addition. That happened because I approached him about getting clearance on a track for Intrigue, a compilation I worked on of ‘80s alternative music. I had a track on there by his pre-Meat Beat Manifesto band Perennial Divide. I hooked up with him via email and found out he was a fan of my music, so there was this kind of mutual admiration thing going on. It seemed very obvious for me to say, “I’d like to send you over a few ideas. Do you want to try some shit?”
It really was an intuitive approach when it came to finding the right lineup for every song, rather than persevering with a particular musician through the whole album. I think this approach was also informed by the fact the album was made over a long period of time.
I think one of the things that’s very fortunate about my career is that most musicians know if they’re asked to work on one of my records that it’s going to at least be an interesting job. They’re not going to be asked to anything “bog standard.” There’s going to be an opportunity for them to do something creative.
Ben Coleman, who was with No-Man between 1988-1993, also appears on the record. Discuss his contribution.
I've been in touch with Ben all through the years. In fact, he played on Porcupine Tree’s 2008 Nils Recurring EP. He’s also been playing with Tim Bowness again, recently. He came out to Porcupine Tree’s show in London last year.
Ben is extraordinary, but whatever he plays on, he tends to dominate. I was very honest and said to him, “Ben, you’re amazing, but you need to form your own band, because not many people need a lead violin player on every single track.” I think that was the problem we had very early on with No-Man. We ran out of opportunities to highlight a dominant solo instrumentalist. But for “Impossible Tightrope” on The Harmony Codex, he was perfect, because it was a blank canvas.
You’ll also hear Theo Travis on sax, David Kollar on guitar, and Adam Holzman on keyboards on that track. It was a great opportunity for these more dominant voices to have a presence. The alternate version of “Impossible Tightrope” has a lot more Ben on it, too. He’s really shredding on that version. He’s more part of the mixture of ingredients on the album version.
You've worked with Hajo Müller and Carl Glover on many projects. What makes them ideal visual foils for you?
With The Harmony Codex, I was in a very fortunate position to be able to get the guys involved very early on, because I knew that the artwork should be based on the story. Even when the album didn't exist, the story did.
I was able to go to Hajo and say, “I want you to create images, and you're going to use the short story as the basis for a lot of them. For the central image, I want you to come up with a visual based around this idea of the never-ending staircase." He hit the brief, perfectly. The icon he came up with was such a gift. It looks great on t-shirts. It pops up like an Easter egg in all the videos. It has become an iconic thing, already. It’s a beautiful thing to hang the whole visual campaign around.
What Hajo came up with had 10 blocks in it, all in different colors. Coincidentally, there are 10 tracks on the record, so each track has its own color. It was a serendipitous thing. So, each track is themed around a different color. It all just fell into place beautifully.
Hajo came up with so much artwork for the record. There’s probably about five times as much artwork as we ended up using, and all of it was amazing. You’ll really see it in an absolutely beautiful way in the deluxe edition. You get the story as well, in there, and people will really be able to appreciate how much work went into this project. It really is a work of art.
Also, Hajo and Carl work together really well. With Carl, I get on so well with him for the same reason I got on so well with Lasse Hoile for all those years. We have a very, very common set of references. If I start talking about some obscure movie or Public Image Ltd. 7” single that came out in 1979, he knows exactly what I’m talking about. So, we’re on the same page straightaway, visually and aesthetically.
Carl is incredibly easy to work with. He has no ego. He doesn’t mind rejection. He doesn’t get upset. He wants to create art first and foremost, as does Hajo. It’s to the point where money is the last thing I’ll ever discuss with the guys. We just discuss the art, and then at some point, I say, “Oh, I think I need to pay you for this.” That’s because they’re people of integrity doing things for the right reasons. They’re trying to create a piece of magic and it’s thrilling for them. It’s not just a job. They both still get excited about the work as when we first started.
You’re a fan of spiritual jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Explore that interest and how it has influenced your music.
The older I get, the more drawn I am to jazz, and the less I am to structured progressive rock music, which of course was so important to me. I still like progressive rock, but I find if I'm going to listen to music now, I'm much more likely to put on a jazz record.
I think the word “spiritual” is the key. There's something very free about that music—the good stuff—that doesn’t hit you over the head with its intellect. It's almost outside of music in a way. Obviously, these musicians are incredible, and they can play their instruments, but there's an outsider element to it. By that, I mean these guys can turn up and just make a record standing on the street without any studio situation. And of course, the great irony is that I make incredibly structured, considered, tweezed, edited, produced, and sonically lush records. But I like to also harness an element of that sort of spiritual freedom as well. I like to think I've managed to do that in places on this record.
I love Alice Coltrane, and you’ll hear harp inspired by her on “Impossible Tightrope.” That's a very specific example of an influence on my music. I also love John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Anthony Braxton. Braxton is an extremely prolific musician. He’s beyond jazz, as a serious composer that was just as influenced by Stockhausen as he was by John Coltrane. He has some very serious compositional chops, but he’s also a brilliant improvisor and intuitive musician. I became completely obsessed with Braxton and bought about 40 records of his in the span of three months. What appeals to me about Braxton is that he straddles the worlds of free jazz and spiritual jazz with a kind of intellectual rigor. That's speaking my language.
You’re on top of the streaming universe and the myriad ways you have to connect with listeners across services and devices. But when it comes to listening to music yourself, you almost exclusively focus on LPs and CDs. Talk about your continuing devotion to physical media.
I still have so much nostalgia for the tactile experience. The whole experience of music for me is tied up with physical media, including putting a record or CD on, looking at a gatefold sleeve or leafing through a booklet, and reading lyrics and credits. This goes back to the fact that it wasn’t being a musician or performer that I fell in love with. Rather, I fell in love with making records.
I wanted to make something that was beautifully recorded and designed. That was my dream. It wasn’t to be standing on stage singing or being a rock star. For me, the whole process of listening to music is bound up in the idea of holding something physical in my hands.
I cannot get used to the idea of music streaming in ones and zeros off of some file server. I know I’m old fashioned but streaming seems like such an ugly way to engage with music to me.
The other thing about physical media is it discourages the kind of playlist jukebox mentality. Streaming encourages an approach in which you make playlists just of your favorite songs. The whole idea of the album as a continuum goes out the window. So, therefore, the whole idea of physical media goes out the window.
When you listen to an album, you listen to the tracks that you don't necessarily love too, because you understand it's all part of the vision and journey. It's all part of what the artist intended. To a lot of people who came up through the streaming generation, they think this idea is insane. But I personally wouldn’t listen to an album and skip a track any more than I would watch a movie and fast-forward through 15 minutes in the middle of it. Most people wouldn’t do that—cut out a scene of a movie because it didn't interest them. But people do that with music all the time. They're just essentially taking scenes from albums and putting them in playlists.
That’s probably the future, isn’t it? People will move more and more towards the playlist mentality, focusing only on their favorite songs, and a lot of deep album cuts will be lost forever. We’re already moving increasingly towards a greatest hits-dominated mentality when it comes to music. Look at the British charts, now. It barely changes from week to week. It’s full of greatest hits albums by Elton John, ABBA, Oasis, and Fleetwood Mac, with a few other records by people like Harry Styles. The greatest hits albums stick around for months and years on end. So many people are just listening to the same songs over and over again.
Social media and streaming algorithms are precisely configured to create echo chambers, so people are presented with content, music, and opinions that strictly mirror their established interests. We grew up in an era in which we saved up as kids to buy a record or book, and we’d force ourselves to explore them, regardless of if we initially liked them, determined to make the investment matter.
I agree. There’s no investment in terms of time or energy anymore. And there’s a proliferation of music and content, in general. How do you persuade someone to spend time with something they don’t immediately like? You can’t. And as you also said, people like you and I would persevere with music we didn’t initially like, and those records might become the records we love the most. So yeah, that whole thing has gone away and will never come back, because it doesn’t need to. People have so much choice now. There’s no need for them to go through the pain barrier, for want of a better term.
The other thing about the era you and I came from is the pool of records we could buy was whatever our local shops had. That was it. It was also about what was currently in print. There also weren’t nearly as many records coming out in the ‘80s. Maybe there were three or four big records every month. Now, there are 400 records released every week and 120,000 songs uploaded to streaming services every day. It’s a crisis of proliferation.
Why should someone keep listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica when they hated it the first time and there’s another 3 billion records available to them for free?
You just wrapped up the Porcupine Tree Closure/Continuation tour cycle. How do you look back at that experience?
It was a lot of fun. There was definitely a lightness about it this time. There weren’t the same pressures, stresses, and bickering there were 15 years ago. We understood that we all have other things now, and this was a coming together—maybe a one-off, maybe not—for a short period of time to play some new music, to play some old music, and to connect with fans, some of whom had never had the opportunity to see us. It was about enjoying the process and that's exactly what we did.
We spent all the money we made on making the tour as luxurious and pleasant as possible. We all had our own buses in America and Europe. It was comfortable. There was no being crammed together on the road, getting on each other's nerves. So, we had a great time. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it too, is I knew I had The Harmony Codex ready to go right after the tour.
What can you tell me about the forthcoming Porcupine Tree live album?
We recorded the Amsterdam Ziggo Dome show from last November. It was very beautifully filmed and mixed. It was one of the biggest shows with about 12,000 people. It was a great night, and it’s a complete document of this period of the band. There will be a five-LP box set of the audio and a Blu-Ray. There might be a deluxe CD and Blu-Ray box set as well.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this phase of Porcupine Tree is that in some respects, I’m not at the center of everything, and things actually happen without me. I’ve been able to let Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison take control of certain things, like working on this release. I’ve mixed the audio and approved the visual cut. It should be out at the beginning of 2024.
What’s your perspective on how the legend of the band grew over the years, to the point that you were playing arenas in Europe on the tour?
It says to me that what we did and what we still do is quite unique. When someone discovers Porcupine Tree, they realize it’s something they can’t get somewhere else. Some other bands that started around the same time have kind of faded away and don’t have an audience anymore because their fans moved on to other very similar things. There might be hundreds of other bands that essentially did something very similar, and it became interchangeable. We didn't have that. We never fit in with anything. We never sounded like anyone else. We created our own little musical universe. So, I think that meant that our fans were much less fickle and less likely to move on to other things. They would stick with us.
I think it also meant that when someone discovered us when we were inactive, they discovered this musical universe they had never heard from anyone else. So, over that long period during which we weren’t doing anything, many people found out about the band and thought it was something very special. So, when we did come back, there was a whole new generation of people waiting to see us.
Is it looking like closure or continuation?
I think in previous years, when I’ve said “No, the band’s over,” that was a little bit of a smokescreen so people would focus on my solo work. I don’t have that worry anymore, because I think people do focus on my solo work, now. So, I’m less inclined to say, “Forget about Porcupine Tree, it’s never going to come back.” It might come back, but I don’t think it’ll be anytime soon. We would have to have something fresh we wanted to say if we were to make a new studio record.
I cannot imagine us getting back together just to do a nostalgia tour. That’s so not us. The chances of coming back to go out and play the songs for the fans one more time is pretty slim. I think it would have to be allied with a new studio project. I don’t know what that would be at this stage, but maybe in three, five, or 10 years, if we’re all still alive and around, it’s possible.
Atmos is everywhere at this point and you’re one of its biggest proponents. What are the hallmarks of a great Atmos mix and in contrast, what are some of the poor choices you’ve heard others make that detract from its potential?
This goes back to how I approached 5.1 surround all those years ago, in that I always just did what I thought was right. And I discovered what I thought was right was actually a lot more aggressive with the format than most people were doing. A lot of people were mixing 5.1 very conservatively, keeping it essentially stereo, putting a little bit of reverb in the back, and maybe having an occasional sound effect in the back. But that was it. I came along and said, “Well fuck, this is great! Let's throw all the backing vocals in the back and let's have acoustic guitars all around us.”
With Atmos, for the first time in my life, I actually find myself at the forefront of something. For me, the hallmarks of a good Atmos mix are, again, being creative, and fairly aggressive with your use of, in particular, the height, side, and rear speakers, and not making it a front-loaded mix that essentially makes it into a big stereo thing. I like placing things specifically and discretely in all of the speakers: above, side, and behind.
I’m also conscious of not pulling the glue that keeps the music sounding cohesive apart too much. There are bad mixes that do this. One kind of a bad mix is one that has everything too front-loaded. The other example is one in which the bass drum is in the left front speaker and the snare drum is in the rear right speaker. I’m exaggerating here, but what I’m saying is going too far or gimmicky is a pitfall in mixing spatial audio. I like to find a happy medium. What I do is intuitive. It’s what seems good, three-dimensional, but remains cohesive. It still feels like the glue that holds the musicians together is in place.
I’m also conscious of the fact that most people listening to Atmos now are doing it binaurally on headphones. So, they’re not really listening to things from above or behind them. They’re listening to a downmix that sounds more three-dimensional than stereo. Moving into the future, this is the way most people will experience it. I spend a lot of time listening to my mixes on my Apple AirPod Max through the binaural decoders—both the Apple one and the Dolby ones—to make it sound as good as I can. I also take soundbars into account. It's quite a learning curve to understand what works and what doesn't.
At the end of the day, I don’t care about people telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. That’s my philosophy towards music, anyway. I ask questions like “What seems right to me? What excites me? What sounds good to me?” The most important knowledge I have is what my ears give me, not what I read on the Internet or what somebody else tells me. But people seem to like the way I’m doing it, by and large, so I take that as encouragement.
The Harmony Codex is the first album I’ve made in which when I was writing it, I knew there would be a spatial audio mix. It didn’t influence the writing, but it did have an impact on how I recorded it. I was making mental notes about how certain elements were going to work great in spatial audio. I felt like it was my opportunity to really try and raise the bar with what’s possible. My little fantasy is what Dark Side of the Moon did for stereo in 1973, perhaps The Harmony Codex can do for Atmos. My thought was “Don’t make it gimmicky and have things whizzing around the room but make something that feels like the listener is completely inside it.” I wanted to make it a piece of cinema for the ears. And the responses I’ve got at surround playback events mean people feel that’s the case.
Instead of a conventional tour for The Harmony Codex, you’re considering taking a residency approach, performing in venues specializing in spatial audio reproduction. Explore what you’re thinking about pursuing for 2024.
Spatial audio events have been a very big focus of the pre-release rollout of this record. Given this is the first album I’ve really made with spatial audio in mind, it’s going to be a hard record to pull off live, because of the diversity of it and the number of different musical forces involved. I’m sure I can find a way to do it, but I also want to challenge myself. I don’t think the idea of going out and doing a regular tour appeals to me anymore. I want to push the envelope in terms of what’s possible with a rock show.
There are a lot of interesting things going on in the world of urban music, in terms of the way shows are presented, how artists interact with their audiences, and how they use light and sound. There’s not so much going on that’s innovative in the world of rock music. So, I want to do something different, and to be able to do that, I would need to be stationary in one venue for a period of time. It wouldn’t be a moveable feast. It would be a bit like the Kate Bush residency at Hammersmith Apollo in London in 2014. She could never have done that show if she had been moving to a different city every night, without it being a logistical nightmare.
In order for me to do a residency, I think it would need to be a smaller, more intimate venue. The audience would be spread out over multiple nights. I think it’ll sound better and look better and be more exciting for the audience. This approach is a reaction against the sort of touring I’ve done for so many years. I think I’m just bored with the two-dimensional presentation approach. So, this is a reflection of my continued involvement in the world of spatial audio.
I’m just thinking about it at the moment. It depends on the right venues being available. Spatial audio is coming into a lot more venues, but it’s still early days. There’s one in London and Paris that would be ideal. In terms of other cities, I think this could work in Germany, Holland, and Chile. In America, New York and Los Angeles would be the obvious places to try it out. It’s an experimental idea and I need to look at if it can work both logistically and financially. But it’s something I’d like to do and we’re beginning to talk about it now.
Describe your approach to remixing The Who’s Who’s Next for its new super-deluxe incarnation.
My philosophy has always been to treat classic albums as a kind of sacred text and be as faithful as possible to the original spirit and decisions made during the original stereo mix. Who’s Next is no different. It was quite limited in terms of multi-track recording. Most of it was done on eight-track. So, I’d have mono drum and bass tracks, a couple of guitar channels, a lead vocal, maybe a piano overdub, and a couple of backing vocal overdubs. There isn’t a massive amount you can do with that when it comes to Atmos and spatial audio.
There were other elements like all the reverbs that had to be added back into the mix. So, there was that ambience that could also be positioned in the spatial field. I first recreated the stereo mix as closely as I could. And then I started thinking about moving things into the spatial realm. Keith Moon, John Entwistle, and Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitars needed to be kept together as a cohesive rhythm section. Of course, there are also tracks like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” in which there are keyboard arpeggios which were a gift for doing weird stuff in surround with.
Pete actually re-recorded some of his parts for “The Song Is Over” because the multitracks were lost. He redid the ARP synth parts and his guitar solo and did a fantastic job. They sound completely vintage. So, he was involved in that sense and worked to provide the tools I needed. In terms of the final mix, Bob Pridden, the sound engineer and Pete's best friend for decades, approved the final mix. Pete kept an eye on the process through his team.
I’d say it worked better in Atmos than I expected, because even though I went into it thinking it’s a fairly pared-down rock record, it’s actually more sophisticated than that. I think it sounds beautiful. It’s probably in the top-10 of the most iconic rock albums of all time, so the pressure was definitely on.
I have to say, they’ve done a beautiful job on that box set, including the content, mastering, packaging, and extras. I don’t always agree with the notion of blowing single albums up into massive, gigantic box sets, but this really is an exception.
You also helmed an expanded remix of Rick Wright’s Wet Dream from 1978. Talk about your interest in the record and the considerations involved.
One of my great dreams since I started remixing classic albums is that someday I'd get to work on something to do with the Pink Floyd catalog. And finally, it happened and what a beautiful record to remix.
There were no Floyd politics involved, because it was a Rick album. It was so easy to work with his children Gala and Jamie.
Wet Dream is a perfect album to remix because it wasn't that well mixed to begin with, but it was well recorded. And that's the best combination of all because you know that you're going to get a multi-track recording that's really beautifully captured, but you're going to be able to better the original stereo version. For whatever reason, the original mixer or engineer had been rushed or wasn’t experienced enough, so it sounded a bit flat. In this sense, I think it was a gift of an album to be redoing.
Also, when I loaded up the multi-track tapes, I found that some music had been cut out from the final version. One of the things with the vinyl era is that sometimes records were edited because they couldn’t fit. Sometimes the mastering engineer would come back and say, “No, there’s too much music. You have to cut out some of it.” Artists would then go away and listen to their record and say, “Well, okay, I can lose that minute from the middle of that track.” We’ll never know what the motivation was here, but there was about a minute cut from two songs on the record for no apparent reason.
I said to Gala and Jamie, “Are you okay with me including this stuff in the new version?” They said, “Yeah, great. Why not? Fans aren’t going to object to that, are they?” Of course, they won’t, though there’s always one fan that will. [laughs] But we’ll ignore that one fan, because everyone else will love it. So, that was an easy decision to make.
Wet Dream is also an album that’s never been given a proper reissue. It was previously put out on a boutique Sony side label on CD, probably using a third-generation copy master, with no real promotion behind it. The original album wasn’t that well-promoted, either. This was a golden opportunity to redress the balance.
I had great fun doing it and it sounds really beautiful. A lot of Floyd fans don’t even know this album exists, so they’re coming to it fresh, and don’t have the baggage of an Atmos mix of Dark Side of the Moon or Animals, as James Guthrie has done.
A No-Man box set is due for release in early 2024. What can you tell me about it?
It’s called Housekeeping and it’s music from the One Little Indian years, from roughly 1991 to 1994, when we left the label. During that time, we made two full-length albums, a mini-album, and a whole bunch of singles and EPs with exclusive tracks. The box set brings together all the material recorded during that period across four CDs, remastered to sound as good as possible. Each disc is themed, and it includes a disc of radio sessions we did during the period. It also has a great essay written by Matt Hammers, who is a No-Man aficionado that’s been writing about us on the web for years.
Some of the music reflects how very, very naïve I was as a producer during that time, but I was also pleasantly surprised, 30 years later, by how very unique our sound was. I think we struggled so much at the time, because we didn’t really fit into any niche. We had beats, elements of trip-hop and DJ culture, and the Manchester scene, but we were also writing incredibly romantic, very progressive, and in some sense, epic pretentious pieces, too. And now when I listen back, it sounds like nothing else. So, it’s really nice to hear it all in context.
Your collaborators describe you as being happier and more balanced than ever. What’s your view on that?
A lot of it is about being married, having children, and being part of a very warm and loving family unit. I think that makes you less self-centered and selfish. I think the older I've got, the less I care about things that previously made me anxious. But it’s interesting in that there are actually other things I’m more anxious about now, such as being terrified of flying. I never used to be. Perhaps it’s also something to do with being part of a family. I feel more responsibility now.
Overall, I feel more relaxed about life. I think it’s part of why The Harmony Codex is the album that it is. I’ve got nothing to prove to myself, to fans, or to the industry. I feel I have found the right path in life, personally and musically.
Special thanks to Hajo Müller and Matt Hammers.