Back in August 2013 I interviewed Steven Wilson for the (sadly now defunct) Prog Zone Magazine, to promote his upcoming Australian tour of The Raven Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). That concert may have come and gone now (and what a show it was!) but there’s still some interesting stuff to be found in this interview.
For those not aware, Steven Wilson is musician, producer and all round prog-rock polymath. Looking back at his body of work – his solo material, his original band Porcupine Tree, collaborating with Swedish prog metal titans Opeth and remastering old progressive rock classics – it’s not too surprising the man has a lot to say and it was a pleasure to be able to have a chat with him.
Prog Zone Mag: How does it feel to be coming back to Australia?
Steven Wilson: Well you know, I’ve been there twice and both times had an amazing time. I mean it’s exhausting to come to Australia because … obviously the jet lag and the flying every day to get to different cities, but it’s exhilarating. And the country and the culture and the people are, you know at the end of the day they’re the important things. And I have fabulous memories of coming to Australia. So I’m so happy that I can bring my solo show, which I think is going to blow some minds. I’m really looking forward to it.
PZM: The Raven That Refused To Sing has received amazing and outstanding reviews and critical acclaim so far. How do you see this album fitting in your broader body of work?
SW: It’s hard to be completely objective. I mean, one of the strange things is that sometimes when I’m talking to journalists or being interviewed, there’s a kind of suggestion that somehow I’ve approached this record in a different way. Or that I tried harder to make a record that would be well received. But the point is: I do that with every record. Every record I make, I believe in it 100% in the moment it’s released and the moment it’s finished. But some records seem to click better and seem to resonate better with the critics and the fans than others. Listen, I’m incredibly proud of The Raven – I probably would say it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made – but I also feel that about certain other records that I’ve made which were not so well received.
So, it’s sometimes hard to predict exactly what is going to resonate so well. And of course I’m very happy this record has been by far the best received and also the best-selling record I’ve ever made. And the two things obviously go together in a way; the better the reviews, sometimes the sales can kind of benefit from that too.
So this has been an amazing experience. I’m not quite sure [why] exactly this is so much better received than perhaps my very first solo album or Grace For Drowning – which were both well received but not to the extent that this one was.
It’s probably a lot to do timing and…I don’t know. I really don’t know.
PZM: You were saying there were some albums you feel you liked more [than the audience response]. Where there any you felt missed out in previous times that you really loved?
SW: There are certain records that for me are my favourites, and they’re not always the favourites of the fans. For example, there’s a record I did with a great friend of mine call Mikael Akerfeldt from the band Opeth.
PZM: Of course.
SW: Storm Corrosion?
SW: I think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done and I know he feels the same too. It was well received, but there was also a lot of people that hated it. Because it wasn’t perhaps what they wanted from us.
PZM: It wasn’t Opeth and Porcupine Tree, it was new music.
SW: Exactly. So, that’s a situation where we were incredibly proud of the record, but because there was this expectation from the fan base that it would be something metal or heavy or more typically rock or progressive rock, that we had to hear a lot of negativity about it.
So I’m not saying that changes my opinion on it: I still believe in it and I kind of expected that. But the funny thing about The RavenThat Refused To Sing is that it’s been almost unanimously well received. From metal to mainstream and progressive press and progressive fans. And that is not something that always happens, that’s for sure.
Some albums do very well with the certain part of the fan base and certain other parts of the fan base don’t get it at all. But I think with The Raven it’s been pretty much across the board.
PZM: One of the big promotional items for this tour is the Full Quadrophonic Surround Sound. Back in 2007 I saw Roger Waters play his Dark Side show here and use it to great advantage. What was the impetus to put this to use in a more intimate setting?
SW: Two things really. Firstly, one of the things I do in the studio and I’m very well known for is my 5.1 Surround mixing. And that seems to be something that I have a kind of reputation for, working a lot in 5.1 Surround. I’ve done a lot of remixes for a lot of classic albums from the 70s, and also my own stuff is all in surround too. I wanted to try to bring that philosophy into the live context as well.
The thing is, it’s not easy. I haven’t seen the Waters show myself, but I know from experience that dealing with quadrophonic is difficult because there are so many things that are unpredictable at every concert hall. For example, physically where can you fit the speaker? How can you get all of the audience to get the best possible situation or position in the hall to get the full benefit of all four speakers? Some people are always going to be too close to one speaker. And those things sometimes you just can’t get around, but I think there are ways to use quadrophonic which are more sympathetic than others.
So we use it in a very effective way. It’s not like there’s always stuff coming out quadrophonic speakers at the back of the room, but when something does come out the back of the room, it’s a very powerful, very effective moment.
So, you have to think about those things. What’s going to work? What’s going to be too temperamental, given the problems with every concert hall being a different shape? But we’ve worked hard on it over the last three or four tours, and I think we’ve got something that’s really effective.
PZM: Continuing with the live show, you also have the great Chad Wackerman on drums touring this time around. Has his playing influenced any changes in the live material?
SW: I think every musician stamps their own mark on the music, and one of the things I found when I first started playing the solo material in a live context was that the material did begin to evolve. It begins to develop in ways that I’d never intended, and that’s partly because musicians will always stamp their own personality on the music. And Chad is no exception to that.
SW: Now, Chad was following in the footsteps of Marco Minneman, who is incredible himself and left some very big shoes to fit into. And I think there were only two or three drummers that I could really think of that could possibly have taken on that kind of role after Marco. Chad was definitely one of them. So I’m very happy and very fortunate that Chad was able to do it.
The answer to your question is yes, he’s definitely made the music. Chad is more of a jazz drummer who plays rock, whereas Marco was a rock drummer that could play anything. So there’s a very different kind of sensibility. A jazz drummer doesn’t play with quite the same aggression that a rock drummer plays, but there’s a certain finesse and certain techniques that rock drummers don’t have.
So Chad certainly has changed the complexion of the music somewhat.
PZM: Just a week before you start playing there, there’s an Australian festival for progressive and experimental music called PROGFEST which starts touring the country. Have you found there’s a notable resurgence and acceptance for this sort of music in recent years?
SW: It’s difficult to say. I think what you have to do is take a broader look at the whole industry and say of course that the music industry by and large is suffering, and is in some kind of decline. And I’m not sure that’s a reversible decline, really. But one of the interesting trends, having accepted that, is that music is no longer so beholden or influenced by mainstream media.
What I mean by that is, there used to be a time – and I remember because I grew up in the 80s – when the music that people listened to was very much influenced by radio and by music press. That’s no longer the case, because we now have the internet. The internet is the great liberator, the great leveller. I think progressive music and experimental music benefit particularly from this, because they’ve never been particularly fashionable with the mainstream. Not only are they not fashionable with the mainstream, they don’t lend themselves very well to mainstream. Because they tend to be styles of music which don’t work within the traditional 3-4 minute pop song form.
So, you need to engage with the music on a deeper level. Give it more time, give it more concentration. I think the internet really helps music like this to proliferate and to reach people, because we’re no longer necessarily having to rely on what the radio stations are playing for us. We’re no longer having to rely on what the music press are telling us we should be listening to. Because young kids, old guys like me, whoever it is, can go directly and find the music. Without having that so-called ‘taste making’ going on.
I think that’s really what’s you’re referring to, I think that’s probably one of the primary reasons that the music does seem to be in some kind of ascendancy, in contrast to the rest of the industry. You could argue there’s an irony going on there: that actually the music the mainstream ignored for years is the music that is now thriving for the first time in perhaps 30 or 40 years.
PZM: Your recent remixes of King Crimson, Caravan, Jethro Tull and others have been a great way to get back into old classics and hear them with a new freshness. Listening to KC’s ‘Islands’ again with the clarity it deserved was a great moment for me. Are there any plans for further remixes in 2014,
SW: You know about the Yes catalogue?
PZM: Is that the whole thing?
SW: Well, Close To The Edge is coming out in October in a new stereo and new surround mix. There’s going to be another album in early 2014… I can’t tell you which at the moment. I’ve done it, but I’m not allowed to tell you [laughs]. Basically, the idea is to do most of the classic Yes albums. For most people, that was the 70s records. So we’re going to do I think all of the 70s records, and that’s obviously a big project if you are a fan of progressive music, or whatever you want to call it. Those bands certainly never called themselves progressive rock bands, but people do call them progressive rock bands nowadays. I like to acknowledge that.
Whatever your taste, if you like this kind of music then you have to consider the Yes catalogue as one of the most important of that whole genre, along with the [King] Crimson catalogue. So it’s exciting to get involved in that, and I’m looking forward to going through as much of that catalogue as possible.
PZM: Listening to The Raven, there is almost a fusiony influence to it. Any plans of delving into the back catalogues of 70s fusion records?
SW: I think what you have to think about with surround sound is, realistically, what is there a market for? Unfortunately, there’s not a market for everything.
One of the things about so-called progressive music or the classic 70s album rock is that a lot of people that like that kind of music, tend to be quite interested in high-end audio and surround sound. I’m not sure that’s true of other genres: for example, I don’t think it would be a very good idea to start remixing rap albums in surround sound. Because I don’t believe the people that listen to rap music are that interested in high-end audio and that kind of immersive experience. But it’s certainly something that people who listen to 70s rock music are very interested in – or some of them are, anyway.
Fusion? There are some records I think…I would love to do Bitches’ Brew [(Miles Davis)] in 5.1, I’d love to do some of the early Mahavishnu Orchestra in 5.1. I think there would be a market for them. But [if] you get into more obscure territory, you’re talking literally about a handful of people that are really interested. So you have to take those things into account.
Over the years you’ve collaborated with all kinds of great artists, mainly guitarists: Adrian Belew, Alan Parsons, Steve Hackett, Robert Fripp to name a few. Briefly ignoring Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt for the time being, is there anyone you’d particularly love to bring back into the studio?
SW: There are certain people that I’m always happy to work with. Steve Hackett is a very good friend of mine, and I can always imagine we would do something together. Alan [Parsons] did a wonderful job on The Raven and I would love to have Alan engineer another record for me.
So I guess the answer to your question is …yeah, several of them. God, I would have to go through them all. Basically, if something works and these people are people that I consider to be my friends, then that’s what it’s all about for me. Taking a feeling of empathy and friendship into a creative situation that always, always works for me.
PZM: Is there any particular reason it’s the guitarists that seem to change more often than others for your bands?
SW: No, but it’s a funny thing. I thought I was going to have a lot of problems finding the right musicians for my band, but I thought the guitar player would be the easy one. It turned out to be the opposite was the case. I found it quite easy to find all of the band, except I struggled to find a guitar player that was exactly what I heard in my head, and was what I was looking for. Maybe that’s because I myself am known as a guitar player, so I had more of a specific idea of what I wanted with a guitarist. It took me until fairly recently to find the guy I have now, Guthrie Govan. I think he’s exactly the guy I was looking for and always wanted in the first place. But there was a bit of trial and error going on there.
But you have to understand, I was starting from scratch. So it was inevitable there would be a little of experimenting. And it’s all about chemistry with a band, and it takes a while sometimes to find the right chemistry.
PZM: What’s happening next, is there anything upcoming and in the works already?
SW: There is, yeah. Straight after Australia we go back to Europe and we’re doing a lot of the same cities we played earlier this year, so I felt like I wanted something new to play. I spent the last couple of months at home developing ideas, and I have the makings of I think a new record. There’s still a lot of work to do yet, but I think we’ll probably be recording perhaps in the spring. So, something new to follow The Raven before you know it!
PZM: And now not ignoring Mikael Akerfeldt, is anything in the works for future collaborations whether it be Storm Corrosion or producing further albums?
SW: Well, Mikael’s doing a new Opeth record and I’m pretty sure I’ll be involved in that. I know he wants me to be and I’d love to be, so if it all works out we’ll be working on that. In terms of actually more of a 50/50 collaboration … We loved what we did with Storm Corrosion, we’re very proud of the record, so I would be very surprised if we would not get back together and continue that collaborative process. There are no plans yet, but I’m pretty sure that will ultimately happen.
PZM: Thanks so much for your time, is there anything you’d like to add?
SW: I think we covered everything, that’s great! If you’re happy, I’m happy.
PZM: Well thanks for talking Steven, have a great day and I can’t wait to see you when you come out.
SW: Cheers !