STEVEN WILSON - "I’ve Ultimately Tried Through My Career To Distance Myself From The Idea Of Genre"
October 31, 2018, 10 months ago
Pioneering frontman for prog rock giants Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson has become a chameleon of sorts, churning out album after album of eclectic diverse tunes, never content to fit in a particular packaged box of genre labels. Fresh off of his most recent release To the Bone, Steven Wilson is set to release Home Invasion: In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall on DVD, a live and immersive experience that brings Wilson’s eye-popping performance direct to the audience.
Wilson caught up with BraveWords to talk genre labels, the art of the live performance and the future of Porcupine Tree.
BraveWords: Steven Wilson fans are really in for the full-package deal with Home Invasion. At this stage, every performance really could be a comprehensive tour through your discography.
Steven Wilson: “I’m at the stage of my career at 25 years or even more now, that any show I present, by definition, will be a retrospective, because I have such a large back-catalogue to choose music from. If you look at the setlist, predominantly it is centered on the current record To The Bone. There are also songs going back 20 years or so into my career. It’s really interesting being in the position where I have such a substantial back catalogue in terms of what I might choose. Sometimes the question is finding things that fit with the current band and current direction and the To The Bone material. It’s pretty nice to go back and think to myself I really like that song and I haven’t played that in 10 years and almost on a whim bring it into the To the Bone show, which is what I did with a few titles. It’s one of the benefits of not having any hits. There’s nothing in my catalogue that I feel obliged to play. I don’t have a ‘Purple Rain’. I can pretty much choose what I like to put into my show and that’s kind of been a blessing in disguise really.”
BraveWords: In hypothetical terms, if you had the opportunity to achieve instant, multi-million dollar mainstream success, at the cost of sacrificing creative and artistic integrity, is it worth it?
Steven Wilson: “I think it really depends on who you are and what you’re doing it for. Now, when I fell in love with the magic of making music, all of those many years ago as a kid, the magic for me was nothing to do with celebrity or success or money, it was simply something about the music itself that completely got under my skin, and the idea that you could take the listener on a musical journey across two sides of an album or two hours a concept, was something completely magical to me. All of the artists that I have admired over the years are I guess the ones you could call auteurs. Not necessarily the musicians, they were the people that had the vision. That might be Frank Zappa, it might be Neil Young, it might be Roger Waters, the kind of architects of these extraordinary, magical musical journeys. That’s what I fell in love with. The idea that you would compromise all that for a hit single and some kind of 15 minutes of celebrity is kind of innocuous to me.
“It’s a very interesting question, because some people have accused me of doing that with To The Bone. There was a song on there called ‘Permanating’, which is very joyous, happy piece of pure pop. A lot of people accused me of doing it for the same reasons you’re talking about. In fact the opposite was true. I did that because I had a great love of fantastic pop. I grew up with ABBA and bands like Bee Gees and my mom loved that stuff. I’m very much enamoured by the magic of great, mainstream pop, but what I really object to is that you’re dumbing down or deliberately producing something sud-standard. I think that I would feel very dirty if I ever would do that. I’m quite happy to play the games that the music asks you to play, once the music is finished.
“Once the music is finished, as long as the music has been made in kind of a vacuum where you’re only thinking about yourself, then I’m very happy to sit down with the label and say ok, how are we going to reach people with this? How are we going to commission a remix? Are we going to do breakfast tv? I’m very happy to do all that stuff, but I believe ultimately the aim of making music that you believe in is to share it with as many people as possible. That’s something that has always been a difficult thing for artists to balance, that one thing to share it and reach as many people as possible while at the same time keeping that sense of integrity. I’d like to think that I’ve walked that line and I’ve walked it well.
BraveWords: At this stage of your career, it really feels like you’re firing on all cylinders creatively. Your most recent albums are so diverse and genre bending. Have you always tried to defy labels and genre stereotypes?
Steven Wilson: “I think what I’ve ultimately tried to do almost all through my career was distance myself from the idea of genre, of being a generic artist. I mentioned some of those names earlier, the Zappas, Youngs, artists like Prince, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, these are kinds of people who really created their own musical universe. It’s very hard to say what kind of artist Frank Zappa is or what kind of artist Kate Bush is, and the reason it’s very hard is because they defined and created their own musical landscape and vocabulary. To me that’s what I’ve always aspired to. It’s always a little frustrating to be put in these boxes like you’re prog-rock artist or progressive metal artist, and I’ve resisted that. The devilish side of me couldn’t wait for ‘Permanating’ to be released, just to upset those people who decided I was a progressive rock or generic artist. I kind of revel in upsetting those people, because part of me has always rebelled from the idea of being put in a box, of being labelled or classified. The artists I really admired were also very hard to label and also transcended the idea of genre. ‘Permanating’ for me was really a cat among the pigeons. I knew it was going to upset some people, but I was happy about that because I completely 100 percent believed in it as a great piece of pop music. That’s the important thing. That references the earlier question about compromise. I think if I believed 100 percent in the songs I’d be ok to do something that had mainstream potential. If I didn’t then I would feel kind of ugly and dirty.”
BraveWords: Of course throughout your career you’ve had the prog or progressive label attached. Do you look at that in 2018 and see it as being an aid or hindrance to your career?
Steven Wilson: “I think any label is a double edged sword. Any label will have the positive aspect that it brings you to an existing audience, it brings you to an existing demographic. If I hadn’t been labelled as progressive there would be a lot of people out there who would have never had their curiosity peaked and would never have checked out my music, so there is that positive side to things. Labelling, being put into a particular genre, brings you to the attention of the existing demographic. The bad part, which is not hard to figure out, is that it also creates a kind of prison for you, and it’s very hard then to confront the expectations of that audience, and that’s what I find. It doesn’t take a lot of research, if you look through my back catalogue, that that pop sensibility has always been there in the same way that the love for the occasional metal riff has always been there in the same way that the attraction to the kind of singer-songwriter as a sensibility has always been there and my love of conceptual rock music. All of those things have always been there and the fans have been there. The idea to distill that down to one narrow genre, yes, that is quite frustrating in that respect. But I do acknowledge it and I do invite it. I understand why people would say I’m a progressive rock artist, but I find it a bit frustrating that they don’t see beyond that, that being progressive, by definition, is being someone that has many different aspects and many different kind of influences in their sound.
BraveWords: It would be a disservice to the fans if we didn’t at least ask you what the status is of Porcupine Tree. Are you open to a return or reunion under the right conditions?
Steven Wilson: “I wouldn’t rule it out. I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon because I feel like I’m still very much evolving as an artist. Listen, there is a time in everyone’s career for a slightly more nostalgic kind of approach. I’m some way away from that. I understand that people become very attached to trademarks, and Porcupine Tree is such a trademark. The reality is that what I’ve done in my solo career is what I would have done anyway with Porcupine Tree. I would have written these songs and presented them to the band. The various changes of direction were changed I would have wanted to do with that band too. However I felt I could move quicker and have more flexibility as a solo artist. To me there doesn’t seem to be this great kind of divide between what I did with Porcupine Tree and what I did under my own name. It’s really just a continuation of the same vision and same songwriting. I also recognize that people are very attached to the brand of Porcupine Tree. There’s a kind of romance about a band, and I think people also see the fact that I kind of dropped metal as a sound from my solo music as something that was specific to that change or scenario. Well it wasn’t. That would have happened with the next Porcupine Tree record too. The reality was I felt I had taken that particular approach as far as I could and I didn’t think I wanted to use metal in my sound for at least a few records. There are other things I can point to that people think are significant but are actually not as they might think in the sense that there isn’t this great separation in what I do now and what I was doing under that band name. But, the very convoluted answer to that question, no I wouldn’t rule it out. I would love to work with those guys again. Great musicians. I’m sure we could produce another great record one day. I wouldn’t rule it out.”
(Photos by: Hajo Mueller)