Interviews : “I wasn’t expecting anything that interesting when I read that you wrote for an online called Metal Obsession…” – an interview with Steven Wilson
For lovers of Prog, Steven Wilson needs no introduction. His reach into different facets of the scene over many years includes his solo work, his band Porcupine Tree, and countless production and mixing credits. Ahead of his third whirlwind visit to Australia Gilbert Potts caught up for a chat.
What’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard?
Oh silence, silence is the most beautiful sound, but the thing about silence is that you can never actually achieve it. It’s one of those things you know when John Cage wrote his piece for silence in the ’40s or ’50s he was trying to basically get people, not to listen to the silence per se, but to listen to the sounds that were around them, and there are always sounds around us even if you’re in the most quiet place in the world you can still hear the sounds of your own body, you know whether it’s your blood pumping around your body or what ever it is or your breathing, so silence is a kind of unachievable thing. But ultimately I suppose it is the most beautiful sound of all, I mean I love space and silence within music; it’s such an under-rated quality.
Yes I completely agree, I love when a band says “here’s two minutes of silence before the next track, and you need to listen to it.”…
…It’s a bit of a lost art these days unfortunately, particularly in the world of rock music, this concept of shredding seems to have become very popular when you play as many notes as possible and you leave no space at all and that’s not something I’m particularly interested in myself.
If you think about what you listened to as a child, the music around you as you grew up, what part did it play in your own thoughts, imagination and development? What part did it play in your family, amongst your friends, and at school?
The thing about music is that for me when I was very young it was kind of a solitary thing because I discovered a period of music and a style of music which had been popular many years before and was not popular at the time I was growing up, apart from myself and a very good friend of mine-we discovered the music together, so it became almost like a retreat, it became this thing that made us feel different, I’m not saying better, but just different to everyone else at school and everyone else around us, and in a way we were listening to music that our big brothers had listened to, not that I had a big brother but metaphorically in that sense, people that were ten years older than us had been listening to this music in the ’70s and we were discovering the music at a time when it was very much out of fashion and very much under-ground. I’m talking now about the music of the early ’70s, very specifically the progressive rock movement and the whole kind of burst of creativity that came out of the late ’60s.
That music was very difficult to find when I was growing up in the ’80s- you know we’re talking about a time before the internet when if something wasn’t in the mainstream it was almost invisible because there was no internet to bypass the mainstream. So it became almost like a badge of something that made you different, something that gave you a window onto an alternate reality, alternate lifestyle, alternate way of thinking and it fired my curiosity, it led me to film, the music led me to books, it led me to a whole different way of looking at the world.
There’s always been a close connection between cultures and styles of music and as sub-cultures have become more prevalent this association with a distinct style has also become more tribal. Do people force themselves, consciously or subconsciously, to like or dislike musical styles?
I think we all tend to look for ways to define ourselves and define our personalities through the things that we respond to and the things that we emotionally bond to. The thing about music to me is that in a way that tribal element, that element you use as a way to define yourself as a person is very relevant when you are young but as you get older I think you grow out of that and it becomes less important and the curiosity takes over. Now for me when I was very young I kind of identified myself with things like progressive rock and heavy metal and these were the kind of things that made me even dress in a certain way or think in a certain way. But as you get older I think your horizons tend to open up and nowadays you’re just as likely to find me listening to Japanese extreme noise music as listening to Bach piano fugues and everything in between, and I think that’s something that comes with age – you learn to appreciate, you become a little more relaxed about what you allow yourself to respond to, and you become more open.
I’ve never really understood, for example some people say that ambient music or drone music is not music at all because they cannot recognise harmony and they cannot recognise melody and they cannot recognise rhythm in it, but the same people will go to see a horror movie and respond to sound as a kind of a trigger for emotional response, and a lot of horror movies rely very much on pure sound design, there’s no melody, there’s no harmony, there’s no rhythm, but it’s still a way to create an emotional response. So I think, you know I think people make their own barriers and their own rules about music sometimes, and it’s difficult sometimes to break through those things, but I think age is certainly something that mellows that kind of divisionism within music.
I feel that some people tend to fall back to the music they listened to in their youth, that they have this bubble of music that follows them.
That’s probably the majority of people. I think there’s a certain point in your life when you’re a sponge and you soak up things very easily and you’re able to adapt to new things very easily, which kind of contradicts what I’ve just been saying. As you get older I think you do become more open and you become less concerned about listening to “the right thing” that you feel you should be listening to or that your peers encourage you to listen to, but at the same time I think perhaps you are also distracted by other things in life, whether it’s having families or whatever and your childhood tends to become a kind of nostalgic refuge, and music of course is a big part of that.
But I’ve always been very curious, and I’m still very curious and curiosity is very hard to engender in, particularly young people curiosity has become a rather scarce thing because everything’s so easily available that curiosity almost doesn’t develop, and I’ll give you an example of what I mean by that is when I was young it was very hard to find music that was underground, you had to really search for it, you know, like if you heard about an album by, let’s say Captain Beefheart, I couldn’t hear it on the radio, couldn’t see him on the TV so I had to search out the records and I couldn’t even find the records in my local record store, I had to hunt them down as expensive import records.
But all that sort of engendered a feeling of curiosity and that investment in time and energy and money into something and you really put everything you could into trying to appreciate what it was what was special about it. And I think now because everything’s so easily accessible it’s very easy to dismiss it as well, and I think that’s one of the problems that young people have now, actually not just young people, I think all of us have that problem, where it’s very easy to go online and listen to music without having to pay for it and give it very little attention. Not really have to live with it the way we lived with it when we were kids. I used to listen to records over and over again, even if I hated them, because I’d spent money on them, you know, so I wanted to get whatever I could out of them.
Yeah I think it’s sad when you try to play new music to people and they will only listen for say 30 seconds before deciding they don’t like it, which is very frustrating.
Your latest album The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) harks back to the ’70s but sounds contemporary. Is the first step to creating new music accepting, or in fact embracing, that it’s pretty much all been done before, and what we’re doing is building new things out of old stuff?
Yeah I think so, I think we’ve reached the point now in the history of popular and rock music, where realistically it’s almost impossible to do anything new, in fact I would say it is impossible to do anything new. I would love to be proven wrong, but I think basically we have exhausted all of the extremes and all of the possible hybrids that are possible within music, whether it’s mixing country music with hip-hop, or mixing metal with ambient music or with classical music-whatever you can think of, somebody’s tired it.
I think a lot of the time music has been dictated by changes in technology too, and there hasn’t really been any change in – well there’s been changes in the way that we can record music through computers – but there hasn’t really been any changes in the musical vocabulary since the great explosion in electronic music which is now 25 – 30 years ago, and so I think consequently everything now has been heard and all you can really do, as you say , is to try to create your own, well take what’s available to you, take the history of music and create this kind of idea of retro-futurism, where you’re looking back on the past and drawing on the past but you rely on your own musical talents and your own musical personality to somehow make it sound different, and I think in a way it’s always been this way, ever since the Beatles were ripping off Little Richard records or Led Zeppelin were ripping of Robert Johnson records or Willie Dixon records.
There’s always been a sense that music has drawn from the past. But certainly I think it gets harder and harder and it’s probably harder than it’s ever been, and also if you think about how much music there actually is in the world now, more music than ever before, and probably too much, you know there’s too much music, and you referred earlier to this idea that you can’t get someone to pay attention for more than 30 seconds. I think part of the problem is that there’s simply too much music in the world, I mean it’s like a mountain of albums released every year now, so trying to get your music above the parapet if you like and get people to listen to it becomes harder and harder amongst this noise of constant music were being bombarded with.
Speaking of bands of the ’70s, I’m told, there was a bit of a Q&A session about Canadian band Saga at a recent show in Cologne?
Oh yes! I’d never heard of them! I was doing this interview with a journalist in the afternoon of the show and the interviewer said to me “One of your tracks on the album reminds me of Saga” and I said “Who?” and he said “What do you mean who? They’re one of the biggest bands of the ’70s”. I said “Well they weren’t big in England I can tell you that mate!” and then we went onto Wikipedia and discovered that this band was huge in Germany and Canada, but like nowhere else, and it make sense then that I had never come across this band which was, yeah, I learned a bit that day. I still haven’t listened to them.
You’re here in Australia for three shows next month; do you ever get to travel just for your own enjoyment?
Well we have got a day off actually this time, I’m not sure what we’re going to do but that’s going to be a bit of a treat, to actually spend the day in Australia where we don’t have to think about work and the simple answer to your question is I’ve never had the opportunity to travel around Australia yet, but the two times I’ve been there I’ve loved it and so I think it’s one of those things I need to do at some point for sure.
Look our 15 minutes is up and I’d love to talk with you for hours but I can’t, so I want to sneak in one last question – If you were an animal, what would you be?
If I were an animal? (pause) Oh wow, I’ve never been asked that question before, umm (longer pause) oh gosh, I really don’t know, I really don’t know. I mean I love animals, I’m a vegetarian, I have a little doggy who is the most special thing in my life but to actually be an animal? To exist as an animal? I guess, horse, yeah I think a horse has a most beautiful elegance and slightly sad. They always look sad to me or kind of melancholic as though they’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders, but they are a very beautiful and elegant creature. So I’m going to say, a horse, there you go. Put me on the spot- that’s what I’m going to say.
Excellent that’s great, I’ve never had the same answer twice to that question…
…OK, no one’s ever picked a horse before, that’s good.
Thanks again so much for talking to us…
Well you know I wasn’t expecting anything that interesting when I read that you wrote for an online called Metal Obsession (laughs) In fact I’m pleasantly surprised (laughs). It’s been really nice to speak to you Gilbert, have a great day.
Thanks Steven, have fun with the tour.