Steven Wilson is nothing if not prodigious. Over the expanse of his multi-decade career, he’s established himself not only as a dedicated purveyor of prog but also an artist determined to fully pursue the furthermost possibilities of innovation, experimentation and imagination. It’s been a parallel journey in many ways; having established his imprint with the bands Porcupine Tree, Storm Corrosion, and Blackfield, he then ventured out on his own in the latter part of the 2000s, with the release of six solo albums, including his latest, the aptly titled The Future Bites. A varied collection of electronica, psychedelia, prog and surprisingly accessible pop-like melodies, it’s an apt compendium of all the musical modes he’s invested in thus far.
Videos by American Songwriter
Some know him best as the artist overseeing the remixes that accompany newly expanded vintage reissues by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, XTC, and other iconic artists of that ilk. He’s also had opportunity to work with the artists themselves, including Andy Partridge, Marillion, Tears for Fears, and Opeth, resulting in four Grammy nominations, triple nods at London’s Progressive Music Awards and his unofficial crowning as “the king of prog rock.”
The obvious question is, does Wilson ever sleep?
“You would not be the first person who asked me that question,” Wilson replies. “When I was a kid, like most people in the industry, I fell in love with making music, and I consider such an honor and such a privilege to be able to do it professionally and to get paid to do it as well. My curiosity and passion for doing it has never waned in the years since I became a professional musician. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with many great people, and the one thing that’s remained true is that I don’t do anything unless I really want to do it. I say that because it is quite unusual. Most people in my situation, most professional musicians, take the work at some point because they need the money, or need to build their profile. But I look at my career and think I’m so lucky because I’ve never had to do that. In the beginning, I did a little bit of music for TV when I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. But in recent years, I’ve been very fortunate just to do whatever the hell I want. I don’t how I got into this situation, but I have. I have a very dedicated fanbase and they still seem to want to go with me.”
That brings up the subject of the new album, which Wilson describes as a departure of sorts from his earlier efforts. “This new album is very different,” he muses. “It may be very confrontational to my fan base. Of course there will always be people who won’t want to join the journey, but I think most of them will. So I tell myself how lucky I am, and wonder how I got into the situation where I can do that. Where I can constantly surprise and upset the expectations of my audience, and yet still take them with me. It’s something very rare in the industry. Again, I’m not sure how I got to this point, but I feel very fortunate and lucky that I have.”
Wilson points to two tracks on the album as examples of the decidedly melodic approach he chose for this album—“12 Things I Forgot” and the aptly titled “Man of the People.” When it’s suggested that the soft, supple melodies might take some by surprise, he offers his own opinion.
“I think you’re right, but I also think it’s fair to say that anyone who’s followed my career since the beginning has noticed a strong pop sensibility in everything I’ve done. Even though most people may think of me as someone who makes records with a strong progressive sensibility, not all of my records are in that genre. But those are the records I’ve had the most success with, so I guess that’s why I’m known for that. Yet even if you listen to those records, there are strong melodies and a strong pop sensibility at work. The analogy for me is why Pink Floyd has become the most successful of all the conceptual progressive rock bands of the ‘70s. The answer is simple really—simplicity and great melodies, and that’s why that band has transcended the idea of genre. Kids who like dance music will listen to Pink Floyd. Old hippies will listen to Pink Floyd. Mums will listen to Pink Floyd. It’s that pop sensibility at their heart that’s given them that pop sensibility, and I’d like to think in a way that there’s something similar in what I do.”
Regardless, it can be argued that Wilson has helped raise prog’s profile in recent years. It’s a credit to his ambition and his willingness to explore the varied forms of music he so readily embraces.
“I think that whatever musical palette or musical vocabulary that I’m using, I love to make analogies to a short story or a movie. It’s the idea that one can move through different terrain, different textures and different styles over the course of an alum, or even in the course of a single song,” Wilson says. “So there is a concept in all my work that has to do with the way the album flows, the way that it’s sequenced. There may be moments of pure pop and yet there may be moments of ambiance, and there may also be moments of more complex instruments and arrangements. I love the idea of weaving that together in a way that’s cinematic for the ears. And I suppose that in a way that’s something that’s associated with progressive rock. Of course it’s present in many other kinds of music, but I think you’ll find it as one of the hallmarks of progressive rock. I do kick back on that categorization for my work. I’ve never claimed to be a generic progressive artist. I much prefer the idea of someone like a Bowie or a Kate Bush. Someone who creates their own musical universe and within that, anything goes and anything is possible.”
Wilson says it’s difficult to describe how the metamorphosis actually evolves and comes together. “I wish I could answer your question,” he concedes. “I don’t know. I approach music like an idiot really. I don’t know much about music theory. I suppose the answer to that question would be this: I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to music and I’ve spent a lot of my life being very curious about different kinds of music. So this idea that I don’t recognize genre in my own music also applies to the fact that I don’t recognize it when I listen. I’ve never understood people who listen to music within any one set of parameters. They only listen to country or they only listen to hip-hop. I’ve never been that person. Ever since I was at school, I would hang out with kids who listened to reggae music and I would hang out with kids who listened to metal music and I was the guy who loved all of it. It was all magic. I was naturally curious. I’d go to the library and take out a Miles Davis record and a Phillip Glass minimalist opera or a Carpenters record, and I would go home and listen, and they were all magical to me. So I had this thing in my head where all this music is all mixed up—pop melodies, noise music, groove rhythms, metal riffs, big harmony vocals, soul vocals—it all made sense to me somehow. I’m very fortunate that it all manages to come out cohesive in some way and makes for own my unique style in a way as well.”
At the same time, Wilson admits that one particular track on the album, “Personal Shopper,” might carry that concept to an extreme. “It is kind of messy in a way,” he allows. “It’s very self- reverential. It’s like an homage to consumerism. It’s half a love letter, and half more consumed with the more insidious side of consumerism and commerce.”
He says it allowed him to express some sentiments that might not seem to be especially upbeat or optimistic.
“I was certainly fascinated with the idea of how human evolution has been altered by technology, about how technology has changed in the wake of social media,” Wilson explains. “Nowadays, opinions are shared with potentially millions of people and we see ourselves reflected back through the prism of social media. I find that fascinating, but in some ways, a repellant idea. We’ve become a more narcissistic society, more concerned with what people we don’t even know think about us. We’ve become obsessed with how many ‘likes’ we get on an Instagram post, how many views our YouTube post has got—these are obsessions and I have them too. So I was fascinated with how this technology has changed the evolution of our species in just the past twenty or twenty five years. How technology changes the way people behave? How can it change the way we engage with each other, the ways we engage with the world, our levels of curiosity. How our obsessions have changed. Our belligerence has changed. People are belligerent all the time. It’s all black and white.”
At the same time, Wilson realizes that pontificating doesn’t necessarily fulfill any purpose. He readily acknowledges that it can be a fine line between sharing a sentiment and coming across as dour and dogmatic.
“Yes, I think there is a very fine line with what I do, which is really just to hold up a mirror and say this is the world that I see and do you recognize yourself in it, and being preachy,” he agrees. “I’ve never been interested in the preachy side of things, but I will talk about what I believe in. But ultimately, I’m in the business of making pop records, and by pop records, I mean in the broadest possible sense. And one of the beautiful things about pop music is that it’s capable of encapsulating and embodying some really grand ideas. So I think it’s important to hold up that mirror and allowing people to see themselves and perhaps bring comfort—maybe even confront people about certain ideas and bringing them to light. For an artist like me, who doesn’t have a strong mainstream following, I am, in a sense, preaching to the converted. On the other hand, I’m not sure if that is entirely true. Every time I post something on the internet, or I post a new song, there is an incredible amount of pushback from people who don’t like what I say or what I think.”
It’s suggested that that reaction, whenever it does occur, may be a byproduct of his attempts to expand his template and do things differently.
“I find myself to be someone who tries to reinvent himself with every record, and that’s a wonderful thing to do,” he maintains. “And in that sense, I’m in the tradition of someone like David Bowie who would go from glam rock to soul to a Berlin trilogy. But I’ll tell you what—it’s harder to do that in the era of social media, because literally within a minute of posting a new song, I will get an incredible wave of negative energy thrown right back at me. Within a minute! This is what I mean. There’s a kind of polarization going on. There are people who are incredibly enthusiastic and then there are the trolls. People who just want to be negative. And it comes instantly. Within a minute! That was something Bowie never had to contend with. The first time he’d get a review of his album would be when Rolling Stone would run one. Now you just expect the negativity. It’s there. Some of the most progressive rock fans can be among the most conservative music listeners on the planet.”
Does the fact that he’s set such a high bar for himself with past projects place any kind of onus on him as far as maintaining that level of proficiency? When asked that question, Wilson quickly agrees that at times he actually feels like he’s competing with himself.
“I do set aa high bar for myself,” he says. “But the key word is ‘myself.’ I set it for myself. I’m not thinking about my business or my fans when I make the records. I’m old enough now to not care, and I’m saying that in a good way, because I believe that most of my real open-minded fans—which includes most of them — wouldn’t want me to merely give them what they want. They want to be surprised. They want me to give them something different each time, because otherwise, what’s the point? I believe that’s true. So I end up setting the high bar for myself. It’s about how can I excite myself, how I can surprise myself and keep on making quality records? I’ve been doing this for 28 years now and it doesn’t get any easier. Coming out with things that excite yourself gets harder and harder with the more records you make.”
Wilson suggests that the new album was no exception. “One of the things I decided was that I’m not going to use the guitar as the central tool in the creation of this album,” he reflects. “I’m going to immerse myself in the world of electronic music. And that is what I did. It provided me with a challenge for myself. It made it inspiring. It made it exciting, and I think most fans will go with me on the journey.”
One of the unique concepts Wilson came up with in conjunction with this particular project was a one-of-a-kind box set unlike any other. Fascinated with the grandiose deluxe editions that have flooded the marketplace in recent years, Wilson opted to parody that over-the-top idea. He enlisted a high design concept company that could take it to its ultimate extreme by including all manner of otherwise unattainable collectibles—among them, an exclusive single unavailable anywhere else, handwritten lyrics and one of his own Grammy certificates. Naturally, it boasted an inflated price, 10,000 pounds to be exact—but yet it sold within five minutes of its initial offerings, with all the proceeds going to support venues that have suffered in the wake of the pandemic. Wilson equates it with an original piece of art that will never be recreated in its original form.
Of course, Wilson’s work with surround sound remixes—which generally come at the behest of record labels and artists’ management—remain one of his calling cards, and he’s still in demand when special anniversary rereleases are initiated. The artists themselves are involved to varying degrees, but Wilson insists that regardless of their involvement, he wants them to be able to sign off on his efforts.
“I think that in nearly every instance, there’s a certain degree of suspicion,” he concedes. “But also in almost every instance, when they’ve hear what I’ve done, they realize that I’m not interested trying to change the music. I’m just trying to get a little more clarity in what’s already there. I’m very faithful to the original mixes and I’m very meticulous about that. I realize that the people that are going to buy these records are the people that already know them. That’s enabled me to build up a lot of trust, not only with the artists, but also within the industry as someone who will do his job in a conscientious way and show sympathy for the artists’ original intentions. It’s a big responsibility, and I always try to live up to that.”
Finally, given the popularity Porcupine Tree achieved, one naturally wants to inquire about its present status. Although the band never officially broke up, it has been several years since it was last fully active. Wilson says that while reunion is always a possibility, at least for now, he’s happy to pursue his own ambitions.
“When you’re in a band, you don’t tend to evolve as rapidly as when you’re a solo artist for the simple reason that you all have to agree, because it is a democratic union,” Wilson muses. “It tends to lumber along at a much slower rate of evolution. And that’s something I understood ten years ago at the end of that band. I wanted to be able to change from album to album, and work in different musical genres. You can’t do that as easily—or even at all—in the context of a democratic collective. So, I don’t feel the need to go back. It could happen, but right now I’m quite happy with what I’m doing.”