Gothic Ghost Stories – An Interview With Steven Wilson

Steven+Wilson 2013Steven Wilson rightfully deserves the title of the dean of the modern progressive rock and metal world. In addition to his own groundbreaking work with his own bands such Porcupine Tree, No Man, Bass Communion, as a producer of albums by giants such as Opeth, and remastering the works of King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Caravan among other projects. Steven is out on the road supporting his third solo album The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) on Kscope Records. Chatting at length with Ghost Cult, Steven talked about the making of the new album, his creative process, production work, lyrical inspirations and his favorite Pink Floyd albums among many other topics.

I know that today is the last day of the European tour. How has it been?

It’s been wonderful! It’s been a quite a roller coaster ride, because when we started the tour a few weeks ago, the album was just been released. And we’ve been kind of watching the album gather momentum as we have gone across Europe. We’ve had chart positions wired into us and reviews appearing. It’s been extraordinary and seeing the reaction of the audiences to the new material has been very gratifying indeed. Part one of this tour couldn’t have gone better, really.

It occurred to me that the Grace for Drowning touring lineup carried over to the recording of the new album. Would you say that the familiarity with the players helps to inspire some of the writing?

It’s definitely true to say that the complexion of the album was very much influenced and dictated by the fact that I knew who I was writing for. That was a very different scenario to the first two solo records: Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning. Both of which were written in the abstract, without any idea with who would play on each song until after I’d written it. And only then did I kind of think, ‘who should play drums, who should play this, who should play that?’ This time I knew from the beginning, before I wrote a single note, exactly who was playing the material. Not only that, I knew what they were capable of; and I knew they were capable of performing at a level that I, myself could not. In a way, that was a real challenge. Here I am writing music beyond my own abilities. Way beyond my own abilities. Music that I can imagine with my mind, but normally I alone can’t realize. And this time I knew there musicians could really play anything I can throw at them. It was a really nice challenge to have, where you are trying to write music beyond your own capabilities and raise the bar for yourself creatively. And maybe the record has more of a cohesive band identity than the first two records.

I’m always interested in the journey of the artist. How do feel about your work on an album that you have created when it is finally finished: Relieved? Proud? Conflicted?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Of course if I didn’t feel proud of something, I wouldn’t consider it finished and I wouldn’t want to release it, so there is an element of pride. But there is always an element that is also, you never want to hear this music again, as long as I live! (laughs) After writing, recording, mastering, and checking the masters… unfortunately the downside of being the person that created that music is, you’re kind of over it and you can no longer relate to it in a way that the fans can. There is a bittersweet part that is a bit more technical a process by the end of the recording. I have to say, it’s true to say that anything I’ve ever released into the world, I have been incredibly very proud of at the moment I finished it. It is interesting to think about it that in my long career, this is probably the best received album, of all of the albums. I can’t think of any album that has ever had such a reaction like this one, which is wonderful. What I get asked by the press sometimes is, and I’m paraphrasing here, because they don’t all ask it quite like this: The implication is this: “so why did you decide to make a really good album this time?” (laughs)

Lyrically the album feels very dark and macabre, in contrast to the music. What inspired those choices?

I really was immersed a lot in what I would call classical supernatural fiction at the time I started to develop the material. I was reading a lot of short stories particularly from the earlier part of the 20th century. British writers mainly like Algernon Blackwood, MA Allen and Arthur Macken who specialized in this very understated form of Gothic, ghost stories and supernatural fiction. An American guy like this might be someone like Edgar Allen Poe. The British guys have this very different flavor to when they write. It almost has this understated, intellectual sense of dread as you go through it, and I love that! And I started to write my own stories in that tradition. And of course, at the same time I was beginning to write music for the record. As if so often is the case, the two things came together. And I thought ‘Well you know what, this would make an interesting, intellectual basis for this new record.’ And of course this is not the first time this has ever been done. The idea of short stories being the basis for an album is not completely new. But there are always fresh ways to approach these things. For me, also it was a gift in a way to present the album. When you come up with an idea like that, things become a fountain of inspiration for artwork and visuals to go with the songs. It was one of those occasions where everything seemed to come together very well conceptually.

In the past I have had the chance to ask other artists what it like was to work with you as a producer. What was it like for you to bring in and work with Alan Parsons as the engineer for the album?

To be honest, I didn’t really notice much what he was doing during the process. There was a good reason for that. I wanted Alan specifically to come in and engineer the album, so I could be free to produce and musically direct the record. If you imagine a situation where I was with the band in one room, directing the musical stuff and Alan was on the other side of the glass in the control room managing the recording part, capturing everything. Because I know he’s so good, I didn’t have to oversee that side of things. I am by definition, a bit of a control freak, so it’s not always easy for me to let go of any part of the process, normally. But listen, if you hire a guy like Allan Parsons, you know that everything he does is great. I was able to release some of that control to him. So I didn’t notice exactly what he was doing. But every time I came into the control to listen to what we recorded, it sounded great, as if I did it myself! That part of the process was so easy, and I could trust that everything was going down beautifully.

It must be a surreal feeling to be at the point in your career where you can work with some of the people you grew up idolizing?

Absolutely! You could say that the last few years that I have been fortunate that I have gotten to work with people over the last three or four years, who are partly responsible for my musical DNA, at least partly responsible. In many respects the great compliment of all or the greatest vindication of all is that you find yourself working with your influences heroes as a peer. As a kind of peer, and finding you are respected and treated as an equal. They ask for your opinion and trust your opinion. I’ve been very fortunate to be a bridge in a way between the generation of music I grew up with and the generation of this era of music. And there aren’t too many people who can say that. There are newer artists and artists from the 70s, but I guess I have been somewhat of a connection between those two eras of artists. That’s been thrilling, of course!

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to use the actual Mellotron used on King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King?

That was amazing too! Well, actually that’s a very romantic way of looking at it. The reality of it is that instrument was a bastard to play! It’s fifty years old. It’s a mechanical thing that is all rusted out and seized up. It was so hard to play it. But the sound of it is extraordinary. I had to do a lot of editing and a lot of takes to get anything good out of it, but once I had it, the sound of it is great. And of course as you said, historically speaking, it’s a legendary instrument.

Is there anybody you’ve yet to work with that you admire, that you would like to someday?

Oh there are still so many. I have been influenced by so many great bands from different genres over the years. For me growing up there were three bands: King Crimson, Pink Floyd and the German band Tangerine Dream. They have always been a very special part of my inspirations. I would love to work with Kate Bush someday. I would love to remix some of the Floyd catalogue, that hasn’t been done yet. What I’d really love to do is work with film makers now. I’d love to work on a soundtrack, on a film score with a great script, and a great director. That would be at the top of my unfulfilled ambitions.

If there is a Pink Floyd album I’d love to hear some of your 5.1 production work on, it would be the soundtrack stuff like Obscured by Clouds or More.

I love those records! Love those records! I would love to do Ummagumma. Those really early experimental records, for me, are probably are my favourites. Albums like Ummagumma, Meddle or Atom Heart Mother. Sometimes they are really overlooked, but for me that was really when they were the most magical. Some of those records are scary! Those records when they were really searching for their sound, they were experimental and great. For me, a song like ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’, the version on Ummagumma, that is my favorite Floyd recording. There is an atmosphere to that music, which they obviously developed and refined later on and made some extraordinary records, but the early years when they were more experimental and improvisational, was much more magical to me.

If you will permit me one question about Storm Corrosion: I believe you have said in the past that album formed the end of a trilogy for you. Of course you and Mikael Åkerfeldt will work together again on projects, but will we hear another Storm Corrosion album some day?

I don’t know. I think the likelihood that we will do something together again is very strong. More than anything we are great friends. When we get together we tend to drink wine and make music! (laughs). Whether it will be another Storm Corrosion album or not, I don’t know. I’m so very happy to have you ask me about that record. It wasn’t the easiest thing to release into the world because we were so pleased with it, we didn’t want to release it to have be knocked down. We knew it was going to be very divisive. Some people might find it very difficult to get into. We knew some people were going to knock it down, but there were also a lot of people who embraced it and really accepted it. We were so pleased with it; we almost didn’t want to put it out. It is definitely one of the pivotal albums of my career. I know Mikael feels the same, I think it will be rediscovered in 100 years. It almost exists for me out side of time. It doesn’t sound like anything now. It doesn’t sound like anything before. Would we do another record quite like that, I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m sure we will work together again.

You begin a tour of the United States in a few weeks. What can the fans expect from the show this go around?

Well you know I’ve tried to make the show quite an experience. We have films and video screens; we have a surround sound system. These are things you can find if you go to see U2 or Roger Waters in an arena, but not used to seeing or hearing at this level, at these smaller clubs. I’ve tried to do within the realms of my budget, to make something really memorable visually and musically. I also think I have probably the best band on the planet right now. My band are extraordinary, the musicianship from the guys in the band. It’s kind of everything really. We are trying to create something unforgettable. So that is what we are bringing to America.

Keith Chachkes

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