Steven Wilson has recently released his expansive, brilliant fifth album – To the Bone and is currently on a major 2018 UK tour. Fusing driving futurist rock and spectral electronics to the elegiac hyper-space ambience and dizzying, squalling guitars, To The Bone is Steven Wilson’s hat-tip to the hugely ambitious progressive pop records of his youth (think Peter Gabriel’s So, Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring, Tears for Fears Seeds of Love).
Formerly the founder and mainstay of outsider rock band Porcupine Tree, Steven released his first record under his own name – Insurgentes – in 2008. He has been resolutely independent throughout a three-decade career that’s made him the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of.
Mark Millar recently caught up with Steven to discuss ‘To the Bone’ and his current tour, including Irish shows at Belfast’s Mandela Hall and Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.
Your new album ‘To the Bone’ landed as the highest new entry at number 3 in the Official UK Charts and at number 2 in the German album chart. You must be pleased with the positive reaction that the album is getting.
Yeah, of course. I did take quite a big step away from what people might think of my ‘typical sound’ on this record, so to have had such a great response to the record was not something I could have taken for granted. It’s really nice that it all worked out well in the end.
You have been described as “the most successful British artist you’ve Never Heard of.” Was ‘To the Bone’ an attempt to reach a broader mainstream audience?
Every time I have made a new record, it’s been a little bit like a war of attrition, gradually breaking down some of the resistance I’ve had from mainstream media. And I think that’s really the nub of that quote –“the most successful British artist you’ve Never Heard of.” I do have a very loyal following, and I do sell out shows pretty much wherever I go, but if you look at the mainstream media, you could be forgiven for thinking I don’t exist at all. And I think in some ways that’s the definition of a cult – an artist who has a profile but doesn’t necessarily have a profile within the mainstream media. You won’t hear my songs on the radio, you see me on TV shows, you will read very little about me in the press and yet I do have this substantial following and sales.
I think, on the one hand, that’s been quite gratifying. On the other hand, of course, it’s this constant sense of frustration, but there must be other people out there that would enjoy what I do but never have the opportunity to even know of my existence because most people only look to the mainstream for what they listen to and for what they watch. I feel like I have been chipping away at the ice with every album, and this record has been no exception. It has had a little bit of profile in the mainstream. It’s still been tough. I still struggle to get on the radio and TV. Unfortunately, that’s where most people look to discover their music.
You keep on moving on musically. Each album stands out on its own individually as a separate project.
I have tried to, and I think a part of that comes from the kind of artists I grew up admiring like – David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Neil Young. These artists continually evolved and challenged the expectations of their audience. You only have to look at Neil Young. He would do a ‘country’ album, and then he would follow it with a Crazy Horse ‘grunge’ album or Frank Zappa, who would do a classical record followed by a collection of doo-wop covers. I think part of the contact you have with your fans is if you are someone who proves early on in your career that you will diversify. You are going to evolve and challenge your audience. They almost come to expect and respect that side of you, and it becomes part of the appeal. Part of David Bowie’s appeal was that nobody knew what kind of record he was going to do next or what persona he was going to present to his fans, and I think that’s part of what made him a great artist as opposed to just merely a good one. I’m not suggesting I’m a great artist, but I aspire to build an audience that almost expects the unexpected.
Before the album was released, the song ‘Permanating’ caused uproar for being too pop and mainstream among some fans. How did you feel about that?
I think that’s great. One of the things that I love to do is confront the audience’s expectations, and when you do that, you naturally create some controversy. The idea that I am an artist who exists only within a genre or a particular set of parameters is an idea that I kick against. And I don’t like that idea of people saying, “this is what Steven Wilson does, and if he does something that doesn’t fit these parameters, then it’s outrageous.” That to me is like a red rag to a bull, so I’m going to do the exact opposite of what you expect me to do. I was aware that Permanating would set the cat among the pigeons, mainly with the real hardcore so-called progressive rock fans who probably felt that that wasn’t what I should be doing, but to me, that’s precisely why I should be doing it. I don’t want to be bound by the limitations of being seen as a generic artist. In many respects, that’s like the death of creativity right there.
For me, one of the standout tracks on ‘To the Bone’ is ‘Pariah’ feat Ninet Tayeb who you have worked with before. Did you write the song with her in mind?
I did. Ninet was on my previous album, but I hadn’t written with her in mind for that. I had come across her after I had written a song, and I was looking for someone to sing the song. This time around, I knew that I was writing for her voice – specifically for a duet between us. So it was great to be able to write very much about her character and personality in mind this time. She did a fantastic job.
Also, you got to work with Andy Partridge from XTC. Who collaborated with you on the album title track – ‘To the Bone.’
He wrote all the lyrics. It was like a classic Bacharach and David, Rodgers and Hammerstein type thing where one of us was writing the music, and the other was writing the words. I sent him an instrumental demo, and I said, “look, Andy, I’ve got this song and melody line, but I don’t know how to approach the lyrics.” I knew I wanted to write a song that, to some extent, would define the whole album, which is this idea of – “what is ‘truth’ in the era of fake news and social media and Donald Trump and does ‘truth’ even exist as a concept? I didn’t know how to approach that subject because I’m not that good at writing ‘political’ songs – I tend to write stories from a character perspective. So I immediately thought of Andy Partridge, who is one of my favourite songwriters of all time, and he’s just at the end of a phone. I thought, “let’s call him up and see if he has any ideas.” so he ended up creating that whole concept for that song, and it became the title track on the record.
‘To the Bone’ is such an ‘earworm’ record. I came away from playing it, and the songs stuck in my head.
I hope so. From a personal perspective, the albums that I have tended to treasure the most are the ones that I wasn’t necessarily sure about the first time I heard them, but there’s something that pulls you in and makes you go back to them and listen to them over and over again. Every time you hear them, you are discovering something different. That’s because they have so many layers in the lyrics, the production, and the performance. That’s the kind of albums that I always aspire to make – like a movie you want to watch over again or a book you want to pick up time and time again. I don’t hear a lot of records like that these days. I think many records are made to be very ‘instant’ – almost like ‘fast food.’ Most mainstream ‘pop’ music seems to be adopting that mentality – Its instant gratification for the generation with a very short attention span. I grew up listening to records that you wanted to listen to time and time again, as you say like an ‘earworm’ – an album that gradually creeps up on you and establishes itself.
You are known for the 5.1 surround sound mixes of your albums. Do you have that in mind right at the beginning of each recording?
I have got to the point now where it’s almost like there is no reason not to do a 5.1 surround mix. I have a surround set up at home – why would I not do one? There is a fan base for 5.1 sound, and there is an expectation amongst my listeners for it, and my music works very well with 5.1 because a lot is going on and the production is quite dense. I have always felt that certain kinds of music work very well in surround and there is music that doesn’t. I wouldn’t mix AC/DC in surround. For example, it would be pointless, but an album with a degree of experimentation, layering, and sophistication in the production sounds fantastic in 5.1. So as long as there is an audience for it, I’m sure that I will do a 5.1 mix with everything I do.
You are currently on tour at the moment and have a vast back catalogue to choose from. How do you decide what songs to play each night?
Obviously, there is always an emphasis on the current record, and that’s no exception on this tour. I am playing almost all of To the Bone every night, so that’s the natural part of the decision-making process. Then it comes to “what else can fit into the show.” and at that point, it’s like a mixture of things. I have an extensive back catalogue, and I look back at that and say to myself, “that’s one that would be interesting to play.” or “I haven’t played that one for a while.” There is one song we are doing which is an old one from fifteen years ago that my previous band hardly ever played live, and it just popped into my head one day, and I thought, “my current drummer Craig would eat that up he would love that song it would be perfect for him.” Because it almost has a ‘drum and bass’ vibe to it. It’s also a question of finding songs that maybe fit the personalities of my current band. I have gone through, and I have picked songs going back as far as 1998-99. There are twenty years worth of songs in the show.
When playing live shows so how do you feel when people in the audience film them on their mobile phones?
I am reasonably tolerant, but there are times when people take the piss. In one of the shows recently, there was literally about ten people in the front row holding their phones up all the time. It’s okay if they want to grab a quick snap or a quick ten-second clip for your Snapchat feed. I can understand the motivation to do that, but if you are watching the whole show through your phone or worse, you are holding up your phone, and the person sitting behind you has to watch the entire performance through your phone – I think that is incredibly obnoxious. For me, the worst manifestation of the digital age is this need to document your whole life somehow rather than experience it.
I call it ‘the Japanese tourist syndrome.’, which is unfortunately somewhat derogatory to Japanese tourists, but there’s that thing that Japanese tourists get out of a bus and don’t look at what they have come to see. They take pictures of it so they can look at the pictures when they get home – why don’t you just live in the moment? I did lose my temper with that audience a few days ago, and the funny thing is when you say, “look, what the fuck are you doing? why don’t you just enjoy the show?” The rest of the audience loves it! I have a tolerance for it to an extent, but some people go too far.
What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?
I like the latest War on Drugs album. It’s called Deeper Understanding; I’m a big fan of that record. I love the Cigarettes After Sex record. They have only got one idea, but I think it’s a fantastically sublime idea, and I can listen to it all day long. And I enjoyed Max Richter’s album from last year based on the writings of Virginia Woolf. That was a stunningly beautiful record. So those three records are my favourites from the previous year.
What have we got to expect musically from Steven Wilson in the future?
This year is stretching out ahead of me. Regarding touring, I have already got shows booked until the end of the Summer, and I think there is going to be more right through the Autumn, so I’m almost expecting to be fully committed to touring until probably this time next year. But I am already thinking about my next record, and I have written a couple of songs – I know you will ask me what kind of direction I’m going in, but I’m not going to tell you anything yet because I don’t know for sure yet. All I can say is it will be different again, and that’s always important for me to know there is a reason to make another record and not to repeat myself. But obviously, the album is a long way off as I’m concentrating on touring for this year.
Steven Wilson is currently on a sold-out European tour that reaches the UK on March 15th. The dates are:
Mar 15th Warwick Arts Centre Coventry, UK
Mar 17th Mandela Hall Belfast, UK
Mar 19th Olympia Theatre Dublin, Ireland
March 21st St David’s Hall Cardiff, United Kingdom (sold out)
March 22nd Symphony Hall Birmingham, UK
March 24th Sec Armadillo Glasgow, UK
March 25th Sage, Gateshead, UK
March 27th Royal Albert Hall London, UK (sold out)
March 28th Royal Albert Hall London, UK (sold out)
March 29th Royal Albert Hall London, UK
Mar 31st Bridgewater Hall Manchester, UK (sold out)
Apr 1st Bridgewater Hall Manchester, UK
Tickets are on sale now via www.Ticketmaster.ie
To The Bone tracklisting:
1. To The Bone
2. Nowhere Now
4. The Same Asylum As Before
7. Blank Tapes
8. People Who Eat Darkness
9. Song of I
11. Song of Unborn