Prog-rock demigod Steven Wilson is bafflingly predictable in his unpredictability. While he has been recognized for his relentless experimentation throughout his 25 year long career, his more recent solo ventures have seen this master of melancholia branch between various musical guises faster and with more layered absorption.
In his newest album The Future Bites, Wilson grounds his sound in the present. He chisels narratives out of electronic avantgardism, and tells both ominous and amusing stories with a dark playfulness that remains his signature.
Catching up with The Score Magazine, he muses on artistic insight, his bewilderment with this arriving-somewhere-but-not-here world, and his fascination with a £140 brick.
What have been the greatest challenges in your first decade as a solo artist?
For me, the main idea to be a solo artist was to be able to change direction much more easily. When you are in a band, you can’t reinvent yourself in the same way because everyone has to agree. To get everyone to agree to the styles is very difficult.
I started my career as a solo artist. Porcupine Tree was a solo project before it became a band. So going back to being a solo artist, the main challenge was to confront the expectations of fans. What really excites me is to do different things like working with different people.
With social media, everything I do is subjected to immediate feedback. Some of this feedback can be negative as much as it is positive. The biggest challenge for me is to ignore that and only do what I need to do to be myself.
You mentioned in an earlier interview that the album was finished right before the pandemic descended. Has your artistic perception of the already completed album changed because of 2020, then? Is there something you wish you had done differently in hindsight?
In many ways, there is an irony here. The Future Bites, in a way, feels more relevant now. It was written and recorded before the pandemic. It seems that the future is biting even harder than when I wrote the album.
When I wrote the album, we had the whole Brexit situation going on here, and there were a lot of changes happening, and I feel the situation has only become worse now. In many ways, The Future Bites seems even more topical now.
I am one of those people that can’t stop playing around. There is always an element of me that wants to do things differently.
How do you ensure that despite changes in sound from one album to another, the music essentially still sounds like you?
The answer to that is that I don’t know. I have kind of come to understand that myself because for many years I have not been confident in myself especially as a singer. When you look in the mirror, you very rarely see what others would probably see which is essentially your personality and charisma.
For many years, I wasn’t aware of myself having a strong musical personality. It didn’t matter what type of music I was doing. There was always something that would sound like me.
Basically, I would be making new material and thinking to myself that it sounds so different and when I start playing to people around me, they would shrug and say “Well, it sounds like you”. I used to find that annoying but now I have understood that it’s a good thing that, whatever I do there is something quintessentially Steven Wilson about it. I have started to embrace it now.
You mentioned that The Future Bites is an album that could only exist now, in the current time. Could you elaborate on that?
I think some of my previous albums have been guilty of sounding too nostalgic, for example my last album “To The Bone”, there was a sense of the 80’s experimental pop.
With the album “The Future Bites”, I wanted to make a record that sounds like it could only be made now. I think I achieved that and that’s why I feel it is quite a breakthrough record.
When transitioning to the primarily electronic sound of The Future Bites (2020), how have things changed in terms of your mindset, how you see the world, where you get ideas from, etc.?
I think I had to acknowledge to myself that I live in an electronic world. I think something that we all need to acknowledge to ourselves. When I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a lot of music was rock. I liked electronic music too but I gravitated towards playing the guitar and became a rock musician.
I believe that the one major thing is that we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world that is surrounded by electronic sound whether it is coming from our laptop or phone or even our door bell.
We are constantly bombarded by electronic sound and this is the musical vocabulary that young people understand. The guitar is an alien sound to them. My kids who are 9 and 10 don’t know what a guitar sounds like.
Working with that musical palette was a challenge for me but I embraced it because I always liked electronic music. I have not always been brave enough before now to completely immerse myself in that world.
But this time around I was absolutely adamant that it had to be a record that reflected the times that we live in. In order to reflect that, it had to be an album with an electronic sensibility. There are still guitars on this record but overall the record leans towards the electronic aesthetic.
I know you’re a longtime David Bowie admirer. Did he come to mind when you were dabbling in this album’s electronica? In the same vein, are there any modern pop artists that interest you? Also, did you draw any influence from your music with No-Man?
The reason Bowie, for me, is an icon is because of the way he conducts the expectations of the audience or not be afraid to disappoint your audience by doing something that they are not expecting.
He was the king of that! One minute he is a glam rocker, then he is a folk singer, then he is a solo singer and then he made the Berlin Trilogy which is dark, experimental European music which I think is a reference for so many people working in Pop music.
He then reinvented himself in the 80s with the big stadium pop music. For someone to be able to do that consistently and in such a short period of time, I think he is almost unprecedented. To me, he is a constant inspiration in that sense to be brave and change direction. I think it is important for artists to please themselves and not to please listeners.
So, for the first time we’re getting a Dolby Atmos mix of a Steven Wilson album. You also mentioned that you are remixing all your music at home in Atmos. How did you come to this new mode of mixing from the 5.1 mix? And could you take us through the production journey for The Future Bites?
For the second time in a row, I worked with a co-producer, a guy called David. He is someone who I have followed for many years and admired. What I love about his production is that he has a great understanding of the history of music; it is very contemporary and fresh.
Working with someone like David was very important. It was the most solo album I have made in the sense that I have played most of the guitars, bass and keyboards so there wasn’t so much of a band involved in this album. That was also a conscious decision because the album was going to be electronic. I wanted this album to be streamlined and fresh.
The Dolby Atmos was an extension of something that I have been doing for many years which is my interest in surround sound. I have been making music in 5.1 sound and I understand that a lot of people don’t get what that is.
5.1 is basically when you have two speakers in front of you, two speakers behind you, one speaker in the middle and the .1 is a low frequency. Dolby Atmos is the next step up from that and the standard is 7.1.0 which means that instead of five speakers, you now have seven.
For the first time, someone like me can not only spread the music in a horizontal way but also a vertical way. For an album like this, with a lot of details, this was a very immersive experience.