Steven Wilson - Cutting It to the Bone

By A. Lee Graham

Steven Wilson reaches for the stars and pulls back gold, a feat rare in today’s download-and-delete culture.

Yet the British musician achieves such alchemy every time he releases a new album — yes, album. Sure, streaming leads some listeners to his music, but Wilson’s passion for vinyl and the listening experience itself have endeared him to a growing fan base.

“Music should be something to be experienced, to be shared,” says Wilson, thrilled that his latest release rocketed to the top of British sales charts.

Only Ed Sheeran and Elvis Presley topped Wilson’s number-three sales achievement the week of August 25, quite a moment for an artist enjoying little airplay or pop culture notoriety.

Yet Wilson is arguably the greatest musician you haven’t heard of, a one-man cottage industry viewed by many as a renaissance man.

In three decades, Wilson has made Porcupine Tree, No-Man and Blackfield big names on the progressive rock scene. Storm Corrosion, his project with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt, also turned heads, to say nothing of his guitar playing on several early Fish albums and remixing duties for Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Tears for Fears, Yes, Marillion … the list goes on.

To The Bone, Wilson’s fifth and latest solo album, is less dense, more inviting, than previous solo releases. Owing more to Peter Gabriel, XTC and Abba than the uber-prog of Grace For Drowning or conceptual ambitions of Hand. Cannot. Erase., To The Bone also eschews the virtuoso instrumental displays of The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories).

Rather, it showers the listener with catchy melodies, male-female duets and an attention to song craft that’s as simple as it is controversial, at least according to some fans who decry its pop qualities for abandoning prog.

“That’s not really true,” says Wilson, pointing to the stylistic variety and studio wizardry that sees To The Bone as the next logical step in an oeuvre that’s never been predictable.

It’s been that way since Wilson discovered his parents’ record collection. Seduced by both Donna Summer and Pink Floyd, a young Steven began experimenting with a multipack recorder that his audio engineer father built for the lad.

He was hooked.

Wilson found dragging microphones across guitar strings fascinating as he dove into recording and multitracking. No-Man and Porcupine Tree arose from that experimentation, with the latter gaining traction after On The Sunday of Life announced a new force in progressive music.

Up The Downstair and The Sky Moves Sideways further established Porcupine Tree as a force to be reckoned with. Steeped in Pink Floyd and psychedelic rock as much as Tangerine Dream and trance music, what started as a one man’s vision soon became a proper band, with subsequent releases shifting styles to incorporate prog rock and metal influence.

The Incident capped a discography spanning 10 studio albums. Just when Porcupine Tree seemed on the precipice of breaking stateside, Wilson mothballed the prickly named bunch to focus on a solo career that’s not only retained Porcupine Tree’s fan base, but also expanded Wilson’s audience.

Some come for the musicianship of guitarists Guthrie Govan and Dave Kilminster or the drumming of Gavin Harrison and Craig Blundell, to say nothing of the keyboard wizardry of Adam Holzman or bass-stick player Nick Beggs.

Others are drawn to the increasingly personal subject matter, with To The Bone exploring truth as filtered through different lenses. With a rotating cast of players plucked from King Crimson, Miles Davis, Roger Waters and Kajagoogoo (that would be Beggs) animating the subject matter, Wilson never retains the same lineup for too long.

The practice both frustrates and fascinates his fans, many of whom miss Porcupine Tree yet can’t wait to see what the next Steven Wilson solo release has to offer.

To The Bone has much to offer, as Wilson explains in a brief chat with Classic Rock Revisited. Your humble correspondent hoped to find out what musicians Wilson is taking on the road, whether Porcupine Tree will ever reunite and if we can expect a second Storm Corrosion album. But time was tight, with such matters left for future interviews. For now, let’s cut to the bone…

Lee: With no serial killers or urban isolation narrative, one might not recognize this as a Steven Wilson album. Seriously, for the first time, To The Bone seems to expose your thoughts on contemporary society, with the cover art laying yourself bare and a more stripped-down sound. Was that your intent when conceiving this album?

Steven: The only thing I would take issue with is that the sound of the album is more stripped-down. In many respects, the production is as layered and cinematic as previous albums. Part of the reason for that impression may be that some of the song structures are less complex.

Lee: Yes, that was the distinction I was referring to — not so much the production, but the instrumentation and the fact that the material seems very direct.

Steven: Yes, a lot of complexities this time have come from the way the music is layered. The cover you mentioned is a little more direct, more personal [than previous solo albums featuring artwork instead of band photos]. You may see more of what Steven Wilson thinks of the world we live in rather than the characters I’ve written about in the last few years. I say this is me to the bone. This is me to the very core. This is me holding a mirror to my audience and saying, “Do you recognize yourself?”

Lee: Musicians from some of your favorite bands appear on the album, and in Andy Partridge’s case, actually wrote lyrics to the title track and “Nowhere Now.” Were there any that you hoped might appear that were unable to participate for one reason or another?

Steven: I approach a whole bunch of people with every record. It’s always about timing, whether they’re interesting, etc. I don’t want to name names. On this record, there are a few songs I conceived as duets. For example, “Song of I” ended up being done fantastically by Sophie [Hunger].

So I do love collaborating. That’s one of the joys of being in the situation I am.

Lee: What made you choose Sophie instead of Ninet Tayeb for the song? And on the other songs featuring female vocals, what qualities make you gravitate toward what singer?

Steven: That is a very good question. Basically, in that particular song, “Song of I,” it’s about love going from a very positive thing to a very destructive thing. It’s a song about crossing the line. I wanted it to be a gender-neutral song sung by both male and female voices, so there weren’t any sides in it, per se.

I needed someone who could sing in a way that was very detached, almost sinister and at the same time invest it with a sensuality and sexuality. That was a very tough thing to pull off.

Ninet is a very emotional singer. She has a very earthly, organic, powerful, emotional voice, so I didn’t think she was right for “Song of I.” I wanted someone more detached and able to give the song a real emotional weight, too. That was tough with this album, getting the right singers.

Lee: How did you and Sophie connect?

Steven: The record company suggested her.

Lee: Each Steven Wilson solo album features a changing cast of musicians. Yet despite featuring Jeremy Stacey, Pete Eckford and Mark Feltham, to name a few, on To The Bone, you seem to handle most of the instrumentation. Did that stem from a yearning to play more guitar after sharing stages with Guthrie Govan and Dave Kilminster, or was there another reason for making the latest Steven Wilson album more of a Steven Wilson album?

Steven: It’s not something I consciously thought of, but you’re right: it was a natural consequence of me deciding to focus on my songwriting. It’s very different. The thing is this: when you have a respected musician, like Guthrie who you mentioned, when there’s a 16-bar solo, then you hire a specific kind of guitarist who can create this solo, to say how can I blow people away? That’s great. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Other times, you need a solo to be an extension of the feeling of the song, to pick up on the vocal.

I believe as a songwriter, I am the right person to do that and on this record not to be a quote-unquote muso. I wanted solos to be very simple and be an extension of the sentiment of the songs. Instinctively, I felt like I was the right person. I can’t play fast and I can’t play clever stuff, and that’s fine.

Much of what makes me tick is change and trying different things moving forward and not looking back. For a while, I felt like I had done everything. But things come around again, and for me that meant going back to guitar and not only guitar, but also the way I approach guitar. There’s a lot of “fight” on this album.

Lee: Can simply changing instruments affect your creativity? For example, on this album, you’ve gone from PRS guitars to a Telecaster.

Steven: Completely. The thing about a Tele is it almost sounds aggressive. You don’t have to drive it very hard. It’s very wiry, trebly. It has that slashing sound, that Pete Townsend slashing quality to it. It leads you down this road. You think about guitar parts in a different way. The first song I wrote on the record was “People Who Eat Darkness,” which is a Tele song through and through. It’s very aggressive, almost punky, with very little distortion on it. Using a PRS would have taken it down a metal sound, but a Tele is more punky, slashy.

Lee: Does any of that occur to you while composing, or does it simply seep out subconsciously since you’re the composer of all that material?

Steven:  I think you’ve kind of answered your own question. I don’t see that as particularly earth shattering. Some Porcupine Tree songs are where I was the only one playing.

Lee: In the weeks leading up to this month’s release, some fans seemed miffed at the “pop” direction that the new album would take. The Internet forums were afire with such debate. Did you pay attention to this at all, or is this just part and parcel of the social media age?

Steven: I think so. I don’t read anything online, though. It’s not easy being my fans sometimes. There is a sense that you never quite know what i’m going to do. I like to confront expectations.

The idea of more of the same is anathema to me, so I take time for the record to truly prove itself or see how it will go down with the fan base.

Lee: One quality I’ve always admired about you is that you are an artist. Let me explain: there are entertainers, or those who write to please others, and there are artists, those who write from the heart and hope others will enjoy the music, but don’t write for them. They write for themselves. And you seem more of an artist. I think your art is more genuine as a result.

Steven: My idols, as far as I can tell, didn’t really care at all about a desire to please. Like Kate Bush and David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Neil Young: they existed in their own world. They don’t care what their fans think, as you pointed out. I think that’s the definition of being a true artist. It’s the only way I can make music. Otherwise, I’d feel like a fake if I were just trying to please people.

Lee: Exactly.

Steven: I think that kind of musician will have a long career. The Kate Bushes and Frank Zappas have a long career, where they are revered. It takes time to get that kind of respect. Fans may not like everything you do, but they will check out your next record. You can make two records in a row that some fans may not like, but they will still be there when the next one comes out that they do like. They’re in it for the long haul.

Lee: Speaking of material, what can fans expect from the tour, both the setlist and production?

Steven: We will focus a lot on the new record, play as much of it as we can. It’s also about finding songs from my back catalog that fit or resonate with the new music. As we discussed at the beginning of this conversation, they will be compositions that fit the newest material. In a way, I’m lucky because I’m not the kind of artist that has a “Stairway to Heaven” or “Don’t Fear The Reaper” or something I have to play. So there’s that freedom.

Lee: But you do have “The Raven That Refused to Sing,” which has become quite a crowd-pleaser. I can’t imagine a Steven Wilson concert without that song at this point.

Steven: I think you’re right, Lee. That’s the closest song I have that I feel I should play. I’m very proud of that song.

Lee: How about production? What kind of visuals can we expect from the new tour?

Steven: We’re working on a lot of new visuals. I want to take the show to a very high level, try to make it the best we can.

Lee: This fan looks forward to seeing you again. Congratulations on another fantastic album, Steven.

Steven: Very good. Thank you.

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