Steven Wilson may have originally made a name for himself through his band Porcupine Tree but his subsequent solo career has seen his influence and impact grow exponentially. Having made music with a variety of projects and bands over the past three decades, Wilson has long pushed his edge of being a big fish in a little pond who jumps into bigger and bigger ponds. His new album “The Future Bites” is no exception, exploring new waters while still retaining the essence of his songwriting.
In this lengthy interview, Scott Medina chats with Steven about everything from future touring plans, to distinctions of his “muso” solo albums vs. songwriting albums, to what inspires him to continually evolve, to how his new family impacts his creativity, to additional insights to the songs on his new album and much more. You can read the transcript below, download the podcast or stream the audio in the YouTube slideshow below.
Remember that for more interviews and other daily content, make sure to follow Sonic Perspectives on Facebook, Flipboard and Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified about new content we publish on a daily basis.
Hi everyone. This is Scott Medina with Sonic Perspectives. We are talking to Steven Wilson today as he’s just on the cusp of finally releasing the new album, “The Future Bites.” You must be excited, Steven. It’s been a long time coming.
Hi, Scott. It has been a long time, yeah. It’s very strange that in this period of waiting, the album has apparently become even more prescient and even more kind of topical in that respect. Yeah. So in some ways it’s lucky that it’s coming out now because it seems such a perfect moment for it to come out because the future is certainly biting, that’s for sure.
Indeed it is! This must be the longest pregnant pause you’ve had in releasing an album, which was supposed to come out last June, I think it was originally, right?
That’s right. In some ways I’ve kind of liked the fact that I’ve had this time to reflect on the album. There’s a truism about being a professional musician that usually, on the day after you finish an album, you deliver it to the record company and it kind of goes into “the machine” and you don’t really have any time to reflect on what you’ve done. So, when you consider that you spent – certainly in my case about 18 months has been spent writing, demoing, recording, mixing, mastering – by the time you get to the end of that process, you usually are unable to really be objective about what you did. You kind of look at it like a science project. You know, it’s no longer about the music…it’s about “Oh, does that high hat have enough treble on it?” Or, “Is that backing vocal too far over to the left of the stereo?” So you’re not really engaging with any more as music. And almost uniquely in my career this time, I actually was able to step away from a record I made for six months and then come back to it and hear it as music and actually be able to respond. I did make some changes to the record over the summer. And that’s something that I may never have as a luxury ever again. So in that sense, I’ve kind of appreciated having this delay.
I know you switched the last track [to “Count of Unease”], are you satisfied with the way it closes now?
I am, yeah. I originally had a much more kind of upbeat ending to the record. And when I listened to the test pressing of the vinyl last summer, it just felt wrong to me. I felt like I wanted a more spiritual, more kind of transcendent, more beautiful sort of note to end the record on. And like I say, I never would have had recourse to have made that change or made that decision. So that was definitely something I was very happy to be able to do.
In addition to the actual recording, you also originally had a really ambitious live show planned for going into some of the biggest venues of your career. It seemed like you really were going for it, intending to jump to the next level. And so I’m curious if you can share your vision regarding what that jump was meant to be, and to what extent have you had to scale it back now for the eventual live shows that you’ll do later this fall?
Well, not too much. I mean, the rooms I’m playing on the tour are still going to be pretty big. Obviously they’re not the arena shows that I was hoping to do. Unfortunately those venues are just not available, they’re booked three years in advance. So I kind of lost that chance. So that’s a shame, but I’m still gonna raise the bar. One of the things for me that’s always important is to feel like there is a sense of evolution and a sense of raising the bar and trying to do something bigger and better with each project. And that’s still certainly the case. I guess over the years, I’ve become pretty well experienced in putting essentially what is an arena show into a theater. You know, that’s been my thing. People come to my shows – in relatively compact theaters – and essentially they get something on the scale of an arena show. And so nothing has changed in that respect. I have a bigger canvas to work with now, even though it’s not quite as big as I was anticipating. It’s still going to be a bigger canvas. And I’m planning something… I mean, I don’t want to give away the specifics except to say that there’s a lot of material in this album in terms of the subject matter and the concept behind it that lends itself very well to the live context. This idea of living in a world of commerce… the kind of contract between the listener and the performer, all of those things lend themselves really well to some fun things… I’ll say “fun” in a kind of dystopian way, which is really my schtick, you know?
Well, I remember on the last tour, you kind of freaked people out with that opening video which really had people second guessing what was going on there. So I can imagine that you can even take that further. Like the merch stand must just be off the hook for this upcoming tour.[smiling]You’ve kind of guessed one of the things I was going to look at. Yeah, definitely the whole idea of creating almost a corporate Future Bites identity for all of the merchandise and the merch stands is something I was definitely going to have some fun with. And I still plan to have fun with!
Can you share with us who the touring musicians will be?
Well, I don’t know for sure myself yet. The tour is not starting until September this year, so we’re still the best part of eight months away. So I’m still talking to people. A lot of it is going to come down to who’s going to be available come the time, because obviously all the musicians that are used to working on a session-basis right now are scrambling around for any work they can get. So, a lot of them are not sure if and when they’re going to be available. So I’m keeping a few options open right now. And also of course I have to consider this album has a slightly different musical esthetic to it. So I need to think about the kind of musicians I need. Maybe it’s a slightly different kind of musician I need this time around. But obviously they still also need to be able to play some of the older stuff, too. So it’s something I still have to figure out.
We’re talking here just a couple days before the album actually gets released and you’ve just released a lyric video for “Man of the People,” which is one of my favorite songs on the album. Have you ever personally known a person who’s in the situation that the song is describing?
Anyone that has been in the world of celebrity – and I kind of include myself in that, albeit on a very low rung – anyone that has been in a situation where they’ve had to deal with that notion of celebrity or being someone that is a public figure in any way, understands the kind of difficulties with that that can have with family life. I have experienced that, albeit on my very modest level, I have experienced that kind of thing. To be with someone, to have a family and to be also someone that is a public figure that is going off on tour for months on end, that makes statements online and basically makes themselves and their inner life and their opinions available to the world at large is kind of subject to some of the things I talk about in that song. It’s very easy to let your ego run away with you. And I have been guilty of that myself. I don’t think now I would, as I’m older and more experienced now, but I understand how easy it is to fall into that trap.
Yes. In the past decade or so, you’ve said on more than one occasion that you’ve sacrificed having a family yourself to focus on your career and all of that’s involved with that. And now of course, you’ve been married for a year and a half and have two kids in your life now. So how would you say that marriage has been impacting your musical inspiration, your output and your look on life?
Yeah, “I’m not sure” it’s the simplest answer to your question. I’m not aware of it having impacted my creativity. It’s funny because a lot of fans, of course, immediately heard there was more of a pop sensibility on “The Future Bites” and they put two and two together and got five, thinking that somehow it’s because I was now happy and that I’d never been happy before. Which of course nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve always been a pretty content individual, but I’m much happier now than ever. But of course, most of “The Future Bites” was written long before. It was written back in 2017 to 2018. So that’s a bit of a red herring. But the answer to your question, Scott, is I’m not sure. I think it must’ve changed me creatively because everything does…that’s the thing about being somebody who’s creative, whether you’re writing music or you’re writing movies or novels or painting…whatever it is that you do, everything that you experience in your life becomes part of the input that affects therefore the output. So I’m sure it has affected me. I don’t know quite how and maybe that’s something for other people to judge rather than me.
Can we ask what kind of music your wife likes?
She is very, very open minded. She likes a lot of the same music I like. I’ve played her a lot of stuff which she’s really liked. She’s a big fan of stuff like Radiohead. She’s Israeli so she’s a big fan of a lot of Israeli music as well. She loves Neil Young. So she’s got very cool taste, as you would expect my wife to have.
Well, let’s talk about that happiness factor. We spoke about three years ago during the “To The Bone” tour and at that time you seemed to be headed more toward a happy and joyous songwriting style, “Permanating” being an obvious example. Yet this is sometimes at odds, as you know, with the perception of some of your best material being full of angst. So how do you reconcile those forces of that more happy, contented aspect of yourself, and the other side, as you’ve said yourself, that the best material is the stuff that’s really wrestling with the challenges of life.
Yeah, this album is no exception. Much of this album is taking a very kind of dystopian view of the world that we live in, as you would expect. “Permanating” was really an outlier. I think some fans were sort of terrified that that was going to set the agenda for the future. And it wasn’t, it was kind of an outlier. There’s nothing like that on this record, as you know. This record is still concerned, shall we say, with the problematic aspects of modern life and the world that we live in. How do I reconcile it? It’s been quite simple for me. I think of the songs very much as an exorcism or a kind of cathartic experience. So let’s just say exorcising that side of me in order that I can be a fairly well adjusted and fairly happy person. Because there’s no question that there’s a lot of stuff to get angry about and to be pissed off about and to be depressed about. And I guess I tend to deal with that and have always tended to deal with that through the creative act. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that. It’s funny that some of the most charming and funny and happy people I’ve ever met – musician-wise, that is – have been the musicians that are working in some of the most extreme, dark corners of music. Some death metal and black metal groups. And they’re writing songs essentially about some of the most dark and evil things conceivable, and yet they’re always the most happy, well-adjusted people. I think there’s something in that kind of equation that if you put that stuff into the music, then it kind of almost takes that burden away from you. And I think I’ve always felt that way. That’s the way it’s worked for me.
So how much would you say that your professional image, especially your stage image, would be a persona?
I’m not sure. I’m not conscious of creating a persona. I mean, obviously I must do it. You know, you kind of have to. I mean, it’s true to say that you have to have a pretty big ego to step up on a stage in the first place. So I must have one. And I do, I do have an ego…that kind of urge to step upon a stage in front of 2,000 or 3,000 other people who are all looking at you, and to think that’s perfectly normal. It’s a very strange perspective to have on the world. And of course there are some people that have that have had that perspective for most of their life. And we’re surprised when they’re eccentric and they’re pretty messed up. Who wouldn’t be eccentric and messed up if they’ve had most of their life being put on a pedestal like that and idolized like that? It’s not normal. It takes a particular kind of ego – a particular kind of narcissist in a way – to think that that is normal or to even have the confidence to step out on stage and do that. And I do. But I have to say, I’ve learned to have that confidence. And I’ve learned to accept that as some semblance of this is what I do professionally. And the audience almost want me to be that person, you know. They want me to be a poser and a pop star and a bit pretentious because that’s part of the fun in a way, for them, too. So over 30 years of being a musician, I think I’ve learned to play the game of being, a quote unquote “pop star”, a little better. Certainly a lot better than I did at the beginning when I would walk on stage and spend the whole show staring at my shoes. Quite literally from a wall of hair looking down! And I couldn’t even look the audience in the eye. And now I’m completely different. I love it! I love walking out on stage. I love engaging with the audience. I’m very natural on stage. I talk to them as if I would to anyone down at the pub, basically. That’s the way it works for me, being someone who is a public figure.
As you’re speaking, I’m remembering talking with Bruce Soord from The Pineapple Thief and he had this issue. He used to really struggle with stage fright and have a hard time getting on stage, until at some point he said, Yeah, right. I’ve got to get an ego to be on stage and have sort of that persona. And ever since he made that shift, things have gone really well for him. He really loves performing now.
Yeah. I think I had a similar thing happen, but also part of that was also acknowledging to myself that I could be completely myself on stage. I know that sounds like an oxymoron. But basically one night I sort of walked up to the microphone and instead of doing the, “Hey guys, are we going to rock tonight? You having a good time?” You know, all that terrible bullshit. Instead I just stepped up to the microphone and started telling them about my day and my neuroses at that moment, and the music I listened to that day or what I’d had for dinner that night. And I realized that actually the audience really kind of warms to that. So I’m very committed to this idea that you don’t go on stage while scripting your dialogue. I’ve been to see several artists, like Roger Waters when I saw The Wall show several times. Even his “ad-lib” was the same every single night. And I thought that was terribly disappointing. So I’ve made a point actually of not really preparing anything in my mind. I just literally walk up to the microphone and start just spouting whatever nonsense comes into my head. And that seems to have really worked. The audience really likes that. It kind of endears me to the audience. I enjoy that and it also relaxes me because there is no artifice about that.
It’s clear that as an artist that you challenge yourself musically, both thematically and in the soundscape. So at a core level, what drives and motivates and influences you to change from album to album and why is it important to you that you constantly change and evolve?
I think there’s a couple of things there. The first thing is that I get bored very easily. I don’t like to repeat myself. I’m also a massive music fan and I don’t understand the concept of genre. I never have. Even when I remember going to high school for the first time, years and years ago, and realizing there are all these little tribes. There was the tribe that liked the metal music. There was the tribe that liked the ska music. There was the tribe that liked the mod music. And I was thinking to myself, well I like all of it! I love all of this stuff! I don’t understand this! And I didn’t understand, and I STILL don’t understand that notion of genre and listening within a very narrow band of parameters. I listen to so many kinds of music still to this day. I’m very curious about discovering new music. So that kind of feeds into what I do. So I’m very impatient, in a way, to explore all of these things.
The second answer to your question is that my heroes, my inspirations, were always the kind of people that were constantly surprising their fans. Constantly surprising their listeners, confronting the expectations. I’m speaking of people like Bowie, Zappa, Prince, Neil Young, Kate Bush. Also movie directors like Stanley Kubrick. I kind of noted to myself recently that one of the things about the world of cinema is that great directors are almost expected to genre hop. Someone like Stanley Kubrick or Christopher Nolan will go from making a science fiction movie to a war movie to a costume drama to a psychological thriller, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s kind of like that’s what’s expected of a movie director. But in the world of music, I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s very unusual. And the music industry kind of conditions you not to genre hop, not to change direction. So for me, my admiration is all the greater for the people that have done that and have constantly reinvented themselves. And I think Bowie is kind of the poster child for that. What he did in the seventies and beyond was extraordinary, just constantly coming back with a completely different persona, a different band, a different sound, working with a different musical vocabulary. I guess I’ve always been most inspired by those kinds of people. Those are the people I aspire to be in that sense. Someone who is constantly changing, constantly evolving…as much for themselves as for the listeners.
But as a fan, how much did you continue to follow them on that journey? Like with Bowie you might have, but with Prince, did you enjoy all of the changes that he made and continue to follow him?
No, I didn’t enjoy all of them. But I respected their right to do it. And I kept on buying the records. Zappa is a great example, he made a lot of records that I don’t particularly like. But the point is that I was completely invested in his world. I understood that everything he did, he did with integrity. So I kept on buying the records because I knew that maybe the next record would be one that I would love. And I think that’s the trick that is hardest to pull off. But if you can pull it off then your audience almost expects the unexpected and they’re prepared to carry on following you, even if not everything connects with them. It’s the hardest thing of all, I think, to achieve. But I like to think that I’m getting to that point now. A contingent of the audience will always complain. Every time I do something different, they’ll say, “Oh, this is not what I wanted. What’s happening? He’s betrayed this and he’s not doing what I wanted him to do.” But they still seem to buy the records and they’ll buy the next one. And they not only buy the record, actually most of them ultimately do come around to appreciating it. That’s what I’m seeing already with “The Future Bites.” Cause there was a lot of gnashing of teeth early on with some of the early singles that were released online.
The prog rock fraternity particularly were very negative about it. But I’ve seen that change gradually over the course of the album campaign. People are actually now beginning to really appreciate what it is. And I think they’re appreciating that this a record made with integrity, with sophistication, there’s no compromise involved. It’s just as sophisticated and crafted and layered as anything I’ve ever done. And it sounds completely like it comes from my musical world. It’s just a different musical vocabulary that I’m using to communicate it. And I think that’s true of a lot of the records that I love too first time around. I didn’t necessarily understand or like them. But because the artist was someone I respected and I understood they had integrity, I gave them a chance. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and four or five plays later, I was completely swayed. “I get it now, this is what they’re doing, now I understand.” And I just had even more respect for them than I would have done anyway.
It’s great that you are a sincere fan of musical artists in addition to being an established artist in your own right. To what extent does your appreciation of other artists inform how you interact with your own fans?
I’ve learned a lot, obviously, going to a lot of shows. I’ve seen how some people conduct themselves on social media. Which is a whole new can of worms that every artist has to somehow find their position in terms of how they engage with people on social media. I think for a long time I didn’t get it right. I kind of distanced myself very much from it. I said, I’m not going to engage with people on social media. I’m going to be very remote. And it didn’t really work for me. I’ve found now that there’s an aspect of engaging with people on social media that I do enjoy. There’s obviously a line I don’t cross, but I have shared more of my private life, a little bit more of my private life. I have taken to doing things like “The Future Bites” sessions where I do impromptu versions of some of my songs, just from my studio I’ve been doing one a week and having fun with that too. There’s no question that we live in a very different world now in terms of the music industry now. The music industry has changed beyond recognition since I started. I mean, I started in the early nineties, and it was a completely different industry. It’s unrecognizable now in the sense that people like myself who’ve been doing it for this long have had to learn and adapt to a completely different model. And a lot of that model, of course, is based around the internet, social media. Particularly at a time like now when there is no other way to communicate with the fans. There’s no touring, there’s no record shop signings, there’s no TV. So social media is now the way – certainly during the pandemic – that is the way I’ve been able to communicate with the fans and talk to them about this new record. So everything is a learning experience.
The one thing that I’ve found the hardest to get to grips with is that idea that you have immediate feedback now. Which is something that even Bowie and Zappa didn’t have. They would release a new record, get a few reviews by the professional journalist fraternity, but they wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the response from the fan base the way that musicians are now. So that we’re now in a position where literally in a minute, I mean, literally within a minute of me posting a new song or a video or a piece of news, there will be a wave of opinion. And some of that will be very negative and quite cruel. And that’s been the hardest thing I think for almost everyone involved in this industry to get used to and how you deal with that.
Are you aware of how much uproar was caused by you covering a Taylor Swift song?
Yeah, but I love that because I…[Laughing]…I knew that would upset the classic rock purists. But you know what? I did it from a genuine place of love. I love that song. I think she’s great artist. It wasn’t like I was doing it for a cynical reason just to upset people. I wasn’t. But I was also aware that it would probably be seen as something quite controversial and quite divisive. But the point is, again, listen to the song, it’s a great song. The lyrics are great. It’s not a piece of pop fluff. She wrote that song and it’s a brilliant song. And again, I love the idea of making people perhaps look at things in a different way, just by virtue of the fact that I’ve sanctioned it or covered it or whatever it is. And I think that also happened.
In your evolution, there was a time not long ago in your solo career when you were writing things and wanting to arrange things to a degree of musicality that you couldn’t pull off yourself. And so you brought in a lot of really talented musicians to realize that vision. But in the last album or two, you’ve been doing more and more of what we really could call a solo album with you performing most of it. What’s behind that shift in different eras of your life when you’re wanting to go for more of the muso kind of thing as opposed to more the songwriter essence of a pop song? And where might that take you in the future?
Yeah, I guess I got tired of the muso thing. I began to become more focused on the art of songwriting. And falling in love again with pop music. And I use “pop” in the broadest possible sense here, you know, pop as in popular music. They art of writing melodic, immediate, catchy songs. They still can have a great degree of sophistication to them. And I found myself moving more and more towards that side of things. As for the muso thing? I did a couple of albums with a real extraordinary bunch of musicians. I got a bit tired of that. It’s not really my thing. You know, when I play, I’m a very basic player, but I also realized and acknowledged to myself that I do have a strong musical personality. So when I play the guitar, I may not be able to play pyrotechnically the way that Dave Kilminster or Guthrie Govan or those guys can play. But actually I can do something different, which I think is perhaps more natural, more organic in terms of my music anyway.
It’s funny, my relationship with the guitar has completely changed over the last 10 years, anyway. I’m using it in a more kind of creative, almost sound designed way, particularly on this album. Some of the solos are…they’re all my solos, but they’re not muso solos. So they’re almost more like an extension of the lyrics. I don’t know how else to explain it really, but for example, the solo on “Eminent Sleaze” is very angular and angry, it’s almost like a direct extension of the lyrics. And of course the only person that can really do that, or do that most successfully, is indeed the person who wrote the lyrics and understands the very essence of the song. So I’ve enjoyed being that person who is very much in touch with the core of the song, being able to interpret that through my own playing. So the muso thing, I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t come back, but it’s not really something I’m terribly interested in right now.
It sounds like you’re so interested in the electronics and the keyboards a lot…
And since now you’ve been focused so much on the short form of pop music…do you think you might branch that out to longer-form pieces that are electronic as well in the future?
Well, “Personal Shopper” on the album is 10 minutes long, that’s kind of exactly what you’ve just described, isn’t it? I mean, that’s a predominantly electronic piece, which also has an incredible kind of conceptual suite to it.
But I’m thinking even going back to your early days with really long pieces, that is kind of how you started.
Possibly, yeah. There’s one piece I’m going to be playing on the tour which is from my very early days, which is called “Voyage 34,” which is a 30 minute piece of electronic fusion between trance and ambient music, and kind of classic rock stuff too. So at the time it was quite different. It was 1992 when I think it came out. And I’ve kind of revived it for the tour because it seems to me that that’s the kind of thing from the back catalog that will actually sit very well alongside “The Future Bites.” So that’s kind of what you’re describing. I think that’s definitely something in the long form, but it is essentially a piece of electronic music or a piece of music that fuses an electronic sensibility with a kind of classic rock sensibility. It doesn’t have the pop vocal element to it, but I think in terms of the kind of musical palette, it definitely has a lot in common with “The Future Bites.”
Overall, how do your solo album sales – especially these last couple of albums – compare to the Porcupine Tree days?
Oh, well, they’ve sold much more. It’s the funny thing about Porcupine Tree. I think the legend has grown! [laughing].
Yeah, it has!
Subsequently since we were inactive. It was always a struggle with Porcupine Tree to sell records and tickets. But it’s funny now, 11 years after we last made a record, it seems like people have this idea, they have this perception that Porcupine Tree was some extraordinarily successful, planet-conquering, rock behemoth. And that’s not my experience. [laughs]That’s not my memory. You know, towards the end we began to move up to bigger venues, but for example, for Porcupine Tree‘s last show, we did one night at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and we it sold out. But I sold out three nights at the same venue on my last tour. So it’s been much more successful solo. But I’m almost thinking now if Porcupine Tree did get back together, I think probably we’d suddenly find we were five times bigger than when we ceased working.
I think so.
Which is a very strange thing! It’s almost like, you know, it’s absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that. The legend has grown and grown and grown. Which has been amazing! I mean, I love that, you know. But it’s also been frustrating cause it’s like, well why didn’t it happen when we were actually working our asses off touring the world and struggling to sell records and tickets?! But you know, I guess quality ultimately outs, doesn’t it?
So are you ready to announce now that you’ve done a one-off Porcupine Tree album during lockdown, and you’re going to surprise everyone with it this summer?
I always said about Porcupine Tree for the last two or three years – because of my nature – I said, we’ll probably do something again when it’s the last thing people expect me to do. So I don’t know if we’re quite at that stage yet [laughs], because I think people still think… But when people finally kind of concede that I’m never ever going to do it again, that’s when it’ll happen. That’s kind of my M.O., isn’t it? That’s always been my M.O.
So how do you see your role with Blackfield at this point in time?
Well, I’ve stepped away from Blackfield, really. I mean, I didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the inclination… Aviv wanted to go in a different direction. I haven’t even heard the new record! I sing a couple of songs on it, but I haven’t heard it yet. Blackfield was always intended to be a vehicle ultimately for Aviv‘s songs, anyway. That’s where the genesis of that group was. It was in this idea that I’m going to take this guy who writes amazing songs, but mainly in Hebrew, and we’re going to reproduce the songs, we’re going to translate them into English and we’re going to take his songs to a wider English-speaking audience. And we did that! Particularly on the first couple of albums, I think we very successfully did that. And I’ve been more kind of peripheral to it ever since then. It’s been more a question of like, it’s kind of up and running now, so go with it. You don’t need me now, just go with it. And he has. So my position is I’m still there to kind of help out. As you probably know, I played on the new record and I sang a couple of songs. And that’s probably going to be the kind of level of involvement that I would anticipate going forward.
Yeah it’s interesting because almost like you with your career, Aviv’s really been pushing the sound of Blackfield in a more contemporary pop sound lately. The three songs that you sing on the new album are the only things that really hearken back to maybe the first few albums, and the rest of it’s kind of challenging listeners, just like “The Future Bites” does for people who are more used to the older stuff.
Right. Okay. That’s interesting. I mean, I will hear the record at some point. I just haven’t yet.
When you contacted Elton John through a friend, do you think he had to research who you were or had he already heard of you?
He knew who I was. That’s the wonderful thing about Elton. A lot of people will say this, he’s still incredibly passionate about and curious about new music. Now I don’t know exactly how much he knew about me. But he did know about me. And that in itself was mind-blowing, as you can imagine. And I was very flattered because he’s such an incredible inspiration to me and an influence, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. So that was an astounding moment in my life to pick up the phone and be speaking to Elton John about my song and for him to be so enthusiastic. I mean, that was one of the most incredible five minutes to my life, probably. [laughs]
Have you gained more respect for him after finding out that somehow he he’s never owned a mobile phone himself?
I envy him that, yeah. Being able to…well, I think it’s a bit easier for him because he’s able to delegate, isn’t he? I wouldn’t be able to conduct my career without a mobile phone, but I think he can probably just about get away with that one, yeah. But what an incredible thing to not be involved in that world. I mean, I envy him.
Who knows? Ironically maybe he’s not as self-absorbed as most of the rest of us are, who knows?
Yeah, probably not. Or probably he recognizes that tendency in himself and understands that having a mobile phone wouldn’t be the best thing for him to avoid that.
Along the lines of “self”, that’s one of the main themes that you’ve got running throughout this album and you’ve got that incredible one-two punch in the opening tracks focusing on the concept of Self. Like that aspect of looking at a billion stars and yet only being able to self-regard is pretty telling.
Yeah. I kind of point to that couplet as one of the key things on the record that kind of explains what the record is about. The idea that the human species is now evolving at such an incredible speed – and not necessarily in a good way – into a more self-obsessed, narcissistic species where we do seem to spend an awful lot of our time gazing at the little screen to see ourselves reflected back through the prism and the mirror of social media. You know, how many “likes” we’ve got on Instagram? How many comments we’ve got on Facebook? How many views we’ve got on YouTube? And I’m the same! I find that that is something that’s really distorted. The humans’ evolution, it all kind of knocked it off course in a way that I don’t think anyone really fully understands the implications of yet. I mean, this has all happened in an incredibly short period of time. I think technology has changed our world more in the last 20 years than it had in the previous 2000 years. Through the internet there’s been a much more significant change to our world and our life than television ever was. It’s changed every single aspect of our life. To really understand or comprehend the full implications of that is extremely difficult. And I guess I’m kind of grappling with that in the soul, trying to understand myself how this is changing me, changing my relationship with other human beings and changing my relationship with the world and how it’s changing everyone else’s relationship with the world.
Have you ever explored thematically, either for lyrical inspiration, or just for your own sense of interest, kind of the opposite of self-absorption and narcissism through more of an Eastern spiritual tradition, which can provide a path out of self-identity, such as a non-dualistic approach. Has that ever interested you at all?
I haven’t but yes, it does interest me. It does interest me. I guess I’ve found myself too wrapped up in work to ever consider something like that. But you know what, I’m in my early fifties now, I’m getting to the point where maybe I should slow down a bit and I probably should explore those things. You know, I’ve been working pretty much non-stop for the last 30 years. And I don’t want to give you the impression that I’ve had no life. I’ve had a pretty good family life too, at least I do now. But I’ve essentially used every moment I’ve had available to work. And I’ve enjoyed working, I love my work. I understand that what I do is a privilege. I mean, I basically make a living from making music. And by the way, I make a living from making music in exactly the way I want. I don’t compromise. I basically do what the fuck I want. And I managed to make a pretty good living from it. So I’ve kind of embraced that, in a sense. I haven’t wanted to turn away from that, I’ve wanted to make the most of that. And I’ve spent most of my adult life embracing the privilege and the honor of being a professional musician by continuing to make music, pretty much nonstop. And I still do. But the answer to your question is that I think I probably would, and should, explore that while I still can, yeah.
Well, it’s interesting, in the eastern Indian tradition, they really have it set out so that during the latter part of life, that’s what you get to do. When you get closer to a retirement phase, you really focus on what they would call spiritual concerns, but you can address it any way that you want.
And, of course you’ve got an advantage in India cause you seem to really have a big fan base there!
I do, and I love going there, India is one of my favorite places to go. Certainly to play there is amazing. Yeah, okay well, that’s good! So I haven’t left it too late then! So yeah, I’m probably about the age. I should start thinking about it. I mean, I do feel different to the way I did 10 years ago, there’s no question. Being part of a family now, obviously by definition makes you a bit less self-obsessed and a bit less self centered. So I guess it is probably the time I should start thinking about those things, yeah.
And vegetarianism is huge in India as well.
Yes! Well, it’s even part of their credo, isn’t it? Their religion and stuff. Yeah. I’ve been a vegetarian now for 21 years and my wife and I just became vegan…I would say 80% – 90% vegan about a year ago. We still lapse maybe once a week – we do love our cheese [laughs]– but trying to do the right thing. One of the things that gives me a lot of optimism…well, “The Future Bites” obviously by definition is quite a pessimistic view of the world we live in… but vegetarianism and veganism and the incredible, almost exponential rise of that does give me some sense of hope and optimism that the human race has still got it in it to do the right thing in the long term.
Can I ask you a question about the Atmos mix? Maybe you can give a real brief overview so that people know what that’s about. And then I’m curious, you’ve said that when you listen to it on stereo headphones, you can get kind of roughly 80% of the impact of the Atmos mix. So, when “The Future Bites” is released on Atmos, if you have the Blu Ray and you listen to it on headphones, will the listener get a sense of what you’re talking about?
Not entirely, you still do need the decoding software. So first of all, the great advantage that Atmos has over previous multi-channel surround like 5.1 or quadraphonic, is that Dolby have also developed software which enables mixes to be decoded into stereo and give you, as you pointed out, kind of 80% of the effect. And it’s incredible! I don’t know how they do it, but I have heard it and it is astounding. And also there are soundbars now that can also decode Dolby Atmos mix is to give you a pretty good immersive experience. That’s amazing. That’s what I think is going to make Dolby Atmos probably have more potential success than the previous surround format.
To answer the first part of your question. Dolby Atmos is 7.1.4 standard. Now what that means is that regular 5.1 surround – which has been around for about 20 years now – was two speakers in front of you, two speakers behind you and a central speaker which is the speaker in between the front two, which is traditionally used for dialogue in cinema. And I use it for lead vocals in music. And then the 0.1 was the sub, the low end frequencies that came through the woofer, the thing that you really feel in your body. That’s 5.1. So what’s 7.1.4? So with the 7, first of all, you have two extra speakers in the horizontal plane, which are either side of you directly left and right of the listener. So you have the two in the front, two in the back and now two in the middle filling in between those two. And then you have the 0.1, which is still the sub. And then you have the 0.4, which is 4 speakers that are situated above the listener. So two slightly in front above and two slightly behind above. So what that means is that as the mixing engineer now, as well as putting music in the horizontal plane around the listener, I can now also put sound and audio above the listener. And that’s incredible! To be able to do that is to just create a whole new level of an immersive kind of audio experience. I mean, I went to hear the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” in Atmos about 18 months ago. And that was what turned me on to it. So I’m relatively new to it too, but it completely blew me away. And I was like, I have to get involved in Atmos. I’m very excited about the possibilities of Atmos, and very, very optimistic that it has a future.
So if I get the Blu Ray and I don’t have an Atmos system with all of those speakers, and I want to get that 80% impact by listening on headphones, is there software that I need to download? Is that what you’re saying?
I believe so. Yeah. So, on the Blu Ray, there will also be a special version that’s encoded for listening on stereo headphones. Um, I think…you know what, I’m a little bit ignorant of this area myself. I haven’t fully understood it myself. I think you need software or you need a particular pair of headphones or something like that. But I’m gonna say, don’t listen to me because I’m not entirely sure myself here!
So is “The Future Bites” one of the first albums coming out mixed in that way?
It’s certainly one of the first new albums. In fact, I think it might be one of only a handful of new records that’s actually been launched in Atmos. I think there’s been a couple before mine. There’s been a few classic back catalog albums, obviously the Beatles catalog being the most famous example of records that have been remixed into Atmos. I think there’s some INXS records have come out in Atmos. I did a King Crimson mix in Atmos, which came out a few months ago, which was quite well received. So I’m very keen to get in at the very beginning of this kind of technology, because I’ve traditionally always been way too late to get on board with these things. This time I was determined I was going to be there at the beginning and get my foot in the door at the starts of what will hopefully be a big kind of audio revolution.
So on “The Future Bites” tour, in the audience can we expect speakers to be over the audience as well as in the back now [laughing]?
Well, I’ve always had quadrophonic sound as you probably know. There are so many problems in the live arena. Obviously one of the things about listening to surround music at home is there’s really only one sweet spot. There’s one spot that you really ideally would be, in order to get the maximum effect or the perfect balance between all the elements. Now think about that in the live context. How does that work? Because there are two, three, five, 10,000 people in the room, there’s only a very small number of them that are going to be in the right position to get the effect. And even with the quadraphonic speakers, there are some people that always end up with it, you know, they literally got their head in the rear left speaker. So they’re getting a very, very skewed kind of perspective of what I’m hoping to present. So there’s still a lot of problems with live surround sound, I would say. But I’m sure they’ll figure it out, too.
How do you look at the lyrics of “The Sound of Muzak” now, about 20 years later, in relation to the current music scene?
Well, sadly, increasingly prescient and increasingly relevant. It’s funny, when I wrote that song I think 20 years ago, it was before streaming, it was before iPods and people playing music off their mobile devices. So I’m not quite sure what I was writing about, but clearly I was a clairvoyant! I was a soothsayer. Yeah, I was looking into the future. Because here we are, and that song seems to pretty much sum up perfectly the world that we live in, where music has become for a lot of people, certainly for the music business, music has become mere content to drive the technology, not the other way around. Which is very sad for me to be saying, but that is the reality I’m afraid to say.
Is it a balance for you, especially now that you’re exploring all the electronics that you do, to keep the heart and the emotion in it for you? I mean, obviously you succeed with that with a song like “King Ghost”, but is it a challenge when you’re writing with these kinds of tools at your disposal?
It’s a challenge. I like it. I mean, I like a challenge. I need a challenge. I mean, I think that’s the whole point for me. It got to the point where writing songs on the guitar, for example, was no longer challenging to me, in the sense that I could write a song very easily that would sound like a typical Steven Wilson guitar song. And I was boring myself with that. So I wanted a challenge. I wanted to be working with instruments again, where I was essentially an idiot. I didn’t know what I was doing. And I don’t know what I’m doing with keyboards. But I play around with them and I experiment with them and things happen intuitively which are exciting and inspiring to me. And that really was the foundation of “The Future Bites,” playing around with arpeggiators on analog keyboards, which is exactly where “King Ghost” came from, for example. I don’t understand as much about keyboards as I do about the guitar, having predominantly been a guitar player for the last 25 years. But there is a problem with that, which is that you become too attached to your comfort zone and you start to feel – at least I did – that I had nothing more really to say using that musical vocabulary. So yeah, absolutely. It was a challenge. It is a challenge, but in the best possible sense of that word.
And on “King Ghost” I’m remembering, I wanted to ask you…I can’t make out most of the words on the male voiceover that happens in that song. And then you say, “That’s what I’m talking about” and I’m like, “Wait – what IS he talking about?”[laughing]Yeah, there’s a few fairly obscure words in the middle of that song, aren’t there?
Yeah, what’s the essence there?
Yeah. [mysteriously]I’m not going to explain, I’m going to leave that one hanging enigmatically in the air.
Anything about what’s coming up in the future other than the tour? I know there’s a book coming up, too. Anything else that you’d like to share with us?
Yeah, the book is the big thing for me. That’s working in a different kind of media, working with words rather than music, or I should say exclusively working with words. That’s been another challenge and one that I’ve really, really embraced and I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve been very excited doing this book. It’s still coming on. I’ve still got a little work to do on it. That’s been the real thing for me, the real focus for me since “The Future Bites” was finished. Also the podcast with Tim for example, is another one, which we’re going to carry on again. We’re going to get back to that soon. I’ve taken on more remix projects during lockdown. I’m starting work on another album, which again, will be something different. It probably will be my next solo record, although I’m still very early on. So you never know, it could develop into a project, some other kind of project. I don’t know. I suspect it will be the basis for my next solo record. Who knows when that will be?
I am slowing down a little bit. You know, I have a reputation of being a workaholic, but for all the reasons we’ve discussed in this interview, I am beginning to slow down a little bit. I think I’m more focused on the idea of quality rather than quantity these days. There’s probably been points in my life and my career when it has been more about putting out as much music as possible. And I don’t feel that’s what I want to do now. I want to release fantastic records, and only fantastic records. And if that means there’s three years between the last one and the next one, then that’s what it’s going to be.
Well, Steven, thanks so much for spending some time with us and all the best in the coming spring with the reception of the album and hopefully we’ll get to see you out on tour come the fall.
Fingers crossed, yeah. I’m vaguely optimistic!
When’s the first date supposed to be?
I think it’s mid-September so I’ve still got plenty of time. The world has plenty of time to figure itself out and sort itself out so that my tour can go ahead. Yeah, I’m optimistic. It’s a long way off. But you know, the last 12 months has shown us that you can’t rely on anything these days, can you? Anything could happen. Anyway, Scott, thanks so much mate, it’s been a pleasure and thanks so much for the support. Have a great night.