Steven Wilson On Prince’s Legacy, His Upcoming Australian Tour & The One Ambition He’s Yet To FulfilWritten by Cyclone Wehner on September 2, 2016
As founder of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson commands a cult following. But he remains an enigma – down to his unusual inclination to perform barefooted.
The Grammy-nominated Brit is typically identified with progressive rock – although he emerged in the late ’80s, well after the prog boom. Wilson conceived Porcupine Tree originally as a prog spoof – becoming frontman and guitarist. At the same time, he introduced the most famous of his myriad experimental side-projects – the proto-trip-hop No-Man. Porcupine Tree would enjoy incremental success – 2009’s The Incident, their 10th album (!) cracking the US Top 30. By then, they’d long shaken off those unimaginative comparisons to Pink Floyd, venturing into prog metal. Muse owe Wilson bigtime.
However, in recent years the prolific multi-instrumentalist has concentrated on his solo career. In early 2015 Wilson, ever a believer in the concept album, presented Hand. Cannot. Erase. It was inspired by the tragic true story of Joyce Carol Vincent. Around December 2003, the 38-year-old died alone in her London bedsit, surrounded by Christmas presents and with the TV blaring – her body only discovered two years later. Wilson was moved by Carol Morley’s 2011 docudrama Dreams Of A Life, but, for Hand. Cannot. Erase., he fully fictionalised Vincent.
Over time Wilson has also quietly attracted work as a producer and audio engineer, specialising in 5.1 surround sound mixes of classic albums (clients include Tears For Fears, oddly revered in hip-hop). Wilson’s own sensibilities are anything but vintage. He’s cited Radiohead and Aphex Twin. Wilson even provided guest vocals on Pendulum’s Immersion.
This October Wilson, last here in 2013, will bring his Hand. Cannot. Erase. live audio-visual spectacle to Australia – among his band members is Nick Beggs, the bassist from New Romantic boy band Kajagoogoo.
Wilson talks to Music Feeds about Porcupine Tree’s fate, his upcoming fifth album, and unfulfilled ambition.
Music Feeds: It’s excellent that you’re headed down to Australia. How has this current show evolved – because you’ve been touring it for a few months now?
Steven Wilson: Yeah, it’s almost 18 months now since this current album cycle began and I think it’s kind of testament to how much fun it’s been and how well it’s worked that we’re still doing it – that my band are still together and we’re still out there touring. It’s great to be able to bring this show to Australia for the first time. It’s been a gift, this particular album, and this whole concept – the visual side, the musical side, everything, seems to have come together beautifully.
In terms of how it’s evolved, that’s a difficult thing to quantify. I’m sure it has. I’m sure it’s very different to how it was when we started playing this material 18 months ago. Obviously there’s a lot more confidence, we’re a lot more comfortable with the material now – it’s just incredibly enjoyable. Even though the music is quite melancholic and quite sad, in a way, there’s an incredible amount of joy about the way we play it and the whole visual spectacle of the thing. So I’m really excited to be able to bring it to Australia, I have to say.
MF: You had a mini-album, 4 1/2, earlier this year. The press materials suggested there was a fifth solo record in the works. Have you made any progress on that?
SW: Yeah, I’ve almost [finished] writing. I mean, you have to realise I finished writing Hand. Cannot. Erase. and 4 1/2, the mini-album, about two years ago. So since Hand. Cannot. Erase. came out, which is March last year, I’ve been thinking about what would be the next direction – how the writing might evolve… I started writing later last year – towards the end of last year. So I’ve been writing pretty much on and off the last eight or nine months and I’m pretty much done now in terms of writing.
I’m gonna start recording probably right at the beginning of next year and hope to have something out around this time next year. So around August/September next year would be the next record – the follow-up record.
MF: It does seem like you need the spark of an idea to get a record happening – as when you encountered the Joyce Carol Vincent story. I remember reading about that myself and it made a lot of people feel sad and start thinking about urban existentialism. But have you had that experience with this new album? Is there something driving it?
SW: I don’t think I’m ever going to find a story or a concept that is as perfect as the Joyce Carol Vincent story. I think that was such a gift because, as you pointed out in a way in your question, it was something that everyone could relate to. It was one of those stories that everyone felt like, “Well, that could so easily be me or that could so easily be someone I know, someone I grew up with, somebody from my family”. It resonated so well with people. And, when I started to think about this [next] record, I almost had to forget even the prospect of finding anything that good to hang an album off.
I’m not suggesting that that doesn’t mean musically the album can’t be as good, if not better. But, in terms of narrative, I think it will be very hard for me to find anything quite that powerful. So, listen, what I will say is this: It’s very hard to be alive in 2016 and not be aware of what’s going on in the world and the shit that’s going on in the world right now. I think as a writer – whether you’re writing music or you’re writing literature or writing movies – you can’t help but touch on some of the themes that we’re all experiencing in the world right now.
I won’t say any more than that right now, except to say that lyrically the album has got a very topical element to it – as indeed does Hand. Cannot. Erase. But the record I’m working on now is going to be a little bit more all over the place. The songs will be different themes, not necessarily so connected as they were on that last record.
MF: You have had such an expansive career and done so many interesting things. But is there something you’re yet to do that you’d really like to? Maybe something you’ve put on the backburner?
SW: Well, absolutely, but unfortunately the thing that would fit that description personally is not something that I really can choose to do. It’s something I have to really wait to be invited to do – and that’s I’d love to do a movie soundtrack. I think really top of my list of unfulfilled dreams is to work with a great director on a great script and score a really interesting movie that will hopefully be seen and heard by a lot of people. So that’s really been my number one unfulfilled goal for a long time now. I’ve kinda been waiting for someone to invite me to score a movie (laughs), but it hasn’t happened yet. But, you know what, I’m still optimistic that a time will come and it’s only a matter of time before I do get that invitation.
MF: You seem to have a voracious appetite for music. Is there an album that has really caught your ear this year?
SW: You mean like a new record or just something I’ve discovered?
MF: It could be either! Maybe new but, if there was a discovery, something you stumbled across?
SW: I’d certainly describe myself as someone that’s still very curious about discovering music. But I say that because I think a lot of people that go into the music industry ultimately become a little bit distant from music. Once it becomes your job, a lot of people do lose their passion for exploring and discovering new music. I have to say I never have – I’m still as passionate about discovering new music today as I always was.
The one thing that really has made a big impression on me this year is an artist that I already knew, and I already knew all the records, but I honestly hadn’t listened to them for such a long time – and you’ll understand why I started listening to them again when I tell you that that’s Prince. Because, when I heard that Prince died, it was such a shock to me, because I grew up in the ’80s and Prince was ubiquitous in the ’80s. He was the biggest pop star – or at least the pop star that was making the most interesting pop records.
I was a teenager at the time and he was my god and he was my hero. I kind of lost a little bit of touch with his music. Then, when I heard he passed away, like a lot of people, I started to go back and listen again, particularly to those records he made in the first 10, 15 years of his career – and completely fell in love with them all over again and became a little bit obsessed again, as I had been as a teenager. So I’d say for me the last few months have been very much obsessively listening to those classic ’80s Prince records again – albums like Parade, Sign O’ The Times, Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Dirty Mind. There’s a run of albums that I think that guy created in the ’80s that is almost unsurpassed by anyone else – maybe David Bowie in the ’70s, maybe The Beatles in the ’60s, that quality of work. And that’s an extraordinarily rare thing.
MF: This is the inevitable Porcupine Tree question: Is it likely that there will be another album?
SW: I really doubt it. You know, for me, I wanna move forwards, not backwards. It’s as simple as that. I wanna move forwards, not backwards. I know that sometimes the fans want the artist they like to kind of stand still and keep doing the same thing that they like. But that to me is creatively very retro. I’m not really interested in that. I’m not that kind of artist. I’m not that kind of musician. So the answer has to be very unlikely.
For me, right now in my career, it’s less appealing that it’s ever been – the idea of going back to something I did 10, 15, 20 years ago. It’s much less appealing than it ever was. And I think partly because I feel I’m making the best music I’ve ever made, I have the best band I’ve ever had, and I have the best show I’ve ever had. Why would I wanna go back to something I did in the past? So that’s kinda the answer to the question, I’m afraid (laughs).
Steven Wilson’s ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase’ Australian tour kicks off this October. See tour details below.
Friday, 28th October
170 Russell, Melbourne
Saturday, 29th October
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Sunday, 30th October
Eatons Hill, Brisbane