“The best band you’ve never heard of”. This seems like an appropriate descriptor for Steven Wilson and even for his Porcupine Tree project. Despite being idolized by his fans (who will just devour anything he puts out) Steven Wilson remains, to an extent, a niche musician that has somehow stayed away from the spotlight. If you analyzed his music and him as a person, perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that this has been the only possible outcome for a musician such as himself, as his high-brow music might just be too much for the masses to handle.
We meet with Steven in Bremen on October 26, where he played a concert as part of the tour for his very successful release The Raven that Refused to Sing.
The audio of this interview was published a while ago, but since we’re committed with making all the material available, here’s the transcript.
Metal Blast: The Raven That Refused to Sing was released also in a deluxe edition featuring extensive artwork by Hajo Muller, and which complemented the music very well, enhancing the experience of the album. Do you usually encounter that your music actually needs an extra media to really convey its message to the listener?
Steven Wilson: I’m not sure if “need” is the right word, since in the end the music has to stand on its own anyway. I’ve always liked the idea of multimedia; if you see the show tonight you’ll see that films, projections and images are all part of the show. I think that there’s a sense that when there’s more than one media together, if they somehow complement each other, you have something stronger than either individual element alone. I think that’s true of music; I think that music is enhanced by visual representations, particularly with this concept, because it’s this kind of idea of ghost stories.
The idea came very early in the process of writing that music that we would have a book of ghost stories; that’s going to be the concept. So I think that from that point on it became a multimedia project; right from the very early days it was conceived as a multimedia project. But that’s not to say, because you used the word “need”… I think the music stands on its own; you can listen to it on the radio, your iPod or whatever and it still works musically.
MB: It’s funny that you mention the iPod. In an interview you mentioned that you don’t make music for the iPod, that music should be a physical media, which in and of itself enhances the musical experience. Since now your music is available on iTunes, Spotify, etc., has your opinion changed on the subject?
SW: No, it hasn’t changed and it never will change, but that doesn’t mean that… I mean, if you’re an artist and you want to share your work with as many people as possible (which most artists do) then you need to embrace whatever you need to embrace in order to reach people. Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. The best analogy I can give is that it’s like looking at a terrific painting as a JPEG on your phone; it’s the same thing, you can still appreciate it as a painting, but you’re not getting any of the quality or the experience that you’d get if you saw it hanging in an art gallery, with the light reflecting off of it, the texture of the paint, the way it’s framed… you don’t get any of that, but you can still appreciate that it’s a good painting. I think that it’s the same with a piece of music; you still like a song, but the quality of the experience is way down compared to listening to it on 5.1 or from vinyl on a good hi-fi.
So I continue to preach, if that’s the right word, the idea of high quality audio experiences.
MB: Is there a certain frustration on your part that you do know that most fans have their first experience with Steven Wilson, or with most music, through MP3s or even Youtube.
SW: It’s very frustrating but, like I said, there’s no point crying about it. I keep trying to promote the idea of high audio by continuing to release 5.1 mixes, by continuing to do this beautiful and elaborate special editions… and I think it’s working, because I see kids coming to me now with the vinyl and the special editions. And when I see kids I know that there’s some appeal to people who have no nostalgic attachment to vinyl. It’s one thing when a 50 year old guy comes to me with a vinyl, I can understand that because he has a nostalgic attachment to vinyl from his past; but a young kid coming to me with a piece of vinyl? that’s not because he’s nostalgic for vinyl, but because he has looked at it and appreciates it as something beautiful, something that he wants to own and treasure. I think that message gradually does get through; not to the majority, of course, but to a substantial minority.
MB: We mentioned the audiophile community. Now, you’re someone that actually knows about the topic of production, sound quality, etc. But, within the audiophile community, do you encounter that there’s a lot of bullshit, like the Monster cables…
SW: They talk a lot about things that they know about, but they also talk a lot about things they really have no idea about. I have been in a few forums that are dedicated to it, and there are a lot of people that say things as if they were facts, and it’s such utter nonsense. It’s really hard to resist the temptation and start correcting them… but that’s the world we live in; there are a lot of people communicating on the internet, and there’s a lot of what you might call “disinformation” and “misinformation”…
MB: An author [Andrew Keen] spoke about as “the cult of the Amateur”, that since everyone has a voice then everyone thinks that they’re on the same level.
SW: I think I said that in relation to journalism. The problem now is that you used to have professional journalists, people who were actually very good and articulate when writing about music; now you have potentially 5 billion music journalists. I can go online now and I can Google “The Raven that Refused to Sing Review” and I will find thousands if not tens of thousands of people, all of them expressing their opinion about that album, and everyone of them will be expressing their opinion as if it was fact. Like “this album sucks”, “this album is fabulous”, “this track is the best track”, “this track is the worst track”… and I think that’s one of the worst things about opinion, which is that we, as humans, tend to express it as if it was a factual. We rarely say that something is “just my opinion”.
That’s the problem with the internet, that you have a lot of people, all expressing completely contrary opinions, but all of them convinced that they are right and that theirs is the only possible standpoint.
The problem with the audiophile community is that there are things that should be facts, things that are incontrovertible facts, but that people get wrong. I do a lot of remixing work for classic albums, and I find that a lot of people don’t even understand the difference between mixing and mastering; I’m not sure that they should, or that they even need to, but, at the same time, there are a lot of people talking about these things with great authority, and I realize that they don’t even understand the difference.
MB: I did read an interview in which you started to get quite bothered because your interviewer kept saying “remastering” until you said “I DON’T DO REMASTERINGS”.
SW: I don’t like mastering! On my records and on my remixes I actually bypass the mastering stage completely, because I don’t like mastering. I’ve been many times in that position in interviews, and that does irritate me, because it’s a very fundamental difference, but I think that “remastering” has become like a buzzword. The problem is with the record companies, who put these buzzwords on the front like “Digitally Remastered”… I doesn’t mean anything! But people pick up on that and then they start to perpetuate these phrases.
A lot of people don’t know what it means when something has been “remastered”
MB: I have often encountered that when it comes to, especially, album reviews, people tend to use buzzwords, even if they don’t actually understand that they mean. They tend to use adjectives that I end up having to say “that doesn’t even mean what you think it means”.
Well, Frank Zappa referred to music journalism as people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.
SW: Yes, he also said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and I think that is also valid. The whole idea of writing about music is absurd, of course it is. How can you put down something into words that cannot possibly be articulated. Still, we have a whole industry of music journalists that try to do that. Of course, I think that some of them do it very beautifully; there are some music writers that I think are poets, they write so beautifully about the music that you almost feel disappointed [laughs] because it doesn’t sound like their description.
Now, because of the internet, we have a world full of people writing with so-called “authority” about their opinions about music, and I think that there is a lot of noise there, and you have to cut through a lot of bullshit.
The simple truth is that you need to hear but, as you kind of pointed out, a lot of people don’t listen to music, they kind of hear it with their eyes, not with their ears. They read reviews and they perpetuate the opinion of other people… it’d be nice if some people just listened and made up their own minds instead, as you said, catching on to these buzzwords.
MB: One of the problems with reviews is that it often happens that if you read that a bunch of people said that an album is bad, when you actually listen to it you’ll end up thinking it’s bad. It’s sort of a self-fulfilled prophecy.
SW: Or you might feel the opposite. I think that when you read a lot of bad stuff then you come to something with a certain bias, because you think it’s going to be terrible, and then it’s not as bad as you expected it to be. I think that it can work both ways.
You’re right though, there’s no such thing as a completely unbiased, unprejudiced listen to any new music. For example, when I come to listen to the new [points at my shirt] Nine Inch Nails album, which I did, I have very high expectations, because I’m a fan, and to be honest I was disappointed by it because I didn’t think that it was as good as Trent Reznor could and should do; however, if that had been Ministry, a band that I didn’t think were very good, then I would have thought it was the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s the same when people come to my music; some of them probably thought that the last album was fantastic and they’re looking for a bit more of that fix, but the new record is a bit different so they might be disappointed. Everyone comes to music with some kind of agenda.
MB: One of the things that I’ve realized is that a musician can never satisfy his fan base, because on the one hand there are those that loved the last album so they want you to do the same, while others didn’t like it and want you to do something different.
SW: You can never please everyone, and I think that it is futile in a way to ever try to think about pleasing the fans, because you will fail. You will fail.
Every album I’ve made, and I’ve made a ridiculous amount of albums, about 40 albums in my career, I can find someone who thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I can find someone who thinks that it is the worst thing I’ve ever done. From that you appreciate straight away that it is pointless to make music for anyone else but yourself.
I make music for myself, and it’s a very selfish thing to do, but I think that it’s the only way to make music.
MB: You’ve said that the point of your music is to share, that as an artist you want to share it-
SW: And there’s the paradox, the contradiction. The impulse to make music is a very personal one, to do something that you yourself can feel proud of and happy with. But, at the same time, the extension of that is that now you want to share it with as many people as possible; it’s almost like a Faustian pact, “I’m going to do something for myself but I’m also going to put it out there to be shot down by other people”.
This is the great conundrum, the great paradox of being an artist, the narcissistic need to see yourself reflected back in the mirror by other people’s opinion and other people relating to what you do.
MB: But have you ever been hurt by seeing that someone did not appreciate your music?
SW: Any musician that tells you that they’re not offended by even the most innocuous by the criticism of some twelve year-old kid living in a basement in the middle of Utah… even the most thick-skinned artist would still find that hurtful, in a way.
The thing that you have to think of is that if you’re an artist that makes music from a very personal place (which I think most of the ones that are worth talking about do)… when someone criticizes your music they are criticizing you, your personality, your whole essence, your whole being; if you don’t take those things personally, then, in a way, you’re not human.
There are many people that have struggled with that. I have many friends who are musicians and they’ve made records, they’ve put their hearts and souls into them, and they’ve struggled with this criticism that they’ve received when they’ve held up their work to be judged by other people, and it has actually driven them away from doing any more, because it’s so hard. It’s one of the hardest things you have to come to terms with, holding up your music to be judged by other people, in a positive or in a negative way. You cannot expect it all to be positive.
MB: But, after these 40 albums you mentioned, does it eventually become easier?
SW: I’ve been doing this long enough to know that my work is “good”, and if somebody doesn’t like it then it’s because it’s not what they want from it or because they have some other personal vendetta against me; they think I’m arrogant, they don’t like what I’ve done to Opeth (death metal fans hate me because they think that I made Opeth go soft -by the way, it wasn’t me, it was Michael‘s choice)… you have to take all these things into consideration. There are people who may have a prejudice against you which has nothing to do with the quality of your work at all. There are people who are jealous of me because they see me as being successful and they think that their band, that is not successful, should be doing what I’m doing. All of those things can lead to people being negative about you, so I think that you get to the point where you are able to distinguish and discern whether there is an agenda, whether it’s simply that the music doesn’t appeal to that person… and I think that, in a way, this means you gain some kind of wisdom.
MB: Do you encounter criticisms that actually make sense?
SW: Of course, absolutely. In a way, all criticisms do make sense.
MB: Right, but I mean the proper ones, not the 12 year old saying “never do music again and die!”.
SW: Those reviews don’t bother me, those are just funny. But it’s the reviews where they rationalize and reason what they’re saying.
I’ve taken some things and realized that there was something about what they said, but I don’t necessarily think that you should ever change your music for any other reason than you believing that it’s the right thing to do for you.
To answer your question: Yes, there are criticisms that I have acknowledged, even to myself. This is a path of trial an error, I’ve done things that, in retrospect, I have certainly dismissed as being failures, but it usually takes me at least 5 years to look at something with that degree of objectivity and realize that this didn’t work or was a failure.
MB: What do you think was a failure? Making Opeth soft? [laughs] SW: No! I didn’t make Opeth soft, Michael had already decided to do that.
MB: Blackwater Park is an amazing album, there’s no question.
SW: Yeah, it’s a great record! I’m talking about record I’ve made myself, some of which I think are not as good as they should have been. I don’t wanna name names because you know that there will be someone reading this for whom that will be their favorite album. I hate it when artists I like say that albums that I really love sucks; it’s so depressing to hear that! For instance, Roger Waters talking about Atom Heart Mother says that it was a piece of shit that should have been buried on the ground, but I love that record! So I don’t want to say that about one of my records and then find someone who loves it.
MB: Moving on to a different subject, you’ve been very vociferous on your criticism of what you called the “dumbing down” of the musical landscape, with stuff like American Idol, X Factor, etc. You’ve said that it’s a way in which the record industry tries to take back the control they had on the musical landscape; at the same time, however, we see that your album did very well, just like Dream Theater, etc. Do you think that this is a sign of a changing trend, or rather that bands like Opeth, Dream Theater, Katatonia, Steven Wilson, etc. will always have a nice to which they appeal?
SW: I think that it is a sign that the music business has become very schizophrenic and diversified into two very distinct halves. On the one side you have populist mainstream culture, where you have Pop Idol, American Idol and most of the records you hear on the radio, which sound like records made by computers. The voice is like a synthesizer…
MB: You mean autotune? That’s horrible…
SW: Autotune, melodyne, all that stuff, all those records have it. Then, on the other hand, you have the music that is completely outside of the mainstream, which is most rock music today; most rock music, which is mostly discovered by word of mouth, continues to grow. I think that what happens is that the more extreme the one thing becomes, the more there is a swing in the other direction for people who really are looking for the antidote to that; and they find it, they find it in my music, in Opeth, in Dream Theater, etc., because this is music that is completely anti mainstream.
My album did very well, Dream Theater‘s album did very well, but you still won’t see us in the mainstream; you won’t hear us in the radio, you won’t see us on MTV, and I think that’s the difference. There are bands that are selling records because there is a cult, a word of mouth thing going on, and those are the people that are sick of the other shit, the American Idol kind of stuff.
I think that this division becomes more and more polarized as time goes on. I say this because I remember that there was a time when there was this “experimental mainstream”; bands like Talking Heads, The Police, Talk Talk, that were having hits and yet were really intellectually interesting. That has disappeared; we now have the extremes, and you won’t hear that kind of artists in the mainstream. Some people will say Arcade Fire or Radiohead, but I think that even those bands are much more marginalized now that they would have perhaps been in the 80s or even in the 90s.
MB: There are, of course, economic reasons why some bands that were in the outside of the mainstream suddenly decided to get into it; we saw it with Metallica, Ozzy, Zakk Wylde… I was talking with Nick Holmes, from Paradise Lost, and we talked about how one of the problems with every genre of music is that there seems to be this “industrialization of rebellion”; we created a socially acceptable rebellious imagery. It transformed into a music that constantly aims to the lowest common denominator. Think of rap, for instance, how it went from stories about the being black in poor American neighborhoods, to “I have a lot of money and I fuck a lot of bitches”.
SW: It’s all “bling” and “fuck you”; all the guys are left in the hood because “fuck you, I’ve got money now”. I don’t understand that.
Things are changing; there used to be a lot of encouragement for rock musicians to act like rock stars; there isn’t anymore. I think that what has changed is that now the rappers are acting like rock stars. This is a very interesting cultural shift that, in a way, rock musicians are being encouraged to act like the opposite of rock stars; we are being encouraged to do meet and greets with our fan, to do blogs where we talk about our home life. We see Ozzy Osbourne acting like a buffoon in his home, unable to operate the remote control of his TV. The idea is to make people who used to be rock stars look like regular people. “Hey, they’re just like us; they’re idiot like us”.
Interestingly, and contradictorily, this has had an adverse effect on rock music; it has been demystified to the point that I think it has become quite marginal. The rappers are very clever because they understand that the whole thing of “Hey, I’ve got money, I’m a fucking star, I’ve got chicks…” is what, at the end of the day, creates the mythology of pop music.
MB: So now we have the black versions of Poison and Motley Crue.
SW: Absolutely. We have this kind of people that are acting almost like stereotypes of rockstars, like the way Kiss would have acted in the 70s.
MB: It’s become a bit like Spinal Tap.
SW: I think Spinal Tap has got to take some of the blame. I mean, I love that movie (everyone does) but I think that was the beginning of the demystification of the rock star and the dismantling of the whole myth of the rockstars with the chicks, the cocaine, like he’s not “one of us”, that he’s like a God.
In a way it was good that it was dismantled, because it’s complete bullshit.
MB: You don’t have a bunch of women and cocaine here?
SW: I’m afraid not.
MB: I was hoping that after the interview…
SW: [Laughs] But at the same time, I think that while that needed to happen, it has resulted in what we have now, a demystification to the point that actually the kids are no longer attracted very much to the idea of the rock musician and the rock star. Maybe it’s for the best in the long run.
Today I was making an in-store appearance, I was signing some stuff, talking to fans, stuff like that… I’m not sure Jay-Z or Kanye would do that, just hang out with his fans like that. But I have to do those things, because that’s the only way that rock musicians like me can survive, by interacting with our fans.
MB: But beyond “survival”, do you like to actually come close to fans?
SW: I feel uncomfortable with it; I’m not going to say I don’t enjoy meeting people, because I do, and I’m not going to say that I don’t enjoy meeting my fans, because I do, but sometimes I feel very uncomfortable with it. It’s not a natural way to meet someone. You’re meeting someone that knows everything about you, and you know nothing about them. It can be awkward.
If you’ve ever met somebody that is so nervous to meet you that they’re actually shaking… how do you interact with someone like that. “You make me nervous! You’re so nervous that you’re making me nervous!”
I love to meet people, but in an equal footing. And some people still believe in the idea of the rock star [laughs]… so the first thing I do is that I try to make them understand that’s bullshit.
The more I do that, the more people realize that I’m just a guy, the more that we erode this idea of the magic and the mythology of rock music. We don’t have the “god-like” rock star anymore.
MB: Both in your solo work and in Porcupine Tree, you’ve said that, lyrically, you feel more interested in sad things, because happy music actually makes you sad. There are some academic articles that trace a link between mental diseases and suicidal ideation and this type of “dark” music (and for some reason country music). The question is always what is the relation between the two, whether it’s a causal relation or whether people with problems tend to be attracted to this type of music.
SW: I think it has to do with what I said earlier about looking in the mirror. I think that what happens with music is that it’s something that creates and empathic response in whoever listens to it; you either relate to it or you don’t. For every example that you can give me of someone who actually became more depressed listening to sad music, I can give you an example of somebody who actually understood, from listening to that music, that they were not alone in feeling that way, and it made them feel better. So I think that all it does is that it tends to amplify what’s there already.
MB: I think that for a lot of people, and that’s the experience that I’ve had, is that it’s the music you feel attracted to when you are down, and that it creates this cathartic effect that you mentioned, namely “I’m not the only one”
SW:“I’m not alone, this guy understands me, he understands what I’m going through. I feel better”.
There’s always going to be people who take it the other way, as a validation of their own suicidal impulses or whatever, but I think that ultimately those people are on a destructive path anyway.
Let’s face it, if you take anything a rock star says seriously, then you’re an idiot. Because we’re not poets.
MB: But don’t you want to be taken seriously?
SW: Well, I like the idea that it makes people think about those things and start talking about those things, but I’m not a poet; I’d rather you go read Christopher Hitchens. At least I can scratch the surface with it and I understand that in my audience there might be a lot of kids who are still finding their own way, personality and perspective in life, and if I tell them “Do you really think that staying in your bedroom 24 hours a day playing computer games and contacting your friends over e-mail is a good way to live?”…
MB: Was it interesting for you to see that you were connecting with kids? You were already in your 40s when you did Fear of a Blank Planet. Do you encounter younger kids that come to you and tell you that you get them?
SW: Of course, I have had those people. One of the jokes with Fear of a Blank Planet was the thing about hating the iPods; I had lots of kids bringing me their iPods to destroy them. Which was funny.
MB: There were some very angry parents somewhere in that equation.
SW: Probably. But it was very funny to see that something I meant as kind of a joke was taken seriously by people. I’m glad they took it like that.
MB: Did they bring your their porn too?
SW: They didn’t bring the porno, no.
MB: So just the Xbox and iPods? Zero porn?
SW: Just the boring stuff! I know.. it’s pathetic, isn’t it?
MB: Steven I know you gotta run, so thank you very much for your time!
SW: It was a pleasure; thank you!