Two years after his New Zealand concert debut at The Powerstation, Steven Wilson returns to Auckland with a show at the Bruce Mason Centre on Monday, November 12th.
Since then, the former Porcupine Tree front man has released a new studio album, To The Bone, and has a live DVD in the can and ready to go. Radio 13's Marty Duda caught up with Steven Wilson to see what else he's been up to since he last visited NZ.
MD: I was looking at your itinerary and after you come here you’re heading off to North America and then back to Europe. It seems like quite a lengthy tour ahead of you again.
SW: Not till after the summer, yeah. November through to end of February is pretty full on again, yeah. Well you know, it’s kind of testament to the amount of interest the tour and the show has these days so I’m certainly not complaining but it seems every time I make a record the touring seems to get longer and longer, yeah.
The show is a very immersive, visual thing. So it’s like trying to catch a lightning in a bottle.
MD: Ah well, that’s good news. You did a couple shows at the Royal Albert Hall that are being released as a live DVD at some point, is that right?
SW: That’s right yes. The third night we filmed the whole show, and that’s coming out on November, yeah.
MD: I’m curious as to how you approached those shows. Did you do anything differently, was it quite a different vibe for you, to know that you were going to release that as a live thing?
SW: Not really, I think the idea was quite the contrary really. It was to capture the show exactly as we’ve been doing it and trying to capture as much of that spectacle. Because it is difficult. The show is a very immersive, visual thing. So it’s like trying to catch a lightning in a bottle in a way but I’ve seen it, and it looks fantastic. So it’s the next best thing after the show.
MD: Okay, and you expect it to be out in November?
SW: I believe it’s going to be coming out in November, yes.
MD: Very good. Now the last time you were in New Zealand was in October of 2016 which was the first time you were in New Zealand as far as I’m aware. You played at the Powerstation. Do you have any memories, I think you had to kind of pare down the show because the venue was smaller than what you had been used to playing, do you remember that?
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my solo career to attract these incredible players to work with me.
SW: Yeah, that’s the problem we do have with the show. It is quite a major thing so I’m not at a level where I can expect to be playing in big theatres or big arenas every night. So to an extent it had to have been a movable beast, but it isn’t really. It’s quite a big show and it’s not possible sometimes to put on the full spectacle which is unfortunate.
MD: Right. And I think from here when come you’re playing, or just before you come here, you’re playing in Japan, is it the first time for you in Japan?
SW: It’s the first time under my own name. I’ve been there with a couple of my former projects but this is the first time I’ve actually gone out as a solo performer, yeah.
It’s rock music which is about storytelling, it’s about taking the listener on some kind of journey.
MD: Very good. And the band that you had when you were here in October, my understanding is, similar band except your guitarist has changed, Dave is…?
SW: That’s right, Dave ended up going back to Roger Waters, which is where I kind of stole him from in the first place, I can’t begrudge him that, it’s probably a better paying gig anyway and he gets to play to more people. So I’ve replaced him with another fantastic guitar player called Alex Hutchings who’s a fast friend of Dave, so I’ve been very fortunate throughout my solo career to attract these incredible players to work with me, and Alex is no exception.
MD: And what is his background?
SW: He’s a young guy, he’s mostly been doing the clinic circuit, demonstrating equipment and basically shredding for leaving people slight-jawed with his shredding abilities. But you know, I find a lot of these musicians, they end up in those circuits because there aren’t really a lot of gigs for them these days. They’re kind of guys who would’ve probably in former eras ended up playing for Frank Zappa or Peter Gabriel or someone like that and there aren’t a lot of gigs like that around these days so I feel very lucky to kind of have been able to offer them the kind of positions where they can show off what they can do but in the service to, hopefully, good material and good songwriting.
MD: So do you feel that you’ve kind of cornered the market on that type of, that niche, or whatever, I don’t want to call it progressive, but I guess it is…
I tend to write songs which are much more about characters, about storytelling, from a very personal perspective.
SW: I wouldn’t call it that. For me it’s just, it’s conceptual rock music. It’s rock music which is about storytelling, it’s about taking the listener on some kind of journey, it’s about putting on some kind of spectacle, but ultimately it is about the songs, I have no interest in technical shredding for the sake of it. And I think the musicians that come along kind of appreciate that, because they are very much expected to respond in a sympathetic way to the material, not just simply to show off. So for me it’s kind of about striking the balance between allowing the musicians to express themselves to show what they can do, but always in the service of the song. And that’s I guess, like you say, there’s not a lot of shows like that around these days.
MD: Now in the interim, since you were here last, you’ve released a new album, To the Bone, and I noticed that you co-wrote a song with Andy Partridge of XTC. Kind of an interesting collaboration, I imagine.
SW: Well, I reached out to Andy to write the lyrics for the title track, yeah.
I wouldn’t want some guy who I don’t know anything about it meddling with my masterpieces.
MD: Why choose him, and how did that come about?
SW: Well he’s one of my favourite songwriters anyway. I grew up with, XTC’s been one of my favourite bands and I’ve always been in awe of Andy’s songwriting chops, and he’s a great lyricist and he’s become a very good friend over the last few years. So it kind of seemed like a very obvious thing to do. There was a particular song on the record in which I wanted to touch a bit more on the political landscape of 2017 and I didn’t really feel like I was the kind of person that would comfortably tackle a subject like that. I tend to write songs which are much more about characters, about storytelling, from a very personal perspective and I needed a lyric that was a bit more close to the bone, obviously about the political landscape and I thought immediately, ‘Andy can do that!’ And this was the first time, I mean I’ve been working with Andy on his back catalogue for the last 4 or 5 years but it’s the first time I’ve actually collaborated with him and that was of course an honour and it came out really well as well.
MD: I assumed that relationship began with you working on his back catalogue and it went from there. Does that happen often? Do you have fairly close relationship with say, Ian Anderson, because you’ve done Jethro Tull stuff?
SW: I think most of the projects that I felt have been successful whenever I’ve collaborated, when I remixed classic albums is when I have had a lot of input and a lot of support and contribution from the artists themselves which is not always the case. I’ve done some projects where I’ve had literally no input from the artist but the ones I’ve enjoyed the most, the ones I feel have been the most successful have been the ones with people like Andy and Ian, where they really got involved, and they seemed to really care about curating their own back catalogue. As indeed, I would have too, if I were in their position. I wouldn’t want some guy who I don’t know anything about it meddling with my masterpieces. So it’s been great. Andy’s been very hands on and is someone who cares very much about his legacy, and that’s made the whole process more enjoyable and I think the end result has been better for it.
Its taken 25 years to collect a group of people that I believe are all moving in the same direction and with as much passion and commitment to the cause as I have.
MD: 20 or 30 years down the line, do you see someone coming in and curating your catalogue? Or would you want to do it yourself?
SW: I think I’m too much of a control freak but you know even as I’m saying that, Andy is a massive control freak too you know, so I think it’s all about trust. One of the things I really love about my show right now is that all of the people involved, the band we’ve already talked about, but also my crew, the lighting guy, the sound engineer, tour manager, the people who create the visuals for me, the animator, the live action stuff, all of that is created by people who I’ve almost kind of collected over 25 years of being a professional musician. And it’s a question of finding people that, number 1, share your creative vision, but number 2, you trust. You trust certain aspects of your career to other people because at the end of the day, it’s my name on the ticket, it’s my name on the marquee outside the venue, so it all kind of reflects on me. The guy who makes the t-shirts, the guy that designs the website, the guy who does the lights, the sound, all of this stuff is reflecting on me. And over the years I’ve kind of collected these people who I implicitly trust to do a fantastic job and to care about the end result as much as I do. And those people are hard to find, and it almost takes a whole… in my case its taken 25 years to collect a group of people that I believe are all moving in the same direction and with as much passion and commitment to the cause as I have.
You’re kind of searching for that new world that you’re going to create this new record in.
MD: I assume that because you’re spending so much time out on the road with your own stuff, that you’re not really focusing on going back over other folks’ legacy projects at this point. Is that something you would like to do more of or would you rather concentrate on what you’re doing now?
SW: Its fun, I do it when I can. Right now, around last year or so I’ve stopped doing it for obvious reasons. To answer your question, of course, I believe the reason I was put on this earth was, I believe, was to create my own music, not to curate other people’s stuff, but it’s a nice side thing when I have time.
MD: Right. And my understanding is you’ve already started writing your next album, is that right?
SW: I’ve got a few songs. I’m trying… one of the things I always try to do every time I start a new project is to find the next step, or find the next stage in the evolution. I don’t like to repeat myself, I don’t like to make the same record more than once. So it’s always a question of ‘okay, what kind of musical vocabulary, what kind of musical landscape am I going to make the next record using, and in?’ So the first two or three songs I always find are really key. Because you’re kind of searching for that new world that you’re going to create this new record in. And I think… you’re going to ask me what it is now, aren’t you?
MD: Of course!
SW: I think, and I’m not going to tell you because I think it’s too early, and it actually is also kind of difficult to articulate. It’s one of those things is that, it obviously makes a lot more sense when you can play people the music, I can’t really articulate exactly, all I can tell you right now is that it’s different again, quite radically different in some ways, I’ve still got a lot of writing to do, but I have this sound in my head, which is going to be quite surprising, quite different, quite experimental in a way, but still very much connected to the idea of writing good songs, which to be fair is always the core to pretty much everything I’ve done anyway, the song has to be the first thing of all, the song has to be good.
Every time I come to write a new record, the thought of going back to the drawing board is absolutely terrifying.
MD: Do you feel like you have to push yourself as a musician as well when you’re going on to the next thing?
SW: Yeah. It’s the hardest thing. Any artist will tell you, a writer, a film maker, a musician would all tell you, I don’t know if you know someone who writes novels or poems like a lot of journalists do, I find, but you know if you do, that the most frightening thing in the world is the blank page. It’s terrifying. And I think every time I come to write a new record, the thought of going back to the drawing board is absolutely terrifying. And I find for the first few weeks I get kind of depressed! Because it’s so hard! It’s so hard. And the reason it’s so hard is because of that thing about not wanting to repeat what you’ve already done. So every time you come to make a new record there’s always a number of avenues that were open to you the previous time around that are now also closed. Done that! I’ve done this, I’ve done that, what can I do next that’s different, what can I do that will make it exciting for me, what can I do that will confront the expectations of the fan base, not just doing more of the same, because that’s kind of fundamental to me. The kind of artists I grew up admiring the most were the artists that constantly reinvented themselves, whether it’s Bowie or Zappa or Neil Young, or Prince, these kinds of people who were touchstones for me were these people you never really knew what they were going to come out with on the next record. And I’ve tried to be that kind of artist.
MD: That was going to be my next question, was to ask you if you keep in the back of your mind what your fan base is expecting, because you obviously have a very hardcore fan base that expects something from you, I don’t know if they expect the same thing from you or they expect you to move on and change.
I’m losing as many fans as I’m making. Hopefully I’m making a few more than I’m losing.
SW: I think there’s an element of both. There’s certainly a faith, but over the years I think I’ve earned the right to change. What I mean by that is, I think there is faith between me and most of my audience that they do almost expect me to do something different every time but the reality is, the other side is of course absolutely true. There are certain fans that would like me to do more of the same but the point is they cannot agree on what it is that I do, what they like the same of. Because there are many things I’ve done over the years. I’ve done everything from some singer-songwriter based records, more progressive metal records, to more kind of archetype, more 70’s inspired records to more pop oriented records, and I know that next time around , there’ll be people expecting me or wanting me to make To the Bone part 2 as there was people who wanted me to make Hand. Cannot. Erase. Part 2 prior to making To the Bone, and these people inevitably will be disappointed. But I think that’s part of the contract between an artist and his or her fan base, you do almost inevitably have to accept that you will disappoint some people every time you make a new record, particularly if you’re evolving. And you will lose some fans, but hopefully you will also gain some new fans. And that’s been pretty much the story of my career for 25 years. One of the reasons I’ve never really gone through the roof in terms of my popularity is because my audience is always kind of regenerating. Because I keep changing, I’m losing as many fans as I’m making. Hopefully I’m making a few more than I’m losing, but you see my point.
The audience will be loving everything you do, but actually I think a part of you kind of dies when you do that.
MD: It also kind of…not having that breakthrough big hit, whatever that may mean these days, kind of frees you as well. For instance I remember Neil Young came here a few years ago, I think it was with Crazy Horse, and after the show, people were complaining because he wasn’t doing Heart of Gold, and blah blah blah, and obviously there’s a group of people who may not be his hardcore fans because they wouldn’t know he does whatever he wants but they come to the show expecting to hear his greatest hits. I think the same happens with Dylan, you know, where, inevitably you’re going to disappoint some people who only know you from that song. You don’t have to worry about that, I guess.
SW: And it takes a lot of balls to go against that. Because the path of least resistance of any of these artists is to go out and do the greatest hits tours and of course that’s what a lot of artists do, in fact to be fair that’s what most artists do. They do the greatest hits tours because you know, you’ll sell more tickets, you’ll have a better time on stage because the audience will be loving everything you do, but actually I think a part of you kind of dies when you do that too, because you’re kind of admitting to yourself that everything that people want from you is something from the past. And again, most of the people like Neil young, like David Bowie, like the Beatles, for goodness sake! A band that actually gave up performing live, so that they could evolve in the studio. And I think those artists ultimately are the ones that prevail, I’m not saying people like, well I think Prince did a greatest hits tour and Bowie did a greatest hits tour but the point of it was that they were kind of one-off things and then they were straight back into their journey as musicians and songwriters, and I think that’s very important to hold on to that, I believe.