The Exclusive Interview With Steven Wilson!
Lead Guitarist, Vocalist, and Songwriter Porcupine Tree and No-Man
As you will see in the text of this interview, Steven Wilson was described once as being "The Man of 1000 Projects." One look at Steven's list of credits will certainly support this statement very clearly. Since the mid 1980s Steven has been balancing his time between two extraordinary bands, Porcupine Tree and No-Man, both of which are a stellar showcase of Steven's masterful musicianship, producing talents, and songwriting abilities. The new year already sees Steven as busy as ever. Next month (February 2004) sees a brand new live album from Porcupine Tree's 2001 tour entitled Warszawa, as well as a DVD-A re-release of Porcupine Tree's breakthrough 2002 album, In Absentia. Steven was gracious enough to take a break to answer some questions for me!
[Billy Donald] Steven, thank you so much for taking the time to join me here for this interview in the middle of your always hectic schedule! I had to laugh while looking at the biography section of the Official No-Man site when you were described by the author as the "Man of a thousand projects," because there really is no statement that rings more true about you than that. Your list of credits is just astounding, from Porcupine Tree, to No-Man, to Blackfield, to Opeth, to JBK. You have created an enviable body of work. It's been about 20 years on in the music industry for you now. What has been the key for you to maintaining balance and sanity in this industry for so long?
Steven Wilson I still love making and listening to music. It's as simple as that. Discovering new music is still a thrill and inspiration for me, to make my own music. I have always created only to please myself, and in doing so never allowed the business side to get in the way of the music itself, or to let the expectations of the media and the fans influence me. Perhaps it's this selfish attitude that makes me an "artist" who accidentally entertains people, rather than someone who sets out to be an "entertainer."
[Billy Donald] I know that success is a relative term to use, but in my views, you have had a very successful career as an extraordinary musician, producer, and songwriter. If this is a fair question, what do you consider to be your greatest achievements thus far through your various projects?
Steven Wilson I don't really like a lot of my albums in retrospect, but that's mainly to do with the fact that so few of them are as I wanted them to be. I can hear all the things I would do differently now. Perhaps I'm not sufficiently removed from them in time to be objective yet. But I would say that the best albums I have worked on are Porcupine Tree's In Absentia, No-Man's Together We're Stranger, Opeth's Blackwater Park, Anja Garbarek's Smiling and Waving, and the forthcoming Blackfield and Bass Communion albums. As a project, I'm most proud of Bass Communion, I suppose because it's the least concerned with being anything but what it is, if that makes sense. I think that the Bass Communion style is the closest to my heart and my own taste.
[Billy Donald] The last studio album from Porcupine Tree, In Absentia, is an absolutely phenomenal record, Steven. It has become an instant "desert island" CD for me. It also marked your first release under the Lava record label, a division of Atlantic records, which gave it some extra promotional firepower. I sensed that In Absentia seemed to finally capture the balance that the band had been looking for. Would that be an accurate statement?
Steven Wilson Yes, I would agree with that, although there are still things I think could have been better.
[Billy Donald] With practically no mainstream airplay at all, In Absentia garnered worldwide critical praise and sold over 100,000 copies in it's first year of sales. How do you feel about the way the album and promotions have been handled under your Lava?
Steven Wilson It could have been handled better. There were some successes and some mistakes (touring with Yes for example). Also, we suffered from the fact that shortly after the album was issued, Warner began their long and public search to find a buyer (recently they finally were bought out), which meant the budgets were being frozen and reduced at critical times for us. However, we and Lava both feel we learnt from some mistakes, and on balance the album still did very well, so it bodes well for the next one.
[Billy Donald] As you had mentioned, in late 2002, Porcupine Tree opened a series of shows for Yes throughout the U.S., and in reading reviews that concertgoers sent in from the shows, there were admittedly a handful of Yes fans that said they just didn't "get" the music (perhaps they just didn't try to "get it"). But there were scores more of these people that had never heard of Porcupine Tree until they saw the band that night, and claimed that they immediately went out the next day to purchase In Absentia! You have actually toured the U.S. as far back as 1999 with Porcupine Tree? How do you feel about playing to American audiences?
Steven Wilson American audiences = fantastic. Yes audiences = suck! I think the problem was that most of the people who came to see Yes had stopped caring about new music many years before (ed note: I would have to agree very strongly with Steven's statement here), and were really there just to hear their favourite Yes oldies. A much better experience was when we toured the U.S. with Opeth, which was a lot of fun.
[Billy Donald] Not only has Porcupine Tree kept you busy, but your other major project, No-Man, has been very productive as well. Last year, No-Man released their latest album, Together We're Stranger, and the critical praise has been rolling in for this record as well. No-Man has featured a lot of great collaborators over the years such as Robert Fripp, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, and Mel Collins. Do you see No-Man as a sort of alter-ego to Porcupine Tree and vice versa, or do they feel very similar to you?
Steven Wilson They feel very different, mainly because No-Man is in many ways devoid of any rock element, while Porcupine Tree is basically a good old fashioned rock band. However, there is always going to be a strong connection between the two because on a philosophical level, both bands are trying to create strongand fulfilling artistic statements using the album as it's medium as opposed to the 3-minute pop song. Also, No-Man has a very different feel for me simply because the writing partnership I have with Tim Bowness is a long, unique and very rewarding one.
[Billy Donald] The much-acclaimed Richard Barbieri is of course the keyboardist of Porcupine Tree, and along with the afore-mentioned Steve Jansen and Mick Karn. They are all former members of Japan, one of my very favorite bands in the world, and I know that they are a great influence on your musical upbringing too. I have interviewed Steve a couple of times now, as well as his brother David Sylvian, and they both seem to be wonderful guys. How do you enjoy working with Richard and how did you enjoy the experiences of working on various JBK projects?
Steven Wilson I was never a huge fan of Japan, but Tim Bowness was and it was more his idea to get the three guys involved. But having met them, I formed an immediate bond with Richard as a musician and person, and we shared many influences from music and film, particularly. I liked Steve and Mick, but unlike Richard, never found them to have as much passion for music, so it was difficult to form any lasting collaboration with them, brilliant though they are.
[Billy Donald] February is going to be a big month for yourself and Porcupine Tree as you actually have two new releases coming out, the first of which will be the DVD-A mix of In Absentia, which will feature video, galleries, and additional tracks with an even more superior surround stereo mix to the original release. Also coming is a live CD from Porcupine Tree's 2001 tour, which is entitled Warszawa. These can be pre-ordered at the Official PT website store now, for our readers that are interested. I know that you were juggling working on mixing the DVD-A in the U.S. in between tour dates in Europe, so I think that is really a testament to how important it is to you to put out such a quality product to the fans. What else is keeping you busy at this time?
Steven Wilson I'm going to be mixing an album for an excellent Swedish band called Paatos in February, then doing a bit of promotion for the Blackfield album, which gets released in mid February. After that it's going to be all Porcupine Tree for most of the rest of the year - recording the new album and then promoting and touring it. There is also the movie script that goes with the album. I'm realistic about how difficult it is to get a movie made these days, but we are hoping to find a way.
[Billy Donald] I also wanted to point out that since the Warszawa CD was recorded during the 2001 tour, the disc will feature your former drummer Chris Maitland rather than your fantastic new drummer, Gavin Harrison, who is featured on In Absentia. Chris departure and Gavin's arrival was the first line-up change in Porcupine Tree's history. What kind of effect, if any, do you feel that the addition of Gavin has had on Porcupine Tree?
Steven Wilson I think it made us sound much more modern - Chris is a wonderful drummer, but perhaps more in the classic seventies rock mold, whereas Gavin's style is more contemporary. Also, Gavin is such an exceptionally gifted and disciplined musician that I think it made me aspire to greater heights with my own playing, which has always been a little rudimentary.
[Billy Donald] I am thrilled to hear that Porcupine Tree is hitting the road again later this year. Are there any future plans to tour with No-Man?
Steven Wilson No-Man don't really play live, alas, but Porcupine Tree will be doing the festivals this summer and hopefully, doing extensive touring later in the year to promote a new record.
[Billy Donald] Steven, I want to sincerely thank you so much for the time you have taken to do this interview. It is has been an extreme honor to have you as my guest. To wrap up here, are there any other projects that you would like to plug for our readers or any parting comments?
Steven Wilson You could perhaps direct people to the Porcupine Tree website and store - www.porcupinetree.com. Also I have my own website, where they can learn about my other projects and see what I'm listening to.