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Steven Wilson refuses to hide behind references

Interview by Alain Brunet

A prog icon of the last few years, Steven Wilson invites his audience to new mutations: The Future Bites is, according to him, in phase with the current period, dominated by electronic music.

Genres and styles : Art Pop / Electronic / IDM / Krautrock / Psych-Funk / Synthwave

Additional Information

The British artist Steven Wilson launches his sixth solo album. Another evocation of the glorious past of English pop-rock? Wasn’t Wilson considered the reformer par excellence of progressive rock, with the album Hand. Cannot. Erase (2015)? Wasn’t he the frontman of the neo-prog band Porcupine Tree during the ’90s and 2000s? Wasn’t he directly inspired by the English auteur pop of the ’80s with the album To the Bone (2017)?

Asking the question… is not answering it, at least this time.

Sticking the prog label, or any other, to this singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist is not to know him well, we have to admit. Here we are in 2021, and Wilson has changed again, so let’s set the record straight.

The Future Bites explores human thought in the digital age: fake news, echo chamber, the reign of sorcerer’s apprentices, cyberaddiction, so many other generalized practices in the empire of the clickbait. In addition, the nine songs on the program underline their creator’s assumption of a musical universe dominated by electronic production.

This amply justifies PAN M 360’s virtual interview with Wilson, who was contacted at his English home a few weeks ago.

PAN M 360: Doesn’t this new album represent a big change, compared to your previous projects?

STEVEN WILSON: Absolutely. I’ve been creative over the last few years, but it’s become frustrating in the long run. I never thought I was a progressive rock musician, or some generic musician. But I’ve already recorded in the progressive rock tradition, those records have been successful for me and I’m very proud of that. Maybe that’s the problem, my albums made that way connect with people! (laughs)

PAN M 360: Isn’t it ideal to know the music well, and to find something new with full knowledge of the facts?

STEVEN WILSON: That’s true. But most people seek what is familiar to them, seek to find the path of novelty by looking for what is familiar. I think I was slightly different, I was looking for something unknown. Today, I’m still looking for something that I can’t quite pinpoint where it came from. And I haven’t always lived up to what I preach, some of my music was too close to homage, but I think that with The Future Bites, I’m taking a step towards a world where I’m getting to something unique, my sound palette, my sound world.

PAN M 360: Electronics have always been part of your instrumentation, but this time they’re dominant. How do you justify this choice?

STEVEN WILSON: But you know, I started in the early ’90s with a synth-pop band called No Man, the first band that got me a record deal. So there was a precedent for what I’m doing now. I don’t want to say that I do synth-pop, but what I do is certainly not associated with the classic forms of rock. All these classical elements have disappeared in this album. That doesn’t exclude a sense of travel, a very ambitious narrative approach, very experimental, epic in a way. My allegiance to classic rock or progressive rock is not broken, I could come back to it, but I don’t find any interest in it at the moment. I want contemporary and fresh music that reflects the world we live in today. The electronic world!

PAN M 360: More precisely, what are your interests in electronic music?

STEVEN WILSON: It’s probably one of my favourite kinds of music. I’ve always liked electronic music. It started when I was a child, with Giorgio Moroder. I became a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the electroacoustic current. I grew up in the ’80s, so I was surrounded by OMD, Depeche Mode, and all these English bands who were into electronic music. I also like ambient, drone, all forms. In the ’90s, I discovered Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, etc. I’m a big fan of electroacoustic music. I also like the neoclassical of Max Richter and Nils Frahm, these artists create a modern hybrid inspired by both classical music and recent trends, especially electronic music. This has always been in my musical DNA. So it makes perfect sense for me to make electronic music, I’m surprised myself that I haven’t done it before! But in a way, I’m going back to one of my first loves in music.

PAN M 360: Instrumental music can constantly evolve, but the textural possibilities of electronics take us elsewhere, indeed. Does that justify your current approach?

STEVEN WILSON: Yes. Rock ’n’ roll was the dominant form of music during the second half of the 20th century, and jazz was the dominant form for the first half. These musics followed their natural cycle and today, I think the guitar-bass-drums form is foreign to many young people. The guitar is certainly no longer at the forefront of the mainstream, it has become what was the jazz trumpet for rock fans, the dominant instrument of another era. Of course, there will always be jazz fans and rock fans, but as far as the mainstream of popular culture is concerned, there is no doubt that electronics dominates. And my music reflects that reality. Without trying to sound one way or another, however, this new proposal remains consistent in my discography.

PAN M 360: The references of The Future Bites are vast, from synth-pop to R&B to krautrock and IDM, all perfectly distinct from the previous cycles.

STEVEN WILSON: Yes, I think my audience will be slightly surprised and enjoy it afterwards, because it’s an integral part of my musical universe. I’ve always aspired to create that musical climate where the idea of genre is irrelevant. In this album, I dare to believe that it is not possible to describe what I do in terms of genres. All you can say is that this is music by Steven Wilson. My early role models were David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Kate Bush, Neil Young, Tom Waits, the kind of artist you can’t describe through a genre of music. All you can say is that they make their music. I don’t compare myself at all to these great artists, but from a philosophical point of view, that’s what I want to do: to create my own musical genre, to allow myself to confront it with my audience. Your fans are with you because they respect your right to do different things. It’s not easy to do that, not to be generic, not to be easily categorized. I hope I’ve become that artist.

PAN M 360: Couldn’t you do something else in the future?

STEVEN WILSON: Absolutely! That being said, this album is not totally different from the others, it’s a progressive evolution of my music. It’s not a complete change, it’s a slightly more direct mode of expression with a more pop sensibility. The guitar is downplayed on this record, it’s played in a more abstract way, in a more sound design way. The instrument in the foreground of this album is the synthesizer. Because this world of sounds in which we live is electronic. The sounds of computer games, cell phones or even doorbells are electronic.

PAN M 360: This time it’s the song that counts. Your music serves the song. In the previous cycle, your excellent musicians, all of them virtuosos, fantastic shredders, etc., have been very good. This time, everything is built around the song.

STEVEN WILSON: Yes, the guitar is more of a sound design element, a textural element. The only guitarist on this record is me, and I don’t have any aspirations to become a shredder. I’m a singer-songwriter who uses the guitar to create sounds for his songs. I’m only interested in using tools to serve the song. So I play guitar and other instruments, bass, all keyboards… I know that some people are legitimately interested in showing what they can accomplish on their instrument, I am personally interested in creating songs and music. So this is my loneliest record for many years, since before the birth of Porcupine Tree.

PAN M 360: Why this more pop sensibility in The Future Bites?

STEVEN WILSON: This album is much more about melody, singing and sound, not really about big solos and musical complexity. I don’t mean to say that there’s no sophistication: it’s hard to create sophisticated pop songs. The fact that this album has more catchphrases, stronger melodies, reflects a stronger chorus presence.

PAN M 360: An album of nine songs – why such brevity?

STEVEN WILSON: I had nearly 25 songs to record but I wasn’t going to exceed 45 minutes. It’s a 42-minute record and I’m very proud of it! Most classical albums are in the 35-45 minute range, the natural attention of the listener can’t be longer than more or less 40 minutes, so… You know, it’s not easy to exclude songs you really like.

PAN M 360: Who are the guest artists?

STEVEN WILSON: They appear here and there, each on a song. Nick Bates plays bass on one, Richard Barbieri plays keyboards on another. There are backing vocals… In my opinion, the main guest is David Kosten, my co-producer. I’m a big fan of his work – Bat for Lashes, Keen, Everything Everything, and so on. We are the same age, we grew up with similar inspiration. David has a great knowledge of music history, but he never works on its reproduction.

He made me realize that some of my previous work could be hidden behind the tribute. To the Bone is a tribute to the experimental pop of the ’80s, Hand.Cannot.Erase. is a tribute to the progressive rock of the ’70s . So David was very effective in keeping me from getting lost in another tribute. It really refreshed me, because I’m easily sucked in, impressed by things that remind me of others I already liked. Instead, David wanted to push me to find something else that was totally mine. And so what I like about The Future Bites is that there are no obvious references. It’s all there, but I don’t think the musical references are simple, and I don’t think they’re a tribute to the past.

PAN M 360: How can you avoid references that are too obvious?

STEVEN WILSON: As we get older, our knowledge of the history of music becomes more solid, we are able to recognize musical references when we listen to new productions. Let’s take the example of Kamasi Washington, the new face of jazz, according to many journalists; I listen to his music, I hear Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, music I already knew. What’s the problem? Are the references too familiar to me? Maybe they are… On the other hand, I listen to Billie Eilish, so young, probably unaware of all these references… which leads her to be incredibly refreshing! In a way, her ignorance of pop music is a great advantage for her.

PAN M 360: How would you translate your new songs on stage? A choir and an army of synthesizers?

STEVEN WILSON: I’m starting to think about it. There will be a band, if not to play the most complex songs in my repertoire. There will be more intimate moments with me and electronic accompaniment. In fact, I will always have a full band, even for the more electronic aspects of the new album. There will also be stronger elements for the visual side of the show, images, movies, lighting, etc. We should start the tour next September if the world situation allows it, of course.

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