"The only thing I find offensive is the suggestion I’ve done something wrong by making the record I wanted to make." Steven Wilson and the trials of The Future Bites

Steven WIlson
(Image credit: Lasse Hoile)

Steven Wilson is no stranger to controversy. Since the early days of Porcupine Tree, he’s refused to repeat himself and has followed the same mantra throughout his solo career. His latest release, The Future Bites, tackles consumerism, social media and the loss of individuality against an electronic beat. In 2021 he told Prog why he’ll never stop embracing change.

“I’m not trying to upset people.”

Steven Wilson is sat in the spacious lounge of his recently acquired north London home. One of his dogs, Bowie, jumps excitedly around his lap, as Wilson ponders a question concerning fan expectations. In the modern age of the immediacy of the internet, with everyone able to have their say in a public fashion, it’s something that now stares all artists directly in the face. Wilson perhaps more than most.

“I understand, in a way, that you walk through a door into a musician’s world and that’s what you fall in love with and that’s what you would always have, in some ways, the most affection for, the first time you discovered an artist,” he says. “And even then, you’re constantly waiting to recapture that buzz and that feeling you had when you first fell in love with the music. And I’m not a very good artist for catering to that.”

Change. Misconception. Expectation. These are the main themes that resonate throughout our conversation as we discuss his latest album, The Future Bites, his sixth solo release.

The change is obvious. Musically, Wilson has spread his wings further than ever before. Rooted in dark electronica, The Future Bites is probably his most intriguing album, yet it’s likely to be his most divisive. It’s undoubtedly progressive – the 10-minute Donna-Summer-disco-meets-Tangerine-Dream throb of Personal Shopper, the dark moody strains of King Ghost and 12 Things I Forgot, the latter displaying the most typical Wilson tropes from previous albums – all make this album, as Dave Everley wrote in his review in Prog 116, “one of the boldest and best albums Wilson has ever made”. But it’s not the kind of ‘prog’ album some of his fanbase want him to make. And thus the now predictable internet shitstorm has kicked off.

“You’re constantly now in a situation where you’re confronted with your fans’ expectations, which I love,” Wilson muses. “Part of me kind of enjoys the controversy and divisiveness that I create, but part of me is disappointed that I can’t take everyone with me.

“I understand it’s part of the deal that if you change what you do, you’re going to upset people. I don’t like that but I accept it’s part of the contract. But some of the comments, I just wonder what planet these people live on.”

Steven Wilson - The Future Bites

(Image credit: Caroline)

There’s been change on a personal level too. It’s all around us. This is the second time Prog has been invited to round to his home, during windows of opportunity when Covid restrictions have been relaxed. It’s very nice, very comfortable and very homely. It also very subtly betrays the trappings of Wilson’s musical success. He proudly showed off his new studio when he’d invited us over in the summer to hear his Dolby Atmos mix of The Future Bites. “It’s the first time I’ve had a dedicated studio,” he beamed proudly. “Previously it was wherever I put my computer and musical equipment.”

There’s also a music listening room that houses his impressive record collection, where these two music nerds could have easily spent the rest of the day, picking out releases and enthusing over them. At heart, Wilson is still the same obsessed music fan he’s always been. Having known him for almost 25 years, this writer would venture as far as to say Steven Wilson today is probably happier than he’s ever been.

Which leads us to the misconceptions and expectations. Some of the online bile directed at Wilson from certain quarters, as he says, makes you wonder what planet its authors are on. Although that’s nothing new. It’s largely been going on since the more direct Hand.Cannot.Erase., but increased with the progressive pop of To The Bone and has reached fever pitch with The Future Bites. Perceived slights range from his success and ubiquity to those who just can’t handle the fact that he won’t make The Raven That Refused To Sing over and over again. There were even one or two keyboard warriors who threw their toys out the pram when he got his hair cut a bit shorter!

“Don’t like it? Don’t buy it,” he counters. “I haven’t made a record that appeals to you. Okay, that’s my prerogative. The thing I find the most offensive, the only thing I find offensive actually at the end of the day, is the suggestion I’ve done something wrong by making the record I wanted to make. The point is, I’ve not done anything wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with you not liking it either. That’s fine. I’ve made a record that doesn’t appeal to you.”

Such sense is unlikely to placate the mob. It rarely does in today’s angry internet age. But it shows an almost wilful ignorance of the fact that as an artist Wilson has never stood still. His early forays with Porcupine Tree saw him dabble with psychedelia and space rock, before an avowed fondness for Pink Floyd coloured his sound. There have been detours into krautrock and prog metal, at the same time exploring proggy electronica with No-Man and drone and ambient music with Bass Communion and IEM. His own solo work has been even more varied. Everyone seems to forget his 2008 solo debut Insurgentes was largely lo-fi sounds and even breakbeats!

Insurgentes is still my favourite of my solo records,” he says. “That, Hand.Cannot.Erase. and the new one. It’s one of the albums that gets forgotten a little bit because it’s not generic. The albums that have been most well received with Prog readers are the ones that have been the closest, understandably, to the conceptual classic progressive rock blueprints. And part of that is me just thinking to myself: ‘I can do this. I can do a record like that as a one-off.’ But I kind of made a rod in my own back in doing that in a way.”

That he’s an artist who has confined himself to just one genre isn’t the only misconception of Steven Wilson. A defined online strategy that’s understandably developed over his recent albums has seen him embrace social media platforms such as Instagram and even current rage TikTok. Predictably, it’s also become
a stick with which the more blinkered members of the prog community have also taken up to beat him.

“We had to rethink the whole strategy for releasing the album,” he says with a sigh of the Covid-related delay for the release of The Future Bites. “One of the things you’d normally do is tour and do TV, radio and signings. I can’t do that. All I’ve been able to do is maximise what I can do on social media. Which is ironic when you consider the subject matter of the album.

“A lot of it is to do with the more insidious side of social media. So I’m massively open to accusations of hypocrisy which I’m unable to deflect, really. The thing is I’m a professional musician, and one of the things I have to do is I have to embrace social media. Particularly in this time where there is no alternative. I’ve been on social media for a long time and I’ve made the most of it.”

Wilson got married in 2019, a marriage that brought with it two young children. Given his reluctance to offer a window into his private life previously, his evident and perfectly natural delight at getting married has been shared online. Another example of pleasure the changes in his life have brought.

“There are certain things I don’t feel comfortable sharing about my private life,” he says. “But I posted that picture of my wedding day. I thought that was a big thing, getting married. I wasn’t married before, I didn’t have kids before, so there wasn’t much to say about my private life anyway.

“I occasionally post something if I think it’s fun or worth sharing. And you know what? People absolutely love that stuff. It amazes me. I’ll post about me releasing an album that I’ve worked two years of my life on: 100 likes. I post a pictures of me doing silly shit with my kids: 10,000 likes, 500 comments. Unfortunately, I think this is the world we live in. Part of me finds that a lot of fun. And part of me finds it depressing in terms of where the human species has evolved. From people that used to look out into the cosmos and the universe and were curious to the world out there to people who are looking down at their phone to see how many likes their post has gotten.”

Steven Wilson

(Image credit: Lasse Hoile)

Is he aware, Prog asks, of some of the memes he’s inspired? The ‘I have four Steven Wilson albums and buy another. What do I have? Depression,’ one, or the site devoted to finding pictures of him smiling? He is.

“These people don’t know me at all,” he chuckles. “Who smiles in a publicity photo anyway? There’s always this myth about me and it was always like a compliment to the way I managed my public persona that people had a very different version of myself from the reality. People thinking I’m depressed, miserable, melancholy: nothing could be further from the truth. And largely this has always been the case. Of course the elephant in the room is that the subject matter of the music has tended towards the melancholic. That’s an area that has fascinated me.”

For those fans prepared to go along with Wilson for The Future Bites ride, the album remains as dark and melancholic in places as previous songs about ghosts and serial killers have been. It’s also a bona fide concept album, looking at the infiltration of high concept in modern consumerism.

“The only time that I’ve had a story I wanted to tell right from the beginning was Hand.Cannot.Erase.,” he points out. “People think of me as someone who makes concept records, [but] that’s the only record I’ve ever made that had a narrative from the beginning to the end in the old-fashioned The Wall, Tommy, Quadrophenia style. Most of my albums are only conceptual in the fact they are a group of songs that have a similar subject matter.”

Where The Future Bites takes Wilson in a Covid-damaged world remains to be seen, as does the impact on his career of fans angry that he refuses to share their narrow parameters of what music should be. But as a body of work it should, by rights, give him his biggest success to date.

So where does he go next? We discuss a potential 10th anniversary reissue of the Storm Corrosion album he made with his good friend Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt in 2012, for which Wilson has just created a Dolby Atmos remix.

“That could be good time to do another record,” he says. “Obviously, there’s a geographical issue. We can’t just get together on Tuesdays and jam and we don’t want to do it by email.”

There’s also an official Porcupine Tree book in the pipeline.

“It’s going to be a very unusual musical biography,” he says “I always thought an autobiography would be really boring. In fact, there’s been two or three written rather flatteringly about me in the last couple of years anyway. But it’s going to be a book about my ideas about music and my relationship with my fans.”

Plenty yet to keep the prog contingent in his ever-growing legion happy then. And future music? If anyone is going to surprise people by doing what they least expect it’d be Steven Wilson. Watch this space… 

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.