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Steven Wilson interview: "the cult of personality is a big part of what makes rock music tick"

Steven Wilson
(Image credit: Turner Hall)

In a large, sun-dappled living room in a leafy outpost of North-West London, Steven Wilson expounds the decade over peppermint tea and muffins. The latter were made by his Israeli wife Rotem, who he married four weeks previously. Two weeks before that they moved here. The decor is minimal and stylish and looks out on to a spacious back garden.

Rock’s dark, jazzy enigma; 21st-century prog god; master of melancholia; pop star inspired by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Prince, Kate Bush… Wilson has been all these things over the past 10 years. Now there’s another side to him; pairs of children’s shoes sit by the door, belonging to his two stepdaughters. 

“I think I have this reputation of being this incredibly melancholic person,” Wilson says. “I understand that part of that is my own doing because of the music, but I’ve always been happy. And I think now I’m not only happy, I’m content. It’s another thing, to be content with your life and no longer striving all the time to be somewhere different."

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After years of keeping your personal life under wraps, how did it feel to share news of your nuptials on social media? 

To be honest, a lot of that was partly the choice of my previous partner, who was a very private person. Rotem is still very private, but not as much, and I think we felt like it was a very special day for both of us and wanted to share it. But I’m still not the kind of person who’s going to post pictures of myself doing the laundry or anything. 

With Porcupine Tree put to bed by 2010, this was the decade in which you really became a solo artist. How would you describe your head-space at the start of all that? 

That’s a good question. I think the transition from being in a band that was fairly well known, just beginning to play big venues, taking a step  back from that and saying: “You know what, this could be really big now, but is it what I want to be really big?” and coming back with the answer: “No.” 

Retrospectively I can see it took a lot of guts to do that, and a lot of people said I was stupid – managers, record companies. So stepping back a few levels in terms of audience, ticket sales… In that sense it was a very poor business decision, but throughout all this I felt happier than I had been for a long time. I am by nature a bit of a control freak, so I wanted to have that control again.

You quickly had your hand in a number of projects: Grace For Drowning, Storm Corrosion, Blackfield… 

I saw myself ultimately withdrawing from a lot of these. I thought: “I’d love to have one project to concentrate fully on, where I can bring any of these sounds, and I can change from album to album."

The people I grew up really admiring were people like David Bowie, Kate Bush and Frank Zappa, and when you bought the new record you didn’t know what you were going to get. 

That was one of the frustrations I had towards the end of Porcupine Tree: we were painting ourselves into a corner. A very productive corner, but sometimes that’s what the wider world doesn’t necessarily see. Your fan base, they’ve walked through the door into your world, and whatever that album was when they discovered you, they want to recapture that feeling, time and time again.

Well, in terms of records that generated these kinds of expectations, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) was a landmark. How does a love letter to classic prog tap in to such a zeitgeist in 2013?

I don’t know. That’s an interesting record. It’s one of my most popular records, and I had fun doing it. But in my mind it was always going to be a oneoff. There are fans of that record who’ll tell you that’s my best and they wish I’d carried on doing that, but I can’t see myself ever making another archetypically classic progressive rock album, because I’ve done it.

In 2015 you released Hand. Cannot. Erase., inspired by the 2011 documentary Dreams Of A Life [about Joyce Carol Vincent, who lay dead, undiscovered, in her London apartment for three years]. What was it like to immerse yourself in a protagonist like that?

I could completely relate to her. And that’s the beauty of that story; I think everyone can see something of themselves, or the potential to end up like that. This is not a story about the little old bag lady at the bus stop, this is about a young, attractive woman with lots of friends and family too, who for whatever reason was not missed. If you live on your own it’s very easy to start asking yourself: “If I didn’t reach out to any of my family, or my friends, or I didn’t update my status on social media, how long would it be before somebody got worried about me?”

You’ve become more comfortable being up front, to the point of having your face on the cover of To The Bone, appearing on BBC breakfast TV… How have you found the pop-star experience?

When I was thirteen or fourteen years old I wanted to be a pop star, even though I had none of the qualifications. Ultimately, to be a pop star you have to naturally be a narcissist. I’m not really, but I like to be the centre of attention on stage now. In the early days of my solo career I would do anything to deflect attention away from me, which is partly why all the big visuals started to develop.

And I’ve learned to enjoy it, because I’ve understood that the people that come to my shows are on my side. I began to realise that one of the things I could do that people really liked was just talk to the audience – talk bollocks, talk like me. You realise that the cult of personality is a big part of what makes pop and rock music tick. 

Why did it take you so long to figure that out? 

I think it’s because the first bands that really excited me were bands where the opposite was true, like Pink Floyd, where it was almost about subsuming the personalities into this conceptual, intellectual cool. I still love that, but as I’ve grown older I’ve moved slightly away from that frame of mind. 

What have you struggled with the most in your first decade as a solo guy? 

As a solo artist I pay for everything, and sometimes the vision I have just isn’t viable financially. I employ world-class musicians, a world-class crew, I have a lot of visual aspects, multiple screens, quadraphonic sound… The phrase, I think, is ‘punching above your weight’. 

Even on the last tour, I was playing quite big venues in some cities, but then I was doing a tiny club in a place called Pensacola in Florida to about two hundred people and still presenting this ridiculous show. But it was that mentality that says: “Well if those two hundred people come to the show and are blown away, they’ll tell their friends.”

Is there anything that you regret? 

If I have a regret, it’s not something within my power to change, which is that the industry has moved away from the thing that I do – conceptual, album-orientated rock music. And were it not for people like yourself and Classic Rock and Prog magazine still providing a conduit to the people who love that kind of music, it gets tougher every time. When you have massive organisations like Spotify actively ignoring rock music – as they admit they do – it is a problem. 

Plenty of people still pigeonhole you as the boy wonder of 21st-century prog, but your own tastes are much more diverse. 

I think that when you’re talking about a particular magazine like Prog or Classic Rock, your demographic is… [thinks] I’m generalising here, but a lot of them, I suspect, have a set of parameters within which the music they like sits. But there’s a larger world out there that now listens to music in a less engaged way, but they don’t have those kinds of parameters. And in some respects it is an exciting time. 

Part of the problem with growing up in the shadow of classic rock and The Beatles is that you’re very much aware of the rules. And what’s really exciting about urban music – which is very dominant in the mainstream – is that they’re not. I understand why kids are more drawn to that. 

I got in a lot of trouble online because I was very rude about Greta Van Fleet, but I stand by everything I said. What are kids gonna listen to? [Rapper] Tyler, The Creator doing this radical urban music that speaks to them about modern life, or this embarrassing sort of Take That-meets-Led Zeppelin parody?

You’ve also released the first new No-Man album in more than a decade, billed as ‘progressive melancholy disco’. Being a fan of the likes of Donna Summer and Daft Punk, you must enjoy a boogie yourself from time to time? 

I love it. I’ve always loved electronic music. 

You’re at a wedding, everyone’s had a few. What gets you throwing shapes?

Well [slightly dodging the question] I did the playlist for when we had the wedding here – loads of ABBA, loads of Prince. When I was a teenager, Prince was the guy I had posters of on my wall. That joyous approach to dance music, electronic music, music that has a groove to it… that element has pretty much always been there.

What’s your personal ‘cheese’ threshold in terms of music? 

I could quite happily pontificate about the genius of The Rubettes – they were the real arse-end of early-70s glam-pop – but some of the songs are amazing. Long before it was fashionable to do so, I was telling people ABBA were genius. I love incredibly over-sentimental music: Sinatra, The Carpenters are one of my favourites, and Prefab Sprout, some of those lyrics are really syrupy but I love it. But no, I don’t have a cheese threshold – and I’m suspicious of anyone who says that they do.

In 2019 you announced a series of arena shows for 2020. It’s a long way from Porcupine Tree’s debut Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm. 

Indeed. But it’s taken thirty years to get there, and you know there are some bands that make that jump in three years. I haven’t got a chip on my shoulder – well, maybe a little – but I’m massively happy to have finally got there. 

A couple of years ago you said you’d sacrificed having a family for music. Now you have a wife and two stepkids. It seems there’s a balance in your life. 

Of course. But I still think it’s partly true that I wouldn’t have achieved what I have now if I had had a family all these years. I mean, for To The Bone I disappeared on tour for fifteen months. I’m not going to do that again. This is part of the reason why the arena shows are happening, because I want to do fewer shows, bigger scale. Yes, it does change the way I think about my career, but I’m fifty-two, so I don’t necessarily think in the same way I did when I was thirty. 

When I was thirty, everything was focused on the music. And it still is to an extent, but not to the exclusion of all else any more.

Steven Wilson's Arena tour was due to take place in September 2020, but the dates were shelved in July. New album The Future Bites will be released on January 29 2021. This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 270, in December 2019.