When Steven Wilson was a teenager living in Hemel Hempstead, he read a short story by the American science-fiction writer Thomas M Disch. An outspoken satirist, atheist and gay man in the 60s (he ultimately committed suicide in 2008), Disch was a troubled individual. The story in question, Descending, is a punishing, bleak tale of an unrepentant layabout who takes the down escalator in a shopping mall and finds he can’t get off it.
For Wilson – who also became fascinated by serial killers and the darker reaches of humanity – that image had a lasting impact. You could call it a precursor to the menacing, industrial shades of his catalogue. Chiefly, though, it planted in his head the idea of the never-ending staircase. From Porcupine Tree’s first ‘proper’ album Up The Downstair to their 2005 song Arriving Somewhere But Not Here, it’s become something of a recurring motif; a metaphor for an endless descent, like Thomas Disch’s dystopian escalator. Or for life as a stairway to… somewhere.
“I think a lot of my songwriting over the years has been very loosely related to this idea of it being about the journey, not about the arrival, the process and not the destination,” he says today, sitting outside his family home in North West London. “And I think that’s something that the older I get, the more I realise that that’s what life really is, isn’t it?”
During lockdown he wrote a short story titled The Harmony Codex, employing the never-ending stairway image to dreamlike effect (it was published in his 2021 book Limited Edition Of One) while still operating in the present day. From the screen-crazed youth of Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, to urban isolation in his own Hand. Cannot. Erase, Wilson has never struggled for inspiration from this world.
“Even if writers like Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick were writing about other planets, really they were writing about themselves,” he reasons. “They were writing about the human race. I think that’s always been true of science fiction; it’s a wonderful magnifying glass for human behaviour.
“Now, I approached it in a slightly less nihilistic way than Thomas Disch,” he adds. “He wrote some of the most truly depressing science fiction I’ve ever read. But I never forgot this metaphor of the never-arriving, always-descending shopping-mall escalator.”
Now his seventh album, also called The Harmony Codex, takes all this into colossal sonic terrain. A labyrinthine Escher staircase of a record, it’s an enveloping, 65-minute trip through Wilson’s entire musical makeup – made under lockdown but looking far beyond that. It’s the product of a weird time in history. A career spent immersed in myriad styles and sounds. A life that doesn’t look the way he thought it would.
“This is not what I expected,” he muses, his wife and stepdaughters somewhere in the rooms behind him. “But it makes me very happy anyway.”
Steven Wilson has long been a champion for the unexpected. A serious, slightly odd guy who’s just as likely to enthuse about disco deep cuts and the industrial noise of Throbbing Gristle as about Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Gentle Giant and other prog legends (most of whom he’s remixed in 5.1/Atmos at some point). Not to mention a cinephile who would love to score a film in the dreamlike, auteur vein of David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick.
By turns his solo albums have delved into skewed jazz (Grace For Drowning), classic progressive rock (The Raven That Refused To Sing), 80s art-pop (To The Bone) and more. He has even made records that no one knows are his – esoteric works, released under pseudonyms, unhindered by the expectations that come with being a known artist.
Then, in March 2020, everything changed. Wilson’s reflections on life, memory and the modern age collided during those deeply strange, locked-down weeks that became months. It led to an unusual mix of autobiography, observation and dreamlike narrative in his music. He wasn’t even sure he’d release it, only that he wanted to make it.
“I think it made me a bit more insular, and a bit less aware of my audience,” he says of that period. “It was a very surreal, one might say dreamlike, state of mind. Like: ‘This can’t be happening in reality can it?’ Like a lot of people, I kind of enjoyed the isolation to begin with. Then it became less comfortable, and it became debilitating. So it was written in lots of different states of mind.”
While his previous solo records tended to pick a lane and stick to it, The Harmony Codex does the opposite. There are four-minute pop songs and 10-minute tracks. Electronics, guitar solos and orchestral textures. Gauzy, meditative Americana (What Life Brings) and Roger Waters-esque epics (Impossible Tightrope). Cavernous, atmospheric drum machines (Inclination), other-worldly synths and spoken-word passages – the latter provided by Wilson’s wife, Rotem Wilson. Gnarly tales about the 21st century (Actual Brutal Facts, Beautiful Scarecrow) sit alongside gentle, melodious meditations on mortality like Time Is Running Out. The album is swooping, cinematic and all over the place – in a good way.
“There might have been, on previous records, a moment where I would have said: ‘No, you can’t possibly have Inclination on the same record as Impossible Tightrope,” Wilson explains. “This time I had no agenda. I just wanted to create a fascinating, engaging musical journey, which in a way would reflect all of my musical guises, and hopefully a few new ones too.”
With everyone working on the record doing so remotely, contributors were cherry-picked to form “bespoke bands” for each track. “It enabled me to think about each song as having its own little musical universe,” he says. “So every track I did, I was like: ‘Okay, who would I like to play on this?’ I was sending out files, I was giving a little guidance here and there, but generally I was waiting for people to surprise me.”
Some contributors are less surprising. Prog-friendly faces like Guy Pratt and Lee Harris (both of Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets by day) appear, as do Wilson ‘regulars’ such as keyboard player Adam Holzman, sax player Theo Travis (Soft Machine), and bassist Nick Beggs. Israeli pop star Ninet Tayeb, another returning collaborator, sings on some tracks and wrote lyrics for the powerful, Pink Floyd-meets-Bond soundtrack ballad Rock Bottom, inspired by her experience of bi-polar disorder.
Others are less obvious. Jack Dangers (of 90s electronic pioneers Meat Beat Manifesto) contributes drum machine parts. For Impossible Tightrope Wilson wanted “a jazz drummer that had grown up listening to Aphex Twin and Squarepusher” (he found one: American Nate Wood). A separate disc features remixes and “reimaginings” by Manic Street Preachers, Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal, and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, to name three, essentially offering an alternative version of the same album. All of it stitched together by Wilson at home.
“There was a sense of going to the studio and going: ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna make a record exactly like I want to make it now, that I would want to hear at this moment in my life, almost as an antidote for everything else that’s going on in the world right now.’”
The Harmony Codex won’t sit well with everyone, and Wilson is okay with that. He’s used to pissing off listeners in the name of moving forward. He felt pushed to defend 2021’s The Future Bites against aggrieved fans clamouring for more guitars. He often says he enjoys upsetting people, citing shapeshifters such as Prince and David Bowie as role models of sorts. Still, he’s human. Of course it affects his subsequent movements, consciously or otherwise.
“There’s always a reaction to the previous record, with everything I do,” he concedes. “So The Future Bites had been this very tightly controlled, very concise, only forty minutes, electronic pop record – or at least by my standards it was an electronic pop record. So maybe this time around, subconsciously I’m just thinking: ‘Okay, let’s make a big, self-indulgent, unashamedly reaching, pretentious, cinematic journey of a record’. Let’s give them a record that they can lose themselves in. I don’t see a lot of people making records like that.” [Laughs] “So in my view, this is the truly alternative music of 2023.”
As ever, he hopes for a million-selling record, but also knows that it won’t happen – that it flies in the face of the click-baity, bite-size ‘content’ that tends to do the biggest business. He knows this, he accepts it, but he’ll try anyway.
“It doesn’t happen with rock albums any more,” he says. “Rock has become the cult music of the 21st century, in much the same way that jazz became a cult. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. It certainly liberates it, in some senses. It’s a kind of very passionate minority. I don’t mind being a part of that minority.
“It doesn’t belong in 2023. And I sense that there’s a lot of people out there that want records that don’t necessarily belong in 2023.” He nods. “That’s my demographic, right there.”
More than anything, The Harmony Codex does what Wilson has long suggested the best music does: it takes you on a journey. At its heart it reflects a curious artist who isn’t where he expected to be. A suburban, computer software salesman raised in a shy, reserved household, who started a band, travelled the world, moved to Israel and back, went solo, fell between myriad cracks, and eventually (last year, with a reunited Porcupine Tree) filled arenas. One of music’s biggest stars that most of the world has never heard of. An introverted ‘auteur’ who suddenly became a family man at 51.
“I probably imagined being a rock star, that I could somehow be Prince, notwithstanding I had none of that talent,” he says, chuckling in bracingly self-mocking tones. “I never imagined myself being a stepfather, being part of a family unit with children. Even at the age of fifty-one when I got married, life was still throwing up unexpected things. But I completely embrace it.”
Accordingly, he now spends a little less time in the studio and more time with his wife and two stepdaughters. He walks his two dogs in the woods near their house. He goes to work in his studio but doesn’t keep ridiculous hours. The glut of remix releases under his name, he says, paint a misleading picture of his work habits.
“I’m not one of those people that will disappear into the studio for twenty-four hours straight with ten cups of coffee. I’ve always had this kind of ‘go to the studio at twelve o’clock, finish at six o’clock’. It’s just the way that works best for me. So I am slowing down a bit. It’s taken three years for me to make this record, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And there’s nothing I would change about it. So it might be another three years till I make another record, or it might be another five years. Quality over quantity these days.”
Not that he’s slowing down too much. The Harmony Codex was recorded with spatial audio in mind, a field in which Wilson has long been rather a lone frontrunner, and that the wider world is suddenly getting interested in (“Who would have thought?” he says, laughing. “At this age I’m finally an innovator!”). And underneath the workmanlike approach his motivation is still quietly, refreshingly ambitious. There’s a glint of the Bowies, Princes and Reznors that he admires. The maverick spirit of those weird, pseudonymed records of his, still out there in the world, somewhere.
“I still love it, and I still think I’m getting better,” he says. “I know there are fans who will disagree, but from a very personal perspective I don’t think I’ve made a better record than The Harmony Codex, or a record that encapsulates so much of my musical personality. And I still feel like I’m learning. I’m learning from making my own records, I’m learning from the records I remix, I’m learning from life."
Steven Wilson's The Harmony Codex is out now on Virgin.