Steven Wilson made the most of 2020. He started a podcast (The Album Years) with his old friend Tim Bowness. He began writing a book (currently due in late 2021). He started working on his next record. And another. All in conjunction with “really getting to know” his two stepdaughters, having tied the knot in 2019.
“Getting to that point, at the age of fifty-one, and finally being in a stable family with children… it is wonderful,” he says, smiling, over Zoom.
It’s been a huge transition for the shape-shifting frontman (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, No-man, Bass Communion etc)-turned-solo artist, who once commented that he would “sacrifice having family for music”.
During our chat his dog, Bowie, curls up at his side and we get a glimpse of his record collection (well, some of it) towering on shelves behind him. At one point he steps out to receive a huge delivery of… erm, squirrel feed. He looks happy.
Most recently he’s released his sixth solo album, The Future Bites. A marriage of whip-smart electronics and classy pop songs, it explores ideas about self-obsession, self-identity and consumerism in the modern age.
In music there is no such thing as genre
I’ve always been very committed to this idea of listening across genres, everything from ABBA to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Tim [Bowness] was very influential to me in terms of my listening taste, my overall philosophy on life. I first met him when I was eighteen or nineteen. He was a couple of years older. What I loved about Tim is that we could enthuse about Donovan as easily as we could about industrial metal.
And that carried over into the studio, so in the same session we might do this beautiful ambient piece and then this industrial noisy funk. It took us a couple of years to find our style, but in the early years we were just experimenting in all different styles. It’s kind of been my philosophy ever since
I'm a child of the eighties
I started with posters of Dark Side Of The Moon on my wall, because my dad had a copy of it. But when I got into music in the eighties Prince was my pride-of-place poster, probably in my mid-teens. I used to see Marillion a lot in their early days. I must have had a Marillion poster at some point. But certainly as a teenager it would have been The Smiths, Prince, and I think I had a David Sylvian poster at the time.
We turn into our parents, sort of
My mother was always very open-minded. Still is. She’s ninety years old and she goes to the theatre, and she’ll buy the books that get the best reviews. My dad was like that too, in terms of the eclectic music they listened to when I was a kid. There was that kind of curiosity about music, cinema, literature, painting and all these things.
The downside is that I also inherited an incredibly reserved shyness from my parents. Which is not a bad quality in itself, but it’s something you have to overcome if you’re ever going to step on stage. I spent the first ten years of my career on stage literally looking at my shoes because I couldn’t look the audience in the eye. That is something I get from my family. They are very shy, very reserved people.
My relationship with prog had unlikely origins
My father was an electronics engineer. He was kind of a genius, and he worked for many companies over the years, including EMI, Decca and Pye, developing technology. In fact a lot of my ability to learn how to be a producer was facilitated by my dad making me little four-tracks, echo machines and homemade sequencers. And he would always get things slightly wrong, because he wasn’t a musician himself.
So he built me this sequencer. Of course most music is made in four-time and three. He didn’t know that, so he built me a nine-step sequencer [laughs], so all the songs I wrote had to be in nine/eight! Maybe this is one of the reasons I ended up being so fascinated with progressive rock and more complex music.
The internet has made us less curious about the world
The human race has evolved in quite an unexpected way because of the internet and social media. It’s really changed the way we engage with the world. There’s a line in the song Self [on The Future Bites] which for me is one of the key lines on the record: ‘Self sees a billion stars, but still can only self-regard.’
It’s this idea that we used to look out at the universe with curiosity, and now we spend most of our life looking at this tiny little screen on our phone to see how many likes we’ve got on our latest Facebook post. The human race has gone from regarding the world in a very broad way, to regarding the world through the prism of social media, and seeing themselves reflected back through that prism.
We're entering the dystopia predicted by science fiction
I don’t believe we understand exactly what long-term effect the technology we’ve created is going to have on our species. I think in some ways we are fulfilling that kind of dystopian image that science-fiction writers from the mid-twentieth century were writing about – how one day the technology we had created would be our undoing. And I think we’re beginning to live through that era now.
It’s very scary to see that happening in my lifetime. When I was a kid I used to read stories by Arthur C Clarke, Thomas Disch and Philip K Dick, which were about these ideas that one day technology would render the human race obsolete. In a sense the only thing they got wrong is what form that technology would take. A lot of them imagined robots and things like that. In fact the technology, to some extent, is social media.
Social media isn't all bad
I am a professional musician, operating in 2020; I have to be on social media. So in that sense I have to love it. But there is the other side of it. It creates a platform for misinformation, fake news, self-obsession, ignorance, hatred… But at the same time it also creates this incredible opportunity for connection, communication and education. My worry is that that’s not the way some human beings choose to engage with it.
To be young now is to be excited by urban music and modern pop
As a child now, you’re brought up in a world where you simply do not hear rock music, unless you search for it. We live in a world where we’re constantly surrounded by electronic sounds, whether it’s coming from our laptop, our phone, our doorbell… We’re surrounded by the vocabulary of electronic music.
So if I was growing up in an era where there wasn’t this rock musical vocabulary, of course I’m gonna be more interested in electronic music. If you listen to Billie Eilish or Kendrick Lamarr, some of the production and ideas are really fresh and innovative. I imagine I would be drawn to that world if I was a kid now.
CDs get a bad rap
I love ’em. I still think for some kinds of music CDs are so much better than records: ambient music, classical music, any music where silence and space is a key part. One of my pet peeves is people who just dismiss CDs as an obsolete format. And I still buy a lot of books, I still buy a lot of movies on Blu-ray. I’ve got a really nice cinema room in my house, and my wife and I really enjoy watching movies on Blu-ray, surround-sound and everything.
Nostalgia is comforting, especially as you get older
I’ve found as I’ve gotten older I’ve become very nostalgic for surrounding myself with the things from my childhood. So the other day I bought a Mary Mungo & Midge album. It was a BBC children’s programme, probably from the late seventies , and somebody posted a picture of the album on Instagram, and I decided I had to have it!
And the other day I bought myself a photo-print for the studio of The Avengers – Dianna Rigg and Patrick Macnee. It’s comforting to buy things that remind you of your own childhood. So I buy a lot of crap.
Serial killers are fascinating because they're part of the human race
The first time I heard music that actually made me physically sick, in a good way, was Throbbing Gristle’s Second Annual Report. I was about fifteen years old. The first song on that record is Slug Bait, and it’s a really sick, lo-fi electronic noise piece, with Genesis P-Orridge intoning over the top a story about a murderer who breaks into the bedroom of a woman and cuts her unborn baby out of her stomach. It was the beginning of serial killer chic. I grew up in a house where my mum had a lot of books about serial killers, so I was already a little bit influenced by her in my interest in that world.
[CR: Do you enjoy that feeling of being unsettled by art?]
I really do. Or at least I really did. I don’t like the torture-porn films; that movie A Serbian Film, I can’t say I enjoyed it. I like the idea of true horror, but only if it’s in relation to a great idea, if it has something to say about the human condition. And of course the thing about serial killers, it is horrible but it’s also part of our society. They are people that have malfunctioned for whatever reason. I find that fascinating because of what it says about the human race in general, what it says about childhood and upbringing.
Flying is my biggest fear
It’s gotten worse. Perhaps it’s as I’ve got older and closer to death, without putting too fine a point on it, I’m more aware of my own mortality. I’m thinking I’m going to have to have some sort of hypnosis or therapy to get through the next period of touring.
Coping mechanisms, I’ve tried them all. I’ve tried tapping; you tap certain parts of your body and you have different mantras you say. It sounds very new-age-y, I know, but I’m at this point where I’ll try anything! Sleeping pills obviously, though it’s not the best thing to do to your body. Neither is getting blind drunk.
Tel Aviv is a great place
In a way I felt like the missing part of my personality was completed when I went to Israel [for a year while working on the second Blackfield album with Aviv Geffen]. I became more confident, more outgoing, more joyful.
The Israeli people are the complete antithesis of that shyness I inherited from my parents. It was everything I wasn’t. They are very forward, they’re not polite, which I love, they say what they mean and you make friends almost instantly. They’re very volatile people; my wife is completely furious or she’s completely joyous.
I’m a lot closer to that now than I used to be, because of the influence of Israel. And Tel Aviv’s a wonderful city. There’s music and cinema and all this tradition. A lot of it’s in Hebrew, so it doesn’t cross over to our world, but they have a very rich culture. They’re a very small country surrounded by people who don’t want them there, and that gives them a very unique seize-the-day kind of perspective on life, which I adore
Not caring what other people thing takes almost a lifetime to achieve
The best thing about getting older, for me, is that I don’t care what other people think any more. I’m not sure that I ever did. No, that’s not true, I did. When I started in the industry with Tim all those years ago, we tried to make music that we thought would give us a career, financial stability in the music industry. I’m glad it didn’t work, because it taught us a lesson.
And as I get older I find that, particularly with an album like The Future Bites, which is almost guaranteed to cause controversy within my existing fan base, not only do I not care, but I actually like it that some people hate it. I’ve got to the point where I’ve confidence that most of my fans will go with me on this journey. That’s a wonderfully privileged place to be in.
I've yet to make my masterpiece
When I look back at my career I see it as this process of evolving and learning. I know the fans will disagree, but I think every record I make is better than the record I’ve made previously. That’s the way I always want to feel. That’s what keeps me going. Yes, there are albums where I think: “Yeah, that was a really good record” – In Absentia, Fear Of A Blank Planet, the first Blackfield album… – but I still think I can do better. Hand. Cannot. Erase, Insurgentes, The Future Bites, these stand above the others, for me.
Make music because you love it
If you’re a kid starting out in music, do it because you love it. If a career comes of it, fantastic. But don’t make that the reason you do it.