Prog hero Steven Wilson on new 'pop' LP To The Bone
Former Porcupine Tree mastermind turned solo artist Steven Wilson returns to Ireland next week for shows in Belfast and Dublin. David Roy quizzed the cult favourite post-prog rocker about going 'pop' with current album To The Bone and why he'd still quite like to have a number one hit someday
HELLO Steven, you worked hard on the production and presentation for the To The Bone tour, is all going according to plan?
Thankfully, it's all worked out very well. You can rehearse as much as you like, but until you're on a stage in front of an audience, you're never completely sure.
The first couple of shows there were a few things that needed to be tweaked and I changed a few of the songs around, but now I'd have to say it's exactly as I hoped and imagined it would be – it's a really spectacular, immersive, visual feast!
Do you feel like you're increasingly competing for people's attention these days with the live shows?
Uh-huh. These days when you go out on the live circuit, you have to acknowledge that you are competing with more musicians and other acts than at any other time in history.
There's more music being made in 2018 than at any other time in history and people have a lot of options in terms of listening to it or actually paying to see live music.
So my philosophy is to try and give something that people will come along [to], be blown away and then go away and tell their friends about it – so that when I come back, whether it be to Berlin, Belfast, Dublin or wherever, they're gonna come back too and bring their friends with them.
I think that's pretty much the way I've built my following up. I don't get a lot of what you might call 'mainstrean profile', so it has been very much a process of trying to raise the bar in terms of what I do both musically and visually and presentation wise.
I've just let that kind of word of mouth work for me and that seems to be the way my career has gone, really.
You've built up a hugely dedicated fanbase over the past 25 years despite a constantly evolving sound – has that been a struggle?
It's not something that comes easy. The music business is kind of predicated on the idea that you find a gap in the market, something that people want, and you keep giving it to them over and over again. That's the way most industries work.
So, if you're going to create the kind of niche that I hope I have created for myself now, it takes a long time and you have to be pretty strong. Every time I release an album there are a lot of people who are disappointed – it's not the way they wanted me to go, they wanted more of the same.
I've kind of got used to that: every album I make, I lose some fans, but the way it's worked for me is that I've tended to gain more new ones than I've lost old ones. And I think I have a kind of 'core' now who expect me to change and who want me to change.
I think there are only a few artists in history who have managed to achieve that – I'm certainly not comparing myself to them, but if you look at someone like Bowie for example, or Frank Zappa or Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush, these are artists who constantly confronted the expectations of their audience.
For me these were the people who I looked up to and kind of created role models for me to do the same.
You've described To The Bone as your tribute to a bygone era of 'sophisticated pop music'. Can you elaborate?
I think it's kind of a missing element from the contemporary music scene. You have the Justin Biebers etc, who are very mainstream and formulaic, and then you have some amazing music which you can go and discover in the underground – but what you don't have so much for me these days is what I call the 'creative mainstream'.
In the 80s when I was a teenager, the 'creative mainstream' was the mainstream. You had artists like Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, The Police, Talking Heads and some of the people I mentioned already, who were the biggest artists on the planet and yet they were creating music that was quite challenging in some ways.
Lyrically, there was a lot of darkness – look at Shout by Tears for Fears, for example, the lyrics to that are very dark yet it was a number one single in the United States and it was the biggest song of that year.
That's something I really miss in the contemporary pop scene. Generally speaking that creative mainstream has largely disappeared, so I guess I wanted to try [with To The Bone] not to be nostalgic about it but to try and create what I would consider to be a kind of equivalent project in 2017.
The single Permanating is one of your most melodic and immediate tunes to date, was that a fun side of your songwriting to explore?
It was a lot of fun to write Permanating and there was sort of a devilish side to it as well because I knew it was going to upset some of my fans who think of me as this guy who makes this very serious, melancholic, conceptual rock music.
But like I've said, I think one of the most important things that you can do as an artist is to upset your fans, or to at least challenge their preconceptions.
I grew up in a house where I heard ABBA as much as I heard Pink Floyd, where I heard The Carpenters and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack as much I heard Tubular Bells.
So for me, those two things are equally in my DNA even if the side of me which has manifested the most over the years has been the more conceptual rock side. But this other part was always there and I think if you looked for it you would have found it already.
Permanating is like the purest distillation of that love of joyous, classic pop music that I grew up with and that my parents listened to.
So is having a top 10 hit or even a number one still on your bucket list?
The simple answer to that question is 'yes', I think any musician that has pride in what they do has a natural inclination to want it to reach as many people as possible.
Certainly that's true for me too, but I'm not even sure what a top 10 single is now. The whole music world is kind of fractalised and convoluted now. You can get like 200 million streams on Spotify – is that having a top 10 single now? I don't really know.
But I would love for one of my songs perhaps to reach more of a critical mass, in order to provide a doorway for a lot more people to walk into my musical universe. That would be amazing.
Steven Wilson, Saturday March 17, Mandela Hall, QUBSU, Belfast / Monday March 19, Olympia Theatre, Dublin. Tickets via Ticketmaster outlets.