One of England’s premier musicians and producers, Steven Wilson is a prolific, progressive mastermind, receiving a swathe of accolades visionary musical ventures spanning three decades. We caught up with the musical chameleon as he was ‘basking in the nice Athens sun’ on a brief break from the European touring gauntlet.
‘It’s been pretty full on all year,’ he acknowledges, ‘though I’ve got the rest of the summer off before Australia.’ Noting that touring for the hugely-successful, chart-topping ‘To the Bone’ album was relentless, he admits ‘It’s a nice problem to have being very much in demand.’ ‘When there’s been a lot of thought and quite a lot of effort and pre-production, it makes sense you’d want to present that to as many people as possible!’ With a wry chuckle, he also admits that ‘in a way I’ve been a victim of my own design.’ What a design, though. Punters at Wilson’s live show can expect painstakingly-crafted, quadrophonic surround-sound programming and a visual feast of art, clips and moving imagery alongside the trademark musicianship.
Have the more pop-laden sensibilities of ‘To the Bone’ modified the live spectacle? ‘I think it has’, Steven agrees. ‘I suddenly realized 2-3 weeks into the tour that, you know, this actually the most balanced my tours have ever been’. We’re not just talking servings of fruit and veg, here. ‘In the past, it was this very serious, conceptual rock, which was very cerebral’. Pausing a moment to muse, ‘… and the audience acted likewise, immersed and concentrated. Now, the shows have a more joyous pop sensibility about them, they feel more rounded somehow’. All you really need to do is head to YouTube to see examples of the warmth and vibrance extolled in recent live settings. It looks as warm as it must feel.
He noted the crowds ‘went from being very serious middle-aged men to more women, more younger folks, twenty to twenty-five, and a more eclectic mix overall’. Sounds like a house party rather than a prog communion. Sounds fun. ‘Even something as banal as seeing what people are wearing – you get Slayer T-shirts, but next to that there’s a girl in a Radiohead T-shirt, and then there’s someone in an ABBA t-shirt!’ He sounds ecstatic about the prospect of bringing more diversity into the live fold, for sure. ‘I love it. It tells me my audience can come from anywhere. They’re after something special’.
He’s not too presumptuous about his newfound success, though. ‘I don’t want to overstate this – it’s still tough. I’m still a long way from being anywhere near acceptable for modern pop culture.’ Despite his reputation, he maintains ‘ I never set to be obscure or some kind of underground cult artist, by and large I’ve ended up one’. He is careful to note that he enjoys this status and isn’t resentful of it. In general, Steven has some reflective and astute observations on what constitutes modern musical success. ‘I look back at heroes like Kate Bush, David Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd –I don’t feel like any of those artists compromised their art, so why can’t similarly unique artists be successful today?’ Good question!
‘The answer is, bluntly, we live in a different time. We don’t live in a time when artists like that are able to break through to the mainstream, anymore’. A bit of a sad indictment on the state of modern music but hey, have we ever known Steven to be dishonest or withholding? ‘A lot of is down to, well, the greatest technological invention of our lifetime, the Internet. And although the internet is incredible and brought so much good into our lives, it’s also equally brought a lot of negative aspects to our lives and changed the way we engage, or rather, don’t engage with the world as human beings.’ It’s a day and age with an oversaturated and overstimulated market, uniqueness is stymied by an endless flow of content.
Melancholically, he adds that ‘virtually almost all music ever made is now instantaneously available to anyone.’ Whilst incredible in terms of access, he believes it has ‘changed our whole philosophy with music.’ That’s a profound statement. ‘Engagement doesn’t happen much now when you have kids listening to the first 30 seconds of something.’ I think we’re all guilty of mashing the skip button on our Spotify playlists, surely. ‘It’s changed the whole way we engage with music.’ Fortunately, given the production and engineering credits demonstrate, is that Steven is no stranger to adjusting to whatever technology is available for him to still craft beautiful, engaging albums and shows. He similarly concedes ‘we live in an age when people expect a multimedia extravaganza in a way. I think there’s an element in that that’s also crept into the world of music.’
Becoming audibly animated now, Wilson adds: ‘It’s almost to the point where pop shows are more like theatrical productions than they are live experiences – people don’t seem to care!’ ‘People don’t seem to care if they’re going to see Madonna and she’s not even singing,’ he posits. They don’t care that Beyonce is not singing, cause there’s ten costume changes in the first ten songs.’ Commercialism wasn’t Wilson’s intention in constructing multi-modal live settings, however. ‘I play with the music as the most important part. I do however acknowledge there is an appetite for more immersive, more spectacular, more engaging.’ He’s quick to assure ‘this isn’t a bad thing. I grew up on theatre and musicals, and this as much about bringing a similarly emotionally rousing performance.’
Regarding the current tour, that aspect has apparently made ‘a massive step-up, visually and musically’. I bet many of you are wondering how that’s even possible? ‘Nope, I don’t want to give too much away.’ Cheeky. And what of the setlist? Will we see a return through the back catalogue? ‘Definitely, it will be a show which delves further into my back catalogue. The consideration for me is creating a very satisfying 3-hour musical journey. I found myself going back to songs people thought they’d probably never hear live again.’ Three hours and some nods to unplayed tracks. Oh, my. ‘However, I only play songs I genuinely want to play. Whether or not that may fall in line with what some want me to play…. That’s the prerogative of the songwriter.’ Very true – he is a solo artist now.
And of Australia, which he has toured extensively: ‘One thing I always notice about the Australian people, other than how wonderful and passionate they are (aw, shucks) is their eclecticism – there’s just not the same level of snobbery here as there is in the US and the UK.’ Thanks! ‘I loved that at all my Australian shows, seeing people young, old, women, men, kids, all just discovering the music in a wonderfully organic fashion – I hope to see that again’. Without an ounce of seriousness lost, he tacks on that he’d ‘also really love to see some ABBA shirts’.
There you go. Expect an auditory and visual progressive rock feast when Wilson touches down later this year. Just remember to bring your parents’ band shirts…and your parents.
Press Photos By Hajo Mueller
Get your tickets to see Steven Wilson on his Australian Tour HERE!