One for the road: Steven Wilson

Tour thoughts and onstage nightmares with the prog king

One for the road Steven Wilson

He's the grand master of the new prog era who wields a priceless magical ring of brass, but here, Steven Wilson talks touring…

What was your first ever gig?

"It would be the school disco at my secondary school and it was with my heavy metal group, Paradox. That was '81, I would have been 12 or 13 years old. I was the singer/guitar player and we were really influenced by the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. We played for our school friends before a disco and they patiently endured listening to us do our thing…"

Could you describe your current stage rig for us?

"I've got a bunch of pedals, all analogue except for two digital pedals, the reverb and the delay, which all go through a GigRig board. I'm using my Paul Reed Smith guitars, my favourite of which is a gold Custom 22, and I'm going into a Bad Cat Lynx head that has two channels, clean and dirty, which are switched from TheGigRig."

What non-musical item couldn't you do without on tour?

"I play slide in a fairly unconventional way, because I taught myself to play with a brass napkin ring that I made at school in metalwork class when I was about 12. I've protected this napkin ring for the best part of 30 years because, if I ever lose it, I don't think I'd be able to play slide any more. I tried playing with regular bottlenecks and I can't do it. It's a piece of junk, basically, and because it's a napkin ring, the diameter is much greater than a regular bottleneck, so I stick almost three of my fingers through it to play."

What's the nearest you've come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

"The whole thing about my show is it is quite ambitious, it's one of those, what they call, 'multimedia experiences'. I have films and I have quadrophonic sound and the more things you have that can go wrong, the more things do go wrong. So when you've got a drummer playing to a click because you've got video that's been cut exactly to specific musical events, those things are terribly prone to go wrong. And when they do go wrong you look like such a git."

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What's on your rider?

"I'm vegetarian and for years I was terrified about imposing my vegetarianism on the rest of the people I tour with because I don't like to be preachy about it. But about a year ago, I went to my tour manager and said, 'How do you think the guys would feel if I said, can we have only vegetarian food on the rider in future?' And, to my surprise, everyone loved the idea."

What's the best venue you've played in from a musician's point of view?

"It's not the greatest-sounding room, but it's such a special feeling to be on stage at the Royal Albert Hall. In the Albert Hall, you feel and see every single person in that room and they all contribute to the atmosphere of the show. I've played there now four times. I did two nights there last September, and I'd have to say they are the highlights of my professional career."

What's the worst journey you've had to or from a gig?

"I think one of the scariest journeys I've ever had was when we played in Bergen, in the north of Norway, in the middle of winter. You know when you see those movies like Lord Of The Rings, and the whole lot of them are going along a precipice with a sheer drop down to a watery or snowy grave? Well, it was just like that! We were driving along these clifftop roads where there's only room for one vehicle to pass, in what I can only describe as a blizzard and I was genuinely shitting myself."

What's your best tip for getting the audience on your side?

"I would say humility. Let me explain what I mean by that; I do try to talk to the audience and I think it's important, when you're on stage. I mean, there's something inherently bizarre about the idea of being on stage in front of a couple of thousand people. So, between songs when I'm talking to the audience, I'm kind of just joking with them. In a way, I'm just trying to highlight the fact that I'm no different to them, except the fact that my job happens to be - if you call it a job - writing and performing songs. I'll put on the best show I can, but I will always go out of my way to remind the audience that I'm just an idiot, basically."

What do you do to warm up before a live performance?

"I'd love to tell you that I go into my dressing room and play scales for an hour or sing scales for an hour, but the truth is, I don't do any of those things. I am one of the least disciplined musicians you will ever meet in your life - and I say that to my great shame. I just don't have the discipline for that kind of thing. My warm-up routine is basically to have a couple of cans of Red Bull. That's it!"

What's your favourite live album?

"I think I would have to go for Floyd and Ummagumma, only half of which is actually live, but the live record, for me, has definitive versions of A Saucerful Of Secrets, Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, Astronomy Domine and Careful With That Axe, Eugene. That was their core repertoire at that time in the late-60s and that live record just blew me away. Certainly the most important live record in my life."

Steven Wilson's new solo album, 4 1/2, is out now on Kscope Records.

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