Steven Wilson: "I fall in love with music more than the tools to make it"

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(Image: © Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty)

When MusicRadar checks in with British art-rock pioneer Steven Wilson, he’s at home in the studio doing exactly what anyone would expect him to be doing.

“I’m grappling with a new synthesizer as we speak,” he laughs, revealing his latest acquisition to be an Arturia MatrixBrute, “which has roughly a million knobs on the front… and that appeals to me, of course!”

He’s talking today to mark the release of Home Invasion: In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall, filmed on the final evening of his three-night residency in one of London’s most prestigious venues, hot on the heels of last year’s top 5-charting masterpiece To The Bone.

Released this week via Eagle Rock, the footage captures the progressive visionary and his band in full flight, using breath-taking sounds and imagery to transcend their audience through a three-hour rabbit hole of dreamy escapism and nightmarish reality, reaching artistic extremes on its title track, The Creator Has A Mastertape and Song Of I.

That notion of exposing mass audiences to the unconventionally dark is nothing new, however, believes a firmly grounded Steven Wilson…

“I always used to feel that way about Depeche Mode,” he says. “They were this million-selling band but they had moments that were incredibly nihilistic. Same with Nine Inch Nails. Rammstein are another example. We’ve all got that darker side in our psyche, so it’s still possible to reach a more mainstream audience even when music taps into that massive-sounding, but very heavy and dark place.

You can be successful and still keep your allegiance to the darker emotions and heavier textures

“You can be successful and still keep your allegiance to the darker emotions and heavier textures. So I guess it doesn’t completely surprise me that I can get it through to a larger audience. I’m very happy it does… because I love to blast out a violent, brutal riff from time-to-time!”

Featuring a virtuoso cast of musicians including bassist Nick Beggs, drummer Craig Blundell, guitarist Alex Hutchings and one-time Miles Davis band musical director Adam Holzman on keys, Home Invasion’s masterfully shot renditions focus primarily on the singer-songwriter/producer’s more recent solo endeavours, occasionally unearthing some surprise gems from the past.

For those in attendance, it was the event of the year – and this latest release succeeds in documenting exactly why that was the case. Here Steven Wilson talks us through his memories from those three unforgettable nights, the gear he’s been using on stage and what he looks for in the session musicians that get to perform alongside him…

You’ve described the Royal Albert Hall as your favourite venue to play... what goes through your mind walking out on that stage?

When you walk out on stage, you feel the presence of all those ghosts, alive and dead - everyone that has stepped on that stage - and it’s this magical feeling

“I think to everyone brought up in England the Albert Hall is legendary. I guess if you were brought up in France, it would be the Olympia Theatre whereas in Japan it would be the Budokan. It’s the British equivalent of that… this historic place that everyone has played. When you walk out on stage, you feel the presence of all those ghosts, alive and dead - everyone that has stepped on that stage - and it’s this magical feeling.  

“Sometimes it’s difficult to articulate exactly why a venue can have that magical feeling. There are many in the world that look like they’d be amazing, beautifully laid out, great sound, lovely stage but they just lack that vibe. It’s almost inexplicable why the RAH has that, but it really did live up to the legend that first time I walked out.

“It felt exactly the way I would have wanted to, having seen so many shows there over the years beforehand. It really works. Although it was essentially designed for classical repertoire, it’s great for my music because there’s a lot of space and ambience. It just has this beautiful sound.”

The core footage is from the final night of three. How did you protect your voice and warm up for that last show, especially considering there’s more vulnerable falsetto work on your newer tunes?

“I’d love to tell you I have this regiment that I adhere to for protecting my voice. I don’t… I’m really bad at it! The RAH shows were at the end of a run through Europe, which started way back at the end of January. Over that time, the voice is like any muscle in the body, if you use it a lot, it gets stronger. Obviously there’s the other side, where if you use it too much, you can damage yourself.  

“Even though my show comes up to three hours, a lot of the time I’m not actually singing. There’s a lot of instrumental content, there are songs that are completely instrumental. So I’m not singing non-stop. Quite the contrary, there’s a lot of time for my voice to be resting. The combination of it being warmed up after two nights and the best part of two months on tour plus those rests meant I didn’t have to worry too much over those kinds of things.  

“And I don’t push my voice very hard; I’m not the kind of singer that’s shredding my vocal chords every night, so maybe I’m fortunate in being able to be a bit lazy. I’ll sing a few songs to myself before going out just to warm up and I don’t drink alcohol as a rule because, as we know, it dries the vocal chords very quickly. Or fruit juice for that matter! It’s just water and tea. That’s about as disciplined as I get.”

You’ve said you fell in love with the Telecaster on [last year’s fifth full-length] To The Bone, which resulted in you acquiring a 1963 Custom...

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I was at home in studio one day and had an idea for a song. I was touring a lot, maybe it was the latter stages of the last album run. The guitars were in the lockup, waiting to go out on the next leg. I didn’t have many available to me at that time.  

“But there was this cheap Mexican Telecaster I’d bought years and years ago. I figured I should own one, just like most guitarists think they should have a Strat, Tele and whatever else, so I got it almost because I felt like I ought to have one, rather than desperately wanting one. It sat in the corner for 10 years, completely unloved and unplayed.  

“On this occasion it was the only guitar in my studio. I reluctantly went over, picked it up and the strings were practically rusted to the neck. I changed them, plugged it in and fell in love straightaway right there and then. I started working on the song People Who Eat Darkness, which is a very straightforward song and came to be partly because that Tele sounded so good for things that probably wouldn’t have inspired me on another guitar...”

It’s funny how the guitar in your hands can inform your chord choices, feel and phrasing...

The guitar you use is responsible for a big part of the sound world and musical vocabulary to have for a particular song

“Honestly, that first E chord I played sounded so good. This new sound opened up and that was it… I ended up using it as my guitar of choice through the writing process. What guitar you choose to write on can become the signature of the whole song. You can’t transition to another guitar after that, at least that’s what I find. The guitar you use is responsible for a big part of the sound world and musical vocabulary to have for a particular song.  

“It became the sound of the album and then I figured I should go out and buy a high-end one, so I did! But I still love that cheap Mexican thing; it has its own great sound. That’s the beauty of guitars, they’re all unique. Funnily enough, I went to see the Nick Mason show at the Roundhouse last week. It was fantastic... a complete Telecaster orgy! There’s Gary Kemp and Lee Harris playing these old Syd Barrett tunes and it just sounded so good. I was in Tele heaven.”

The ‘63 had some real bite when you plugged into your Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 5 on Even Less. What drew you to that amp?

“Again, it was another thing born out of necessity. It was in my studio at the same time as the Mexican Tele, it’s what I plugged into that day. The combination sounded so good, and a lot of the tracking for To The Bone was done just like that. The TubeMeister 5 has a thing called a Red Box on the back, which means you can bypass the speaker and record straight out. Purists might be up in horror about that, but you know what? It sounded great.

“I went to Daniel [Steinhardt] at TheGigRig and we started experimenting with a setup that had the little H&K almost as a pre-amp on stage, because I was so in love with the sound I got on the album. It didn’t quite work out; it doesn’t have the balls for a live context. I still wanted to use it somehow, so came up with the idea of me turning up on stage almost like a busker, carrying the amp with my Tele strapped over my shoulder. It actually became one of the highlights of the show - I loved doing that.”

(Image: © Future)

That said, you stuck with Bad Cat Lynx 50 as per for the rest of the set. A most loyal servant over the years...

“Yes, it’s such a beautiful piece of equipment. Those guys have been incredibly supportive of me. They’re a small company, they’re quite limited in resources yet they’ve been so helpful. I think everyone that hears that amp notices how good and organic it sounds. It’s old-school in a way. It’s glowing valves. There’s no substitute for that and air moving, is there? At least not for me!”

You’ve said you avoid getting too attached to instruments in the past, but what do you look for when buying guitars and how many do you own roughly?

“I don’t own as many as people would think. I’m not a guitar fetishist. I fall in love with music more than the tools to make it. I did make a joke onstage when I brought the ‘63 out, saying it was the first guitar I ever really loved. Which is kinda true!  

“I probably own about 8 Paul Reed Smiths (one is a baritone, one has a piezo, various models like that), one Strat which is fairly generic, a couple made by AlumiSonic that are beautiful and completely made of aluminium, really unique-sounding but hard to control live with a lot of feedback and reflection. So I’d say I have about 12 or 13 electric guitars… which might sound like a lot, but most guitarists I know have at least twice that, if not triple.

I don’t really understand the mechanics of guitars. What I do understand is if I get a buzz when I pick it up

“In terms of what I’m looking for, I’m just looking to be inspired. When it’s in your hands, you start to play it and hope to feel that inspiration. I don’t really understand the mechanics of guitars - all the pickups, different necks, et cetera. What I do understand is if I get a buzz when I pick it up. That’s all I’m looking for. When I went to the Fender Showroom to play all their guitars, the ‘63 was the one. I couldn’t tell you why. Someone who knows more could probably say it has this neck, these pickups, but all I can say is it gave me the feeling I needed.”

As for the pedalboard, is there anything new blowing your mind or making an appearance on Home Invasion?

“One thing I was really keen to get was a good phaser. I did a bit of research and realised the one I liked the best was the Electro-Harmonix Small Stone, but it’s one of those things where you have to get the right vintage because they changed the components right through the '70s and '80s. Different ones have different sounds - anyone who has Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène album will know exactly which one I was looking for made around 1974 to 75. Daniel managed to pick one up for me, so that’s in the rig now. It’s a real piece of vintage gear!

“I still have all the Strymon stuff for reverbs and delays; it’s the BigSky and TimeLine. I have a couple of Nano POGs because I need an octave up and an octave down for stuff off To The Bone. I changed my compressor - I have this one called the Cali76 made by a company called Origin Effects. They’ve very old school, it’s almost like a 1176 - the old Universal Audio rack compressors that everyone swears by in the studio. The rest is pretty much the same as before.”

What have been your favourite live releases over the years and what do you look for as a fan?

“One thing that puts me off a lot of live DVDs is that there is no cinematic quality to them. Bands feel like when they make something, it’s as easy as a couple of cameras out front, some close ups and filming in a very straight way. I find that a bit boring. My first concert film was Live In Pompeii, which is as cinematic as you can possibly get. It was that and the Sigur Rós one, shot in different locations through Iceland, which are really special to me.  

“Okay, I’m not in Pompeii or Iceland on this DVD, but what I did want to do is embrace those cinematic techniques like split-screen, images overlaying, slow-motion, blurring… things that feel more like a movie than a concert film. That’s what draws me in. If you are making people watch something for three hours, you’ve got to keep them pretty well entertained. I encouraged the editors to embrace those abstract filmic techniques.”

You’ve been working with Danish artist Lasse Hoile since 2002 and his twisted surrealism has been incorporated into your live shows...

“He comes from that tradition - dark surrealism like Francis Bacon. He’s also very influenced by the world of cinema, directors like David Lynch are very important to him. That manifests the stuff of nightmares, but not in a crass Hollywood horror way. It’s more insidious. It has a sense of nostalgia, some of it could be from the 19th century, like a Victorian ghost story with the use of dolls and grading the images to near sepia-like textures at times. When we did In Absentia, I thought he captured a perfect visual counterpoint to how the music sounded and that’s still the way I feel.”

Though the net between you and the audience felt very different this time round, especially on Song Of I...

“It’s not a net any more; it’s what is called a holographic screen. I used to use that net-like gauze, but the new one has a 3D effect and is also completely invisible when you don’t project anything on it. Funnily enough, one tour we would forget it was there and walk into it because it’s completely opaque, made of very fine silver threads… It was fucking expensive, I’ll tell you that!  

“But I think it was worth every penny because the quality of the images and jaw-dropping effects are incredible. I can see jaws literally dropping when that moment happens, because people have forgotten the screen is even there. It was a very good investment, actually!”

Was the inclusion of Porcupine Tree songs an easy decision? In that you are more successful and creative fulfilled than you’ve ever been... but there’s always someone somewhere crying to revisit the past?

I’m not aware of what people expect or want because I don’t read any comments on any social media

“Your question is perfectly valid, but it’s very hard for me to answer because I don’t think of them as Porcupine Tree songs. I think of them as my songs, Steven Wilson songs. We’ve even played a Blackfield song in our show too.

“I suppose there was a period immediately after the band when I started making the solo records where I was quite wary of playing that repertoire for fear that people may perceive my new career as a side-project. I’m pretty sure now everyone must realise this is what I do now. This is the future. There is no question of going back to my past. The work under my own name is what I do.  

“I feel more comfortable now drawing on my whole repertoire, across all the projects, but I’m not aware of what people expect or want because I don’t read any comments on any social media. I’m sure there’s a lot of noise about wanting a reunion, I’m sure there is, and that’s flattering in a way... people are attached to that trademark and that band. But for me, the solo project was a continuation of those songs. It’s all part of my catalogue. I feel more relaxed now about bringing them in. I don’t think people will think it’s a sign of any reunion, which they might have done early on.”

And, actually, the Porcupine Tree songs you chose were quite unexpected...

“I’m not looking for the obvious choices, rather songs I have my own attachment to. On this tour we did The Creator Has A Mastertape from In Absentia, which is a song Porcupine Tree never even played, or maybe only once or twice. No one liked it in the band except me… also it was a song that I felt the current band would rip and do something special with. Especially our drummer, Craig [Blundell], because he loves that pacey drum ’n’ bass vibe.  

“It’s not an obvious choice. I’m not just going back and picking the quote-unquote hits, not that we ever had any. But that and Sleep Together, they’re not obvious songs to do. It might be seen as trying to please the older fans, but actually I’m being quite selfish and self-indulgent.”

(Image: © Kevin Nixon/Future)

As on the recordings, Ninet Tayeb joins the band for Pariah, People Who Eat Darkness and Blank Tapes. What’s the secret to your musical partnership?

“She’s incredible. I can put her on stage, but the reason she blows everyone away is pure and simple. She’s incredibly gifted, I’m happy to give her the forum and there’s no question, she definitely enhances my music. The duets we’ve done I’m very proud of because it can be hard to write one with a man and woman; it can come across as cheesy and kitschy if you don’t get it right.”

You’ve always used world-class musicians in this solo band. What do you look for in a session player and how players make themselves more employable?

“One of things that’s most important has nothing to do with music at all. It’s about personality and chemistry. You’re going to spend several months of your life together on the road, you’ve got to be able to get on and be able to communicate together. There are a couple of guys I’ve had in the past where that wasn’t easy and I had problems. Great musicianship but very hard to communicate with and people I couldn’t honestly say I’d become friends with by the end of a tour. The guys in the current band get on so well; we are all good friends.

I do stress and get anxious about every aspect of the show, but it takes such a burden off my shoulders when I know everyone else involved is conscientious

“They all care almost as passionately as I do, from [long-serving guitar tech] Tonto Jhowry to the musicians. They’re all making the show as amazing as it can be. That means I can relax a lot more, I don’t have to worry about the details. I am a bit of a control freak, I do stress and get anxious about every aspect of the show, but it takes such a burden off my shoulders when I know everyone else involved is conscientious.

“They’re not just turning up to do the gig, they’re engaging with the importance aspects and details. From them to my sound guy Ian who has been with me for 20 years now, getting the best possible sound out of problematic rooms every night, they’ve been so essential to making it all work night after night.”

Even though 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) felt incredibly technical and improvised in places, it was always incredibly musical...

“My stuff isn’t super-hard to play, but it isn’t easy. It’s somewhere in the middle. You need chops to be in my band, but the one thing I can’t stand is shredding. I cannot abide and it has nothing to do with music and everything to do with sport. And music is not sport! It never should be. Being able to play fast has got nothing to do with my music at all.”

One of the struggles with Guthrie [Govan] was trying to get him to stop playing fast… because when he plays slowly, as everyone knows, he is sublime

“One of the struggles with Guthrie [Govan] was trying to get him to stop playing fast… because when he plays slowly, as everyone knows, he is sublime. But his natural setting is to play quite fast and shred. I had this kind of battle with him where I’d try to pull him back and say, ‘Play slower, play less notes…’ which he did absolutely beautifully when he did.  

“That’s the number one prerogative for me: every musician has to come in understanding the importance of playing slow, playing nothing, playing with space and feeling. They sound like really obvious things, but you’d be amazed at how many people and kids out there haven’t learned that lesson. Be creative, play with space, understand the importance of silence and be a nice person I can get on with and boss around, haha!”

You tend to target pentatonic notes on solos like The Same Asylum As Before, in a way that sounds like Jonny Greenwood jamming over a minor blues. What lead players inspired that kind of phrasing?

“I guess I like lead guitar lines that feel like an extension of the vocal melody. That sounds like an obvious thing to say, but if you’re the songwriter, you will write a solo that comes off the melodies you hear in your head like you do with your voice. That’s part of it.

“I grew up at a very interesting time, when contemporary music was post-punk and new romantic bands, from Depeche Mode to Japan to Talk Talk and The Cure or Joy Division. There was nothing clever about the way those guys played the guitar; it was all about texture, emotion and context.  

“At the same time, I was going back and discovering guys with a more organic, bluesy approach like David Gilmour, Andy Latimer from Camel, Robert Fripp, Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac. They played with this classical, post-Clapton and post-Hendrix bluesiness. Trying to analyse my style, I’d say it was somewhere in between and as a consequence of all of that. And the pop music back then was more textural, like the Cocteau Twins. Their guitar player Robin Guthrie was a big influence on me, using the guitar as textual element.  

“Later, the more brutal metal riffing came to play as well. I would be hearing what Mikael Åkerfeldt was doing in Opeth and then listening to stuff like Swans or that brutal King Crimson music where they played these very atonal chord clusters. I love that shit, too; John McLaughlin did a fair bit, too. People probably recognise David Gilmour in my playing more than Robert Fripp, but he’s somewhere in there, too!”

Home Invasion: In Concert at the Royal Albert Hall is available on 2 November via Eagle Rock.