Steven Wilson: “Every time I go on stage, I can get shot”

The musician says he feared for his life more than once. In addition, he talks about everything: suicide, abortion, the challenges of recording “To the bone” and his upcoming projects. Exclusive interview.

By Fabrizio Pedrotti (@F_Pedrotti), for Rock.com.ar.

Note: this interview was originally published in Spanish. Read that non-translated version by clicking here

“I feel like I’m singing better than ever,” says Steven Wilson behind the phone, from his room in Mexico. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon there, and in a few minutes he will go to face soundcheck and to play another from of the “To the bone” tour (2017), which will bring him to Buenos Aires on Friday, May 25th.

But regardless of he himself praising his voice, in his words there are no egomania or vanity. His most recent album is full of falsettos, and for him, having achieved it was quite a challenge. “It’s my most challenging album, at least from that point”, he adds. “The muscles that intervene in the voice are the same as any part of the body, and the more you use it, the more you stretch and challenge it, the stronger it gets”.

It would be impossible to mention all the studio records that Wilson recorded, but we will try. Just counting the long-duration of his most outstanding projects, we have about ten from Porcupine Tree, eleven from Bass Communion, six from No-Man, one from Storm Corrosion, five from Blackfield and another five as a soloist.

We must also add other projects as IEM, Continuum, Karma and Altamont; EP’s, compilations, covers, singles, demos, reeditions, box sets, collaborations, DVD’s and live discs; plus the remixes of classics by Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson, Tears for Fears, Chicago and Marillion.

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On the Discogs platform, 890 releases carry officially his name, while another 1,500 still are waiting for approval. Inside Steven Wilson there is progressive rock, pop, drone doom, dub, metal and electronic music. If he is not the most prolific contemporary artist, he is not too far. Therefore, it’s not a minor issue that when he says “To the bone” was the most challenging job of his life.

-Why did you decide to record so many falsettos on this album?

-When I was writing the songs, in 2016, Prince died. He was my child hero, and I even had posters of him. He used that technique a lot, in addition to artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, who had done it before. Prince, being a black musician, appropriated that, and there are singles like “Kiss” in which he sings everything like that. When he died, I began to listen carefully to his music, and to re-experience what I felt when his records came out. Maybe I’m not a black funky-guy from Minneapolis, but singing like that is a way to keep myself evolving.

-For you, another challenge was to record face to face with Ninet Tayeb, in songs like “Pariah”.

-Yes, it was very complicated, because all the vocal recordings of my career had been done in my studio, without anyone seeing me. I never trusted in me as a singer, so I found it very scary, first of all because of Paul Stacey -the producer- but also because of Ninet, who is extraordinary. I understand why Paul pushed me to that: you achieve something that doesn’t happen when you are in a controlled and lonely environment. Hopefully it reflects on the album.

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-How many takes did you do facing Ninet?

-(Meditates and laughs). Uh… I don’t even want to think about it, but as many as I could before driving her crazy! Something like ten, although with a song like that, spontaneity gets lost quickly. That’s why we ended up choosing one of the first takes: although it was not perfect, it had the magic that we were looking for.

-“To the bone” starts with a message that was left by an African-American teacher on your telephone. How did she feel when she found out she was going to appear on the album?

-She’s a neighbor and a very close friend, and she was surprised and very anxious. If you never participated in something like that, it must be exciting. Also, the first thing you hear is her voice. She already told me that her acquaintances and her students were excited, so she became the star of her school (laughs).

THE EXPERIENCE OF THE LIVE SHOW

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-“People who eat darkness” has a video that you only project in concert. Do you plan to release it when the tour ends?

-I guess so. Today people want everything to be instantly, and during the ’80s and’ 90s it was impossible for fans to see those clips outside the shows. I like that when you come to my concerts, you find things that are not anywhere else, and you get something exclusive and special in exchange for your ticket. I prefer people coming to my show and experiencing them in their own ambience, in the context for which they were made.

-The album ends with “Song of unborn”, which talks about “bringing a child into the world”. You already wrote a lot about it, but this song is much more positive.

-Yeah, and it’s also anti-religion. For religions it is good to suffer in life, because you supposedly go and find God after death. I do not believe in that shit, for me those are fairy tales.”Song of unborn” invites you to “embrace” life, and basically I point out that the world is broken, but that we can do something extraordinary with ourselves. In my case I can look around and feel that I made people happy writing songs, but there are millions of ways to generate constructive, useful and profound impacts. It’s an important message for young people in an overpopulated planet like this, and in which so many bad things happen. We all have the opportunity to do amazing things.

-We already spoke about religion and unborn babies. So what do you think about abortion?

-I’m pro-choice, I think women should decide whether to have their child or not. Obviously, if pregnancy is interrupted, it’s best to do it as soon as possible. But I do not think that a fetus has life until it’s born. It makes me sad that there are many people discussing abortion, but that there is no awareness of the other creatures with whom we share the planet. I am much more interested, for example, in the animal rights. I’m a vegetarian, and I know that our race is just one of the millions that exist. Everyone has the same right to enjoy this planet, but we as humans act and go back and forth as if we have a divine power. We treat animals much worse than we treat ourselves.

SUICIDE AND DEATH THREATS

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-In “Even less” (from Porcupine Tree) you sampled numbers from The Conet Project, and you kind of repeated that in your solo career, in songs like “Home invasion”, “Ancestral” and “Index”. What were you referring to?

-“Even less” is very special for me, because I can play it with a guitar and a piano and it still works. This is going to horrify the fans, but I regret that it was so long! That’s why I know play it in a “song format”, only me and my guitar. I recorded myself the numbers of “Home invasion” and “Ancestral” , and they are part of a puzzle that is hidden in “Hand. Cannot. Erase.” (2015), with which you can discover what happens to the character, if you have the special edition. But I think nobody solved it yet, because it’s very hidden. As for “Index”, I started listening to transmissions of the Shockwave Radio and looking for random elements. I wanted the song not to be predictable, and to generate confusion. It makes sense, because that lyric talks about a very obsessive and troubled guy.

-Now that you mention it, you recently said that you have some fans obsessed with your figure. Does that scares you?

-Yeah, it does. There are a lot of disturbing people, and unfortunately, some of them listen to my music … (thinks). Meh, I’m really happy to be heard by them, but it’s problematic when those things go together. A few years ago I received a death threat, and at first I didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. With those things you can’t be unaware, so we hired extra security for that show, which was in 2015 in Philadelphia.

-Where did you receive the death threat?

-Through a series of posts on my social networks. Maybe the guy was offended by some of my lyrics, or he was an extreme fanatic who didn’t like that record -in reference to “Hand. Cannot. Erase”-. Whatever the reason was, obviously it didn’t justify killing me. We were very scared, and finally we gave it the importance it deserved: that day I didn’t go out to meet the fans, I stayed all the time in my dressing room and we hired specialists to look for knives and guns. Paranoia is involved in everyone because we already live a lot of situations like this, particularly in the United States, with attacks in schools and other places.

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Wilson adds: “As a musician I feel more and more vulnerable every day, because every time I get on stage, I can get shot. We all can be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. But what am I going to do?”.

-I suppose you remember the cases of Dimebag Darrell (Pantera) and John Lennon.

-Totally. There was also a Mexican singer named Selena who was killed by a fan. The other side of the coin are the fans who love you so much that they want to be your best friends. There are even people with my face tattooed, and I find it quite strange. On one hand it is very flattering, but on the other I feel that they went too far (laughs). If someone gets my face tattooed, it’s a borderline obsession. They may love my music, but what do they want from me? That’s the question.

-Many songs from you and from Porcupine Tree mention suicide, such as “The sleep of no dreaming”, “Prodigal” and “Way out of here”. Did you ever feel like killing yourself?

-Honestly, never. It’s something that fortunately I didn’t go through. My family and I are quite “cold”, and we do not feel extreme emotions. Those who know me know that I’m always in a stable range, that I never became overly happy or overly depressed. It does not mean that it is not sensitive: I am very emotional, and you can notice it in my lyrics. I did meet people who suffered from depression, who had those thoughts and even killed themselves … but suicide is something I do not fully understand. In my lyrics I always tried to address things that I do not fully understand, being serial killers, depression, religions or terrorism. I try to write songs to discern them. That’s why suicide appears so much in my subjects: because I do not understand that impulse.

-And what do you think that happens when we die?

-Nothing. The best thing is that we have 70, 80, 90 years to make sense of life, and it’s such a positive thing! When we die, we leave a living legacy. It can be through our family; some creative work (such as songs, movies or paintings) or having made progresses in medicine. In logical terms, I do not think there is anything after death. It sounds depressing, but the positive thing is that we value more the life they gave us.

THERE ARE STILL MORE RELEASES COMING OUT!

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A few months ago it was announced that Steven Wilson was going to record a Blu-Ray and DVD at the Royal Albert Hall, at the end of March. “We hired Eagle Rock, who worked with artists from The Rolling Stones to Iggy Pop. Playing three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, in my hometown (London), was stressful enough to worry about the recording -explains Wilson from the other side of the phone-. I’ve seen the first advances and it’s amazing, absolutely beautiful. Now I’m working on the sound, I’m mixing it myself. It will exceed the standards of the DVDs that I released earlier, with Porcupine Tree and as a soloist. It’s going to be called ‘Steven Wilson’s Home Invasion – Live at the Royal Albert Hall’, and I think it’s going to be out between October and November”.

In addition, in 2017 was released “Last day of june”, a video game that featured his soundtrack. The paradox is that ten years earlier, in songs like “Fear of a blank planet” (2007), the artist criticized the games and especially the Xbox. “My original thinking did not change”, he explains when asked about it. “I still believe that humanity goes too far playing with computers and living in an imaginary world. But when I saw what ‘Last day of june’ was like, my head opened up. I didn’t know that you could do that, my perception was that it was all about killing zombies and driving cars. I discovered a category called ‘Games beyond entertainment’, in which they generate something more creative, artistic and emotional. This game is like a movie, with the difference that the player is the character. It was a pride to be part of it”.

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-Your tenth remix of Jethro Tull recently came out, regarding the album “Heavy horses” (1978). Are you going to continue with “Stormwatch” (1979)?

-I don’t know if I’m going to have time. I already remixed “This was” (1968), the first one, and it will be released soon. I’m very busy nowadays, and I even started to write my next album, which I want to record this year. I do not think I’m going to work on “Stormwatch”, but I’m sure they’ll find someone else, because those have been very successful releases.

-How was to work with “This was”? I imagine the conditions were totally different than those from the later discs.

-It was incredible, and one of the most interesting things was to work under those limitations. How do you remix a four-channel tape into 5.1? Of course there are digital tools, but it was a challenge. I did things to that record that generated a very immersive experience. I was very limited, but ironically it sounds fantastic in surround.

 -Any news about the Porcupine Tree reissues?
-Yes, in two or three years I would like to launch some special versions of “In absentia” (2002) and “Deadwing” (2005), with three or four CD’s. I have my sketches of the songs, demos of tracks that did not end up on the records, live material, B sides, things that we did in those periods, videos, surround remixes … a lot of material. I would also add texts about the recording, photographs and so on. Those are going to be huge projects, so I hope that people hold on until they come out.

-And what can you tell us about your upcoming solo album?

-I wrote three or four songs. I’m just going to say that it’s going to be completely different again (laughs). “To the bone” involved a lot of evolution, and I will go even further now. I hope it’s just as creative and that people enjoy it. I still listen to a lot of Prince, so it’s going to have influence from him, but I also loved the last albums of The War on Drugs, Cigarettes After Sex and Max Richter, apart from lots of electronic music. I don’t know if it’s going to be conceptual, because you notice that when you are more into the composition process. Unlike “Hand. Cannot. Erase. “, I don’t think it will have an overall narrative, but I still write about the current world. So from that perspective, all the songs are going to be contained within the same structure.

Steven Wilson will play on Friday, May 25 at Groove (Av. Santa Fe 4389), Buenos Aires, Argentina. The last tickets can be obtained at ARS 1.665 through Ticketek.

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