Posted April 24, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Steven Wilson: No three-minute pop song

Steven Wilson, photo by Naki Kouyioumtzis
Steven Wilson, photo by Naki Kouyioumtzis

Singer-guitarist Steven Wilson formed the English prog rock band Porcupine Tree in the late ’80s and has slowly attained a cult following. While the band has been inactive for the past three years, Wilson has pursued a solo career and his new album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and other stories), evokes the psychedelic rock of the ’70s (and even features the same Mellotron that King Crimson used on In the Court of the Crimson King. Wilson recently phoned in from somewhere “between Atlanta and Philly” to discuss the album and his current tour.

What is like to tour and record on your own as opposed to with Porcupine Tree?
Well, on some levels, it’s been not dissimilar because with Porcupine Tree, it started as a solo project and became a band, but I retained control. I was the captain of that ship. When you’re in a band that’s a democratic unit, you don’t want to be forcing through ideas that your band mates don’t enjoy. When you’re in a band and you do all have a say, you look for common ground and that becomes a fairly narrow range. I don’t have that restriction with the work I do under my own name. Effectively, I’m hiring the other guys and they don’t’ have a say in the musical direction. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy the music, because they do. But there’s a sense that with my solo project, there’s a wider range of what I can do with the band.

The recording process for Raven seems like it was fairly intense.
The main thing for me was that I wanted to record it live. I don’t mean that I wanted to record it in a concert situation. I wanted to record it with the chemistry that you get when you have people interacting live. You don’t get that when you do things today and you get the drummer in for a week and the bass is in for a few days. You get control, but you lose the chemistry and electricity. With this record, I was determined to do it that way. That was a first for me. I have been so much of a control freak that I didn’t want to let go of that element of control you have doing it the other way. We went to California and we went into the studio for seven days in a row and rehearsed and recorded one piece of music a day. It was very fast and intense, but very exciting. It’s the way people used to do it. I wanted to get back to that organic, naturalistic way of recording music.

And what inspired the theme?
The album is based on the idea of a book of short stories. It’s a multimedia project. It was conceived as an album of music but it was also a book of short stories and the special edition is a 128-page hardback book with some stories and some lyrics and some illustrations. Each song is like a self-contained supernatural classical ghost story. There’re not modern horror stories; they’re like the Gothic ghost stories you would associate with the early 20th century or even late 19th century. They have that fairytale quality to them. They are stories about things that are human obsessions such as fear of death and loss of death. Each song is about characters facing something to do with their own mortality.

What brought about that approach? Were you reading lots of Edgar Allan Poe?
I did read Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, but [my main inspiration] was a school of British writers that came about 50 years later. They have a more British sensibility that’s slightly more stuffy and intellectual.  I started writing some stories inspired by that kind of approach. They have a sense of understated dread in their stories. They’re less obviously shocking. There’s more brooding sense of dread that runs through them. I kind of tapped into that.

How was working with Alan Parsons, the album’s producer?
That was great. I wanted to record live in the studio and one of the concerns was the need to have an engineer. If realized if I was going to do this live in the studio and be part of the process, that for the first time ever I couldn’t supervise the recording process. I wanted to dedicate myself to being the producer and being the musical director. I needed an engineer and I needed a good one and one that was familiar with what I was trying to do. I wanted that organic ’70s sound. I love the quality that albums from that era have. I don’t like the sound of most modern records, including my own. I was looking for someone who was experienced and he was top of my list. He worked with Beatles and Pink Floyd. He made this string of beautiful sounding records with his own band. We called him up and he knew who I was and even liked my work and from there it was a straightforward thing to get him on board. I could relax about that whole side of the process with the knowledge that someone was doing a fantastic job.

You don’t play a Mellotron, you do battle with a Mellotron.

How’d you end up working with King Crimson’s old Mellotron?
[Crimson guitarist] Robert Fripp is a friend of mine. He’s had it in his studio for the last 30 years. I asked him about it and went down there and had the parts written out. I was going to sub what I had done on a sample Mellotron with the real thing. I didn’t expect it to be that much of a difference. The Mellotron itself is almost like a proto sampler, but I was blown away by how different it was. It’s hard to play and his is almost 50 years old. You don’t play a Mellotron, you do battle with a Mellotron. You have to use physical force. It was tough but it was a thrill to play such a legendary instrument and the sound of it was a “shivers-up-the-spine” kind of moment.

Prog rock gets a bad rap. Why is that?
Does it still get a bad rap? I think that’s disappeared with the exception of the mainstream media. I’ve been making music you might call progressive rock for 20 years now and I remember as recently as five years ago that what you said was true, and you would get a sneer or snickering. That’s gone. Most people who call themselves music lovers are quite prepared to admit that Dark Side of the Moon or Close to the Edge or Aqualung are classic albums just as worthy as any other classic album. There’s a new generation of bands that embrace the ideas whether it’s Radiohead or Sigur Rós  or The Mars Volta. These guys are quite prepared to come out and say, “Yeah, sure, we love progressive rock.” I include myself in that category. I’ve never been ashamed to admit my love for bands like King Crimson. There is still this very small area that is an influential one which is the mainstream media. They are resistant for commercial reasons . . . because of the length of some of the pieces. It’s about musicianship and not how good you look in a bikini. It’s probably not the most visually sexy music. You only have to look at generational or reappraisal of Rush in the past five or six years. They’re on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time in their career and that’s symptomatic of how that type of music is coming back now.

 If you provide the alternative to what is in the mainstream, you find there is an audience for that.

What’s been the key to sustaining your career?
The answer is quite simple. It is basically word of mouth. If you provide the alternative to what is in the mainstream, you find there is an audience for that. There are people looking for something that they can engage with on a deeper level. Nowadays it’s easier to discover that music through the Internet. File sharing is not the greatest thing for a working musician but I have to acknowledge that without file sharing, my following would be much smaller. It’s partially sheer bloody persistence. I’ve never been embraced by commercial radio but people recommend the music to friends and discover it and turn other people onto it. That process continues.

What first got you playing music?
It was the idea of the album. When I say that I mean it as a musical journey. I have to thank my parents and the parents I listened to as a kid. My dad would bring home Tubular Bells and Dark Side of the Moon. No one called it progressive rock at the time, it was just underground rock or art rock. My mother was listening to classic disco albums — we’re talking late ’70s — some of which were musical journeys. I remember hearing Donna Summer’s Love to Love You and the title track took up the whole first side. It was this disco symphony. I got turned on to the idea that you could use the album in the same way that a filmmaker would use a film or a writer would use a novel. Music didn’t have to be three-minute pop song. You could do the long form movie or long form story or long form album. Ultimately, I fell in love with the idea of being a producer or musical director rather than a musician per se.

Upcoming 2013 US Tour Dates 











New York City, NY – Best Buy Theater

Boston, MA – Berklee Performance Center

Albany, NY – Upstate Music Hall

Pittsburgh, PA – Mr Small’s

Cleveland, OH – House of Blues Cleveland

Chicago, IL – Park West

Minneapolis, MN – The Fine Line

Boulder, CO – Boulder Theater

San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore

Los Angeles, CA – Club Nokia



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].