sat 13/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Wilson on Porcupine Tree, 'The Harmony Codex' and electro-dominance | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Wilson on Porcupine Tree, 'The Harmony Codex' and electro-dominance

theartsdesk Q&A: Steven Wilson on Porcupine Tree, 'The Harmony Codex' and electro-dominance

Travelling not arriving drives the reluctant prog star onto fresh musical terrains

Steven Wilson: 'A lot of the important things in my life are things I never intended'Hajo Mueller

This September Steven Wilson issued The Harmony Codex, his seventh solo record in 16 years. Though rooted in mortal concerns and alert to real-world dangers, this radiant suite of electronically textured songs is so dreamily redolent of movement it makes you (or me, anyway) think of astral journeys. Not the space rock variety but those taken across the plains and through the valleys and canyons and cities, some of them ruined, of private inland empires.

Though Wilson, 56, has plenty to talk about, the prospect of interviewing him comes fraught with anxiety. It raises the possibility that the solo experimentalist, musical polymath, and remixer extraordinaire might admit the career of Porcupine Tree, the legendary trio he has led as its singer-guitarist since 1987, is finally kaput. As if the title of their 11th studio offering, 2022’s Closure/Continuation, wasn’t tantalising enough for Tree diehards.

Wilson appears via Zoom behind his specs and against a bank of decks and consoles in his home studio in London. If I didn’t know he was a (very reluctant) neo-prog, or post-prog, or electro-prog icon, I might think he was an elegant young university don.

Mercifully, he volunteers early during our conversation – timed to the release this month of the group’s Closure/ Continuation. Live album and concert film Blu-ray – that Porcupine Tree is, if not his main focus, at least in limbo. Fans who hope Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, and drummer Gavin Harrison might one day reconvene to make more ardent swathes of driving, sumptuously layered rock can sleep easily, tonight anyway.

(Pictured above: Richard Barbieri, Steven Wilson, Gavin Harrison pictured backstage at Porcupine Tree's filmed concert at Amsterdam's Ziggo Dome, 7 November, 2022, on which they were accompanied by guitarist Randy McStine and bassist Nate Navarro. This photo and those below: Carl Glover)

GRAHAM FULLER: What do you think of the Manic Street Preachers’ remix of “Economies of Scale” from The Harmony Codex?

STEVEN WILSON: I love it. I wouldn't have released it if I didn't like it [laughs]. Believe me, I’ve had a few remixes done that I didn't like, and they're not gonna be released. But this one is terrific. Talk about reimagining the original material, which is what you want in a way…

Their angular guitar sound helps bring out the tonalities of your voice in different ways to your mix.

Yeah. My version is like an electronic soul ballad. That's kinda what I was going for. They've reimagined it as a sort of rock guitar anthem. It’s so inspiring.

Whose voice is that keening along at the back of the mix?

It’s all me on that track. The album spans solo performances to quite large ensembles and everything in between. But "Economies” was very intimate. It was one of those tracks that resisted me adding a lot to it. Every time I tried to, it kind of got worse, you know? It was one of those tracks where the less I added to it, the more emotional it felt. 

You’ve just released the album and concert film from Porcupine Tree’s 2022 Closure/Continuation tour. Does it shut the door on the band’s history as a live act? 

I would never say never, but the whole idea of that album was to try to get some sense of completion and closure, if indeed it would be that. When we stopped playing in 2010, there wasn't really an intention to stop at all. We just went off and did other things. And then that year grew into two years, five years, 10 years. I myself was to blame for that. I wasn't really interested in the band for a long time. I was more interested in my solo career. I think the whole Closure/Continuation cycle has given us the opportunity to come back and make something that could stand as a more definitive closure to the whole Porcupine Tree concept and project. That's not to say that we might not still come back and do something again another time, but I think if we didn't then the live film is as good as any way of signing off and saying, “This is what we did. This is pretty much us at the top of our game, playing to very large audiences that we didn’t play to 10, 12 years ago."

We came back last year and found ourselves with a much bigger fan base than we'd ever had during our so-called imperial phase. It was lovely to be able to see the music connecting with such large crowds. I think there were about 17,000 people at the show we filmed, which was crazy. I think it recognized that, as Porcupine Tree, we did create our own instantly recognizable sound and did have an impact. But, of course, we paid the price for that, too, because if you are unique, what you do doesn't fit in, and it takes years sometimes for the music to proliferate and reach that kind of audience. I think part of the tour was seeing that whole process in effect.

To my ears, there's synergy between Closure/Continuation and The Harmony Codex. I’ve found myself switching between the two records easily, stylistically different though they are. I think that’s partially because the lyrics of the songs on both albums engage with world issues. There’s an end-of-times vibe about them that resonates with the short story in your autobiography about a boy's quest for his sister in a never-ending skyscraper after a terrorist attack. Was that story the direct inspiration for The Harmony Codex?

I've always been fascinated by dystopian sci-fi and ghost stories. The idea was to try to finish the book with a piece of fiction that would reveal as much about me as any of the autobiographical material. It's interesting that you draw parallels between the two albums in terms of lyrics, because there are certain obsessions and subjects I come back to time and time again. I think the idea was to try to encapsulate a lot of those things in the short story: the sense of the surreal and the dreamlike, that vague boundary between dream and reality and how sometimes one can very easily tip into the other. I don't think I intended to base an album on the story. But having written it, it seemed like the perfect place to start taking some of the themes from. This idea of the never-ending staircase as a metaphor for life. 

Without pushing to be too pretentious about it, there’s the idea that very often it's the journey that becomes important, not the arrival. I'm in my fifties now and have a very different perspective on life than I did when I started in the industry. One of the things I recognize is that you can have all these dreams and goals and ambitions when you are young, but actually what becomes the most important thing is the process of trying to arrive at those goals and ambitions. You rarely arrive, but the journey is what makes it fascinating and fulfilling – you know, the struggle. I acknowledge to myself now, at the age I'm at, that a lot of the important things in my life are things I never intended, but I embrace them and they've actually become the most special things, if that makes sense. 

Does this idea of the journey also apply to the making of a song?

Very much. I describe everything I've ever done, and I don't mean this in a facetious way (but it is a little bit tongue in cheek), as a failure. Because everything you do, no matter how proud you are of it, it never quite matches up to what you heard in your head. I'm sure that's true of writers, filmmakers, painters. You have a vision of something in your mind and you try to create it, but there is a sense that you are always doomed to fail and are never going to achieve that utopian ideal. It’s never gonna be quite as awesome as you imagined it. And I think that is a part of what keeps me going forward and making records – the idea that there's always room to improve and always something better or different left to be achieved. That's driven me on for 30 years now and applies to Porcupine Tree and my solo career. I'm still learning, still getting better, still getting a little bit closer to that end goal but probably will never quite reach it. And this brings us back to the metaphor of the never-ending staircase. 

“Impossible Tightrope” on The Harmony Codex is an epic piece galvanized by these blazing Led Zep-like guitar chords that return at the end. I read recently, however, that you are currently more interested in the potential of synthesizers than guitars. Is that true?

Yeah. I think what I'm doing is only reflecting the age that I’m operating in now. The 21st century is not the era of the guitar. It's fascinating to me as a student of music to follow its trajectory. The first half of the 20th century was dominated by jazz and big band music. That was the pop music of the day. Then rock 'n' roll came along in the Fifties and essentially banished jazz to the underground to become a cult form of music. Rock music completely dominated the rest of the 20th century. I’d say that since then what has been completely dominant has been electronic music in its myriad forms, including urban music and dance music.

For musicians like me, the guitar seems like a slightly exhausted instrument in terms of being able to do anything new with it. With my very limited talents, there’s nothing I can do on a guitar that hasn't been done before. Generally speaking, I think the sound of the rock band – the traditional guitar, bass, drums format – is exhausted as regards being innovative and making people say, “Wow, I've never heard that before.” It’s almost impossible, I find. But there are lots of possibilities now with electronic music, not only synthesizers but the whole world of computer recording plugins. There are many different ways now to twist, manipulate, and process sound in the computer, which is creating a new, exciting musical vocabulary. The Harmony Codex sounds like a rock album, and there are guitars on it, but essentially it's an album born out of the fact that we live now in the age of computer technology. 

How does composing music differ for you as a solo artist compared with composing it as part of Porcupine Tree? Is it the freedom of working outside a band that appeals to you primarily?

There's freedom in more than one way. There's three of us in Porcupine Tree. We all have our own style, our own personality, and there's a little part in the middle of the Venn diagram of these three circles where they intersect, and that is the recognizable sound of Porcupine Tree. Having a sound is a wonderful thing. It's what all the great bands have had over the years – this strong, unique personality that comes through in everything you do, but it's also by definition a limitation. When I work as a solo artist, the only limitation is myself because I'm the only [constant] from track to track.

On The Harmony Codex, I almost created a bespoke band for each single piece of music. Being able to change the scenery around you – the musical vocabulary, the performers around you with their personalities – is like being a kid in a sweet shop. I'm in a very fortunate position to be able to reach out to these great musicians, and I love the freedom to create these little musical worlds on a track by track basis and write on the keyboard as well, you know? Porcupine Tree primarily still writes on the guitar because my role in the band is the guitar player. It was from fairly early on. I predominantly wrote The Harmony Codex messing about with analog synthesizers, which is something I would never have done in Porcupine Tree because Richard [Barbieri] is the band’s keyboard wizard and rightfully so. So, yes, there’s a completely different set of rules for my solo work, which has the potential to be more eclectic. I'm not necessarily saying that's a better thing but for me it's definitely more fulfilling at this point in my career. 

Over the years, certain Porcupine Tree songs, including "Blackest Eyes", "Fear of a Blank Planet", "Anaesthetize" obviously, and "Trains", emerged as, for want of a better term, the band’s greatest hits. You played them all on the tour. As a musician who keeps experimenting, how do you manage the expectations of fans who’ll want to keep hearing those songs? 

This is a very big subject. My basic rule of thumb is that if you're not upsetting some fans, you're probably not doing the right thing. At the risk of sounding pompous, the whole idea of being an artist is essentially to continue to evolve creatively and please oneself. It's a very self-indulgent thing to be an artist because you don't want to cross over into becoming an entertainer. There's nothing wrong with being an entertainer, but if you do what people expect you to do, to me that's the opposite of what being an artist is. Artists essentially are people that have this need to create and a need to satisfy themselves. And yet that doesn't preclude them from then going out and trying to share the music with as many other people as possible and wanting to see it reflected back at them in the mirror. It’s an ego thing, you know?

And I have to say, I still have no idea what makes some tracks become, as you say, the greatest hits and others fall by the wayside. They're not my favourites very often. "Trains" was a song we didn't even play on the first leg of the In Absentia tour [2002-05] we thought so little of it [laughs]. Not to say that we didn't think it was good, but we didn't think it had anything like the potential to appeal. Sometimes it surprises you which tracks gain traction and resonate best with the fan base. Sometimes your favourite songs are ones that seem to miss completely and that surprises me, too.

The expression “Impossible Tightrope” comes from this very idea. It an impossible tightrope to walk pleasing your fans and continuing to honour your own creativity. There are people that have managed to do it – your Bowies, your [Pink] Floyds – who continued to be creative and evolve while still keeping faith with their fans. But it's extremely hard. In the short term, people will tell you that everything you're doing is wrong. In the longer term, I think the quality of work prevails. Over a period of time, if listeners have respect for an artist and are fans, they will give the artist the benefit of the doubt. They’ll continue to listen and try to understand and decode what the artist has given them, and very often those albums become the fans’ favourites in the end. But sometimes it does need that process to unroll before things fall into place.

Why do you frown upon the term progressive rock?

Firstly, like any label, it's a gross simplification. The Harmony Codex, for example, has elements of electronic music, ambient music, jazz, industrial rock, pop, folk. Why reduce it all to one generic trope? The second answer is that progressive rock, like punk, has become a label for something that is actually the antithesis of what the word is supposed to mean. Punk was this idea that anybody could play. In fact, the less you could play the better. And it had a very searching outsider equality. But it became this very smooth, polished, and record company-controlled sound, and you ended up with bands like Blink 182 calling themselves punk. This – to me, anyway – was the antithesis of what punk was. 

The same thing had occurred with progressive rock. Progressive used to mean creating new hybrids from music that wasn't supposed to go together – classical music and rock, or jazz and rock. And then in the post-Marillion era – and I like Marillion, I'm not including them in this – progressive rock started to mean making a record that sounds like Genesis in 1972, which, of course, is the antithesis of progressive. That is regressive. I'd be the first to admit that I've paid homage to that era myself. The Raven That Refused to Sing was my homage to classic Seventies progressive rock. But it was a one-off for me, and I felt that having done that I wanted to look forward, not backwards.

What’s your next project?
It’s to try to tour The Harmony Codex. I'm booking it now and starting to think about production and set list and presentation. I’d love to present it in spatial audio and have speakers all around the audience. I hadn't factored in a tour as something I would do immediately. Once the album was out, I said to myself, “I'm gonna wait and see how it goes down, how it resonates.” It's quite a challenging thing for people to get to grips with, but they do seem to like it.

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