Steven Wilson: ‘I don’t think we live in the world of rock music any more’

Steven Wilson might these days find himself challenging the likes of Celeste and Harry Styles in the upper reaches of the charts but at 53, it seems the mainstream has found its way to him, rather than vice-versa.

Steven Wilson

“To be honest I still feel at the periphery of the mainstream,” says the former singer and guitarist with progressive rock group Porcupine Tree, now a solo artist. “You’re not going to see me on Later with Jools Holland or hear me on Radio 2.

“I think the music press have almost grudgingly accepted that I’m worth writing about, but I still feel what you might call the archetypal underground musician. I think the fact that I get into the charts is testament to the strength of the fanbase, which is incredible.”

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With a back catalogue of more than 20 albums – including seven with No-Man, the art-pop group he formed with Tim Bowness – Wilson has built his audience via word of mouth. “Even though there is a frustration that I’m largely locked out of areas of mainstream pop culture, I’m very happy that my audience is very loyal,” he says. “They haven’t come to me through any hype, they’re not fickle and they’ve stuck with me through several different musical changes, which is also quite unusual.”

Wilson describes The Future Bites as the least guitar-orientated record he has made. “I’d feel myself increasingly boring myself whenever I picked up a guitar,” he says. “I’m not the world’s greatest guitar player anyway, I’m very limited, but when it got to the point where I couldn’t do anything on the guitar that would excite myself then I realised it was time to look at a different musical palate. I also believe, it’s fair to say, that we live in a very electronic world now, it’s constantly around us. Whether it’s coming from our phone or our laptop or even our doorbell chime, we’re surrounded by electronic sound now, and I don’t think we live in the world of rock music any more.

“I think the sound of rock music perfectly defined the sound of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps in the way that jazz music, which was the mainstream pop music of the early part of the 20th century defined that era. Rock music seems to me that it’s disappearing from mainstream pop culture and part of me is depressed by that, I come from that tradition, I grew up with rock music, but I’m also excited by the fact that music continues to evolve, to change, and new possibilities are always available. I’m excited more by the possibilities that electronic music presents to me in the 21st century than I am by the guitar.”

The central concept of The Future Bites revolves around modern consumerism and questions of identity in the digital age. It was inspired by a contractor for Amazon who Wilson got talking to in a bar. “He was hired by Amazon to look at why people put things in their shopping baskets but don’t check out,” he explains. “Originally I thought to myself ‘what a bizarre job to have’ and then later on I thought, ‘No, that makes perfect sense that that would be a job because that kind of thing must cost companies like Amazon billions of dollars every year. All of these companies are well aware that we’ve done that, they know we’ve put things in our shopping baskets that we’re not going to transact. But it got me thinking more broadly about the fact there are algorithms that are constantly analysing and aware of our internet footprint and are using that information to encourage us to buy things, to believe things, to vote for people, to watch things, to listen to things.

“These things now are entirely governed not by human beings but by algorithms that have been created by human beings – and that’s a scary thing to acknowledge. As someone who grew up reading science fiction novels written in the mid-20th century about how artificial intelligence is one day going to explain the human race, I’m finding myself living in a world where I can pretty much say that’s what’s happening, and it’s a scary thing to have to acknowledge to oneself.”

Steven Wilson

Nonetheless Wilson seems to have accepted that such developments are here to stay. “There’s definitely an element of once Pandora’s box is open,” he concedes. “As someone who actually loves a lot of stuff about the internet – listen, I love to go shopping, who doesn’t? – so there is also a sense of it being a love letter to the modern world of consumerism and technology, so it’s schizophrenic in that sense, part of it is positive and the other half is aware of the more insidious sides of modern technology. We’re essentially all enslaved now to our devices in a very willing kind of way, and I include myself in that. I use a lot of technology, I love what it’s done for me as a professional musician, I love the way I can reach my listeners immediately through social media in a way that I never could have done in previous eras – previously I would have had to post newsletters at great expense and time and effort, now instantly I can reach hundreds of thousands of people in a single moment, but at the same time I do acknowledge the downsides of the way it’s changing the course of human evolution in a way.”

The song Personal Shopper features a monologue by Sir Elton John. Wilson was inspired to contact the pop legend after watching his biopic, Rocketman. “Right at the end there’s one of those pre-credit sequences and when they get to Elton it says, ‘Meanwhile Elton has kicked all of his addictions except for one’, and then there’s a picture of Elton with all the shopping,” he says. “It was a lightbulb moment. ‘Elton John is the most famous shopper on Earth – this cannot fail, I have to get him on this’. Luckily for me, he also loved the idea and he totally got it and he understands that he’s sending himself up but in a very affectionate way. He knew that I was a big fan. To cut a long story short, he was delightful and very engaged with it. We worked together on creating the list that he was happy to read, which is as close as I’ll get to be able to say I’ve written a song with Elton John, but I kind of did. I was very lucky to have someone that had worked with him and could get the track to him, and he totally got it.”

As an avowed pop fan, Wilson has enjoyed being asked to create a number of 5.1 surround sound mixes of classic albums by the likes of Tears For Fears, Roxy Music, XTC, King Crimson and Yes. “I’m very honoured to be involved in these reissue projects where the artists or the management or the record company are looking for a new take on an old classic, and one thing I do is surround sound mixes, 5.1 and Dolby Atmos,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of fun deconstructing and reconstructing these albums that are a big part of my growing up and my musical DNA.”

He has also produced a one-of-a-kind, ‘Ultra Deluxe’ edition of The Future Bites, that sold for £10,000. The proceeds were to the Music Venue Trust. Wilson felt it important to remember grassroots venues at a time when many are struggling due to the Covid pandemic. “This is the world that I came through,” he says. “Never being a mainstream artist and always having to exist in a way outside of the mainstream, smaller venues and even some of the medium-sized ones that I do now, this was my passage to where I’ve arrived at now. It’s so sad for me to see so many of these small venues now potentially going under or having already gone under because that was how I created my career, by building up an audience very much in the old-fashioned way through gigging. Somebody would see a show and they’d love it and the next time around they’d come back and bring all their friends with them. That kind of organic way of building up a following was only possible because of grassroots level venues, so I really felt terrible about that and I wanted to do something and the joy was being able to combine in a way the conceptual side of what I was doing with something useful for those venues.”

It’s a decade since Wilson put Porcupine Tree on hold to pursue a solo career. He seems to have no regrets, despite the band having built up a sizeable following. “I’m very good at shooting myself in the foot,” he says. “I know it sounds pompous to say but I’m driven by need to create music and to follow my own muse.

“I can think in careerist terms but only in the sense of how I promote the music, I can’t think in careerist terms when I’m making the music. I have to make the music in a creative vacuum, and it’s so important to me to feel like every time I’m involved I’ve done something different, I’m not repeating myself. I think the problem with Porcupine Tree was I felt like it was in danger of getting into a holding pattern of repeating itself, which is what happens to bands. The band in our case was four different people who all had to agree on the music that we were going to play, by definition that commonality that you have between four people is a relatively small area of what you all agree you want to do musically. That’s what happens in a band – one guy likes fusion, one guy likes metal, so you arrive at this small circle in the middle of a Venn diagram, ‘this is what we all agree we want to play’ and that happened with Porcupine Tree like it happens with most bands, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to have the freedom to be able to change direction from album to album, sometimes in quite radical ways, which is the case with the current record. I would never have been able to do that within the context of a band.”

As well as creating a podcast with Tim Bowness, Wilson has also been writing a book during lockdown. “It’s funny the creative possibilities that suddenly opened up when I realised I wasn’t going to be able to tour,” he says. “I have been asked in the last few years about the idea of doing some kind of autobiography and I always thought that would be the most boring book – ‘nerd grows up in a happy household, falls in love with music and makes records’, what a boring book that would be. But I was persuaded by various people that there was a book to write, that it was a unique story, my career has been unusual in the dynamic and the relationship I have with my fans.

“I’ve never understood the point of making generic music, I’ve always been listening across genres and combining things, so the art of listening is also part of the book. I talk about the music I grew up with and how I approached the art of listening to music, the idea of the album as a kind of musical statement as opposed to a playlist mentality. There’s even some fiction, there’s even a short story or two that’s going to be in the book. It’s a bit of everything. It’s kind of a guide to my musical world. I’ve been really excited about doing it, I’ve really got into it.”

The Future Bites is out now. Steven Wilson plays at Sheffield City Hall on September 9.