Steven Wilson is an icon of the modern progressive rock movement - an eclectic and prolific artist who is able to tap into the pure emotional heart of his music as well as the intellectual side without compromising either. His latest album, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) is a widescreen exploration into the connection between the emotional and the supernatural, and to pull it off in a concert environment Wilson has assembled a multimedia extravaganza complete with surround-sound PA when he tours Australia this month. Accompanying Wilson is a collective of world class calibre musicians: Guthrie Govan on lead guitar, Adam Holzman on keys, Theo Travis on flute and sax, Nick Beggs on bass guitar and Chapman Stick, and Frank Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman - drums. We caught up with Wilson on the eve of the tour to talk about the guitar, his creative process and what it's like to be in a band with one Guthrie Govan.
It must be really liberating to go out there under your own name with material that's pretty recent and getting the kind of response I've been seeing.I know what you're getting at, because it's quite a foolish thing to do, in a way, to walk away from a n established, successful band and brand, and drop all of that material and basically come out with a new band and play material which is new. And I think that in a way I've earned that kind of opportunity to do that, by virtue of the fact that I think anyone who's followed my career has kind of learned to accept that I'm someone who needs to constantly evolve. I can't just stand still, and I need to make every record different and I need to keep changing the approach. And I think that if you've discovered my music and you've bought into it, you kind of accept that as part of the deal in a way that you wouldn't accept that if you were a fan of AC/DC. With AC/DC you expect the same. I think my fans have kinda got used to the idea that you expect something different each time, almost to the extent that if I don't do something different, that's when I get criticism. If I make two records that are a little bit similar to each other, the fans find it a little bit surprising. So I think that's something that's been earned, or people are very used to that idea over the years, and it's a great situation to be in, not necessarily being bound or tied to the past.
There's also an element, of course, where if you haven't had any hits - and I've never had any hits - there can be a silver lining to that, which is if you don't have hits you don't have to play anything. You can do whatever you want. So although I would love to have had some hits over the years, the fact that I haven't means you don't have that kind of millstone where I have to keep playing a particular song every show.
Well you look at when Metallica did the Black Album shows where they played it in reverse order so they would finish with "Enter Sandman," because the weight of that song is so heavy in Metallica's context that if you start with that, where the hell do you go?Well, that's also true. And I've always felt that with a live show you should approach it in the same way you sequence an album. You're looking for the most dramatically satisfactory arc in the way that the music flows. I always look at albums in that way and I kind of look at live shows in that way too. You want to have highs and lows in all the right places.
The band you're using says a lot about you as a solo artist in that they all have their own identity and it's nice that you're sharing your stage with these guys and letting them step up and do their thing. I imagine there's a lot of room for improvisation throughout the show.Not only is that part of the show, that was almost fundamental to the whole philosophy of putting this band together. I wanted improvisation in a way that I had never had in my other band. When you have bands that play things note for note every night, which is what I've had in Porcupine Tree for example, it is a bit dull for you and it's also a bit dull for the fans if they come to multiple shows, and some of them like to follow the band. If everything's exactly the same it gets a bit dull, and built into this band from the very get go was the idea that every show would be unique. There would be elements of the show that would be completely fresh every night. Now if you connect that with what we were talking about earlier with the use of visuals and quadraphonic sound, those are not easy bedfellows because you're trying to do something quite ambitious and quite structured and quite planned with the visuals, and the visuals are all tied to the music, and the editing is to the frame, you know. To tie that together with a band that can improvise is not easy, and that had to be something that was almost built in from the very beginning. I had to think about how we were going to do this. How are we going to have structure, and films that are connected to individual microsecond elements in the music, but also have this opportunity to go off and explore and improvise. So that's built in to the concept of this band.
So tell me about Guthrie Govan. I remember when he was writing for guitar mags and it was like "There's something here in this guy. We're going to be hearing a lot more from him."What you're saying is really interesting because honestly, I'd never heard of him. I think the only people that knew Guthrie were people who read guitar magazines (laughs). And I think the problem sometimes with guys like Guthrie - and Guthrie is absolutely extraordinary. I was introduced to Guthrie by my drummer Marco because they've got this band together called The Aristocrats - he's extraordinary! Not only is he a brilliant technician, he's also someone that completely understands how to do the right thing for the music, and those very often don't go together. You have extraordinary technicians who are somehow unable to do anything except inspire other people to also achieve Olympic levels of guitar technique. But that's not music. That's not music That's Olympic sport. And there are too many musicians out there that approach the guitar, and the drums, and the bass, as if it's an Olympic sport. What I love about Guthrie is he doesn't do that. If I ask him to play two notes for ten minutes, as long as he understands why he's doing it and he agrees it's the right thing for the song, he's just as happy to do that. I love that about him. The thing with Guthrie and the thing with a lot of these guys that are very well known within the circle of great musicians, is that you'll never break out of that unless you're actually in a band that go beyond simply appealing to the muso mentality. And I think that's a problem with Guthrie: he's never been in a band before that's reached beyond that kind of muso sensibility. And he's been discovered now by all my fans that are not interested in the technical feats of guitar playing, but know an amazing player when they hear one, and respond to the emotional quality and the feel when he's playing. And that's wonderful, to see him now being discovered by people that just love good music, not just people who are impressed by his incredible technique. And it is incredible.
What's your personal relationship with the guitar?My relationship with the guitar has always been slightly odd because I never thought of myself as a guitar player. I thought of myself as a songwriter, a producer. Actually, I can simplify even further: I thought of myself as someone who made records. And when you make records, particularly when I started making the music I was making, everyone I know wanted to be U2 or Metallica. No-one wanted to make music like I was making. So in order to make records I ended up having to teach myself how to do things that perhaps I wasn't necessarily interested in per se, but I was interested in them as tools, part of my tool kit for making these records. Playing guitar was one of those things I did. Playing keyboards, playing bass, learning how to program a drum machine, learning how to produce, learning how to mix, learning how to sing, learning how to write lyrics. All of these things were part of that, part of what I needed to do. What happened was subsequently, I became known as a guitar player because I ended up being the guitar player in Porcupine Tree, which is my most well-known project. And the reason I ended up being the guitar player in that band is I couldn't find another guitar player. I could find a keyboard player, a drummer and a bass player but I couldn't find a guitar player, so by default I ended up being the guitar player. I could have also been the keyboard player had the situation been different. So I've ended up being known as a guitar player but I have no great desire to be a guitar hero and I'm very, very happy to now be the second guitar player in my band, and to give Guthrie the limelight. I mean, anyone in a band with Guthrie is going to be in the shadow of Guthrie anyway. That's inevitable. But I still play a little bit of guitar on stage, and I enjoy playing guitar on stage. But I play as much keyboards and bass onstage now as I play guitar. And I effectively, really, am liberated to be the frontman or director of proceedings, which is a way is what I wanted to be anyway: to be the director, to use a cinematic analogy. And I've finally managed to contrive a situation where that's what I can be.
What guitars are you using? What are your babies?The tool, for me, applies in the sense that if you give me an instrument I'll write you a song. So I'm very happy with my Paul Reed Smith guitars. The company have been very kind to me and given me some beautiful instruments, and I've bought some too, and so I'm very happy with my trusty Paul Reed Smith guitars. I have recently found myself very inspired by using an Ovation guitar I was presented with, which my stage tech suggested I string Nashville-style. Do you know what Nashville style is?
Yeah, like the higher strings of a 12-string.Yeah. It's like the strings that are on a 12-string that are added to the original strings. It's a six-string but it has this very high, crystalline structure to it because obviously the strings are a very high gauge. And I found that incredibly inspiring, and you can hear the inspiration of that guitar on a song like "Watchmaker." So the Nashville-strung Ovation has become a very important part of my guitar arsenal on this record and the new one I'm working on right now. But in terms of the electric guitar the Paul Reed Smiths are my trusty instrument.
STEVEN WILSON AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
Melbourne: Wednesday 2nd October, Billboard
Sydney: Thursday 3rd October, Metro Theatre
Brisbane: Saturday 5th October, Tivoli
For more information, go to the Metropolis Touring website.