Steven Wilson, previously of Porcupine Tree and the creative mind behind unclassifiable projects like No-Man and IEM, stopped through Denver during the second leg of his Hand. Cannot. Erase. Tour. He took a moment before sound check at the Gothic Theater to talk with Groovey.TV about the effects of harmonics on animals’ sensitive ears and the passive nature of humans. For those Steven Wilson fans who share his affinity for listening to albums the way that most people read novels, you’ll be happy to know that we continue the streaming dialogue and discuss the pitfalls of our culture’s short attention span. He also reassured me that my mother is not a dork. In fact, she’s actually kind of cool.
GTV: I’d like to know more about how you became interested in the hammered dulcimer and who your musical influences were.
SW: Wow, that’s an interesting opening question. Hammered dulcimer? Gosh, I can’t remember it’s so long ago since I bought it. I’ve always been interested in strange sounds – not necessarily strange sounds, but just sounds that would inspire me to go into different directions. One of the things I used to do, and I still do it, whenever I’m about to make a new album, I go to a music store and I find an instrument I’ve never played before. I buy it, bring it home, try to find a way to make it sound okay, and that usually inspires me to do something I’ve never done before. And the hammered dulcimer, that would have been back in the late ’90s when I bought that. I can’t remember ever having specifically heard someone playing a hammered dulcimer. I probably would have been playing the zither and autoharp, and they’re kind of played similarly, that very distinctive sound of plucked or hammered strings. I probably would have heard those instruments more than the hammered dulcimer. I’ve got an autoharp now, too. Why your interest?
GTV: My mom plays hammered dulcimer, and I grew up going to folk festivals and singing with her when I was a little kid. It was always kind of dorky. My mom was so weird, and she was playing this weird instrument, and now I regret not learning more about it when I was younger.
SW: It’s the opposite of dorky, it’s kind of cool, you know? It’s a great sound. Again, I don’t remember having specifically heard someone play it before but I probably just liked the sound of it in the music store and thought, “That’s the sort of thing that could inspire me.” And it did.
GTV: And do you do the traditional tuning, the 5th interval?
SW: Yeah, but with my autoharp, too, I’ve also done things where I’ve tuned it so you can just strum it. I never learned to play it. I was okay, but there were times when I’d tune it so you could strum it almost like a harp rather than playing with the hammers – actually playing with a plectrum and a pick and you’d get that glissando effect if you just strum through the strings. I wasn’t purist about the way I played. I certainly had the tuning map and I tuned it correctly and I taught myself enough to be able to play it that way.
GTV: Has your dog ever heard you play it before? Does she freak out?
I think Milly has heard me play the autoharp, probably not the hammered dulcimer. Why? Do dogs freak out?
GTV: My parents’ dog begs to be let outside. He’ll stand by the door and just howl to be let out.
SW: That’s interesting. There’s probably a lot of very high harmonics that we can’t even hear that dogs can. My little girl, for example, trumpet – if she hears Miles Davis, I think there’s something in trumpet harmonically that really freaks her out, so I can totally believe that there is probably something in the strings and the harmonics that would irritate a dog’s hearing.
GTV: I used to listen to opera a lot and my cats loved opera. Whenever I would play opera, they would go up to the speakers and meow and try to get inside the stereo.
SW: Like the soprano, the very high voices?
GTV: Yeah. I’m always interested to see how animals react to music.
SW: Yeah, me too. Milly responds in different ways, but the trumpet definitely upsets her, I know that.
GTV: What do you think that you learned about yourself working as a solo artist that you don’t think you would have realized working with Porcupine Tree or other musical projects in groups?
SW: Obviously, I’ve had to learn how to be a band leader. I say that, but in a sense I’ve always been a band leader. Even in Porcupine Tree I was the band leader. I think that being a solo artist and taking responsibility for absolutely every aspect of every thing – from the T-shirt designs, the wages that you pay the members of the band, the crew, and having my name on the marquee, as it were, there’s a lot more pressure, there’s a lot more responsibility, but there’s also a lot more freedom. One of the things about being in a band, which is a good thing about being in a band, is you have parameters within which all the music works because you have to find a common ground. Now there are many songs that I’ve written for my solo project that I know would have been vetoed if I’d been in a band. Not because they’re bad songs, but stylistically. For example, in Porcupine Tree there was one member that hated jazz music, so anything remotely jazzy would get vetoed. So I think that the one thing I’ve learned, or the one thing I’ve been able to do, is diversify more and make the music more eclectic – to make the music a bit more sensual and personal, as well. Again, obviously, when you become a solo artist the music does become a lot more personal. When I was in Porcupine Tree for example we had songs about abstract things like war, and the youth of today, and space. Now, predominantly every song has a personal element to it that perhaps it wouldn’t have had. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable presenting those kind of songs to bands. So I think I’ve learned to be more honest and more personal with the songs, more sensual. And also to enjoy it a lot more; there’s less politics to it. Running a band is so political. Again, it can be a good thing. That compromise can be a constructive as well as destructive thing. But I got to the point where I felt like I didn’t want to deal with that anymore, so there’s less politics now. If I want to do something, I do it.
GTV: I know in a lot of interviews you’ve mentioned that you’re kind of a control freak and you’re known as a perfectionist. When you’re doing these international tours, you’re going to all kinds of different countries with varying degrees of infrastructure. Every venue that you go to, you’re setting up quadraphonic sound and you have to figure out how you’re going to do that each time. Do you see that challenge as fun and enjoyable, or do you wish it could just be easy?
SW: You know, firstly, it’s not really my challenge, it’s my crew’s challenge. I have an amazing crew and they make the show work. We played a very small club in San Diego, and it’s like, “How the hell are we going to present the show in this small club?” and they found a way to do it. Of course, there was a compromise involved, but the audience still got the immersive, spectacular, quadraphonic sound with visuals. It worked – just about. To be honest, that’s my crew’s problem, not mine, but in answer to your question, it is frustrating. I would love to be in a situation where I could play an arena every night and present the most spectacular thing that I could possibly imagine every night, and I can’t. I can’t do that for logistical reasons, but also I can’t do that for financial reasons. I can’t be playing an 800 person club and having LED screens. I would like to be in that situation. I do do that show when I can. I do that show if I’m playing the Royal Albert Hall or the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam. I’ll put on a show like that, but I have to realistically say to myself, “Okay, well, I’m playing to 800 or 900 people a night at these smaller markets in America, I’m going to have to compromise.” That does frustrate me for the reasons you mentioned. Part of me wants to say, “Well, even if I’m going to be playing to a small audience, I still want to give them 100% of the show I’ve conceived.” But the tour manager will come to me and say, “Here’s the numbers. You can’t do it.” And so I have to accept that. It’s frustrating.
GTV: Streaming has become one of the main ways that people are interacting with music. You’ll hear people say, “I’m listening to Spotify” instead of “I’m listening to Steven Wilson,” or a particular album or song. And the artist radio stations aren’t curated by the artist, they’re just songs that some algorithm has determined you’re going to like. So as someone who creates music, how do you feel about that aspect of streaming?
SW: It’s pretty ugly. It’s a pretty ugly way that music has gone. The way that people engage with music now is not the way I, obviously, would prefer. I grew up with the idea that music, or making albums, making records, could be analogous to making a movie or writing a novel. It was something that people would engage with for 90 minutes – or in the case of an album 50 minutes or 60 minutes, whatever – from beginning to end. They wouldn’t just dip in and read chapter ten and then go and read chapter three of a completely different book and then chapter 15 of another book, which is effectively what you’re doing – well, not with all music, but with the music that’s designed to be experienced as an album – if you’re creating that playlist mentality, that’s effectively what you’re doing. It’s like watching a scene from the middle of one movie, then watching the opening scene from a different movie, watching the closing scene from a third movie. That’s no way to experience a story. And if you are, as I am, the sort of person who likes the idea of using the album as a storytelling format, then that whole idea of Spotify is sort of anathema to you. But, as you kind of said in your question, it is now the dominant way that people engage with music, so I have to embrace it. I mean, I don’t have to – let me qualify that. I don’t have to embrace it, but if I don’t embrace it, then I’m essentially cutting out the majority of potential audience. And at the end of the day, I have to say, “Why do I make music?” Well, I make it for myself, of course, but I want to share it with as many people as possible. And if you want to share your music with as many people as possible, then you have to kind of embrace what, for me, is an ugly way of experiencing music. But at the same time I’d like to think that my songs do stand up taken out of context. I try to write good songs, I try to write strong melodies. So at the end of the day, if somebody’s going to hear one of my songs out of context, that, for me, is better than not hearing it at all. So this is the world we live in. I don’t like it, but I have to embrace it in a way. And I don’t think that I’m the only musician that feels that way.
GTV: I know you’re also really into movies. How do you feel about things like Netflix and the way the ratings link you to other movies. It also gives you a very limited choice. If you go to a video store, you’d have a lot more options for movies to watch. But Netflix is very limited. You think that you have all these choices, but you’re really limited to what Netflix has and is telling you to watch.
SW: Yeah, those algorithms. This, in a sense, comes down to the kind of person you are. I mean, I could say, for example, that when I was growing up, I didn’t even have that. All I had was my pocket money every week that I got from my parents and a local record store in my hometown and I had to make decisions about buying a record. There was always a kind of gamble attached to that. I think at least these days you have the potential to go out and hear music but you still have to be curious in the first place. I think one of the problems is the way that the human species is going in the 21st century; we’re becoming generally less curious. That’s partly down to the speed of life, down to the way that technology makes our lives much more passive. I always say that I think convenience wins out over quality of experience with the human race. It’s unfortunate; it’s sort of built into our DNA. Convenience always seems to appeal to us more than quality. You can listen to your music on MP3s while you’re in the gym and on the bus. It sounds like shit compared to listening to it at home on a beautifully set up hi-fi, maybe on vinyl or blu-ray. But practically speaking, very few people are going to go to the trouble to listen to music that way. So convenience always wins out. I think that’s impacting on everything now. It’s impacting on politics, it’s impacting on music. As you say, I think people now are becoming more passive and less curious and they’re allowing people like Netflix and Donald Trump to tell them what they should think. And that is a sad reality that I think goes very deep into the whole human psyche and the whole human species. I think the example you’ve given is like a little microcosm of that. People watching TV now are being told what they should like. But I was always the sort of person, and I think there are still people like me, that inherently distrusted anybody that would tell me what I should and shouldn’t like and would actually go to the extremes to not – I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, for example, because so many people have told me how amazing it is. I have made a point. There must be more interesting stuff in the world than Game of Thrones. That very slightly contrary approach, I think that’s important. It’s kind of healthy in a way. Kids should be contrary, right? Kids should always rebel against whatever they’re told they should like. These are big subjects you’re raising.
GTV: I’ve been thinking about this connection with the elections that just happened. We had two political candidates, and nobody really wanted either of them. But we have this idea that we had this choice – and in all these different ways it’s sneaking into our lives. Even with Google Maps, the route that we choose to go to work, we’re letting Google Maps dictate to us how to get there. So I’m just kind of curious about your thoughts.
SW: Well, there you go. And I think the answer is that by nature, human beings can be quite passive. I think it’s no surprise that things we value and cherish the most are the things that we’ve had to struggle to achieve. Whether it’s being with the right person, having the right job, finding the right music, the movies we love – those are the things. The things that we really cherish I think tend to be the things that we’ve really put the most work into achieving or obtaining or finding. That’s the problem with music these days: It’s so easy to get the entire Beatles back catalogue like that [snaps fingers]. But it’s also equally easy to dismiss it. “Oh, I’ve just downloaded the whole Beatles catalogue. I’ll listen to a few songs. I didn’t like the first song. I didn’t really like the second song. Delete.” That’s what people are doing now. Not necessarily the Beatles, but generally speaking, that’s the way we approach life now. I heard a really mind-blowing statistic about YouTube, which is something like 99-point-something-percent of YouTube viewings never get to the end. Now that means that more than 99% of the time, the person watching a YouTube clip has already clicked onto something else before they’ve made it to the end of that clip. So they’ve chosen to watch that clip, but they’ve become hypnotized by the side bar saying, “People who watched this also watched this,” which is exactly what you’re saying. And I do it, too. I do it myself. I’m watching some video of a band I like and I’m already looking at the side bar. And that is symptomatic of the way we engage with the world now, whether it’s politics or anything. Once you’ve opened Pandora’s Box how do you put that back in? It just seems to be the way the human race is going.
GTV: I’ll ask a silly question to end. Your studio’s on fire and there’s only one thing that you can get – and you’ve got your dog. . .
SW: You’ve preempted my answer straight away.
GTV: Your dog’s safe, there’s no one inside. There’s one thing that you have time to grab. What are you going to grab? Or do you just let the whole thing burn down?
SW: Honestly, I have to say that – and I say this because I know lots of musicians do have this kind of relationship with their instrument – I really don’t. For me, when I first fell in love with music and the magic of making music, my thing was, “I want to make records. I don’t care about guitars or keyboards. I don’t care about being a star or being rich or being a celebrity. I don’t care about being a guitar hero or a front man or anything – I just want to make records.” And for me the magical thing is holding. Still to this day, when I get the final copy of something I’ve spent a year of my life or 18 months writing, recording, mixing, mastering, working on the artwork, the design, when I get that final thing, that’s the moment for me. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I don’t have any relationship with my studio instruments, really. They’re tools and they’re all replaceable things anyway. There are some people that collect guitars and say, “I have an original 1952 Les Paul” and that would probably have significance to them. I don’t have anything like that. I’m endorsed by a guitar company. They give me free guitars. They’re great, but if they all burned down, I could get some more. At least, I hope they would give me some more [laughs]. I have records that I feel more attached to. Vinyl records, things that I’ve had since I was a kid, very rare records that are very precious to me. So, I guess if I was going to save anything it might be some of my record or CD collection – things that are rare or out of print. We’re getting to a point now where a lot of things that have been released on CD in the past maybe are never going to come out ever again. They’re just going to be downloads now, so the idea of having a physical copy of some of these albums – they may never be repressed again. Stuff I was buying in the 80s and 90s on CD, there may never be another physical release. To me they’re becoming precious antiques in a way, because I love to hold a record in my hand, that I have a kind of personal connection with and I have memories of where I was when I first bought it and where I was when I first heard it. So I think actually I have more of an affinity for records. Which makes sense because I said to you the thing I fell in love with was making the record, making the CD. So it makes sense that I would have that kind of precious feeling about other people’s records and other people’s CDs.
GTV: Thank you so much!
SW: My pleasure.