In a huge 2018, seeing him release a live DVD documenting a three night residency at the Royal Albert Hall and completing multiple world tour legs to critical acclaim, Steven Wilson has kept progressive rock audiences alive and well. The mastermind behind Porcupine Tree – with a solo career now blossoming into incredible colour and scope – didn’t leave Australia behind on his latest album cycle, recently wrapping up an East Coast run of incredible theatre shows. Chatting to Wilson last week, I asked the man himself about live DVD’s, a retrospective take on his past, and if he would ever allow political issues to influence his touring plans. Ever generous with his time and answers, there is always something new to learn when chatting with Mr Wilson, which would maybe also explain why his music is so goddamn mind-bending!
Steven, congratulations on the new live album! Do you watch your old recordings back when it comes to live DVD’s in order to find out what works best performance wise and in terms of video recording and camera perspectives?
Honestly, I don’t. It’s like looking at pictures from when you’re at school or from when you were a kid. It’s weird and you see all the stuff you do differently now. In the past, you just see the bad hair and the bad clothes. I have that relationship with my past work, and I think a lot of artists do. By the time you finish something you’ve seen or heard it so many times that you’re ready to never have to interact with it again. That doesn’t detract though from the fact that I’m really pleased with Home Invasion. I did have to watch and listen to it a lot when we were working on it and mixing it, so I know it’s good and I know i’m proud of it, but maybe there will be a day in my older age when I’m prepared to sit down and appreciate it for what it is.
Right! Well then, why did you choose to release it now at this point during the ‘To The Bone’ cycle when there are return legs still to come? Obviously you mix up your set lists, but I’m assuming the production remains the same; so why release the show on film at this point?
It is a “show”, which means it’s very carefully planned and choreographed so it doesn’t change massively, and obviously that is coming to Australia for the first time. I’m going to stick pretty closely to the script, but as you point out, they may have seen the show on the DVD, so in that respect, the timing is slightly odd. It might kind of work in terms of an advert to the show, because many people might not realise how spectacular the show is, so they might catch that on the film and think “wow, I should go see that in the flesh!” There’s no substitute for seeing a show live this in the flesh, and one of the reasons I’ve resisted doing a concert film over the past few years is because it is a bit of a compromise. So I’ve had to think through how do you capture that immersive feeling of being in the room and being surrounded by it all. How can you capture that? I think we’ve done it as well as we can, but there’s no substitute for being there and seeing the entire thing. Hopefully, there will be people who won’t realise how great it is, and this will be what helps them make that choice to come and see the real thing.
The possibilities that an artist like yourself has moving forward really are endless, given the resources and success that you can afford to use. What areas of these live show do you want to tap further into? Would you ever do something like what Snarky Puppy did and even record your LP live?
What I’ve done over the last few tours is keep pushing the spectacle side of it to make it really cinematic. There is an element with having pushed that as far as I can within the financial constraints that I have. Because lets face it, I’m not Roger Waters or Muse, so I don’t play the venues or have the audiences where I can justify spending millions. I’ve maximised my resources based on the magnitude of the audiences, and it’s a spectacular show – not the one you’d expect to see when you come into a theatre. The reason you don’t expect that is because it’s really expensive to stage all of this. I don’t know what I’ll do next, but you know I’m always looking for something different; a different musical vocabulary and lighting approach. I’m beginning to think about my next record now, and it is an interesting idea to record something completely live, but on the other hand, referring you back to my history, I’m always very excited by the possibilities of using the recording studio itself. Just recording something live, you’re compromising yourself and cutting off techniques you could use otherwise. I love playing live, but they are very different beasts. When I fell in love with music, I fell in love with the possibilities of being in the studio.
Well put! You’ve been very upfront about wanting to create joyous pop music like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, much like what you listened to growing up. So, has touring this more “joyous” album brought you and your team into a more positive head space, given how dark some of your past records were? Or are you able to disconnect those two areas of your life?
It’s always been a battle for me trying to convince people that I’m not this miserable old man that you might get a bit from my music. The music here has brought more of a balance to the show and I’ve always had fun onstage with whoever I’m with, but this time we have heaps of fun. Part of that joy translates better because the previous tours have been more focused around the heavier conceptual rock songs. Obviously, that element is still there in the show, but there is this other side of the coin, with songs like ‘Permanating‘ and ‘Same Asylum As Before‘, which are an easier door to walk through for people who aren’t as versed with my world. And the joy there I think has been reflected between the band and the audience. A lot of it comes across in the Royal Albert Hall film – there’s a real sense of fun with what’s going on between everyone. It’s something that we feel very much when we’re onstage. It’s difficult to get that across when you’re playing to a seated audience; that’s another battle I’ve had, because I understand the music lends itself to a more theatrical presentation, but sometimes when your playing to a seated audience, you just don’t feel that electricity. But at the Albert Hall, it’s one of those exceptional venues that has a really magic quality to it. We had a great time and I think that comes across!
Awesome, I think so too! Now, lastly, ‘Refuge’ is really powerful, given it’s based on a piece of work that your friend penned after working in aid camps. Australia currently has an awful situation with refugees where we’ve been essentially called out by the UN for breaching conventions of torture based on our treatment of these people. Would you ever personally boycott or think twice about visiting a country based on such political issues, in the same way that artists have boycotted Israel in the past?
Look, I don’t believe that I would personally. With Israel, my partner is from Israel so I have a vested interest – there’s something about music that should transcend politics. Lots of people that listen to the music don’t share the views of their governments, and that’s certainly the case with Israel. A lot of people come along to the shows in Israel who completely sympathise with the issues and the Palestinian issue. So just because the government has a viewpoint, that doesn’t mean that the fans do. There’s a very famous band in Israel called Orphaned Land, who are known for playing in Arab countries and having a massive following in those communities. That’s fascinating because they bridged the divide that politicians seem unable to do. So I think that’s the real power of music in that case. I think it’s my job to hold up a mirror and let people make up their own mind.
Header PC: Hajo Müller.