It’s fair to say Steven Wilson’s life right now is probably pretty good. Like, really good. His fourth solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase was released in February and it was perhaps a career-best, an immersive multi-genre conceptual bonanza that peaked at No.13 on the UK chart.
The record is inspired by a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a 38-year-old British woman who lay dead in her London flat for more than two years before being discovered. Taking cues from the tragic story, the album focuses on a fictional character trapped by the alienation of the city.
Wilson’s old band Porcupine Tree are laying dormant at the moment, but with the 47-year-old selling out venues on tour and recently announcing two massive Royal Albert Hall shows in London in September, his past is - at this point in time - becoming something of a fuzzy memory.
DiS caught up with the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist in Stockholm on his current world tour to find out what makes the man tick…
The concept of Hand. Cannot. Erase is based on a fictional character inspired by the documentary Dreams of a Life, but you’ve put some personal elements into the story. How much of it was autobiographical?
Wow, that’s a difficult question to answer. I think every time you create a fictional character, you’re investing it with your own memories and your own experiences to make it believable. And the other reason it’s hard to answer is because there’s probably more in there than I think there is. I’m not even aware sometimes of writing autobiographical things, but when you write anything, in order to make it feel plausible and believable, you’re always drawing a little bit on your own personal experience and your own life. There are specific images and specific lines that I can point to and say yes, that is directly from my childhood or my life. And there are other things in a grey area where I can say yes, the circumstances are slightly different, but I can certainly understand those feelings and that period in someone’s life. And then there is a third category of things that are completely fictional or that I’ve stolen from a book or a movie, so it’s difficult to be accurate. But I’d say probably about half of it is me and half of it is imaginary.
Are there any lines that some people might not know has your personal inflection on?
Well for example on one of my favourite songs on the record, Perfect Life, there’s a line the actress reads and she says ‘Sometimes we would go down to Blackbirds Moor and watch barges on Grand Union in the twilight’. Which might not mean a lot to most people, but if you grew up where I did, you’d know that Blackbirds Moor was the local park and the Grand Union canal runs through it. That is an image of my childhood that I absolutely remember - going down to the park in the summer evening and watching the barges go past on the canal on their way to London, or their way out of London. That is a very specific image that I have as a nostalgic link to my childhood. And I gave that image, that line, to my character. It’s fair to say that you’ve had a historically male dominated audience and band.
Was having a woman as the main character a conscious decision to make females relate to your music more, or was it purely because of the gender of the story’s inspiration?
The reason that she’s female was because the inspiration was the true story of Joyce Carol Vincent and a documentary that was made about her. I think in my mind she was always going to be a character inspired by Vincent, so ergo it was always a female character in my mind. I mean, rock music in general has a predominantly male audience…but I think whether it is a female or a male, there is a shared human experience. Of course there are things that are very specific to men and women, but I think 90% of our lives are a shared experience; loneliness, regret, nostalgia, confusion, fear, paranoia at the 21st Century technology. All of that stuff is universal.
You’ve previously mentioned nostalgia for childhood is a recurring theme in your music. Is getting older something that worries you?
Does it not worry you? Does it not worry everyone? I think in a way what it is to be human is to be aware of your own mortality. If you were any other species on earth, I don’t think you’re necessarily aware of your own mortality. I don’t know whether my little doggy will for example know one day that she will cease to exist. Maybe she does. But human beings certainly are aware from a very early age that we have a limited amount of time. And that knowledge is an incredible burden to carry around, because if you’re not happy or you hate your job or are not happy in your relationship, cold or hungry, all of those things - you measure them against the fact that time is ticking away. And of course when other members of your family pass away, that again brings you closer to mortality and the subject of death. So I think in a sense it’s inherent in being a human that you are kind of obsessed with death. If you’re not aware of it, the fact that you can be impatient to be in the right relationship or be in a job that makes you happy or impatient to make the greatest record of your career - all these things…the reason you have that kind of stress and pressure on yourself is because you know time is ticking away. And so I think that all taps into that foreboding knowledge that one day you will cease to exist and your life will be measured by what you achieved and the happiness you achieved. I think nostalgia for childhood taps into that too, as it’s like going back to a time where everything was fresh and new, everything had a sense of wonder, you weren’t cynical and the finishing line wasn’t quite so close. I’ll have to be realistic and say that I’m probably now at least half way through my life, which is also something to come to terms with, so I’m sure that’s in all the music, spoken or unspoken.
You’ve spoken previously about the sound of trains being nostalgic to you. Is that your main nostalgic sound so to speak?
It is a nostalgic sound. One of the reasons trains come up in my songs is that they’re symbolic of so many things. In the new record I used the image of the train as a symbol for time passing, which comes back to what we were talking about. This idea about waving at trains but they never slow down, they just keep passing you by, like the years. Trains never do slow down for you. And I think in growing up in a small town as I did, trains became a symbol of the big cities, the exciting things that were happening somewhere far away; these trains are going to these places and I’m stuck in this little town where nothing ever happens. So they’re also a symbol that there are bigger and better things out there, a symbol of the future in that sense.
I grew up in Shetland, so I understand…
I went there a couple of times. I remember the airport was like so small. This is in the 80s, so it might have changed now. I remember getting to the airport at six o’ clock in the morning to get my plane and having to wait outside for the caretaker to arrive to unlock the airport. It was really sweet. And I remember all the rabbits jumping in front of the car going to the airport. We were installing a new housing benefits system, in my former life. Wilma Ovenstone - I still remember the name of the head of the Shetland council computer department.
Your next tour is in America, but [drummer] Marco Minnemann and [guitarist] Guthrie Govan are unavailable. Craig Blundell and Dave Kilminster are replacing them. Are you nervous about that or excited to have fresh faces?
Both. Every line-up change is potentially something that will alter the whole chemistry of the band, but this is not the first time it’s happened. I’ve had three guitar players and two drummers in this band. It’s something I think I have to accept if I’m going to be a solo artist - I’m basically employing whoever is available at any given time, and I can’t rely on the same people always being available. I need to accept that I need to have a pool of musicians to draw upon. It’s exciting, but it’s also disappointing in a way to lose such a strong chemistry - it’s all firing really well now and it’s sounding great - so that will change and it will take a while for the band to gel again. But on the other hand, the new guys are also world class musicians and it’s really just a case of finding out feet together. So yes it’s exciting, but it’s also a pain in the arse in the well.
I interviewed Kilminster a few months ago and he said you asked him to join the band before Govan joined a few years ago?
Yes, that is true. Because what happened is that in 2011 I started off with a guitar player called Aziz Ibrahim. He’s a Pakastini musician and he was denied a visa for the American tour. And I had to find a guitar player at four days notice. I ended up John Wesley, who I played with in Porcupine Tree. But we asked Dave at that point if he could come in, but he probably had something with Roger Waters at that time. So yes, it’s the second time he’s been asked to join.
Are you inviting them to put their own spin on the songs?
Yeah…there are parts they have to play, but there would be no point in having a musician in my band if I didn’t let them express their own musical personality too. As you know, there are a lot of opportunities for musicians to solo and there’s room for them to express their personality, but, they also have to play the parts. So in some ways for a musician like that, it’s probably quite a good gig, because you’re playing in the service of hopefully good material, but you’re getting the opportunity to express a lot of what you do. And there’s not a lot of gigs like that for these guys. Most of the mainstream pop acts - you join them and you become faceless session musicians. But on the other extreme, you could play jazz fusion all night, but no-one wants to see that - there’s a very small audience for that. So I think for these guys it’s probably quite a nice gig - they’re playing to a reasonably large audience, they’re playing songs that have structure and form, but they’re getting to express a lot of their own personality.
Spotify. What would you say to people who think you’re missing out on expanding your fanbase by not being on it?
I would agree with them. Unfortunately it’s a very, very difficult time in the music industry right now, because there is an expectation that you shouldn’t have to pay for music and there are services like Spotify and others, and even something like YouTube, and absolutely the point of music is to share it; at least it’s the point of my music. The point of my music is to share it with as many people as possible. And it’s always a very difficult situation to make a stand and say I don’t want my music available on this service, because people are basically stealing the music and I’m not getting paid for it. Because I know at the end of the day, that it’s cutting off a potential fanbase. It’s a really difficult thing to come to terms with. It’s actually not something I’m necessarily aware of - it’s something my management are, I don’t know too much about these things. I get fans coming up to me asking why my music isn’t on Spotify. It can be frustrating. In a way I wish it was [on Spotify], because I want people to hear my music, but ideologically, it’s extremely dubious, the whole notion of it. It’s no secret that musicians don’t make any money from these things. Whether you think we should or not, whether you consider what we do as a job or not and should be remunerated - of course I do. That’s a whole other conversation. But to answer the question, I do think people are not hearing my music and not discovering it because of this, but what do you do? Do you just give into the devil? It’s really difficult. I just think the model is flawed unfortunately. My kind of solution to that is to go in the other direction and try to make the physical piece as appealing and as attractive as possible. Doing special editions, making nice vinyl, making the shows as visually spectacular as they can. Try to make people understand again that there is something about owning a musical piece of art and that a few 1s and 0s streaming off a server in South Africa or something is not the same as owning a beautiful vinyl LP or a collectors’ edition. I think the best way to fight that kind of culture is to try to make the physical pieces as special as possible again, because we kind of lost that with CDs. A generic CD in a crystal case with a four-page booklet is neither art or software - it’s somewhere in-between. What’s been nice is the increase in vinyl, special editions and hi-res audio.
Record Store Day has just taken place. You’ve had a few releases through it in the past - is it a general concept that you’re a fan of?
I love doing special editions anyway. One of the things that slightly irritated me over the years is that whenever I’ve done a special edition, I’ve been accused of ripping off fans and cashing in. The only reason I do special editions is because I just love to do them. I grew up with vinyl and gatefold sleeves and fancy stuff and picture discs. I love all it, so I’m a bit of a collector in that sense. The Record Store Day thing appeals because you’re doing a limited edition on a special format and it’s something that’s only available on that day. And of course it helps the local record store too. I didn’t do anything for this one, but I think we’re going to do something for the one in November.
You’ve got two special Royal Albert Hall shows in September. Are you able to divulge any more details?
Not really. Honestly, not because I can’t, it’s just because I haven’t really thought about it myself yet. All I know is that I’m going to do two different shows. One show will probably be a variation of the current tour, probably with a little bit more - a version of this show on steroids - and the other one will be more of a back-catalogue, fan night. I’m inviting special guests each night - I’m not sure who’s going to available each night, but I’ll be inviting some of my musical friends along. It’s going to be two completely different shows. I don’t think there will be any overlap in material, so if you’ve bought tickets for both nights, you’ll get two different concerts. And that’s all I can say right now
Going back to your new album…it was sparked off by the documentary, but have you seen or read anything recently that has ignited some new songwriting thoughts?
I’ve seen a lot of things that I’ve really liked and that have really made an impression on me, but honestly nothing that’s said to me yet ‘that could be the basis for a new song or a new record’. But then honestly, I don’t think that’s the way it worked with Dreams of a Life either. I saw it and I went about my daily life for a few months after that. And it was only when I sat down to start writing new music that I found this documentary popping into my head. So in that sense I guess it was something that I carried around with me. I guess it haunted me; the subject matter and the character. I didn’t make a conscious decision having seen the film to say ‘that’s my next record’. It’s not the way it works. So the honest truth is that if I sit down tomorrow to write a new song, I might find that something I’ve seen or read or something that’s happened to me will begin to channel itself. It sounds a bit pretentious, but I don’t know how else to say it really. The answer to your question is no - nothing specific, but I have seen a few things recently that have made an impression on me.
One last question. What have you been listening to on the bus on this tour?
I have been listening to a few really obscure things, you might not be surprised to hear. One is called Bohren and der Club of Gore. They’ve been going for about 20 years and they’re German. They play what I can only describe as doom-jazz. Imagine if Sunn O))) were a jazz trio. It’s incredibly dark and brooding. I’ve also been listening to a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon called Grouper. She’s got an album called Ruins.
Hand. Cannot. Erase is out now via Kscope.