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electronic MUSICIAN

Steven Wilson Interview

By Mike Levine | March 1, 2009

In some ways, Steven Wilson is a throwback. The Porcupine Tree guitarist-vocalist admires concept albums, reminisces about LP packaging and graphics, and finds today''s download culture, especially the compression of audio into MP3 format and the emphasis on single-song downloading, antithetical to his musical vision. Yet Wilson is by no means a Luddite. He wholeheartedly embraces digital recording technology, uses many signal-processing plug-ins, and has a personal studio that''s centered around his Apple Mac G5. His setup is a home studio in the most literal sense—it''s located in his parents'' house, in the room he grew up in (see Fig. 1).

Wilson used that studio for much of the tracking on Insurgentes (K-Scope, 2009; see Fig. 2), his new solo project. (Some of the guitars were recorded at Red Room Recorders in Florida, and the drums and a few of the other tracks were recorded elsewhere.) Wilson did all the mixing for the project, both in stereo and surround. The music on Insurgentes shares some similarities with that of Porcupine Tree, but because it was a solo project, it allowed Wilson to explore musical elements—ranging from wall-of-noise segments to atonal orchestral passages to piano vocal ballads—that are unlikely to be heard on a Porcupine Tree release.

FIG. 1: Wilson''s studio is located in his parents'' house outside London, in the room he grew up in. 
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

FIG. 1: Wilson''s studio is located in his parents'' house outside London, in the room he grew up in.
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

But Insurgentes encompasses more than just a CD. The standard release, which is slated to come out in February 2009, features both a CD and a DVD. The latter contains Wilson''s surround mixes of the material in DVD-A and DVD-V format (DVD-V can be played on home-theater setups), as well as an 18-minute excerpt from yet another facet of the project, a “documentary road movie” by filmmaker Lasse Hoile that features Wilson in a variety of locations around the world, talking to musicians about how the digital age has changed the music world for them (see Web Clip 1).

In one scene, Wilson is shown shooting a rifle at an iPod, in a symbolic put-down of how those devices have contributed to what he calls the “jukebox mentality” endemic to downloadable music.

This past fall, Wilson showed his reverence for creative album packaging by releasing a limited-edition, deluxe version of Insurgentes that contained a 5-track bonus disc (those tracks were not included on the subsequent standard release) and came inside a hardcover book, replete with color photos taken during the making of the movie.

FIG. 2: The cover of the standard-release version of Insurgentes.

FIG. 2: The cover of the standard-release version of Insurgentes.

I had a chance to speak with Wilson about Insurgentes when he was in New York previewing the surround mixes.

Genrewise, how would you describe the music on Insurgentes? Would it be correct to call it progressive rock?

I think I can honestly say that this is the first time I''ve made an album that''s almost beyond generic classification. So yes, Insurgentes has elements of progressive in it. But it also has elements of industrial music, pop, Britpop, shoegazer, and alternative. It has tricky time signatures on it, but it also has very simple piano ballads. It''s something beyond. In a way, I''ve always aspired to create music that''s beyond genre. But it''s actually easier said than done.

So it''s your musical vision, regardless of genre.

It''s me. Absolutely, it''s me. And it''s all the music that I''ve ever been inspired by and makes up my musical personality. I listen to so many kinds of music, but that all kind of gets filtered through into my work. So I hope there''s something that''s quintessentially Steven Wilson about it, and beyond that kind of “It sounds like this band” or “It sounds like that band” or “You can put it in that box or this box.”

How did the experience of doing this album compare to recording with Porcupine Tree?

Obviously, there are similarities, because my approach to working is fairly consistent regardless of what I''m doing. In some ways it was easier, in some ways it was harder. It was easier in the sense that I didn''t have any baggage or agenda with this record. The thing is, when you have a well-established band, no matter how liberated and experimental you are as a musician, you do always, with every new project, bring the weight of your back catalog with you. And you bring the weight of your fans'' expectations with you, and you bring the weight of your own style, or however you''ve defined your sound and your style. So that was easy because I had no agenda. If I wanted to get the orchestra to play two minutes of atonal noise, I could tell them to do that. If I wanted to do a piano ballad one day, I could do that. If I wanted to make complete industrial noise the next minute, I could do that. I don''t think I could do that in the context of a band, because a band is always about the kind of common ground that you share. And there are always things in everyone''s musical personality that they can''t bring to the band because for whatever reason, they don''t fit in the matrix of whatever the band [is doing]. So that was great, that was liberating.

Were there any disadvantages to working solo?

The hard thing, of course, for the very same reason that I was liberated: I was the only person there to make decisions. It''s so easy to disappear up your own backside when you don''t have someone else there to bounce ideas off. And that was tough, because I had no one else really to turn to and say, “Hey, what do you think? Do you think it''s too loud? Do you think it''s too quiet? Do you think this track''s good enough?” I had to come to all those decisions myself through trial and error. I can see why it''s tough to be a solo artist and only be answerable to yourself. There was more stress in that sense. It was definitely good and bad, pro and con, the solo-artist-versus-band thing.

But you like to work in your own studio as much as possible, no matter the project, right?

I do, yeah. For many years, I''ve done that. I realized early on that the kind of records that I wanted to make were not records that could be made in a disciplined, pressure situation. By “pressure,” I mean you''ve got a certain amount of time, and an expensive studio, and every minute''s costing you money. I can''t do that. The kind of records I like to make are these big type of productions, like a musical journey, in a way. And it becomes more like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Very often, that process takes a long time. I love experimenting, and I hate the feeling that I don''t have time to experiment because of financial or time constriction. So for many years, I''ve been building up my ability, my expertise, in self-producing. And as a spin-off from that, I''ve taught myself how to make reasonable noise on many different instruments as well.

FIG. 3: Wilson recording guitar in his studio. Notice his Genelec 8030A, Yamaha NS-10M, and Quested S6R monitors against the far wall.
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

FIG. 3: Wilson recording guitar in his studio. Notice his Genelec 8030A, Yamaha NS-10M, and Quested S6R monitors against the far wall.
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

What would you consider your main instrument?

I suppose you''d say it''s guitar [see Fig. 3]. Again, I''m not a particularly accomplished guitar player; I play keyboards as much as I play guitar when I''m writing. But in Porcupine Tree, almost by default, I''ve ended up as the front man–guitar player–singer. Not by design, but that''s the way it seems to be going.

What does the album title, Insurgentes, mean?

Insurgentes Avenue is the longest street in the world. And it runs through the third-biggest city in the world, which is Mexico City—the two bigger cities are both located in India. But outside of India, Mexico City is the largest city in the world, and it''s where a lot of the album—I wouldn''t say that a lot of it was recorded there, but a lot of it was definitely inspired by my trip to Mexico City, and a lot of the photographs that you see in the book were taken in Mexico.

Tell me about the film aspect. What is it about? Is it a documentary about making the album?

No, that would have been extremely boring. Quite the contrary. I mean that is in it; there are moments in the film when you will see me working on the record. The best way I can describe it is that it''s almost like a surreal road movie. You see me traveling around. But every country we went to, we also found these incredible locations [see Fig. 4]. We''d make up weird stuff to do on the spot, surreal stuff. And we''d try to talk to as many musicians as we could, local musicians.

FIG. 4: Wilson at one of the Mexican locations used in the Insurgentes movie.
Credit: Photo: Lasse Hoile

FIG. 4: Wilson at one of the Mexican locations used in the Insurgentes movie.
Credit: Photo: Lasse Hoile

There was a basic concept behind the film, and it is this: we wanted to explore what it was like to be a professional musician or producer, or someone who makes records in the era of download culture, and how that has affected them, the era of MP3s and the death of physical media. I don''t think anyone has stopped to document it. In the last five years, the change has been unbelievable, extraordinary. And nobody has stopped to document that process. So we talked, for instance, to Trevor Horn, the British producer, in the film. And we asked him a basic question like “What do you think of the sound quality of MP3s?” Because it''s interesting, I think, for people to hear from someone like him how much he thinks MP3s sound like s--t. A lot of people don''t even question the quality of MP3s; they think that that''s what music sounds like. Particularly the younger generation, who have grown up in the era of MP3s. To actually hear someone like Trevor Horn say, “If you listen to an MP3 and then you listen to one of my productions in high resolution, you will not believe the difference.”

[It was great] to hear people like that talking about those kind of issues. So we talked to a lot of musicians and producers and people who make records about the whole issue of the death of physical media or high-resolution media. [See Web Clip 2 for more about the film and Wilson''s views on the impact of digital audio on musicians.]

Not to mention that the “album” as a concept is not as big as it used to be due to downloading.

Right, that''s the other thing. We talk about what I call the “jukebox mentality,” where you download a couple of songs off the record, but the whole idea of the album as a continuum, or a musical journey—you think of the great albums like your Pet Sounds or your Sgt. Pepper or your Dark Side of the Moon—these were albums that were conceived to be listened to from start to finish as a kind of musical journey. But now, of course, you''ve got kids who are not familiar with that whole kind of approach, that whole kind of aesthetic—the 50-minute musical journey. It''s just download a couple of songs and program it into a playlist.

And then there''s the artwork that used to be on albums. I saw a book of CD covers from classic Blue Note albums, and that stuff was amazing. The CD and, to a larger extent, downloading have killed album art.

Yeah, the whole idea of the artist or the musician extending their creativity through to the way their music was packaged is becoming less and less prevalent. And that, for me, is quite depressing. So we talk about that in the film, we talk about packaging, we talk about artwork and all those things I grew up with—gatefold sleeves and novelty sleeves. I don''t even know if the younger generation can conceive of music having a physical form these days.

Let''s talk a little bit about your studio. How big is the actual room?

FIG. 5: Wilson recorded the vocals for the album in his studio using his Neumann U87. 
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

FIG. 5: Wilson recorded the vocals for the album in his studio using his Neumann U87.
Credit: Photo: Steven Wilson

My “studio” is not really a studio at all. It''s a computer. That is my studio these days. Now that''s not to say that over the years I haven''t had studios with outboard equipment and mixing desks and all that stuff. And I have to say that I''m a big fan—and this is where I may sound like I''m being a hypocrite—I''m a big fan of digital recording. And a lot of my music is very much influenced by digital recording techniques and digital editing and the facilities that gives me; plug-ins as well. So in terms of the studio, these days I have one great A/D, which is an Apogee Trak2, and I have a great microphone, a Neumann U87 [see Fig. 5], and that''s about it. I have my collection of guitars, of course, and I have a piano. The rest, really, is taking place inside a computer, which is a G5 running [Apple] Logic Pro 7 at the moment.

But the physical space you record in is a room in your house, right?

It is, and it''s a fairly small room. And actually, it''s not in my house, it''s in my parents'' house. It''s the room I grew up in. In some respects, I''ve never left home, because I still go back to the room that I grew up in to write, to record, and to mix.

What kind of monitors do you use? And do you mix in there?

I do mix in there. When I''m doing surround, I use five Genelec speakers and a Genelec sub. On the stereo side, I''m also monitoring through the Genelecs, and I have a pair of Yamaha NS-10s. I have a pair of Quested monitors as well. And I''m always comparing on different speakers. It''s one of those things where it''s not the greatest room, it doesn''t have the greatest acoustics, but I know exactly how it should sound in there.

When you mix surround and also do a stereo mix of the same material, which one do you generally do first?

I always do stereo first, because when you get to the point where you''re happy with the stereo mix, the surround mix becomes a breeze, because all you''re doing at that point is placement. You''ve set up the EQs, you''ve set up the effects, you''ve set up the volume balance. And with a little bit of adjustment—because obviously, perspectives do change when you start breaking things out into 3-D, particularly with volume—you have your surround mix, just with a little bit of placement. So always I work to perfect the stereo mix, which can take weeks. And then the surround mix usually only takes another day, because you''re having a ball, you''re just kind of flying stuff around the room.

I guess if you did it the other way around, it would be kind of depressing to do the stereo mix.

It would be really depressing. Because once you''ve heard surround, it''s really hard to go back. It''s like going from 3-D to 2-D.

What about the drums on this album? Were they recorded in your studio as well?

No, they were done at the drummer''s own studio. Now the drummer, Gavin Harrison, who also happens to be the drummer in Porcupine Tree, has a very similar situation to myself. He spent years and years experimenting in his home studio with microphones, with positioning, with preamps, and has arrived at a system that''s permanently set up in his studio. He has a very big room in his studio, a soundproof room. And he does all of his drum tracking there.

Does he have Logic, too, or did you just send him a reference file?

Fortunately, it was coincidence because he was using it before we met, but he also happens to run Logic. So we''re pretty interchangeable with our files.

There are a lot of textural sounds on Insurgentes. Did you use virtual instruments for those?

A lot of the instruments on the record that are more what I''d call in the sound-design area are actually guitars. They''re almost all guitars.

How did you get those sounds?

Plug-ins. I love plug-ins, and I love messing about with plug-ins. I love using plug-ins in the way they were never meant to be used.

What are some of the plug-ins you were using?

I''m a big fan of a suite of plug-ins called the [Digidesign] D-Fi. They include Lo-Fi, Vari-Fi, Sci-Fi [and Recti-Fi]. They''re great for producing things like ring modulation and that kind of distortion, which is not like natural distortion; it''s distortion where you''re reducing the bit rate until you get that kind of digital breakup.

If you''re running Digidesign plug-ins, you must be using Pro Tools hardware.

Yeah, I''m using TDM stuff. I use the DAE engine with the Logic front end, which for me is the best. Because I tried using Logic native, but that whole latency issue is a problem for me. Because when I''m creating sounds, a lot of the time I''m playing the instruments through the plug-ins. The problem with native is that there''s such a great latency between the playing and the hearing it back. So anyway, those kind of plugiins [D-Fi] and things like the Line 6 Echo Farm plug-in let you do some amazing stuff like saturating the signal and putting that tape warble on it. I love all that stuff. It''s kind of old-fashioned techniques in digital form, so you have so much more control [see Web Clip 3].

On the song “Get All You Deserve,” there''s a section where all of a sudden there''s this wall of white noise. Talk about that.

I''ve always loved noise. I love the brutality of taking something very beautiful and destroying it with noise. For me, that''s a very powerful dramatic device. And it does, in a way, happen in Porcupine Tree. There are moments when Porcupine Tree will go from very subtle, beautiful, and spacious to quite heavy; you hear it with the metal sort of element on Porcupine Tree. But on my record I wanted to do something more with pure noise. I''ve always been a fan of pure noise artists, you know. The so-called industrial musicians, people like Trent Reznor. And some even more extreme artists like Merzbow, the Japanese noise musician. I love that, and I love that sense of taking something quite fragile and destroying it. Those kind of dynamic shifts are incredibly dramatic.

Back in the days of tape, a big issue in the studio—especially a 4- or 8-track home studio—was fitting everything onto the available tracks. Whereas with today''s DAW systems, the challenge is often to not use too many tracks. Do you find that to be true?

I do feel that, actually. Interestingly enough, I''ve been remixing all the King Crimson albums in surround sound. What''s been fascinating for me is hearing how economic those albums are. Mixing an album like Red [Atlantic, 1974], for example, in surround sound and realizing actually that there''s only like a power trio playing— guitar, bass, and drums—very little overdubbing. And yet it sounds huge. Whereas with some of my stuff I''m tracking guitars seven, eight, nine times. And I''m thinking, “Am I doing that because I can? Is it sounding any better?” Sometimes it sounds worse. If you can get the sounds good enough without having to track [multiple layers]. I think the problem with digital technology sometimes, the fact that you do have an endless supply of tracks, is that you tend to cheat a little bit. Rather than getting the sound exactly how you want it, you think tracking will kind of make it sound big. “Oh f--k it, it''s not quite right, but if I track it enough times . . .” And I do think I''m guilty of that sometimes, because I never came up through that era. I think the guys who came up through that era know so much about how to get great tones and great sounds with very limited resources. As you say, if you work on an 8-track, you can''t afford to track a guitar four or five times, so you spend a lot of time getting the tone so that it takes your head off with just one guitar. And I really admire that.

(Editor''s note: To read more of this interview, in which Wilson talks further about his studio and the new album, see the online bonus material at emusician.com.)


Mike Levine is EM''s executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the monthly Podcast
“EM Cast.”

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