Steven Wilson Interview
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
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
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.
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
So it''s your musical vision, regardless
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
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
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
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
What would you consider your main
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
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
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
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
I''m a big fan of a suite of plug-ins called the
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