I’ve tried to think of something worthwhile for this introductory paragraph but all I have is “Steven Wilson’s career is lengthy and varied”, and that doesn’t really say much of anything. Still, it suggests a restlessness and maybe that’s a better way to describe how Steven Wilson has approached music of which he has been a part. There’s a sense of change and development throughout each subsequent release he’s involved in, especially so with releases under his own name.
Recently Steven Wilson released The Harmony Codex which is available here. I was afforded the opportunity to ask him a bunch of questions about the album and so I did.
Ez: The first thing I want to start with is why should people listen to this album?
Steven: I think to be honest, one of the things I feel about a lot of music these days is that it kind of underestimates the audience and I like to give the audience a lot of credit for being able to engage with…
Firstly to be able to engage with an album as opposed to just individual songs. I like making albums; I like making things which are analogous with cinema. I mean, I describe this album as a piece of cinema for the year, so it’s something that’s kind of intended to be listened to from beginning to end. It’s intended to take the listener on a musical journey.
It’s hard, talking as we are in the era of social media, in the era of TikTok; it’s a hard sell. It’s not easy to be making music which is expecting the audience to engage with it on a very deep level for more than an hour. This album is sixty-five minutes of pretty intense, pretty diverse music.
So, I think the answer to your question is I have made a record here which is asking a lot of the audience, but I believe there is an audience out there which is hoping for music like this; hoping for music which doesn’t underestimate their intelligence and will take them on some kind of very intense musical journey, and that’s what this record is for. That’s what this record is about, and that’s who this record is intended for.
Ez: You did mention something about doing it as a piece of cinema for the year. Are you worried that, in phrasing it that way you want it to be seen as an art piece [but], considering this current era, it’s going to be seen more as a commodified product?
Steven: I’m not worried because I think the pieces stand up out of context too. To me that’s the beauty of thinking back to albums that I grew up with [and] remember hearing my parents listen to when I was a kid, particularly something like Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. It’s clearly a piece of album-orientated conceptual rock music, but at the same time the songs were good. The songs were brilliant and they worked out of context too, so you could listen to songs from that record in isolation and they still were very effective and very powerful pieces of pop or rock music, however you want to describe it.
To me it’s about trying to create a balance. It’s about trying to create songs which can work standalone and stand up as good pieces of music, but also encouraging people to maybe engage with it as part of a musical continuum, and getting people to listen to The Harmony Codex as something – as I say – analogous with a piece of cinema, but I like to think the songs also stand up like – So yes, you’re absolutely right to point out the flaw in that argument [as] we live in a world now where people expect to engage with something for thirty seconds and for it to be able to make its point in that thirty seconds. Clearly that’s problematic when it comes to something like The Harmony Codex which expects a bit more from the listener, but I do like to think that the songs still stand up, and that’s why I still make videos and still try to release singles and try to bring people in in that way too.
Ez: I know that you’ve talked about the artwork being a staircase, and from what I’ve gathered, each piece of the staircase represents a song. There is certainly thematic elements of going up. From my understanding, [at least] from Fear of a Blank Planet onward you’ve explored themes surrounding issues of [a] particular time. Does The Harmony Codex build upon that, looking at pressing things such as the state of politics, the state of the environment and whatnot, or is it a bit more ambiguous?
Steven: One thing I would say is it’s hard to write convincing music. If you want the listener to hear what you’re singing about, hear what you’re writing about and expect them to believe it, to find it sincere, it’s hard to do that without it to an extent being autobiographical. Some of the scenarios on The Harmony Codex are fictional; They relate to the short story that I wrote (‘The Harmony Codex’, Chapter 25 of Limited Edition of One), but at the same time if you want people to believe in your characters, if you want people to believe in your stories and your scenarios you kind of draw on your own experience and you do that almost subconsciously sometimes.
I think sometimes when I’m writing music and I think I’m writing fiction of course a lot of it is drawn from my own experience, my own knowledge, my own life. This is something that The Harmony Codex is shot through with. There are songs like “Time is Running Out” for example which is very autobiographical. I find myself thirty years into my career; For sure in the second half of my life now. I can’t deny the fact I’m well past the halfway point in my life, and how that affects your mentality, how that affects the way you think… how that affects what you want from life, what you expect from life, what you expect from other people, what you expect from the people that listen to your music [and] how you want people to engage with your music. All of those things have really changed for me and it would be strange if they hadn’t in a way.
So there’s a lot of soul searching. You might even call it existential in a way. There’s a lot of existential stuff on the record about growing older, about how that’s affected the way I look at my life, what I want from life, how I look at myself in the past [and] how I reflect upon myself as a younger person now that I’m in my fifties. All of that stuff’s going on in this record.
I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but there’s a lot of self-reflection and there’s also a lot of writing about the world as I see it reflected back at me, but I would say less on this record.
Fear of a Blank Planet is an example of an album which is very much observational; looking out at the world, looking out at the way young people engage with the world, looking at the way young people engage with each other, how they engage with technology… There is some of that on this record, but less. I think this is a more insular record. More engaging with themes that relate to myself and it’s a more personal and a more autobiographical way of reflecting the world I live in if that makes sense.
Ez: So it’s more reflective, introspective and personal in a sense.
Steven: It’s a more introspective record for sure, yeah.
Ez: In terms of the introspective and personal aspect, did you have to grapple with being comfortable putting that kind of personalness into it?
The reason why I ask is that obviously there’s ego in creating and releasing music whether art or product or whatnot, but when it comes to being more personal in what you put out, being more experiential, it’s kind of a different ball game.
Steven: Yeah, you know I’ve never sort of dwelt on that too much. I think another thing that’s perhaps interesting about this particular record is… I don’t want to describe it as a my lockdown record because that’s already become such a cliché, hasn’t it? “Oh my lockdown record”, but the reality is that this album was largely conceived and written during a period of being isolated… enforced isolation because of Covid and because of lockdown. And like a lot of people I found myself cut off from the rest of my fellow human race, and that must surely have had an effect on the way the music sounds and the way the lyrics are conceived, and I find it difficult to articulate exactly what that effect is.
I think it’s something that may become clearer to me over time, but I also feel that it must have had an effect because I was writing this music without being aware really, of the rest of the human species – apart from my family obviously – and I think that gave the music a strangely unique atmosphere, and perhaps that’s why the music is more introspective and more personal, and perhaps why the music is more uncompromising in its diversity because this is a record that constantly surprises the listener. You’re never quite sure what direction it’s going to go in. It goes from electronic to rock to acoustic to ambient to jazz to trip-hop, and it’s constantly confronting your expectations in a way about what kind of record it is. I think – again – that’s something that came because I felt very isolated from my audience and my listeners during the creative process, in a good way.
I like that about the record. I mean God knows the record’s been fantastically received so I think people are very much responding to that, but I think in many ways it’s a more selfish and self-indulgent record than I’ve ever made before, with all the good things and bad things that perhaps that entails.
Ez: I’m definitely making giant leaps here, so please forgive me in advance, but I imagine what with how busy you’re usually are, cliché as it is the lockdown probably gave you time to stop, in a sense. I imagine you were still busy to an extent but nowhere near as you’d normally would, hence why those things might have shifted ’cause now you’ve got time to think and reflect.
Steven: Yeah, and I think there’s a psychological element here of almost being able to get off the career treadmill, and there is an element of that even though I would say throughout my career I’ve never made music to order, to please people, to please fans. I’ve always tended to go in my own direction in a very kind of willful way. But there was something about lockdown that took that to another level where I was completely unaware of even being a professional musician in that sense.
It felt like my whole career had kind of gone into sort of period of being on hold, so what am I gonna do? Well I’m gonna keep making music, but who am I making music for? Well I’m making it just for myself now. I’m making it to entertain myself because I have this vacuum opened up in front of me where I can’t tour, I can’t promote, I can’t meet the fans, I can’t do any of the things that are part of that cycle of being a professional musician and I think all of those things had an effect on the sound of the record, for the good I think.
Ez: Well you certainly do have a way of taking a lot of things that you’ve been involved with and… not smash them together but make them congeal in a sense ’cause you could argue there’s elements of Porcupine Tree, but you could also argue that there’s I.E.M. in there, No-Man, and obviously your solo career that are kind of mixed in and it does kind of congeal and when you’re talking about making a record that’s a little bit more self-indulgent…
That kind of feels pointless to say because realistically a lot of music that one creates is going to be the culmination of what’s come before and then looking forward, right? So I don’t know where I was going with that question *laughs*
Steven: No I think that’s a valid point If I’m kind of reading what you’re saying here. There’s more than one thing at play here. Firstly there’s the will to not repeat oneself, so your back catalogue in some ways becomes the biggest influence of all on what you do, and in some ways it can be – not a negative influence, negative’s the wrong word but it becomes like “What am I gonna do now? I want to do something that I’ve never done before. What have I done before? Well I’ve done this and I’ve done that, and I’ve done this and I’ve done that so I’m not gonna do any of those things”. And so in that sense acknowledging what’s already in the back catalogue becomes very important for me in terms of feeling I’m continuing to evolve.
I suppose, more importantly, if you’re gonna make another record – and I’ve made a lot of records over the years; some would say too too many *laughs* – If I’m going to make a record like The Harmony Codex, there’s a reason for me to add it to my already large catalogue, and that reason will be that it sounds unique in the catalogue. There’s something about it that sounds like nothing else that I’ve done.
That doesn’t meant that I don’t still sound like myself and I don’t still reference things I’ve done in the past. People could say “That song could’ve been on a Porcupine Tree record” or “That song could’ve been on one of your other solo records” or “That song could’ve been on a Blackfield record” which are all things that are true I think, but the overall effect of the record is somehow unique, and has a very unique place in my catalogue.
I think in a way that’s why I’m proudest of all of my solo career, because [it] is notable for the fact that I’ve made seven records, almost all in different genres, almost all with different approaches and different musical vocabularies, and that’s something you can only do I think if you’re a solo artist. It’s much harder to do that in the context of a band because a band are a collective and they all have to agree on if you’re gonna change direction, and everyone has to agree *laughs*. “Oh yeah, we’re all gonna change direction in this”, and that in reality never happens. You can’t get four people to all agree that they’re gonna completely abandon what they’ve done in the past and do something different, but you can do that if you’re a solo artist because it’s only you that has to make that decision, so to me I think I’m most proud of the solo career in that respect.
Ez: I guess at the same time – just touching on the band thing – it’s also a lot easier to have someone challenge on an idea and actually make it better because when you’re working in a solo capacity you have to have a very stern discipline to be able to do that and not necessarily all solo artists will do that. They’ll just “I think this is good. Put it out” and then it doesn’t turn out well, and they don’t have that discipline that a band can facilitate.
Steven: I think there are amazing things about being in a band and you’ve just highlighted one of them, but I would say just a slight caveat to what you’ve said there is I still have feedback and I still have opinions. I mean, people around me, the other musicians, so there’s still that aspect of collaboration. I suppose the difference is I have the final say and if I believe strongly enough in something that’s all that matters, but there’s still a lot of collaboration.
There’s a lot of different musicians on this record and a lot of that was done during lockdown so it meant that I couldn’t be there, sort of standing next to them while they were recording their drums or recording their guitars or their keyboards, so a lot of it was a surprise to me. A lot of it was experimental in the sense of allowing myself to be outside of my comfort zone where there were people collaborating with me and surprising me with what they did and how they responded to the songs. That’s all in the record as well so there’s a lot of collaboration still involved in this process too.
Ez: Quickly going back to past catalogue because not always but in parts it can be a very dominating force; do you ever worry about, even though you’re putting out new music, being seen as a legacy act?
It’s kind of a weird question to ask because you exist in this niche of not [being] mega successful; just kind of under the fringes of superstardom in a sense, and generally that’s not something that’s going to come up in those instances because you’re not selling billions upon squillions of records all the time, but is it something that you ever worry about?
Steven: I think you’ve kind of answered your own question there because I think to be a legacy act you kind of have to have this, what you might call imperial phase in your career where you are having hits and you are reaching a mainstream audience and all that stuff, and so your career becomes defined by that kind of peak in terms of your music proliferating and reaching people.
I’ve never had that and so in a way I’ve circumnavigated the whole issue, but your question is valid because, for example there are certain countries in the world – and Australia is one of them – where I think Porcupine Tree is something I will always be most associated with. America is the other place that springs to mind. It’s not necessarily the case in Europe but certainly America, Australia, Porcupine Tree is probably the thing I’m known best for, and it would be very easy to just go out and tour with Porcupine Tree and in fact I did do it last year and it’s the only time I’ve given into anything like what you’re talking about.
The expectation to revisit something from the past that perhaps people are expecting or people want, but even with Porcupine Tree it was conditional – at least to me – on we had to make a new record as well, and we did and we played all of it live, but there was perhaps a little element of nostalgia involved in that too. It’s the only time I’ve done it; It’s probably the only time I will do it –
Ez: You say that now *laughs*
Steven: Yeah *laughs*. Of course, and I always leave the door open too, but I’m always more interested in looking forward than looking backwards. I don’t have that baggage that perhaps a lot of artists have, of the big commercial peak, the hit single, the imperial phase. It’s one of the things I kind of embrace as being a good thing about my career, even though it’s been frustrating sometimes to not have that commercial breakthrough. I’m not gonna lie to you; I’d love to have a big hit album! Who wouldn’t? I’d love to have an album that suddenly breaks through to the mainstream and then maybe that becomes my legacy that I can’t shake off, but so far that’s never happened.
Ez: Well it’s kind of interesting because there are also at least lesser-known artists where it happens. For instance, Regurgitator – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. They’re an Australian alt. rock band but they have an called Unit – that was big here – And they regularly tour that now even though they have more.
You could look at Deftones, although they [moved] away from White Pony [which was] a massive defining thing for them. You could even look at Mike Vennart and Oceansize, though he is moving away from that, but Oceansize was such a defining thing for him… Well at least for the audience in terms of his music career and personality.
I think it’s an important thing to think about at the very least, you know? It’s such a thing that we carry with us whether we want to or not, but we can either let it define us or we can rely on it, or in your instance keep moving forward, not choosing to have a rest.
Steven: Yeah. Don’t get me wrong; I do think about it. I think there is something in me that kind of relishes upsetting my fans *laughs* . I’ve said this in the past and I do really believe this, that if you’re not upsetting at least some of your fans then you’re probably not doing the right thing. If you’re just catering for what they want all the time, I think there’s a problem there. I kind of relish sometimes the fact that my fans never really get a repeat of what they want.
I’m very aware that in my fanbase I have all these little factions, little tribes. There are the guys that discovered me through making progressive metal with Porcupine Tree for a few albums. There are the fans that discovered me because I made some classic progressive rock. There are the fans that discovered me more recently that like the more kind of electronic, alternative side of things and I have all these little tribes in my audience and I think the clever thing to do – and I’m not suggesting I do this – is to take as many of those people with you as possible on this musical journey that you want to go on.
I like to think that a lot of those people – of course some of them don’t go with me on the journey but a lot of them do. I still see metal fans turning up to my shows and my signing sessions even though there is no metal element at all in my last few records.
I think people generally, if they recognise an artist that has integrity, they’ll quite often be prepared to go with you into realms they might not otherwise normally go on. I’ve seen that in the careers of all of the artists that I admire the most, whether it’s been David Bowie, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Nick Cave… these artists constantly confront the expectations of their audience and yet their audience stick with them.
Radiohead! Their audience still stick with them and I think it’s that key thing that the fans recognise. There is integrity in these career moves. They’re not doing them just to try to chase fame or hits or whatever; they’re making these moves because they really feel the artistic impulse to go down a particular road. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not; it’s a very big subject you’re talking about here. It’s something very close to my heart; why so many artists that I grew up listening to have ended up essentially being what you’re talking about. Doing tours where they play their big hit record from thirty, forty years ago.
I find it slightly depressing and I would certainly resist and have resisted it.
Ez: In alignment with those artists who you just mentioned before, there’s also artists like Oxbow. They do kind of have a root sound but they’ve constantly changed and pushed it forward and retained a core audience.
I think maybe the reason why you get metal fans who keep going to these things other than they kind of expect a thing, your music still retains an inherent heaviness. At least my experience with metal and whatnot… I like heavy for the sum of its parts. I can do Godflesh because that’s heavy for the sum of its parts; it’s warranted there, right? But you listen to some of Broadrick’s other work; It’s not as metal but it still has that heaviness.
I think in at least my brief flirtations with The Harmony Codex thus far there is certainly an inherent heaviness to what’s going on in it, even if the sound itself is not heavy.
Steven: Yeah, interesting theory and I think also if you listen to an album like The Harmony Codex there’s a kind of intellectual existentialism if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. There is a feeling of substance. Yes, you’re right; it’s a dark world. It’s not heavy in the way Swans is heavy or Godflesh is heavy, but it still has that sense of melancholia and existentialism.
That’s interesting. Yeah, I never thought of it like that but that’s probably true.
But I think in order for metal fans to have found their way to a record like The Harmony Codex there would have had to have been some doorway that they would have walked through somewhere in my back catalogue that was more familiar to them and that would have been a record like In Absentia, for example. That would have been their gateway to my world but now they’re in my world and they hopefully recorgnise an artist with integrity. They’re prepared to go with me on a journey like The Harmony Codex and I think that’s amazing.
I think the bottom line is I don’t quite know how I’ve arrived at the point I’ve arrived at but I’m very happy to have all of these different sort of contingent parts of my audience which all seem to come from different directions and somehow all arrive in my world and I think that’s amazing. I’m so pleased about that.
Ez: Well, I’ve got one more question.
So, Talk Talk; you’ve briefly touched on them before in an interview yonks ago, and this feels a bit nit-picky because there’s so many artists in one’s life and musical career that help shape and define them, but what do you think [is] the lingering effect of Talk Talk’s work on your music today?
Steven: That’s an interesting question. We talked about artists with integrity; to me, Mark Hollis is the ultimate, or one of the ultimate artists you can say has integrity through everything he did.
Talking about an artist that confronted expectations from album to album; I mean, wow. They only made five records and within [them] they went from sort of new-romantic pop, electropop to something more akin to avant-garde jazz music or you know, what we now think of almost as post-rock. I think it would be hard to find any other artist that spanned such an extraordinary musical journey in such a brief career, or such a small catalogue. It’s almost unprecedented. I couldn’t think of any other artist that did that. To me those artists are the ones that I have the most undying admiration for.
Yeah, so I mean Hollis is definitely up there with – for me – some the most inspirational artists of all. He would be near the top of that list.
Ez: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for the time, especially doing it so late. I imagine you’re probably used to it at this point in your career but it’s still a rough run.
Steven: Thank you very much. Nice to speak to you buddy.
Addendum: After this interview I happened to be fortunate enough to arouse Mike Vennart’s ears to my having done this interview. Regarding Steven Wilson he had this to say:
‘I AM COMPILING A LIST OF THE BEST 100 SONGS AND ORNAMENT/THE LAST WRONGS NARROWLY MISSED THE TOP 100 WHICH IS SAYING A LOT GIVEN THE AMOUNT OF MUSIC IVE HEARD’
I’m unsure as to the meaning behind this statement but I can only assume that it holds some sort of profound meaning.