Steven Wilson had his year planned out.
A new album had been completed, with the final elements of the release rollout already being put in place. But then came the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the visceral drama of 2020 – so he pushed everything back.
Out now, 'The Future Bites' is well worth the wait, an ultra-progressive take on synthetic pop that fuses those dramatic Trevor Horn productions with 21st century outlooks.
It's another daring about turn from the composer, one of British music's most pleasingly stubborn figures. The elevator pitch is this: in spite (or perhaps because) of making willfully left-field music, Steven Wilson has gathered a huge global audience, all while preserving his own relative anonymity.
Able to sell out London's historic Royal Albert Hall multiple times while scarcely getting out of breath, he's an exacting, probing artist, someone whose existence virtually eclipses the mainstream.
Clash caught up with Steven Wilson to unpick the manner in which the internet has altered our lives, his surprising new projects, and the way in which the pandemic afforded him rare space to exist inside his own artistry.
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The album was delayed by COVID, what impact did that have on you?
I mean, in some ways it’s more topical than ever before. It’s funny that when I wrote the album it was long before the pandemic, and long before COVID. But having said that, we were going through Brexit, and we were in the middle of the Trump administration, so I wasn’t in a particularly optimistic frame of mind when I wrote the songs. But it seems like now that it’s coming out that the future is biting harder than ever… which has made it even more prescient in that respect. In answer to your question, certainly, I feel like having it out now!
It’s certainly prescient. The year has opened in spectacularly bleak style!
It gets worse and worse and worse. All the optimism that we had in the beginning of December has evaporated.
Your creative process is quite solitary, isn’t it?
Well, when I started in the music industry I realised pretty soon that the kind of music I wanted to make I needed time, and I needed the freedom to be able to explore my own creativity. I always ultimately wanted to be a producer, so I knew that meant I would have to spend a lot of time in the studio. So, the very first record deal I got, I spent all the money – basically – on putting together my own studio. And that’s pretty much been the plan for most of my career. I have a pretty elaborate set up at home, and I’m pretty self-contained.
You’re a very admirable figure, in that you’ve been able to stick to your guns, making music that sits in its own realm, all while finding an objectively massive audience. Are we to presume the studio has expanded along the way?
Ha! I have a separate building now at the side of my house, and it’s fully equipped. I do a lot of work in multi-channel mixing, so 5.1 and Dolby Atmos now. So my latest studio I have kitted out for Dolby Atmos now, with speakers beside me, and all around me. I’m very much a fan of sonic excellence.
When I was a kid in the 80s I grew up hearing all those fantastic Trevor Horn productions. The 80s was all about pushing the envelope in terms of making things sound bigger and better and more sonically beautiful. I grew up with that, and I fell in love with the idea of immersive audio, and immersive multi- channel listening. So that’s been a big part of my process the last few years too.
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Trevor Horn is a great reference point for this new album. You’re often pegged in that progressive realm, but there’s nothing more progressive than those 12 inch mixes!
I know the word ‘progressive’ comes up a lot with me, and I try to remain outside of this idea of generic classicification as much as I can. I started my career in a pop trio! Basically, what’s always appealed to me the most is the idea of music as being analogous with a movie, or a piece of literature, this idea you can tell a story across a side of vinyl, or across a whole record.
That comes from when I was young – my mum would listen to those old Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer records, particularly ‘Love To Love You Baby’ where the first side is this 16 minute disco symphony. I love this idea that even with a piece of essentially groove based music you can still take the listener on some kind of journey, where there’ll be unpredictable evolutions in the music. And those fantastic, seminal Trevor Horn / ZTT remixes definitely had that sense of storytelling to them.
Storytelling is a useful phrase – we’ll discuss the music a lot, but do you ever sometimes being with words, or a phrase, when writing a song?
Sometimes a song will start just from a sound. I think being someone that’s always been interested in sound, and sound design, I’m looking for sounds that inspire me, predominantly. But elements edge each other along – a lyrical phrase, a title. I had some of the concepts for the record fairly early on, and that in turn led to influencing some of the musical styles that were explored too.
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‘Eminent Sleaze’ is such a potent title – it’s very Trumpian!
A lot of the songs came from this original starting point, which is me thinking about how these days it’s no longer politicians that really rule our lives, it’s algorithms. Things that analyse our data. Things that analyse our internet footprint and then use it against us. So there’s a new form of sleaze at work in that sense.
The song ‘Eminent Sleaze’ is about the concept of sleaze itself, rather than any particular individual. That more insidious side, and manipulative side, of making people believe things through fake news, through social media, through using belligerence and the politics of hate to divide people. I’ve seen that increasingly during my career. Even during my experience as a musician, the amount of polarisation and belligerence I see online. The thing is, these days, if you release something online then within minutes you have a response, a reaction.
A lot of that response – even from, or particularly, from your hardcore fans – can be incredibly negative. It’s like an instant negative reaction – this isn’t what we wanted! And I get a lot of that, particularly because I’m constantly confronting the expectations of my audience. I don’t do the same record twice. So this record particularly – because it’s more electronic, it’s got less of the classic rock tropes about it – some of the early songs that were released drew an incredible wave of negativity. And I see that beligerence now at work a lot on social media. The fact that people take black and white positions – there’s no element of compromise or perspective, any more.
There’s a lot of people taking an extreme view or perspective all the time – with regards to anything, whether that’s politics or news or music or movies. You name it! People are essentially taking black and white positions these days.
So a lot of the album came from this idea of the internet as creating a new generation of belligerence and polarisation, and a lot of that is to do with these algorithms that constantly analyse and manipulate our data. They mostly give us information that we agree with. I think that’s the point now. On the internet you’re being marketed things that you already like, so you’re essentially preaching to the converted the whole time. I don’t think that’s a particularly healthy development.
Do you consider yourself to be a political artist in that respect? Or do your interests lie a bit deeper than that?
One of the things I’ve found out about my career – and I realised this comparatively recently – is that I do find myself in a very unique position as an artist. Because I’ve never really been embraced by the mainstream. I’ve been relatively happy outside of the mainstream. I’ve done my own thing, I’ve never had to compromise. For the majority of my career I’ve just done what the fuck I want, and yet I have managed to build an international audience to the point where I can have Top Five albums despite being largely invisible in mainstream terms. You won’t see me on the TV, you won’t hear me on the radio… and yet I have this very substantial, loyal following. And I found myself in this rather peculiar and maybe rather enviable position without having planned it at all.
I think the word that I’ve seen people use about me – and I love to be described in this way – is that I’ve done things with a lot of integrity. I’ve never tried to fashion my music in order to appeal to anyone in particular except myself. And in a way – particularly in the modern world of pop music where a lot of it is very generic, and it is quite banal – to be doing that is quite revolutionary. It’s quite unusual.
I think increasingly people are toing the line now, but I’m not. I’m still the square peg, in a way. Over the years I’ve gained a grudging respect from the media for doing what I do. And it’s that thing of conducting my career with integrity, and perseverance… and in a way, that has made me – in my own little way – a bit of a revolutionary.
If you’re working on your own in those circumstances, though, you can make virtually anything, no matter how unintelligible to the outside world. How do you keep those lines of communication open then, without succumbing to creative introspection?
Well, the answer is… I don’t know! Because it’s a completely intuitive process. I mean, I love pop. I’ve always loved pop. But I’ve always loved the music that’s kind of on the periphery, as well. I grew up as much excited by Krautrock as what Trevor Horn was doing. I grew up as much excited by what – Stockhausen was doing as what Tears For Fears were doing.
So, I never really consciously accepted this idea of genre or generic boundaries. If there is any secret to what I’ve done, then that’s really been it. This un-selfconscious, intuitive melting pot of all of the things that excite me. And that can apply to music and literature as well, of course. And I think music as an output is always a consequence of the input – so, the more you listen, the more curious you are about the world, what’s going on in the world of movies, literature… all of that goes in somehow, and gets filtered through your own musical personality and your own experiences. It comes out – hopefully – sounding fresh, distinctive, and part of a very distinctive musical world. That’s what I’ve done. I haven’t done it in a conscious way. I’ve done it in a very selfish way.
I’ve always drawn a very strong distinctive between the idea of an artist and an entertainer. Some people choose to be entertainers. And entertainers are people who essentially look to see what people want from them, and try to give it to them. And the artist is someone who is incapable of doing that. The artist is someone who goes about what they do in a very selfish, self-indulgent way. But sometimes manages to reach an audience anyway – almost in spite of themselves.
And I suppose in my own way I fall into that latter category. I’m not really capable of being conscious of my audience or what they want. Which is why I get so much negativity from them when I do something different! But at the same time, I think anyone that listens to the record will also recognise that the record has been made with integrity and not for any other reason than because this is what I wanted to do at this moment in time.
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You open the record with ‘Unself’ and ‘Self’ – it’s about the way we construct ‘ourselves’ or the ego has shifted dramatically in the past couple of years.
Absolutely. The song ‘Self’ is about this idea, how the way we engage with the world, the way we engage with other human beings has completely altered through the prism of social media. The way I look at it is that the human species used to look out at the stars, we’d look out at the universe with this sense of curiosity, and now we spend most of our time looking at a little screen to see how many likes we can get, how many comments we can get.
And listen: I’m the same! I check it everyday… for professional reasons, obviously! And I think that’s created a whole new generation of self-obsession and narcicissm, in a way, to see how technology has – as I see it – altered the path of human evolution in an incredibly short period of time. The whole we behave, the whole way we engage with the rest of the world has changed beyond recognition because of this mirror of social media. The way in which we find ourselves reflected back.
Obviously, I don’t think that’s a particularly great development, but it’s fascinating to me. And a lot of the songs on the record also discuss that aspect, this new generation of narcissists, which is basically what most of us are now.
‘Follower’ states that explicitly.
It does. ‘Personal Shopper’ as well, but that’s more about commerce, and e-commerce. One of the things about ‘Personal Shopper’ which is worth highlighting is that a lot of the things we buy these days we don’t buy for the utility, we buy for the status of ownership. It’s more about that than the actual use of the object.
The beginning of the song is a list of First World consumer items – Elton John reads it out – which we don’t need, but we love to buy. And of course all these algorithms are always working behind the scenes, well aware that we’re a world of consumers. Moreso than ever before. We’re obsessed with buying and consuming. And consuming things that we don’t really need.
That also, for me, taps into this High Concept / High Designer world of companies like Supreme who will brand a 50 pence t-shirt and sell it for 500 pounds. And people willingly buy them! Part of me thinks that world is a lot of fun, but of course there’s also something absurd about it. Is this really where we’ve arrived as a species? Spending huge amounts of money on things that we don’t need simply for the status.
‘Personal Shopper’ is half a love letter to consumerism and the other half is an exploration of the more insidious sides of modern consumerism.
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The album was delayed due to COVID – as a creator, was it actually quite a nice thing to be able to spend additional time in its realm, before handing it over to the world?
It really has. Most of the time, when you make an album – and this one took two years – the whole cycle involves writing, demoing, recording, mixing, mastering… and usually by the end of that process you can’t see the woods for the trees anymore. You’re listening to your music like it’s a science project. You’re listening to the songs and you’re hearing effects, or mixing details. You’re not really listening to the music at all, anymore. Certainly not in the way that the listener will.
But what’s been lovely this time has been the ability to step away from the record for six months – I didn’t listen to the record between January and June – and then with July, the test pressings arrived for the vinyl. So I had to sit down and listen to it, having not heard it for six months… which is unheard of. Usually, it’s like: you finish the record, you deliver it to the record company, and it’s out. And I was able to hear a record I had made before it had been released with some kind of objectivity, with some kind of objective perspective on it.
And I actually ended up changing one track – I took one off, and put one on – and changed the order a bit. Which was a luxury I’ve never had before and probably never will have again. So that was one of the plus sides of the pandemic in that respect.
The ‘lockdown album’ is becoming a more common trope, with artists filling that live performance void with more and more studio sessions. How did you fill that space?
Well, I have started working on some new songs. I think the main thing for me was diversifying and doing some other creative things. So I started a book project, which was my main one. People have been asking me for the last few years – and it’s very flattering – to write an autobiography of some kind. And I always thought that would be a very boring book. Kid grows up, falls in love with music, dedicates his life to making it. That’s not a very interesting story!
But I was persuaded that there was a book to write, and that it was more a book about my ideas on music. A bit like what we’re discussing now! And also what it means to be an essentially underground cult musician in the 21 st century, my relationship with my fans. There’s a chapter on the art of listening – this idea that I’ve never really recognised genre. There’s even a short story or two. I’ve been working really hard to create a music book like no one has created before. Again, trying to find a way to do something with a fresh unique perspective. That’s coming out in the summer.
Alongside that, I started a podcast. Me and a buddy, we go on and argue about albums. It’s been a time of creativity, but I guess in a way finding different ways to be creative – things I had always wanted to do, but never would have imagined finding the time if it hadn’t been for lockdown.
The key to a lot of those projects is the internet, of course.
Absolutely! Listen, I don’t want to give anyone the idea that I’m down on the internet. I honestly believe it is the greatest invention of my lifetime, if not anyone’s lifetime. Looking back, I had great press at the beginning of my career, but it didn’t last very long. I struggled a bit through the 90s. Around the mid 90s fans started to create websites dedicated to me, and to my band at the time. The music started to proliferate through word of mouth – or in this case, through the internet. And I think it gave me a career.
I can’t imagine being able to prevail as a professional musician into the 21st century if it hadn’t of been for that word of mouth, and through the internet, and through social media. And of course other simple things – there was a time when if you wanted to let your fanbase know that you had a new record coming out then you had to have a mailing list. So you had to print off 5000 newsletters, fold up 5000 newsletters, put them in 5000 envelopes, and stick 5000 addresses on the front, and 5000 stamps… and it was expensive, and it was time consuming! I remember because I used to have to do that.
And now if I want to let people know I have a record coming out I just post it on the internet and 500,000 people know about it instantly. It’s amazing! This has given people like me the opportunity to have a direct dialogue with a substantial fanbase. I bless the internet for that side of it.
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'The Future Bites' is out now.
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