BY STEPHEN HUMPHRIES
In this second instalment of a two-part interview (read part one, here), Steven Wilson talks about each of the songs on the second half of his new album, To the Bone.
SW has often recounted the story about the first two albums that made an impression upon him as a child: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Donna Summer’s Love to Love You Baby. We’ve long heard the progressive influence in Steven’s work and now, at last, he’s written a summery pop song that reflects his love of 1970s disco. Kick-drum to the fore, “Permanating” seems to arrive at a catchy chorus only to reveal that it was actually a false-peak—a prelude to the actual chorus. Catchy guitar break, too.
“Permanating” is unlike anything else on the album, let alone your past albums!
With every album I try to create diversity. Guitar songs, piano songs, fast songs, slow songs. For me that’s the secret of making a really satisfying album—you have different styles in the music so it is continually changing and evolving. The same thing when you put together a set list for a show.
You wrote this song, which has great potential for mainstream accessibility, long before you signed to a new record label. But some fans will imagine this was some kind of calculated bid for top 40 domination rather than you following your muse.
The way I feel about this is that there’s no point in making another record in the same style as the last few records again. I wanted to try something a bit different. When you start talking about making records that are more pop-orientated and working with bigger record companies, the knee-jerk reaction of existing fans is to go, “sell out!” I’m very aware that some people will direct that at me. But it’s a very personal thing. I’ve always loved pop. I got a little bit jaded with doing the conceptual rock thing. I want to make a joyous piece of pure pop that would hark back to my love of things like Abba!
The video for ‘Permanating’ features glamorous Bollywood dancing.
“Permanating”: I’ve no idea what that word means as it’s not in the dictionary!
Most of our lives we are neither joyful nor sad, we just exist. But there are those incredible moments of joy that define us. You have to hold onto them. “Permanating” means to me holding on to those crystallised moments. Writing happy, joyful songs is not something I’m known for!
“Permanating” is going to be the big single from the album. A happy song is such a departure for you.
The video that I’m planning for “Permanating” is going to blow some minds too. It might even upset some of my old fans. But it’s a joyful song, and it needs a joyful video.
An intimate acoustic duet between Steven and Ninet Tayeb. This story about the aftermath of a doomed relationship begins with the perspective of the male character. In the second verse, the woman offers her side of the tale. You can hear the respective voices picking out the thorns that were left behind. Finally, the two voices combine in harmonic catharsis.
This sad lament is a stark mood change coming right after “Permanating”.
I’ve written lots of breakup songs over the years. There must be a break-up song on almost every album. Everyone understands what that feels like. It’s a subject that I find endlessly fascinating—the dynamic of relationships failing or ending. I think that song took only an hour or so to write, it came very quickly. The sentiment of the song felt perfectly crystallised in a relatively short piece of music.
This song made one of the greatest leaps from demo to final version, didn’t it?
What’s interesting about that song is that the final version actually has a lot less in it than the demo version. The album version is just a single guitar, piano, those two voices and a couple of Mellotron overdubs. The original version had acoustic guitars, a banjo and some other vocal treatments. I just took all that stuff away because it needed to feel like a simple, intimate dialogue between two people.
Adam Holzman plays on this song.
Yes, he plays with an almost painterly quality on this song, it’s beautiful.
PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS
A hard rocker about the terrorist who lives next door. Steven strums a tense guitar riff to accompany a vocal performance that’s full of punk snarl. The song picks up momentum as Craig Blundell pummels the drum kit with locomotive power and precision. During the hard-charging guitar break, an impertinent bass guitar barges in like a gate-crasher. Amid all the song’s fury, there are brief lulls of quiet reflection about the human tragedy of terrorism.
“People Who Eat Darkness” was written after the terror attack in Paris at the Bataclan theatre, in November 2015. It picks up on some of the recurring themes in your work—the person next door that we studiously ignore, in this instance the terrorists.
“People Who Eat Darkness” was written specifically about the massacre and the subsequent media coverage. It’s become almost a cliche to see the neighbours interviewed when they say things like, “I would pass him in the stairway, he would always smile and say ‘hello,’ and always helped me carry my shopping in. He seemed like such a normal nice young man.” Who could possibly know that they were so full of hatred, rage and darkness?
Had you played shows at the Bataclan in the past?
I have, yeah. Both as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree.
Has that attack on a music venue given you more trepidation about playing live gigs now?
Well, ultimately modern terrorism can be anywhere, anytime can’t it? It’s almost pointless to worry about it. In recent times it’s happened at a gay club, in the offices of a magazine, at a rock ’n’ roll venue, a carnival, an airport…. It can even happen online. They rely on the element of surprise and the unexpected. I suppose in that respect I don’t feel any more or less safe than I always did.
Although you’ve written about religion in the past and touched on the news in The Incident, you’ve steered clear of politics until now.
When you say “political,” this is not party politics. There’s certainly songs about the politics of truth, the politics of religion and sexual politics in a song like “Pariah”. Even if I’m writing about terrorists and politics, I’m writing from the perspective of a particular individual or a character. I feel more comfortable writing about that than writing about something which is preaching politics in the more literal sense.
The visceral bass and guitar feels appropriate for the subject matter, doesn’t it?
Yes, I knew that one needed to be a bit unschooled and punky. I’m on bass, I’m on guitar, I do most of the keyboards, I sing the lead vocal. A track like that might have been a band effort in the past, but then it might have sounded too good!
SONG OF I
On the most electronically textured piece on the album, Steven and German singer Sophie Hunger make obsessive vows to each other. To underscore the unsettling nature of this relationship—one of addiction—electronic treatments hiss and groan over the snap of a clapper-board beat. As if to suggest that the pull these two have on each other has a deadly magnetic vortex, the middle eight consists of a frenzied orchestra playing on top of barbed guitar chords.
Did you envision this song as a duet from the outset?
Yes. It’s a song about obsession. What’s nice about it is that on the surface you wouldn’t know if it’s a sinister song or a love song, though the music kind of tells you that it’s the former.
The gist of the song is, “I’ll give up anything—I’ll give us smoking, I’ll give up alcohol, I’ll give up gambling, I give up staying out all night…but the one thing I will never give up is you.” That could be taken as a very romantic sentiment, but it could also be a very creepy one depending on the context. I imagined it as a boy and girl singing together originally, obsession certainly isn’t gender specific.
Was the duet with Sophie Hunger in-person or was it a file share?
It was a file share, she lives in Berlin. She was recommended to me by the label. I wanted someone who could pull off that sexy/sinister vibe, so they sent me a few records to listen to and Sophie’s was one of them.
I listened to the title track of her record and thought, “Yes! She can do this.” She’s done a really great job.
I love the string arrangement that Dave Stewart created, Bollywood style, lots of slides in the cellos.
Were you surprised that the record company recommended it as a single?
Yes, to my eternal astonishment. I’m very happy about it, because I love it. The idea that they think it might actually be played on the radio is amazing to me.
This epic track about the deluded motivations of a terrorist is a continuous cycle of tension and release. You hear it in the dynamic back-and-forth between distorted electronic beats and the brutal heave of Jeremy Stacey’s drumming. It’s in the earnest pleading in Steven’s vocal contrasted with the guttural menace of the terrorist’s demonic inner voice. It’s in the sudden shifts between the delicate pluck of crystalline guitar and the massive reverberation of doomy chords. The infectious groove of the lengthy outro climaxes with a dizzying fretboard foxtrot by guest guitarist David Kollar. One of SW’s best long-form pieces.
“Detonation” is a song about fundamentalist terrorism, right?
Yes, it was inspired by the Summer 2016 Florida gay club massacre. The guy who perpetrated the mass shooting shouted “Allahu Akbar,” an allegiance to his God, but it seemed almost tokenism, like he was just wearing a badge to justify his own hatred and prejudice. That first line in “Detonation”, “Great god I don’t believe in you, but still I will do what you want me to,” is about how someone can pledge allegiance to something they don’t even believe in to legitimise their actions. I believe that some people are now turning to religion as a way to disguise their own self-loathing and mental illness.
The impulse isn’t just confined to religion though, is it? It’s something we also see people exhibit in political tribalism or things like extreme environmentalism. Some people deify politicians like they’re saviours.
Yes, pop musicians, movie stars and celebrities have long been treated almost like religious icons. Maybe less so in pop music now because the myth has been deflated by years of reality TV and social media. But there certainly was a time when rock stars and pop musicians were messianic figures. The impulse to believe or to deify—whether it’s to deify a drug or a pop star, a politician, a religion or God—is part of the human psyche, and a part that isn’t quite operating correctly in my opinion. Because the cult of celebrity is absurd. A world where many people look upon Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump with a sense of awe is not one I can relate to.
What’s your experience with obsessive fans who put you up on a pedestal?
Well, even though I’m not a mainstream artist, even modestly successful musicians like myself can attract obsessive fans. There are plenty of people who will say they are my greatest fan but can also be almost aggressive if I don’t make the music they want me to make. An even weirder side of it is people with tattoos of my face on their body, or the marriage proposals! I’m at the stage now where I probably do need to have a protective layer between me and the fans when I’m on tour or doing promotion, which is a shame. But I still do record store signings and things like that; I just have to have someone looking out for me in case that slightly too obsessed fan shows up.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also flattering and it didn’t feed my ego. But I’m also certainly not immune to it myself, if one day I finally get to meet Kate Bush, I am sure I will be star struck too!
One of the many ways this album is a departure from the past is that your photograph is on the album cover rather than the usual conceptual artwork.
It may turn off some of my fans who see it as something egotistical, which of course it is! I’m not naturally an extroverted person and I’ve tended to hide behind the conceptual art until now. But pop music is also about strong personalities, and I think I acknowledged to myself that I do have one of those.
SONG OF UNBORN
The unfettered emotions of this hymn-like song may wreck you. The lyric cautions an unborn baby about the scary world outside the womb. Ultimately, Steven relays a message of hope to the child in the plangent grandeur of the chorus as he sings, “Don’t be afraid to be alive.”
“Song of Unborn” has a very moving vocal and the song’s themes also seem very existential.
At one point, I was worried that it was falling back to one of my typical epic piano ballads like “Routine” or “The Raven that Refused to Sing”. But the difference here is that actually this song has a very positive message. “Song of Unborn” is about recognising the world is a wreck, but that every life is unique and can be turned into something really special.
The arc of your life can really be profound if you embrace it. I thought that was a beautiful message for an unborn child. The other important element in this song is the choir arrangement. I’ve never done anything quite like that section. It’s almost pagan in its beauty and optimism. In the end, I think it’s come out is very unique and distinct from any of those other songs.
How would you sum up what you’ve accomplished with this album?
It’s something that has more of an emotional heart to it, something that I hope will touch people. Not that my previous records didn’t have that, but this is definitely on a different plane for me. I consider myself to be a student of the history of pop and rock music, and one of the most mind-blowing things to me when considering the majority of the music that is most special to me, is realising that most of the musicians who created it were in their 20s at the time. There are exceptions, but most of the really great pop and rock musicians, whether it was The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Who…almost all of them made their most important work before they got to 30.
But in my case most of the music I made before I was 30 seems very formative to me, and I feel like I’m getting better and better at doing what I do. I find myself wondering why that should be, and why I can honestly say To the Bone is my best album to date. Maybe because as I get older I’m finding it easier to find the emotional truth at the core of the music.