4 ½ is released 22nd January on K-Scope. The album title signals that Steven regards this release as a “half album” rather than a proper follow-up to its four predecessors, since it rounds up previously unreleased songs and disparate orphans from sessions from the previous 2 albums and unites them as a family. But though 4 ½ doesn’t follow an intentional design, there’s something serendipitous about how the final construct holds together musically as well as thematically. Compositions such as “Year of the Plague,” “Sunday Rain Sets In,” and “Vermillioncore” are unmistakably Steven Wilson in sound even as they showcase sides of his musical personality that feel wholly new. As half albums go, this is sterling stuff.
Steven recently spoke about the album to provide an in-depth guide to each of these songs.
MY BOOK OF REGRETS
Partly written in late 2013 for Hand.Cannot.Erase., this nearly 10 minute epic was finished up in June while the band were on tour in the US and has been performed at many shows since then. It begins with a staccato guitar riff and a breezy verse about a woman’s detached observations from the windows of a London taxi. The chorus is a dazzler. It has a dynamic rhythm, an unexpected sequence of vocal notes, and then a sudden drop off into a quiet and reflective part. Even more thrilling? During the extended instrumental section, each band member gets an opportunity to shine as solos are passed like batons between the musicians. At one point, the band comes together in unison for a stop-start riff that has the jolt of a defibrillator.
Stephen Humphries: Do you recall why you set this song aside rather than finish it for Hand.Cannot.Erase.?
Steven Wilson: The album was already getting a bit long. I struggle, because I’m a great believer that albums should be about 50 minutes long, maximum. But I don’t really practice what I preach. Sometimes a book or movie or an album is as long as it needs to be. In the case of Hand.Cannot.Erase., it turned out to be 65 minutes long. “My Book of Regrets” just didn’t fit. It interrupted the flow somehow. I also hadn’t finished it. It’s a lot better now than the piece that I had available to me at the time. I added a whole new section to the piece, which I think has helped it to cohere a lot better.
That’s the thing with a record: Sometimes you’re working on a piece and you just know in your heart that you don’t have the time to give all your babies the same amount of attention that they will need. So you take care of those babies and put the baby you feel you’re neglecting aside and come back later to take care of it. That’s the case not just with this track, but with other tracks on this record. I felt they needed more time and attention—and perhaps more perspective.
To me, the best choruses are often the ones that are unpredictable—the delight is that you didn’t hear it coming. So, as someone who isn’t a songwriter, I’m curious about how difficult it is to come up with a fresh chorus like this one.
Writing choruses isn’t something that I find easy. Writing anything in the conventional pop form—verse, chorus—is really hard to do and not to sound like something that hasn’t been done 1 billion times before. That’s one of the reasons I really admire Aviv [Geffen] because he’s only interested in writing three-minute pop songs. Even a solo has to be eight bars maximum. Sometimes it’s frustrating to work with someone like that, but at the same time it disciplines you to think in the same way. He has a gift of coming up with classic three-minute pop songs. It’s very hard not to fall back on clichés when you’re writing in that form. I guess I’m always looking for a way to subvert the cliché.
This is one of the reasons that I’ve continually shot myself in the foot over the years. Every time I come up with something that could be a straightforward pop song, I usually find a way to fuck it up. Even on “Lazarus,” which is one of my most simple songs, the first version had this very perverse middle eight which completely destroyed the atmosphere. I was asked by my record company at the time, Lava Records, to go back and write a more direct middle eight, which I did under duress. But I realize now it was absolutely the right thing to do. Too many times in my career, I have tended to destroy my own pop sensibilities. But, I suppose, at the end of the day I have to embrace the fact that it is one of the things that makes my music different and special.
One of the interesting aspects of “My Book of Regrets,” as well as the new version of “Don’t Hate Me,” is that they’re actually hybrids of studio recordings and concert recordings. You took a similar approach to your recent new version of “Lazarus” for the Transience compilation album. Tell me about this fresh approach to recording pieces live and in the studio.
It’s been great actually, because in recent years the technology has been such now that you can—and I do—record every single show at full resolution, multitrack audio. In fact, it’s actually built into the mixing desk. It’s a very economical way of recording. As you know, I’m very keen on this idea that you road test songs and you play material that you have yet to record in the studio. Then, rather than carting the whole band back into the studio to record the song, you’ve got 20 versions of the song already on multitrack tape. Later I can re-record and perfect the vocals, plus I’ve done some extra guitar parts and so forth. But when you’re hearing Nick on bass and Craig on drums and Dave and Adam, that’s all straight from the live show. It dawned on me that it’s a really great way to make records. I think I’ll be doing more of it.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the audience cheering during the fast instrumental section of “My Book of Regrets,” and it actually adds to the excitement.
We were going “da-da-da-da” and they were going “Yeah!” Even though I’ve mixed out the audience mics, you can still hear them.
Can you tell me a little about how a track such as “My Book of Regrets” evolved during road testing and how that helped you shape the final version?
When you record every show live, you take what’s called “red light fever” away. A lot of the time when you have musicians in the studio, or you’re recording, say, one show on the tour, no matter what you do there’s always that psychological pressure in your mind as a performer: “This one is going down in perpetuity. This one is going to immortalize my performance forever on record.” If you get to the point where you’re playing the same song every night for 20 shows and recording every show, that disappears. The pressure is off. Suddenly, you no longer have musicians who are obsessing about the fact that they are being recorded. There’s a certain freedom that comes with that. People open up and play with more freedom. Also, if you pay the same song every night for 20 shows, music evolves. People try different things out. They experiment more.
We were doing two nights as part of the Montréal Jazz Festival, so I had the band come in early on the second day and cut about six or seven different versions of “My Book of Regrets” just at the soundcheck without the audience, with the plan that I would pick one of them and use it as a master. Then we did the song the same night at the show and that was the one! Everyone came off the stage and said, “Oh, wow, I really played out of my skin on that one.” There was something about doing it in front of the audience that made the band go just a little bit further with their performances.
This is your first recording with your current touring unit featuring Craig Blundell on drums and Dave Kilminster on guitar, plus Nick Beggs on bass and Adam Holzman on keys. This is a track where each of them gets to showcase their musicianship. Can you comment on what these guys bring to the table?
Absolutely, yeah. First, there are great solos by Adam and Dave in the midsection. What I love about Craig is that he comes from a background of working a lot with electronic music. You can hear that, I think, in the way that he approaches performing a piece of music like “My Book of Regrets.” There’s a kinetic quality to the way that he plays drums. I’m really enjoying that.
I find myself writing more and more, these days, on the bass guitar—I wrote “Luminol” on the bass guitar. That middle section where it speeds up is basically a lead bass part. I always say to Nick, “I’m sorry, I’ve written another difficult bass part!” Of course, he loves it. If you give a musician something that challenges them, and they have to sit down and learn and interpret it, most of them will really dig it. It’s great for Nick to be able to step up and play at the front of the band. He did a beautiful job. He worked very hard at that part.
What I love about Dave Kilminster is that he has very advanced technique, but he also has a very emotive feel in his guitar playing too. It’s a really nice blend of the two.
Yeah, he’s a little bit more old school than Guthrie in the sense that he’s more of a classic rock player. I think, in a way, it fits my music even better. He’s more interested in playing with different tones. That solo was played through a Leslie cab.
YEAR OF THE PLAGUE
A mournful instrumental written and recorded during sessions for The Raven that Refused to Sing. It feels as if you’re eavesdropping on an incredibly personal, hushed conversation between a violin and an acoustic guitar. As the piece progresses, the almost wounded violin seems to draw strength and healing from the warmth of the guitar.
"Year of the Plague" fits beautifully here as a seamless transition out of "My Book of Regrets."
That’s one of my favorite pieces of music ever! When I wrote that in the Raven sessions, I thought, “I’ve got to save this for a soundtrack. Sometime, sooner or later, someone is going to ask me to do a movie soundtrack!” I was naïvely confident that it was going to happen. Unfortunately, three years later I still haven’t been asked. So I thought, “Sod it. Let’s put this out.”
It slots very nicely into the record. There’s something about the sequencing that perhaps make sense of these pieces that people might otherwise dismiss as being inconsequential. I remember when “Perfect Life” came out ahead of the album release of Hand.Cannot.Erase. There were some people who described it as something that was just “an interlude,” and asked, “Could this really be the lead track of the album?” I think what they were saying is that, because it’s quite straightforward and simplistic in a way, they couldn’t really accept it as something I might have released ahead of this big conceptual album project. But I think that when the same people heard it in context, it began to make more sense to them. I feel the same about “Year of the Plague.” There’s something about the context on this record, coming after “My Book of Regrets”—which is quite a long, complicated piece—you need something that is very simplistic, very beautiful, very haunting.
The guitar’s arpeggiated chord progressions—like those heard on Porcupine Tree’s “Lips of Ashes,” “The Watchmaker,” or “Transience”—are a signature element of your sound. Do you come up with these acoustic patterns by dreaming them up in your head or by picking up a guitar and stumbling across a sequence that sounds good?
The latter. I’m not one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night with the melody in my head. I don’t work that way. I have to have an instrument in my hands to make music. It is very much, as you say, finding patterns on the guitar and finding chord shapes on the guitar almost in an idiot savant way. I mean, I don’t know what the chords are. One of the running jokes in my band is one of the guys will come to me and say, “What are the chords to that song?” I say, “I don’t know, but this is what it looks like,” and I’ll put my fingers on the position in the neck. And they’ll say, “Ah! You’re playing a G diminished sustained 4th.” And I’m like, “Whatever!”
I really am finding things in a very non-musician, intuitive way. Sometimes they are alternate tunings. Sometimes I’m using a capo on the guitar to get that more crystalline quality, which in the case of this song, I did. It sounds almost like a mandolin in places.
One of the interesting things about this song is that, apart from Adam Holzman’s piano, it sounds like you have orchestral players with you but they’re all sampled sounds.
Yes, they are. Particularly, the violin sample, which is key to “Year of the Plague.” That’s a beautiful sample you’ll find in the EastWest Studio strings library. It’s so inspiring to have that sound at your fingertips. I’m not a big fan of using samples normally. If this track had made it onto the final list for Raven, I probably would’ve ended up redoing it with a real violin player. But I’ve lived with it for three years and in the end of thought, “It sounds great already.”
The third draft of a song originally written in 2003. Driven by Marco Minnemann’s walloping beat, “Happiness III” boasts a dramatic entrance and a galloping second verse. Wilson’s elegant guitar solo stretches out like wings in a breeze. When “Happiness III” was recorded during the Hand.Cannot.Erase. sessions, it was playfully called “Pop Tart” because of its hooky chorus.
This track was written before the release of Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing album. What fate befell “Happiness III” before now?
It was written for the Deadwing movie. The chronology of this is [that] I came up with the idea to write a movie with my friend Mike Bennion, so we wrote the script and I went into my writing mode to create some music for this movie, which I thought was going to be made. It wasn’t even for an album for Porcupine Tree at the time. It was a score for a movie. I wrote “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here,” “Lazarus, “Happiness,” and an instrumental called “Collecting Space,” which ended up on the Insurgentes special edition much later on. I wrote other little fragments, like “Deadwing Theme,” which was a bonus track on the documentary DVD. I wrote six or seven pieces of music that have gradually come out over a period of years. This is the last of those pieces.
The reason it hasn’t been released until now is because I almost felt it was too “pop.” Whenever I write something like this, very simple, very poppy, I’m almost suspicious of it! Can I really have written a song that is so simple that it is any good? It’s taken me 12 years to feel like I had the confidence that, “You know what, this song is good and I should release it.” We recorded it for Hand.Cannot.Erase. and even then I still took it off the record. But I figured, if I don’t include it this time, I won’t put it on any record. It has a great chorus.
What’s interesting is that there’s a lineage between the lyrics to this and earlier works such as Signify, Fear of a Blank Planet, and Hand.Cannot.Erase. A recurring theme for you is about how people seek happiness in ways that may not lead to true fulfillment—in this song, the character leans on pornography and cigarettes.
It goes to show one thing, which is basically I’ve been writing the same song for 20 years now! Even though it was written for Deadwing, it works really well within the whole Hand.Cannot.Erase. vibe, as does “Don’t Hate Me.” It’s funny how the songs all cohered so beautifully.
Over the past two albums, you didn’t really step to the fore as a guitarist given that had the fantastic Guthrie Govan on lead guitar, but on this album you play several beautiful, emotive guitar solos. You don’t like to call yourself “a guitarist,” but what do you think you bring to the table when you do play lead guitar?
The problem I have is that I bore myself when I play guitar, because I know what I’m going to play. One of the exciting things about giving a part to another guitar player is that you don’t know what they are going to do. That can be sometimes more inspiring than to hear yourself play. I pretty much delegated the guitar playing, at least on the last two records, to Guthrie. When you have Guthrie in the band there really is no need to play guitar at all, and Dave, you know, is also fantastic. But I have come to realise that there is a place for me to play guitar in the show and on the albums.
Also, the nature of this album is that these are pieces that are left from the last 2 records. If they had been included, I probably would’ve spent more time working with Guthrie on them.
It seems to me that by having two lead guitarists in the band, it allows you to contrast different guitar styles and broaden your sonic palette.
I’ve acknowledged to myself and embrace the fact that I do have a musical personality as a guitar player. I shouldn’t be self-conscious that I can’t always dazzle people the way Guthrie or Dave can. Most of the solos on this record are mine. I’m not embarrassed by them. I’m quite proud of them.