Never one to tread the beaten track, Steven Wilson has once again returned two years after the critically acclaimed Hand. Cannot. Erase. with the surprising To The Bone, a multi style layered record that focuses on the overall concept of truth or more specifically on the question of “what is truth?” We took some time to chat with Steven to figure out his answer to this question and to understand what were his motivations and inspirations behind what can be considered one of his most intriguing works up to date.
To the Bone, feels like a big transition from what you’ve been doing so far. It reminds me of the transition of some of the progressive rock artists from the ‘70s made into the ‘80s when they’ve started to explore a more pop and electronic driven sound, but you’re doing this with a modern twist. What was the primary motivation for you to take this leap?
I think there are two things really. The first thing is that, if you look at my whole career, there’s always been a need to change and to evolve and to keep things fresh for myself as a writer and as a musician, and I’ve always resisted this idea of being categorized as being someone who makes a particular kind of music. I don’t accept that. I know some people have called me progressive rock, some people early in my career called me space rock or progressive metal and I’ve always resisted all of those things partly because… A lot of the artists that I admire most, either it’s people like David Bowie, Prince, Kate Bush, Frank Zappa or Neil Young… These are musicians that you kind of find very difficult to categorize what they do. They are musicians, they are artists which exist outside of generic classification. I’ve always thought of myself as someone like that, or at least I wanted to be, someone like that. Someone that could make an extreme metal album, that could make an ambient album, I can make a pop record, but part of the problem, I mean… It’s not a problem, but one of the reasons I think that the albums I’ve become most known for are the ones that are most obviously associated with progressive rock. Somehow people call them progressive rock, so this idea that somehow I’m a progressive rock artist has come to life, but there are many albums in my catalog that have nothing to do with that, so anyway, to cut a long story short, I think the first thing is the need to evolve, to do something different, to challenge myself, and certainly the other motivation for this record is that I was once again connecting with a lot of the records I remember from the ‘80s when I was a teenager that I would call sophisticated pop records or ambitious pop/rock records. The thing about these albums is that they were albums which were quite accessible, had great pop melodies, great catchy choruses, things that you could enjoy on a purely melodic basis or singing along while you were on the bath or in the gym, but at the same time if you chose to engage with the albums on a deeper level, there was so much more going on, there were great lyrics dealing with quite serious subject matters, there was great production, there was great musicianship, there was an ambition to these records that wasn’t dumbing down at all in order to achieve this kind of accessibility. These records were just as experimental and just as ambitious as any music, but at the same time they also had this pop sensibility which made them more accessible. So… I think of records like Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush, I think of records like The Colour of Spring by Talk Talk, I think of So by Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears… a lot of what Prince was doing throughout the ‘80s would also fall into that category, and I’ve reconnected with a lot of these albums over the last couple of years. It’s good to rediscover some things from your past, but I’ve just thought to myself, these records are so good. There’s no one making records like this, or at least there are not many people making records like these…
It’s kind of a lost art…
It seems to me a bit of a lost art, yes! That idea of the ambitious, but accessible record. It seems to me that we have a very mainstream pop and we have a lot of very good underground music, but we don’t have a lot that’s in the middle, you know? So I wanted to make a record that in a way was my record in that kind of tradition, without being nostalgic, but something in that tradition. To be perfectly frank, I don’t know whether in 2017 there’s even an audience for this kind of record. That’s not something I would think about when I make the records for myself ultimately, but you know, I think it will be interesting to see whether there’s still an audience interested in those kind of records! I honestly have no idea about that, but to me, as you say, it does seem a bit like a lost art and it was important to me to make this record, for sure.
One thing that’s immediately noticeable is that To the Bone feels a bit more minimalistic and not so guitar driven as other records you made in the past. I know that you recorded most of the guitars and other instruments as well, having David Koller record some guitar parts here and there, however Guthrie Govan who’s been collaborating with you in the past records didn’t participate on this one. Do you think his style wasn’t suited to what you were trying to do in this record?
Let’s say that I felt that my style was the right style for this record. Part of that of course is, once I’ve made a decision to make an album that focused more on my songwriting rather than the more sort of elaborate and conceptual rock side, perhaps with less emphasis on the musical technique that has been the focus of the last couple of records, I think that once I’ve made that decision, I wanted the record to sound very natural, very organic. I mean… I’m not the best guitar player in the world, but I think I do have a sound and my sound is quite natural, and of course, being the songwriter, I think I know the best way to play guitar in the best service of the material and in the best service of the songs, so sometimes the problem if you have an extraordinary guitar player like Guthrie or Dave Kilmister, whoever it is, is that basically they come along and their only reason to play on your song is to show what they can do within the solo you’re giving them, but sometimes that isn’t necessarily the best thing for the overall song. As a songwriter, I don’t have that problem. I think I know exactly what I need from the guitar parts, and I kind of enjoyed reconnecting with myself as a guitar player. I have more of a low key natural sound, it’s not showy, it’s not technical, but I think that’s not something that would have suited, and you kind of hinted this in your question, so I don’t think that approach would have suited this material, yes.
Talking about other members of your band, there have been a few artists that have been with you throughout the years such as Nick Beggs and Adam Holzman. Do you think that by this point they’ve become an integral part of what makes the sound of your band as well?
I think that when it comes to the live shows, very much so! I mean, Nick is hardly on this record, he’s in one song only and Adam really only plays piano on this record. I played bass on most of the album and I think in some respects, this is actually much more of a solo record, because I’ve played most of the bass, I’ve played most of the guitar, I played a lot of keyboards myself and I think again it comes back to the previous question, that in some cases in this album, I just think I knew what was needed and it wasn’t something that was particularly technical, so it was almost easier for me to just play myself, but you know, when it comes to the live sound, those guys will be back and they have become a very integral part of my live performance. They are always very positive, always very encouraging to me and even if Nick is hardly on this record he’s been very encouraging about the direction you know? So, we’ll be having a lot of fun playing live, I’m sure anyway!
“I think we could be on the cusp of a new [revolution]… Let’s see… I hope there’s more protest in music, because music has always thrived on protest and rebellion and anger…”
Let’s talk a little bit about the album’s concept. Although there are various themes, To the Bone seems to focus on the overall concept of the distortion and manipulation of truth according to one self’s point of view. What events or things in particular made you want to tackle this subject in your new record?
I think this is an interesting thing because, obviously, in the last two-and-a-half years since my previous album Hand. Cannot. Erase., the world certainly from the perspective of me in the UK and of all of us in Europe, the world has become a completely different place. Two-and-a-half years now we are post-Brexit, we are in the era of Donald Trump, we are in the era of the refugee camps, we also had the era of fake news being used in a political campaign, with social media being used to distort people’s perceptions in a political campaign for the first time ever that I can remember. It’s the first time in that obvious way. We’re also in an era when terrorism is completely within our midst and it’s no longer something that’s happening somewhere else, it is happening right here on our doorstep and certainly for us in the UK that’s been clearly illustrated by the events of the last few weeks, so that world is completely different to the world I wrote the last album in and I think it would have been very strange if I hadn’t chosen to engage with those subjects or talk about it. I think a lot of people talk now you know…there’s Depeche Mode, Roger Waters, whoever it is it’s hard to write songs and not, in some respects, not kind of refer to the world we all live in now. Also, I was fascinated primarily by this idea of fake news and the whole nature of truth being a very flexible principle. Of course, I’ve started to ask myself the question… “Is there really any such thing as truth? Isn’t truth actually what we call truth? Isn’t that, when it comes down to it, actually perspective?” We all have our own perspective and we kind of think about perspective as truth because it becomes our truth, but then you only have to look at the world of religion to realize that all the thousands of religions all over the world, all of them believe they have the one absolute truth and of course, that’s impossible. So, the truth actually, a lot of the time is simply perspective, and our perspective is influenced by our upbringing, our race, our politics, our agenda, our religion, all of those things kind of distort our perspective, so basically we all create our own truth and I think I wanted to explore that idea through these different characters on the record.
You’ve mentioned artists like Depeche Mode and Roger Waters which have had long careers and whose status enables them to address these subjects without alienating anyone. What’s missing right now is having new artists coming up and not being afraid of tackling these subjects as well, using music again as form of protest, something which has been somewhat lost of lately as well. It’s important to have these kind of records.
I think you’re absolutely right, I think that one of the things I really feel is one of the constants of the history of pop music is this idea of protest, and if you go back to musical movements like folk music… Folk music was protest music, hip-hop music came out of anger and protest and punk rock also came out of anger and protest, but I think that you’re absolutely right, that’s something that to me, has completely dissipated over the last twenty, twenty-five years. I think for that reason, particularly mainstream pop music has become very banal, very conservative, it’s all boy-girl, boy-girl, and I wonder now, because we had this bombing recently in Manchester, in the Ariana Grande show, I do wonder now if some of those artists like Ariana Grande – who by the way I’ve never heard of until this happened – is it going to be possible for artists or writers to continue to ignore the reality of what’s going on with the world? Because that’s something that’s come right into their very consciousness, it’s something that’s affecting their fans and it’s affecting them, so I’m curious to see if we’re going to see a little bit more of engagement from those pop artists with these problems, because it seems to me almost irresponsible of them to continue to pretend that this is not happening. So, I think we could be on the cusp of a new [revolution]… Let’s see… I hope there’s more protest in music, because music has always thrived on protest and rebellion and anger, and as you kind of pointed out, that’s one of the basic principles of what great pop music and rock music was all about.
There’s a spoken word passage in the beginning of the title track “To The Bone” that directly addresses these subjects of truth and truth distortion. Where did this quote came from and who can be heard talking?
She’s a good friend of mine, she’s a school teacher in Texas and she’s a black school teacher in Texas. So, she understands something about the nature of truth and reality and prejudice, and it’s a very tough job to be working in a school in Texas and to be a black school teacher in Texas. I just asked her one day and said “Can you talk a little bit about truth? The nature of truth?” and I think with that quote she just summed it up so perfectly, particularly that idea that one of the problems with a lot of people who have hate in their heart and the people who have a lot of issues with racism and sexism and religious fundamentalism, part of the problem with those people is that when they have arrived at their own truth, which we’ll call perspective, once they have arrived at their own perspective, in the way that they believe the world works, the problem is that their impulse is just to go and kill everyone else or fuck everyone else up who doesn’t share their view. Unfortunately, that’s one of the cancers at the very heart of the human species, that if you don’t agree with me, I’m going to destroy you. That is religious fundamentalism in a nutshell, that’s terrorism in a nutshell. It’s the same with racism, it’s the same with any prejudice, whether it’s homophobia, sexism or whatever it is, that is a cancer and I think that the human race really should have evolved beyond by now, but we haven’t, and I think that’s what that quote kind of sums of perfectly in the beginning of the album.
You’ve also have some songs centered around some characters in some cases like “Refuge” where you’re telling a story from an outsider’s perspective, but would you say that some of the other characters might be autobiographical and based on your own experiences?
I think the thing is, whenever you write any song, even when you’re playing a character or playing a role, you always kind of draw from your own experience and your own autobiography to an extent. I mean, the thing is, some of these people on this record are definitely characters. The terrorist is not me, the religious fundamentalist is not me, the refugee is not me, but of course I am drawing from a lot of my own thoughts and experiences to explore those characters. It would be very hard for me to sit down and analyse and tell you exactly what parts of the lyrics are from personal experiences and what parts are pure imagination, because I think it’s a very grey area and everything I’ve written has been a product of my own personal experience, the experiences of my friends and family, every movie I’ve ever seen, every book I’ve ever read, every album I’ve ever listened to, all of the new stories I’ve kind of seen over the years, so it’s all in there. I can’t really say for sure how the process of filtering all that out into a song works, but my whole life is in all of these songs essentially.
“I know some people have called me progressive rock, some people early in my career called me space rock or progressive metaland I’ve always resisted all of those things partly because… A lot of the artists that I admire most, either it’s people like David Bowie, Prince, Kate Bush, Frank Zappa or Neil Young…”
You were talking now about movies that you’ve seen as part of experiences you’ve collected and that helped you in your song writing process. I’m remembering now about the documentary on Joyce Carol Vincent (Dreams of a Life) that inspired you to write your previous record (Hand. Cannot. Erase.). Were there any other movies this time that inspired you to shape some of the ideas in the record?
I don’t think so. This time around movies were more kind of in the background. You know, there are movies that I think deal very well with subjects like human beings becoming more disconnected with each other through technology, through social media, those kind of things… I’m fascinated by the idea and I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that technology actually very often creates more divisions and more borders than it does bringing people closer together, even technology which on the surface appears to be bringing people together, actually very often is doing the opposite and I think social media is a great example of that. Social media is actually very antisocial, because it encourages people to basically create the illusion of being connected to other people without actually being connected to other people, and I think all of those topics are always somewhere under the surface of all my songs too, this idea of people being connected but actually being disconnected. Again, that’s another kind of interpretation of the whole idea of truth, you know? What is truth? It’s all perception. That idea that you believe yourself to be part of a community of people but actually you’re incurably isolated. I don’t think there’s any direct film influences on this record, certainly unlike Hand. Cannot. Erase. which as you said, was very much inspired by that documentary.
One of the last songs in the record, “Detonation”, feels like a Steven Wilson epic track, not only in length, but also in the diversity it presents on the course of its various motions. What’s were your lyrical and musical inspirations to write this particular track?
Well, I mean, lyrically, the idea is of the person who uses religious fundamentalism or a religious cause to essentially justify their own prejudice, their own hatred and their own hate crimes, so this song was written very much in response to… If you read last summer there was an attack in Orlando in a gay club called Pulse and basically there was someone who went into that club and shot about fifty gay people over a period of about two or three hours I think, and basically because at some point at that shooting he cried out “Allahu Akbar”, this kind of religious cry, sort of like a war cry, he was basically classified as a terrorist and a religious martyr by ISIS and a terrorist by the American media. I just thought to myself, “How easy is it now for someone who basically has some form of prejudice or some form of hate in their heart, whether it’s towards gay people or towards another religious group, whoever it is they have a hatred towards, how easy isn’t it now for someone like that to make themselves feel justified in committing an appalling atrocious killing in the name of a religious cause, which in fact they don’t really have any affiliation to at all?” So, it’s almost like people using religious fundamentalism, using this intifada or whatever it is as a kind of badge for committing some kind of hideous crime. So, I don’t know that guy, I don’t know anything about that guy, but it seemed to me that he had some kind of problem with gay people, otherwise why do you go and target a gay club? You know what I mean? It’s something that has nothing to do with this so called religious cause, so the first line in that song “Great God, I don’t believe in you, but still I will do what you want me to” is that idea that actually people who have no religious belief at all now can almost pay lip service to a religious cause and somehow justify within themselves and to the rest of the world, that they’re doing this for some kind of higher purpose and I think it’s bullshit. Musically, I know what you mean, it starts off as very electronic and at the end of the song it almost becomes like this kind of disco/groove with this pretty amazing guitar solo on top which is David Koller playing, but there are some songs you could ask me about and I could say very clearly “Oh yes, that was influenced by this” and there’s some songs you could ask me about and I have no idea where the musical part came from, but I can say about that song that it is a quite strange piece of music in the way it kind of unfolds and develops. I guess I was just following my intuition in that case.
It’s one of the most interesting pieces of the record, at least personally for me. It’s really that kind of long, epic song which is almost like a tradition for you in each record…
Yeah! But then again, it’s different! It’s not quite like the epic tracks from the last couple of records which were more traditionally in that kind of conceptual progressive rock style, this is something a bit different again I think. But I can see what you mean about having the whole marks of one of my, shall we say musical-journey-like tracks. Not Journey the band! [laughs] I mean, in the sense it has this kind of idea of developing and almost being like a musical journey within itself, you know?
One of the things I’ve always found interesting in your music is that you’re able to merge your classic influences with a more contemporary form of song writing and very few artists are able to do that as well as you do. You’re seen as the flag bearer of the new generation of progressive music, as someone who’s younger than the older generation of prog rockers, but one that’s been able to maintain their spirit of discovery and experimentation alive. How do you feel about that perception?
Ok… Firstly, I don’t recognise that as something that is unique to the era you’re talking about, because to me, that spirit of experimentation, very much carried on right through the ages and if you listen to bands like, some of the bands that came out of punk for example like Joy Division, bands like Magazine, like Wire, XTC, in those kind of bands there’s much as just of a sense of ambition and discovery. Other bands like Cocteau Twins, bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack in more recent years, I think there’s always been a you can even call it an art school tradition of being very experimental and ambitious within the tradition of pop and rock music. I think sometimes, the particular people who listen to progressive rock think that it was something that only happened in the ‘70s with progressive rock bands. It’s really not the case. I think the reason I say this is because sometimes what people are picking up on my music is that there’s definitely this spirit, this aspect of my music which is about trying to tell a story across an whole album and that is something which is very much associated with those original conceptual rock bands from the early ‘70s, that idea of taking an album and kind of telling a story across, that’s a very ‘70s thing, but actually there are so many other elements in my sound which came from my teenage years, and as I said, we already talked about it, I grew up listening to the music of ‘80s and I was as immersed in that world as I was in the world of the ‘70s. Similarly, in the ‘90s I was very excited about the possibilities of electronic music with Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and Autechre, all those groups and that’s also in my music. If you listen to the beginning of “Detonation”, for example, the electronic sound, you did asked me about inspiration for that song, that beginning with those electronic sounds, that would be closer to Aphex Twin or Autechre, than it would to the ‘70s music or even ‘80s music. So, I think one of the reasons my sound is like it is, is I don’t analyze it too much. I don’t try too hard to make, and I think this is kind of where we started in the conversation, I don’t try to be a generic artist. I’m not interested in being a prog rock artist, I’m not interested in being a metal artist, I’m not interested in being a pop artist or a dance artist, I’m just interested in making Steven Wilson music, and so… I don’t think too hard about “Oh, I shouldn’t put that together with this”, you know? It’s something very intuitive and very natural to me and I can’t really analyse it too much beyond that.