Steven Wilson continues to push boundaries ‘to the bone’

Photo by Lasse Hoile

When Steven Wilson brought “The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)” tour to Buffalo on April 21, 2013, its reputation as being one of the finest shows in the history of Town Ballroom was solidified within seconds of the last note being played. The musical virtuosity on display that night is forever etched in the memory of all who attended even if the man responsible for its direction is yet to be appreciated en masse by American audiences. 

His return to western New York on Nov. 27 promises to be another instant classic, as he’s bringing along material from 2017’s “To the Bone,” an expansive piece of progressive pop that has no qualms about tackling weightier thematic content than your usual major label monstrosity. 

It’s often said that meeting your heroes is a bad idea, because your expectations for the encounter will never harmonize with reality. While I didn’t meet Steven Wilson, I did spend 20 minutes speaking with him on the telephone, and, as a result, I have a hard time believing that he would be any less respectful or down-to-earth during an in-person discussion.   

MNOD: Some critics may have been skeptical when you decided to release an album showcasing your pop influences, but I think you’ve proven that such music can still be adventurous when in the right hands. Was the desire to hark back to a time when pop didn’t have to be dumbed down to be accessible something you were conscious of?

Wilson: I think I wanted to show how unfairly treated the ’80s are in some respects, because a lot of people look at that decade as being a shallow and unsophisticated time for music. It was actually an important time when ambition and accessibility came together to produce some incredible work. When I think about artists such as Talk Talk, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, Tears For Fears, and Prince, I see a confluence of content and experimentation that was unlike anything that came before or after. They had catchy choruses yet maintained a focus on melody that I was drawn to. “To the Bone” is meant to reflect how their work inspired me when I was younger.

MNOD: Your past concerts have incorporated a stunning visual element to elevate the audience’s experience. Are you doing something similar this time around?

Wilson: I’ve had to scale back slightly this time due to certain venues not being able to accommodate my production, but we still have the screens and the quadraphonic sound. I’ve always wanted to create a cinematic experience for people, so the visuals complement the lyrical content of the music.

MNOD: I’m always amazed that you’re not a household name in America given this country’s historical affinity for rock music. Why do you think your material has struggled to catch on in the US?

Wilson: Ironically, the two areas responsible for popularizing rock music are the same ones that have turned their back on it in recent times. American and British listeners have become jaded when it comes to rock, which is sad in a way. DJ culture and hip hop have become the new mainstream in the US and UK, but that’s not the case in places like India, Russia, South America, and Eastern Europe. Those cultures still have a passion and fury for rock that doesn’t dissipate. Unfortunately, I don’t think rock has ever been more invisible in the US and UK than it is now.

MNOD: How do you feel about using social media as a musician?

Wilson: I resisted it for years, but now I’ve become more open to utilizing it for certain things. I think it detracts from the mystery of rock and pop music by allowing us to know too much about artists. Some of the biggest stars of the past like Prince valued their anonymity and that was an important part of maintaining the magic. I’ve tried to strike the right balance in my personal and professional life, because, if I don’t use any social media, I risk cutting out a portion of the audience that is under 40. I still make use of Spotify and Instagram, because I do think they can be valuable tools for getting music and information out.

MNOD: You’re known for being a sonic perfectionist when it comes to performing and recording. Do you find that it can be challenging to book venues that can best capture your material?

Wilson: Every venue has challenges, but it helps that I’ve had the same sound engineer with me for 20 years. I’m not at the level that I can play big arenas every night, so I often have to scale the show to fit whatever venue I’m playing in. We were in Edmonton the other night and the stage was too small for the screen, which led us to alter the presentation a bit. People come up to me all the time to say that a particular room never sounded better than when I played there, which is ultimately what we try to accomplish at every venue.

MNOD: Why do you think it’s so difficult for people to get excited about new music?

Wilson: That’s a really great question and one that I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory answer to. There are people listening to the same music they’ve been listening to for the last 30 years, because it’s familiar and it makes them feel connected to their youth. I think younger people have a sense of curiosity that makes them want to seek out new music and experiences that older people don’t necessarily have. When you get older, your tastes can get locked in and you can lose the desire for new sounds. That’s why there’s such a massive market for reissues of albums that generations of people have already purchased in various formats. I’ve participated in the creation of a lot of them, so I know how the process goes. New albums won’t sell, but you can sell plenty of repackaged deluxe box sets of material that fans most likely have already purchased in multiple forms throughout the years. The same demographic that still buys physical products is the one that the Warners and Sonys of the world are targeting with these reissues. Also, my albums are meant to be listened to from beginning to end and I’m not sure that people have the attention span to do that anymore.

MNOD: You recently released the “Home Invasion” DVD. How did you go about capturing the live experience for the at-home viewer?

Wilson: There’s always a bit of compromise when putting out a concert DVD, because there’s no substitution for being there amidst the sound and the atmosphere. We relied on cinema techniques such as slow motion, blurring, and split screen to capture different parts of the show. It wasn’t a purist approach, but we tried to make it as close to the real thing as possible. We leave a lot of room for improvisation in our performance each night as well as an irreverence that some people have complained about. We like to incorporate humor into the show, but there’s also an incredible amount of thought that goes into each performance.

MNOD: Is there anything that you’d still like to accomplish in your career?

Wilson: I really want to do a movie soundtrack and go through the process of scoring an entire film. I’ve contributed songs for movies before, but I’d love to work with a really good script and director for every step on a project. That’s definitely a bucket list item for me.

Steven Wilson is at Town Ballroom on Nov. 27.

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