Photo Credit by Lasse Hoile

Steven Wilson interview - Milan, 21 July 2011


By Evaristo Salvi, Stefania Renzetti, Domizia Parri - in collaboration with

Coma Divine: Grace for Drowning is your most ambitious project to date, when did it start developing and what has the evolution been since Insurgentes?

SW-The main root of this album for me is very different to the root of Insurgentes, cause Insurgentes was very much inspired by the kind of music that was happening around me when I was growing up, which was the '80s. So Insurgentes was very much inspired by bands like Joy Division, Cure, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, of course still filtered through my "progressive rock mentality"; that was why, I think, the album had more of a kind of an alternative edge. This album on the other hand is much more inspired by the music that I actually went back and discovered when I was a kid, which is the music of the late '60s-early '70s, which still really is my favourite era for music; and so the tone of the music came really from the point at which pop music starts to mutate and combine with jazz music and classical music to create what we now know as progressive rock. So that's a very important thing because until that happened pop music was still very much rooted in blues and R&B; what you have with jazz music particularly as it starts to become a part of rock music and pop music is you have musicians liberated firstly from the three minutes pop song form, you have musicians aspiring to a higher quality and ability on their instrument and you have a more spiritual quality to the music; and this really all came about because of my work on the King Crimson remixes, because I was so immersed in those records that I was hearing that kind of sound all the time, my head was full of all this music from that era, so when I came to start this record, that was musically where I was. I wasn't where I was with Insurgentes, I was definitely in that era. And also the other thing that is important to me about this record which I didn't realise at the time was how much jazz was a part of those records and how most of progressive music since that era, since the '80s, has almost deleted jazz from the equation. If you look at the kid of popular forms of progressive music since the 80s you have neo progressive music, you have metal prog...there's no jazz in any of those forms. It's almost like it's the forgotten part of what was special about the original progressive bands. So in a way I wanted to go back to jazz as the forgotten part.

Coma Divine: You made it, totally.

SW- I hope so. It's a progressive record but it's progressive rock that's re-embraced jazz as a very important part of it; and I think it's beautiful, that combination of rock music and jazz music is absolutely beautiful, I love so much that music, from my era.

Coma Divine: It was just floating between jazz and progressive, almost like no real pop music. I think fans that like metal, the Opeth kind, are in for a shock.

SW- Well, Opeth have just made a record like this too. So they are gonna be shocked too. It's funny because Mikael and myself have both come to the same kind of point at the same time because he's just made a record which is completely turning its back on metal in such a big way, I don't think the fans realise how much he's turned his back on metal, but I mean, he's been saying so himself, but I don't think the fans quite accepted it, but they'll have to when they hear it. We have both used the same kind of musical palette, which is more keyboards than guitars in a way, piano, electric pianos, hammond organs, mellotron, stream choirs, woodwinds, clarinets, saxophones, flutes, the jazz sensibility...that's all in the new Opeth record too. So I'm not alone; I think there's definitely a feeling of trying to get back to that organic golden era for music.

Coma Divine: When I heard that the album was going to be double, or rather, two in one, I thought of Ummagumma, which might not be proper; still, this album too is a journey of sounds, notably the suite Raider II and the various instrumental tracks, so is it...?

SW - I think there's a sense that all of my records, everything I've ever done, every album I ever made, have one thing in common, which is that every record is designed to be a kind of musical journey, musical continuum, musical experience. I'm not the kid of person who just throws ten tracks together: I'm always thinking about the flow, the sequencing, and the impacts that tracks can have when they're next to each other in the album. So you don't follow a ballad with another ballad, you follow it with something that's a bit more...but those kind of things that seem simple, obvious, it's almost as if people don't think about them anymore. And I think that's why a lot of contemporary music to me is not very interesting, because it doesn't have that sense of travelling, that sense of journey that the great '70s albums have. So I actually had more than 85 minutes of music ready, I had about two hours of music- some of the music is going to go in the special edition only. But the 85 minutes of music that I chose for the main Grace for Drowning release, I didn't want to present it as just one 80 minutes long CD, cause I don't like 80 minutes long: I think that's just too tiring. So what I decided to do is present it as two 40/45 minutes albums, cause I'm a great believer that the perfect length for an album is 40 minutes, which is why so many classic records come from the Seventies, and hardly any classic record come from the CD era, at least that's the way I think about it. And I think that's because most people's attention span is about 40 minutes. Even if the music is the best music you've ever heard in your life, after 40 minutes you're going to start losing concentration. And particularly when this music is quite intense, it's not simple music, you have to engage with it. So to expect somebody to engage with this music for 80 minutes is a lot to ask. Which is why I kinda came up with the idea of two separate albums. I'm actually saying to people "Don't try and listen to them back to back, because it's too much." Too much information.

Coma Divine: Your King Crimson remixing work have been an influence on this album...

SW- Yes.

Coma Divine: ...Were you influenced also by other artistic expressions such as movies, books...?

SW- Yes, cinema has always been in a way as important as an influence as music to me, because the first thing I'm thinking when I'm writing music is I'm thinking in terms of images. I'm not thinking in terms of music, I'm thinking in terms of what pictures would go with this, and so many of the tracks end up being made into films by Lasse Hoile, anyway, so the first thing I'm doing when I'm writing a new song is I'm sending it to Lasse, and I'm saying "I've just written this song, what visually have you got in mind for this?" and we start talking about ideas and some of the music...I mean, my music is...people have always said about my music "Oh it's very cinematic", "your music should be in movies", which I agree with, but it's never happened unfortunately, but I'd love it to happen.

Coma Divine: Well, you did Insurgentes, the documentary.

SW- Apart from my own movie, yeah. But I mean, I'd love to make a soundtrack for a director, a great director, and it's never happened unfortunately, but I always thought of my albums in the way people think about movies. So you think about the songs almost as scenes. The way a lot of people make music is that they write a song, then they write another song which is basically a variation of the first song, then they write another song which is basically a variation of the first two songs, and they put them together. Now to me that's like making a film where the characters have the same emotions all the way through the movie, so that they're happy all the way through the movie, and that's not very interesting, is it? That's not very dramatic. A great film is all about the contrasts between the scenes, and in one scene the characters are happy, then something tragic happens, and they become very sad, and then they become very angry, and then ...and I think of music in the same way, so my albums are structured like a movie would be structured, so you have sadness followed by happiness followed by depression followed by anger...but then isn't that like life?! That's life, isn't it. We're not the same mood the whole time. So that's why a lot of modern music kinda bores me, because it just seems there's just one emotion the whole time, you know.

Coma Divine: You've been telling us bout making the two separate albums "Deform to from a Star" and "Like Dust I have Cleared from my eye" instead of one long album, but is there a concept underneath, that links them, or are they two different entities?

SW- Not really, no. You mean lyrically?

Coma Divine: Also. Both.

SW- No. The story is in the music. It's in the way the music flows. The lyrics are...they're about things I've written before, you know...serial killers, and breaking up relationships, and there's one song about depression, "Remainder the Black Dog", and they're kind of themes I've written about before.

Coma Divine: It's not a proper concept album thing then.

SW- Not in a narrative way, no. I think this album is all really about the music, to me this time. I've worked quite hard on the words, that's not to say I'm not proud of them, because I am, but I didn't try to give the album a theme this time.

Coma Divine: There's a lot more music as opposed to lyrics anyway.

SW- It's predominantly instrumental, yeah.

Coma Divine: You involved some very interesting guests such as Nic France, Steve Hackett, Robert Fripp, are they confirmed?

SW- Well, I can give you the full line up: the drummers are Nic France and Pat Mastellotto, the bass players are Tony Levin, Trey Gunn and Nick Beggs, the guitar players are me, Steve Hackett, a guy called Mike Outram who also played guitar as a jazz player, maybe Robert Fripp, I'm not going to tell you (laughs), maybe he's on it maybe he isn't. Keyboard player is myself and Jordan Rudess, doing all the clever piano stuff, and Theo Travis on the flutes, the saxophones and woodwind stuff.

Coma Divine: Are they just session men or did they actually contribute something?

SW- Well, both. I wouldn't have used musicians that wouldn't have ideas on their own, and of course the core of the thing is trying to bring the jazz sensibility back in, as the jazz musicians are basically channelling on the spur of the moment, you know, feelings and emotions; and I wanted that. And then I would edit my favourite parts afterwards. But hopefully not edit too much, because I didn't want it to be too perfect. I wanted to leave some ...imperfections - not imperfections, it's the wrong word, cause I wouldn't have let anything go if I wasn't happy with it, but I didn't want it to be too neat and too perfect. There's a song on the record called "Deform to Form a Star", and the whole idea of that title is the idea that perfection is actually quite boring, and a lot of modern music is so perfect, like it's perfectly in tune, perfectly in time, everything is perfectly edited, but there's nothing left, there's no music left. And the idea is that actually for something to be special, it need to be slightly imperfect. It's the same you know...supermodels: are not actually very sexy, they're too perfect. The idea is that women that are perfect are not attractive. And I think that you can apply this to anything, and particularly to music. Think of Beatles records, they're out of tune, out of time, the drummer's speeding up, slowing down, the piano is slightly out of tune with the guitar...but they're fantastic records, cause they sound real. And I think there's an element of trying to reach for that again, on this record.

Coma Divine: Are we going to have also the Deluxe edition of Grace for Drowning as we had for Insurgentes? What kind of releases can we expect?

Ooh yes. There'll be a bonus CD, and the blue-ray, and the same kind of book that we did on Insurgentes and The Incident, it's gonna be blue this time.

Coma Divine: Will the next PT album be influenced somehow by this new masterpiece of yours?

SW- I don't know. One thing I do know is that the next PT album will be different from the last two or three. I think we're all a bit tired of the metal aspect. I think we kinda feel we've done that. I think we're more interested in doing something a little bit more spacious, a little bit more song orientated. But beyond that, I haven't really thought too much about it. But one thing I do know is that it would be pointless making another record like The Incident or another record like FOABP, so. ..I think that it'll sound a bit different next time.

Coma Divine: When we last met during the Blackfield tour, you said you weren't going to tour for Grace For Drowning, why did you change your mind?

SW- I changed my mind because my manager kept telling me I had to do it, and then I thought that people are never gonna take my solo project seriously, properly, until I go and play it live. And I also found out that there were some musicians that were willing to do it, and I thought, well if those guys are willing to do it, then maybe we can make it work.

Coma Divine: Speaking of these musicians (Theo Travis: flute / sax, Aziz Ibrahim: guitars, Gary Husband: keys, Nick Beggs: bass, Marco Minnemann: drums), how did you met them and how did you end up involving them?

SW- Well... Theo, I obviously worked with him for many years. Nick Beggs plays on the album; I met Nick through Steve Hackett actually, cause Nick is Steve's bass player. Marco Minnemann was..I met Marco in L.A. recently, and again he was someone I was very aware of, I mean I knew Marco, I knew he's an extraordinary musician but I never thought that someone like that would really want to come and play

Coma Divine: Because you're such a mediocre musician. :D

SW-Well, compared to him, I am! I'm not trying to be falsely modest, cause I know that they are great musicians, but I know that I am a good songwriter. I can do things that these guys can't do: put records together, yes. So I think I underestimated how much those kind of musicians actually respect the fact that I can put together these records, create these works; because that's something that they wouldn't do; so I think it's good for both of us. It's good for them, they're looking forward to get involved into something quite ambitious, musically, and it's an extraordinary honour for me to play with these guys, playing my music I mean. Can't tell you how much of a thrill that's for me. So I kinda ran out of excuses to not play live. In the end I just had to say yes, because there was no reason to say no anymore.

Coma Divine: You also mentioned that the shows are going to be quite particular and with lots of films from Lasse Hoile; where did you shoot these videos and are you among the actors?

SW- The videos that will be on the blue-ray are performance based, in the sense that you see me performing the songs, lip-syncing the songs. The versions that we'll show live will have my part taken out, we've re-edited them cause it'd look a bit weird if I'm on stage and up there too, so...but we've actually gone this time for a more performance based style of video, because we found a way to do it that we both really like, cause I always thought performance video are a bit cheesy, in a way, but we found a very interesting way to do it, and you'll have to wait and see. I think we're going to release one on the internet very soon. We found a very interesting way of doing performance based videos which are still very arty and very surreal.

Coma Divine: We've also seen the pictures that Lasse has put on facebook -must have been early this morning. Taken in Denmark, the caption was always "some desert secret place in Denmark", and in another you were next to a bonfire playing...

SW-Okay, that one. They're probably stills of one of the videos. I think what you think is a bonfire is not actually a bonfire, but that's a still from the video to a song called Track One, which is a very strange...of course strange, Lasse's are going to be strange videos.

Coma Divine: And the mannequin picture?

That's from Index. Index is about, do any of you guys know the book called "The Collector" by John Fowles? It's been made into movies a couple of times. It's a book from the '60s about a guy who collects butterflies, I tell you The Silence of the Lambs was partly based on this book too. The guy collects butterflies, he kills them and he pins them on to a wall and he puts glass on them and he displays them; and the idea is that he basically relates to women in the say way that he relates to the things he collects. So he's somebody who collects and entraps women and metaphorically speaking pins them under a piece of glass, to take out to look at them when he chooses. So Index is about this idea of the individual who is unable to empathise with another human being, but still feels the need to fell like he's a part of the family; so when you see me sitting with the mannequins the idea is that I'm the ...killer, with my "family", which is actually of course just plastic mannequins. So it kinda relates back to this original theme of "The Collector".

Coma Divine: Since you mentioned that this tour is such a big event, you have all these musicians with you, is it going to become a DVD?

SW- I think it'll have to be, won't it, because I'm not going to be able to tour everywhere. If the shows go well I think that probably the idea of filming one of the last shows is almost certainly likely to come up, yeah. But I do wanna do this tour. I want to take the show beyond the tour that we've announced so far. I want to do a second leg and go to Mexico, Italy, West Coast. So keep your fingers crossed it goes well, the first part.

Coma Divine: Of course it'll go well.

SW- I'm happy you're very confident. I wish I had the same, I am, I am confident. With those musicians and with Lasse's show it can't really go wrong.

Coma Divine: This is a more general question. You're considered as the one musician who contributed more over the past decades to make the word "prog" not bad anymore...or less bad, a sort of "prog messiah"...

SW-Who's considered that person?

Coma Divine: You are.

SW- Oh you mean I'm considered that person? Okay. Well it's a very flattering idea, I think there're a lot of people who've done a lot to make progressive music...I'd say Thom Yorke deserve some recognition, I would say The Mars Volta deserve some recognition, I would say Mikael Akerfeldt deserve some recognition, but...certainly I've been very unapologetic in my love for progressive music. Well, there was a time when I tried to downplay it because it was SO unfashionable in the late Nineties, but I'm very happy to see it's comeback and it's now very accepted. It's accepted again as part of the creative music scene. It's a great thing. If I've been a part of that, then I'm very happy about it.

Coma Divine: All right, Steven, that was the last question, thank you very much for your time.

SW- Pleasure, it was a pleasure.

Every edition (CD / LP / Deluxe / DVD Blue-Ray) of Grace for Drowning can be pre-ordered at Burningshed, and will be shipped during the week previous to the set release date (26th September 2011). There are also a few autographed copies available at HMV. See also all the released videos and editions in our dedicated discography area: Discografia / Steven Wilson / Grace for Drowning.

Special Thanks to Steven Wilson and A Buzz Supreme

Graphic elements are from CSS Zen Garden theme by Pierre Antoine Viallon (Creative Commons license), Lasse Hoile and Porcupine Tree.