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Interview with Steven Wilson/ I.E.M.

img  Tobias Fischer

In a sense, I.E.M. is your most obscure project. so why did you want to bring it to the light after all these years?
I think as with anything I did early in my musical career, things have become more collectible. regardless of whether they merrited it or not, really (laughs). I'm not referring to I.E.M. here, because I'm quite proud of that. But there are some things I did early on I'd be quite happy to bury forever. Simply because of the success of Porcupine Tree, there is now a need to keep this material available, if only to keep people from taking advantage of its scarcity on ebay. That's not to say that I.E.M. is something I tried to bury, because it's not. But it's certainly something that I never intended to be more than an obscurity. It was fun and originally it was supposed to be anonymous, nobody was supposed to know who it was. But of course, these things get out eventually. Those I.E.M. albums have been out of print for a long time now. so I thought let's give the project one last hurray and let's do it properly and package it nicely.

What was the historical background to the I.E.M. debut?
When that first record was released, it was 1996. Krautrock was very much en vogue back then, everybody was dropping band names like Neu! and Can and saying how much they were influenced by them. And I genuinely was! I mean I grew up on a lot of that stuff. So I wanted my own little Krautrock-homage or pastiche. And the idea was to have a one-off-album, as if it were a band from the 70s, do a one-time pressing of 500 copies on vinyl and then disappear.

How were these albums produced?
The first album was produced all by myself using drum loops, with drum performances that I kind of highjacked from other sessions that I'd done. So I would have a drum track and I would put a bass line down and then I would improvise on the guitar over that and then I would improvise on the keyboard over that. So in a sense, it was just improvising while overdubbing. Which means that nothing was written or planned. For some of the later albums, I actually put a band together. So „arcadia son“ and „have come for your children“ are based on those band improvisations. I had a Drummer, Mark Simnett, I had Colin from Porcupine Tree on bass, I had Jeff Lee, a Flute Player. And the four of us improvised quite a bit on those albums. There was a lot of post-production and editing, too.
But to get to your question as to how I approached and produced these albums: Very quickly. No album took more than a couple of days to make. So it was a throw-away ethic, as a lot of the classic krautrock is, too. It's on the cusp between improvisation and inspiration. And with I.E.M. it's the same. Not all of it is inspired, not all of it worked, but if you get into that kind of music, I think you're as fascinated by the mistakes as you are by the successes. If you listen to a band like Faust or Can, there's just as many misses as there are  hits.

You've mentioned Sun Ra as an influence on I.E.M. What specifically was it that you thought was interesting about him and his Arkestra?
This feeling of otherness that his music has. It's almost primitive in the sense that it is not music which emphasises musicianship. It certainly doesn't emphasise production quality. In fact some of his albums are virtually taken from rehearsal tapes. And I liked that - it's something that it has in common with Krautrock. The early Can-albums are just a band recording straight to stereo and then a lot of editing afterwards to create a sense of structure. And the other thing I liked about Sun Ra was how he combined Jazz music with that cosmic element. It's very kitchy, but I love it and I tried to play that to I.E.M. a bit as well.

In which way has I.E.M directly or indirectly influenced your other projects?
I don't know if it has, really. In fact, the funny thing is I would say the opposite is true, actually. The very early Porcupine Tree recordings have a lot in common with I.E.M. and as the band became more and more about structure and songwriting and moved away from its roots, I.E.M. took over that side of my personality for a while. Don't forget that Porcupine Tree started out as a pastiche and a tribute to psychedelic music and to space music and there's a lot of improvisation in there as well. A lot of those recordings were done in no more than a couple of hours, straight to tape, with very little plan, all improvised and some of it quite lofi. And the tapes would then be erased and recycled and I didn't even have the option to go back and remix a lot of that early stuff. I was virtually just shitting out the music. It's very playful and it's very DIY and I think I.E.M. was almost a continuation of that philosophy.

I found a quote in the Porcupine Tree forum: „it's possible that the success of insurgentes has shown Steven that he no longer needs to keep his more experimental side to side projects and that he intends to incorporate those excursions into his solo albums, or better yet, porcupine tree.“ Would you say that's correct?

Well, it depends what you mean by that. Porcupine Tree is a band and by definition, a band is the sum of its parts. There are some things I can not bring to Porcupine Tree and expect the other members to be into them. Similarly, there's some things they can't bring to me. I know there are some people who say: Porcupine Tree is not experimental enough, but the reason it's not experimental enough is because where the four of us meet is the sound of the band - which is necessarily a subset of what we like. With my solo album, „insurgentes“, I was able to explore a lot of things I was not able to explore within the group. I was able to be a lot more eclectic, I was able to bring out a lot more the experimental side of my personality. And yes it is true that there is probably a strand that runs from the early Porcupine Tree albums, which were solo albums, through I.E.M., through Bass Communion through to „Insurgentes“, which in a sense was the first time I brought together all of my different influences in a song-based record. This aspect of songs is what makes the difference: You can hear the influence of those experimental records, but there's also a structure.

But it is true that you no longer need a specific outlet for these improvisation-oriented experimental ideas?
I don't think so. I mean, already I.E.M. was growing into something else, the Sun Ra influences were coming in and perhaps even influences by Teo Macero and Miles Davis. But I think a lot of that now will be absorbed into my solo project and also has been absorbed into Bass Communion. I think the latter has taken over from I.E.M. from being the most important experimental solo side-project. and I guess I saw a lot more mileage in Bass Communion than i saw in I.E.M. I think by the time I'd done I.E.M. I realised there were a whole lot of other people who were doing it a whole lot better, because I didn't have the time or the inclination to really commit myself fully to it. There was this whole movement of Post-Rock, bands like Tortoise. But I suppose I.E.M., because it was all done in the spirit of fun, was never going to be anything particularly substantial to me. It could have been, but it kind of existed in time for me. It's a curiosity in my history.

Does the box set now contain everything every produced for I.E.M.?
It's pretty much everything. As with anything, there were rejects, a few tracks didn't make the grade. And for the same reasons I rejected them then I rejected them now. So I guess they'll never come out. For all intents and purposes, this is all the I.E.M. music that there will ever be. Although it doesn't have an official title, I call this box set „the complete I.E.M“. And it really is.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Lasse Hoile.

This interview was originally published for print publication Tonefloat Magazine #2, which is still available from the label for free with every order.

I.E.M. Discography:
I.E.M. (Chromatic Records) 1996
An Escalator To Christmas (ToneFloat) 1999
IEM Have Come For Your Children (Headphone Dust) 2001
Arcadia Son (Headphone Dust) 2002
1996-1999 (Headphone Dust/ Tonefloat) 2005
Complete I.E.M. Box Set (Tonefloat) 2010

I.E.M. at Steven Wilson's Homepage

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