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Interview with Steven Wilson/ Porcupine Tree

img  Tobias

Yesterday, I did an interview with the Black Eyed Peas and they're considering doing away with physical formats alltogether. To them, „it's the way the industry goes.“ You, on the contrary, seem to see this time we live in as a unique chance for musicians to again start distinguishing themselves through their presentation ...
That Black Eyed Peas' statement is only looking at one side of the story. What we're seeing happening right now is a sort of diversification of the industry. I think what will happen ultimately is that the generic crystal case CD will disappear. What you see a lot more now with releases by more artistically-inclined artists is this move towards special deluxe physical editions. On the other hand, for the people who don't consider the extension of the music into the realms of physical art important, you're going to see downloads. I'm never going to like that particularly, but I am also going to accept that there's a whole new generation for whom music is simply software to download into their ipods. These two extremes will become more extreme. I was in HMV today on Oxford Street and the biggest crowd of people where the people around the Vinyl. It's almost as though they accept that if they're going to spend money on a product, they're going to spend it on something they can hold in their hands and treasure.

One could of course claim that it should just be about the music ...

Yes, but that doesn't work. That's like saying: If a painting's a good picture, then why aren't you satisfied with having just a little jpeg of that painting on your laptop? There's nothing like the experience of standing in front of a great painting in an art gallery, seeing the texture of the paint, seeing the colours coming off the canvas, seeing the context of that painting within the gallery itself. It's the same with music. Music is not just about the pure audio, it's not just about the song. It's about the quality and resolution of the audio as well. And the way that music is presented is part of the context of the artistic aesthetic. If you think of „Seargent Pepper“, who could think of that record without thinking of the iconic artwork? That says as much about the music and the aesthetic of the Beatles at that time as the music and the songs themelves did. And that's why music sometimes crosses over to become something more culturally significant. That's when it influences fashion, film, literature and politics – everything.

Was „Insurgentes“, to you, an important step forwards in terms of combining these two aspects of music and visual arts?
Hopefully. I've never really seen a division between them. The first thing I decided when I did a solo album was: Let's go and film the whole process as well. Let's make a film about the making of the record and about being a musician in this day and age of download culture. And let's also make a surreal, fucked-up roadmovie at the same time. Let's not draw divisions or define things, let's just have fun while creating this piece of art. And it ultimately became a musical project, a hardback book, a movie and a documentary, which is going to be screened for the first time at the Copenhagen Film Festival in November. It's a real multimedia project and I've always liked that – those grand gestures. And to me, that is the complete antithesis to the idea of music reduced to some MP3-files. It's a grand artistic, aesthetic, conceptual statement, which crosses many different forms of artistic expression together. I suppose I come from this idea that when you're a musician, you're an artist. And when you're an artist, then your creativity does not stop at the point you've created the music. It continues through to the way you present your website, to the way you present your live shows and professional photographs.

Does it pain you, if people decide to download an album like „Insurgentes“ or „The Incident“, for which you've invested a lot of time and thought in the physical format?
No, because I accept it. I would rather someone stole my music from a blog or from a filesharing site than not listening to it at all. I make music to share it with as many people as possible. But it's all about the quality of experience for me. And there are various degrees of that quality of experience. The ultimate way of experiencing my album is sitting in a perfectly set-up room with a perfectly set-up 5.1. surround sound system with a copy of the book on your knee, looking at the book as you listen to the music. But I realize that only a tiny minority of listeners will experience it at that level.

Experimental musican Daniel Menche decided to go Vinyl-only a while ago. So is that, to you, an unrealistic idea?

I think for someone like Daniel it works. His audience is a) a small, dedicated audience. And b) it's an audience which probably are more familiar with Vinyl as a format. Let's just say that if Metallica or Girls Aloud decided to go that way, I think they'd have a problem (laughs). Probably 90% of Daniel's audience have a turntable, while only 0.1% of Britney Spears' audience have a turntable. It depends on the artist. I've done things which are only available on Vinyl, too. The new Bass Communion, „Litany“, is only going to be available on Vinyl. I love playing with formats, you only have to look at my discography to see that and one-off, limited editions is what I'm all about. I'd love to do that if I could but at the same time, I have to temper that with my need to share the music.

You spent your youth in the 80s, a decade which thrived on tape culture. So how did you develop your love for Vinyl?
Really because of the music I liked. Most of the music at that time didn't appeal to me at all. There was a few good band – I loved XTC and I loved Joy Division and The Cure – but generally speaking, the 80s were a pretty rotten time for music. Certainly for experimental music it was awful. Until you had the explosion in the early 90s with electronic music and the Aphex Twins of this world coming out and revolutionising music again. That whole strand of experimental music kind of disappeared in the 80s.

Or it went underground ...

I don't even know if it went underground. There was the DIY Industrial Tape scene in the early 80s, but that kind of fizzled out. And really with the exception of a few visionary people like Scott Walker and Mark Hollis, Kate Bush, there wasn't a whole lot of experimenation going on. So when I grew up in the 80s, I didn't find anything of interest. So I went back to the 70s and I went back to 60s. And I found this wonderfully rich period of ten years. I call it „the golden age for albums“, which is really from „Sgt. Pepper“ through to Punk Rock. There's virtually not a single record from that period that I don't like. I just love the sound of the records. I love the look of the records. I love the ambition in the records. Even artists like Abba, The Carpenters and the Beegees made terrific records during that time. Mainstream pop music, then, had so much character, great songwriters, great producers. It was all about the album. Until MTV and Punk Rock came along and changed everything: That was all about singles and how you looked in your video and it all became about artifice again. So there's an incredible romanticism I have for Vinyl.

For a long time, Vinyl was anything but cool. Gatefolds became rare and productions weren't that fantastic either. I remember the first thing that sparked my interest in the format was picking up Tangerine Dream's „Force Majeure“  as an LP - which, of course, was again a 70s album. Did you see the resurgence of Vinyl coming?

There are certainly kinds of music that make better use of the Vinyl format than others. 80s music didn't really make that much use of it. But there's something about Progressive Rock, Psychedelic Rock and Artrock... Really, some of those covers are incredible. The whole series of 70s Tangerine Dream covers are stunning: „Phaedra“, „Rubycon“, „Ricochet“, I love all those sleeves. And I think record companies stopped making gatefold sleeves in the late 70s, so you didn't really get those and you didn't get the inner bag and the lyrics-sheet and the pull-out stuff that you had in the 70s. I think what happened was the whole generation that grew up loving that kind of 70s look of Vinyl all began setting up their own labels through the 90s. So you started to see people that obviously had a great love for the format - like Charles from Tonefloat being a great example. They weren't just doing it as a side-thing to the CD. They were doing it actually out of a real passion for Vinyl. And you see some of these labels now – Southern Lord, Warp Records, Hydrahead and you can see the passion they have for Vinyl outstrips the passion they have for the CD.

I think part of the appeal could well be down to the fact that it's no longer an everyday item. In a way, Vinyl is an anachronism: You need to sit down to listen to it, you can not take it on the road with you ...
It's a connoisseur's item, yeah. You know, when I was growing up, Vinyl was cheap and cheerful. 2.99 for a new record. Now, it's the far more expensive option to having a CD. You can pick up CDs from the whole Led Zeppelin back catalogue for about three or four pounds each here. But if you want the Led Zeppelin Vinyl replica reissues, they're like 20-25 quid. So they're obviously aimed at people who have a bit more money to spend. It's still a niche thing. The new Porcupine Tree will sell something like 200.000 on CD and about 6-7.000 on Vinyl. So relatively speaking, it's a minority. But it's growing. I hope that a lot of young people wil get into that, too. I gues we'll just have to wait and see.

There is of, course, an artistic aspect to Vinyl as well. Take your Bass Communion album „Molotov & Haze“, for example. Thanks to the breaks in between tracks, the Vinyl edition has a completely different impact than the CD version.
If you look back again at the golden age of Vinyl, many artists used those natural breaks in a positive way. So in the 70s, you were sequencing an album as two sides - or four sides, depending on whether it was a double album – and as two sequences of music. Or you could build your record from the beginning of side A to the end of side A and then you'd have a natural interval and then you'll start the process again. So you build these two very satisfying continuums of music. And you don't do that with a CD. I've always been very sentimental and romantic about the Vinyl format. Even when I'm sequencing CDs, in the back of my mind, I'm still somehow thinking: „Oh, this would be the end of side one and now we're gonna start side two. And then we have to build to the middle of side two.“ I'm still thinking in that way. And I've always been a sucker for great double albums with just one track per side. Walter Carlos' „Sonic Seasonings“ springs to mind or Tangerine Dream's „Zeit“. Or even „Tales of Topographic Oceans“ by Yes. Much maligned record, but I love it. There's something about Vinyl. I think you'd have to get a psychologist for this, but I've got this hunch that 20 minutes is actually about the natural attention span of most people to listen to one kind of music. I think that's a reason why you get so few classic albums from the CD era – they're too long, they don't have these natural breaks and they don't have this natural sense of shape. „Molotov“ probably worked best on Vinyl, you're right. It was four pieces, they were all the length of a Vinyl side.

Were you keeping these factors in mind for „The Incident“ as well?
Even then I was keeping the breaks in my mind. (laughs) I can't get it out of my head. Even when „The Incident“ was being put together, it was about 55 minutes long and I knew exactly where the Vinyl splits were going to be. And actually, if you listen to it on Vinyl, each side still has a very strong sense of cohesion and somehow seems complete within itself. And that's not coincidence. It's not easy either – to try and make it work on both formats. Maybe it's impossible, in fact, Maybe there's always going to be one format which is going to work better than another.

If I understood correctly, you didn't do the mastering yourself this time?

No I didn't. It was done by John Astley of „Close to the Edge“ in London. He did all the Abba reissues, The Who reissues, so he's very experienced. What's interesting is he tends to specialise in mastering catalogues from the Vinyl era. So we're in a way turning our back on this kind of modern, digital mastering era and the trend of mastering CDs as loudly as possible. Which is in stark contrast to the way that Vinyl was mastered. To master Vinyl correctly, you have to be very conscious about cutting all those frequencies  to the format. Volumes become very important and dynamics become very important. Groove cramming... All those things that Vinyl cutting engineers had to really worry about. With CD mastering engineers, it's just like: „Let's turn it up as loud as you can, let's stick it through the brickwall limiting as loud as you can.“ And I hated that for so many years that I'm so glad that it's now almost become a public issue, When we listen to music, now, we're aware of this problem. You can literally not get that kind of volume on Vinyl – and thank god!

How involved were you with the visual aspect of the Vinyl edition of „The Incident“?
I'm a bit of a control freak, I get involved with everything. The simple truth is that we worked very hard on the special edition from the CD version, which consists of two CDs, a DVD and two books in a box. I actually assumed that the Vinyl would be an equivalent version of that. But I'm very, very fortunate to be working with people like Carl Glover and Charles. And they actually wanted to come up with a completely seperate Vinyl concept. They came up with this idea of the transparent slipcase and the seperate sleeves and the book, with the text embossed on the slipcase. Which is great, because it means that actually the Vinyl not only is a special edition but is actually very distinct from the digital version. And there, of course, people who like to collect all of them and they're getting a very different experience. Not just with the audio, but with the whole packaging, concept and aesthetic. I have to tell you, though, that on this occasion, that was really Carl and Charles' baby and  brainchild. These people are more insane about Vinyl than me. I mean I was used for so many years to having to go almost sheepishly cap-in-hand to the record companies and say: „I'd really like to do something really special. Can we do this?“ And they would say: „Well, it's a bit expensive...“ And with Charles, it's the opposite: You give him some ridiculous concept and he'll come back a bit later and say: We can make it even more ridiculous (laughs). We're kind of edging each other on. „Let's do this!“ „No, let's do this! And let's even make it even bigger and better. Let's add a postcard, let's add a slipcase, let's add a poster...“

I spoke to the guy who printed the „Insurgentes“ book ...

... oh dear, yes!

I think it was a challenge for him as well!
When everyone involved is doing it as a labour of love, you know you're going to get something special. And it takes just one part of the chain that's only doing it as a job for it to get a bit scary. When we did „Insurgentes“, Charles was supervising, we had Didi at the factory - who was a big fan and totally understood it – Carl designing, Lasse doing all the photography. Everyone was in it to produce something absolutely as special as it could be. We ended up selling it a price where no one was making any money. Most people are selling their special editions at 60, 70 Pounds now. Ours was very cheap, but we didn't care. That's what art is about at the end of the day. You don't get into the music business because you want to make money. You get into the music business, because you have a passion to make music and to create art. And that includes sleeve designers and that includes record company bosses, it includes everyone: At some point, we fell in love with music and with producing records and holding these rather romantic, obscure objects in our hand.

By Tobias Fischer

This interview was originally conducted for „Tonefloat Magazine“, a Print Publication and collaboration between tokafi and the tonefloat. It is available for free at some European outlets as well as with every order from the label.

Homepage: Steven Wilson
Homepage: Porcupine Tree
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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