Are you the one?

Steven Wilson on Camilla and Donald, Peter and Andy, the death of rock music, the goodness of pop and the cult of personality

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Steven Wilson
Lasse Hoile

It took a few re-schedules before we managed to get Steven Wilson on the phone, and in retrospect, it was pretty easy to understand why. Certainly not because Wilson is press-shy, or more commonly among working musicians, press averse; he is an engaging conversationalist, a merchant and batsman of ideas and, to interviewers anyway, an artist largely immune from the cloak of toxic cynicism typically burdening the underdog rock musician. He is one of music’s best thinkers, possibly one of its last true believers.

No, he was just busy. The English composer and guitarist, founder and once-frontman for the prog outfit Porcupine Tree, had been preparing for one of those career-defining events, a three-day, standing-room-only run at London’s storied Royal Albert Hall. 

We finally connected the afternoon after the third and final show of the RAH gig, which, by Wilson’s estimate, was a success; but even better, after weeks of planning and rehearsals and film production logistics and the pressures of a hometown, three-night gig presenting new and nominally controversial music, it was at least over.

“Yeah, three very, very intense days. Everything has been building up to this moment. A hometown show, three nights, arguably the greatest venue in the world, and you’re filming it too. So the pressure couldn’t be any greater,” Wilson says. 

“And it’s my name on the ticket, on the marquis. Everything is down to me. So yeah, I’m glad it was a success.”

Discussing his latest release To The Bone, inevitably led Wilson into discourse on musical identity and the struggles (or triumphs) of managing one’s artistic personality in a world cluttered with faces and voices and brands bleeding into each other, competing for attention and allegiance.

Wilson prepped his listeners last spring and early summer that this would be a different kind of record, a more “pop” record than his fans had come to expect from him, certainly more so than 2015’s shaded and cerebral Hand.Cannot.Erase. “Pop” is not a label commonly associated with Wilson’s music, which has trended distinctly toward a progressive, often darkly aggro veneer; long compositions, darker subject matter, alternately rageful and somber, calculating and feral.

To The Bone saw its release in August, and while Wilson didn’t abandoned his mission to tackle deeper subject matter (fake news/disinformation on the title track, Europe’s refugee crisis in “Refuge,” misplaced hope in politics in “The Same Asylum As Before,” suicidal extremists on “Detonation”), he did create a tighter record, more direct and instrumentally focused.

And in the mix comes the sixth track on the program, “Permanating,” a helium-lofted Style Council/Pet Shop Boys mashup with a staccato piano figure, double-time percussion chassis and soaring vocal chorus about celebrating the moment because life is short but totally awesome so enjoy it with your friends. It’s a sheer wonder, a mirrorball of euphoria, and, by the way, what the hell is it doing on a Steven Wilson record?

“The most popular song every night in the show. Without question,” Wilson insists.

“And what I take away from that is that, although a lot of rock fans have a kind of immediate, negative response to the idea of a pop song, actually, at the end of the day, everyone can enjoy a catchy, great pop song.”

For the stalwart faithful who have held up Wilson as the bearer of the latter-day prog torch, the inheritor of Floydian/Frippian DNA, “Permanating” seems to have been received as, at best, an anomaly, or at worst, a bit of a troll. Wilson is OK with that.

“See, the kind of people who say those kinds of things are the people who I think need to be upset anyway. The idea that I make ‘generic’ music is completely alien to me. I never, ever, said that I play a particular kind of music.

“I grew up in a house where my parents introduced me very early on to fantastic pop music — Abba, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters — at the same time they would introduce me to Dark Side of the Moon. That was always part of my DNA.”

Wilson also reached out for lyrical help on a couple of tunes, notably the opening track “To The Bone,” to The Bard of Swindon, XTC founder Andy Partridge.

Hold on, down and down and down and down/We’re melting down their throne/Oh, own through every superstition/Virgin, whore, and crone/Hold on, down through all the fear gods/To the very truth alone/Oh, down and down, we’re going to the bone

“I grew up listening to XTC, and Andy is one of my heroes. About five years ago, I got the privilege to work on a project, which is still ongoing, to remix the whole XTC catalog. We’ve done five so far, and we’re averaging about one a year. So I’ve gotten to know him very well,” Wilson says.

“And this song, ‘To The Bone’, I knew it had to be a little more, shall we say, ‘political,’ with a capital P, literally about politics, the whole Trump thing and the Brexit thing, and it was not something I felt very comfortable myself writing about. I guess I’m better at writing about characters and these sorts of inner monologues and short stories about characters. And Andy is better at dealing with these big, global kinds of issues.”

Elsewhere on this offering, we were not the first to notice that “Pariah,” a duet Wilson sings with Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, bears thematic and aesthetic resonance to Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up,” from Gabriel’s So album, now well past 30 years old.

“What I loved about So was that it was an unashamedly direct, mainstream record, but without losing any of the personality, any of the sense of experimentation and any of the character of the artist in question,” Wilson says. “That’s a really hard thing to pull off, and to me, that’s kind of what I was trying to do with To The Bone.

“I suppose ‘Don’t Give Up’ was probably in my mind, consciously or subconsciously, but actually what was probably more in my mind was ‘Woman in Chains,’ the Tears for Fears duet with Roland Orzabal and Oleta Adams, one of these classic female/male duets, with a sense of empowerment to it.” 

As Wilson prepared to bring his current campaign to the U.S., we asked if he sensed a different vibe between American, U.K. and European audiences. In some ways, Wilson is still regarded as an underground artist, producing (in the main) defiantly non-commercial music, “Permanating” notwithstanding, yet has achieved a stature that sells out the Royal Albert.

But America?

“One of the things that’s really kind of difficult for me to get to grips with is how the country that was for so long the home of rock music, that was the place everybody went to tour, all the rock bands wanted to make it huge in America, be No. 1 in America, conquer that territory, the home of rock ‘n’ roll music, how, arguably, it’s the country that has now the least interest in rock music, and is the most resistant to it,” Wilson says.

“And that’s happened in a relatively short space of time. Obviously, someone like myself, that’s very disappointing. Clearly, I come from a rock music tradition, and there are places in the world — for example, Latin America — that still love rock music.

“But when I come to America, I have a hunch I’m going to be playing … to predominately an older audience. I don’t think there will be many young people there, and I think that’s partly down to the fact that young people in America aren’t interested in rock music. I think it’s all urban music, and hip hop.”

So if the idea of “rock star” is a fading or anachronistic paradigm on these shores, the underlying theme — be bigger in image than in substance — is undoubtedly alive and well. A closing question on whether Camilla should assume the title of Queen, (or Queen-consort, or Duchess, or some other stately investiture) when Charles assumes the throne — cheerfully arcane matters to Americans, but of some interest and dispute among a segment of the British people — unleashed the subject we both danced around for 30 minutes.

While Wilson himself is aggressively indifferent to Camilla’s future title (“The first thing that comes to mind is, could I really give a shit. I have had very little interest in the Royal Family pretty much my whole life”), he’s actually a bit sympathetic to her handicap in broadly capturing the hearts of the British people. And if the question seemed needlessly patronizing (it wasn’t meant to be — some Americans, especially amateur Anglophiles like this reporter, retain an enduring curiosity about the English monarchy) Wilson turned it on its head.

“Listen, if Donald Trump can be president, than anybody can be anything.”

Yep, he went there.

“Maybe it started in the Ronald Reagan days… We live in an age where anybody can be anything. You have to understand the nature of celebrity. And how to work it. I think that’s what it is. It’s the cult of personality. And someone like Donald Trump — whatever I may think of him and of his being president, and I’m careful not to say one way or the other — he is someone who knows how to effectively use the cult of personality. And that in itself is genius.

“I think Camilla is a bit uncomfortable with it all.”

Does Steven Wilson comfortably bear his own celebrity?

“Obviously not, because I’ve not been…”

He stops to gather his thoughts.

“No. No, I don’t.”

On the Bill: An Evening With Steven Wilson. 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 5, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, ogdentheatre.com. Tickets are $36.50