When we first interviewed Steven Wilson in 2009 for issue #73, he had just released his first solo album, Insurgentes. Since then, his prog rock group Porcupine Tree has been on hold/hiatus, and his fifth solo release, The Future Bites, came out this year – a sometimes harrowing look at consumer culture bolstered by the electronic-leaning production of Steven and David Kosten (also known as Faultline). Steven is also well known for his remixes of classic albums by the likes of Jethro Tull, Tears for Fears, King Crimson, XTC, Yes, and many others. Needless to say, I was excited to spend time discussing the art of making records with one of my favorite musicians.
When did you start working on The Future Bites?
I’m always writing. Even around the time the last album, To the Bone, came out, I was already thinking about ideas for the next record, and some basic demos probably came almost immediately after that. I want every album to feel like it’s something different than everything that’s come before it. Every record, in some sense, is a natural progression from whatever it is I’ve just done. When I finished To the Bone, I was thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do next?” I wanted to do something more contemporary-sounding, perhaps positioned more in the world of electronic music, which I’ve always been a fan of. I developed a few demos early on, which were all over the place stylistically. The definition that began to establish itself was definitely the one you hear on The Future Bites, which is less guitar-oriented. I really wanted to explore themes to do with self-identity in the age of social media and consumerism.
I did most of the writing around about the middle of 2018. At the time, we were right in the middle of the Trump administration, we had Brexit going on in the U.K., and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel the future was a particularly optimistic place. I’d always looked forward to the future in the past, but this was the first time in my life I was genuinely worried about the future. That was where the whole idea of The Future Bites came from. I’ve began to feel slightly more optimistic about the world, for obvious reasons, but also because we have the vaccination now in the U.K. Regarding the album, certain songs began to establish themselves as the frontrunners. I always write a lot more music than I need. I had 25 songs written for this album, and only nine are on the record.
I’ve assumed that with the way you work, and the number of projects you’ve been involved with over the years, that writing would be something that’s always going on. But it has to be focused down to whatever album you’re currently working on, right?
Pretty much. I’ve already written two songs for my next record. That’s also partly because there’s been such a big delay. The album was ready to go in January 2020, and it’s finally out a year later. That’s been frustrating, but it’s also given me the opportunity to be creative again, and I’m already thinking about my next record. Part of me feels it’s such a privilege to be able to do what I do. To be a professional musician in the 21st century, I don’t underestimate what a privilege and honor it is to be able to do that. And to do that in a pretty selfish way. I don’t make anything you would say is “mainstream.” While this album has got some accessible songs on it, most of my career has been conducted outside of the mainstream. I’ve never compromised. I’m very fortunate to be able to get to do what I do.
That’s probably part of the longevity. The building of a fanbase that’s not looking for a temporal pop hit.
I think so, yeah. One of the things I’ve always strived to do is to be able to be an artist who can say they don’t belong to a particular genre. They create their own musical world. I know there are some people who think I’m “Mr. Prog Rock” or “Mr. Prog Metal,” and some people are going to be disappointed when they hear a record like The Future Bites, because it’s not that. But I’ve never said that’s what I did. I always thought of myself as more in the tradition of someone – I’m flattering myself by mentioning these names, but only in the sense of the way they’ve conducted their career – your David Bowies, your Frank Zappas, your Peter Gabriels, and your Neil Youngs. The kind of people who you can’t categorize as being anything in particular. They create their own musical universes. In my own small way, that’s what I’m striving to do.
I think that’s very healthy; being able to open up and not feel boxed in. I could see where that was leading with your band, Porcupine Tree.
It’s a tough thing to do. It’s even tougher now, because you have an immediate mirror of social media. Anything that I do, any new song I release, any video, anything I say or do, can get an immediate wave of negativity. Not all, but there’s always a small contingent of extremely negative feedback to anything that we do. Of course, that’s very much a 21st century phenomenon. Bowie and Zappa never had to deal with that. They would get professional journalists reviewing their new album, but they wouldn’t have this instant wave of, “Oh, I don’t like this. I’m not sure about this. This isn’t what I want him to be doing.” As you say, to be able to feel I’m someone who’s not boxed in, I’m constantly fighting these preconceptions and confronting the expectations that others have of me. I believe if you do earn that right to be that kind of artist, it’s the greatest thing of all. I do realize how lucky I am in not having to be beholden to my audience in that respect.
Well, creatively that would be a nightmare; to not be able to move forward or explore.
I think you’re right, but so many artists are stuck in that holding pattern, where they try something a bit different and then fans push back. It’s what I call the AC/DC syndrome. I love AC/DC, but, essentially, they’ve been making the same record for 50 years now. I don’t think their fans would allow them to do anything different!
To be in a position where you’re expected to do something different is the greatest position of all.
The doors are open. With The Future Bites, you worked extensively with David Kosten, co-producing and working out of his place as well as your private studio. How did the relationship with David develop?
I’ve known David for a long time, more than 25 years now. We both started out in the music industry about the same time, in the early ‘90s. To try and make ends meet in the early days we were both doing music for TV commercials, so we would find ourselves going up against each other in a job for Sony PlayStation, M&Ms, LEGO, or something. We got to know each other through this friendly rivalry. I’ve been such an admirer of his production sound and his musical aesthetic. What I love about him is that you can recognize when you listen to any of the records he’s made, whether it’s Bat for Lashes, Keane, me, or whatever he’s done, you can hear he’s someone who has a very wide taste and a very wide knowledge in the history of music. But his records always sound fresh, contemporary, and “now.” I say that because if I do have an Achilles’ heel; it’s that I tend to sometimes disappear down the rabbit hole of homage, in the nicest possible way.
You can sometimes listen to my records and say, “Oh, yes. That’s his record that is his tribute to ‘70s conceptual rock,” or, “His last album, To The Bone, is his homage to ‘80s experimental pop.” I’m aware of that, and I wanted – this time – to make a record that could only exist in 2020 or 2019, as that’s when we made it. So, I thought of David. David is very good at stopping me. Most producers, most engineers, and most musicians, if you’re working in the studio with them and collectively hit on something that reminds you of something you love – it could be The Beatles, it could be Kraftwerk, it could be David Bowie – most people’s natural reaction is, “Oh, it sounds great! It’s just like David Bowie!” David is the opposite. He’s like, “It sounds just like David Bowie. No, we can’t do that.” That was very refreshing to me, because I usually get very excited about things that remind me of music I already like. But I’m totally with him when it’s like, “No! Find your own idea. Find something that’s more uniquely yours.” Almost without exception when he pushed me, I would find something that I liked even better but it somehow didn’t sound like it was an homage to something else. That’s his real strength.
That’s good guidance. That’s a good way to keep digging.
Absolutely. Keep digging.
What was the process like? Were you building demos at your place and then taking them to him and expanding? Or were you going to his place to start the creation of a song?
I would always bring something to the studio. It could be a very rough sketch. The song “Self,” I had a verse and rhythm and that was it. Other songs I would take almost complete. Some of those songs he would rip to pieces, and we’d build them back up. He’s quite opinionated, David; which is what I like about him. “I think the melody’s great, but the arrangement’s all wrong. Let’s start again.” Other songs are almost exactly as I brought them in. He made them sound better. “12 Things I Forgot” is essentially the same as my original demo. It just sounds different. David’s not deferential to me. He’s an experienced, award-winning producer. He’ll tell me if he thinks I can do better. That’s not easy for me, because I am a bit of a control freak. I’m used to getting my way. But if I respect someone, as I respect David, then I will listen.
Was there still time when you would go home and work on vocals alone?
Most of it we did together. I’m not the most confident singer, and I was very used to being in the position where I’d do the vocals at home in my own little space. But David was like, “No, we’re going to do it here, and I’m going to produce you as a vocalist.” It’s that thing where you settle for a lot less unless there’s someone there pushing you. I would settle for vocal takes and he’s like, “No, you can do better.” Every time he would get something out of me that I didn’t know was there. I’ve never been the most confident singer. I understand my limitations. I know I have something that’s unique to me, but I’ve never been the most confident, from a technical perspective. Again, it’s great to have someone pushing me. I do a lot of falsetto on the record and use various electronic techniques on my voice. I’m proud of my singing on this record.
I always tell people there’s a huge difference between doing 40 takes and comping it by yourself and having someone there who’s producing. If I dig in and guide someone through vocal takes, we’ll end up somewhere quite different than a person who’s alone recording take after take. That’s something that people miss these days.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Slightly different context, but the same thing you’re saying, in a way: I always find that when I finish a track – I’m sure you find this too – I’ll think it’s perfect; it sounds amazing. Then I’ll play it to someone else for the first time, and I start to hear it through their ears. We’re hearing it through someone else’s ears for the first time. “Oh god, this bit goes on too long, doesn’t it? This bit feels long! I should have cut this.” It’s funny. These things that would never have occurred to you when working in isolation, suddenly you’re hearing it through the other person in the room’s ears, and the whole song takes on a completely different perspective. That’s one of the beautiful things about having someone to sound ideas off of. He would hear what I didn’t hear, originally. Even pronunciation. I was pronouncing words in a way like, “What are you saying there? I can’t hear what you’re saying. That word feels awkward.” I’d ask, “Does it? Why?” And David would say, “It doesn’t scan.” Then I would find a better word, and he’d be absolutely right. That’s the archetypal role of the producer. As someone who’s always thought of myself as a producer, I haven’t put myself in that position. But there is an argument to say that sometimes the person who’s a producer is sometimes the one who most needs to be produced when they’re making their own music, because they don’t have as much subjectivity about what they’re doing.
Yeah. I find it much easier to guide someone than to guide myself.
Absolutely. Me too.
You’re well-known for mixing, but you’ve had many other mixers on your albums. Is that also part of a letting go and letting someone else throw their perspective in?
Yeah, exactly. I can mix, and I do a lot of mixing. But it comes back to what we said a minute ago, that this being my writing, and my performance; sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees. You can’t be objective about your own work. I could have mixed it, but I liked the idea of putting it in the hands of someone else I trust. David had been working through the whole creative process with me anyway. I don’t know about you, but certainly the way most modern records are made these days, you’re kind of mixing as you go along anyway.
It’s not like the old days where we would track a record on tape and it would be a bit of a mess until we got to the mixing. These days we’re mixing, putting in plug-ins, and processing, so the mix is coming together as we track. This was no exception. It was logical for David to continue to complete the process. We wanted a couple of songs that had more of a radio sheen to them, and Cenzo [Townshend] is very good at that. As someone who was a sidekick to [Mark] “Spike” Stent for many years, he knows a lot more about making songs sound like they “pop” on radio, to use that word. We had him mix a couple of tunes that were potentially radio songs, and he did a great job.
Leading into that, with your work that you are doing – the remixes of Yes, XTC, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson albums – how did that first come around?
Well, we have to go right back to the beginning. Around about 2002, Porcupine Tree signed to an American label: Lava/Atlantic Records. We made a record in New York called In Absentia. There was somebody in the company who felt it would be a good idea to hook up with DTS [Digital Theater Systems], who were very much trying to get 5.1 [surround mixes] into the marketplace at the time. They felt that it would be a good record for them to invest in a 5.1 mix. They hired Elliot Scheiner to do the 5.1 mix for In Absentia. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I got sent the mix and we went to a studio in London to hear it. I didn’t like it, because I’m a control freak. To me it was like, “This is not the way it should sound in 5.1.” So, immediately I said, “Look, can I fly over there and sit with Elliot? He’s in the ballpark, but can we sit there and do this together and then we’ll both be happy?” That’s exactly what happened. I flew over and we revisited the mix until I was happy with it. I got totally into it, watching him do it, thinking, “I can do this. This is great! I’m going to get a surround setup.” I went back home and put a surround setup together. I started to mix all my records in surround at that time; all the Porcupine Records, all the other projects I was doing at the time. And there would be a surround project that would come out of everything. Lo and behold, one year one of them got a Grammy nomination for Best Surround Sound Album. It was Fear of a Blank Planet, the penultimate Porcupine Tree album. It’s funny how people suddenly start to notice and take you a bit more seriously when you get a Grammy nomination. I didn’t take it very seriously, but I got approached by the manager of King Crimson about doing King Crimson in 5.1. I said, “Sure. I’d love to have a go!” I did three King Crimson albums, and they got an ecstatic response from the surround sound community when they came out. I didn’t know what I was doing; I was approaching it in a very intuitive way. I hadn’t really listened to anybody else’s surround mixes. I got the impression I was a bit more aggressive with surround, and I had a lot of tracks going on in the back. So, one door started to lead to another. I was invited to do some more progressive rock bands, like Jethro Tull and Yes, then XTC, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, and Black Sabbath. It’s all been word-of-mouth. I love doing it. I learn so much from doing it, and I love to give something back to the music as well, most of which I grew up listening to.
I run the archive for my late friend, Elliott Smith. When I do a high-quality transfer of a tape, sometimes I’m pulling more off of that tape than what was heard during the original mix session. I hear that with some of your mixes; I hear all this “new” detail.
Yeah. The analogy for me has always been that it’s like cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I don’t want to change what’s there, but I can make it shine with more clarity and get more detail. What I hear most often about my remixes is, “Wow, I’m hearing more sounds in the mix that I never knew were there.” Even though I haven’t changed the relationship between the elements or the levels, there’s something about the clarity of a nice multitrack transfer at 96 kHz/24-bit, as well as being able to use modern digital tools. Of course, a lot of people are immediately offended by that idea. “How can you mix an analog album with digital?” Fine. It’s not for you then. But a lot of people like that extra clarity and definition that we can get. I’ve made it my business to do these remixes by being very, very faithful to all of the original mix decisions. Levels, panning positions, processing, EQ, compression, and reverbs; I’m trying to painstakingly recreate these as close as I can, so that when you listen to it, it doesn’t jar you as something that sounds different to what you love. Except it does, because it sounds a little bit clearer than it did. Then there’re the 5.1 mixes, and now Dolby Atmos is something I’m getting into a lot.
Right. I noticed some speakers in your space up above the listening position, so I assumed you’d gotten into that Dolby Atmos realm. How do you find that with the “height” factor in mixing?
I absolutely love it. To be able to move sound in the vertical plane as well as the horizontal plane; that’s the next logical step. If you’ve got surround, why should it all be on one plane? Get the vertical plane too. I love it. I understand it’s a very niche market at the moment, but, like anything, the more music that’s out there mixed in that format, the more potential it’s got for people. Every time I did one of these classic albums, I always thought to myself – whether it’s Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Tears for Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair, or Ultravox’s Vienna – there would be a contingent of people where that would be their favorite album of all time, and they might go out and invest in a surround system just so that they could hear it. Once they’d heard it, they’d go, “Great, now what else is out there I can listen to in surround?” It’s significant that The Beatles are doing Atmos mixes, because I bet so many people have gone out and purchased an Atmos system so they can hear Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s… in Atmos. That’s a great sign when The Beatles do something.
As always, leading the way.
As always, yeah.
I’m a huge Yes fan. Going through and reconstructing their albums, such as Relayer or Tales From Topographic Oceans, what do you take from that? What have you learned about the techniques and arrangements that were used, and do you apply them to your own music after these mix sessions?
That’s interesting. What was always a shock to me, and it shouldn’t have been, but when I started mixing some of these albums made in the ‘70s, I was like, “Oh, my god. It’s a live band playing in the studio. Wow.” They actually made records like that! Hearing the leakage on everything, and that there was a symbiotic sound, a mush, coming from the fact that there wasn’t this perfect separation. Hearing the air around the guitar. It had the signature of the studio to it. Hearing the fact that the drummer was speeding up and slowing down all the time. Bill Bruford, bless him, but he couldn’t keep time; speeding up and slowing down. I love that about him. It gives this music a sense of abandon and momentum that he’s speeding up. “Oh, this is why these records sound the way they do.” I made a couple of records after that which do the same thing. Because I’ve gone a bit back into the electronic world on this new record, it’s gone back to using tempos and strict BPMs. But I made a couple of records a few years ago where I didn’t use tempo maps or click tracks at all. I let the band play and push and pull, and it did have more of that classic sound to it as a consequence. That was great, but there have been so many instances where I’ve been working on some of these records and I had to figure out how they did it. A lot of times sounds wouldn’t be printed to tape, like phaser or Leslie effects. I’ll be listening and trying to figure it out. Once I figure it out, that becomes a part of my own tool kit. “Oh, that’s how they did that.”
Back in the ‘70s, musicians would hear a new record and think, “How’d they do that?” They’d be trying to make these effects that were done via the studio. There’s always a constant evolution of trying to figure sounds out.
You’re absolutely right. There’s also an element of there being a constant sense of techniques being lost in history. One of the other things I found is that the last person you should ask about how they did something is the artist. They never remember. I remember asking Roland [Orzabal] from Tears for Fears how the band did something. “I don’t know! It was 30 years ago.” There’s a sense that a lot of these techniques belong to a different era, a different recording philosophy: analog tape, or no automated mixing techniques. People hardly remember how they did them. Like you said, I’m trying to figure out a way to do it that’s not the way they did it, because I’m only working in the digital domain today. The plug-ins are so good, the Universal Audio plug-ins particularly. I don’t know if you use those.
I have them, and I use them a lot.
When I’m doing these original analog recording mixes, plug-ins such as the EMT-140 plate are absolutely essential to creating signature sounds from the old records.
The AKG BX 20 [spring reverb] plug-in too.
BX 20, absolutely!
A lot of the spatial plug-ins on the UAD platform: the Capitol Chambers and the Ocean Way Studios room.
I love the Ocean Way Studios plug-in.
The interesting thing is that it’s come around to where I’ll do mixes in the box, and people think I’m using all sorts of analog gear and my console.
Totally. This is where a lot of the knee-jerk people react and say, “Oh, you can’t mix analog in digital.” They’re a little bit out-of-date. Ten years ago, digital mixes didn’t sound that good. But now, with things like the UA Oxide Tape [Recorder] plug-in and the Ocean Way Studios – to put a little bit of room around sounds – we’re at a stage where digital recording has caught up with analog. I reckon I could fool most people with an A/B test. I haven’t put it to the test...
If you are coming off 24- or 16-track 2-inch tape it actually will “smear” the sound more to go back through a console.
Which can be good, don’t get me wrong. Every technique has a place. With a lot of the Elliott Smith work, it’ll be 4- or 8-track sources. I’m not going to set up a console and add more noise. I’m going to try to keep it pristine to what is there. I find that helps.
Yeah, I think you’re right. Another thing that a lot of the analog purists miss sometimes is that a lot of these albums were mixed on faulty equipment. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was famously mixed onto a faulty tape machine that hadn’t been lined up properly. It sounds very flat and not very good. I had another project I was mixing, a classic album, which had been mixed on a tape machine that was gradually slowing down, so it was about a quarter of a semitone sharp by the end of the track. The analog purists can love all that shit if they want, but the bottom line for me is that I’m trying to do it the way the artist would have clearly done it if they had been able to do so at the time. You can be a purist about it, but if the artist is telling me, “I always hated how we did this, because we were using this faulty thing and that faulty thing.” There’s a famous studio King Crimson used called Command Studios. Robert [Fripp] said it was the worst studio in London, but it was the only one they could book when they were doing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. They knew it sounded terrible, but there was nothing they could do. For him, being able to do the remix was an opportunity to bring that album sonically up to the standard that he always felt it had lacked. That’s something that the purists sometimes miss; the fact that the artists themselves had problems, limitations, faulty equipment, and dodgy studios.
With the continuation of this thought, how much do you oversee mastering and keep an eye on it? Even your new record, I’ve got wave files in Pro Tools and I can see they’re not smashed – there’s still quite a bit of the dynamics retained.
It’s funny. I went through a phase for about five years – and I still do this with some projects – where I will not allow mastering at all. Particularly with a lot of my classic album remixes for Jethro Tull, Yes, and XTC, none of it was mastered. It came directly off my output bus. I’m doing a little bit to it on the way out. I’ve got a UAD Precision Limiter to take out not more than 2 or 3 dB, and I’ve got an Oxide Tape plug-in that makes it sound better to me. Not always, but sometimes. I deliver the mixes, and that’s the way they go out, on the Blu-ray and CD. I figure these albums are bought by people who are listening to them on presumably quite good home stereos or as surround mixes. These are not mixes I’m doing for radio. They don’t need to sound louder than everyone else. They’re going to be listened to by people who care about sonic excellence. Why do I need to have them compressed, limited, EQ’d, or mastered in any way? I have that with The Future Bites. Bob Ludwig mastered it for me. It’s a more electronic album, and it’s slightly out of my comfort zone in that respect. Also, I do want it to pop on the radio. The first one he did for me had a dynamic range measurement of about 8. I don’t know if you get into this world of DR [dynamic range] ratings?
I understand it.
It’s part of the toolbox. Bob Ludwig went a bit too far with it and I asked if he’d mind doing something more like a 10 or 11. He said he’s so happy that I asked him to do that because he’d gotten into this thing of thinking that everyone wants him to make it loud. I said, “No, I want you to make it sound competitive, but not to the point where I start to hear the impact of the compression or the limiting on the music.” He was happy I asked him to do that; he came back and did a great job.
I was going back to your album To The Bone, and the song “Pariah” has a part that’s incredibly intense, where Ninet Tayeb’s vocals carry it into the end. Was that something you had to oversee mastering for to keep the dynamics?
That’s an example of something else I learned from some of the classic albums. I was looking at an original mix of something; it might have been a King Crimson track. I was looking at the waveform of the original mix, and I could see the volume was getting quieter and quieter and quieter. Then there was this ramp up at the end. I did this on “Pariah.” The track is gradually getting lower and lower so that when you get to the end, that climax, you’ve got all that headroom. Of course, you don’t really hear that gradual backing off of the volume, but it is there. That is something that I definitely learned from those classic album remixes. I do that quite a lot these days. Also, that thing – it’s one of Glyn Johns’ big tricks – when you first bring something into a mix, you make it really loud. Then, after a few seconds, you bring it down 2 or 3 dB. The ear doesn’t notice that it’s come down again, but it pops out when it first comes into the mix. All that took me years to learn and understand. It’s counterintuitive, in a way.
But it really is true. You can fool the ear. There’s no such thing as right or wrong with any of this. I learned to make records as an idiot. I was never trained. I made a lot of not-so-good sounding records at the beginning of my career. I learned from my mistakes. What was most key for me was that I could listen and understand. I could listen to records, and without understanding technically what they were doing, I could figure out the philosophy of the recording. Then I could go away and find my own way to replicate that notion or approach. That’s still the way I do this. I’m exaggerating, but there’s a big part of me that doesn’t know what I’m doing with EQ and compression. I kind of do know, but there’s always more that I can never know. I use them in an intuitive way until it sounds good. A lot of it has to do with the impact, the decay, and the sonic signature of each thing in the mix, and how it interacts with everything else. There’s no right or wrong; it’s just what seems intriguing and engaging to you. I find it weird when I’m talking about this, because I don’t really know what I’m talking about. For a long time, people thought of me as a guitar player. I never thought of myself as a guitar player. I’d get asked to do interviews by guitar and musician magazines. They’d say, “What strings do you use?” I’m like, “Whatever I can get for free!” A lot of it for me has been messing about and finding a way that works for me.
When you entered into this world and were able to start working on recordings at home, it was an intersection of technology and art where you could start with a small 16-track or ADATs and learn recording on your own.
Yeah, that’s been key for me. When people used to ask me what I do, I’d say, “I make records.” They’re expecting me to say I’m a songwriter or a guitar player or a singer. I make records. I’ve always been interested in whatever has been necessary for me to know in order to achieve that. That’s what I fell in love with as an 11-year-old kid, hearing [Pink Floyd’s] The Dark Side of the Moon, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue, or Frank Sinatra – whatever it was my parents were listening to. I fell in love with the idea of making a musical journey across two sides of an album, something that would have a sonic excellence to it. It would be engaging, melodic, fascinating, and I didn’t care about being a great guitar player or singer. I just wanted to learn everything I needed to know in order to make records. A bit of this, bit of that, and a bit of production and engineering. I got better at some of those over the years. One of the things I got better and better at understanding is the production and engineering side. I do understand a bit more about those than I used to.
It’s hard to avoid.
It’s hard to avoid, yeah!