25 Aug 2018

Steven Wilson: the king of progressive rock

From RNZ Music, 2:10 pm on 25 August 2018

Grammy-nominated UK prog rocker Steven Wilson is known for his spectacular live show, which includes cinematic visuals and quadrophonic sound. Alex Behan spoke to him ahead of his Auckland show in November.

Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson Photo: supplied

Steven Wilson can sell out the Royal Albert Hall, he's been nominated for four Grammys and is known as “the king of progressive rock”, but he’s still an artist who bubbles under the mainstream as a cult figure.

Thoughtful, self-aware and eloquent, Steven is a delight to converse with on all manner of topics, but nothing fills his voice with a wistful passion more than discussing music production.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by the idea of sonic excellence. I grew up listening to albums by Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd. Then also the great eighties productions by Trevor Horn [Grace Jones’ producer], all those classic ZTT Records by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Propaganda.

“I think the word that springs to mind when I talk about these records is cinematic. I was a teenager in the eighties and the eighties gets a bad rap sometimes, but actually, the eighties was a great decade for big steps in terms of [music] production.

“I think of albums by Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode and what Prince was doing in the studio. What Quincey Jones was doing with Michael Jackson and what Trevor Horn was doing with Grace Jones. Some of these records had this incredible cinematic scope to them.

“That’s the era I grew up in and those are the singles I remember being completely blown away by. That’s when I remember becoming fascinated with the idea of production and what production is.

“I’m still very much that person. I still very much want my records to sound as though you could lose yourself in them and that you could discover details and layers on the fifth, sixth, tenth, fiftieth maybe the hundredth time you listen.

“That’s something I don’t hear a lot in a lot of in contemporary pop music. So I’m happy to be the guy that still believes in that.”

He also believes in always upping the ante and he’ll be doing exactly that when he returns to Auckland, especially when it comes to the spectacular audio-visual experience he’s known for.

Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson Photo: Supplied

“There are a lot of new films in the show, a lot of animations, a lot of live action films. I still have quadrophonic sound, I have multiple screens.

“I think it’s even more of a spectacle than it ever was and I’ve really tried to put all of my experience and the experience of my filmmakers and production team into making this show a real journey.

“Not just a journey for their ears but for all the senses.”

Steven is visiting our shores to tour his latest album To The Bone, which the Guardian describes as “artful, sophisticated pop-rock”.

“I’ve made a new record and it’s a whole new ballgame for me now … it’s something which has opened me up to perhaps a more mainstream audience.

“There’s pop songs and piano ballads, there are dark industrial electronic pieces… it’s a very eclectic record … The audience that I’ve cultivated over the years almost expect me to change and do different things and confront their expectations.

“Most artists out there, their fans want them to keep doing the same thing. There are exceptions of course: Frank Zappa, Neil Young, David Bowie and those kinds of artists that cultivated audiences who expected change.

“I’m certainly not putting myself in the same league as those great artists, but maybe in my own way, I have achieved that kind of status where I can make every record very different and the fans seem willing at least to give it a good listen.

“I think that’s a wonderful situation to be in and I would prefer it to the alternative of big mainstream success and having to play the same two or three big hits for the rest of your career.”

Steven Wilson plays Auckland’s Bruce Mason Theatre on Monday, November 12.

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