You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who
has done more to reinvigorate progressive rock than Steven
Wilson. Besides heading the highly successful quartet Porcupine
Tree, which along with groups such as Muse, the
Mars Volta, and Dream Theater has expanded and updated
the idiom, his masterful stereo and 5.1 surround remixes
of classic recordings by King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and
Camel have sparked renewed enthusiasm for the genre.
Wilson’s other musical involvements include No Man (with
singer-songwriter Tim Bowness), Blackfield (with Israeli
rock star Aviv Geffen), and his solo ambient
Bass Communion projects, in addition to
seemingly countless collaborations, guest
appearances, and record production gigs.
Last fall, Wilson released his second
solo album, the two-disc Grace for Drowning
[Kscope], which features a stellar cast
of contributors including guitarists Steve
Hackett, Trey Gunn, and Markus Reuter.
The music on Grace for Drowning deftly references
’70s-era progressive rock while simultaneously
transmuting it into new forms,
in much the same way that, say, Stravinsky
and Bartók assimilated traditional folk
melodies into their compositions. Wilson
then took the music on the road backed by
a band of heavyweight players from both
the rock and jazz worlds, accompanied by
a multimedia show centered on films and
other visuals created by longtime collaborator
Lasse Hoile. The show was filmed
in Mexico just prior to this interview, and
a live DVD/Blu-Ray release is slated for
later this year.
Wilson also recently released Storm Corrosion
[Roadrunner], a surprisingly nonmetallic
collaboration with Opeth guitarist
Mikael Akerfeldt, the live No Man CD/DVD
package Love and Endings [Burning Shed],
and the 11th Bass Communion album,
Wilsons remixing projects are also ongoing
according to the hyper-prolific producer,
with Tull’s Thick as a Brick due out in September,
and “a lot more stuff of a similar
vintage in the works.”
How does Grace for Drowning differ from your
first solo album, both conceptually and in terms
of the creative process?
The fundamental difference is that
the musical reference points for my first
record, Insurgentes, were drawn from the
era in which I was growing up and discovering
music, which was the 1980s. That
record has a more angular and alternative
sound to it, reflecting bands such as Joy
Division, the Cure, and Cocteau Twins,
who everyone I was going to school with
was listening to, whereas the references
for Grace for Drowning are from music that
happened before my time. I went back to
the late ’60s and early and mid ’70s, and
rediscovered psychedelic music, progressive
music, and the explosion of jazz-rock
fusion. Grace for Drowning has what I call
more of a golden sound palette—Mellotron,
acoustic guitar, harmony vocals, Fender
Rhodes piano, woodwinds, strings—and
not so much of the processed electric guitar
I’d used previously. The guitar sounds on
this record are more organic in keeping
with the other instrumentation.
Did you compose the songs on guitar, or
write in other ways and then adapt parts to
Both. There are certainly songs on the
record that started with me sitting down
with an acoustic or electric guitar on my
lap trying different chords, but others
started on the piano, or with a lyric, or a
drum beat, or a bass line, or even just a
texture. I like to conceive each record very
much as a musical journey, a musical continuance,
and part of the process of keeping
things moving and evolving and giving
each song its own flavor is using different
When you do compose on guitar, do you try
to find new things to play, or do you find that
you tend to start from the same places based
on your existing approach to the instrument?
Like most musicians, I tend to fall back
on things that always sound right to me,
and which are part of my musical language.
At the same time, I get bored very
easily if I feel like I’m repeating myself, so
I’m always looking for a new approach or
something that will get me excited—something
that perhaps I haven’t done before.
For every ten ideas I have, I throw away
nine. Not because they’re bad, but simply
because I feel like I’ve played a particular
chord sequence, evoked a particular feeling,
or done something similar before.
Are there any guitar parts on the record that
you’re particularly pleased with?
I really like the solos on “Track One” and
“Deform to Form a Star,” which are both
very simple, languid, and all about space
and silence and simplicity of approach.
On this record I mostly went for that old
school, slightly overdriven, slightly reverberated
kind of melancholic sound that
you get from just a guitar plugged into an
amp with a spring-type reverb—either real
or virtual. That very lonely guitar sound
is something my friend Mikael Akerfeldt
does incredibly well, so he’s been an influence
on me too.
I’m also very proud of my nylon-string
playing on “Belle de Jour,” because that’s
the first time I ever played classical style on
one of my records. In fact, that’s the first
time I’ve ever played any guitar with my
fingers. I wrote that piece to force myself
to learn to play well enough with my fingers
What are a few things about your approach
to guitar that you feel are your own, and that
tend to define what you do?
I can’t talk about specific techniques very
well, because I don’t understand a lot of
what I’m doing. For example, if you ask me
what chords I’m playing, I probably couldn’t
tell you a lot of the time. But to answer the
question more broadly in a conceptual way,
the guitar for me is an incredibly resourceful
tool for making sound. I use the guitar in
many unconventional ways that I know a
lot of musicians don’t. I’m not saying that
makes me any better than other guitarists,
it’s just the way I’ve always thought about
the instrument. As a result, many people
mistake a lot of my guitar sounds for keyboard
or other electronic sounds. For example,
almost every sound and texture on my
first album other than drums or bass was
created with guitar. There is very little keyboard.
So, if there’s one thing I’m good
at it’s using sound design in conjunction
with electric guitar to create sounds that
you haven’t heard before or that are virtually
unrecognizable as guitar. And I’m not
afraid, because I don’t really think of myself
as a guitarist. I think of myself as a producer
first and foremost, and guitar is one of my
tools. Because of that, I don’t feel that the
sound of the guitar is sacred, and I’m quite
happy to mutate it. The guitar is virtually
a limitless source of sound design beyond
the more conventional performance side.
Are there any examples of that on the new
In the middle of “Index” there’s an incredible
wall of extreme, sun-blotting-out noise
that comes in, and that’s just guitar. I’m
not even touching the guitar. It’s just the
pickups, with incredible amounts of distortion,
being turned up at that particular
point to create this moment of drama. It’s
something a guitar player wouldn’t necessarily
consider, but that a producer who happens
to play the guitar might think to do.
More generally, one thing I like to do is
use virtual tape delays to produce massive
amounts of random warbling, which some
might hear as a kind of extreme vibrato. For
example, there’s a fantastic plug-in for Pro
Tools based on the Line 6 DM4 pedal that
lets you dial in various amounts of tape
warble and dropout. It really lets you mash
things up and go lo-fi, which I love, because
when you use lo-fi sounds you create more
space and depth for other instruments.
Also, although it is the opposite of
extreme, I use a little touch of vibrato on
almost all of my guitar sounds, just to give
them a bit more color and character.
Processed sounds notwithstanding, you do
get excellent guitar tones both live and on your
recordings, so you must put some thought into
crafting conventional tones as well.
Absolutely. And particularly on Grace
for Drowning, because I was falling in love
again with early-’70s music and the beautiful
guitar tones that you hear from so many
players during that era. Whether it’s Andy
Latimer from Camel, David Gilmour, Robert
Fripp, Martin Barre, Jerry Garcia—they all
have wonderful and unique tones. I don’t
know a lot about guitars and amps, but I’m
very good at working with sound, and as I
said I’m not a purist, so I work a lot with
plug-ins like Line 6 Amp Farm and Native
Instruments Guitar Rig. In fact, one of the
greatest compliments that people can pay
me is to listen to a record and then ask me
what kind of amplifier I used on it.
As a producer, I love being able to control
the guitar tone right up until the very
last stages of mixing, which, of course, you
can’t do if you have recorded with an amp.
I run the guitar through a Neve preamp
and an Apogee A/D converter directly into
the computer, and record only the unprocessed
sound of the pickup. I usually have
amp simulations and effects set up in the
mix, but those sounds aren’t necessarily
recorded at the time.
When playing through an amp, how you play
is often determined by how the amp sounds and
responds to what you are doing. If you record
while playing through a virtual amp, and later
switch to a different virtual amp sound, do you
find that you lose something, or do you just find
it interesting how a given performance may
translate to an alternative tone?
You are absolutely right that the sound
you have dialed in at any moment affects
how you play. How many times have guitar
players developed a particular style because
of the guitar they were playing and the
amp they were playing through? But that
doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay
with the original virtual sound, and it can
be interesting to see what happens when
you switch sounds. That said, nine out of
ten times I wind up staying with the tone
I had dialed in when I was recording.
It’s a different story live, though, isn’t it?
Yes. When it comes to performing live
I’m not a fan of virtual modeling at all. I
have tried it and I absolutely hated it. I’m
only happy with the sound of a real amp.
I don’t even like my guitar tones coming
through the stage monitors. I have to have
everything coming out the amp behind me
or I don’t enjoy it at all. What can I tell
you? And the same goes for effects. In the
studio I practically never use any front-end
processing, whereas live that’s all I use.
What amp and effects do you use live?
I use a Bad Cat Lynx 50 head and a 4x12
cab. I get all of my delays, reverbs, and
modulation effects from a TC Electronic
G-System, and I have a few pedals in the
G-System’s loops. There’s a Carl Martin
Compressor/Limiter, which compresses differently
than any other pedal I have heard,
a Boss SD-2 Dual Overdrive that I use for a
kind of dirty tone, a Source Audio Soundblox
Multiwave Distortion for a harder overdriven
sound, and an Option 5 Destination
Rotation Single rotary speaker simulator.
What guitars are you playing these days?
I have a bunch of guitars hanging on
my wall in the studio. I have a lot of Paul
Reed Smith guitars, including a Baritone.
My favorite guitar for performing live is
the PRS Custom 22, though I use several
others, as well. I also have a guitar that
was made for me by a company called
AlumiSonic. It is made completely out of
aluminum, is very light, and has a bright,
metallic sound that cuts beautifully. It’s a
new instrument, but has a kind of old sound
to it. At least that’s the way it seems to me.
I don’t enjoy playing it live because it has
problems with feedback, but I’ve used it
a lot on the last couple of records. Those
solos on “Track One” and “Deform to Form
a Star” that I mentioned previously were
played on that guitar.
You use a lot of downstrokes, though the ’70s
guitarists you cite as influences typically favor
alternate picking and other techniques. Do you
think much about those sorts of things, or just
use what works best for you?
That’s a very good question, and the
answer is that basically I’m way too lazy
now to change. Sometimes I do write
things that kind of force me to learn new
techniques, like playing nylon-string with
my fingers, because otherwise I will never
learn anything—but the bottom line is that
I don’t practice. I don’t pick up a guitar for
any other reason than I need to record or
play live with it. Proper guitar players have
a strong relationship with the guitar, and
practice several hours every day, whereas
I will go quite happily for months without
touching a guitar if it’s not required.
As for playing with a lot of downstrokes,
the music that was happening
when I was a teenager was punk and postpunk
and new wave, and those guitarists
were all about energy and an aggressive
approach to playing that didn’t involve a
lot of alternate picking. I learned about
alternate picking when I went back and discovered
music from the past, but by then I
had already started writing my own songs
and I was too lazy to learn a different technique.
In retrospect, though, I like playing
that way because I can play music that is
not necessarily associated with that style of
playing using my technique, and it has more
of a swagger to it. Marco Minnemann, my
drummer, has worked with a lot of fabulous
guitarists. He said he’s never worked with a
guitar player that plays so aggressively but
still in a musical way.
That’s a good description. There was often an
intentional sloppiness and inattention to detail in
punk playing, but your playing is relatively refined,
with lots of control, while still having that aggressive
That’s the key. A lot of great rock players,
if you ask them to play something with
a punk attitude, they just can’t do it. I’m
the opposite. There’s a lot of stuff I couldn’t
possibly hope to play to save my life, but I
have that attitude. And as long as I’m only
expected to play my own music, it works out
well. But put me in a situation where I have
to play someone else’s music, and I would
probably be absolutely hopeless. The point
is that my music is based on my approach.
Also, you used the word sloppy. I actually
like a bit of sloppiness, and I think too
much music these days is too clinical and
cleaned up. A lot of those old ’70s and ’80s
records were very sloppy. The drummer is
speeding up and slowing down the whole
time, the guitar player’s hanging on for dear
life and missing notes right and left—but
taken as a whole, those records sound good
and have lots of character. So another thing
I was trying to do on Grace for Drowning was
to leave in some of that rough feel, and not
put all the drums through beat detectors,
or run all the vocals through Auto-Tune, or
correct the timing on guitar notes. I’ve made
records like that, and I don’t think it makes
You toured with Robert Fripp and remixed several
King Crimson albums. Did you ever discuss
Guitar Craft or experiment with any of the techniques
No. I’ve never studied Robert’s technique.
I know he has this alternative tuning and specific
ways that he approaches his instrument
and the craft of guitar, but I’ve never looked
into it. I’m not really that interested in technique
to be honest. But I’ll tell you one thing,
listening to Robert’s approach and the notes
that he chooses has definitely shaped my style.
One of the great things about Robert is that
in an era when everyone was pretty much
drawing from the blues tradition in terms
of the way they played guitar, he was someone
that was playing all the wrong notes in
a way that was completely unapologetic and
completely convincing. I remember the first
time I heard the solo he played on “Sailor’s
Tale” and thinking, “That’s just wrong. Why
have they left that on the record?” I couldn’t
imagine how he possibly arrived at that, and
it blew my mind. That solo, and the solo at
the end of “The Battle of Glass Tears” make
no sense—but at the same time they make
all the sense in the world.
Is there a concept behind the title Grace for
Everyone in the 21st century—whether
they know it or not—is drowning. They are
drowning in information, technology, politics,
music, movies, marketing, pornography—I
could go on and on. We’re all drowning in
these things largely because of technology,
and the Internet has brought them into our
homes more so than ever before. But at the
same time I think there is a way to find a place
of peace and of grace, and it’s really just a
matter of finding what works for you. What
worked for me was moving out of London,
where I’d lived for 20 years, to a place in the
country 30 miles away, where I’d grown up.
I look out my window now and I see trees,
rivers, cows, and horses, whereas before I had
always seen suburbia, and that completely
different view gave me a completely different
feeling when I was writing music. That,
along with getting a dog and walking every
day, led to a change in the music I was writing.
It started to move away from the more
metal tones that I’m known for to sounds
that are more organic. Grace for Drowning is
about finding a place of grace in the midst
There are quite a few direct references to King
Crimson and other progressive rock bands on Grace
for Drowning, though the music isn’t really derivative.
In your mind, what’s the difference between
referencing and mimicking?
It’s a very good question. My perspective,
which is of course slightly biased, is
that in 2012 it is impossible to do anything
without at least referring in some way to
something that’s come before. I would love
to be proved wrong, but unfortunately the
evidence bears me out. In the 60 years since
rock ‘n’ roll came on the scene, it has come
full circle, which is amazing if you think
about how, say, symphonic music evolved
over a period of centuries. Every extreme
has been visited from extreme noise music
to extreme minimalist music to cheesy
pop to country hip-hop—whatever you
name, somebody’s probably explored that
extreme or created a hybrid of those influences.
Nonetheless, if you are really talented,
your personality should be strong
enough that whatever you do will always
sound like you. So, with Grace for Drowning,
of course you can hear the references
to Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, King Crimson,
whatever—you name it—it’s all in
there. That’s the music that’s in my DNA
and I certainly would not want to take it
out. But at the same time I like to believe
that the record still sounds like a quintessential
Steven Wilson record, and so far
the responses to it have borne that out.
Despite the many musical references, your
lyrics don’t appear to be influenced by ’70s-era
progressive rock bands at all.
No. The one thing I don’t like about ’70s
progressive rock is the lyrics. At best they are
slightly impenetrable and at worst they are
just fantasy hokum—and I don’t like either.
The exception is Roger Waters, who is a
great lyricist. Otherwise, the lyricists from
that period that I loved were people like Joni
Mitchell. I grew up with two very different
strands of musical influence in my life, which
came from my parents: My father was completely
into Tubular Bells, The Dark Side of the
Moon, and the more kind of progressive side,
and my mother was completely into artists
like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Donna
Summer, god rest her soul.
Sometimes you can break someone’s heart
with one note and somebody else will play a
thousand notes and it won’t touch them in
the slightest—and that’s true for lyric writing
as well. You can create very complex and
clever lyrics that don’t touch people. And then
you can just write “I love you,” and in the
right context it can break someone’s heart,
no matter how many times they’ve heard it
before. I like lyrics that are a little bit more
sophisticated than just “I love you,” but at
the same time I do like songs about age-old
subjects like relationships. People who come
to my shows often say they’ve never seen so
many women at a progressive rock show,
and I think that’s because women respond
much more if you speak about real emotions
rather than writing songs about outer space.
There’s a lot more going on in inner space
than there is in outer space.
Speaking of inner space, you sometimes use
the word “spiritual” when describing the music on
Grace for Drowning. What does the word mean to
you in that context?
The spiritual aspect of it came from bringing
in the jazz influence. When you mention
jazz to a lot of rock fans, it strikes terror into
their hearts and some get really turned off,
but I don’t think they should, because jazz
is in some respects a very pure form of spirituality
in music. What I mean by that is that
jazz is very much an expression of feeling
in the moment. In its purest form jazz is, of
course, improvised, and improvised music
is by definition in-the-moment.
A lot of modern rock music lacks spirituality,
because it is too refined, too clinical,
and too regimented. I certainly felt that
about most of my music until quite recently,
and that’s why I began to bring in more of
this aspect of jazz. For example, Theo Travis
was the flute player and saxophonist on the
record, and there were points while he was
soloing when he would begin to tell a story
through his instrument, and I didn’t cut him
off like I would have done on my previous
records. I waited until he had finished telling
his story before moving on to the next
musical idea. That’s why there are solos on
the album up to three minutes long.
Spirituality is also in some ways the antithesis
of intellectual. The intellectual is about
planning, organizing, regimenting—and spirituality
is not something you can apply those
principles to. To be honest, I learned that
lesson again during the experience of remixing
the King Crimson records, because I realized
how much jazz was integral to them.
Absolutely, and particularly to Lizard, which I
have always felt was terribly misunderstood and
That’s exactly why Lizard was one of the
first records I chose to remix. And I told Robert
Fripp exactly the same thing you just said,
because he was really down on that record.
That’s the one he had been given the hardest
time about over the years from fans and
journalists alike—but I’ve always thought
that it was one of the most extraordinary
records ever made. Lizard is also the closest
that Robert has ever come to making a
solo record under the King Crimson name,
because there was no band at the time. He
pretty much made that album with musicians
from the British jazz scene, just by bringing
them in and letting them blow.
Yet although it is an extraordinary record,
it was also one of those records that contained
so much information that there was almost
too much for the original stereo mix. I thought
that a surround mix and even a new stereo
mix could really help people re-evaluate it.
And the greatest indication of the success of
the remixing is that the album is now being
reevaluated and viewed more positively. I was
so happy to see David Fricke in Rolling Stone
say, “Lizard is now revealed to be the greatest
King Crimson album of all.”
There is a parallel with Miles Davis’ music from
the same period, though it was coming from the
other direction, jazz to rock.
And of course the early-’70s Miles albums
are completely revered, but at the time were
completely reviled. There is such a thing as
music that is ahead of its time and here you
have two perfect examples. In the case of
Lizard it has taken people 40 years to understand
what the hell Robert was trying to do
on that record, and I’m proud that the record
has become one of the most revered progressive
rock albums of the whole era.
Describe your philosophy and process when
remixing the King Crimson catalog and other classic
I work exclusively in the digital domain,
and those records were all analog, which
goes without saying—but is an important
point to make because it means that I’m
always chasing after something that is ultimately
unachievable. I’m trying to be completely
faithful to the sound of the original
records, but I can’t be because you cannot
possibly replicate the original circumstances.
Every analog tape machine sounds different,
as does every analog mixing desk and every
piece of analog outboard gear. However, I’m
very good at figuring out what’s happening
in a mix and finding ways to reproduce the
sounds digitally. For example, using the Universal
Audio emulations of plate reverbs and
other classic gear has been fantastic for me.
While the goal was to remain faithful to
the original mixes, it was also to try to get
more sonic clarity, and a lot of that was just
down to the fact that at least with the Crimson
records we didn’t have to do reduction
mixes. They had bounced from tape to tape
to free up tracks, but we were able to get the
original session reels and thereby avoid all
of the bounce-downs. It was also valuable to
be able to work with the artists, and particularly
Robert, who taught me a lot of things
about mixing that I’ve also carried through
to my own music.
What’s an example?
An example would be keeping reverbs in
mono. My understanding has always been
that you should get the most cinematicsounding
stereo reverb possible, but Robert
said, “No, keep the reverb mono and keep it
with the instrument in the stereo spectrum.”
Why? Because there’s less congestion in the
mix and more space for other instruments
that way, and you get a more natural sound.
The remix of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was particularly
I’m very proud of that one. With some
of the albums I remixed it was a toss-up—
you might prefer the new one, or you might
prefer the original. But there are a handful
of mixes that I’ll argue until I’m blue in the
face are revelations. Lizard is definitely one,
and Aqualung is another. No one can really
say what went wrong with the original mix,
but clearly something did, because what was
on the multi-track tapes sounded great and
I didn’t have to do much to it. There might
have been a faulty tape machine, or a problem
with the mixing desk, or maybe the vinyl-cutting
engineers didn’t know what they were
doing, but the original mix was very muddy
and congested, there was no bottom end, and
the drums sounded like old boxes. The analogy
I use is that it was like cleaning the Sistine
Chapel. You don’t want to change the
painting—you just want to remove a layer
of grime to reveal the beauty and clarity of
what is underneath. Some people have criticized
me for over-equalizing the Aqualung
remixes, and I take great pleasure in telling
them that I didn’t use any EQ—that’s how
it is on the multi-track tapes.
So Martin Barre’s astonishingly present tone
was just there on the tapes?
Yes, and what a tone! It’s just a Les Paul
going straight into a Hiwatt.
What’s making that really nasally distorted
sound on “Cross-Eyed Mary”?
It’s a Hammond organ through an amp,
but it’s doubled by the bass guitar so it sounds
really, really fat.
Switching back to your music, the Storm Corrosion
album you recorded with Mikael Akerfeldt
appears to have thrown some Porcupine Tree and
Opeth fans for a loop.
We’d have been doing something wrong
if it hadn’t [laughs]. Mikael played all of the
guitar parts on the album.
Why did you decide not to play any guitar?
It’s not something we talked about. I feel
that my natural place is sitting in front of my
computer and keyboard coming up with arrangement
ideas and stuff. Also, when you’ve got
Mikael in the room there’s no need to pick
up a guitar. It’s as simple as that. Like David
Gilmour or Andy Latimer, he just has a certain
way of hitting the notes. He could play
a solo and I could play the same solo with
exactly the same notes and it just wouldn’t
feel the same. There’s this beautiful quality
in his playing that I love.
Will you be performing the material live?
Probably not, as it would require a lot of
musicians to play all of the parts, and I’m currently
concentrating on performing my solo
material live, as well as writing new material.
Speaking of which, who is in your live band, and
what is the Grace for Drowning show all about?
I have a six-piece band, including myself.
A couple of the musicians are more from a
jazz background. The keyboardist is Adam
Holtzman, who was Miles Davis’ keyboard
player in the late ’80s, and the saxophone
player and flautist is Theo Travis,
who people may know from the British
jazz scene, but who has also played with
Robert Fripp, Soft Machine, Gong, David
Sylvian, and other people more from the
progressive rock scene. The drummer is
Marco Minnemann, who is a German guy
but lives in L.A. He’s absolutely extraordinary.
Nick Beggs is on bass. He had a big
hit in the ’80s with a band called Kajagoogoo,
but later went on to work with John
Paul Jones and Steve Hackett. He plays the
Chapman Stick as well as the bass, and I’ve
always loved the Stick. The guitar player
is Niko Tsonev, who I discovered recently
through a recommendation.
The show is music from Grace for Drowning
and my first solo record, as well as a 15-minute
piece from the next record, which hasn’t been
recorded yet. The show is very much conceived
and executed as I would conceive and
execute a record, in the sense that there was
a lot of consideration given to the flow, the
song sequencing, and wanting to take the listener—
and the viewer in this case—on some
kind of journey. And the visuals and the films
obviously contribute to that. There’s also a
quadraphonic sound system, with just enough
sounds coming from behind the audience to
make it really effective.
I like the idea that it’s conceived as a presentation
rather than a bunch of songs played
by a bunch of musicians on a stage. Even the
atmosphere that we set as the audience is
coming in is part of the show. We don’t have
any DJs. We don’t have a support band. The
idea is that everything from the beginning
of the evening to the end of the evening is
part of this immersive experience, trying to
create a little bit of magic and not to break
the spell with any of those other things that
are part of the traditional gig experience.
What lies ahead musically?
I’ve already written about 40 minutes of
music for my third solo album. Coming off
the back of Grace for Drowning I have an even
greater sense of confidence about tapping
more into the early explosion of progressive
music and the combination of jazz with progressive
music, while still sounding contemporary
and still sounding like myself. These
days the influence of jazz on contemporary
music is largely confined to pop singers like
Adele and Norah Jones, and it has almost
completely disappeared from rock. I think
that rock is altogether poorer as a result, so
my third solo record will definitely be a continuation
and elevation of that approach and
This interview originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Guitar Player.
Mikael Akerfeldt on Storm Corrosion
When Steven Wilson and Opeth guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt announced that they were
collaborating on an album, many of their fans imagined it would embody some sort of
progressive-metal mind-meld. Instead, the music on Storm Corrosion [Roadrunner]
ranges from brooding and symphonically enhanced prog-pop to lushly evocative acidfolk
to intriguing ambient audio collages, with surprising side trips into less pastoral
territory along the way. “We’d been talking about writing music together for more than
a decade, but had never actually started,” says Akerfeldt. “Then, when I went to visit
Steven for a few days we spontaneously wrote and recorded a song, and we wrote and
recorded the remaining songs in his home studio on five or six subsequent visits.”
Akerfeldt played whatever instruments were closest at hand. “Steven’s AlumiSonic
guitar was sitting next to the couch, so that’s the one I grabbed,” he says. “We set up
a nice sound with a little distortion and reverb using plug-ins, and then I worked a lot
with the guitar’s volume and tone controls. The acoustic parts were mostly played on an
inexpensive Martin and a crappy nylon-string.”
Akerfeldt’s languorous solos on “Drag Ropes” and the title track are wonderfully
emotive and tastefully executed. “My strength is playing slowly and emotionally
instead of trying to do something slick, and I write out solos rather than improvising,”
he says. “Steven’s a really, really good guitar player, but he likes the way I play, so on
this record he just left the guitar playing to me.” —BC
Ian Anderson on Remixing Aqualung
How much input did you have during the mixing sessions?
As much as I wanted, but in reality working with Steven meant that only a few
tweaks and twiddles were necessary. He knows the way I worked and remained faithful
to the feel of the original.
What were the most surprising aspects of the results for you?
Those would be the clarity and cleanness of both the playing and the mix, and that
so much of the album was recorded live in the studio. The only overdubs were a few
guitar solos and the flute bits I added over my vocals—which was a stupid idea!
How does it feel to hear such a clear and vibrant mix after all of these years?
It shows me that my ears still work for a start. Discerning the tiny aural nuances
while mastering and working on the vinyl cuts has given me new confidence that in my
final years I can still pass judgment, water, and the buck.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
What, after that last line? I couldn’t top that! —BC
Wilson on Molotov and Haze
“Molotov and Haze is a kind of archetypal
guitar and laptop record,” says Wilson. “I
love a lot of experimental music, and there
are guys like Christian Fennesz who are
doing amazing things with just guitar and
laptop, and I wanted to do my version of
that. I spent several days with a Line 6 DL4
looping pedal and a bunch of plug-ins and
had a ball. Bass Communion is all about
experimenting with texture. If you take harmony
and melody and rhythm away, what
have you got left? Well, you’ve still got
music in my opinion, though a lot of my fans
have a hard time relating that to music. The
albums also serve as R&D for my more conventional
records. So, you will hear some
textures from Molotov and Haze, for example,
cropping up on my solo records in a
very different context.” —BC
Niko Tsonev on Touring with Wilson
To what extent are you required to recreate the guitar parts and tones on the albums?
Steven provided extensive notes regarding the guitar parts and tones. He wanted
much of the material to be played just as it was on the record, so we would zoom in on
details such as whether a part was to be picked or played fingerstyle, or whether more
attitude was needed on certain passages, because the parts needed to be delivered
in a certain way both technically and emotionally. In other cases, including most solos,
he would say, “Take this as reference and make it your own,” though that often required
firing on all cylinders and melting faces.
What do you feel are the defining characteristics of Wilson’s guitar playing?
He has managed to preserve the very elusive quality of freshness in his playing and
writing, and not be bound to forms such as scales, chords, and patterns. We all have
that freshness when we first attempt writing and improvising, but many lose it when
they become overly schooled. It’s a certain mystery that sits between all the ways that
other people teach us about how to make music. In practical terms, Steven has a supersolid
sense of timing and is a very melodic soloist. He is also a tone king!
What have you learned about guitar from working with Wilson?
Answering the previous question was like meditating on what we gain and what we
lose as we go along in our individual guitar odysseys. What I’m learning from Steven
in regards to guitar is strongly related to making music in general. Creative decisions
should come from the deepest places and one should strive to deliver creative ideas in
their purest form, undiluted by external factors. —BC