Steven Wilson: Traveling Back to the Future in the Present Moment

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has done more to reinvigorate progressive rock than Steven Wilson.
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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.

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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, Cenotaph [Tonefloat].

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 the instrument?

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 writing techniques.

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 to record.

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 album?

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 energy.

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 them better.

You toured with Robert Fripp and remixed several King Crimson albums. Did you ever discuss Guitar Craft or experiment with any of the techniques involved?

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 Drowning?

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 of drowning.

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 undervalued.

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 rock albums.

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 impressive.

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 philosophy.

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.”

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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