Barry Cleveland: A Preshow Chat with Steven Wilson at the Fillmore, San Francisco, April 6, 2012

Steven Wilson presented a multimedia immersion experience at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore on Friday evening, the second date on his current Grace for Drowning tour, which continues through mid May.
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Steven Wilson presented a multimedia immersion experience at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore on Friday evening, the second date on his current Grace for Drowning tour, which continues through mid May.

Upon entering the venue, the pensively majestic drone of Bass Communion's latest recording resonated throughout, and slightly foreboding images on multiple screens were hazily visible behind a theatrical scrim. In due time the band emerged, playing the first few songs from behind the scrim, before it dramatically fell to the floor. The music (check out the video below for a taste) was brilliantly performed by a virtuosic band—and Wilson’s guitar playing, despite his frequent disclaimers, was superb.

Wilson will grace the cover of the August 2012 issue of GP. —BC

What is the concept underlying the show?
The show is music from my new album Grace For Drowning, and my first record Insurgentes, and 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 it has a lot of consideration to the flow, sequencing, and the idea of wanting to take the listener—or viewer in this case—on some kind of musical journey. So, the dynamics, the sequencing, the flow, the range of ballads verses up-tempo pieces—and also the visuals and the films—all of those things are structured in the same way that I would structure an album. We also have a quadraphonic sound system, and there are just enough sounds coming from behind the audience to make it really effective.

I like the idea that it’s very much conceived as a show rather than a bunch of songs played by a bunch of musicians on a stage. It’s a presentation. The audience is coming in now, and even the atmosphere that we’re setting now is part of the show. We don’t have any crummy 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 these other things that are part of the traditional gig experience. So I tried to approach it from a slightly different point of view. From the moment the audience enters the auditorium I want them to feel like they’re part of an environment and an experience.

Who is in the band?
I have a six-piece band, including myself, so five other musicians. A couple of them 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 great 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 Stick as well as the bass, and I’ve always loved the Stick. The guitar player is Nick Tsonev, who I discovered through a recommendation recently. This is only his second show with us tonight.

That’s the group and it’s kind of a mixture of people from both rock and jazz backgrounds, which I like because the whole way my music’s been moving recently is to try to get more of the spirituality and freedom and improvisation of jazz back into a rock context. I’ve always felt that that’s what made the early-’70s progressive bands so special. They had the discipline and the musicianship—but they also had a lot of influence from jazz and classical music. I think the problem with many contemporary progressive bands is that they only emulate the older progressive bands such as Genesis and Yes and King Crimson. They forget that those bands were emulating jazz and classical musicians, and that’s what made them special.

Will you be playing much guitar tonight?

I’m playing as much keyboard as I play guitar, and I also do a few tunes where I just sing—which I can do because I have a great guitar player in the band now. I think on this tour, with this band, I really wanted to feel kind of liberated a bit from being a guitar player, because I’m not a great guitar player. I know this is for Guitar Player magazine, but I never intended to be a guitar player or a guitar hero or any of those things. I ended up being a guitar player by default because I couldn’t find anyone else at the very beginning of my career that wanted to play the kind of music I wanted to play. I'll still play some guitar tonight, but I’m looking more to being, in this context, the auteur, the director, whatever you want to call it. I pick up an electric guitar, I pick up an acoustic guitar, I go to the keyboard, I sing a bit, and I direct—kind of like Frank Zappa. Zappa always had better musicians in his band than himself—and he knew that—but he would be the captain and director. He would still play a bit of guitar and he would sing, and sometimes he would put the guitar down. So that’s kind of my role model for this. I do play some guitar—but Nick plays all of the best guitar bits.

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