The dystopian present of Steven Wilson's The Future Bites arrived much earlier than anyone expected.
COVID-19, lockdown and all the complications therein came storming across the globe a few months before The Future Bites was slated to arrive. With touring cancelled and most of the world stuck at home, Steven had to decide whether 2020 was the right time to release an album that deals largely with the paradox of our reliance on technology.
Steven has been drawn to this theme, going back to his time in legendary U.K. prog rock outfit Porcupine Tree, but he's never explored it quite so forcefully as on The Future Bites. So he decided to wait.
The album release was pushed back to this past January, mostly in hopes that the pandemic would have long been over by now and we'd be back to some sense of normal. Steven tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A that he believes the decision was ultimately the right one. The album, while his most musically accessible, is lyrically one of his darkest and most timely — perhaps too timely.
"I’m not sure if people wanted [this album] when the whole idea of the pandemic and lockdown was so raw and so fresh in everyone’s mind," he said. "We were still becoming used to the idea of living in a world like that. I think, for better or worse, we are now a bit better accustomed to the idea of living in this new kind of crazy world that we live in."
It's a new world that has long since taken over the music industry, from the way we consume music to the way we produce it. As Wilson considered these concepts, the prevalence of electronic sounds on Future Bites was no accident, even if it wasn't what some longtime fans were hoping for.
But Wilson — also renowned for his stereo remixes of classic rock and pop albums — has been working on his own terms for too long to be concerned about hubbub over a change in his musical direction.
"It’s been interesting to see how it’s kind of divided people in that sense. I take that as a good sign; I take that as kind of a badge of honor," he explained. "The one thing that I think is most important this days, when there’s more music coming out than any other time in history — and arguably too much music coming out — is that people actually talk about your music and it gets people engaged."
Read the full QN'A with Steven Wilson below!
Photo: Andrew Hobbs
Future Bites, in its lyrics and music, runs with the theme of how technology is changing our society. You've been fascinated with this idea for a long time, haven't you?
I think that’s true. That theme has always been there, going right back to the very early days of Porcupine Tree to a song called “Every Home Is Wired,” which I think was written in 1996.
It was about this idea that the Internet is coming. It’s going to change our world, it’s going to change our lives and not necessarily for the better.
Here we are 25 years later and I think we can take a more pragmatic view now of how the Internet has changed out lives in almost every single respect. The ways we engage with news, with politics, with music, with cinema, with misinformation, with disinformation.
So the Future Bites really tries to take that on board and lyrically tries to discuss exactly how this idea of identity and self has been changed by the relatively recent invention of the Internet. This has all happened in my adult lifetime. And it’s changed just about everything about my life — it’s changed it for the good in some ways. But it’s changed it for the bad in a lot of ways. And I think most people would kind of agree with that summation.
And the scary thing is I don’t think anyone really completely understands where it’s going, what the long-term implications might me.
The musical palette kind of reflects, which you hinted at, the subject matter. We live in an electronic world. My kids — nine and seven — they don’t know what a guitar sounds like. They haven’t grown up in the world of guitars, bass and drums, like I did.
It’s a sound that belongs to the second half of the 20th century. And it’s kind of invisible now — at least in mainstream pop culture terms — that musical vocabulary is invisible, it’s disappeared from pop culture.
They live in a world of electronic sound, and so do I, and so do you! Whether we like it or not, we all live in the modern world, which is an electronic world. So the music necessarily reflects that.
That's very true. I have a Fractal AxeFX [digital guitar amplifier] right next to me. That counts.
Well, it does! In fact one of the things I tried to do on Future Bites was to revise how I thought about the guitar as being part of my music.
There is still quite a lot of guitar on this record, but it’s used in much more of a sound design aesthetic, rather than the old classic rock tropes that perhaps were familiar with previous records.
I play all the guitar on this record myself. Part of the reason for that was I think I wanted to get away from the classic rock tropes of guitar playing.
Do you feel like a more career-minded guitar player wouldn't be able to deliver on that vision?
I think so. And I think part of the reason for that is that when you are the songwriter, the guitar becomes a lyrical extension of the subject matter. So on a song like “Eminent Sleaze,” the guitar solo is really quite dangerous and angular sounding. That’s a natural extension of the lyrical subject matter.
But if I gave the guitar solo to a ‘professional guitar player,’ they wouldn’t really make the same connection. And it wouldn’t really be the same principle of it being an extension of the lyrical subject matter. I think that’s interesting that because it’s me playing the solos on this record, they are much more growing out of the themes of the lyrics.
I wasn't surprised by the musical direction of Future Bites, but a lot of fans have characterized the album as a departure. I wonder how you see it in the context of your catalog? Did it feel like you were onto something very different for you?
I think both things are true.
It is a departure because I’ve certainly moved away from classic rock tropes. There aren't the muso aspects that have been on some of my previous records. The guitar is definitely deemphasized, in favor of more synthesizers and electronic sounds. There’s more immediacy and accessibility to some of the melodies and some of the songs.
I do think it’s the most accessible record I’ve ever made, but at the same time without any sense of compromising or watering down my personality to achieve that.
I think that’s the key to the second part of the equation, which is that this actually sounds, still, very much like a record that comes from my musical universe. In that sense, there’s a lot about it that will still be familiar to anyone who’s been following my career.
It’s interesting that, a bit like you, I’ve had people who’ve come to me and just said, ‘It sounds like you. It sounds like one of your records.’ But at the same time I’ve had some people absolutely accusing me of almost heresy by abandoning my conceptual rock or classic rock or what they see as my progressive rock roots.
It’s been interesting to see how it’s kind of divided people in that sense. I take that as a good sign; I take that as kind of a badge of honor. The one thing that I think is most important this days, when there’s more music coming out than any other time in history — and arguably too much music coming out — is that people actually talk about your music and it gets people engaged.
Visual artists' careers are often divided into periods. Salvador Dalí had his 'blue period' and his 'surrealist period.' It might be hard to identify in the moment, but I think there's value in an artist, regardless of their medium, having distinguishable eras to their work.
Yes, an artist is ultimately defined not by a genre, but by the fact that they have their own career trajectory and they have their own periods and they kind of move from genre to genre at times.
In the case of an artist, it might be realism, to abstract, to impressionist. I like that ultimately you can only look at the career of an artist like Dalí or Picasso on their own terms.
Everything that Dalí created only looked like something that came from the universe of Salvador Dalí. It transcended the idea that he was a surrealist or impressionist or whatever it was.
That’s really fascinating — the way people look at the Frank Zappa catalog now, for example, or the Bowie catalog or the Neil Young catalog. All three artists were ridiculous about hopping from genre to genre and confronting the expectations of their audience. But now we just look at those catalogs as being, ‘Well, that’s what Frank Zappa did. And that’s what Bowie did. And that’s what Neil Young did.’ They just did these incredible stylistic shifts and always ended up basically redefining who they were and what they did, and hopefully taking fans along the way with them.
Not all. There’s always some fans — and I accept this as part of the deal — there’s always some fans that won’t want to go with me down a particular avenue. And this record is not really for those people. To be honest, I’m not the right artist for those people anyway.
If there is a constant to my career, it’s that I do like to change and evolve and do different things, just like Zappa and Neil Young and Bowie did too.
Again, I’m comparing myself with great names. I don’t consider myself to be even elite, but certainly in terms of philosophy of how I go about conducting my career.
You mentioned that so much music is coming out during this time. You had to put this album on hold for something like 6 months. Do you think waiting was ultimately the right thing to do?
It’s very difficult to say. I think it was.
You could, of course, say that by the time the album came out, nothing had really changed anyway; we were still in the pandemic. When the album was originally postponed, the belief was that the pandemic would long be over [by the time it was released]. When the album was postponed in April to January — eight months later, no one really thought that we’d be in the midst of the same bulls--t, the same scenario.
You could say that it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Back in April or May or June of last year, I think people had not come to terms with living in this world in the way that we have now. I’m not sure there was a place for a record like the Future Bites, which basically addresses the idea that we live in a dystopian world, pretty head on.
I’m not sure if people wanted that when the whole idea of the pandemic and lockdown was so raw and so fresh in everyone’s mind. We were still becoming used to the idea of living in a world like that. I think, for better or worse, we are now a bit better accustomed to the idea of living in this new kind of crazy world that we live in.
I think that now people are a bit more ready to engage with a record like Future Bites, and to not be put off by the fact that it is essentially mirroring this dystopian world that we find ourselves in. I might be wrong about that; who’s to say?
Your solo band has gone through a number of changes over the years, yet keyboardist Adam Holzmann and bassist Nick Beggs have stuck around. In one interview from a couple years back, Nick describes himself as being a kind of color on your artistic palette. Is that how you generally see your collaborators? To what do you attribute Adam and Nick's staying power?
I guess I kind of do. A lot of people have referred to me over the years — in the nicest possible way — as a control freak. And I supposed I am a bit.
When I’m working on a new album, I kind of hear it in my head and I know exactly how I want it to sound. ...[A]nd on this particular record, there aren’t many [additional musicians]; I played almost everything myself on this record, and there’s a reason for that.
The point is that I have a very strong idea of how a record should sound. But at the same time, I love to be surprised, and I encourage everyone that works with me to surprise me and come up with things that I wouldn’t have thought of or wouldn’t have considered myself. The point is that I’m still able to make the decision about whether I incorporate that or not.
That’s the beauty of collaboration in a way. With Nick or Adam, I’m very, very open to their ideas, but they also have to perhaps work a bit harder to find the ideas that will fit into my aesthetic and my vision. Those guys like that; they enjoy that process.
As long as there’s a pretty good hit rate for them, they find that a really enjoyable process, and I do too. It would be terrible to work with a musician that came up with 20 ideas and I hated all of them. Believe me, there have been times when that’s been true.
With Nick and Adam, particularly, there’s a good hit rate. It might be 1 in 3 or 1 in 2 that there are ideas that I really, really like. I’m happy to embrace.
I don’t like musos. I’ve had a couple of musos in my band; they didn’t last very long. It’s one of the reasons Nick and Adam have lasted so long is that they understand that that’s not my aesthetic.
I prefer melody and I prefer creativity and I prefer simplicity over complexity and technicality, and it gels really well with those guys.