For Steven Wilson, the distinction between artist and entertainer is clear – and in today’s culture, the artist is on the losing side. The 49-year-old guitarist extraordinaire, founder of Porcupine Tree, one of Britain’s great prog hopes throughout the past two decades and master of a prolific solo career, is fighting the good fight on behalf of artistry.
“If you want to be an entertainer and please your fans, you end up giving them the same stuff all the time. If you’re an artist, you do it because of some deeper need inside you that’s more conducive to experimentation and innovation. Sometimes it disappoints your fans,” said Wilson, last week on a phone call from Trieste, Italy, where he was performing that night with his band in support of his latest album, 4 1/2.
The four-time Grammy nominee cited two giants of modern music who recently died, David Bowie and Prince, as prime examples of artists who constantly challenged their audience, and suggested that their deaths marked the closing of a door of a major chapter in rock music’s evolution.
“I can’t see it coming back. Honestly, if Kanye West is the best we can offer in that respect, then I suspect that the golden era of rock is over,” he said.
Wilson, who will be performing at the Zappa Shuni Amphitheater on Saturday night, with special guest Ninet, who had previously joined him on a European and US tour, spoke to The Jerusalem Post
about what he called the “banality” of the current music scene, the futility of boycotting Israel, why he calls the country his “second home” after having lived in Tel Aviv for six months earlier in the 2000s and his ongoing collaboration with Aviv Geffen in the band Blackfield. Here are some excerpts: Can you recount how Ninet filled in for you in March at the Beacon Theater in New York when you lost your voice?
We started off that leg of the tour in Canada and upstate New York, and it was unbelievably cold. It was inevitable that someone was going to get sick, and that someone turned out to be me.
I gradually lost my voice until by the time we got to New York City, it was gone. New York is always the most high-profile show. The media is there, the pressure is on. So we tried steroid shots and the usual stuff, but by 5 p.m. I couldn’t talk at all.
Since it was Saturday, we couldn’t get in touch with Ninet, because she keeps the Sabbath. But I had decided we were going to get through the show somehow. When we did reach her, I told her that instead of the three songs she usually sang with me, I wanted her to take over lead on six or seven, or however many she could.
She’s a very humble person, and she was freaking out, but said, “absolutely, I’ll do it for you.” So just before we went onstage, we ran through the songs. I could tell that she was incredibly nervous. But she nailed it and was amazing. Although I was feeling like utter shit, it was kind of a fun one-off experience.
That was one of the last shows she was able to do with us – she’s too busy with her own career. Why does she want to sing with me? But we are getting back together in Israel.The material for your new album 4 1/2 was recorded while you made your fourth solo album, 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. What prompted you to release that material that didn’t make the cut?
I was really proud of these songs, I thought that they were very strong, but they didn’t fit conceptually into Hands. It was such a story-led project.
It’s like a filmmaker who’s filmed a couple of great scenes in which he loves the dynamics, the characters and the script. But when he comes to edit the film, they just don’t fit, they either slow the narrative or they just don’t feel logical.
These are kind of my deleted scenes, but they’re also some of my favorite pieces of music. So I kind of knew from the beginning that although they wouldn’t make it on the album, that I would do some kind of EP or mini-album down the road, and they would have their day.You disbanded Porcupine Tree in 2010. What happened, did it just run its course?
It was a conscious decision that I made. I didn’t want a situation which had arisen in which I was spreading myself between three or four projects. And I realized it was time to do what I was supposed to do – be a solo artist.
I’m not easy to work with, because I’m a control freak and I never found it easy to compromise within a band context. Porcupine Tree only worked because it wasn’t really a band, it was a dictatorship.You have a long relationship with Aviv Geffen – he helped to arrange Porcupine Tree’s first show in Israel in 2001 and you temporarily moved to Israel to work with him in 2006 when you formed Blackfield. What is your status now?
Aviv’s working on a new Blackfield album now. He sends through material to me and I give my comments. Sometimes there’s nothing I can add, and I say “this is great as it is.” I’m on the periphery of Blackfield now, which I love. When you have a day job being a control freak – with production, T-shirts, websites, interviews – it’s nice sometimes to just be the guitar player. That contradicts what I just said about being the center of attention, but with Aviv, I’m happy to do it that way, to step back and let him have the attention.What do you think the recent deaths of musical icons and visionaries like David Bowie and Prince indicate for the music world?
To me, it seems like the closing of the door in some respect on the golden era of rock music. The age when musicians or rock stars were encouraged to be groundbreaking, experimental, cultural and fashion icons is gone. And I can’t see it coming back.
Honestly, if Kanye West is the best we have to offer in that respect, then I suspect that the golden era is over. When I head most modern pop music these days, it sounds incredibly conservative, banal and very predictable. For me, that goes against everything that inspired me to want to be a musician. I grew up with those great ‘80 Prince pop records, and with every new one, I was blown away. He was almost redefining what pop music and he himself could be and what his audience expected from him.
That was even more true of Bowie. Here was a guy that constantly was creating successful personas, sounds and formulas and then turning his back on them for something completely different. Why? Because he was an artist and not an entertainer.
I make a clear distinction between those two. If you want to be an entertainer and please your fans, you end up giving them the same stuff all the time. If you’re an artist, you do it because of some deeper need inside you that’s more conducive to experimentation and innovation. Sometimes it disappoints your fans.
This is for me why these guys represent something that is missing and has largely disappeared from pop and rock music over the past 25 years. One reason is that the audience is no longer prepared to listen and go along with musicians as they evolve. People still listen to music, in fact more than ever, but we don’t want to pay for it and we don’t want to engage with it on a deep level.Isn’t part of it a case of every generation rejecting the music of their parent’s generation?
That is partially true, but I think it’s possible to take a step back and be objective and say that the music of today really isn’t as good as it was. And there’s a lot of kids today listening to Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath and saying “why isn’t there anything from my generation as good as this?” Why is it that rock music today is represented by the f***ing Foo Fighters, one of the most banal groups in history? There has been a severe drop in quality experimentation and freshness in pop and rock music over the past 20-25 years, and even the younger generation kind of acknowledges that.You’re not bashful of calling Tel Aviv your second home or touting Israel’s virtues in a climate of artists boycotting the country and badmouthing it. Do you foresee a time when Israel will be considered a ‘normal’ country by people around the world or will that only happen when there’s a political solution for the Palestinians?
It’s more than politics, though, isn’t it? Whenever I talk to people about my love of Israel and the fact that I was living there for a while, they always raise their eyebrows and go “why Israel?” Most people have this idea that not only is there a war going on there, but that it’s full of religious people. And in reality, it’s one of the least religious countries on the planet.
Israel is a very open-minded place but it’s also the Holy Land, and people always make that association.
Israel is seen as a hotbed of religion and living in Tel Aviv, it was definitely not the impression that I got.
You can also chalk it up to the CNN syndrome – if your knowledge of someplace only comes from media reports, then it’s going to be a very skewed image. After the first time I came, I realized that my impression of Israel was completely inaccurate.
I’ve never had a one-on-one confrontation with one of those artists who boycotts Israel, but I would like to. It would be interesting, whether it’s Roger Waters, Annie Lenox or Brian Eno. It would really be curious to hear their side of the argument.
I think part of it must stem from their own inflated opinions of their own impact on the world. Because really, who gives a shit if Annie Lenox or Brian Eno boycotts Israel? The politicians don’t and the population at large doesn’t – that’s another sign that the influence of pop music is dissipated. People don’t have the kind of influence they used to. Nobody really cares if Roger Waters boycotts Israel.