Steven Wilson on “The Harmony Codex” (Part 1) | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, May 25th, 2024  

Steven Wilson on “The Harmony Codex” (Part 1)

The Staircase Infinities of Modern Life

Aug 29, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Hajo Mueller Bookmark and Share

Years ago, I asked Steven Wilson a diabolical hypothetical question: Would he rather lose his eyesight or lose his hearing?

The British musician mulled that Sophie’s choice for a nano-second before responding that he’d forfeit his eyes rather than his ears. Sound is his most precious commodity. In his mind’s eye, music is visual and cinematic.

Wilson describes his upcoming new album, The Harmony Codex, as more analogous with cinema than anything he’s done before. It’s based on a short story he wrote with the same title.

“I’ve always seen my music in cinematic terms,” he says during a recent Zoom interview from his home in London. “But something about this record has taken that aspect, I think, to another level. Maybe it’s the fact it was based on the short story. Maybe it’s the fact that every song seems distinctly different to every other song, and it has its own sort of internal musical world and musical vocabulary, and yet it still seems to form a cohesive whole, a cohesive journey.”

The Harmony Codex is Wilson’s seventh solo album. It comes out on September 29 on Virgin in the UK and Spinefarm records in the U.S. The formats include CD, 2LP, Blu-ray, digital download, and deluxe 3-disc limited edition. The latter includes a reimagining of the album, titled HARMONIC DISTORTION, featuring alternate versions and remixes by Interpol, Manic Street Preachers, Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears, and others. The guest artists radically re-imagine the songs, often incorporating their own instrumentation. Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt goes so far as to replace Wilson’s vocal with his own on the song “Time is Running Out.”

The Harmony Codex is preceded by the music video for the single “Economies of Scale,” which was directed by Charlie Di Placido. Wilson says it took about 20 takes for the “incredibly patient” pair of dancers to film the choreography in one unbroken shot.

“Economies of Scale” is the album’s sole co-write. Co-composer Adam Holzman, a keyboard virtuoso who is an alumnus of Miles Davis’ band, plays modular synth on the track. Its arpeggiated sequence and programmed rhythms herald the album’s focus on electronica. But the 10 songs on The Harmony Codex draw from so many areas of music that labeling it “electronic music” is reductive. That term hardly begins to encompass the dynamic album’s stylistic diversity and range of instruments. Its palette is as colorful as a Farrow & Ball showroom.

For example, epic album opener “Inclination” begins with ethereal trumpet by Nils Petter Molvaer over a rhythm track that sounds like artillery fire that’s too close for comfort. Then, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, the song completely changes form. Wilson enters with a vocal that’s silky, sensual, and seductive. There’s no precedent for the song in his previous work.

Which isn’t to infer that the album isn’t still distinctly Wilson-esque. The gorgeous “What Life Brings,” anchored in acoustic guitar and boasting a sublime Wilson guitar solo, could have slotted onto an album by the artist’s long-running band Porcupine Tree. “Rock Bottom,” a song written by Wilson’s recurring duet partner Ninet Tayeb, is a 10 Megaton power ballad with a Vesuvian guitar solo by Niko Tsonev. The almost wholly instrumental “Impossible Tightrope” picks up from where the progressive jazz pieces on earlier albums Grace for Drowning and The Raven that Refused to Sing left off. The lengthy title track, a cosmic instrumental, would be perfectly suited for the soundtrack of a future Blade Runner sequel.

Yet, elsewhere, bits and pieces of Wilson’s musical DNA are deconstructed and recombined so that it’s a different body from before. Many of the tracks include additional production by David Kosten aka Faultine (Bat for Lashes, Keane, Everything Everything) who also worked on Wilson’s previous album, The Future Bites. Jack Dangers from the pioneering industrial and electronic group Meat Beat Manifesto also guests on three songs. One of them, “Actual Brutal Facts,” is a contender for the best track on the record. The groove by drummer Craig Blundell sounds like John Bonham playing hip-hop. Wilson’s malevolent vocal is rendered in such a deep register that, by contrast, it makes Robbie Robertson sound like Minnie Mouse on helium.

One imagines that fans of Massive Attack, Clark, Plaid, and Thom Yorke’s solo work will love The Harmony Codex. As Guy Tkatch, co-author of the book Footprints, an encyclopedia of Wilson’s work, puts it, “The playback was incredible, so immersive. Musically, it is such a radically different sound.”

In the first of a two-part interview, Steven Wilson talks about the macro view of the new album. Next month, in part two, he talks in depth about some of the individual songs and the large cast of musicians on The Harmony Codex.

Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): Can you trace your musical evolution from your previous album, The Future Bites, to this one?

Steven Wilson: Obviously, it couldn’t have existed without me having made The Future Bites. For two reasons. Firstly, every album is like a reaction against the previous record. So, in a way, I needed to make my electronic pop record. I made it. I’m incredibly proud of that record. This is almost like a reaction against that, going back into more conceptual experimental waters. But at the same time, tracks like “Economies of Scale,” “Inclination,” to an extent things like “Staircase”—which was mixed by David [Kosten] in the end, uncoincidentally—these are all informed by some of the experiments on The Future Bites. One of the things I always say until I’m blue in the face is every album is going to be completely different. And this time I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Something about it feels very different. You tell me your take on it. Does it feel very different to you?

What makes this album different is that it doesn’t sound like a rock album. Well, that’s not to say that there aren’t elements of rock music. But my hypothesis is that the reason it sounds different is a lot of the songs are rooted in modular synth and programming. That gives the album a different feel, even more so than the previous record. Am I correct?

Your hypothesis is absolutely right that a lot of the songs developed from messing about with analog synthesizers, with all their imperfections, all of the idiosyncrasies and unexpected things that they do. And I mean, if I could add one more thing to the equation: It’s the first time I think I’ve made a record without having any clear agenda at the beginning. And I say that because when I was doing things like Insurgentes, I knew, okay, I’m going to make my post-punk shoegaze record. The Raven that Refused to Sing: Okay, I’m going to make my homage to ’70s progressive rock. To the Bone: Okay, I’m going to make my homage to ’80s art pop. The Future Bites: Okay, I’m going to make my streamlined electronic pop record.

When I started writing this particular record, I had nothing. I had no agenda. I just sat down and started making music for the sake and for the pleasure of experimenting with sound, and experimenting with songs in the context of experimental sound. There are no records that I can point to and say, “That was a reference point. That was a big influence.” And that’s not to say that you won’t hear influences. Of course you will, because they’re in my DNA. But I’m not consciously influenced by anything on this record.

David Bowie once said, “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” While creating this album, were there areas when you felt as if your feet weren’t quite touching bottom?

Yes, there were. There are new things on this record. If you’re going to ask me for something specific, the most obvious song [is] “Actual Brutal Facts,” which is almost hip-hop rhythmically, or trip hop at least. And Jack Dangers was very involved in that track as well. [He’s] someone that comes from this kind of industrial hip-hop background. And the use of my voice on that track almost…I mean, it’s not rapping, but it’s using speech instead of melody. And I’ve down pitched my vocals two or three semi tones to make it sound like somebody else. A lot of people say to me, “Who’s that singing on that track?” And I said, “It’s me!” So, this is me out of my comfort zone.

I’m not going to tell you that I was always sure that track was going to be on the record, because I wasn’t. I remember having this with “Perfect Life” on Hand. Cannot. Erase. as well, when you’re kind of second guessing yourself. “Should I put this on the record? Does it belong? Is it too out of place? Am I doing something here which is not completely convincing?” I had that with “Actual Brutal Facts.” I don’t anymore. I’m completely home with it now, and I think it’s great and I love it.

The other element that makes this album so different is that there’s a very strong focus on vocal production and often using the voice in really interesting harmonic layers and distortion. Were there things that you’ve been listening to that gave you some ideas?

One of the things that disappoints me a lot about a lot of modern rock music is it’s completely failed—not completely, but it’s largely failed—to embrace the possibilities of computer recording in a way that urban music has completely dived in and embraced. Whether you like it or not, what people like James Blake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar do with modern computer technology has redefined modern pop music. I’m fascinated by Billie Eilish, too. Fascinated by the way they’re using plug ins to do stuff with their voice that is very unnatural and very electronic and, in some ways, quite cold. But there are so many possibilities now.

For someone like me who always said, “I’m not a singer,” one of the techniques I used was multi-track in my voice. You know, creating these big harmonies on albums like Stupid Dream. Then I would have the “telephone voice” effect, which was one of my trademarks for years because I didn’t like my voice. So, in a way, there’s continuity there between that and what I’m doing now, which is continuing to find ways to twist my voice into new shapes. But loving it and being fascinated by and inspired by these possibilities and wondering why there aren’t more musicians from my background doing that. It’s amazing, you know? The only thing you hear rock musicians doing, and it’s horrible, is you using Auto-Tune on 100%. That’s not being creative. That’s just making your voice like Stephen Hawking.

Have you listened to Taylor Swift’s most recent record, Midnights? Because she also does really interesting things with the voice.

She does, and she’s been doing that for a while. I mean, she’s amazing. And obviously going back to what people like Thom Yorke started doing on albums like Kid A using and abusing things like Auto-Tune as creative tools rather than production tools. Going back to Kraftwerk and even further back than that, some of the classical composers from the ’50s and ’60s working with ring modulators and applying things like that to voice and vocal techniques. And Prince speeding up his voice to be Camille on “If I was your Girlfriend.” So, there’s a whole history of that.

There’s a bit of an “Impossible Tightrope” where the melody is completely created by the plug in. I change the notes not through my voice, but through the plug ins. I tell you a track that you would love if you don’t know it: Godley & Creme’s “I Pity Inanimate Objects.” What’s amazing about that track is that Kevin Godley sang the whole lyric in a monotone. And then they programmed the Eventide Harmonizer to pitch shift up or down every syllable to create the melody. I just heard it again recently because I introduced [Porcupine Tree tour guitarist] Randy McStine to that album, and he loves it. And that track is so ahead of its time. It’s insane because it’s essentially what a lot of urban artists are now doing. I can hear how probably being aware of that track in my subconscious was an influence on “Impossible Tightrope,” because that’s kind of how I created the melody in that track.

Tell me about the artists who are remixing songs for the bonus disc in the deluxe edition.

The bonus disc is a 77-minute re-imagining of the album. There are pieces I’ve created, especially for it using elements from the album tracks, different views of the same tracks, different performances, things that were left off the main album. And that also has included going out to some other artists and having them reinterpret some of the pieces.

Roland [Orzabal], from Tears for Fears, I’m not sure if he’s ever done a remix before, but he took this on board and he did a great remix of “What Life Brings.” The Manics, again, not particularly known for doing remixes. I think James [Dean Bradfield] had done a few, but they basically took all the instrumentation away and created a completely new song underneath the vocal. It’s amazing.

So, there’s some really creative approaches to reworking and reimagining the material. I almost didn’t want to use the word “remix,” but the record company were like, “Oh no. ‘Remixes’ is what people understand. If you start using words like ‘reimagining,’ they won’t know what you’re talking about.” But they’re not really remixes. They’re re-imaginings. It’s a complete reimagining and recontextualization of some of the music created for the album. And I love that some people might prefer that version of the album to the main version. It’s a really substantial addition to the special edition.

Your autobiographical book, Limited edition of One, includes a fictional short story you wrote called The Harmony Codex. Can you briefly describe the story and explain its relationship to this album.

It’s a piece of dystopian sci fi. Dystopian in the sense that it’s a science fiction [story], but it takes place in a world that is just about recognizable as our own. But it’s very surreal and like a lot of dystopian sci fi—like a lot of sci fi, period—it is a metaphor for the world we live in. And in this case, the central metaphor is the never-ending staircase. It has a direct relationship to some songs on the record in the sense that some songs are drawn from the characters and the situations. And then there are other songs on the record that are more obliquely related to the subject matter in the sense that they relate to this idea of “it’s about the journey, it’s not about the destination.”

Many years ago, I wrote the song “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here.” This has always been a theme in the back of my mind that the key to life, I feel sometimes, is about recognizing that it’s about the journey. You can have goals and you can have ambitions. But, actually, the really special things that happen to you in your life kind of happen when you’re not looking. Sometimes you don’t even appreciate them at the time.

Obviously there’s a negative side to that, too. “Staircase,” for example, is a very dark song. It’s about growing older in this modern world. The pressure to provide for your family. The pressure to get on the property ladder. The pressure to compete with everyone else, or to be seen to be doing so. Dealing with stress, dealing with anxiety, dealing with illness, dealing with your kids’ ADHD, focusing on this idea of accumulating wealth—all of these things that society expects us to do. Sometimes you do feel like you’re on this never-ending staircase and that you never arrive. It’s very important to be able to acknowledge that, I think, and to sometimes step off the staircase.

So, songs like “What Life Brings,” “Time Is Running Out” might seem less related to the story but, actually, they are still very consciously related to this idea of embracing life and enjoying the journey. Because it’s a pretty short journey that we have, at the end of the day. You have to find a way to enjoy it. Even if you find one day you’re massively in debt, surrounded by things you don’t need, and bombarded by content you don’t want, which is essentially all of our lives these days. I was aware of a lot of that when I was when I was both writing the story, and also drawing on it again to create this album.

The promo pictures for the album feature you holding what looks like colorful LEGO-like blocks—and it also shows up in the music video for “Economies of Scale.” What is it and how does it fit into the album’s concept?

It appears in all the videos and it’s the front cover icon. It was created by Hajo [Mueller] to represent a) the staircase and b) the fact there are 10 songs on this record, all of which have their own little worlds. He created a staircase using 10 blocks, each with its own very different color. So, in the most simple terms, that is the representation. Ten songs. Ten different musical worlds. But they somehow all fit together and they create this ascending or descending—depending on your point of view—staircase image. And for me, it’s a lovely image. It works beautifully in all contexts. It works on T-shirts, it works on album covers, it works in videos, it works in promo photos. It’s just a beautifully designed, iconic symbol of everything connected to The Harmony Codex.

When it comes to touring this album, what do you envision?

I’m thinking in terms of not touring, but instead doing residencies in a few towns. The reason I would want to go that way is because I think I would want to try and create some kind of immersive equivalent in a concert context. So that the album—that kind of immersive quality the album has—would be transposed to the concert environment. I suppose Kate Bush-style in that respect, except in a smaller venue. Not like a Hammersmith Apollo, like in a small 500, 600 seat place. Have light installation projections. Have spatial audio. Maybe have the audience situated among the musicians? I don’t know. But to me, the idea of just going on tour and…there’s a two-dimensional band up on stage and the audience are out there looking up at this two-dimensional spectacle, I’m not massively interested or inspired by that. And I don’t think this album would apply itself very well to that. I think it needs something different. So, I’m just at the beginning of that process of thinking about that.

I can think of three concerts I’ve seen that reinvented the concert experience. One was David Byrne’s American Utopia. The same with Kate Bush. And Feist does that but on a very low budget scale.

David Byrne was one of the only people I could think of that has come from a tradition of rock music that has done that. I think a lot of people are experimenting with it in the world of urban and electronic music. Again, rock music seems to somehow become fossilized in amber when it comes to how does the concert experience work. You know, how does the audience interact with the performers? It’s kind of been the same for 50 years now or more. So, I would love to be able to shake things up a bit there. There’s a lot of logistical issues, there’s a lot of financial issues. And yes, I think by definition mine would have to be a bit low-tech as well. I haven’t got the budget to do anything beyond that. But there must be a way, right?

Do you have any views on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in terms of the impact on music?

I have so many views on this, Stephen. They’re all quite depressing. Do you want to hear some of them? [Laughs]

Yes, have you ever tried to replicate a Steven Wilson song with artificial intelligence?

No, I’d be horrified by the results.

I think we’re already at the point where artificial intelligence could quite easily generate most generic instrumental music. Artificial intelligence could quite easily generate techno music, electronic music, standard club music. It’s so much a product of a very small set of parameters anyway. I’m sure artificial intelligence could generate that by the yard. You know, why do you need people to program generic techno club music? It’s so easy to make.

But that’s the key: generic. This circles right back to the beginning of the conversation, doesn’t it in a way? If you’re searching for ways to get away from this notion of generic to try and create music which is still surprising, which still wrong foots the listener, which is not simply the products of a set of tropes, clichés, parameters—whether personal or otherwise—then you’d think artificial intelligence would never be able to recreate that, wouldn’t you? And there’s still a reason for people to go out and create that kind of music. But I don’t know. Maybe time will prove me wrong. Maybe right now that might be the case, but maybe in 10 years, artificial intelligence will also be able to think outside the box and create surprising music. So, who knows?

We’re not far away from the day when somebody will go to the office during the day and they’ll come home at the end of the day and they’ll say to their Alexa, or whatever the successor to Alexa is, “I want to hear a piece of music in the style of country and western, sung by Freddie Mercury, about moving to Mexico.” And the AI will create that song bespoke for you in the style of country and western with unquestionably Freddie Mercury singing it. Lyrics about moving to Mexico. And that song will only exist for you in that moment. I think that is going to happen. In fact, we’re not far away from having the technology to make it happen already. That blows my mind. And that is terrifying. I used a deliberately kind of perverse, extreme kind of example there. But you take my point.

To anyone who’s grown up believing music is a magical thing and magical expression of the human condition, which it was and still is, just about, it’s a horrendous prospect, isn’t it? Talk about dystopia. There you go. Somebody needs to write a book about that. Maybe that’ll be my next project.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. Part 2 can be read here.

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