Steven Wilson on “The Harmony Codex” (Part 2) | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, May 25th, 2024  

Steven Wilson on “The Harmony Codex” (Part 2)

The Process of Reinvention and Rebirth

Sep 19, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Hajo Mueller Bookmark and Share

Steven Wilson announced his seventh solo album, The Harmony Codex, within weeks of finishing a reunion tour with Porcupine Tree. The progressive rock group spent the summer playing European festivals.

“It was just fun this time rather than a careerist chore,” he says.

Sometimes, the festival bills were a “bit odd,” Wilson says. He adds, “But then, I’m used to that because we never really fitted in with anything.”

Case in point: At Hellfest in France, Porcupine Tree played just before headliners Iron Maiden.

“There were like 20 to 30,000 people all waiting for Maiden to come on, so they got these sort of rather fey Englishmen playing what was probably pop music, as far as they’re concerned,” he says with a laugh.

By contrast, at BosPop in the Netherlands, Porcupine Tree shared a bill with Chic. Wilson got to hang out with his pal Nile Rodgers, whom he describes as “a real sweetie.” Rodgers had created a remix of the funk track “Eminent Sleaze” from Wilson’s 2021 album, The Future Bites. Earlier this year, Wilson returned the favor and mixed five Chic albums for reissue in Atmos spatial audio. Plus, the Sister Sledge hit, “We are Family,” which Rodgers co-composed.

The ease with which Wilson can flit between the worlds of metal and disco—just two of the wide-ranging styles of music he’s explored on previous albums—is why he’s become the go-to guy for remixing albums for Atmos. Most recently, he’s created spatial audio mixes for classic albums by Suede, Van Morrison, The Who, Tears for Fears, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Ultravox, and The Grateful Dead.

As if he wasn’t busy enough, Wilson also curated a recent box set titled Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89. It’s a compilation of ambitious songs by post-punk and New Wave artists such as Wire, Cocteau Twins, XTC, Gang of Four, Kate Bush, and The Shamen. It also includes a track by no-man, the proto-trip hop band that Wilson formed with singer Tim Bowness and, briefly, violinist Ben Coleman.

As Wilson noted in part 1 of our interview, these disparate musical influences aren’t as overt on The Harmony Codex as they were on previous solo records. It’s a musically eclectic and wide-ranging album. The latest single, “What Life Brings” (watch the music video below) represents the organic, singer/songwriter aspect of his musical personality. By contrast, the previous release, a lush duet with Israeli superstar Ninet Tayeb titled “Rock Bottom,” sounds like it could be a James Bond theme song. The second single, “Impossible Tightrope,” is a mostly instrumental sonic adventure composed with spatial audio in mind. Don’t worry if you don’t have an Atmos system at home—the album still sounds spectacular in stereo.

The Harmony Codex is a more electronic-oriented album that sometimes blurs the lines between organic and synthetic instrumentation. Some of the tracks include additional production by David Kosten aka Faultine (Bat for Lashes, Keane, Everything Everything).

In this second part of Under the Radar’s interview, the artist talks about some of the individual songs and a cast of musicians that includes longtime stalwarts. It also includes contributions from newcomers including Jack Dangers from Meat Beat Manifesto and Sam Fogarino from Interpol. The Harmony Codex is due out September 29 via Spinefarm.

Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): The climax of “What Life Brings” is so joyful and exultant, it can’t help but just have a big smile on your face. That’s one of my favorite moments on the record.

Yeah, me too. I mean, it is such a simple sentiment: Love it all and hold it in your hands. It’s that sentiment of “just enjoy everything. Try and find something positive about everything you do, everything you go through.” It’s a very New Age sentiment, if you think about it. It’s as old as the hills, as hackneyed as hell. But sometimes even I, as the sort of miserable melancholic—at least that’s the way people see me a lot of the time—even I sometimes just want to relate the most simple of sentiments because I genuinely feel them and I genuinely relate to them.

Somebody asked me earlier, “Is that a song you would have written before you were married and had children?” Maybe not. I do find myself in a very different place in my life. A place I never intended to be. A place I never expected to be. But, actually, taking a lot of pleasure and joy from it, too—along with the anxiety and the pressure and the stress that it brings. But I think that’s true of anything, isn’t it? There’s no such thing as joy without strings attached.

In terms of staying inspired creatively fresh, are there are things you’ve learned—maybe about the environment that you work in or your daily routine—that help keep the wellspring open?

When I feel like the creative inspiration might be getting a bit dry, I’ll go and buy an instrument that I can’t play.… I don’t know what I’m doing on these analog synths. One of these has got like an old-fashioned patch bay where you plug cables in.

The first thing I do is I throw the manual away. I can’t be bothered with a manual. So, I’m literally approaching it like an absolute idiot. I don’t know what I’m doing. I think this is the Brian Eno thing, isn’t it, that you approach music as a non-musician. Where’s the talent in that? Well, the talent is in recognizing when something is worth pursuing and it’s similarly recognizing when something is just self-indulgent wank.

For years I’ve been doing that. I remember going out and buying a banjo before we made LightBulb Sun. I remember going out and buying hammered dulcimer before I wrote Stupid Dream. So there’s been a tradition for me over the years of going out and buying something I can’t play and just learning just enough to be able to perhaps find something that might provide a springboard for something fresh, some fresh, new direction.

The other thing that’s very important in that whole process of reinvention and kind of rebirth is recognizing when something is falling back on your own cliches. A lot of musicians fall into that trap where they become comfortable and they have a set of parameters. They have a set of cliches that always work for them and that their hardcore fans will always respond positively to. It’s very easy to slip into that. The hardest thing is to tear it down and start again, because it’s good, but it’s not different. It’s good, but it’s not fresh. And if there is a secret to me, I guess it might be a bit of that as well. Bowie was always fantastic at that.

I tell you what else Bowie was really good at, was always changing the people around him. That’s the other thing you can do. This comes back to the whole motivation for becoming a quote unquote, solo artist—because actually a lot of my solo records are far from solo in the sense there are many other musicians involved—the freedom to be able to change the people I work with from album to album. So here we have Jack [Dangers], we have Sam [Fogarino, drums] from Interpol, we have Nate [Navarro, bass], we have Nils [Petter Molvaer, trumpet]…people I’ve never worked with before.

This album also features a number of musicians who have worked with you from all different eras as well. And I wonder if you could talk about some of them and how you go about choosing different musicians for different tracks.

It’s a hard question to answer because it’s an intuitive thing. So, for example, a track like “Impossible Tightrope,” I had so many musicians play on that, and many of them didn’t make the final version. In fact, the version on the bonus desk, the reimagining of the album, is using completely different performances. Different bass player, different guitar, different keyboard solos, violin solos instead of guitar solos. It’s actually a completely alternate view of that track with using a completely different set of performances.

The album features the return of David Kollar on guitar. He played on your last two solo records and on the most recent no-man record. But there’s also several guitar solos by Niko Tsonev on The Harmony Codex. He toured with you many years ago, but hasn’t appeared on one of your studio albums before.

Nico had the misfortune to join my band the first time around when I think I was set on a more of a classic rock path. Which is why I ended up having Guthrie [Govan] come into the band for a couple of records and several tours. And Nico’s not really a classic rock player. He’s much more experimental, much more lo-fi. Working with sound design and creating interesting sounds and working with laptops and pedals and plug ins.

But I’ve kept in touch with Niko over the years. He is amazing. This comes back to this whole thing about how I can’t really articulate exactly why and when and how, but I just knew that he was going to be the right person for The Harmony Codex. I kept sending him tracks and saying, “Give me strange, beautiful.” I don’t want something willfully atonal and unpleasant, but at the same time I want you to pick notes that are not the obvious notes. I want you to give me something beautiful, but not conventional, not obvious, not in that pentatonic blues, classic-rock style. And every time he delivered.

This album also features Ben Coleman, an early member of no-man before it became a duo again. Have you been in touch with him for a while?

Not really. Tim [Bowness] has been in touch with Ben over the years. We’ve put together this box set of no-man, One Little Indian years. I think it’s three or four discs. It’s going to come out early next year. I kind of reconnected with Ben while we were putting that together and again, just being reminded what an incredible musician he was.

I sent him “Impossible Tightrope.” I sent that track out to so many different people. It was one of those tracks where it just felt like a blank canvas that many different people could possibly contribute. Most of Ben’s work is on the version that’s on the bonus disc because he played some scorching solo stuff and I didn’t really want to go down quite down that route on the on the album version. But he is on the album version, but in a more part of the fabric rather than the foreground.

The pioneering industrial/electronica group Meat Beat Manifesto is a group that I could imagine influenced no-man, your group with Tim Bowness—especially the fractured breakbeats on the debut album and Wild Opera.

They did, yeah.

Describe the role that Jack Danger from Meat Beat Manifesto plays on The Harmony Codex and how that came about.

I got in contact with him because I had a track of his on Intrigue, the compilation I put together. There was a track by one of his very early bands called Perennial Divide, which was his pre Meat Beat band, which were more of a traditionally industrial band. They didn’t use a lot of electronics. They didn’t use a lot of hip-hop beats. But they were definitely in the industrial genre. And I had a truck of theirs called “Beehead,” which was produced by Andy Partridge, so a fellow Swindonian. I got in contact with Jack through his website and I ended up getting an email a couple of weeks later from Jack, and he said something like, “It’s really nice to hear from you, Steve. I’m a massive fan of your album, Unreleased Electronic Music. Are you going to do a Volume two?”

It’s really wonderful to find—like it happened with Elton John—that these people who I look up to and who have been big influences on me, have got the records, and sometimes are genuinely fans of the records. It blows my mind every time. I expect with someone like Thom Yorke, it’s a daily occurrence. So the first thing I said to him was, “Would you like to remix or something from my new album when I finish it?” And he said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” And then that kind of moved on to, “Well, actually, you know what? I’ve got two or three tracks in progress. Can I send them to you and see what you can come up with?” Those tracks were “Inclination,” “Beautiful Scarecrow,” and “Actual Brutal Facts.” Jack’s a bit like me in the sense he’s a workaholic. He’s very prolific and he’s very efficient. So within like a few days he sent me back loads and loads of stuff. So, you know, a lot of stuff I couldn’t use, but some amazing stuff. So I went through it and he became, you know, part of the fabric of those three songs. He’s also done some great remixes of “Beautiful Scarecrow” for later on as well.

“Inclination” is a song that, to my ears, is almost like a great seduction piece. It’s very sensual. You’ve never released anything like that before. What’s your take on that track?

I’ve talked a lot over the years about how the first track I write for an album can very often sets the tone for where the record goes. And that was the first track I wrote for the record. Actually, originally it was started as a potential bonus track for the deluxe edition bonus disc with The Future Bites. Straightaway, I knew it was way too good for that. “Okay, I’m going to put this aside because this is going to be the beginning of the next record.” And yes, you’re right—it felt like a step into something else.

One thing, I’m very proud of—and I think this started with The Future Bites—is becoming a better singer. I don’t mean better technically, because I’m still pretty ropey as a technician, but more soulful. So maybe that’s something you’re touching on there. I think “Inclination,” particularly the vocal, is quite soulful. That going in and out of falsetto, for example, is an old soul singer trick, you know? I’ve definitely become more confident about being a singer rather than a vocalist—if you understand the distinction—in that I’ve become more confident as a singer, as an interpreter of my own lyrics.

How did the connection with Sam Fogarino, the drummer of Interpol, come about?

David [Kosten] recommended him. Lovely guy. He’s also done a fantastic remix of the “Staircase” track for the second disc in the special edition.

In your sort of work and various collaborations of bands, you’ve explored a number of areas of music. But I’m wondering if there are still some traditions that you haven’t explored that you’d still like to explore, go into.

There are definitely things still on my bucket list that I would love to do. I would love to do a movie soundtrack. Still never happened. Closest I got was doing the computer game soundtrack [Last Day of June]. One day, I would love to do something more orchestral. I don’t mean like that horrible thing where artists go off and do their orchestral reinterpretations of their greatest hits. What I mean is to write something specifically for orchestra.

I would love to do my sort of Tubular Bells-style album, make something quite bucolic and organic and just an extended 40-minute piece of music. I always, in the back of my mind, think, “I need to do that one day.”

Make, I dunno, an IDM [Intelligent Dance Music] record. There’s lots of things. But, also, I would love to collaborate more. One thing I’ve really not done for the last 10 years a lot is collaborate. I did the album with Mikael [Åkerfeldt], which was 12 years ago now, Storm Corrosion. Since then, one [no-man] album with Tim [Bowness]. The Porcupine Tree album. A little bit with [Blackfield’s] Aviv Geffen. But I’ve not really put myself in that situation, that scenario of collaborating—particularly with a new artist. So maybe I’ll go back and do a production job next. I haven’t done a production job since the days of Opeth and Anja Garbarek. So that’s almost 25 years ago now. So, yeah, there’s lots of things still to be done. While I’m still here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity. Part 1 can be accessed here.

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