Steven John Wilson (born 3 November 1967) is a Grammy nominated English musician and producer, most associated with the progressive rock genre. Currently a solo artist, he is best known as the founder, lead guitarist, singer and songwriter of the band Porcupine Tree, but is also a member of several other bands and has worked with artists such as Opeth, King Crimson, Pendulum, Jethro Tull, XTC, Yes, and Anathema.
Wilson is a self-taught producer, audio engineer, guitar and keyboard player, playing other instruments as needed, including bass guitar, autoharp, hammered dulcimer and flute. He currently lives in Hemel Hempstead, the town he grew up in, but has also spent time living in London and Tel Aviv, Israel, although he does not hold a residence in Tel Aviv anymore.
Background and early years
Born in Kingston upon Thames, London, Wilson was raised from age 6 in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, where he discovered his affinity for music around the age of 8. According to Wilson, his love for music began one Christmas when his parents bought presents for each other in the form of LPs. His father and mother received Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby, respectively. The young Steven spent much of his childhood listening to these albums in "heavy rotation", as he once commented.
Both LPs would influence his future song writing. He claims "in retrospect I can see how they are almost entirely responsible for the direction that my music has taken ever since". His interest in Pink Floyd led him towards experimental/psychedelic conceptual progressive rock (as exemplified by Porcupine Tree and Blackfield), and Donna Summer's trance-inflected grooves inspired the initial musical approach of No-Man (Wilson's long-running collaboration with fellow musician and vocalist Tim Bowness), although the band would later develop a more meditative and experimental Talk Talk-esque approach.
As a child, Steven was forced to learn the guitar, but he did not enjoy it; his parents eventually stopped paying for lessons. However, at the age of 11 Wilson rescued a nylon string classical guitar from his attic and started to experiment with it; or in his own words, "scraping microphones across the strings, feeding the resulting sound into overloaded reel to reel tape recorders and producing a primitive form of multi-track recording by bouncing between two cassette machines". At the age of twelve, his father, who was an electronic engineer, built him his first multi-track tape machine and a vocoder so he could begin experimenting with the possibilities of studio recording.
Wilson began experimenting with music at a young age, through forming bands with his friends from school and playing live. However, the activity which kept him satisfied the most was that of experimenting with sounds and producing the recordings he made. Between 1983 and 1986 he began to record material for release. Some of those tapes have recently resurfaced due to the increasing popularity of Porcupine Tree. Wilson describes it as "a bit like a painter having his nursery school paint blots on display".
One of these projects was the psychedelic duo Altamont (featuring a 15-year-old Wilson working with synth/electronics player Simon Vockings). Their one and only cassette album, Prayer for the Soul, featured lyrics by English psychedelic scenester Alan Duffy, whose work Wilson would later use for two Porcupine Tree songs: "This Long Silence" and "It Will Rain for a Million Years". Around the same time that Wilson was working as Altamont, he was also in a teenaged progressive rock band called Karma, who played live around Hertfordshire and recorded two cassette albums, The Joke's On You (1983) and The Last Man To Laugh (1985). These contained early versions of "Small Fish", "Nine Cats" and "The Joke's On You", which were subsequently resurrected as Porcupine Tree songs.
Wilson went on to join the New Wave/AOR band Pride of Passion as keyboard player, replacing former Marillion keyboard player Brian Jelliman (another former Marillion member, Diz Minnitt, also played in the band). Pride of Passion would later change their name to Blazing Apostles and alter their lineup and approach, finally coming to an end in 1987.
Up to this point Wilson's diverse musical experiments had contained avant-garde and industrial recordings, psychedelia and progressive rock. He was, however, also becoming more interested in songwriting and pop music, something that would manifest itself in his next developments.
In 1986, Wilson launched the two projects that would make his name. The first of these was initially called "No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man)", although it would later be renamed "No-Man." This began life as a solo Wilson instrumental project blending progressive rock with synth pop, subsequently moving towards art-pop when singer/lyricist Tim Bowness joined the project the following year. The second project was "Porcupine Tree", which was originally intended to be a full-on pastiche of psychedelic rock (inspired by the similar Dukes of Stratosphear project by XTC) carried out for the mutual entertainment of Wilson and his childhood friend Malcolm Stocks.
Over the next three years, the projects would evolve in parallel. Of his two efforts, No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man) was the first to release a commercial single (1989's "The Girl From Missouri", on Plastic Head Records), while Porcupine Tree built an increasing underground reputation via the release of a series of cassette-only releases via The Freak Emporium (the mail-order wing of British psychedelic label Delerium Records).
By 1990, No Man Is An Island (Except The Isle Of Man) had fully evolved into No-Man and was a voice/violin/multi-instrument trio which had incorporated dance beats into its art-pop sound. The second No-Man single – a crooned cover of the Donovan song "Colours" arranged in a dub-loop style anticipating trip-hop - won the Single of the Week award in Melody Maker and gained the band a recording contract with the high-profile independent label One Little Indian (at the time, famous for The Shamen and Björk). Their debut One Little Indian single, "Days In The Trees", won the same Single of the Week award the following year. The single also briefly charted and, although sales were not outstanding, Wilson had now gained credibility in the record industry (as well as enough finance to fit out his home studio with the equipment he’d need to advance his music). By this time, he’d also released the official, lavishly packaged Porcupine Tree debut album, On the Sunday of Life... (which compiled the best material from the underground tapes).
No-Man's debut full-length release – a compilation of EP tracks called Lovesighs – An Entertainment – followed in 1992, as did Porcupine Tree's infamous LSD-themed maxi-single "Voyage 34" which made the NME indie chart for six weeks. No-Man also toured England with a six-piece band including three ex-members of the glam-pop band Japan – Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and (most significantly) keyboardist Richard Barbieri. 1993 saw Wilson consolidating his initial success with albums from both Porcupine Tree (Up the Downstair) and No-Man (Loveblows And Lovecries – A Confession). At the end of 1993, Porcupine Tree was launched as a four-piece live band featuring Wilson, Barbieri, bass player Colin Edwin and former No-Man live drummer Chris Maitland.
From this point onwards, Wilson began to alternate between Porcupine Tree and No-Man releases. Although No-Man retired from live performance in 1994 (and would not return to the stage until 2006), the band continued to release a steady stream of albums featuring guests such as Barbieri, Steve Jansen, Robert Fripp, Theo Travis and Pat Mastelotto, and has maintained a healthy cult following as well as continued critical acclaim. Porcupine Tree, meanwhile, toured frequently and passed through various overt phases of different musical stylings (including psychedelia, progressive rock, modern guitar rock and heavy metal) while retaining the core of Wilson's sonic imagination and songwriting. By the mid-2000s Porcupine Tree had become a well known rock band with albums on major labels such as Atlantic and Roadrunner, with Wilson's singing, songwriting and frontman skills increasing by the year. Also by this time, Wilson had become in-demand as a producer and was being cited as an influence by various up-and-coming musicians.
During the late 1990s Wilson's love of experimental, drone and ambient music began to manifest itself in a series of new projects, notably Bass Communion and Incredible Expanding Mindfuck (also known as IEM). He also began to release a series of CD singles under his own name.
Having established himself as a producer with a standard for sound engineering, Wilson was invited to produce other artists, notably the Norwegian artist Anja Garbarek and Swedish progressive-metal band Opeth. Though he claims to enjoy production more than anything else, with the demands of his own projects, he has mostly restricted himself to mixing for other artists in the last few years.
More recently Wilson has become known for his 5.1 surround sound mixes: the 2007 Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet was nominated for a Grammy in the "Best Mix For Surround Sound" category. It was also voted #3 album of the year by Sound And Vision. Wilson is currently working on several other surround sound projects, including remixing the Jethro Tull and King Crimson back catalogues.
Wilson has recently begun to write reviews for the Mexican edition of the Rolling Stone magazine. They are all translated into Spanish. Two reviews have been published so far: one for Radiohead's In Rainbows and another for Murcof's 2007 work, Cosmos. He also contributes to UK magazine Classic Rock as an occasional reviewer.
Wilson produced and contributed backing vocals, guitar and keyboards for Opeth on the albums Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Damnation. In addition to this, he has collaborated on many projects with Belgian experimental musician Dirk Serries of Vidna Obmana and Fear Falls Burning, most notably on their collaboration project Continuum which has so far produced two albums. Wilson is also featured on a Fovea Hex EP "Allure" (Part 3 of the "Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent" trilogy of EP's) on bass guitar. This EP was released in April 2007 through Die-Stadt Musik.
He has also worked with OSI, Marillion, JBK, Orphaned Land, Paatos, Theo Travis, Yoko Ono, Fish, Cipher and Anja Garbarek performing songwriting duties as well as performing musically. Most recently, Wilson is featured on the Pendulum album "Immersion", with his vocals featuring on "The Fountain". He made a guest appearance on Dream Theater's 2007 album, Systematic Chaos on the song "Repentance", as one of several musical guests recorded apologizing to important people in their lives for wrongdoings in the past.
Wilson did an interview with German musician and composer Klaus Schulze. Schulze was an important figure of the Krautrock movement. This interview is featured as bonus material in Schulze's Live DVD, Rheingold.
The Anathema album, We're Here Because We're Here, was mixed by Wilson in a period beginning January 2010 and he is thanked in the album liner notes. A current ongoing project for Wilson is remixing the back catalogue of King Crimson from 1969–84 into MLP (Meridian Lossless Packaging) 5.1 and new stereo mixes, as well as remixing the back catalogue of Jethro Tull, he also did the remix for In the Land of Grey and Pink by Canterbury scene band Caravan. The first three new editions were issued in October 2009, with more emerging in batches over the coming years. He's now working on remixing Nonsuch by British alternative rock band XTC.
Group Projects (and Pseudonymous Projects)
Porcupine Tree started out as a duo of Wilson and his schoolfriend Malcolm Stocks (with Wilson providing the majority of the instrumentation and Stocks contributing mostly ideas, additional vocals and experimental guitar sounds). Wilson began experimenting by recording music in his home until he had the hunch it could become someway marketable. The material was subsequently compiled into three demo tapes (Tarquin's Seaweed Farm, Love, Death & Mussolini and The Nostalgia Factory). For the first tape, he even wrote an inlay introduction to an obscure (imaginary) band called "The Porcupine Tree", suggesting the band met in the early '70s at a rock festival, and they had been in and out of prison many times. The booklet also contained information about band's obscure members like Sir Tarquin Underspoon and Timothy Tadpole-Jones, and crew members like Linton Samuel Dawson (if put into initials forming LSD). Wilson: "It was a bit of fun. But of course like anything that starts as a joke, people started to take it all seriously!". When Wilson signed to Delerium label, he selected what he considered the best tracks from these early tapes. All those songs were mastered and made up Porcupine Tree's first official studio album, On the Sunday of Life....
Quickly after, Wilson would release the single "Voyage 34", a thirty-minute long piece that could be described as a mixture of ambient, trance and psychedelia. This was done partly as an attempt to produce the longest single yet released, which it was until it was later exceeded by The Orb's "Blue Room." With non-existent radio play "Voyage 34" still managed to enter the NME indie chart for six weeks and became an underground chill-out classic.
The second full-length album, Up the Downstair (though Wilson considers it the first 'proper' PT album since it was made as such and not simply compiled), was released in 1993 and had a very good reception, praised by Melody Maker as "a psychedelic masterpiece... one of the albums of the year". This was the first album to include ex-Japan member, keyboardist Richard Barbieri and Australian-born bassist Colin Edwin. About the end of the year, Porcupine Tree became a full band for the first time with the inclusion of Chris Maitland on drums.
Wilson continued exploring the ambient and trance grounds and issued The Sky Moves Sideways. It also entered the NME, Melody Maker, and Music Week charts and many fans started hailing them as the Pink Floyd of the nineties, something Wilson would reject: "I can't help that. It's true that during the period of 'The Sky Moves Sideways', I had done a little too much of it in the sense of satisfying, in a way, the fans of Pink Floyd who were listening to us because that group doesn't make albums any more. Moreover, I regret it".
The band's fourth work, Signify, included the first full-band compositions and performance, which resulted in less use of drum machines and a more full-band sound. It can be considered a departure from its predecessors for a more song-oriented style. After the release of the live album Coma Divine concluded their deal with Delerium in 1997, the band moved to Snapper and issued two poppier albums, Stupid Dream in 1999 and Lightbulb Sun in 2000. Both were critical successes and only increased their popularity in the underground music scene.
Two years would pass until their seventh studio album, and in the meantime the band switched labels again, this time signing to the major label Lava. Drummer Chris Maitland was also replaced by Gavin Harrison. In Absentia was released in 2002, featuring a heavier sound than all the group's previous works. It charted in many European countries and remains one of the top-selling Porcupine Tree albums to date. The 2004 special edition was also their first record to be released in 5.1 Surround Sound, winning the "Best Made-For-Surround Title" award from the Surround Music Awards 2004 shortly afterwards.
Another two years elapsed before its follow-up, Deadwing, an ambitious and very cohesive record inspired by a film script by Steven Wilson and his friend Mike Bennion, was released in May 2005. This became the first Porcupine Tree album to chart on the Billboard 200, entering at #132. The album won Classic Rock magazine's "album of the year" award and its surround version received the "Best Made-For-Surround Title" once again.
Wilson started writing Porcupine Tree's next album in early 2006 in Tel Aviv, Israel, alongside work on the second album for his side-project Blackfield. Writing sessions finished in London, UK, in June 2006. In August of the same year the band released their first live DVD, titled Arriving Somewhere..., and started a tour between September and November to promote it; the first half of each show was made up of all-new material. When the tour concluded the band went into the studio and finished recording and mastering the album. In early January 2007, the band revealed the album title was going to be Fear of a Blank Planet (a deliberate reference to Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet) and the concept was influenced by the Bret Easton Ellis novel Lunar Park. The album hit the shops on 16 April 2007 in Europe and 24 April in USA. The lyrics revolve around common 21st Century issues such as technology alienation, teen violence, prescription drugs, attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder.
Fear of a Blank Planet resulted in the most successful album to date in terms of market and sales, and also received the most favourable reviews of the band's whole career. It entered the Billboard 200 at #59, and charted in almost all European countries, peaking at #31 in the UK. It was nominated for a US Grammy, and won several polls as the best album of the year (e.g. Classic Rock magazine, Aardshock, The Netherlands). In July 2007 the Nil Recurring EP was released, containing material that had been left off the album.
At a European show in August 2008, Wilson said that Porcupine Tree was beginning work on material for their next album with an eye toward a release in 2009. This album was later revealed to be titled The Incident. The Incident is a double CD set containing "The Incident", a 55 minute "song cycle", on the first disc and 4 shorter songs on the second. It has received significant attention and media coverage and the band achieved their highest chart positions to date, reaching 5 in The Netherlands, 9 in Germany, 23 in the UK and 25 on the Billboard 200 in the USA. The subsequent tour of the US and Europe highlighted a large increase in the band's following, with many shows sold out. The single from The Incident, "Time Flies" was available as a free download from iTunes for one week in October 2009.
No-Man is Wilson's long term collaboration with singer and songwriter Tim Bowness. Influenced by everything from ambient music to hip-hop, their early singles and albums were a mixture of dance beats and lush orchestrations. However, after a few years the duo started to create more textural and experimental music. Beginning with Flowermouth in 1994, they have worked with a very wide palette of sounds, and many guest musicians, blending balladry with both acoustic and electronic sounds. No-Man was the first Wilson project to achieve any degree of success, signing with UK independent label One Little Indian (the label of Björk, The Shamen and Skunk Anansie among others), and releasing a string of critically acclaimed singles. The band remains an ongoing, predominantly studio-based project and continues to produce material, although it has never achieved the same level of commercial success as Porcupine Tree.
In 1996 came the first in a series of albums by I.E.M. (The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck, a name which had also been considered for Porcupine Tree in its infancy), dedicated to exploring Wilson's love of krautrock and experimental rock music. Initially Wilson had planned for the project to be anonymous, but then label Delerium Records published a song on their Pick N Mix compilation with the composition credited to "Steven Wilson" and so attempts to pass off the project in this way were abandoned. The project released 2 more albums Arcadia Son, and IEM Have Come For Your Children, in 2001. A box set of 4 CDs, consisting of everything Wilson recorded under the name - billed as "an homage and a final farewell to I.E.M." - was released in June 2010.
In 1998 Wilson launched Bass Communion, a project dedicated to recordings in an ambient, drone, and/or electronic vein. So far there have been several full length Bass Communion CDs, vinyl LPs, and singles, many of them issued in handmade or limited editions (which sell out very quickly) in elaborate packaging. Bass Communion has collaborated with many leading experimental musicians such as Muslimgauze, Robert Fripp, Vidna Obmana (on the ongoing Continuum project), Jonathan Coleclough, Colin Potter and Andrew Liles, amongst others.
In 2001 Wilson met and began to collaborate with Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen, with whom he created the band Blackfield. Since then the duo have released three acclaimed albums of what they refer to as "melodic and melancholic rock." The albums spawned several singles, notably "Blackfield," "Pain" and "Once." A live DVD from a show in New York was released in 2007. A third album titled "Welcome to my DNA" came in March 2011. Later that year Wilson decided to take a secondary role in the band, feeling that with so much of his time and attention devoted to his solo career, there wasn't enough left for him to properly fill the role of co-leader of Blackfield as well. He still contributed to the band's fourth album in 2013 as singer and producer, but Geffen was the primary driving force and will remain so in the future. Wilson departed from the band after a short European tour in February 2014 and a final date in New York City on May 1, 2014, due to his increasingly tight schedule with his solo career and upcoming projects.
In March 2010 Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt, the front man of Opeth, decided to work on a new project as a collaboration under the name of Storm Corrosion. The self-titled album was released in May 2012 on Roadrunner Records. It has been described as being "the final part in the odd trilogy of records completed by (Opeth's) Heritage and Steven Wilson's second solo album Grace for Drowning." Åkerfeldt and Wilson did no shows in support of the album, and while the two have expressed interest in working together again, they are not writing another album for Storm Corrosion.
From 2003–10 Wilson released a series of six two-track CD singles under his own name, each one featuring a cover version and an original Steven Wilson song. The choice of covers is unpredictable, featuring songs by Canadian singer Alanis Morissette, Swedish pop group Abba, UK rock band The Cure, Scottish songwriter Momus, Prince, and Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan.
Separate from the Cover Versions series, Wilson has also contributed a cover version of the Cardiacs song "Stoneage Dinosaurs" to Leader of the Starry Skies: A Tribute to Tim Smith, Songbook 1 (a fundraising compilation album released in December 2010 to benefit the hospitalised Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, whom Wilson has cited as a major inspiration spiritually, if not necessarily in style).
In November 2008 Wilson released his first official solo album, Insurgentes, recorded all over the world between January–August, as a double CD plus a DVD-A (limited to 3,000 copies) and a 4 x 10 inch vinyl version (limited to 1,000 copies), both with hardback book featuring the images of acclaimed and longtime collaborator Danish photographer Lasse Hoile. A standard retail CD version (also including the 5.1 DVD-A) was released on 9 March 2009.
Lasse Hoile's full length feature version of the film based on the recording of the album was premiered at the CPH:DOX international film festival in Copenhagen in November 2009. The film will also be screened at film festivals in Sweden, Germany, Mexico, USA, and Canada. The film is described as part documentary/part surreal road movie. Lasse also directed a video for the song Harmony Korine from the Insurgentes album - the video was a homage to some of Steven and Lasse's favourite European art house films, and has been nominated for Best Cinematography Award and Best Music Video Award at the prestigious Plus Camerimage - International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography Awards.
A remix mini album was released in November, featuring remixes of material from Insurgentes by TV on the Radio's David A. Sitek, Dälek, Engineers, Pat Mastelotto, and Fear Falls Burning.
Grace for Drowning
Wilson's second album, Grace For Drowning, was released in September 2011 in CD, vinyl and Blu-ray formats. It is a double album, with the individual parts named Deform to Form a Star and Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye. He also announced his first solo tour, in Europe and North America, to promote his solo albums. The tour took place in October and November 2011 and contained songs from both Insurgentes and Grace for Drowning. A live Album/DVD/Blu-ray recorded in Mexico titled Get All You Deserve was released on 25 September 2012.
On 16 December 2011, Wilson announced on his Facebook page new European tourdates for the second leg of his Grace for Drowning tour, running in April and May 2012. South American dates were later added and announced in 21 February 2012, including Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. He also won the "Guiding Light" title in "Progressive Music Awards" 2012.
The Raven That Refused to Sing
Wilson's third solo studio album, recorded with the members of the touring band for Grace for Drowning. was released on 25 February 2013. Alan Parsons engineered the sessions in Los Angeles. The album reached the top 30 in the UK, and number 3 in the German album charts. In October 2012, Wilson announced via his website the first leg of the supporting tour, consisting of 18 shows across Europe and 17 shows across North America between March–May 2013. For the American shows, Chad Wackerman (best known for his work with Frank Zappa) replaced Marco Minnemann on drums due to conflicting schedules. The second leg of the tour from October–November 2013 covered Australia and Europe, and included a sold out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The song "The Raven That Refused to Sing" was featured in the trailer for the 2014 film Pompeii. The album finished top of several end of year polls, including UK Prog magazine (critics and readers polls), German magazine Eclipsed (critics and readers polls), and was voted album of the year at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards.
Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Wilson's fourth solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase. is scheduled for release in February 2015.
For live shows Wilson plays with bare feet. This particular custom goes back to his early childhood, where he remembers: "I always had a problem wearing shoes and I've always gone around with bare feet". He also adds that another factor on performing barefoot is the advantage it gives in operating his diverse guitar pedals.
"I’ve stepped on nails, screws, drawing pins, stubbed my toe, I’ve come off stage with blood just coming out… I mean, I’ve had it all mate, but to be honest, nothing's going to stop me."
- List of hammered dulcimer players