A Different View

Steven Wilson

The modern-prog giant has the skills and musicality to manipulate sounds like it’s no one’s business. Which makes it all the more wondrous—and honorable—how little futzing he actually does with the drum tracks on his records. Of course, as every great chef knows, it pays to use the best ingredients.

by Will Romano

One of the most significant modern progressive rock bands was once merely a figment of a shy young man’s imagination.

In the late 1980s, with his bedroom doubling as a recording studio, British multi-instrumentalist Steven Wilson mimicked the psychedelic and art-rock sounds he loved as a teenager. Operating in virtual anonymity under the banner of Porcupine Tree, Wilson distributed his music on cassettes featuring liner notes crediting fictional band members and detailing fabricated discographies.

Over the course of the next two decades, however, Porcupine Tree would evolve from the mad musings of a single composer to a (semi) collaborative four-person musical entity, boasting a drum god named Gavin Harrison. The group’s music would morph considerably as well, into a sonic beast with a post-rock edge that retained aspects of Wilson’s early sonic experimentations. Wilson continues to develop his songwriting and sound-design skills as the leader of a powerhouse group under his own name, featuring German drum master Marco Minnemann, bassist/Stick player Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo), keyboardist Adam Holzman, and guitarist Guthrie Govan.

Although he had once shunned the “prog rock” label, Wilson is today the uncontested crown prince of the genre, having recorded and/or performed with the movers and shakers of the art-rock drumming community, including Harrison, Minnemann, Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth), Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson), Steve Jansen (Japan, Rain Tree Crow), and many others. 

“I think guys like Gavin and Marco are much more than drummers; they are multi-instrumentalists,” Wilson says. “It’s really interesting to work with a drummer who understands melody, harmony, and the texture of different sounds. It’s not just about rhythm. That’s why it’s been such a pleasure working with these guys.”

This may be one reason why the drum tracks seem so lively, so unadulterated throughout the PT canon and a solo output that includes Insurgentes, Grace for Drowning, The Raven That Refused to Sing—which spawned a Wagnerian stage production—and this year’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. The latest collection is a concept album inspired in part by the mystery surrounding Joyce Carol Vincent, a thirty-eight-year-old Londoner who died in her apartment and went undiscovered for three years, the television still running in her rented room….

Themes centered on isolation, regret, apathy, and creeping alienation—threads running through many of Wilson’s songs—never detract from Hand. Cannot. Erase.’s surprising warmth and emotional impact, byproducts of a seamless fusion of cutting-edge recording technology, bittersweet melodies, analog instrumentation, and virtually unblemished and often daring drumming performances by Minnemann and Wackerman.

“I like drummers who are very much lead drummers, you might say,” Wilson explains. “Drummers who almost take the band by the scruff of the neck and drag everyone along with them. It’s what people might call the Keith Moon factor.”

Seemingly impervious to the recording industry’s recent economic downturns, Wilson has moved hundreds of thousands of units while his largely conceptual works have consistently entered the Billboard charts. In addition, Wilson has worked tirelessly on 5.1 surround remixes of titles by prog forefathers Yes, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson, earning kudos from pros of all stripes in engineering circles. “What can I tell you?” Wilson once admitted to this writer, with a spot of dry British humor. “We fiddle while Rome burns.”

As of this writing, Porcupine Tree was on hiatus, but Wilson continues to plug (and plug-in) away, navigating the industry largely on his terms—and with brilliant drummers by his side.

MD: Why is Marco Minnemann such a good drummer for your style of music?

Steven: I didn’t know Marco, but my manager, Andy Leff, who is based in New York, saw him with Eddie Jobson [U.K., Roxy Music] at a club there. At the time I was looking for a live band for my first solo tour, and I wanted a drummer who could light a fire under the band. When I looked at YouTube clips of Marco, I just immediately loved the way he played with a big grin on his face. He played with a lot of sensitivity for the material, but he also has a fire and energy that pushes everyone up to a higher level.

MD: How much input does a drummer like Marco have in shaping your music?

Steven: I do demos, and when I do my demos I program drum parts. I like [creating] interesting layers to the music so much that I end up programming drum parts that I find stimulating, interesting. Marco makes these parts more “human” and finds ways to use [programmed drums] as a reference point and turns them into something more organic. I guess what I’m saying is I’m sending him rather stilted programmed parts and he’s adapting them and saying, “That’s not how a drummer would play. He would play it like this….” It’s like giving him the words and letting him arrange them in the most logical way in which to speak.

MD: What software do you use for drum programming?

Steven: Logic these days has some phenomenal stuff built into it. I use samples I’ve had for years, which are samples of Gavin Harrison, actually. Gavin has a beautiful-sounding kit. We sampled it about ten years ago, and I loaded the samples into Logic’s EXS24 software. I tend to program with Gavin’s drum sounds, just as a starting point.

MD: Gavin is there in spirit no matter what project you’re working on.

Steven: Kind of, yeah. But I should point out that it’s my patterns, of course. I mean, all programs sound ridiculous and maybe not even possible to play. For my band Marco is adept at making the drums feel much more natural.

MD: How long did Hand. Cannot. Erase. preproduction last?

Steven: It’s difficult to be specific about these things these days. When I’m working in my own studio, a lot of the stuff I’m doing, whether it’s vocals or even guitar parts, quite conceivably could end up in the final mix. Marco has his own studio at home as well, so when I have a track at a fairly reasonable stage, I send it to him, and usually within a day or two he sends back his first live interpretation. At that point we’re not thinking about sound so much, the tone of the drums, the style of miking, and all of that stuff. That obviously will take place when we get to the studio.

MD: How do you know you have a good drum take?

Steven: I sift through the material and choose the takes I like, and do very little editing. I don’t like to edit, particularly with the drums, and I don’t like to edit the drums between takes. I think there’s something about a complete take that’s always special, even if it’s not “perfect.” It’s a shame to have to start chopping takes together. Editing might make the track more technically perfect, but I don’t think it makes it better, if you see what I mean. But, you know, every time Marco does a take it’s fantastic. [laughs]

MD: Do you use Beat Detective or analyze a drum track on purely visual terms? I’m getting the sense that you don’t like quantizing drums.

Steven: You’re absolutely right. The simple answer is that I don’t use any Beat Detective. Of course, I’m saying this from a very privileged position, because I’m working with some of the greatest drummers in the world right now, whether it’s Gavin or Marco or Chad Wackerman. I really don’t like the kind of approach where you start looking at how a bass drum is falling on a grid. To me the point is: If it sounds right and it sounds good, leave it.

I don’t even like to do triggering these days. Occasionally I might tuck in another bass drum or snare drum underneath the live drum on a particularly dense section, just to make it speak a bit more. But the last couple of records, what you’re listening to is very much the sound of real drums as played by a real drummer in real time.

MD: You’ve used rhythmic loops in the past. Does Hand. Cannot. Erase. contain loops?

Steven: I do use loops and electronic drums on the new record. One of the tracks, “Perfect Life,” is almost entirely composed of drum programming and some loops. It’s all very processed, put through amps, fuzz boxes, some other stuff. Even when I use a drum loop, it seems, I end up putting it through a Korg Kaoss pad to try to get back that kind of random human element that you lose with programming.

MD: Marco and Chad both play on the album. Who will be touring with you?

Steven: The touring will be handled firstly by Marco on the European leg. But then Marco and Guthrie [Govan] have their own tour with the Aristocrats, so I’m replacing Marco on the U.S. leg of the tour with Craig Blundell. Fantastic drummer. Craig seems to be a lot closer to the Marco approach. It’s interesting, because in many respects the two guys I used on the record are two guys I used on my previous tour: Marco and Chad. For me they are almost like polar opposites. Marco is like this ball of energy, and Chad has this more Californian, laid-back thing going on, which is also fantastic.