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Steven Wilson: 'If I don't do anything, I feel this creeping guilt'

By Tim Masters
Arts and entertainment correspondent

image copyrightBen Meadows
image captionSteven Wilson was recently the big winner at the Progressive Music Awards

Steven Wilson is often dubbed the hardest working musician in the world of progressive rock.

The multi-talented musician won three prizes at this month's Progressive Music Awards in London, including album of the year for Hand. Cannot. Erase. The Guardian's five-star review called it "a smart, soulful and immersive work of art".

Since the 1980s, Wilson has been the driving force in a number of musical projects, the best known of which is the rock band Porcupine Tree.

Now, ahead of two sell-out shows at the Royal Albert Hall, Wilson is releasing a vinyl-only double LP, Transience, to showcase the "more accessible" side of his solo output.

He tells the BBC about his love of vinyl, his busy schedule and explains how comic actor Matt Berry came to be his support act.

What does vinyl mean to you?

I grew up at the very tail end of the vinyl era, and at the time, I remember, we couldn't wait for CD to come along because vinyl was so frustrating. You would buy the record, take it home, and it would have a scratch, and you would have to take it back again.

I love CDs, and for some kinds of music - classical for example - it is better than vinyl. But the problem with the CD and digital downloads is that there's nothing you can really cherish or treasure.

Owning vinyl is like having a beautiful painting hanging in your living room. It's something you can hold, pore over the lyrics and immerse yourself in the art work.

I thought it was just a nostalgic thing, but it can't be if kids too young to remember vinyl are enjoying that kind of experience.

Do you have a piece of vinyl that you treasure?

The truth is I got rid of 100% of my vinyl in the 90s. All the vinyl I have is re-bought. I started off from the perspective that I wanted to recreate the collection I had when I was 15, but it's gone beyond that.

The first record which I persuaded my parents to buy for me was Electric Light Orchestra's Out of the Blue. If I still had my original copy, it would have sentimental value, but, alas, it's in a charity shop somewhere.

image copyrightKscope
image captionSteven Wilson hopes the album will be a doorway for potential new fans

Why release your new compilation Transience on vinyl?

It was originally conceived as an idea for Record Store Day, but we missed the boat on that.

My record company had suggested I put together some of my shorter, more accessible songs. I got a bit obsessed by the idea to make something like "an introduction to Steven Wilson", and I was committed to it being a vinyl-only release. Anyone who buys the vinyl does also get a high-res[olution] download.

Do you have a concern that the album won't show your work in a true light?

No - because although I do focus on more long-form pieces of music, there is one thing I have always valued above everything else: melody.

There is a lot of progressive rock which focuses on the technical complexity of the track rather than the melodic side. Pink Floyd, the most successful progressive rock band of all time, have stood the test of time because the emphasis was always on melody and atmosphere.

What do you have in store for your Albert Hall shows?

I don't want to give away too much. The repertoire will be completely different each night.

The first night is going to be a version of the Hand. Cannot. Erase. show I've been doing this year - but on steroids - with a couple of guests.

The second night is going to be more of a trip into my history, which is more aimed at the fans have been following me for years.

How did it come about that Matt Berry is the support act on the second night?

Myself and everyone on the tour bus are massive fans of [Channel 4 comedy series] Toast of London to the point that we are quoting it endlessly.

I thought that I should check out Matt's music, so I picked up a copy of his Music for Insomniacs. I chatted with him about our love of Mike Oldfield and asked him to play at the Royal Albert Hall.

I'm going to be incredibly star struck by my opening act.

You've been remixing albums by the likes of XTC, Tears for Fears and Yes. How much does that influence your own work?

I don't consciously draw from that, but, inevitably, if you are deconstructing these classic albums they really get into your head.

My last solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, was without doubt the most old-school progressive album I've ever done. I don't think it was coincidence that I had been remixing King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Yes almost exclusively for the previous year.

The current album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., opened up a lot more because I'd been working on Tears for Fears and XTC.

You are often described as progressive rock's busiest musician. Is that how it feels?

You can remove the word progressive. I think I am probably one of the most work-obsessed people in the music business today, and I don't say that with any sense of pride because believe me it's a curse.

I think I get it from my father, who also had an incredibly strong work ethic. If I don't do anything for a whole day, I start to feel this creeping guilt. That's why the remix work has been such a gift to me because it means I don't have to be doing my own music all the time.

The music industry is a hard place to make a living for yourself. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone as a profession now. I work every day, and I'm not rich, but I make a good living. I love what I do, it's a privilege, but if I was lazy about it, I don't think I'd be able to survive.

Transience is out in the UK on 25 September. Steven Wilson plays the Royal Albert Hall on 28 and 29 September as part of his 2015-16 tour of Europe.

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