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InterviewsSteven Wilson痴 open mind leads to a vast Blackfield

Posted on Wednesday, October 20 2004 @ 18:40:43 CDT by Jedd Beaudoin
Progressive Rock Blackfield, the collaboration between Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) and Israeli pop sensation Aviv Geffen, may at first seem more a plot sketch for Salman Rushdie novel末a citizen of the UK finding himself entangled in the life of a stranger from 3,000 miles away末than a plan for an astounding pop-inflected record that is sure to stand the test of time but one need only listen to the duo's recent self-titled debut to know that the latter is firmly true. SoT's Jedd Beaudoin answered the phone recently when Wilson rang him from London and what follows is an in-depth interview that covers Blackfield and so much more.

SoT: The Blackfield record had a rather long gestation period, didn't it?

SW: It did. That's as much to do with the geography as anything. Obviously, we live 3,000 miles apart, so we were getting together if and when we could to work on the record. There was no sense of pressure really as no one really knew that we were making the record. There was no expectation and no deadline and no release date. So, we took our time and experimented with some different styles until we reached what kind of felt was the Blackfield sound. We just continued to work until we felt that we had a really strong 10-song record.

SoT: You had played some shows with Aviv. He'd invited Porcupine Tree to Israel but you never really collaborated until 2001.

SW: Well, in a sense, the collaboration began the first time that we ever met because the first time we met, Aviv gave me the backing track of a demo. Right from the beginning there was an exchange of music going on. I'd say that it was a very gradual process. The first time that we actually got together specifically with the intention of writing and recording was in March 2001. We actually booked a studio in Tel Aviv and went in with the intention of just making a one-off four-track EP.

SoT: He was obviously aware of your work. How aware were you of his?

SW: Nil. Zero. I knew nothing about him. Very few people outside of Israel do know anything about Aviv, simply because he sings in Hebrew, so his music is very much aimed at the Jewish community. The only people outside of Israel that knew that work were other Jewish communities. So in that sense I knew nothing about Aviv, so in that sense I was very pleasantly surprised to discover someone with such a great talent for songwriting, great melodies and great harmonies and all in Hebrew. So, I didn't understand the lyrics but I could still appreciate a great songwriter when I heard one. That was really the motivation for me, to be able to bring my production, arranging and performing skills and kind of marry that with his songwriting ability, to take his gift for melody into an international arena.

SoT: Why was it that you collaborated on something brand new rather than you just simply producing one of his solo records?

SW: That's a very good question. I don't know, that's the answer. It's just the way that it developed. It just developed as a songwriting partnership. The first time that we went into the studio just to try stuff out was literally just an exchange of ideas. I suppose in that sense it was really down to Aviv, how the partnership developed. He could have just as easily said to me the first time that we met, "I'd love for you to come and produce my next album." But what he did say was, "I'd love to write some songs with you, I'd love to collaborate with you on some songs." So, there was no great master plan and I guess that if he had asked me to produce him, it could have been a very different story.

SoT: How did you find the material for this record. Was it a case where you had things at home that you set aside and said, "That'll work for the Blackfield project," or was it more a case of the two of you being in the same room at the same time, seeing what would happen.

SW: The whole project was always about being in the same room together. We didn't do any of it in the current trend of exchanging files via the Internet. We wanted the project to have almost an old-fashioned, organic approach. So, we'd always write together or at least we'd get in a room together and one of us would play a song to the other and say, "What do you think?" and the other would have comments. So, in that sense, it wasn't really a case of going away and writing stuff separately. It was always a case of collaborating, so it became very easy to know when something had the Blackfield sound because it was something that we'd both produced together, rather than one of us coming in and saying, "I've written a song for Blackfield."

Having said that, there was a couple of songs that he had from before he met me and a couple of songs that I had from around the time that I met him that we brought to the table to begin with, to get the project going, that were things that, certainly from my point of view, I'd kind of written with Porcupine Tree in mind but, for whatever reason, there was something there that wasn't right for Porcupine Tree. They were almost too direct, too obvious. So, to have a project that was more focused on the song, the pop song, the three-minute rock song format, meant that I immediately reached over and pulled those songs off the shelf and said, "Well, these songs will be perfect for this." He similarly had a couple of songs末which may have been the first songs he'd ever written in English, actually末which obviously he couldn't record for one of his solo records. We had a foundation of a couple of songs each to start with but from that point on it always became about collaborating and writing together.

SoT: Was this something of a liberating project in that there wasn't that much at stake because people didn't know about it?





SW: It's always liberating. I have several other projects and they're all inhabiting their own musical area. Blackfield was no exception. Blackfield became very much about the art of the great three-minute pop song, which is not something that I've really been able to explore with Porcupine Tree or any of my other projects. So, yeah, it's always liberating to have another sort of avenue or project where you can express yourself in a different way through a different kind of musical medium.

SoT: How did it feel then when two of the songs became hits?

SW: Well, I had to take it with a pinch of salt because in a sense anything of Aviv's in Israel becomes a hit. He's so successful in his own country that he could release anything and it almost by default becomes a hit song of some kind. However, what was nice was that they became such, such big hits. I mean, they were Number One singles and that was a nice feeling for him as well as me. It was a very, very bizarre feeling for me, 15 years into my career, to be having hit singles in any country, let alone one that I never imagined that I would ever visit two or three years earlier. Now, Israel has become such a big part of my life. I love the country and I travel there all the time and I have so many fans there. We have big hits there. It's quite surreal in a way.

SoT: Perhaps it's an obvious question but there is the cross-cultural element. Is that part of what attracted you to the project?

SW: Yes and no. There never was any great master plan. We weren't trying to make any great political statement or anything. We just became friends and admired each other's music and that was that. But, obviously, there is, in some respects, some kind of political statement implicit in us working together. But to answer your question about the cultural thing .... I guess that it's not so much the mixture of culture but just the mixture of personality, which of course comes from the culture as well. Aviv is a very, very different person to me. We're both incredibly different.

I mean, he's a huge mega-popstar in a very small part of the world and I've got more of an underground cult, much more anonymous following but across a much wider area. So, again, that's immediately a different kind of perspective on the whole process of music making, on being a professional musician. But what was interesting was that although we were so different, we were kind of fascinated with those differences in each other. I think he could see some things in me that he would have liked to have about himself and vice-versa. I kind of admired certain things about him, the kind of flamboyance and that side of him.

And for me, I think he was kind of interested in the quiet intensity and the professional way that I went about creating my music. So, we were fascinated by each other in that respect and that, ironically, has created a very, very firm, warm friendship, almost because of the differences rather than despite them.

SoT: Do you ever turn down projects or feel put off by them because they seem too obvious?

SW: Generally, I'm reluctant to get involved in anything else that's associated with progressive or art rock, whatever you want to call it. Simply because the expectation is very high and secondly because it's not all that interesting to work like that. If you're gonna collaborate with someone, you would pick someone who's coming from a different perspective than you are. Most of the projects that I've taken on to produce, whether it be a metal band like Opeth or a quirky, almost jazz-inspired songwriter like Anja Garbarek are very different than things that I would do myself. And usually if I get involved with something that's closer to what I do, it's because it's a good friend of mine, like in the case of when I mix for Marillion. That's because they're good mates of mine. It's almost too easy to make that kind of music, to mix that kind of music because it is stylistically kind of close to what I do anyway.

The real challenge comes when I am working for the first time in a musical genre that I've never worked in before, as in the case of Opeth. To suddenly be working with such an extreme metal band .... I learned as much from that experience as they did. In fact, arguably, I maybe took more out of it than they did. I produced their record, but I learned so much about making that kind of music that it was a two-way thing. I think that that's the way it needs to be. Similarly with Aviv, I am collaborating with Aviv because he is different, not because he is the same. That is where the interest lies.

SoT: Did you wonder, just before you left for Sweden to work with Opeth, what would happen if you got there only to find that the collaboration didn't work?

SW: Of course. But I always have those feelings. In some respects I'm always a little bit ... slightly uncomfortable when a band or musician or songwriter asks me to work with them because they're already a fan of my work. In that sense I immediately feel the pressure not to disappoint, you know? With Opeth it was definitely a case that they knew my work and were intimately familiar with it and they thought that I was going to do something very special with their music. And I think that we did do something very special but it could have just as easily been a damp, wet squib of an experience. Maybe I would have come along and not found any space in which to work my own sort of ideas in. That was my worry with Opeth: "This music is so dense already in terms of the sound and the texture of the sound. What can I do?" So, yeah, I was in very kind of two minds about whether to do it but then I met Mikael. He said, "We want to create space for you, we want you to try vocal ideas, harmony ideas, we want to strip down the music in places, try more textures." So, in that sense, he gave me a kind of lifeline, a way to get inside their music. And actually it worked a lot better than any of us expected.

SoT: You're involved in so many projects but is it fair to say that you're careful to make sure that Porcupine Tree remains the priority?

SW: Absolutely. I have to say that as the years have gone on it's been a slightly unfortunate thing that the more in-demand that I've become as a producer or mixer, the more popular Porcupine Tree are simultaneously becoming. So, in that sense, I'm having to turn down a lot more than I would like. Would it have worked out much better the other way around? Maybe Porcupine Tree was beginning to come to end of its natural life span and then the work began to come in, then it would have been great. [Laughs.]

No, don't get me wrong, it's still a nice problem to have. I get a lot of offers now to work with bands, particularly since I did the Opeth record, a lot of heavy bands and also other stuff and I do have to turn down a lot simply because I don't have the time to do it. The reason that I originally got into being a musician was to express myself creatively through my own work, so I have to give priority to my own artistic expression. Financially speaking, I'd be a lot better off if I mixed and produced everything that I got offered. I just can't. Life's too short to do things for the wrong reasons.

SoT: Perhaps this is a strange question but let's say that Blackfield became something of a phenomenon in North America in the coming year and eclipsed, say, Porcupine Tree. Would there be a temptation to make it the priority or is it such a special project that it couldn't be your main gig?

SW: I don't think it's a question of main gig. What you're asking me basically presupposes that success or relative success of a project kind of defines what becomes your main concern and that's not necessarily the case. Blackfield is very important to me, don't get me wrong, but Porcupine Tree will probably always be closest to my heart because it's the thing where I am ultimately the sole songwriter, the sole producer, the singer, etc. It wouldn't matter to me if Porcupine Tree was the worst selling thing out of 10 projects that I have it would ultimately be something that I would want to do and spend time on.

In fact, I have another project called Bass Communion that is completely textural ambient music. It's easily the least successful thing that I do. It has the smallest audience but actually in many respects it's the one closest to my heart, perhaps even more than Porcupine Tree because it is pure artistic expression without any consideration of having to answer to anyone else末record companies, other band members, anything. I spend a lot of time on that and probably lose a lot of money doing it, but you know, it's not important to me. The relative success of something doesn't dictate the amount of time or effort or passion that I commit to something.

But I understand your question in that Blackfield's slightly different in that if it does become successful there is an expectation to tour and promote that kind of music. All I can say is that it would be a nice problem to have. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
SoT: With such an active creative life how do you feed yourself? That is, when do you know when to take time off?

SW: People don't believe it but I actually am very good at taking leisure time. What I usually tend to do if I'm traveling as part of my work anyway末which is often the case末very often I will stay on a few days to hang out friends, particularly if I go to Israel, where I have a lot of friends now. So I do get a lot free time. And the other thing is that I give myself free time because I have to.

And I still am a very passionate listener of music so I spend a lot of time devouring other music. I still buy a lot of CDs and I find that that's very important, to keep my own artistry fresh. You can very often hear, if you listen to artists throughout the years, you follow their career trajectory, you can almost tell the point at which the artist stopped enjoying listening to new music themselves. Their music kind of arrests at a certain point and begins to become a very insular thing, almost a parody of itself. We could almost assume that AC/DC haven't listened to anything else since 1973. It hasn't taken on board any other influences whatsoever.

And yet you listen to an artist like Bjork, or David Bowie or Madonna in the mainstream, you can hear that these are always artists that are aware of what's going on around them, always listening to and adapting to the current trends and the new music. I'm not so interested in trends but I am interested in hearing new, fresh music that will keep me inspired. That is a very relaxing way of getting away from my own music, if you like, is to experience other music. As you say, feeding myself.

SoT: What was Bowie's direct impact on you?

SW: I'm not an enormous Bowie fan. I do like a lot of his stuff but what I've always admired about artists like David Bowie is that he was always looking to develop creatively and to change and to take his audience with him. It's very easy, when you establish a fan base and you've got a sales base and you can survive in the music industry by virtue of your fans末the fact that they buy your records末it's very easy to become complacent and start thinking in terms of, "What will please my fans?" rather than, "What will please me, artistically?" Bowie's always seemed someone very much opposed to the idea of trying to repeat himself to satisfy the expectations of his fans. In a sense he's many times gambled everything末his sales, his professional reputation末by moving in a very tangential way through his career, changing, very often, his whole style, his whole look. And that is quite a risk. It's quite dangerous to do that. I think that that's something I definitely can relate to. I'm always willing to gamble my fans support, if you like, by trying things that are perhaps a bit controversial possibly to them. But the most important thing to me is to feel fresh and like I'm enjoying it. It gets pretty boring for me to repeat myself.

SoT: So, who are the artists that you sit back today, listen to and think, "I really would like to get my hands on that project"?

SW: They're all dead!. [Laughs.]

SoT: [Laughs.]

SW: I think really all the people I'd like to have worked with throughout history are kind of all dead, people like Nick Drake. There's still a few. It's a funny question because in some senses the people that you admire the most are the people that you don't want to mess with. For example, I don't feel that I could really contribute anything to an artist like Bjork. I think that she's already got the perfect artistic vision. I wouldn't want to mess it up. Whereas, I hear a band like Tool that I quite like but I feel like they could be a bit more interesting and I could, in the same way that I worked with a band like Opeth, I could open up their production, make it a little more varied, give them more depth. So, while Tool isn't my favorite band, I think I would be more inclined to work with them than with one of my favorite artists. Tool is a band I think I could definitely do something for, if that doesn't sound too patronizing to them. [Laughs.]

SoT: Last question: What is one thing that you've learned from the Israeli people that you've taken away and applied to your personal life?

SW: They have a real joy of life that the English just don't have, generally. Of course, there's always exceptions. But generally speaking, Israeli people .... I think that it's partly to do with the fact that they do live in a very insecure country. The country's only 50 years old. It's been a very turbulent 50 years, there's a lot of insecurity, there's a lot of danger around, in the sense that there's suicide bombers and stuff. But for some reason that's given them a real joy in life. They're very passionate people. Whatever they do, they do very passionately. And they're not cynical in the way that the English or the Americans are. That almost naive intensity and passion for life really attracted me. Being very English末and I am very English in many ways末I'm almost the complete opposite. I'm inclined to cynical, quite pessimistic, quite shy, self-conscious, blah, blah, blah, blah. Israelis are not. They have a reputation for being quite open and in some cases quite blunt but that for me really appeals, that honesty and that passion definitely has rubbed off on me.

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