Steven Wilson – Producing Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’ for DVD-Audio

Patrick Cleasby interviews Porcupine Tree main-man Steven Wilson, who also runs an amazing number of parallel projects (no-man, IEM, Bass Communion, Blackfield – check out, about the process of turning his latest studio album ‘In Absentia‘ into a DTS Entertainment DVD-Audio title.

An in-depth HFR review of the ‘In Absentia’ DVD-Audio disc is available by clicking here.

PC: Hi, how’s it going?

SW: Very good, very busy!

PC: Sounds like it, I can’t believe you have so many projects on the go at once; your brain must be incredible!

SW: I don’t know about my brain being incredible, my stupidity is pretty much up there though – I think for me it’s just a question of so many things excite me musically and there are so many genres I want to work in – I find it very hard to focus on a particular project without feeling that I want to go and do something else for a while too, so I’m constantly bouncing back and forth between different genres, different musical styles, working with different musicians, and I have to say that’s kind of what keeps it fun and keeps it fresh…

PC: Do they all have equal priority for you?

SW: The priority is: whatever I’m working on at that given time has all my attention. Porcupine Tree in one sense is the priority because it’s by far the most high profile and most successful thing I have – also I have other people who are very much dependent on me writing and producing more Porcupine Tree records, not least of which is the rest of the band, but in another sense there are other things I do which are much more low profile that mean as much to me musically.

PC: I’d love to talk to you about all of it, but the main thing we need to cover is the DVD-Audio disc, so, how did the ‘In Absentia‘ project with DTS come about?

SW: Well mainly the enthusiasm from DTS’s end. I have to say I am not someone who has a surround system at home, obviously I was familiar with the principle, but I wasn’t familiar with what you can do with the format in terms of how it would relate to our music particularly – I probably would have got around to it eventually, but this time it was being driven from the American end – they particularly loved ‘In Absentia‘, they were looking for an album by a “new” (in inverted commas) band, rather than a lot of the product which is out there which tends to be back catalogue, so I think they wanted to align themselves with a band that were new but had an element to their music which lent itself very well to being mixed into surround sound. Because we’re not generic, in the sense that we’re not just a death metal band, or a nu-metal band, or a boy band, we’re a band that in some senses come from that seventies tradition of album oriented music – very layered, very produced, very arranged and complex arrangements – that lends itself very well to the surround format, so they were very keen, and when they got Elliot Scheiner on board, we certainly couldn’t turn down the opportunity to have him work on the record. So for me it’s been a real learning experience, and I’ve immersed myself in it too now, and I’m very excited about the possibilities of doing future records in surround, and conceiving surround records from the beginning rather than trying to reverse engineer it in, which is what we’ve done this time, albeit, I think, pretty successfully…

PC: I think that’s the way it is going to go – ultimately if surround does catch on people are going to start conceiving records with it in mind from the off.

SW: I have to say that there are lots of things that I thought would work that didn’t and vice versa. I had preconceived ideas about what would work in surround sound – for example it’s very easy if you’ve got a drumkit and it’s recorded with four different microphones in the room, to go “oh that’s great, let’s stick one in each corner of the room“, and I was very surprised that in practice that didn’t work, it didn’t sound right. It just sounds odd. Because we are all used to hearing music and experiencing music in stereo, there is definitely a learning curve to go through, which is what’s going to work? What’s effective? I found that what was most effective for being creative in surround work were keyboards and vocals, in particular with Porcupine Tree there are a lot of big harmony vocal sections, which lent themselves very well to surround. When I am writing new songs now I’m thinking in terms of the harmonies and how they can be spread out – actually how I’m recording the information is different now because of surround sound – I’m keeping things more separate that in the past I might have bounced down to a stereo pair, I’m now thinking – no, let’s keep it separate because we might be able to do something really interesting with that when we do the surround mix.

PC: So, you worked closely with Elliot Scheiner at the end of last year – did he give you a lot of wisdom in terms of his broad experience of working on these kinds of projects?

SW: Of course, I mean, I’m a terrible control freak and the whole idea of giving my album to someone else to mix was in some ways anathema to me, even someone of Elliot’s stature, so the management kind of calmed me down, and said “look, you can be there, you can sit with him“, so basically I spent a lot of time with Elliot at his studio in New Jersey, learning what does and doesn’t work, and of course he’s been through this many times so he kind of knows some of the things I was suggesting weren’t going to work, but on the other hand, and this is where you get a creative partnership, there were some things I was suggesting to him that perhaps he hadn’t tried himself, or hadn’t thought of trying himself, and some of those did work. I have to say Elliot’s great with that, he’s not the kind of person who’s going to say “I’ve been doing this for so many years, and you don’t know what you’re talking about”. We were having some problems with the drum kit – what to do with it in terms of surround. A lot of the albums he’s been doing were recorded in the 70s and 80s where you would perhaps only have four or five microphones on the drumkit – we had about twenty-five microphones on our drumkit! And we really together experimented with what was the best way to configure the drumkit in the surround spectrum – and I think that was a learning experience for him too – we had all kinds of different room mikes and we tried putting all the room mikes at the back, and all the dry sounds at the front, and that sounded horrible, and then we tried putting the whole drumkit at the front in stereo, but that didn’t seem right either, because it was a waste – so we experimented a lot with the drumkit and I’d like to think that maybe he learned something too… maybe I’m kidding myself.

PC: And you’ve got the full Steely Dan “Everything Must Go” team, what with Darcy Proper doing the mastering.

SW: Darcy is someone that Elliot always uses, that was something I wasn’t involved in – mastering for surround is still a very specialised area, and Elliot said “She’s the one, she’s the best” so there was no real discussion on that, I was happy to go with whoever he recommended.

PC: Going back to the beginning – retrofitting surround to a stereo original, presumably we’re talking about a 24-bit 48kHz Protools project?

SW: Yeah, exactly that.

PC: And presumably that’s why the surround has been left at 24/48, rather than having any upsampling going on?

SW: I guess that’s probably the reasoning, I don’t know why that decision was made particularly to be honest, it sounds good, that’s the main thing.

PC: The one slight downer that the typical DVD-Audio fan might have with it is the fact that the stereo on there is just 16-bit.

SW: That was a capacity thing – originally we were going to put it on there at 24-bit, and there wasn’t enough room, which was a shame, but I guess it was the lesser of several evils – if you’re going to compromise on a surround disc, you might as well compromise on the stereo, because that’s not really what they’re buying it for, they’re buying it for the 5.1.

PC: I’ve noticed over the recent Porcupine Tree albums, things are definitely ‘heavying up’ quite a bit?

SW: Yeah, they have done, writing for the last album I was definitely in a heavy phase, I’d just worked with a Swedish band called Opeth, who’d had quite an influence on my writing at the time, but to be honest that’s not necessarily significant, part of the whole trip for me is not standing still, you have to develop and you have to evolve from album to album, otherwise what’s the point? You might as well be AC/DC and make the same record over and over again. For me the heavy aspect kept the writing and the direction fresh, certainly for ‘In Absentia‘. I think it’s going to change again – the new record we’re working on now, the heavy aspect has been more integrated into the sound of the band now, and there will be new strands and new directions. But certainly I’ve always loved heavy music – the first music I fell in love with when I was eleven, twelve years old was The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. All of those bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, the whole Neat Records thing, that was the first scene I really fell in love with, so I’ve always had that heavy thing in the back of my mind, even when my style has gone very far away from that, as it did probably in the mid-nineties – it became much more spacious and trancy and ambient – it was always going to come back, and obviously meeting a band like Opeth really cemented that re-enthusiasm for heavy, riff-based music. I love great riffs, and when they’re nicely records and sound big and punchy, I find it so exciting.

PC: I must admit I am detecting more of a Rush influence than ever before – is this because of using (Rush engineer) Paul Northfield, is that why you got him in?

SW: Not particularly – to be honest I’ve not heard the records Paul has worked on with them; the last Rush record I think I heard was probably early 80s. I still love the 70s records – they’ve always been a big influence on me. I tell you what it is, probably it’s this – there are bands that are influencing me now, or were influencing me at the time I was writing ‘In Absentia‘, that are themselves influenced by Rush, so that possibly the influence has come through other bands. Two bands really influenced me to go in the heavy direction, both Swedish, Meshugga and Opeth, and Meshugga is the band where probably you’d hear the big Rush element – incredibly complex, but incredibly brutal music – very heavy but unbelievably technical. I really fell in love with their music a lot, and it was a big influence on things like ‘Futile‘ and ‘Strip The Soul‘. Also Tool were another band I was listening to a lot, and again a lot of their influences are also my influences like King Crimson, Rush, Pink Floyd. It always reenergises you when you hear someone else doing something fresh and contemporary with it – like for example at the moment there is the Mars Volta record and you listen to that and you can here a big Rush influence there – but because of the way they’re doing it it makes the whole concept much fresher again and this gives me and other musicians a new way to approach it again.

PC: It’s certainly a very modern sounding record – I think it’s the most modern sounding one you have done.

SW: I think so too, yeah.

PC: So what are you thinking of doing next – are you thinking of revisiting some of the earlier albums? I was looking at ‘Lightbulb Sun‘ today – that 24-bit mixed to 30ips ½” – that would make nice 24/96, or preferably 24/192 stereo transfer?

SW: Yeah, well ‘Lightbulb Sun‘ is an album that is currently out of print because it has been bought by Atlantic, as has ‘Stupid Dream‘ – so we’re talking now about re-launching those albums sometime towards the end of this year, or maybe next. A logical thing to do would be to remix them into 5.1. It would also be an opportunity for me to do something myself.

PC: So you don’t think you’d be using Elliot again?

SW: I would love to use Elliot again, if he would like to do it again, and if we can afford him again! It’s harder to get big budgets when you’re doing back catalogue stuff. So I think probably the opportunity will be there for me to have a crack myself.

PC: So are you going to have a surround set-up at nomansland (SW’s home studio)?

SW: No I think I would probably go into a room, but I’m going to try to get a surround set-up at home – at least I can teach myself the basics and practice a bit at home, but I think I’d still want to go into a proper room to mix.

PC: Have you one back and listened to any of the other surround titles that are on the market?

SW: There’s a very famous story about Orson Welles, when he made ‘Citizen Kane‘ which is that the reason that cinematographer Gregg Toland wanted to work with Orson Welles on his first movie so much was because he liked the fact that Orson Welles didn’t know anything about moviemaking, he didn’t know any of the bad habits, and he didn’t know any of the prescribed ways that you are supposed to make movies. I deliberately avoided hearing almost any surround mixes at all, and deliberately went into this almost blind because I wanted to have ideas that perhaps people who mix surround sound records wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.

PC: The naïf approach!

SW: Exactly – that’s the word – going in in a very naïve way, not knowing what you’re not supposed to do, because sometimes what you’re not supposed to do is exactly what you should do, because it takes you into areas where it doesn’t occur to the person who knows what they should do to go there.

PC: Here’s a specific example – it depends generally what the mix artist’s approach is to compromising because people have small satellite speakers in the rear in a home set-up, or are you just going to say “forget ’em, let bass management try and take care of it“, and mix as if there were full-range speakers all around?

SW: Oh, well we did the latter…

PC: I can tell, because on ‘Gravity Eyelids‘ there are a kick and synth part that just really knocks your back speakers out if you’re bass management’s not up to it…

SW: Really? Well I like that idea – When you’re making a record I really don’t think you should ever be thinking in terms of the end-user, that sound like a very arrogant way to make records, but that’s the way I’ve always made records and I’ve applied that principle to the writing and to the performance, and to the production, mixing and the mastering. You basically make a record to please yourself and to sound as good as you want it to sound, and then it’s up to other people – if you’re raising the bar on their particular set-up then so be it.

PC: I have to say I agree with you – I have spoken to mix artists who have said “we’ve been a bit tame, because we’ve been out and seen what you can get in Currys” (probably Best Buys for our U.S. Brethren), and I just think…

SW: Nah, baloney. At the end of the day it’s gonna be better for them. I think everyone wanted this record, as much as it could be, to be a benchmark record for surround systems, in much the same way that ‘Brothers In Arms‘ was a benchmark record for CD players in the mid 80s, or ‘Dark Side Of The Moon‘ was when people were just getting into stereo in the early 70s. I’m not saying we succeeded but that was the intention: this is our goal – to make this surround mix the benchmark one, the one that anyone who’s buying a new surround system will want to pick up just to show off their system.

PC: I think as long as you can get people to hear it it is going to come across as a stand-out, it’s very distinctive and very discrete – there’s a lot going on there.

SW: Well that’s it, the production is very layered, there’s a lot going on but it’s very musical stuff. For me, the one thing I wanted to avoid was to make it gimmicky. The few surround mixes I have heard fall into the trap of being gimmicky – it’s always, bang, wallop, things shooting around your head and it’s great to listen to once but you wouldn’t want to put it on for pleasure. I think what we’re trying to do here is strike a balance between something which is very impressive in a “show off your surround system” way, but is also very musical and very enjoyable to listen to over and over again, and I think if we’ve achieved that there’s a possibility that the album could become one of the benchmarks for surround sound.

PC: So you’re on a Warner imprint there – it’s your first one on that label, you say they’ve picked up the two previous albums, do you think you’re still going to be with DTS if you do some subsequent surround titles or are Warner going to do some with you?

SW: That’s not really something we got involved with – Warner seem to have been quite slow to pick up on the possibilities of marketing new music with surround – there’s been a lot of heritage stuff, but DTS were very aggressive in basically saying, “we want the Porcupine Tree record to be mixed into surround sound“, and so in the end they basically went to Warner and said “Look, we want to do it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll release it if you give us the license to do so“. I don’t know what the position is going to be maybe a year from now, maybe Warner will be tapping more into that market, realising the potential of that market. On the other hand if DTS do a really great job with this and it’s a big success, I think even Warner would be thinking “maybe it’s a good idea if we let them do the next one as well, or some of the back catalogue as well“. It’s not something the band unfortunately, (or fortunately!), have much of a say in. Right at he moment we’re very happy with the way DTS are handling it – a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of motivated people, and arguably more enthusiasm and more promotion for the surround mix than there was for the stereo mix through Lava!

PC: What kind of numbers are DTS predicting for the ‘States?

SW: I don’t know what surround discs sell – I have no conception of the sales base for them at the moment. I’m imaging that the market is still pretty small but growing exponentially. We put it on sale through our website over the last week or two and we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies already – compared to what we would sell for a stereo disc that’s not much, but I think it’s a growing market. I think some one told me that the best selling surround disc was that one which Elliot did for Queen, and I think we’re talking about tens of thousands – not a massive amount. It seems pretty small fry at the moment, but the difference is this: that everyone that is buying surround discs at the moment are real music fans, enthusiasts, audiophiles. A lot of people who have picked up the stereo mix of ‘In Absentia‘ are young kids who are maybe more casual about how they listen to their music – they’re buying the new Limp Bizkit album, the new Tool album, the new Porcupine Tree album, but the people who are buying the surround discs are the real music enthusiasts, and they are the people who I think ultimately will dictate the future of music and what format will prevail.

PC: Having the surround mix certainly makes you listen – there is a whispered “run” over the “when your make-up runs” line on ‘Blackest Eyes‘ which I had never heard before!

SW: That’s right – a lot of people have said they never noticed it before – it is there in the stereo mix, but of course with the spatial perspective you have now with surround… it’s what people said when stereo came out – you can hear things you never heard before in the mono, it’s what people said when CD came out, and I think it’s just one step on from that – if the passage from mono to stereo, from vinyl to CD is anything to go by DVD-Audio will ultimately become the next standard audio format.

PC: So do you think there is any chance if you do work back to the previous two that it will ever reach as far back as ‘Signify‘ and further back?

SW: To be honest the idea of remixing all that stuff is depressing to me. I don’t know – to be honest you get to a point where you think “this album was conceived as a stereo album, it sounds good as a stereo album, is the production quality really good enough to merit a surround mix?“. Going back as far as ‘Signify‘: ‘Signify‘ was an album recorded on 16 tracks of ADAT at 16-bit, I am really beginning to wonder to myself “Is it Worthwhile?“. It’s never going to sound as impressive or as good as ‘In Absentia‘. I guess in that sense I would rather look to the future rather than to the past.

PC: But you’re currently working on revising the drum parts for ‘Up The Down Stair‘?

SW: That’s on my list of things to do, but that’s not going to happen until after the next Porcupine Tree record is finished – I am going to try and get to that towards the end of the year. That’s going to be the last part in the Delerium Years reissue campaign, we’ve done ‘The Sky Moves Sideways‘, ‘Signify‘, ‘Coma Divine‘, we’re just about to do ‘Voyage 34‘ and ‘On The Sunday Of Life‘ and ‘Up The Down Stair‘ will be the last piece of the jigsaw, but that’s the one album where I do want to get my hands dirty again, and replace all those horrible drum machines, of course at the time that was all I had, I couldn’t afford to go to a studio with a drummer, I had to make do, but now I can rewrite history a bit, and for once I think I am actually going to do that, just to please myself really…

PC: Has working with Gavin (Harrison – new PT drummer who will recreate those parts) made a big difference to the sound and the song?

SW: Yes it has – you mentioned earlier about ‘In Absentia‘ sounding more modern and I have to say that not a small part of that is down to Gavin – he’s brought a much more contemporary, edgy style of playing to the band. Chris our old drummer is still a fantastic drummer, but his style, I’m sure he’d be the first to admit this, is very much rooted in the 70s style of playing, which is very exciting to play with, but sometimes on record perhaps came across as a little retro.

PC: I used to love seeing you guys live with Chris…

SW: Yeah, Chris was fantastic, a real powerhouse, the engine of the live performance, but in the studio I think Gavin definitely brings a much more edgy contemporary sound to the band – he’s a remarkably disciplined and gifted musician, and it’s certainly made us look at slightly more complex rhythmic ideas for this coming record as well.

PC: But you’re still working with Chris on the Aviv Geffen project?

SW: Yeah, Chris is the drummer in Blackfield, it’s been a lot of fun to work with him again.

PC: But from where we stand now it’s into the studio with Porcupine Tree?

SW: Yeah, we’ve got about seventeen or eighteen new songs to cut, probably the most material we’ve ever had ready to record, probably well over two albums worth of stuff – that’s not to say there’s going to be two albums or a double CD, we’re going to cream off the best for a single CD. So I am very excited about that. Then there’s a movie script that all of the songs are based on, which I wrote last year with my director friend Mike Benyon, so there’s a movie that we’re going to try and get made as well, although I am under no illusions abut how difficult it is to get a movie made in today’s climate.

PC: So it’s one of those soundtrack to a movie which doesn’t exist yet jobs?

SW: Actually the album is not going to attempt to tell the story of the movie, because one thing I am really not fond of his concept or narrative-style albums, but I do like albums which have a theme which runs through them. But the songs will all relate to elements and themes within the movie.

PC: It strikes me that there are a lot of childhood themes on these Porcupine Tree records – there’s a wonderful sort of wistful Englishness about it.

SW: Well I am wistful and English, what can I tell you? I had a very idyllic childhood, my parents were great and my childhood was pretty happy, I have very fond memories of English summer days, and I write a lot about that. I’m not the only person to do that, XTC is another example of a band who have that kind of quintessential Englishness about them, I always think it’s a mistake to try and write about things that you are not naturally inclined to write about. It seems like a very obvious thing to say but a lot of writers do try and write beyond their realm of experience, and I don’t. I very much try to write from the heart and from my own experience or at least from the experience of my friends and family. I grew up in England and so a lot of that Englishness and that English upbringing does tend to com through in my music. Not only that but a lot of the music that I grew up listening to was quintessentially English too.

PC: There’s a lot of downness and darkness in there too – where does that come from?

SW: Well everyone has that, every person is a combination of light and shade, of happiness and unhappiness, we’re all like that and it really is a question of how those different aspects manifest themselves in people. In my case I’m very happy as a person in my life but the darker side manifests itself through my music and through my lyrics. I have no explanation for that other than the one I’ve given before, which is that perhaps my music and my lyrics are a kind of catharsis and that is the reason why I am able to be quite content and balanced and happy as a person. People often remark on the fact that they expect me to be some kind of morose ‘miserablist’ and I’m not! I’m a very easy going, pretty happy guy and I think that is perhaps because so much of that negative energy which everyone has gets channeled through my work.

PC: Is the new album going to be recorded in New York again?

SW: No we’re going to be recording in London this time – I’m not quite sure, we’re still booking studios so we may end up going abroad yet. The drum tracking will be in London, the strings session will probably be at Air Lyndhurst again, because that’s such a great room – we may use Dave Gregory again, we’ve got some special guests on this album, I’m not really allowed to tell you…

PC: Another thing you may not be able to tell me, who’s this legendary band you’re doing some mixing for at the moment? I thought it was probably Marillion…

SW: Yeah, most people guessed – I didn’t want to announce it because they hadn’t formally announced it themselves. It’s done now – in fact they mastered the album yesterday – I’m looking forward to hearing that…

PC: What’s it like working with people who were influential at an early stage in your musical development?

SW: They were great fun to work with. I have to say that by the time I was working with them I had moved on a lot in my music, but yes, I was intimately familiar with certain aspects of their career, their music and their lives, which made it strange for hem, as well as for me, to be working with them. But the hero-worship thing was long gone and I felt no nervousness or pressure about working with these guys – they’d come to me because they liked my work. I was flattered to be asked by people who, as you say, had been important to me in my formative years as a potential musician, and I’d seen them on stage many times. It was odd, I’ve had it a few times, as you probably know I worked with Fripp on ‘Flowermouth‘ – that was stranger as he’s such an eccentric – he was really sweet and very lovely to work with as well, but more difficult to get a handle on at the end of the day. The Marillion guys are just very nice, very gifted guys, very easy to get along with. Within minutes I’d forgotten that there was this baggage from the fact that I had been following them since I was a kid. Fish was a bit more of a difficult fish to handle if you’ll pardon the pun, but I think we made a good record.

PC: It’s (‘Sunsets On Empire‘) a great record, it’s one of the ones which you see on “would like to see done in surround” wish-lists.

SW: Really? That was recorded to a very high audio standard, that would be something that Fish should probably look at. I wonder if he’s thought about that?

PC: I was in a car with him once and I tried to persuade him it was a good idea, but he had other things on his mind at the time…

SW: Well, a lot’s changed – to be honest if you had talked to me about surround a year ago I would probably have been a bit disinterested but a lot’s changed, even over the last year.

PC: So when’s the next no-man project?

SW: Next year ‘ s going to be my year for doing other things – Opeth have asked me to produce their next record, which is going to be 2005, so maybe a no-man record in 2005 would be something I should put on my list as well, yeah. I still love making no-man records but this year is very much about Porcupine Tree because there’s a new album to make and then all the touring and promotion attendant to that, so I am thinking that this year is pretty much wall-to-wall Tree.

PC: And do you think there is ever any prospect of seeing ‘Flowermouth‘ in surround? That would be a beautiful thing.

SW: Actually the no-man stuff would be nice to do in surround – I’d like to do the last album in surround, but again ‘Flowermouth‘ was recorded on 16bit ADAT – it’s a nice record but… Put it this way if I got set up at home and got comfortable with doing surround mixes at home you’re probably going to end up seeing a lot of back catalogue stuff remixed for surround.

PC: Do you ever take a holiday Steve?

SW: Yeah, but they’re always working holidays… People always say to me “You work too much” and the thing is I don’t actually feel that I’m working at all because I enjoy what I do so much and it’s what I would be doing anyway with my spare time, and is indeed exactly what I used to do with my spare time when I did have a day job, it very rarely feels like work to me. I travel all over the world, the last few weeks I’ve been to Sweden to mix a record, I’ve been to Tel Aviv to promote Blackfield, I’ve been in New York with Elliot to finish this disc. I have a great time, so don’t worry about me. My life is a holiday…