Monday, January 25th, 2021
Steven Wilson on “The Future Bites”
Jan 25, 2021
By Stephen Humphries
As a tie-in to his new album, The Future Bites, Wilson has launched his very own online shopping mecca—but with a twist.
The Future Bites Corporation™ offers branded luxury items that will be the envy of all your friends. Like, for instance, a bespoke roll of toilet paper (product number TFB 0027). Or perhaps you fancy that designer “Dot Generator”? (Known to plebs as “a hole punch.”) How about a can of air available in an individually numbered limited edition of 100? Too bad, they’re already all sold out.
However, the online store is fully stocked with copies of Wilson’s critically acclaimed sixth solo album. The Future Bites is a record whose themes explore the intersections of consumerism and identity in the social-media age. Songs such as “King Ghost” ask how much our sense of self is tied to The Id that we present online. The album queries why we’re so keen to brand ourselves through our products. Yet, for all its serious introspection, The Future Bites also displays the wry humor of its promotional website. For instance, the song “Personal Shopper” features Elton John—whose extravagant shopping sprees are the stuff of legend—listing a series of conspicuous consumption items: “teeth whitening…deluxe edition box sets…volcanic ash soap….”
That song’s cinematic music video, set in a shopping mall with a Future Bites Store, straddles the Terry Gilliam-esque border between humor and horror. Another video for “Eminent Sleaze” imagines a dystopia in which The Future Bites Corporation has subsumed everything and ushers in apocalypse. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Late Capitalism.”
But Wilson missed a trick with the promotion of this album. He could have set up a LinkedIn page for himself as CEO of The Future Bites Corporation. A Steven Wilson LinkedIn profile would be a very impressive résumé indeed. In addition to noting the six solo albums bearing his name, it would list his array of side projects and bands: No-Man, Bass Communion, Blackfield, I.E.M, Storm Corrosion, and Porcupine Tree. During his 30-year career, the singer/songwriter/producer/mixer/multi-instrumentalist has encompassed musical styles such as art rock, post punk, shoegaze, psychedelic, folk, ambient, drone, Krautrock, extreme metal, trip-hop, and progressive rock.
Prior to now, however, he hasn’t had a reputation for making synth-based pop music. Elements of that style have certainly been glimpsed during his wide-ranging career. But he’s largely worked in a rock idiom.
This time, Wilson has gone all in. The Future Bites fully embraces synth-pop, funk, and disco. For good measure, he’s also employed a trio of female backing singers to belt out Steely Dan-like choruses. Throughout, the innovative production is wholly contemporary. (The album’s co-producer David Kosten, who releases his own music under the moniker Faultline, has also produced Bat for Lashes, Keane, and Everything Everything.) The British musician has so thoroughly internalized his influences that they aren’t overt or easy to spot. But one could recommend The Future Bites to fans of New Order, Thom Yorke, Depeche Mode, St. Vincent, Gary Numan, and Tame Impala. It’s highly accessible music, yet—contrary to its theme—there’s nothing corporate or cynically commercial about it.
As Wilson tells Under the Radar, he’s not one to be hemmed in by genre. As if to underscore that idea, he released a cover version of Taylor Swift’s “The Last Great American Dynasty” to YouTube a few weeks after the interview.
Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): Since the release of your last album, To the Bone, your life has completely changed. You got married and inherited two young step-daughters. On the one hand, it’s a surprise, because you’ve said in past interviews that you hadn’t been willing to sacrifice your career for family. But on the other hand, as anyone who has followed your career knows, you are always willing to try new things—you didn’t close yourself off to this experience. How has having a family influenced your creativity?
I can imagine there’s a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, he’s happy now. He’s got family. That’s why he’s gone all pop.’ I’ve never been the morose, manic depressive that perhaps some of my music might have led people to believe. [Laughs.] And I’ve always been pretty happy and full of joy in my life. And nothing has changed in that respect, except that I now have a family environment around me—which is amazing—which I didn’t expect or anticipate or plan for. Has it affected my musical creativity? I’ve got less time for creating, you know, having two little girls and a wife and a family and a new house.
It’s no coincidence, that is the longest gap between albums I have ever had in my career. So if you think To the Bone came out August 2017, Future is going to come out eventually in January 2021, which is unheard of for me. So there is a kind of indication of how it’s slowed down a little bit. But creatively, I don’t know if it’s really had any direct impact on the kind of music I’m making. This feels like the next logical step for me in my musical evolution.
What have you been up to during lockdown?
The main things I’ve done in lockdown, that I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise, are the [Album Years] podcast with Tim [Bowness] and working on my book, which is a really big project. It’s about my ideas about music. There’s a chapter in there about my feelings about my relationship with fans and social media. There’s a chapter on my ideas about how to listen to music—do away with this notion of genre for a start. I talk about my philosophy about making music and how I try to avoid having a set of parameters that you work within. So the book’s been really interesting and I’m really proud of the way it’s coming. That’s taken up a lot of time. I’ve carried on working on music.
I want to go back to something you just mentioned, which is your relationship with fans. You’ve often had the experience of fans meeting you and they’re shaking with nerves. Over the years, you’ve also had one or two highly obsessive fans. I say all this because, of late, you’ve started showing people on Instagram that you’re a regular guy, out walking the dog, hanging out with your family. And I’m wondering, does that help undercut whatever mystique fans attribute to you and that leads to that kind of crazy behavior?
If you look at my Instagram feed, you’ll see it’s a very small number of personal posts I’ve made. I posted on our wedding day. I post occasionally on my birthdays and things like that. But clearly, there’s a line I don’t cross. And I’ve allowed a little bit more insight into my relationship with my family and my wife, yes. Partly because they’re open to it.
The answer to your question is, does it help to undercut the kind of artifice side of it? Possibly a little bit. I’ve realized from experience that this is what a lot of people actually want. If I post something on Instagram or Facebook about a new album I’m about to release—something I’ve worked on for three years of my life, writing the demo, recording, mixing, mastering, promoting, sweating blood, sweat, and tears, you know, to make this album—I’ll get a certain amount of likes and comments. If I post a picture of me doing something silly with my dog, I get twice as many comments and interactions! [Laughs.]
This is partly what the album is about. It’s about the change in the climate of social media and how everyone there really only sees the world reflected back through this prism of social media. On the first sort of real song on the record, “Self,” there’s a line in the song that says, “Self sees a billion stars, but still can only self-regard.” And it’s the idea that we used to, as a species, look out at the cosmos. We used to look at the universe and be curious about the world we live in. And now we just look at this little screen on our phone to see how many likes our Instagram posts have got, how many comments our Facebook posts have got, how many views our YouTube post has got. So there’s a much more kind of insular sense of engaging with the world through the prism of social media.
There’s something a bit tragic about that for me. I think a lot of the interest in music now has understandably waned in the face of almost an overload of music, just the noise of constant noise, of new music being released into the world. And how do you get above that noise? Well, one of the ways to get above that noise is to, I guess, make more out of the cult of personality into showing more of your private life, your personal life. I’m okay with that. I’m proud of my family and proud of my wife, my kids.
When you approached Elton John to appear on “Personal Shopper,” how did you pitch the idea to him so that it didn’t seem like it was a joke about his conspicuous consumption?
He did understand that there was an element of sending himself up in a very affectionate way. The thing about Sir Elton is that he’s very happy to do that. I mean, I think it’s funny when he appears now in the middle of the song and starts reading off this list of First World consumer items. You know, this idea that the most famous consumer on Earth is reading this list. I think of it as a very fun song.
I love shopping. You only have to look at my record collection, my clothes, my book collection to understand I’m somebody that, like most people on this planet, really enjoys to buy and to consume. And so I think there’s also a sense of me sending myself up, too, partly when you get to things [in the list of items] like deluxe edition boxes and 180 gram vinyl. This is my world! So this is sort of me sending myself up, too, not just Elton. And he got that straight away. I mean, he absolutely loves it. He became very engaged very quickly. And there was a couple of things he wouldn’t say. Originally, I had “mobile phone skins” and he said, “I’ve never owned a fucking mobile phone.” We came up with a list that he was happy with.
There’s an interesting generational divide, though, between Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials and GenZ. Older generations have been into consuming and hoarding and conspicuous consumption. But a striking trait of millennials is that they generally don’t want to own and accumulate stuff. They would rather spend money on experiences. What have you noticed about that trend? What does it reveal about our changing culture? And what does that mean for the music industry, which until 20 or so years ago, was all about selling physical products?
Most young people’s lives exist in the cloud. So their music, their cinema, their photographs, their memorie,s and this representation of their memories exists in a cloud.
You know, I used to love—and I still do love—going to people’s houses, looking through the record collection, looking at what movies they have on the shelf, looking at the pictures they have hanging on the walls. You can look around someone’s house and you can tell so much about them from the things they have chosen to surround themselves with. And now potentially you’re faced with a scenario where you cannot tell anything about someone because there is nothing that they surround themselves with. I think that’s a bit sad.
I don’t know whether it’s just a generational thing. But, having said that, my eldest daughter collects books like they’re going out of fashion, which they may well be. She loves that kind of tactile relationship with the books she reads, whether it’s Harry Potter books or Secret Seven or Roald Dahl or David Walliams. So I don’t think it’s entirely a generational thing. I think it’s more to do with the technology presenting a kind of brave new world and young people getting sucked into that for a time.
And this is where what you said isn’t entirely true, because vinyl is very popular with young people. So I like to believe a lot of young people are going to come out of the other end of this tunnel and start buying shit and realize that, actually, it is a lot of fun to collect, to own, to treasure, to hold against your heart the things that are important to you—whether that’s a family photo, an album, a movie, or a book.
In typical style, you’ve created an elaborate concept for this record—you’ve launched The Future Bites Corporation. So, in your bid to overtake Jeff Bezos, tell me about the real and fake products you’ve concocted, how you’re extending this concept across multiple platforms, and what you hope fans will take away from the experience.
It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be inclusive. I want people to feel like they’re in on the joke, not feel like the joke is on them.
It is a riff on two things. Firstly, a riff on the whole Jeff Bezos, Amazon thing, where a company like that potentially could become so powerful. The idea of The Future Bites is that a company like that becomes so dominant that civilization begins to break down. The whole commercial world, the whole financial world begins to break down because one company owns all the market share.
But it’s also this idea of parodying the world of high-concept, designer products. This idea that a company like Supreme will buy cheap T-shirts—a T-shirt that would sell for a dollar—put their logo on it and sell it for $500. And people buy it!
But it’s this idea that it’s no longer about the utility of something, it’s about the ownership of something. I believe that’s why a lot of people buy these elaborate box sets. There’s an absurd one that just came out, I’m involved in, King Crimson in 1969 [The Complete 1969 Recordings]. It’s like 28 discs. So, it’s got every note that they ever recorded in 1969. I did an Atmos mix for it.
But this is my point. It’s not about the utility of it. It’s about the box ticking. It’s like, “OK, got that. Got that. Oh, yeah, that’s good, the rare 7-inch remix that only came out in Iceland for a week. Yeah, that’s on there, great. The rare bootleg board tape from the Plumpton Festival recorded in the toilets at the back of the [venue]. Yeah, got that. Okay, great. Tick, tick, tick. Oh my God. I can’t believe they’ve missed out the rare Guatemalan sex dance mix. Shit, it’s a disaster!”
I don’t think people enjoy listening to this shit, but I think they like the idea that they’ve got it. And this to me is a microcosm of the whole world of consumerism these days. It’s about owning the item.
And of course, that’s something that also resonates in the world of high-design concepts. You know, spending a lot of money on something that we know is not worth it.
I’ve been enjoying all the fake products you’ve been creating, like cans of paint. And now I’m wondering if you’ve got hundreds of those electric toothbrushes from the “Eminent Sleaze” music video now stashed away in your house. Are you going to sell some of these fake products on your merch stand during your tour?
One of the reasons we made a bunch is to use in the videos. We’re shooting the video for “12 Things I Forgot” next week. And we’ve got designer duvet covers and designer shower curtains—all sorts of shit. It is very easy to get those things ready manufactured. I think the concept of the album is going to be very useful when it comes to the live show. There’s a lot of possibilities even for how we present the merchandise stand, as you say. Maybe having some of the slightly more off-the-wall products will be fun.
You should sell egg whisks!
Yeah, those kinds of things! A hole punch, you know. Future Bites branded anything, you know. The more absurd the item, in a way, the more people covet it.
With pop music, are you aware of what’s in the current landscape, perhaps through your two young stepdaughters and what they are into—are you listening to the future disco of Dua Lipa for instance?
My daughters are part of the current new generation of listeners where things are moving to song-based music engagement and not artist-based music engagement. We may well be listening to Dua Lipa, but they won’t know.
Is she great? I’ve no idea. I might have heard a song. But the point is that they don’t know the name of the artist. They know the name of the song. They’ll say to me, “Dad, can you put this song on?” I’ll say, “Well, who’s it by?” They’ve got no idea.
There was one exception, which is when my oldest daughter—in fact, both of them to an extent—but my oldest daughter, specifically, has actually bought the Billie Eilish album. She’s only nine. It’s the first CD she’s ever bought. And she actually has a picture of Billie Eilish on her wall. Maybe there’s a little bit of a swing of the pendulum back in the other direction now of young people maybe wanting to engage a bit more with ownership and the cult of personality. But I guess it takes someone that has a strong personality. But it’s interesting, because Billie Eilish is someone who doesn’t seem like she’s part of the machine.
When I listen to Billie Eilish I get something out of it, too. I love her brother’s production. There’s something very painterly about it, very sparse and minimal, but incredibly rich and textured. And you listen to it and you almost hear elements of industrial music and sound-design elements. What’s exciting is when you get someone like Billie Eilish, who was 17 when she made When We All Fall Asleep, Where do We Go?, you’ve got to think that their musical knowledge is probably not that wide. So they’re approaching the music in a very fresh way.
Whereas when you listen to one of my records, it’s very easy to go through and say, “Oh, yeah, I can hear there’s the influence from that.” And sometimes I don’t like that about myself. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with David [Kosten]. David’s role was to stop me from pastiching or homaging the past and keep me on the path of making a contemporary-sounding record.
What were some of the musical touchstones for this record?
Bowie’s Berlin era was always flying around as a reference point, but nothing obvious. I had this very vague notion when I was doing “Man of the People” that I wanted to do something that was like Marvin Gaye does Pink Floyd. I flatter myself by including my name in the same sentence as Marvin Gaye! [Laughs.] I wanted to do this beautiful soul ballad with the drum machine that had a kind of Floydian texture to it. And I can hear that when I listen to it, but it doesn’t sound like Marvin Gaye or Floyd at all.
What’s the lyric in “Man of the People” about?
It’s about the person who stands behind the disgraced politician, the religious leader that’s been caught in a sex scandal. The wife, the girlfriend, the husband, the partner, whoever is the family, the children—the people that stand behind these figures that are disgraceful. The collateral damage. I pity these people sometimes.
In recent years it seems fair to say that your interest in electric guitar has waxed and waned—much like the attitude toward guitar in Western culture. Last year, Rolling Stone magazine published an article with the headline “Is the Guitar Solo Finished?” On this new album the guitar has a more textural approach. But there are guitar solos on “Eminent Sleaze” and “Follower.” Tell me about your non-traditional approach to those guitar breaks.
I am a bit bored of the guitar right now. But I think there’s a broader thing here, which is we live in the electronic world now. All the sound we hear on a daily basis around us is electronic. My kids, they don’t hear guitars unless they actually go and specifically listen to a guitar song. Everything around them from the sounds that their iPad makes, to the sound coming from the TV, to the doorbell chimes. What place does the guitar or the bass or the drums have in the world like that? Well, increasingly less and less. I like the idea that music continues to evolve and continues to upset old people like me because it’s gone in a direction that is not as familiar to us.
I think the golden era of rock and roll music, rock music, classic rock music that prevailed for about 50 years—from the 1950s through to the end of the 20th century—is going the same way that jazz music went. Because jazz music was the popular mainstream music of the first half of the 20th century. And classic rock and rock music was the popular mainstream music of the second half of the 20th century.
I believe the music of the first half of the 21st century ultimately is going to come down to the sound of urban music, electronic music, R&B music—or at least music that has a strong electronic element to it.
I’ve increasingly felt myself bored by guitar. I feel like I’ve kind of exhausted the possibilities, at least that I’m capable of exploring, on that instrument. And when a band like Greta Van Fleet is the best that the new wave of rock bands has to offer, you know it’s dead. And I say that with the caveat that I’m sure there is some really great guitar music out there. But my point is this: It’s not in the mainstream.
So, I think Rolling Stone is absolutely right, music moves on, it evolves. And that means that the musical vocabulary, the musical palette also dies and is reborn in different ways. And I think the reality is that the guitar is going to become a bit like a saxophone or the trumpet before it. It’s going to be something that is still passionately pursued by some people. But it will be a niche kind of thing. And there’s always casualties along the way. And I might be one of those casualties, you know, but I have to accept that.
Tell me about personnel on the album. What musical qualities did keyboardist Richard Barbieri, your old bandmate from Porcupine Tree, and drummer Michael Spearman of Everything Everything bring?
Leaving aside the drumming, most of the guests just pop up on one or two songs. Outside of Bass Communion and my more esoteric projects, it’s the most solo music that I’ve made since the early Porcupine Tree days—those records were completely solo.
That’s very much the modern way, isn’t it? A lot of records that are made that sound very contemporary, the writing process tends to be done by a committee of about 50 people. But then the actual performance and recording of it is all done by one bloke in his studio using a sampler and midi.
The musicians that we used were combinations of people that I knew and people that David knew. And if we had a notion to have somebody do something, we just call them up on the spur of the moment. Like Jason [Cooper] from The Cure popped down to do something on “King Ghost.” Nick Beggs popped down to do some Stick on “Eminent Sleaze.” Richard popped in to do some weird synth stuff on “Self.”
What sounds are you exploring with the new songs you’re writing?
I am working on some new songs right now. It’s too early to call it, really. It’s different again. I am really enjoying being in the electronic world. I just bought an Arp 2600 recently. Another classic vintage analog synth. I’m really enjoying experimenting with electronic sounds. I think for me, you know, the trick to pull off is being able to do something like “King Ghost”—which I’m so proud of—which is almost entirely electronic. You know, even the voice is processed in electronic ways, but so organic and so beautiful at the same time. It’s belying this idea that electronic music has to be cold and cannot be emotional. I can see myself going in that direction with the next record.
The Future Bites is the record I’ve long been wanting you to make because you had touched on some of those more electronic things with songs such as “No Part of Me,” “Perfect Life,” and “Song of I.” It’s the best thing you’ve done, going in that direction.
I feel that way, too. It’s strange to be 50 years into my life and 30 years into my career, and still to be saying I’m getting better. I’m making better records. I’m getting closer to my ideal record. It’s unusual. Most people make their best work in their 20s and they spend most of the rest of their life and their career trying to recapture that. I think most of the records I made in my 20s are terrible!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.