Rich Wilson sent me this transcript of an interview I did with him last month, mostly talking about Ex-Wise Heads.
Colin Edwin Interview Transcript
(21 June 2011)
The musical style of the Ex Wise Heads is very different from your work with Porcupine Tree and includes African sounds and influences. Is exploring that side of your musical interests away from Porcupine Tree important?
“Yeah, kind of. It sort of grew out of two things. One was travelling a lot in North Africa and I wasn’t really a fan of the music until I went there. So I heard it in situ if you like. There was also a kind of vogue for world music going back a few years and it became popular but I never really got into it. But when you’re in a place and you hear it in the context that it comes from, there’s something a lot more powerful. I discovered a lot of these African recording artists and they are much more interesting to see for real than they ever are on record because the records tend to be watered down a little bit or perhaps kind of Westernized a little bit. And that’s been going on for years. I was just reading a thing about Bob Marley actually and they were talking about how Catch A Fire, the first Bob Marley album, made a conscious decision to rock it up a bit for a western audience.”
Yeah, I guess there’s a conscious effort to water down the true sound for a Western audience. So how long did you spend in Africa?
“Well, I went to Morocco for basically a whole summer, a three-month period about ten or twelve years ago and I’ve been back a couple of times. The first time I was out there, I picked up this instrument called a guimbri which is a North African bass instrument. It has three strings and is basically like a box with a kind of broom handle thing and it has got a very unusual sound. I guess I was drawn to it because of playing the bass. I picked one up and I brought it home, and at the time I was living in Brighton on the South coast. I had no idea how to tune it or how it was going to work. I discovered that because of the climate being very different here than in Morocco, when I got back to damp old England, I couldn’t get the strings to any kind of tension to actually play on it. Just by a complete fluke, I discovered a shop called Adaptatrap in Brighton, which is still there, and they specialise in instruments from all over the world. I took it in there and it just so happened that at the time Geoff Leigh was sharing a house with the guy who ran the shop. He’d just come back from Belgium and one of the things that he’d been doing whilst living in Belgium was playing with these Moroccan musicians. So he actually rang me up and said ‘I head that you’ve got a giumbri, do you fancy having a play together?’ And it was great. I didn’t know anything about the music really and I’d just picked up some. I was lucky enough that when I picked it up, I had a recording Walkman with me so I recorded the guy that I bought it off playing the open strings so that I knew what to tune it to. So I went from having an instrument that I couldn’t play at all to having somebody who could come and show me what it was all about. He’s a bit of a connoisseur of the Gnawa music. So we started playing and jamming together and I was very taken with the fact that Geoff had lots of different flutes, various sounds and other things that he liked to do. So I used to enjoy going round to his place and we used to play a couple of times a week. To motivate ourselves, we decided to get a gig and we got a couple of gigs in Brighton, just local things, we got a percussionist and we started recording and it’s all grown from there really.”
Yet it’s not just the African elements as there’s also an ambient vibe to it which makes it unique.
“I guess that’s just another shared interest area that Geoff and I have. We start off with some common ground and some stuff that we both like and it’s just grown from that. But he’s always been into using delays, reverbs and textural stuff as well. The way we used to do stuff was very much about playing together and just making it all happen live and then gradually, with technology the way it is and the fact that I’ve been away a lot with Porcupine Tree, it was impossible to get together and play with any kind of frequency. So we ended up using technology as a way around that if you like.”
So how was your latest album Schemata written? Given your time constraints I’d imagine that it was a more structured approach rather than the music coming out of jam sessions.
“Yeah, what we used to do was exactly that. We’d get together in a room and jam. Then the band went from being a trio to becoming a duo, just me and Geoff as we found it difficult to have a percussionist that we could get on a regular basis and all the rest of it. I’m not really a soloist on the bass guitar so I don’t consider myself as having that kind of role. I’m a supportive bass player. So I see myself as creating things for Geoff to improvise over. So it would often be the case that I would have a rhythmic idea or a bass line idea. I would develop that to such a point that I would be comfortable enough for Geoff to come down and play with what I’d done, over the top. It was basically improvising or maybe coming up with some things that he had which would fit what I’d done and then it’s a case of spending time with the digital editing really and perhaps revisiting it when we’ve got a basic form and maybe doing some more improvisation over the top. Sometimes it might become the case where he would use a particular instrument, like one of his flutes or a Zither that he’s got which has a very distinctive sound. I might think that it would sound good with a particular bass or my double bass and I kind of put things together like that. So it’s a bit more of a patchwork way of working and it means that we have four or five different ideas on the go at the same time and flit between them. But it’s nice to do that as well. It’s the flexibility of working with computers which has kind of offered us that. In the beginning we were very traditional in that we would rehearse something and then record it and now we have a completely different approach going. But I think it has worked for the last few records, so we’re probably going to stick with that.”
Given that, how long has the album taken to write and record?
“Well the recording is sort of ongoing, so we would have a session together and maybe kick things off or I’d have some ideas that he’d come down and do. And then I’d just work on them in whatever spare time that I had. In the past we were having to work with the recording in mind, whereas this time we didn’t have to think about that, we just thought about whether we had any ideas that were worth working on [laughs]. So actually it took a lot longer. There were actually a couple of things that were done a few years ago that didn’t make the last record that I didn’t quite want to give up on. I met an Indian influenced guitarist called Rajan Spolia and I got him down for a couple of sessions and recorded him and really liked what he had done and couldn’t find a space for what he had done on the last record but I had kept everything and built a piece around what he’d done and kind of developed that idea a bit further. So I guess I had been working on it since the last album and a couple of pieces since before that. So that’s a good few years but of course in between I’ve been around the world with Porcupine Tree a couple of times.”
Although you did some gigs in the early days of the band, you’ve not really returned to playing the material live. Is that something that you’re hoping to return to?
“Actually that’s a very timely question because we’ve had a couple of offers to go and play live and the last couple of weeks we’ve actually been rehearsing together which is something that we haven’t done for a while. So fingers crossed there is a gig in Ukraine in August and Burning Shed are doing a ten year anniversary tour and they’ve asked us to do one or maybe two of those shows. I’m not sure how many we are going to do, but that’s not until October. So that’s actually given us the motivation to think about going out and doing it live again. There are a lot of possibilities with the music and we might have a sort of expandable line up if that’s possible. Though initially we’re going to try and do it as just the two of us and a laptop. I did have reservations about doing that and using programmed beats and all the rest of it but then I thought ‘Well really the band is me and Geoff’ so whoever else we get is only ever going to be a guest in those circumstances anyway as we’re the driving due if you like. It’s great to have other voices and all the rest of it but I like the idea that we can do something very self-contained and very straight forward. Geoff, being the way he is, I’m totally confident that when we take the stuff and do it live, it’s still going to be interesting because he does all sorts of crazy stuff live, so it’s not going to be like we are just going to be playing to a backing tape. There’s obviously going to be that part to it but I think that there is enough improvisation and enough that we can do to make it special and hopefully different enough from the record.”
I know when the Ex Wise Heads first formed, you had a number of gigs apart from Porcupine Tree, as well as teaching, presumably to make ends meet. Given the success of Porcupine Tree, has that enabled you to make music without any external pressures?
“To be honest I’ve never been any good at making commercial music. You have to do what interests you. If you have to do something else for money then that’s another subject. It’s sort of weird in that it’s a mistake as well to second guess what people would like. Obviously there are commercial song writers and people who are very good at that but even with Porcupine Tree, I guess you can look at it and from any angle it’s successful and there are a million reasons why it probably shouldn’t be because there are lots of long song forms, but somehow or other we’ve managed to get an audience. I think that is the key to it, developing or nurturing an audience that you can build on. Sometimes people find that audience and sometimes they don’t but I think what will guarantee you not to find an audience is pretending to be something that you’re not. So I’d say that I honestly have a genuine interest in a lot of the elements that we use in Ex-Wise Heads, so if it comes to collaborating with other people, that’s what’s going to draw me to it. The thing about self expression is that you’ll do it anyway, you know what I mean? You’re not thinking about commercial things when you’re doing it. I mean Ex Wise Heads is not commercial and I think that you’re right, there is an audience for it but I don’t think that we’ve quite reached it yet. But I’ve found a curious thing in that the longer, more drawn out and less commercial pieces seem to be the ones that draw people in a bit more. It was a bit of an experiment but a couple of years ago, we did a vinyl release and that has been reissued on CD a little while back with an extra track. The whole point was that we had an invitation from this label to do a vinyl, so Geoff had some really good ideas which we developed and the idea was to have one piece per side of the vinyl. We ended up throwing in all the kinds of things that we do. So there are some very long ambient sections, some very rhythmic sections, I played some double bass and Geoff did some crazy stuff. The funny thing is that that release had more interest than any of the other albums. So it’s weird in that the thing that I thought would just be a bit of a curiosity and perhaps wouldn’t interest anybody has been the one that people write to me about, the one people ask me about and the one that has been selling more consistently than any of the others. So maybe there is a message in there.”
The other thing that strikes me about the music on all the Ex Wise Heads releases is that it’s very evocative music and you could easily it appearing as a soundtrack to a movie . . .
“Yes, I’d love to think that there would be a film director out there that would pick up on our stuff. But yes I can see that and we’ve always had an interest in atmospherics. Maybe I should write to some of my favourite film directors [laughs] but that’s often the way things work. I like to think that there is a cinematic element to our music. I’ve always thought of our albums as a journey and I know that I’ve said this before in relation to other stuff but the music that interests me on an album basis tends to be the stuff that draws you in and that often has a kind of filmic element to it. You’ll watch a movie from beginning to end and I like to think of an album as being the same sort of thing. You won’t just watch your favourite scenes if you put a movie on.”
I guess it’s also great to get a prolonged break from Porcupine Tree to recharge given the length of the last album cycle in recording and promoting The Incident?
“We did a lot of work for The Incident. We spent the best part of two years touring. We’d actually talked about having time off before and it think 2008 was supposed to be a year off but we ended up going to lots of places where we hadn’t been before, like Russia, Australia and I think Mexico and a few other places. So what started off with the best of intentions as being a bit of time off ended up being just another year of touring. So it’s important to do other stuff, as on tour you’re so in each others pockets as you’re living together day to day and seeing everybody day to day and it’s good to give each other some space. Not to say that we didn’t enjoy the Royal Albert Hall but we were all really looking forward to the finish as I think that there’s only so much time to spend together that’s healthy, especially when you are playing the same repertoire as well. People think it’s a holiday but it’s quite hard work.”
So what is the timeframe before Porcupine Tree start thinking about working on the next album?
“We haven’t really set anything. We finished with the Albert Hall in October which was the definite finish and the sort of vague idea was to get together around a year later. We haven’t really discussed anything yet but we’re probably going to get together in September or October. Obviously we’ll have to write the album first so there’s quite a lot of work to do before we go out on the road again. But I would imagine that if we start work on the record at the end of the year, with a bit of luck we’ll have it out for spring I suppose but there is no firm plan yet. The music business is seasonal in the sense that you can’t put an album out at Christmas time because you’re competing with all the Greatest Hits compilations, so generally you have to have things out in the spring time or the autumn and that seems to be the way it works. So if we start work on it in the autumn then we’re not going to have it out until the springtime anyway.”
Have you any other plans for any other solo musical projects for the rest of the year?
“Yes, well I’ve been continuously writing solo stuff although I haven’t yet got a plan. You tend to need something that unifies all the different elements and I haven’t quite got that yet but I’ve been working on various ideas. I have actually been collaborating with an Italian musician called Eraldo Bernocchi and I guess we’re about half way through an album together, with a drummer and a keyboard player involved as well. The idea is to do a live band but we’re still doing the recording at the moment and it’s interesting stuff. There are elements of metal, elements of dub and it’s quite heavy in places. It’s instrumental but it is something that I feel would be quite good live and that’s the focus that we have with it and there are no vocals at the moment. It should be quite an interesting line up. It’s me on bass, Eraldo Bernocchi on guitar and electronics, we have a drummer from Hungary called Balázs Pándi who is in a band called Merzbow and does lots of very noisy stuff, and there’s a keyboard player from America called Jamie Saft who does all kinds of things, if you go to his website he’s done very quiet piano stuff, he’s done lots of stuff with John Zorn. So we’re in the process of getting that together and it’s something that I started off earlier this year. We’ve wanted to work together for a long time, myself and Eraldo. You never really know when you work with someone for the first time if it’s going to work but I’ve been over to Italy quite a few times to work on some stuff and it seems to be coming together quite quickly, so fingers crossed we’ll have an album out late this year or early next year.”