Social media, consumer culture and Elton John all feature in Steven Wilson's The Future Bites album ahead of his gig at Portsmouth Guildhall
Teeth whitener, deluxe edition box sets, volcanic ash soap, anti-ageing cream, multi-vitamin supplements,’ the voice intoning a list of luxury items in the middle of the track Personal Shopper, is familiar.
The nine minute version of the song is the centre-piece of Steven Wilson’s new high-concept album The Future Bites.
And the voice is none other than that high priest of consumerism, Elton John.
Steven was the frontman of cult prog-rock band The Porcupine Tree from 1987 to 2010, a band described more than once as ‘the most important band you’d never heard of.’
But he now also has six solo albums under his belt, and The Future Bites is an often satirical look at our 21st century obsessions – how social media dominates so many of our lives, and everything exists to be marketed and consumed.
It also sees Steven heading further into electronic music than ever before.
The album was originally due out in June last year, but was delayed until last month – when it made number four on the album charts.
Perversely, the album’s themes are more relevant now than ever.
‘When I wrote this record,’ says Steven, ‘it wasn't the best of times – we were in the middle of the Brexit furore, and the Trump administration, and all of these things that were making me feel a bit depressed for the future.
‘Lo and behold, little did I know just around the corner was the darkest time in our lifetime – the pandemic.
‘It's strange to be releasing an album at this time, even though it feels more topical than it would have been at any other time.
‘There's a lot of issues and challenges involved in releasing an album at this time – I can't tour, I can't do record store signings, which is something I would normally be doing. I can't really do TV, so thank god, ironically for social media, which is one of the things the album is predominantly about – the issues and problematic side of social media. But if it wasn't for social media, I don't know how I would be reaching the fans at all for this record. And therein lies the great irony, in retrospect,’ he gives a wry laugh.
As part of the album’s concept and campaign there have been the usual array of formats, plus deluxe editions, and a one-off £10,000 Ultra Deluxe Music Product on Obsolete Media – a boxset including all kinds of rare ephemera.
It sold instantly.
‘It was a nice gag, but the point was that it was also done for a good reason and all of the money went to the Music Venue Trust.
‘At the time it was really to parody something almost analogous with the world of art where a painter or a sculptor will create a single piece, then that single piece will sell for a premium price to a collector who can choose whether they want to display it in a gallery or just over their fireplace.
‘I thought to myself wouldn't it be interesting to do something like that in the world of music? Where it's almost about the elitism of owning this single piece, taking it to the most ridiculous conclusion – a single item.
‘But I made it as special as I could, and for a Steven Wilson collector – and there are a few apparently – it is the ultimate collectable.
‘It's got handwritten lyrics, it's got my Grammy nominee medal, it's got a seven inch single which has been pressed as a copy of one, and I promise that track will never be released anywhere else.
‘It is a really nice item – and the money is going to a great cause too.’
Steven’s last album To The Bone came out in 2017, and even without the delay, this has been the longest between albums for the usually prolific artist.
‘I think the main reason it's taken so long is because it is quite a departure from what I've done in the past.
‘It's quite a reinvention – and I wanted it to be. I felt like I needed to kind of reinvent myself, confront my own expectations, and confront the expectations of my listeners.
‘Part of that process has been moving more towards an electronic music vocabulary, and that's something very different for me. I've always been associated with guitars, essentially, and the classic rock tradition, and all that stuff.
‘I wanted it to be right, I didn't want to do it half-heartedly. If I'm going to do something like this, it has to be really convincing and believable.
‘I wrote about 30 songs and only nine have been selected for the final record, so there's definitely been a real sense of choosing the very best of the material I had available.’
The desire to experiment further into electronic music came from Steven's belief that he has done what he can in rock music.
‘Increasingly I felt like rock music was beginning to feel like it belonged to another era, and the guitar was almost beginning to feel like – at least for me with my very limited talents – there was nothing left for me to say with the guitar and with the rock music “palette”, if you like.
‘I've felt that for a while, and I've been seeing the way rock music has gradually disappeared from mainstream pop culture.
I've acknowledged this to myself, even an old git like I am, I'm still aware of what's going on in pop-culture. All of the sounds young people hear – and all of us hear – we live in the electronic world. All of the sounds which come from our phones, our laptops, even our doorbell ring – it's all electronic sound now – this is the sound of the 21st century.
‘And rock music, it occurred to me, is what defines the second half of the 20th century, in the way that jazz was kind of the mainstream pop music of the first half of the 20th century,
‘Rock'n'roll became the sound of pop-culture in the second half of the 20th century, but it had failed to reinvent itself in the 21st century.
‘As someone who came from that tradition and that background, it's exciting to think that music still changes and still evolves, and still reinvents itself.
‘It's important for someone like me, even though I've been doing this for a while now, to still be aware of that and try my best. It's what Bowie would have done. I always say to myself: “What would David Bowie have done?”’ he laughs.
He also admits that the change of tack comes, to some extent, from his own musical restlessness – and wanting to keep his fans on their toes.
‘I'm the kind of person who gets a bit bored anyway with the idea of repeating myself, and my fans have had to get used to being pushed around a bit over the years.
‘A lot of artists tend to find a formula that works for them and they tend to repeat it to varying degrees. And I've always been the sort of person going: “Right I've done that, now I want to do something completely different..”
‘The fans have got used to that, “expect the unexpected,” is my motto.’
The concept for The Future Bites extends to his website, where the store features various ‘sold out’ items such as a can of air, loo roll and a ‘dot generator’ (a hole-punch).
‘None of these things actually exist. The idea was to parody this idea of high-concept, high-design approach – companies like Supreme, who will take a 50 cent T-shirt, print their logo on it and sell it for $300. The point is people buy those things because they want them – and there's a status about ownership.
‘There's an elitism about ownership and part of what I wanted to explore on the record is that a lot of what we consume these days is no longer about utility, it's about ownership and status.
‘That's a very strange thing about the human species that we love to buy things we don't need. We love to consume things we don't really need, but we love to have them anyway.
‘Obviously I'm part of that world too and I love to buy things I don't really need. I love to buy deluxe edition boxsets and vinyl reissues – so it's kind of a love letter to consumerism, but also a commentary on the more insidious side of that.’
Which brings us neatly back to Elton John. How did Steven get him involved with Personal Shopper?
‘I always had the idea, to have someone reading out a list of first-world consumer items in the middle of the song – those things we don't need but still buy.
‘Originally I thought an actor or actress, but I didn't really have a strong idea about who.’
It was only when he went to see Elton John biopic Rocketman that he had a ‘Eureka! moment.
‘At the end of the movie, there's a kind of “Where are they now?” bit, and the Elton one comes up and says something like: “Elton John meanwhile has kicked all of his addictions except for one,” and there's a picture of him with his shopping.
‘It was a moment where a lightbulb went on over my head – of course! – how could I imagine it would be anyone else? He is THE most famous consumer on Earth. I thought this idea is too good to fail – he cannot say “no” to this, and I was really lucky that he didn't.
‘He did get the joke and thought it was cool – he was kind of sending himself up, but obviously in a very affectionate – I'm a massive fan of Elton John.
‘He loved it and he loved the concept and he was totally engaged with it and we worked together on the exact list, which is about as close as I will ever get to writing an actual song with Elton John.
‘What a top geezer.’
All being well, Steven will tour this autumn, and fans can expect the album’s themes to be brought into the show.
‘It's definitely going to be playing around with the concept in the context of a live show, there's so much material here that lends itself so well to playing with the possibilities of a live show.
‘I've always been very interested in multimedia and immersive and visual shows anyway, so I'm really looking forward to raising the bar again.‘It's very fertile ground, I think for ideas for the live presentation.’
And fans of his older material will be relieved to hear he’s not abandoning his back catalogue.
‘The older material from the more rock tradition will still be performed as it always has been, but there's also few things in my back catalogue I haven't played live for many, many years, and sometimes not at all, that are in some ways precursors to what I'm doing now.
‘I've always been interested in electronic music, and there's always been electronic elements on the albums, so there's a few pieces I've specifically homed in on I think will fit really well with the new sound.’
Steven Wilson is at Portsmouth Guildhall on September 15. Tickets £32.58 to £52.35. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.