Steven Wilson discusses the release of In Absentia on DVD Audio.
interview by Joe del Tufo

StudioM: How did you work with Elliott Scheiner and how did you find the process?

SW: Basically I sat over his shoulder and bugged the hell out of him. It is difficult for me to let go of anything- certainly the mixing side. I've only done that a few times in my career, and I've never been happy with it. I did it with an Opeth record that I produced and I was certainly not happy when I heard the final release. And the Fish record was another example. It's always disappointing because there are things you work very hard on in the mix that get buried or lost. So I didn't want that to happen here. Initially we weren't even interested in the possibilities of surround sound. As time has gone on I've gotten very into it and it became very important to me. I felt that In Absentia could become a benchmark among audiophiles. I thought it could become what Brothers In Arms was to CD in the 80s, or Dark Side was to people with high-end stereos in the 70s. This is the beginning of a new technology- a new style of listening and sound. So I really wanted to be involved to make sure I was happy with it. So I did literally sit behind Elliott while he was mixing and said "do this, don't do that, don't like that, don't like this, do that" and sometimes he would turn around and say "I can't do that, it's not going to work" and I would ask if I could hear it anyway, and he was almost always right. There were a few times when I would ask to try something and he would say "Well I've never tried that before," and it would work. I tried to adopt the Orson Welles approach when he was doing Citizen Kane - he'd never made a movie before- that kind of naivete made him reach for things that more seasoned directors would never consider. In my way I tried to apply that logic to the surround mix. I'd never heard a surround album- just bits and pieces. I didn't know what you could or couldn't do- or what you should or shouldn't do. So I tried to bring some intuition to it.

StudioM: So you've never heard any of Elliott's previous work?

SW: Only by reputation. I know he's done many, many records. But I wasn't even aware of what a surround album was supposed to sound like. And I made some mistakes. Some of the things I thought were going to be great sounded crap and vice versa. It was a learning curve. And because Elliott is such a nice, humble guy, he allowed me to explore and discover for myself the hidden work. Because obviously in the future I'm looking to do surround mixing myself.

StudioM: When I heard that Elliott was mixing I was pleasantly surprised. The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and Queen's A Night At The Opera were done by him, and they are two of the best. But I also felt that Yoshimi was radically different than stereo mix. But now it's almost not worth going back to the stereo mix.

SW: That's interesting. We tried to be faithful to the stereo mix. Elliott did play me a couple tracks from the surround mix, but I had never heard the stereo version to have something to compare it to- it was very crazy- things going on all over the place. It was certainly one of the better things I've heard. It was great, but wouldn't have been appropriate for In Absentia. And I was very conscious that the surround mix not be gimmicky- and I'm sure Elliott's mixes never fall into that category- but with some of these releases, once the novelty has worn off it becomes hard to listen to. So I wanted to strike a balance between something that was a "show off your surround system," while still maintaining the musicality and listenability of the record. I hope we got the right balance.

StudioM: Clearly here the technology was not dictating the art, but the other way around.

SW: Exactly. I think it was more a case of having a great record already, and how can we take it into this new technology without losing the quality of the original release.

StudioM: Now that you've heard this technology, do you expect to give this treatment to all future releases?

SW: Yes, definitely. And instead of having it as a retrofit, we'll have it in mind while we're tracking the songs. When we're recording there are decisions we make that have a bearing on what we do at the mixing stage, In this case there were big harmony vocals where I'd tracked 16 or 20 vocals and bounced it down to a stereo pair to save on tracks, not realizing that I'd be working outside the stereo spectrum. So I certainly won't be doing that anymore.

StudioM: Will you now go back and release DVD-Audio versions of older material?

SW: It depends on how far back. Lightbulb Sun and Stupid Dream, which are both pending reissue, I think we would consider doing a surround mix as part of that reissue. The further back you go, the more primitive the recording technology gets, and the more difficult it becomes. Signify, for example, was recorded on 16 track, 16 bit ADATS It's not the best recording in the first place. Lightbulb Sun definitely, Stupid Dream probably. Everything else, unlikely.

StudioM: Were any tracks recorded for In Absentia that were not released.

SW: There is a track called Meantime that was much too happy for the album. I love the track, and we're trying to get it placed on a soundtrack because I think it would fit very well in a film, but it was much too happy for In Absentia. And there was another track called Cut Ribbon, that I'm hoping to use on a future metal project.

StudioM: If there is one thing that the DVD-Audio format showcases, it's how much this is a well-rounded and incredibly talented band. I did not appreciate the complexity of this release to any degree like I do after hearing this.

SW: There are certainly things the mix brought out that were the original intention. Richard Barbieri's keyboard are usually a very tricky thing. There are subtle, beautiful sounds that often get buried in a stereo mix. It was really nice to have a place for them. And Gavin (drummer Gavin Harrision) is a madman, and you can fully appreciate some of the complexity of his performance here.

StudioM: What tracks do you find most improved by this treatment?

SM: I really like how Gravity Eyelids turned out. Of course Heartattack In a Layby, being able to have the vocals layer properly. I really love the way Creator sounds, the little details in the drums- just the overall mix on that one. All of the orchestral parts work so much better with this mix. There's nothing more frustrating than being in a studio and hearing this massive orchestra filling it, and then dropping it down to stereo where it much less impressive. With the surround mix, the full beauty is restored.

StudioM: Lips Of Ashes really stood out for me.

SM: The dulcimer at the beginning sounds almost like a space harp. I knew that one would translate well.

StudioM: Were any tracks re-recorded or were any effects introduced?

SW: Absolutely not. Everything is there on the stereo mix, often just at much different volumes.

StudioM: Can you briefly tell us where each of the bonus tracks (Drown With Me, Chloroform and Futile) fit in with In Absentia?

SW: Drown With Me was on the album right up until the last minute. But I knew the possibility of it, and what I had in mind, and it still was not quite right. With perspective now I can listen to it and enjoy it. I appreciate that it's a good song. In the end we replaced it with Wedding Nails, which is a track that we never thought would go on the album. But by the end of the recording it was sounding so good, it ended up fitting better. Chloroform was also recorded for In Absentia but just did not quite fit the tone of the album. It sounded like something we would have done an album or two ago. Lyrically, perhaps it fits In Absentia, but musically it didn't work here. Futile was actually recorded a few months after In Absentia. At first it was conceived as a track we could send to metal radio to have a song out there, but in the end it was just a big mess because no one could get it outside of downloading it.

StudioM: Can you tell us a little about the direction of the next album, and when you expect to have it complete?

SW: Some of the harder edge you will find more integrated into the Porcupine Tree sound. So it won't be as shocking as it was on In Absentia. There will be a little more of the Sigur Ros element in there. Actually Chloroform, had it been written a little later, would have fit in well on this record. We've got a lot of tracks this time, 17 or so, enough for a double album, But it won't be a double album. We've got three tracks that are over 10 minutes, which is something we've not done in some time. Russia On Ice is really the only recent track that clocks over 10 minutes. We're going into the studio to begin work on March 15.

StudioM: Tell us a little about your work on the new Marillion and Paatos records.

SW: Marillion asked me to come in and help because they had a time issue. Dave Meegan was a bit behind on the projects so they asked Mike Hunter and myself to lend a hand. I worked on two tracks- Genie and Angelina. It's great stuff. Paatos, if you're familiar with them, have an amazing record. Even more than the first one.

StudioM: When will Blackfield have its worldwide release?

SW: Blackfield will get a proper release in April or may, and will have a couple extra tracks.

StudioM: Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

SW: Not overwhelmed. Sometimes I feel the pressure of time. Like now, two weeks from recording the new Tree record, and I still have two songs to write. But I wouldn't say overwhelmed. There are so many other jobs where there is so much stress- no, I love what I do. It's my hobby and job at the same time, and I couldn't be happier.

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