A limited edition (of one) boxset for £10,000. A can of Antarctic air for £500. A toilet roll for £200. A hole punch for £50. An album of electronic rock (or should that be rocktronica?) with 2021 written all over it. Enter the mighty strange world of studio perfectionist and cult phenomenon Steven Wilson 

Black Friday, 2020. This pre-Christmas import from the USA is usually an opportunity to chortle at videos of crazed shoppers stampeding into stores as soon as the doors are opened and bundling into piles of useless crap they didn’t want until they saw it. Fistfights over TVs. Savage tugs-of-war with trainers. Weeping toddlers bewildered by the horror. It’s like ‘Life On Earth’ with unfit leisurewear-clad humans instead of wildebeest, a mall standing in for the Serengeti. 

Laugh if you want, but if the circumstances were right, any one of us might be in the thick of it. Love it or hate it, we’re all consumers. And that, in a nutshell, is the theme of ‘The Future Bites’, Steven Wilson’s new album of shiny electronic pop and art rock. 

The marketing campaign for ‘The Future Bites’, Wilson’s sixth long-player (depending on how you count them), has been bubbling away since last November. It began with a website, thefuturebites.com, offering generic white label products identified by black lettering only. There’s a hole punch (branded as a “dot generator”) “manufactured by master Chinese craftsmen” with a £50 price tag. There’s a can of “specially captured Antarctic air, the purest in the world” at £500. And possibly the most telling, there’s a roll of toilet paper “made from the finest Italian trees for superb comfort and strength” at £200.

The day before Black Friday, Steven Wilson dropped a teaser video for ‘Personal Shopper’ from ‘The Future Bites’ – one minute of grainy black and white footage of high street mayhem, cut to the slow and mournful electronic drone that haunts the track. On Black Friday itself, came the full video. A nightmare vision of an unstoppable Gollum-like figure charging through a mall, giving up cash and various body parts to gargoyle-grotesque retailers in return for the goods he covets. By the song’s end, he’s rendered an eyeless, earless, mouthless, handless horror zombie. It’s hilarious, in a ghastly kind of way.

On the same day, the website updated with a new item, together with a timer counting down the hours, minutes and seconds to when it would become available. ‘Ultra Deluxe Music Product On Obsolete Media’ was a boxset featuring test pressings, handwritten lyrics, Polaroids from the album cover shoot, props from the videos, a one-sided seven-inch single, and much more. The works! It was a limited edition of one, it was priced at £10,000, and it sold out almost as soon as the countdown reached zero. But in case your rage-o-meter is peaking at this, I should point out that Wilson is donating all the proceeds to the Music Venue Trust, which is working to help grassroots venues in the UK survive the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The track ‘Personal Shopper’ is the key to ‘The Future Bites’. It’s a nine-minute epic of throbbing synths and knife-edge intensity, Steven Wilson’s voice switching from a keening falsetto to lush harmonising, with a breakdown where Elton John reads out a list of shopping items: “Sunglasses, teeth whitener, deluxe edition boxsets, volcanic ash soap, noise-cancelling headphones, designer trainers, detox drinks, organic LED television, fake eyelashes, branded water, self-obsession… self-doubt… self-esteem…” It’s the actual Elton John too, not an impersonator. 

What, I ask Wilson, is going on here? 

“It’s a love letter to consumerism,” he replies.

A love letter? Not a withering satire? The album does have a line of scabrous humour running through it. Could it be seen as a hectoring, finger-wagging delivery mechanism for the blunt message, “Consumerism is bad, OK”? 

“God, I hope not,” he laughs. “My biggest fear is that I’ll be thought of as an old man screaming at the clouds. It’s really not like that.” 

The seeds of ‘Personal Shopper’ were planted during a random encounter in a hotel bar a couple of years ago.

“We were talking about our work,” explains Wilson. “When I asked this guy what he did, he said, ‘I analyse why shoppers put things into their online baskets, but don’t proceed to checkout’. The fact that was a job in 2019, or whenever it was, made perfect sense to me, because that sort of behaviour costs companies millions of pounds every year.

“It got me thinking about how the most powerful individuals in our lives right now are not politicians. The true leaders are the people who write the algorithms that persuade us to purchase something, or to follow a path through the virtual domain, or to think a certain thing. ‘Those who bought that also bought this…’ The whole idea behind that is fascinating to me, especially as someone who loves to consume. It’s funny, when ‘Personal Shopper’ came out, I think some people saw it as a very barbed comment on commercialism, when it wasn’t anything of the kind.”

But it’s hardly a straightforward celebration of shopping either. It reverberates like a dystopian sci-fi warning. The desire to shop and the need to own stuff is a threat to your health. Look at the main character in the video.

“If you listen to the list that Elton John recites in the middle, things like ‘180gm vinyl reissue deluxe edition boxset’, this is my stock in trade,” says Wilson. “It’s my world! I love these things! I love to shop just like everyone else. It makes me happy. But there’s also the insidious side of consumerism – self-belief, self-doubt, and all the negative reasons behind why we do it.”

Your man in the bar, he’s essentially writing code to manipulate us, isn’t he? 

“Yes. You do feel as if you’re being manipulated the whole time, and that broadens out into the wider issue of social media and how the internet has pretty much altered the evolution of the human race within a very short period of time. We’ve been pushed off course by it. This is all part of it, the good and bad.”

It was my assumption that Elton John’s cameo on ‘Personal Shopper’ was taken from ‘Tantrums And Tiaras’, the 1997 documentary made by David Furnish, a chunk of which showed Elton’s shopping compulsion in action. But it turns out he read the list specifically for the track. 

“I had the song and the monologue right from the first demo,” says Wilson. “My wife read it originally. The idea is that you get to this breakdown in the middle and you have a list of what you might call First World items like branded water, fitness club memberships and diamond cufflinks. I was thinking of those old Frankie Goes To Hollywood 12-inch mixes, where you get odd bits of narration – Geoffrey Palmer at the beginning of ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ or Pamela Stephenson’s ‘Guide Into The 12-inch’ on ‘Rage Hard’. I love stuff like that. I remember buying that kind of thing religiously as a teenager. 

“I had the idea that I wanted someone who has a plummy, almost actorly voice to read out this list in a fairly deadpan way, but I couldn’t really think who could do it. Then my wife and I went to see ‘Rocketman’ and we thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the movie, there’s a sequence which basically says, ‘Elton has subsequently kicked all of his addictions… except for one’, and then there’s a picture of him holding lots of shopping bags. A light bulb immediately went off over my head. This guy is arguably the most famous living shopper. I thought, ‘That’s it, he’s the one’.”

Wilson sent the demo to someone he knew who happened to work for Elton and asked if he could run it by the pop megastar. It was the longest of long shots, but it hit the target.

“The next day I got a phone call from my friend who said, ‘Elt’s ringing you in 10 minutes’. At which point, I shat myself. One of my musical heroes is going to phone me! Sure enough, a call came up on my phone from Antibes in the south of France and I thought, ‘That’s got to be him’. And it was.

“He started off by saying, ‘I fucking love this track’ – real potty mouth he’s got – ‘and I want to do it for you, but there are a few things on your list I won’t say’. I originally had cocaine, mobile phones… He said, ‘I won’t say anything about mobile phones, I’ve never owned one and I fucking hate them’. So between us, we came up with a list of things he felt happy to say out loud. At the same time, I wanted the inner Elton, the guy you hear in an echo in the background saying, ‘self-doubt… self-image…’, all the reasons why we consume. Elton fell prey to these as well. A lot of his purchasing came out of insecurity. So there’s two layers there, the Elton in the foreground reciting the list, and then his inner voice talking about the neuroses. But he was delightful and very conscientious about doing a good job for me.”

Elton John is also famously a huge music buyer. There are countless stories about him picking up multiple copies of albums to dish out to friends in the hope of turning them onto new music.

“I said I’d send him a copy of the deluxe edition,” chuckles Wilson. “But he said, ‘No, don’t, I’ve already ordered it online’. Wow!”

The Future Bites’ is not a concept album as such, but Wilson’s commitment to the simple design aesthetic, with the text blandly describing the product, strengthens the piece. It’s a prime example of clever marketing enhancing the merchandise, creating desire and a sense of involvement beyond how you feel about the music itself. This record puts its money where its mouth is. 

There are precursors, though, most notably Public Image Ltd’s 1986 ‘Album’, with each version of the release named after its format (‘Cassette’, ‘Compact Disc’, and so on). That was almost certainly a nod to Alex Cox’s 1984 film ‘Repo Man’, which featured generic packaging from Ralphs, the Southern California supermarket chain. But Wilson’s inspiration comes from a more contemporary source.

“I started working on the project with a fantastic designer called Simon Moore,” he says. “He was very interested in showing how, despite knowing you’re being manipulated into buying something you don’t need, you still buy it anyway. We looked at the way that the Supreme brand markets things. They take a plain white T-shirt or a cheap pair of trainers, stick a logo on, and then charge 100 times the value of the original item. And shoppers are being complicit in that, loving it, buying it, and feeling as if they’re part of an exclusive club.” 

Supreme started as a skate shop in Manhattan in the early 1990s and now has a market valuation of $1 billion. Their growth came about partly through scarcity marketing and the power of the limited edition. They produced a small number of branded house bricks in 2016, which they priced at $30. These sold out in minutes and the bricks were soon fetching up to £300 a pop on the insane Supreme resale market. A secondhand Louis Vuitton/Supreme collaboration bag is currently on sale at the fashion website Farfetch for £22,419. Or you could go for the preowned Louis Vuitton/Supreme hoodie, a snip at £11,058. Steven Wilson’s £10,000 boxset looks like a bargain by comparison.

“Consuming is no longer about the product, it’s about the ownership,” continues Wilson. “It’s about showing everyone something you own. In the realm of music, the deluxe edition boxset taps into that. People are buying albums they’ve bought four or five times before in their life – the original vinyl, the first CD, the remastered CD, the deluxe CD with the bonus disc, the heavyweight vinyl – and now they’re buying the boxset with the demos, the live album and the 5.1 mix. 

“It’s almost something to be proud of. It says, ‘This means a lot to me, this is what defines me’. It says, ‘This deluxe edition boxset, which I’ll never listen to more than once by the way, is going to sit on my shelf and it will tell you what you need to know about who I am’. Similarly, a Supreme-branded pair of trainers tells you a lot about the personality of the person who buys them. And that house brick, part of me thinks it’s absurd and part of me thinks it’s so fucking cool. I just love that whole idea. All of that came together and led to the creation of this fictional entity, The Future Bites corporation.”

The Daily Telegraph once called Steven Wilson “the most successful British artist you’ve never heard of”. So for the uninitiated, this might be a good moment to take a rapid jog through his bio to date.

Wilson grew up with parents who listened to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ and Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ back-to-back with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Love To Love You Baby’, as well as the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack. His young brain was simultaneously filled with the expansive sound worlds of early 1970s progressive music and the joyful machine grooves of nascent dancefloor electronica. It explains a lot.

“In my late teens, I got into krautrock,” he remembers. “Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze and Cluster. After that, the big thing for me was the IDM scene. I loved the Warp school – Aphex Twin, Autechre and, a bit later, Squarepusher and Boards Of Canada – and people like The Future Sound Of London and Orbital and The Orb were very important to me. So were Massive Attack and Portishead. I was already a professional musician by the 1990s and early No-Man was massively influenced by that stuff, but we also loved pop artists like the Pet Shop Boys. Momus too. We were big fans of him. He was almost like Jacques Brel, but electronic.” 

No-Man was one of two bands Wilson had in the early 90s. The other was Porcupine Tree, which was initially a side project, intended as a pastiche of and homage to the psychedelia of the late 60s. No-Man, a duo of Wilson and vocalist Tim Bowness, perfected a moody downtempo electronica, secured a deal with One Little Indian Records in 1991, and gained critical traction and a cult following with their excellent dreampop meets art rock albums ‘Loveblows & Lovecries – A Confession’, ‘Flowermouth’ and ‘Wild Opera’. But then Porcupine Tree blew up, attracting former Japan keyboard guru Richard Barbieri as a permanent member of the band and becoming a big live draw globally. Porcupine Tree was, as Wilson puts it, “a 25-year diversion”. 

While juggling both No-Man and Porcupine Tree, Wilson embarked on two further projects in the 1990s, the krautrock influenced IEM (Incredible Expanding Mindfuck) and the ambient drone vehicle Bass Communion. These two names alone account for 17 of the long-players in Wilson’s extensive back catalogue, which also includes work as Blackfield, a collaboration with Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, and as Storm Corrosion, a partnership with Mikael Åkerfeldt from the Swedish metal band Opeth. And that’s not to mention the electronic and experimental offerings that slipped out under the radar, such as ‘Unreleased Electronic Music Vol 1’ in 2004 and ‘Tape Experiments 1985/1986’ in 2010.

Porcupine Tree reached its conclusion in 2009 with ‘The Incident’, a Top 30 album on both sides of the Atlantic. By that point, Wilson had already released his debut solo album, 2008’s ‘Insurgentes’, which sounds similar in places to My Bloody Valentine jamming on King Crimson’s peerless ‘Red’ album. It’s perhaps no surprise that Robert Fripp subsequently asked him to remix and remaster ’Red’ and four other King Crimson albums for a series of reissues to mark the 40th anniversary of the band.

Wilson’s King Crimson reworkings are a triumph, as are his 5.1 mixes of Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘The Seeds Of Love’, both of which appeared last summer as part of their respective boxsets. His attention to detail, control freakery, and sympathy for what the artists were striving for in the first place accounts for several more albums in his wider discography. Tangerine Dream, Roxy Music, Yes and XTC are some of the other artists who have taken advantage of his remixing and remastering services. It’s painstaking work, but he only takes on records he already knows and loves.

There’s a reason why this prolific and successful artist isn’t more widely known. The music Wilson has been identified with for much of his career is the love that dare not speak its name – prog rock.

“Progressive rock has never been rehabilitated in the eyes of the media,” he says. “Which is odd, because almost every other genre that was deeply unfashionable at one time seems to have gone through a re-evaluation and has been embraced again by the press.”

Porcupine Tree’s proggy stylings during the Britpop-biased 90s placed him at odds with the prevailing mood. And while remixing King Crimson was one thing, Wilson’s later work on Marillion and Gentle Giant didn’t win him many plaudits in the pop media. Wilson recognises that the prog label hasn’t done him many favours.

“I don’t see myself as someone who makes generic music,” he says. “I have never described my work as progressive rock. It’s others who have done that. I can understand why – my most successful records are clearly from that tradition – but I’ve always protested my right to make any sort of music I want rather than having to fit into a particular genre. When you exist outside of that concept, it’s difficult for press and PR people to know exactly how to market you, though. Sometimes you fall between the cracks. 

“There are two mentions of me in Record Collector this month, for example. The first reference is the obvious one, ‘Prog rocker Steven Wilson…’, but the second describes me as ‘80s specialist Steven Wilson…’. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, where does that come from?’. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve remixed Ultravox and Tears For Fears recently. But whatever the reason, there’s some confusion about exactly who I am, even within the same magazine.

“But I do quite like that. Having been in the industry for more than 25 years, I’m proud that I’m still a square peg. I’ve been associated with everything from progressive rock to pure pop to death metal to the ambient drone scene, but that’s fine. I recognise that I’ve repeatedly shot myself in the foot by doing the thing that was least expected and I suppose ‘The Future Bites’ continues that pattern in my career.”

A quick gander at the comments under the YouTube video for ‘Eminent Sleaze’, one of the highlights of ‘The Future Bites’, certainly bears this out. Prog rock, it ain’t. Electric piano stabs and a booming slap bassline are joined by orchestral strings and dirty beats. It’s like a soundtrack cue from a 1970s blaxploitation film, with added slashing guitar shards and chanting female backing vocals. While there’s a chunk of YouTube contributors who appreciate the slow-burn funk of the track, there’s a fairly vociferous chorus of others who very much don’t.

“I consider it a badge of honour when people get upset by something new,” grins Wilson. “I think it’s partly because I really admired David Bowie and Kate Bush when I was growing up. I still admire them now. They exist outside of genres. How do you describe them to someone who hasn’t heard them before? They’ve created their own category, which is simply David Bowie music and Kate Bush music. That’s a hard thing to do and it’s probably even harder now than at any other time in history because, as an artist, you are instantly aware of the response to your music.

“I try to avoid looking at comments on YouTube and elsewhere, but I know about them because they get brought up, as you’ve done. Someone will say, ‘You’ve really upset some people’, and I’ll think, ‘Don’t tell me that’. The public form their opinion of your new album based on one song released on the internet six months earlier and, if they start dismissing it, it’s hard to insulate yourself against that noise. But I am very wilful. If I find I’m giving my fans something they instantly love, I feel I’ve become complacent, that maybe I’ve done the wrong thing, maybe I haven’t progressed or reinvented myself. In that sense, I see some criticism as quite a positive thing.”

If the naysayers stick with ‘The Future Bites’ for a while and get to hear ‘Man Of The People’, they will probably be happier. It’s what Pink Floyd’s ‘Welcome To The Machine’ might have sounded like if Rick Wright had been given free rein with the synths and Nick Mason had programmed a drum machine. This melancholy imprint of Floyd’s imperial phase gives ‘The Future Bites’ a sense of English tension. It’s a feeling cemented by the beautiful closing track, ‘Count Of Unease’, which brings the tremulous one-minute opener ‘Unself’ to a conclusion.

There are other echoes of the past elsewhere on the album. The bubbling synths of ‘Personal Shopper’ bring to mind the propulsive electronic sequencing of Giorgio Moroder, while the relentless new wave drive of ’Follower’, one of the best tracks, has a little refrain that’s reminiscent of Sparks’ ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’. 

“Well spotted,” chuckles Wilson. “Yeah, ’Follower’ is halfway between ‘The Twilight Zone’ theme and ‘This Town…’. My producer and I would come clean on that. Listen, I have these conversations quite often. Sometimes people hear things that I don’t hear, but there are little clues to my musical DNA all the way through. It’s impossible for there not to be. I would love it just to be listened to as a Steven Wilson record, but it’s difficult to do anything these days without referring back to the vocabulary of the last 60 years of rock and pop.

“With ‘Personal Shopper’, yes, that certainly has the Giorgio Moroder influence. I mean, it’s 10 minutes long for one thing. Moroder was great at doing those really long, gradually unfolding, slowly evolving pieces. It’s the same with those early Frankie and Propaganda releases on ZTT. I loved the conceptual conceit and the pretentiousness, courtesy of Paul Morley, and the mixing of contemporary electronic techniques and sampling and modern pop. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with ‘The Future Bites’.”

There’s nothing wrong with quoting and mutating. After all, that’s what The Beatles did and it’s what almost everyone has done since.

“No, there is nothing wrong with it, if it’s done with love and respect,” says Wilson.

A bit like shopping. 

‘The Future Bites’ is released by Caroline International

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