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Bass Communion. Perfecting Imperfection Steven Wilson's solo act Bass Communion are releasing their first album for 12 years. He explains why, and how imperfection and flaws are at the heart of his creating unique new music.

Bass Communion. Perfecting Imperfection

Steven Wilson's solo act Bass Communion are releasing their first album for 12 years. He explains why, and how imperfection and flaws are at the heart of his creating unique new music.

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: April, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

Steven Wilson on wow and flutter, "people are looking for something with more personality, more grain, more flaws."

Many Outsideleft readers will know Steven Wilson from his rock-oriented acts like Porcupine Tree, but less well known (and possibly of more interest) is his long running experimental solo act, Bass Communion, which has been going since 1994 (yes, 30 years!) and in that time has released a slew of ground breaking and challenging albums. Working with sound as a medium rather than as a vehicle for a tune, Bass Communion have been quiet for the 12 years since their last studio album, ‘Cenotaph’, although the soundtrack album ‘And No Birds Do Sing’ appeared in 2021 and there have been collaborations and remixes too. Steven Wilson has broken his silence now though, and is releasing a new album, ’The Itself Of Itself’, accompanied by a rare live outing at London’s Café OTO alongside other recent Outsideleft interviewee’s Edward Ka-Spel and Mark Perry’s ATV. We caught up with him to dig deeper into the history and thinking behind Bass Communion and also find out why it has taken 12 years for a new album to appear.

a recommendation: listen while reading

OUTSIDELEFT: Thank you for talking to Outsideleft today. Let’s kick off with a bit of history. Bass Communion actually started up in 1994. That’s 30 years ago, so you’ve been making music in this vein for a long time.
I think I was always making music in this vein. When I first started, I was just messing about with tape recorders and things. You know, my dad was an electronic engineer, he used to make me things. He made me a sequencer, he made me a little four track, he made me an echo machine. He made all these things for me, just so I could mess about with pure sound. I think that's where I started really just messing about with creating textures, drone sound design, and I only started to write songs later on. My answer to your question is a little bit intangible, really, because I think I've always been making this kind of music. The first album I actually released under the name ‘Bass Communion’ was around the mid to late ‘90s and it kind of coalesced into something which had its own identity.

OL: You also had a band before that, ‘Altamont’, way back in 1983. You can kind of see the seeds of Bass Communion were planted early on in that, with the way you were using analogue synths.
That was recorded when I was 13 or 14 years old, messing about with friends on analogue synths and those homemade echo machines I mentioned. So that curiosity about sound was always there. In fact, it's been there longer than anything that I can think of, and in some ways is at the root of my interest in music.  My real passion is for being a producer, not being a songwriter, not being a performer, not being a guitar player, or a singer, or any of those things. What I'm really excited about still are the possibilities of sound, and painting with sound. Bass Communion is the purest distillation of that side of my musical personality, and also the oldest aspect, I suppose, of my musical personality.

OL: One of the things that's interesting is that with more conventional rock acts like Porcupine Tree, they have much more of a structure to them, which feels like a straitjacket in a way (possibly you may disagree with that) as you have to do things in a certain way to please the audience. Whereas Bass Communion and other acts that are similar are much more open in that their music isn't really that defined. It's painting sound pictures using textures, building up layers, rather than ‘writing a song’.
I'm not sure about that, because I think every musical genre has its own set of parameters and its own safe security zone as it were. A lot of artists that make ambient music, electronic music, and abstract music, have the same pressures from their fans to repeat themselves and to give us more of the same that everyone does.  Broadly, you might be right in the sense that for rock music, because it's essentially a much more mainstream form of music, there is more of that pressure because the stakes are higher, the sales are higher. That's my main ‘day job’, as it were.  I have to make that pay. You know, I have to make a career, I have to make it an income which is sustainable. If you ignore that side of things, I don't think rock music, or pop music, or song orientated music is any more likely to become victim to those kinds of expectations than avant-garde music or experimental music.  There are lots of experimental and ambient musicians and drone musicians that to me have just been making the same record for 30 or 40 years now. I think in a sense that's because they are just as much victims of their own success.  One of the reasons that I took 12 years to make this new Bass Communion album is because I looked around at the experimental music scene, and I thought there is just so much of it, and so much of it is very generic. If I was going to come back with a new record, I wanted to do something that would be distinctive. For a long time, I kind of disappeared, because I didn't feel I had anything to contribute to this proliferation of ambient, experimental, and drone music. My point is this that I think your statement, I can't necessarily completely agree with it, because I think ambient drone artists are just as much a victim of expectations from their fans and from themselves as any form of music.

Steve WIlsonOL: I think that's a fair point. I think it's interesting too, what you're saying about the reason for the 12 year gap between Bass Communion albums, although you’ve put out a few soundtrack and collaborations in the meantime.  There is, particularly with Bandcamp and streaming, almost a pride some people take in being prolific, in putting out album after album. Some artists are doing it almost on a weekly basis and they pride themselves on being that prolific. Do you think that is a false value to have, and it's better to do things at a slower pace, rather than just produce a lot of stuff quickly
SW: I'm not saying one approach is better than the other. There are there are many artists that are very prolific that I do like.  However, if you are very committed to the idea of constantly evolving, confronting expectations of your audience, trying different things, then I think it's difficult to do that and keep up such an incredible volume of work. I've always been kind of prolific myself.  If you look across all my projects, I'm releasing a lot of records, but I suppose that's the point. I'll make a solo record, then I'll make a Bass Communion record, then I'll make a Porcupine Tree record, and all of those things have their own identity. Some artists, of course, make a point of releasing a lot of music, which is essentially more of the same.  There's a quote I really like, and I forget who said it, that’s a little bit of a twist on the Andy Warhol quote about being famous for 15 minutes. Somebody said “these days in the music industry, if you make music which is not necessarily mainstream music, we're entering the realms of ‘famous for 15 people’”. You have a lot of people on Bandcamp, as you say, that are releasing music almost on a daily basis, and selling this music, to a very, very, small, hardcore audience that may sometimes just be that; 15 or 20 people. In some ways, if you are very prolific, and you're releasing that much music and the same 20 or 30 people are buying it, it kind of works, it works as a model. Personally speaking, I like every album and every project I do to have a place in the continuum of your life, a kind of unique position in the continuum. So, you can say “oh, that's the record where he did that, that's the record where he tried that”. It's a different kind of approach, but it does mean that every time I make a record, I'm confronting the expectations of the audience. Sometimes that is a tough way to be in the music industry, where a lot of a lot of fans (if I can use that word) want more of the same a lot of the time. That's just human nature.  We like something, we want more of the same. If I can be very pompous for a moment, a true artist doesn't give into that.  They confront that expectation, and they take the listener on this journey that the listener didn't necessarily expect or want to go on. Ultimately, I find that more appealing.

OL: I guess that the big question is; what is the most important thing? Is it that lots of people listen to it? Or is it that it's something that you're happy with creating? If you look through history, some of those who we now regard as great artists sold hardly anything at the time.  Van Gogh is obviously the prime example here, selling only one painting out of 900 in his lifetime. There are others as well, where they're not recognised very much in their own lifetime, but their true value shows through over time. At the time they were basically non-commercial artists, and it could be the same with music.
SW: I think there's a tightrope to walk. You're absolutely right, there are lots of examples of in the music industry. You think of artists like Velvet Underground, and Can, who didn't sell a lot of records at the time. Nick Drake famously only sold 5000 records in his lifetime. There are also examples of artists that were incredibly experimental and confrontational, in the sense of not conforming to the expectations of their audience, who've been massively successful. You think of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Radiohead, and there's something about these artists, where they are not pandering to the mainstream, and yet they still seem to sell a lot of records and reach a big audience. I like to think that in my own career I've managed to walk that tightrope to an extent. Certainly not to the magnitude of those kinds of artists, selling millions of records, but, particularly on my solo records, they're song-based records, they're rock albums, yet are quite experimental in their own way and definitely demand a lot of the listener. My belief is that you should never underestimate the listener. I think there are a lot of people out there that do want to immerse themselves in something more intense, really engage with music on a deeper level as a musical journey. Bass Communion, in a way, is another aspect of that.  Even for people that know Bass Communion, this is going to be quite a surprise, this record. I like that, and I guess I'm in a position where I can afford to be quite bullish with Bass Communion. It's not my day job, it's something that is a labour of love. This comes back to your earlier question about whether experimental music is able to be purer, because it's not pandering. In my case, I suppose that is true, because Bass Communion is not something I've had to ever monetise or look on as a career. I'm releasing this record because I feel I have something new to contribute to the world of experimental drone/ambient music, and it took me 12 years to feel that way. If I’m only famous for 15 people, so be it!

OL: You must feel quite schizophrenic at times, with the world of ambient and drone music being pretty small, and the rock world that Porcupine Tree occupy being a lot bigger.  You are constantly flitting between these two worlds.  Doesn’t that get a wee bit confusing?
SW: I think it's more confusing for other people than it is for me! When I was 11 years old, it was a shock to me to discover that there were all these different musical tribes. We're going back to 1978 when I started at secondary school, and there were these little groups of kids that just listened to Metal. Then there was another group of kids that just listened to electronic music like Gary Numan.  There was another group of kids that just listened to all the Ska stuff, and then there was another group of kids that just listened to Reggae. I loved it all. I couldn't really understand the mentality of immersing yourself just in one small area of what this magical world of music had to offer. Even when I was a 12 or 13 years old, I was going to the local library in Hemel Hempstead and taking out Stockhausen records, and at the same time taking out on Elton John records and Carpenters records and Tangerine Dream records, Miles Davis, and all this stuff.  To me, it was all magical and a part of me didn't acknowledge that they were different. It was unusual for anyone to be listening across genres like that. So, for me to be making experimental/electronic/ambient/drone/noise music, whatever you want to call it, and then going and playing progressive rock at the Royal Albert Hall with my solo band, or going on a Porcupine Tree tour and playing metal, to me, it's all magical and I love it all. It’s stranger, I think, for the people that like any one of those projects, because when they go and listen to the other projects, they're like “Oh, I don't like this! What's he doing this for?”. There are a few people that have gone with me on that journey though, and one of the best things of all about it is the feeling that you might have actually opened someone's mind up to something else, that they'll hear something that maybe they've never heard before. Maybe they're not sure what they think about it the first time they hear it, as I wasn't the first time I listened to Stockhausen, when I thought ‘What the fuck is this?’, but then I found that my mind opened up to that. That’s the most beautiful thing of all about being a fan of an artist; finding that they've opened up your musical horizons to things that you perhaps would never have thought of listening to otherwise.

OL: With the advent of widespread sampling of old soul, funk, pop, metal and other records, it’s broken down many of those barriers that existed in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, where people only liked one sort of music.  Its less of a full-on lifestyle choice now too and you have younger fans coming up who don't see anything wrong with listening to a whole mix of music, including older stuff.  They have a much more open attitude, whereas back in the ‘80s, you would never listen to the music your parents listened to, you just wouldn't ever want to do that.
You're right. We’ve had a whole generation of hip hop artists, from Kanye West onwards, that think nothing of sampling progressive rock tracks from the ‘70s and combining them with a hip hop beat. I think the downside of that, the other side of that coin, is that people generally engage with music on a less deep level now than they used to. Part of that is because of the proliferation of music, and the fact that most music is instantly available and free. I talked about my having to go to the library to discover Stockhausen records. To find a copy of Trout Mask Replica I had to do either one of two things. I had to go and find it somehow in the library, or get them to order it and then wait for it to turn up three months later, or I had to buy it. If I bought it, I had an investment in that record. I heard a lot about that record when I was very young and it sounded incredible. I couldn't find it anywhere. It wasn't in my local Our Price Records. I remember ordering an expensive American import and waiting months for it to arrive. Because I'd invested literally and intellectually in it, I kept listening to it over and over again, until I understood it, and until I began to decode what was magical and what was special about it, and I ended up loving it. How often do kids do that now?

OL: It strikes me that Bass Communion records are a bit like that.  They need an investment in time and attention to get into fully.
I think that's true of all the records I've ever made. I've always loved the idea of being able to create a musical journey, something that people would be able to engage with and after 20,30,50, 100 plays are still hearing things they'd never heard before. That’s how I initially engaged with music and how I really grew to love a lot of music over the years. I think that is still largely true. There is something that's very special about certain artists that can take their fans on a journey into an area of music that they didn't expect to go on. I know it's happened with some of my rock fans, that they have found themselves listening to music that they probably wouldn't have listened to otherwise, just because it was me and because they like my solo records, or they like Porcupine Tree or they like BlackField so they are going to end up buying this Bass Communion record and they're gonna’ hear something pretty fucked up, pretty twisted, even by my standards. Some people will hate it and never go back to it, but there are other people that will find their way into the music.

“I've used a lot of audio artefacts from cassettes. You know; wow, flutter, dropouts, tape hiss, saturation - all of the things that we spend years trying to get out of music. Now, the funniest thing is that digital recording technology has brought a lot of these things back in again, because people are looking for something with more personality, more grain, more flaws.

OL: When I was listening to ‘The Itself of Itself’ I had all the windows open and the sounds of my neighbour working on his house started blending in with the tracks and that made me think about the musicality of non-musical sounds. I was interested in whether you've been influenced, maybe even in your childhood, by sounds that were non-musical? You know, motorways near you, or something like that?
I grew up near to a train station, so I think that answers your question. I've always had that thing where a certain sound recreates a whole chain of memories, sensations, smells, and feelings. To this day, if I hear a train in the distance, it takes me right back. Interestingly, a lot of sound design orientated music is dismissed as music that has no melody, no rhythm, and no harmony - as not being music at all. Yet these are the same people who will sit down to watch a horror movie, where there's a lot of use of sound design, and textures, and drones, and their emotions and feelings are being constantly shifted and manipulated by that soundtrack. The idea that music without harmony, melody, or rhythm, has no ability to have any emotional effect on somebody is ridiculous. I think we're always responding to pure sound. That could be the sound of a workman next door, or could be the sound of cars on a motorway, or in my case, the sound of trains in the distance. Birdsong, sea lapping, all of these things have can have an incredible effect on us. I think a lot of it taps into nostalgia and memory, regret, loss, things to do with our childhood. A lot of music that inhabits this world of ambient music, drone music, experiments, and sound design (for want of a better expression), in particular on the new record, is to do with memory. I've used a lot of audio artefacts from cassettes. You know; wow, flutter, dropouts, tape hiss, saturation - all of the things that we spend years trying to get out of music. Now, the funniest thing is that digital recording technology has brought a lot of these things back in again, because people are looking for something with more personality, more grain, more flaws, because flaws sometimes are the things that give the music its personality. That’s fascinating to me.

Steve WilsonOL:  I can hear a lot of echoes of early UK Industrial music in Bass Communion.  Acts like SPK, Nurse With Wound, Nocturnal Emissions. WeBeEcho, Whitehouse.  Records like ‘The Insect Musicians’ by Graeme Revell (SPK) where it is composed entirely out of sampled insect noises.  Are you familiar with that scene?
I definitely like some of that music. I'm a fan of anything that has personality and that has commitment to its cause. Lord knows, if nothing else, Whitehouse were definitely very committed to their cause, or their sound. The Industrial aesthetic goes way back to people in the ‘50s experimenting. The idea of drawing on field recordings is something that goes back to the tradition of the experimental classical musician. I think what I liked about the Industrial acts, what I still like about Industrial acts, is the idea that sound can sometimes be more visceral. It is very Lo-Fi . A strand that you could draw between the kinds of artists you're talking about and the new Bass Communion record is that a lot of those old industrial acts were recording on cassettes.  Famously, the first Throbbing Gristle record ‘The Second Annual Report’ was all recorded on faulty cassettes and that gives it a power that wouldn't have been present if it had been recorded beautifully in a professional recording studio. I do like that aesthetic. I think that's the thing I take most from Industrial music, the Lo-Fi aesthetic. It's the DIY aesthetic I really love, the non-musician aesthetic. One of my very best friends, Frans De Waard, who is appearing with me at the performance in May, considers himself to be a complete non musician. It's that Brian Eno thing where you approach everything almost like an idiot, but you have ideas, and the idea is more important than the ability to execute the ideas, so you end up with that happy accident thing. It's the commitment and the integrity that's important, not the ability to be able to play your instrument. It's the ability to understand when you have something worth pursuing, when you have found a sound that's worth pursuing, or something that might interest someone else.

OL: You're doing this gig in May at Café OTO in London. How on earth are you going to reproduce what you do in a way that actually works live? I was really struggling to imagine how it's going to work in that kind of environment, because it's a rock venue, and it doesn't feel like it's designed for the kind of music that's on the album.
Well, the simple answer to your question is, I've no idea! It's an experiment, and it may fall flat on its face. But you know, what, all we've talked about during this conversation is about trying something.  It's an experiment, and it may fail. It may not work. But it's a challenge, and whatever happens, it will be an experience! I think it's gonna’ be fun. I've got Frans De Waard coming over to help me with the performance.  It’ll just be the two of us messing about on stage!

OL: Finally, to finish off, you’ve got a pedigree going back a few years, but if you were starting out again, trying to create an impression in a crowded field, how would you start?
Because I don't like to leave things on a negative note, I think there is a positive to all of this, too. And the positive that I take away from all of this, is that there's no point trying to please other people. There's no point trying to make music that you think people want you to make, because you can guarantee there's already a million other artists already doing that. So, you say to yourself ‘fuck it, there's too much music in the world’. So much of it is generic. So much of it sounds like it's been made by the yard.  Let's find what's really unique about what I do, what's really special about what I do? That little quirk, that little imperfection, that little personality trait that no one else has got. Let's really home in on that and accentuate it, even if everyone else is telling me that they hate it, and that it isn’t commercial. That's the thing you home in on now.  You home in on the one thing that makes you stand out, which may be counter-intuitive, in the sense it's not a commercial thing. But if you do it, I think at least you've got a chance of cutting through the noise and the proliferation of music. That was my thing with the new Bass Communion album. I finally decided to make another album after 12 years, and I felt lets focus on this thing that you're interested in, which is this idea of taking imperfections, tape dropouts, wow, flutter, hiss, noise, and use that as the basis for making ambient music. I'm not saying I'm the first person to ever do that. Of course there are people who have done that before, but I like to think I'm doing it in a fairly unique way and the record doesn't sound like all of the other records out there in the field. Now I may be kidding myself, but that was my impulse for finally releasing this record.

OL: Yes, I think you do have to look quite a long way to find a similar record.  Thanks for all your time today and good luck with the new album and gig.

Steve Wilson

Essential Information:
‘The Itself of Itself’ is released on 24th May on Lumberton Trading Company and is available to pre-order here.  Bass Communion play a sold out show at London’s Café Oto on the 18th May with ATV, Edward Ka-Spel, and Splintered.

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.

about Alan Rider »»

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