Steven Wilson performs with his solo band in Belgium on March 12, 2013. Photo by Tom Van Ghent

Tell us about bringing Guthrie Govan aboard.
I didn’t know about the Aristocrats when Marco came onboard and, admittedly, that kind of fusion music is not my thing. But I went to see them play and, watching Guthrie, I just thought, “This guy could do some amazing things for my music.” I knew he could help me take my music to a much higher level. Of course, the worry with guys at that level is whether there’s enough to keep them interested. I mean, I don’t like shredding and I don’t like fast playing just for the sake of it. I like guys who will play one note that will break your heart, if that’s the right thing to do. So the first thing was to figure out if Guthrie was going to be okay with that. And he absolutely was. He’s a truly great musician—not because he’s technically phenomenal—but because, despite that, he always understands how to play what is right for the song. There are things on the record—like the title track, for instance—where he only plays three notes. He did exactly what I’d hoped he would do, which is to take the whole record to another level.

In addition to blazing solos, he plays quite a few nice, melodic lines with a lot of warm, jazzy tones.
Yes, we did a lot with that “jazzy” guitar tone. We call it the “Lonely Swede Lost in the Forest” sound—a sort of jazzy, warm, and dark clean sound that’s mixed with a mono plate reverb. I love that sound—it’s on many ’70s records, and it’s especially noticeable on old Scandinavian records. My buddy Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth uses that sound quite a lot. The use of mono plate reverb, in particular, came from working on the old King Crimson records that I remixed. I learned from working with Robert Fripp that a lot of the time they kept the reverbs mono, and they kept the reverb returns with the instrument. If the flute was on the right, that’s exactly where the reverb was, too. They didn’t do that very ’80s thing, where you take a guitar, keyboard, or drum sound and put it through a massive stereo reverb—wide-screen cinema!—and suddenly you’ve lost all this space in your mix and you wonder why there’s no space for anything else. That mono reverb has a wonderful character about it, an aura—almost a halo around the sound.

You write such great chord changes—they’re often for rock songs—and Guthrie is such a master of outlining chords using chord tones and modal playing.
That’s something I really notice from old records, ’70s records—musical phrases and sections repeat, but they don’t completely repeat, if you know what I mean. It’s one of the malaises of modern music that sections of songs and musical moments literally repeat verbatim—like someone’s gone and copied and pasted them. If you listen to records from the ’70s, sure, they’re playing riffs, but usually the guitarist is constantly noodling around those riffs, adding little colors, little textures. And it’s something that comes, again, from the idea of a band, in the studio, rehearsing and writing together—playing live together in the studio. So, in a way, the music is always in a state of flux. Because of computer technology and the way we tend to record in a very piecemeal way these days, we tend to edit the [expletive] out of things so that all of those happy accidents where the guitar player is noodling in the background just behind the vocal—which is a lot of what Guthrie was doing—are lost. I don’t hear that on many modern records. In fact, I don’t hear it on any modern records.

Guthrie Govan on Soaring with The Raven

Steven Wilson is still incredulous. “I mean, we’d gotten this LaRose Classic Jazz [Jazzmaster-style] guitar with a Sustainiac sustainer circuit in the studio on the second day, and I asked Guthrie what he thought of it,” Wilson recounts. “He picked the thing up and, literally, the first thing he played was the solo on ‘Drive Home’—the solo that made the album. First time, first take. Isn’t that insane?”

Photo by Tom Van Ghent

Even crazier is that, during the solo—which Govan tracked live with the band—you can hear the E-string popping out of the saddle, forcing Govan to play the rest of the solo without it. “I later learned,” the Aristocrats chopsmaster explains, “that the Jazzmaster bridge/tailpiece design is famously ill-equipped to deal with extravagant string bending!” While Govan thought later versions of the solo sounded “a little more perfect,” the other players unanimously preferred the first take. “I suppose the first one did have a certain vibe to it,” he shrugs, “presumably because I was still getting used to an utterly unfamiliar instrument, which made me play a little differently. And, having played a lot with Marco in the Aristocrats, I think we had a couple of spontaneous interactive moments during that solo which could have only happened in real time.”

As far as his approach to Wilson’s Raven sessions on the whole, Govan says, “Steven described the overall guitar vibe he wanted for this album, and I just tried to serve the music as best I could, whilst remaining true to myself—but without making any effort to leave a giant GG thumbprint all over the record.” Govan called on a small coterie of pedals, including a Suhr Koko Boost, a Z.Vex Mastotron Fuzz, a DLS RotoSIM, and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb, and he typically recorded time-domain effects live, per Wilson’s request. While darker textures and clean-toned lines do make up a significant portion of Govan’s contribution, there are plenty of scorching, dramatic solos, too.

“I did try not to go too over the top with the frantic technical stuff, but a couple of ‘sheets of sound’ moments probably slipped through the net anyhow,” he laughs. “I’ve gathered that there are some folks in the progressive rock community who get turned off when a guitar player exceeds their chosen notes-per-second quota. But as I remember once observing to Steven, these are often the same people who would be perfectly happy to hear a sax player playing at a comparable velocity. So I try not to worry too much about those people!”