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Interview: Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree

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(Fall 2005)

Porcupine Tree defies classification. They can be hard and heavy, they can be sad and melancholy, or they can be experimental and eccentric. Now matter what style they choose, Porcupine Tree always delivers in presentation and sound. Although they’ve been around for more than ten years, the U.K. based group is just starting to make a name for themselves in the U.S. Currently on tour in support of their latest Lava Records release Deadwing, frontman Steven Wilson took the time to give us a little history on the band, what they’re currently up to, and discuss all of the other musical ventures he’s got his hands into.

RIL: If I knew absolutely nothing about Porcupine Tree, how would you describe the group’s music to me?
SW: Mostly the band has tried to draw more toward the golden age of albums which is really the late 60’s to 70’s. Then punk came along and washed all that away. There’s like a ten year period where albums became the premier art form for music. What was important was bands could make a strong forty five minute statement and go out and tour on that music. In a way, Porcupine Tree were looking back at that era of rock music, and at the same time were aligned to the future in being contemporary as well. I think it’s important that any band worth it salt really is always embracing new technology, embracing new musical styles, and is not content to be some kind of vehicle of nostalgia.

There is a sense of learning from the past, but learning from the future. I think that’s why the band appeals to a lot of people who have become slightly disenfranchised by the last twenty or twenty five years of music, which has become increasingly more kind of shallow. I think there are still a lot of people out there who miss the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Todd Rundgren, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and The Beach Boys Beach Boys; people who really valued ambition and experimenting with music, but still value a great melody. That is the force behind Porcupine Tree. We don’t want to do that for any misguided nostalgic reason, but at the same time we feel there are a lot of lessons to be learned from that musical era.

RIL: Porcupine Tree sort-of started out as a joke didn’t it?
SW: Yeah, kind of. I think it’s probably true to say that most bands start off in a bit of fun. Most bands start off as a few friends getting together in a garage to bash out some tunes, so it’s not unusual for a band to start out in a spirit of fun. I guess with Porcupine Tree I took that one stage further in that it was just me, but I kind of invented this whole mythology imaginary band, but in the scope of stretching back to the early seventies. I took it a bit further than most people would. It was the whole material background that went along with the band that was kind of jokey, but the music from the beginning I felt was something special. I guess I felt I tapped into something.

RIL: Your latest album Deadwing is actually based on a movie script you wrote, can you tell me a little about the script itself?
SW: I can tell you a little bit. I mean, the pictures getting made eventually so I can’t tell you too much. It’s basically a very surreal ghost story, very European in flavor, as opposed to Hollywood. Its quite melancholy throughout, there’s a lot of dream sequences, a lot of playing about with past, present, and future. The story and the characters are quite dire and pretty quiet, so in that sense it has a lot more in common with American film makers like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick. Those film makers are more in style with the European traditions. In some respects, I guess people describe our music that way, melancholic, dreamlike, cinematic. In many respects it’s the next logical step. It was great for us as a band to base one of our records on that kind of stuff.

RIL: You released Deadwing with a regular mix and a 5.1 mix. You’ve done this with a few albums in the past. Does this mean that sound is more important to you than lyrics?
SW: No, I think there all part of the same package. I write most of the music myself, in other words the melodies, the chords, you know…Even the arrangements for me are a whole package. It’s a whole sound. The lyrics are as much of that sound as the melodies or the chords. Its very important to me that the words have some depth to them, and its very important to me that the production has some depth to it. Working in 5.1 kind of allows you more possibilities with creating levels in the production, creating a sound world where people can really immerse themselves in. If you listen to the stereo mix of Deadwing there’s a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes in the stereo mix that kind of little detail gets lost which is a shame. So when you’re working in the surround kind of spectrum, you can really pick out, pull out, some of those subtleties and immerse the listener in the whole sound thing that is Porcupine Tree.

I guess I always felt that a band like Porcupine Tree could be a poster child for that kind of sound, because we do work very hard on the production and depth of the sound, and the detail of the sound. I think people like to show off there systems, you know it’s like when everyone was going out and buying Dark Side of the Moon to show off there stereo sound. I would love to think that everyone was going out and buying Porcupine Tree CDs to show off there surround system at home. That seems to be happening, although we haven’t been a million record selling band by any stretch of the imagination. We have won awards for our surround mix, and some stores use our DVD for a demonstration disc. That’s kind of gratifying.

RIL: You’re actually going to try and create 5.1 sound on the current tour, correct?
SW: No, we‘ve had to abandon that idea. There were so many problematic things. The problem with surround sound in a concert environment is quite simply this; you cannot have the whole audience standing in the sweet spot. In fact, you can’t really have more than ten people standing in the sweet spot. We tried very hard to get around that, but at the end of the day, if you have a big square room, most people are going to be standing near one of the speakers. Closer to one of the speakers than all the others, and it just doesn’t work unfortunately. I think it’s possible to do it in a perfectly designed room were you can fly the speakers above the audience maybe, but in practical terms, and unfortunately working in our kind of budget constraints, it just doesn’t work out. We really wanted to do it.

RIL: None of the set lists that have been posted online show that Porcupine Tree have opened up with a song called “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” except for the June 3rd show in Seattle. Was that a commentary on the venue?
SW: No. It was because we did two nights there in Seattle, so we decided to do two completely different sets. I think we did the same thing at one other venue in Europe. We appreciated the people that had bought tickets for both shows, so we wanted to give them something different. We played the song both nights, but the second night we decided to open with it to create a different kind of dynamic flavor to the show

RIL: Deadwing is your 8th full length release, did you think you’d ever get this far in the U.S. since you debuted around the grunge era?
SW: We got lumped in with so many different things. In some ways it’s a testament to the uniqueness of the band. We’ve been called so many things from hard rock to metal to progressive rock to grunge. Everyone has always tried to categorize us and we’ve never been real comfortable in any category. To be honest, for many years we just felt that America was just sort of beyond our understanding. It’s such a complex place, and it takes such hard work. To begin with you need much more financial support to be able to tour America, particularly with our show. We take out films and multimedia, and because of the complexity of our music we need to have a large crew.

It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a major record label, and to be honest, I think we were surprised as anyone that six albums into our career we finally landed a major record deal. When the band is all in their thirties, you don’t expect that to happen. We were in Europe thinking we’re never going to get a chance to crack America, so we’ll just have to forget about it. It’s been nice to see over the last couple of records, the band kind of explode and grow kind of steadily. We have gone from selling two to three thousand records in America and playing to fifty people, to selling forty thousand and selling out thousand seat places. It is very gratifying to us, so now we can tour America pretty self sufficiently.

RIL: Through your online store you release rare and limited pieces of music. One series I noticed popping up is Steven Wilson Covers, what are they?
SW: Well basically I’ve always loved the idea of singles. It’s the most popular of formats and I love the idea that the single still has that kind of vibe to it; where you can cut a couple of tracks one weekend and press them out the next week, and have them out the next. One thing I’ve always wanted to do that I’ve never done is to do another interpretation of other artist’s songs. Porcupine Tree never covered anyone’s songs. I had this idea to do singles with the most unlikely cover versions. The cover versions of Pink Floyd were the last covers that people would expect me to do. I picked songs that I felt I presented in a completely different way, that made people see them in a completely different way.

For example, the second one I picked was an ABBA song that was beautifully recorded, and because it was an ABBA song, I don’t think anyone appreciated it or took it seriously. It’s called “The Day Before You Came”. It’s a very traumatic post-divorce song, and I did it, stripped it right down, and I did it for acoustic guitar and voice. That kind of thing appeals to me; being able to present songs like that in a very different context, to get people to look at them in a very different way. In each case the track I would chose would be inspired by a twisted cover version. Everything is simply called “Cover Version” so people don’t know what the song is until they literally spin the disc. I’m recording these and pressing them very quickly; doing packaging, and hoping to turn it into a complete series, and perhaps a box set. I love doing stuff like that. You know, I’m a collector. I’m a music lover. I like to write and I love it when other artists do that kind of thing.

RIL: That’s a really fan-friendly thing to do for that fan that just has to have everything. Fans dig stuff like that. These days you are playing live with bands like Anathema, Opeth or Robert Fripp. Is this a conscious decision to stay in the prog/metal niche and not to try to reach an indie audience?
SW: I think it’s just a question of touring with bands we like and feel our audience likes. It’s never been a conscious decision to steer away from anything in particular. Robert Fripp is one of my idols, it’s a no brainier. Opeth similarly is a band that are very good friends of mine. A lot of our fans like them and visa-versa, even though they are a lot heavier. It has worked out very well. I can’t say we would rule out perhaps bands that were a little bit more different or alternative to what we were doing, but that opportunity hasn’t arisen as yet.

RIL: You actually keep yourself quite busy with outside projects. Two projects in particular involve Bryn Jonesand and Aviv Geffen (Read CD review); These two artists are considered by some to be controversial figures because of their beliefs. Have you ever feared backlash by fans because of it?
SW: I haven’t feared it. I expected raised eyebrows at the least. Actually, the two people you mentioned Bryn and Aviv were on the opposite sides. I mean, Bryn was very much pro-Palestinian and actually advocated suicide bombing, which was very controversial. He actually believed in their cause. Aviv, although he is Israeli, is kind of on the opposite side of the fence, quite literally and philosophically. He also believes that the Palestinians should have the occupied territories back and have there own state established; although, he doesn’t believe in their methods. In that sense, I certainly got myself immersed in that particular part of the world and some political issues without really needing to.

In both cases I got evolved with them because I admired there music. It’s quite coincidental that there both kind of bound up with the same issue. In both cases I tried to keep politics out of the mix when we made the collaborative effort, with Aviv particularly. His own music is part of what he is, an Israeli artist. His music reflects his struggle. Blackfield was supposed to be an international record. We didn’t write about politics, we wrote about age old concerns like relationships and all that stuff. But there has been some interest purely around the fact that an English artist had chosen to collaborate with someone from the Middle East. That’s not something very common, and that has been something that has created interest in areas of the press that wouldn’t normally be interested in it.

RIL: I actually listened to the Blackfield album before I listened to my first Porcupine Tree album. I have to tell you that it was awesome.
SW: It’s a beautiful record. Aviv writes such classic pop songs, and in some sense it’s great for me to be disciplined in working with that kind of format. I tend to be more complex in the way I construct stuff. I’m very bad at sticking to the three or four minute format.

RIL: It has a lot of that melancholy that Porcupine Tree has…
SW: Right, but is has the pop song fell which is a very hard thing to do. People think that writing great pop tunes is easy, it’s not. It’s one of the most difficult things of all to do.

RIL: How and when did you learn to play the guitar?
SW: Well, I kind of learned with a group of friends. It was a group of friends that I had in school when I was ten or eleven years old and everyone was into music. We were all kind of teaching each other to play chords, but I very quickly became interested in writing. That was the thing that sort of set me apart. While everyone else was out learning Beatles songs, I was trying to use all that I’ve learned and try to write my own songs. I never learned the guitar properly. I never had lessons and I never took it seriously from the point of view of being a virtuoso. I was never interested. I was always interested more in knowing just enough to be able to write, produce, and make records. That’s the difference between someone like Robert Fripp and me. He still to this day, practices two hours every day; scales and all that stuff. I’ll quite happily not pickup a guitar for months. I’ll pick up a guitar when I need to make a record or when I want to write a song or want to get an idea that’s in my head out. The guitar for me has kind of become a tool of my songwriting and production, rather than being a musical instrument to be something I can show off on. I’m not a virtuoso

RIL: Did you have any other ambitions other than being a professional musician?
SW: To be honest no. I think as long as I can remember it’s all I’ve wanted to do. I wanted to make records as soon as I discovered pop music. I fell in love with the whole feel of the record, and I come from a time where vinyl was still the predominate form. I just fell in love with the whole idea of making records, and I wanted to know how people did it; and what created these magical pieces of vinyl. Ever since I can remember, that’s all I wanted to do. I’d like to make my movie though.

RIL: What’s that music playing in the background where you are?
SW: I was just listening to a test pressing of a project I have called Bass Communion. It’s ambient drone environment music; very minimal, very creepy. I’ve just done a record for an American label which is going to put it out on vinyl. I was just checking out the test pressing and seeing if the vinyl was cut properly

RIL: It sounds good so far. Most of the material I’ve heard from you has been right up my alley.
SW: It’s probably my labor of love, my favorite of all my projects. It’s incredibly minimal by my standards. It’s inspired by EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). You know there was a movie about it with Michael Keaton? Terrible movie, but EVP itself is a hit.

Originally posted by author at Rock-is-Life.com

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About George Dionne

  • Guppusmaximus

    Nice Article… Steven Wilson has the ability to put out some great work. As for Opeth, Mr. Wilson produced a few of their albums as he has a stunning ear for engineering. He is able to release such great work because he understands different styles of music not being limited to just liking different styles which is the obstacle that alot of American artists can’t overcome.