Porcupine Tree: A work in progress, Part III

By  Will Romano

Themes of alienation and isolation are often explored in the lyrics of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (second from left). Photo: Lasse Hoile.

Themes of alienation and isolation are often explored in the lyrics of Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (second from left). Photo: Lasse Hoile.
Time off for good behavior

Like other members of Porcupine Tree, Harrison seized upon Porcupine Tree’s “year off” to strike out on his own by touring with an augmented King Crimson lineup, which included two drummers (reminiscent of past Crimson incarnations).

Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto describes Harrison as a drumming “wonderboy.”

“I think it is a kind of primeval, intrinsic need for us rhythm boys to want to be in sync, and Gavin is as good as it gets,” says Mastelotto. “If we look at Crimson’s history, the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic-period Crimson tunes had two drummers: Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir. The ’90s stuff was written with two drum parts, Bill’s and mine. Even the stuff I did on The Power to Believe had me pulling out an extra arm or leg with my laptop loops. So, historically Crimson works well with two drummers. What’s kind of funny is our fearless leader, Robert [Fripp], who has a basic dislike of drummers, brings in two and smiles all night long. Go figure.” [Editor’s note: Adrian Belew would occasionally accompany Bruford on drums for live performances during the ’80s.]

The link between Porcupine Tree and Crimson goes beyond a recent tour.

Members of Porcupine Tree and Crimson have been working with each other for years: Crimson’s Adrian Belew appears on Porcupine Tree’s 2005 Lava Records conceptual album Deadwing (based on a screenplay Wilson wrote with longtime friend and art director Mike Bennion); Mastelotto turns up on No-Man’s Schoolyard Ghosts; Fripp plays on Fear of a Blank Planet (as well as Wilson’s side-project material, most notably Bass Communion’s self-titled debut and No-Man’s Flowermouth); and Harrison toured with veteran and current Crimson stick player/bassist Tony Levin in the early 1990s.

Despite the musical and personnel connections, Harrison readily admits that he was not well-versed in the Crimson catalog prior to boning up for the tour.

“When Robert called me up, I said, ‘I don’t know any of your material,’” says Harrison. “He countered by saying, ‘That’s good.’ Probably the only things I knew were Three of a Perfect Pair and Discipline, a record I bought on vinyl back around 1984 or something. But I certainly hadn’t listened to it since 1984. I had also heard ‘Dinosaur’ [from THRAK], but I had no idea of what 90 percent of the catalog sounded like.”

Despite Harrison’s initial unfamiliarity with Crimson’s music, Mastelotto says the two-drummer ensemble came off like a house on fire. “Things went pretty darn good,” explains Mastelotto. “So good it looks like Robert is thinking about taking the band out… next year.”

It appears each member of Porcupine Tree is widening his musical scope both from outside and inside band. This growth has helped to spawn a new era of openness to communal songwriting.

“It has been a slow evolution,” says Barbieri. “The first couple of albums, I was just playing a bit and then going home. My involvement wasn’t any more [than that]. I think what Steven feels passionate about is that he has an overall say in the general concept and vision of the record, especially from a production point of view.”

“The first track on Nil Recurring, the title track, is actually me playing guitar,” says Harrison, who also co-wrote “Cheating the Polygraph” on Nil Recurring with Wilson. “The first 30 or 40 seconds is just drums and my two guitars. I’m a terrible guitarist — not the type of bloke who is going to pick up an acoustic guitar and start strumming fancy chords. I can’t actually play any chords, but I can tap, like with a stick or my fingers, on the strings and come up with weird percussive lines.”

Wilson also continues to reveal the depth of his songwriting skills. Case in point: the 33-minute, eight-track, in-store semi-acoustic live recording, We Lost the Skyline (featuring Wilson and road guitarist/guitar-track producer John Wesley) released this year on Transmission Recordings.

Skyline accomplishes a few things. It entertains the listener with renditions of previously released Porcupine Tree compositions. It also demonstrates how casual and witty the once painfully shy (and extremely private) Wilson is in the presence of an audience (he intimates that his “buddy” Robert Fripp gave him practice tips for the tricky opening riff of “Normal” featured on the record).

Finally, it showcases Wilson’s keen sense of melody, in particular, on tracks like “Lazarus” (which originally appeared on Deadwing), “Trains” (In Absentia), and “Even Less” (Stupid Dream). Virtually stripped bare of studio wizardry, out-there digital-effects and ambient flourishes, Wilson seems more singer-songwriter folk hero than studio-hound, progressive-rock maven.

“For me, Steven gets better and better with each album,” says Mike Bennion. “I thought Deadwing was his best album, and then, the one after it suddenly became ‘his best album.’ With his stuff, you go back and revisit albums and reassess them.”

Like so many “progressive” rock bands before it, Porcupine Tree makes music that stands the test of time. Also, like some of the classic progressives, through hard work, talent, support (from fans and labels alike) and a little bit of luck, Porcupine Tree has carved out a promising and distinguished career despite never having scored a major hit.

Wilson concludes: “There is always that period where every musician has that watershed period where they’ve gone through this process of a) Falling in love with music and wanting to make music; b) Forming a band and trying to get a foothold in the industry such that they can do what they love doing for a living and c) The panic that ensues when they realize that it is not going to be as easy as they thought, and that actually they may have to do things for the wrong reasons, i.e. building up an audience to point that they can actually be financially secure. Finally, d), which not every musician gets to, but d) Some musicians get stuck in c) for their whole career. But d) is the point you have to say … I shouldn’t be making music for anybody else but myself.

“If you had asked me the question, ‘What if I did not sell enough records to keep my career going?’ I could only answer, ‘I don’t know. We’ll never know,’” Wilson continues. “Maybe I would have gone back to some sort of day job and just done the music for fun… I’m very fortunate in that I don’t have to answer those questions anymore.” 

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