Which, of course, means that Wilson is usually prone to act as spokesman for this enigmatic collective of wonderful musical complication.
But then there’s the band’s elder statesman, Richard Barbieri, who is rocking the world a second time around, having already tasted success with avant-garde electros Japan back in the ’80s, and he had much to do with Porcupine Tree’s strident, challenging new album called The Incident, which features one conceptual 55-minute title track, plus a second CD with four shorter compositions. All the standard elements are there, namely cutting-edge rhythmic equations from drummer Gavin Harrison and bassist Colin Edwin, propelling the atmospherics of Barbieri and the songwriting vision of Wilson.
And the way it gets from nothing to … all this? Actually, no surprise, it’s quite complicated.
“Well,” begins Barbieri, before a way-past-sold-out show in Toronto, “it all changed a little while ago, I suppose, with Deadwing, where we had sort of two modes of writing, one which is the traditional way, where Steven goes off and writes music and presents it to us, and then we arrange and we try to enhance it. But at the same time we started having group sessions, where we would go off together for a couple of weeks and just work from scratch on ideas, or sometimes on ideas we have at home that we bring to the table.
“So things came out that way. So maybe you get a third of probably the group-orientated stuff, and probably two-thirds coming the traditional way, from Steven’s songwriting. This time around, the second disc was more or less the group collaboration in the studio, and the main track, ‘The Incident’ piece, was probably about 80 percent Steven’s writing.”
Does any of this cause frustration in the band, with, perhaps other members wanting to contribute more in a writing sense?
“Yes, of course,” says Barbieri. “There always will be. It’s whether that would work or not — that’s the thing. When we write together, I think sonically, we come up with something more interesting. And I think you get the character of the musicians coming through, because you’re there at the beginning. Each section of the piece — it has that personality. When Steven writes the material, it’s kind of shaping it and enhancing it and trying to find the space, and, of course, that can be frustrating. But I think from my perspective, we’ve probably happened upon the best situation.
“If we all wrote all the time, I don’t think it would coherently hang together quite the way it does. That’s just the way it is. And, of course, Steven, you know, he’s pretty much a control freak as well, so some of the things he writes, he feels very firm about it, and although we veto a lot of the stuff, there are some things he feels very strongly about. So it’s different from Japan. Japan was all about space.”
Ah yes, Japan. Not your average band, nor is Barbieri your average keyboardist, Richard preferring to bring into the cabal texture rather than traditional tinkling.
“I like coming up with interesting sounds, and you’re right, I don’t really fulfill the traditional role in the group,” says Barbieri. “Sometimes Steven has already written some mellotron or organ part or something like that, and it’s more in a basic traditional sense. And sometimes, at some stage, you need to hit those chords, you need to play those melodies. But no … to kind of get my weird take on sounds into the mix, I like to get as much abstract sound as I can in there, and as much electronics as I can. But again, it’s all about finding the space. If the space isn’t there, I’m not going to play over it. I’m going to leave it. Sometimes it’s more important what you don’t play than what you do.”
In terms of a description of the Porcupine Tree sound, Richard has to throw in the towel, defaulting to “a combination of the four musical personalities. But I think it all hinges on the fact that Steven has an individual dialogue with each person. So we each kind of have a musical relationship with Steven.”
Explaining further, Barbieri adds, “When I’m doing things with him, it’ll revolve more around the electronic, ambient side, the textual side, more sound design. And when Gavin is working with him, it will tend to be more around polyrhythms and kind of a more mathematical approach, and working on riffs. And the kind of music that we like, Steven kind of likes all of that as well. So he can relate to each one of us in our own way. Whether the three of us have a dialogue away from Steven’s is another thing altogether, and I really don’t know.”
But there is the matter of releasing an album that is, essentially, one song. Porcupine Tree is not concerned in the slightest about any criticisms leveled at them because of it.
“We don’t really have any misgivings about anything,” states Richard. “We don’t think in commercial terms anymore. The less we think about things like that, the more successful we seem to become.”
After touring The Incident worldwide, Steven plans to work on another solo album, and Richard hopes to record with Steve Hogarth from Marillion. Still, there’s always pressure to strike while the iron is hot — and it couldn’t be hotter right now for this band.
“They say, ‘Can you stay out longer? Can you do …’ ‘No, it would destroy the group,’” sighs Richard. “It really would destroy the group on a creative and personal level. I think there’s only so much you can take. And to get away from it and come back fresh is probably what’s making the music work. You know, we’ve all got other friends and other relationships and it’s very important we have other experiences and live life to some degree.”