Q&A: Porcupine Tree stands as prog rock’s hope for crossover, mainstream appeal

By  Bryan Reesman

You’ve got to love when the public latches onto a “new band” that has beenPorcTree-01-01.jpg around for ages. Such is the case with superior progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree.While their excellent new album Fear Of A Blank Planet is the band’s third global release through Atlantic Records, it is actually its ninth studio album since 1992, not including various remix and rare track compilations that have emerged over the years.

Undeniably prolific and constantly evolving, the British quartet — whose longtime lineup includes frontman/guitarist Steven Wilson, keyboardist Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison — effortlessly meshes influences as wildly varied as Pink Floyd, Opeth, Brian Eno and King Crimson into an original, ear-catching milieu that resides at the intersection of progressive, metal and ambient music.

That said, Fear Of A Blank Planet varies from other Porcupine Tree studio releases in that it is an album-length exploration of how technology is adversely shaping the lives of a new generation of kids weaned on iPods, cell phones and the Internet. The six-song, 50-minute excursion is ambitious, beguiling and features guest appearances from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson (who’s a big fan) and experimental six-stringer Robert Fripp (who has toured with Porcupine Tree three times). Wilson talked about his long and varied career.

Goldmine: On Fear Of A Blank Planet you’re definitely worried about the state of man and technology.

Steven Wilson: A couple of albums back I wrote a song called “The Sound of Muzak,” which was all about the idea of music basically reduced to the level of a piece of software, and that’s not getting better as time goes on. It’s getting worse with the idea that people don’t want to pay for music anymore.

That was part of it, but in trying to look at the issue from a broader aspect, I began to look specifically at what it is like for kids being born into this era of Playstations and iPods and cell phones and 500 channels of digital TV and prescription drugs and the obsession with reality TV. It seemed like a good subject to hang an album on because there’s a traditional of songwriters feeling a sense of alienation from the age that they live in.

You go back to Dark Side Of The Moon or OK Computer, and there’s that sense that songwriters or lyric writers particularly get to that point where they do feel very removed and displaced from the era that they live in, specifically [with] the technology and how it affects culture and social aspects. So it made for a pretty depressing record, as usual with Porcupine Tree, but that’s the way it’s always been.

GM: I’ve noticed with some young kids today that they often don’t look directly at you when you’re speaking to them. I don’t think it’s necessarily rudeness as much as their being in front of computer screens or small technological devices in which they interact with people virtually.

SW: That’s the problem. I do really wonder where the art of conversation is going. Kids are not developing that side of their personality. In meeting kids and talking to kids when we’re on tour, [I find] they’re very intelligent people. They think a lot about the world that they live in, but they’re not articulate or well read. In fact the idea of reading books is almost anathema to them.

Who’s got time to read books now? I don’t either. I can’t blame them, but at least when I was a kid I lived in an are before the great information technology explosion, so I did devour a lot of literature and developed my vocabulary and an ability to conduct conversations in words of more than one syllable. I really do wonder if kids, through no fault of their own, do these days.

GM: Kids today seem to be seduced by ideas put forth by the media, where they’re given the impression that they can get by on their looks, their attitude, or by making it big on television.

SW: The album deals with that whole idea briefly, the cult of celebrity and the fact that the important message that it seems young kids can learn these days is the only thing you should seek to achieve in your life is celebrity.

It doesn’t matter what you’re famous for. You can just be famous for being famous or be famous for being stupid. It’s the most important thing. Unfortunately the whole phenomenon of reality TV and MTV and American Idol and all of these things basically reinforces the idea that the most important thing is to be on TV and to be famous. And nothing could be further from the truth; the complete opposite, in fact.

That’s unfortunately a very 21st century phenomenon, this idea that you could be famous for simply being famous. Paris Hilton is famous for being stupid and famous and rich and not setting a very good example. She is arguably one of the biggest stars in the world. That’s extraordinary to me, and this whole idea that kids can go into school now and blow away some of their fellow students, basically in order to achieve celebrity.

GM: Have you wanted to play some of your old material from the mid-90s, like songs from The Sky Moves Sideways or Signify? Do you play those more in Europe, where people have known about you longer?

SW: We don’t play them at all. We’re always playing catch-up, in a sense. We are quite prolific, and we have a new four-track EP [Nil Recurring] of music that was written at the time of Fear Of A Blank Planet. On this tour we’ve been doing “Sever” from Signify, but we don’t get a great deal of opportunity to go back and learn a whole album from the past or get our teeth into a very long piece from the band’s history because we’re always learning the new material and always want to present that.

It’s also a psychological thing where you always feel comfortable playing the music which is psychologically closest to who you are at any given time. Porcupine Tree has evolved at such a phenomenal rate – we’ve changed so much from album to album – so sometimes going back to The Sky Moves Sideways or Up The Downstair feels slightly odd. It almost feels like you’re covering your own song, whereas playing the new music is very much where we are right now and very much who I am right now lyrically. It feels like we’re inside that music. When I go back and approach something like “Sever,” I feel very much like an outsider, and that’s odd.

I’m very surprised and impressed that Atlantic Records hasn’t dropped you given that you don’t sell as much as other bands there. You’ve told me that 2002’s In Absentia sold 100,000 copies worldwide, while your previous catalog sales combined were 250,000. How have the other two other Atlantic albums done, and why do you think they’ve kept you on?

SW: Deadwing did slightly better than In Absentia — about 120,000. The new one looks like it’s going to do much better. It’s heading toward 200,000 already, and yet it is the least commercial of the three. Here’s my explanation for why. I think the record companies are beginning to realize that they actually can no longer exist on the same model that they have existed upon for the last 20 or 30 years, which is that they sign people who are not necessarily talented musicians but who are glamorous, will look good in videos, and will be good for a couple of hit singles and sell a couple of albums on the back of it.

They’re realizing that that model will no longer work because kids will no longer invest in an album with one or two hit singles and 18 filler tracks on. They’ll just go to the Internet and download the single. So what they need now, in order to sustain their business, are heritage artists or artists that have the potential to be heritage artists in the future; the Led Zeppelins and Pink Floyds of the next generation, the bands that will continue to sell albums to each successive generation, and that will continue to sell albums even though they don’t necessarily make singles or videos. I believe that’s why Atlantic has kept the band on. We haven’t sold masses of records for them, but we have continued to sell more albums with each successive release than virtually every other band on their roster.

Andy Carp, the guy who signed us, is a very smart guy and realizes that bands like Porcupine Tree, Tool, Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, The Mars Volta, and Opeth are the bands that will continue to sell more and more albums while the rest of the industry is in a downward trend. We’re the bands that go out and play the music live and build a following in the good old fashioned way that bands used to. We don’t make singles but we make quality albums, we keep the faith with the fanbase, and we present a good live show with real people playing real instruments, and presenting some kind of media show; in our case and with Tool and some of the other bands. These are the bands that will continue to increase their record sales while everyone else’s are declining.

GM: The second album from your Blackfield project with Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen came out recently, and you toured behind that, with a live DVD due out this fall. You’ve also been doing some solo singles. You do cover versions of other people’s songs, correct?

SW: I’m still doing those. I’ve gotten up to four now, and I basically have said that I’m going to do six, and the final one will come in a box set that will house all of the singles. I’m keeping them in print. They very quickly sellout [runs of a thousand], and I’ve re-pressed all of them, in some cases two to three times now. They’re only available from my website and at the gigs. It’s been really fun, and it’s gone down really well with fans.

GM: Which four songs have you covered so far?

SW: I can’t tell you that. The singles are all called Cover Version – I, II, III, and IV. It doesn’t mention what the song is anywhere on the CD or the packaging. The whole concept is that I don’t want to prejudice people against the song before they hear it, and I’m picking very unlikely pieces to cover. I’m picking songs where some people would loathe the original artist who originally recorded it, and for that reason I’m committed to this idea that you don’t know what the song is literally until [they hear it]. In some cases people literally didn’t know the song when they heard it. They had to Google the lyrics to find out whom it was by. All I’ll say is that so far I’ve recorded a song by Canadian, a Swedish band, a Scottish artist, an English band. You can probably guess what the Swedish band is, but anyway, it’s an ongoing series.

GM: Back in the day music fans bought the album, went to the concert, bought the T-shirt, and put the poster on their wall. Do you think kids today are getting that same experience?

SW: I think they’re getting that from the kind of bands that we talked about. Tool has an obsessive fan base, and there are many bands that are cultivating that again now. I think it’s very important that bands create their own universe and their own world. For many, many years it was all about the cookie cutter mentality. If one band broke through, let’s say Nirvana in this case, the record companies would all seek to sign up copycat bands of Nirvana. And indeed everyone who was forming a band felt like they had to make music that was very much a knockoff of a band that was successful at the time.

I think that mentality’s going now. Now we have a situation where a lot of bands coming through are very unique and very distinctive, and they’re not just trying to copy the bands that they see as being commercially successful, possibly because there aren’t many commercially successful rock ‘n’ roll bands out at the moment. I think we have more of that sense of an enigma and mystery again, which is ironic that it’s the Internet and the information technology boom that has made that possible again. You can go to some of the Web sites of these bands, and you do get a sense that you’re really buying into a whole philosophy, ideology, and world around a band. That mystery and that enigma that was really destroyed by the major record companies for so long is really back again because we can bypass those marketing guys now and create that enigma directly with the fans through the Internet.

It’s ironic that you’re critiquing the Internet on the new album, but it is enabling you reach so many more people now.

SW: Absolutely. To be honest, I think the Internet is a wonderful, wonderful tool, and there are many things about it that are fantastic, but at the same time it is very easy to use it in a very passive way. You can spend your whole time downloading pornography and downloading Britney Spears videos. It’s like any piece of technology. The technology is not evil in itself. Even the gun is not evil within itself. It is the way you use it, constructively or otherwise. And the Internet, for me, has been such a refreshing thing when it comes to music because it has enabled musicians that would never get a record contract to reach a fanbase. It really has shaken up the whole industry in a positive way.

Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp are on the new album. Isn’t it wild to find that the people you admire actually know who you are?

I’m finding this out more and more often these days, that people I really adore from a fan’s perspective are familiar with me. We did a show last summer in Greece with the reformed Van Der Graaf Generator. I wasn’t going to go and say hi to Peter Hammill because I just felt like such a fanboy.

Then he saw me in the corridor and said, “Hey, Steve Wilson, I wanted to introduce myself to you. I’m Peter.” Those kinds of things are just mind blowing to me because I was listening to these guys when I was 14 years old and have been following their careers ever since. It’s crazy.

GM: Have you done any appearances on albums that fans might not know about one track down?

SW: There’s a Yoko Ono remix album called Yes, I Am A Witch, and it’s reinterpretations of her songs from the ’70s and ’80s by people such as Flaming Lips, Cat Power, Apples In Stereo, and some very trendy contemporary artists. It was reviewed in one of the “trendier than thou” British music magazines and they singled out the Porcupine Tree piece as the best on it. I’m pretty sure the journalist had no idea who Porcupine Tree was, although he wasn’t supposed to like it because it we’re a prog rock band, aren’t we, therefore thou shalt not say anything nice about Porcupine Tree in the British music press. I would say that’s something worth digging out. I basically took Yoko’s vocals from a track she recorded with her husband in 1973 called “Death Of Samantha”. It’s a beautiful song, and I created a completely new backing track for it. I think it’s on Astralwerks in America.

There is a funny story about the new Dream Theater album. I’m on that record, along with a lot of people, on a song called “Repentance”. The whole concept behind the track is it’s being penitent about something from your past. Mike Portnoy called me up and said he wanted, in the middle of the track, to get people to be talking about something they want to apologize to someone or some people for. I flippantly said, “Why don’t I apologize for slagging off Dream Theater in the music press?” I had to apologize to him in the past for doing that because I’m not really a fan of their music, and they know that. They’re great friends of mine, and I have incredible respect for them, but I’m not a big fan of their style. He laughed and said, “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do that?”

So on their new record there’s a bit in the middle of the track where you can hear me apologizing, and you’re not quite sure what I’m apologizing for, but I can reveal that I am apologizing on that record for being critical of Dream Theater in the music press. A lot of their fans hated me so much for that and were so abusive. I got some very extreme email from people. The funny thing is they [the band] totally accept it. At the end of the day it’s a matter of taste. It’s funny that the fans are the ones that are almost unforgiving in that sense.

GM: Are there other people you’d like to work with in the future?

SW: There are still musicians that I would love to meet and work with and hold in very high esteem. They’re people that I admire because they’ve put together this whole world, this whole universe around what they do, and this whole sound. I’m a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails, and I think Trent Reznor’s created an extraordinary sound, a whole kind of look, and a whole kind of feel to everything he does. Sure, you can trace back his influences to industrial bands like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Joy Division, The Cure and all the Goth stuff, but he’s really taken it into another area and done something completely different and fresh with it. I think he’s a genius. I would love to work with Trent, although I he’s really difficult to work with, but anyway…

Richard D. James [from] Aphex Twin is an incredibly enigmatic figure who’s created this whole sound and influenced a whole generation of electronic music. He seems to have this arrogant swagger about him. He doesn’t care. He hasn’t made an album in six years, and he could quite happily never make an album again. He’s just put out an EP under a completely different name, and nobody realized it was him until they heard it. I just love that kind of playfulness and just commitment to doing what they love doing.

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