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vol 7 - issue 11 (jul 2005) :: interviews
PORCUPINE TREE'S STEVEN WILSON
Interview by Night Watchman
Photo Illustration by Erik Rose

FOR A BAND THAT STARTED AS A FICTIONAL SEVENTIES PROGRESSIVE ROCK GROUP IN STEVEN WILSONíS HOME STUDIO, PORCUPINE TREE HAS EVOLVED INTO AN EXCITING AND ORIGINAL BAND THAT IS EXPLODING ACROSS THE UNITED STATES. DEADWING, THE BANDíS LATEST OPUS, IS GAINING NEW FANS LEFT AND RIGHT, AS EVIDENCED BY THEIR SOLD-OUT TOUR. NIGHT WATCHMAN HAD A CHANCE TO TALK WITH WILSON ABOUT HIS VISION FOR PORCUPINE TREE, HIS MANY OTHER PROJECTS, AND WHY GREAT ALBUMS ARE ALMOST A LOST ART FORM.

Night Watchman: I want to ask you about your background. I read that when you started making music you had much more of an interest in songwriting, producing, and making albums, and that there was less of an emphasis on playing an instrument. Can you tell me a little about that? What albums inspired your interest in production and songwriting?

Steven Wilson: The thing that I really fell in love with was not playing music, per se, but rather making records. There was something about a record, a kind of romance. Iím talking about when I was ten years old. I would listen to music, listen to my parents' records, and I would hold the record in my hand-- I just loved it as a tactile thing. Just the whole concept of making records was completely magical to me, and I would pour over the sleeves and wonder what these things like "production" meant. What were "lyrics", you know? So I really fell in love with the whole idea of making records. My parents would have records like [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side Of The Moon, and my mother used to have Donna Summer records, which are fantastic. And later on she'd have people like Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys-- all kinds of auteurs rather than just basic songwriters. These were people that came up with a whole kind of philosophy behind sound-- an ideology, a whole feeling around their music. Less fashionable people-- like Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra-- I used to love them growing up as a kid. It was a very unique sound, great songwriting, great producing, and a great architecture to the whole sound. And then you have people like Robert Fripp from King Crimson, Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Pete Townshend of The Who-- these are people that just seemed to create this whole mythology around what they did. Those were the people that inspired me; not people like Jimi Hendrix or other extraordinary musicians. They didnít really touch me the way these auteurs touched me.

NW: So do you then have this preconceived idea of the kind of soundscape you want to create even before you start writing, whether itís for Porcupine Tree or one of your many other projects?

SW: Itís very difficult to analyze exactly how it works. When Iím writing, Iím always looking for two things. Iím looking for strong melody, but Iím also looking for an interesting sound world. Itís very important to me that every Porcupine Tree song inhabit some sort of unique sound world. That was another thing I learned from those guys in the Seventies: that every track had its own kind of world. I think the real innovators in that area were The Beatles. You had The Beatles writing songs left, right, and center, but the one thing that really made The Beatles unique was that every single song seemed to have a different approach in terms of production and a sound world. So Iím always looking for that when Iím writing songs. Theyíre not separate things for me. Creating the sound world is part of the writing process. I can have good melodies, but if Iím strumming along on an acoustic guitar without having an idea of a unique sonic perspective for those melodies, then itís not really finished for me. That process is not over.

NW: With all your different projects, do you know when youíre writing a Porcupine Tree song as opposed to writing something that would fit on another groupís album?

SW: Pretty much, yeah. I have many different projects, but most of the other projects are very musically distinct from each other. Either that, or theyíre collaborations with other very distinctive musicians in their own right. Porcupine Tree is actually quite simple. If Iím writing songs, itís almost always going to be Porcupine Tree by definition. My other solo projects tend to be more extreme instrumental types of things, like Bass Communion is drone-based or ambient music, or IEM is more Kraut rock influenced. So I donít have the identity crisis that you might think.

NW: (laughs) I just wondered if with so many things, if you ever have to buckle down to write Porcupine Tree songs or No-Man [another of Wilson's other projects] songs. Or if you just write until you have enough material for an album.

SW: I do that sometimes. Sometimes I will have to go into the studio and say, "Iíve got to buckle down and work on some new songs for Porcupine Tree." But thereís never that kind of confusion. I have this project called Blackfield, which is quite new. It's probably the closest thing to Porcupine Tree in the sense that itís a more commercial version of Porcupine Tree-- it's more focused on the song aspect. But thatís relatively recent. Until recently, there was never a question about who Iím writing songs for when I write.

NW: How do you go about describing Porcupine Tree to people who have never heard them before? I ask because people tend to make comparisons with other bands.

SW: Thatís a tough one, because part of the whole ideology of Porcupine Tree is that it is a band that, hopefully, tries to be unique and not generic in any way. So to then have to explain the band in generic terms is almost a contradiction in terms. I mean, if I really, really have to explain the band, I say, "Weíre the kind of band that are very much inspired by the progressive movement from the Seventies. Learning from the past, if you like, but very much looking to the future." Part of the whole idea of the band is to get back to that idea of taking the listener on some kind of musical journey over the course of an album. So you are moving through different sound worlds, through different terrains, different emotions, and different lyrical subject matter. But hopefully it's all related so that when you listen to a Porcupine Tree record, you feel like itís a whole and not just a set of ten attempts to write a hit single. It is a very carefully considered suite of music, and a lot of thought goes into how those individual songs are sequenced and flow together to make up the album as a whole, and what kind of impression that makes. So in that sense, thatís a very Seventies thing. Thatís going back to the Golden Age of progressive music, when bands actually made concept albums. We donít make concept albums in the sense that weíre trying to tell stories or write rock operas in the way that Pete Townshend was in the early Seventies. But at the same time, weíre very much into the idea of the album being a musical journey as a themed continuum of music. Yet weíre progressive in the true sense in that we are always listening to and absorbing whatís going on around us in the contemporary music scene. So Porcupine Tree are just as likely to embrace death metal or ambient trance music as we are to embrace those kinds of Seventies musical forms. And thatís a rather convoluted way of answering your question, but I donít know how to answer it any shorter than that. Thatís the problem.

Both: (laugh)

NW: It really does seem that the idea of an album as a whole is a lost art now.

SW: Absolutely. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that. I mean, MTV, punk rock, the compact disc as a format... all of these things tend to conspire to kill off the album as an art form. I do believe that it is coming back now in a little way, and Iím very encouraged when I see bands like Mars Volta doing very well, or Radiohead focusing more on the album rather than the singles. There is a sense that there is a wave of album-oriented bands out there now doing very well and selling records without necessarily having massive radio play, and thatís encouraging.

NW: I saw you guys here in Milwaukee at Shank Hall--

SW: Oh, just last month? I think I was pretty ill that night.

NW: Yeah, you said you were losing your voice, but I couldnít tell. The band sounded great-- probably one of the tightest bands Iíve seen in a long time.

SW: Iím happy to hear that. Thank you.

NW: Besides being struck by the amount of talent you have onstage, the visual aspect of the show-- with the photos by Lasse Hoile, who also does your album covers-- it really seems like the idea of Porcupine Tree spills over visually, as well as aurally. Has there always been that focus of sound and vision?

SW: Pretty much. I think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation, when I was saying that what I fell in love with was the package and holding the record. Itís always been important that the artistic process doesnít end with the delivery of the audio master tape. Actually, we drive our record company crazy because weíre one of the only bands theyíve ever had that actually gets involved in those types of things, like what kind of paper weíre going to print the booklet on. They think weíre insane. Theyíre not used to hearing that from Kid Rock or Uncle Kracker, ringing up, saying, "Can you print the booklet on this particular type of paper?"

Both: (laugh)

SW: But I love that. I love the whole process of getting involved in the fine details and taking care in the whole package. That really extends from us from the very beginning: the writing, recording, mixing, mastering, the origination of the artwork, the website, the live show visuals... for me, everything is part of the whole aesthetic vision of an artist. In a way, it disappoints me that so many artists just seem to be happy to deliver an audio tape to their record company and just stick some nice studio shot of the artist on the front cover. Itís very banal, and I think thatís why we were talking about the death of the album as an art form. I think artists have been partly responsible for that themselves. They're not taking care in how they package their art. Thatís always been very important to me, ever since I fell in love with records and gatefold sleeves and inner bags. All that stuff is part of the magic of music. I think that's true for a lot of fans, which is probably why we have such a loyal fan base.

NW: I know the show here in Milwaukee was sold-out, and you're really getting a lot of people here in America interested in the band, which has been a long time coming. I know there are some people that think Porcupine Tree is a new band, but you guys have been around for a while. Did it also take a while to grow in Europe, or was that easier to crack?

SW: To be honest, for many years we were unable to tour America simply because of the expense, and we didnít have a domestic release in America. Europe was somewhere we concentrated on for many years, and we have built up a good following in Europe. At the moment, Iíd say Europe is still slightly ahead in terms of quantity of records we sell and the kind of audiences we play to. But I have to say that America is really catching up very quickly. Weíve really only been touring America for two or three years, and weíve literally gone from playing for 50 people to playing for 1,200 people in Chicago, or for 1,000 people in San Francisco. I mean, the Milwaukee show was one of the smaller shows-- 300 or 400-- but that was also sold-out. Most of the shows on the last tour were sold-out or at capacity, and thatís very encouraging. I think America could very soon bypass Europe, even though weíve spent three times as long working on our profile in Europe. I think America will very soon become the primary market for us, which is great.

NW: I know youíve gotten to work with people like Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp before. That must be really great to work with people who have inspired you in some way.

SW: Absolutely. We had Robert Fripp opening for us on the West Coast, as well, which was a real honor-- a real thrill for me. Itís amazing, and I think one of the great things about Porcupine Tree is that even though we donít sell masses of records, we do count amongst a lot of other musicians. I think weíre the kind of band that does inspire and appeal to other musicians because we have a kind of musicality. We take a lot of care over our whole aesthetic vision, and I think other musicians respond to that. People like Robert and Adrian, obviously, this is what theyíve been doing for years. Itís almost come full circle in the sense that those are the guys that were influencing us and inspiring us to be musical, and now theyíre encouraged to see younger musicians coming through that are also doing that. Itís a real thrill for me to even know that these guys are listening to the music, let alone to have them play on the record, which is just extraordinary.

NW: So, whatís next? I know with all these other projects you have a lot to do, but what is the primary focus right now? More touring for Porcupine Tree? Or is it time to focus on a few of these other things right now?

SW: Tree is still very much taking up a lot of my time because of the touring side. But in terms of the studio work, Iíve just finished up another album with my Bass Communion project, and Iím working on some more Blackfield songs. Iím taking a little bit of a break from Porcupine Tree writing because it was a very intense record to make. Each record gets a little bit harder to make than the previous record, and I don't want to repeat myself as a writer. Every time I come to write a new record thereís a little bit less I can do because Iíve done it before. This record was really tough to write, but Iím really pleased with it and I do believe itís our best record. So this year I'm going to be touring with Tree, and there will be little bits of activity in some of my other projects. And then it will be time to get down to writing a new record early next year, and maybe get something out toward the end of 2006 or early 2007.

NW: Are you going to be doing more tours in the States?

SW: Yeah, weíre coming back for about five or six weeks in October. Itís great that there seems to be a lot of demand now for the band, and I think that some of the promoters on this tour were very happy to see the band filling venues. So theyíre very keen to have us back, and weíre very keen to come back. It seems to really be picking up for us, and thereís a real sense of momentum now.

NW: After seeing the show I must say itís well-deserved.

SW: Thank you.

NW: Just one last question before you go. This is one we ask everyone we interview. Do dogs have lips?

SW: (laughs) A very deep question, huh? Iíve no idea. Isnít there something about how dogs canít look up or something?

NW: I have heard something about that. Is that true?

SW: I donít know. Iíve never watched a dog long enough to figure out if it could look up. Thatís kind of a bizarre fact, isnít it? Do dogs have lips? Ahhh... are you looking for a serious answer here?

NW: How ever you feel about it.

SW: Well, Iíve never tried to kiss a dog, and thatís probably the best test, isnít it? The best test to find out if they have lips would be to kiss one, but dogs are also notorious for their breath, so Iím not going to be rushing to try that.

Both: (laugh)

NW: Well, if you decide to find out you can always shoot me an email with your findings.

SW: Yeah, okay. But donít hold your breath.

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