Porcupine Tree: Great Expectations
Led by songwriter-guitarist-singer Steven Wilson, U.K.-based Porcupine Tree shares a strong resonance with greats like Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and King Crimson, but also drip with modernity. Listening to the their long-form ideas unfold it’s clear Wilson has absorbed the production and creative sensibilities of electronica, indie rock and the forward-minded heaviness of Mastadon and Meshuggah. While often lumped into the prog rock category, Porcupine Tree transcends simple descriptors by a resolute drive to create something that is theirs and theirs alone. The feel conjures up Floyd, et al. but the sound is their baby. And that child has grown and grown and grown since their inception, moving from years of intense, solitary work by Wilson into a startlingly gifted, emotionally charged quartet – Wilson (vocals, guitars, piano), Richard Barbieri (keys), Colin Edwin (bass) and Gavin Harrison (drums) – making some of the densest, ambitious and strangely satisfying rock today.
This is a band that stands apart, and this remove stems from their leader, who is the antithesis of a rock star despite his group’s increasing profile. Wilson is the definition of well spoken, slicing into things with great insight, endlessly trying to figure out what makes his music and, in a very palpable way, the world tick. There’s little time for subterfuge and fluff in Porcupine Tree, and the intensity of their music matches the heightened tensions of modern life, where strata of information and input is heaped upon strata, day after day after day. From lonely piano surrounded by subtle effects to heavy metal thick storms to reverberant glitch-scapes, Porcupine Tree straddles an enormous emotional range sonically and lyrically, yet does so in a way that continually connects one to the intrinsics of being human.
JamBase had the good fortune of speaking with Wilson for a few minutes before The Warfield gig, which proved a real triumph in scope, execution and reception. Despite The Incident‘s newness, not a few people were singing along, eyes wide and wet, faces shining with an intensity to match the band’s own. There was no escaping the feeling that one was witnessing a band worthy of joining the pantheon of its ancestors, and whose sincerity, talent, vision and singular nature, both in the studio and in performance, mark them as one of today’s great bands.
JamBase: I think it’s ambitious of any band to try and perform an entire new album live. You’re presenting music to people that’s just come out and doesn’t have the goodwill and affection the back catalog has built up.
JamBase: I’m glad you brought up movies because in trying to describe the character of The Incident it’s almost easier to point to the episodic filmmaking of Robert Altman or a movie like Crash, which offer a series of interlocking scenes, though the connections are rarely obvious at first glance – a collection of non-obvious congruences that gels into something far larger than the individual tales.
Steven Wilson: I didn’t work lyrically on it with any great theme in mind, but as I worked on it I started to notice connections to things in the media and things in my own past, biographical things. At the end of the day, we all have a shared human experience. We all understand what it’s like to have a love affair not go right or what it’s like to feel anger about something going on in the media. So, it’s very easy to weave stories together and make them feel complete, and I think the trick is in how you structure things. And I think that something we do that’s really unique and special is in the architecture of the music. People say we’re a prog rock band, but for me prog rock was always more about the technique and musicianship, and that’s not the case with Porcupine Tree. We write simple music, but where the complexity comes in is the architecture and structure. That’s something I’ve worked very hard on over the course of 25 years now, trying to get that right. And [The Incident] is a further step in that evolution.
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It can be quite depressing and quite hard when I’m working on the music. I do get into a space where I feel a lot of negative vibes – but I don’t want to get too New Age-y about it [laughs]. At the same time, it is like a catharsis or an exorcism to get this stuff out. People are always surprised when they meet me that I’m not this morose, depressed, miserable figure. I consider myself to be quite happy, but you’re right, my lyrics do dwell on some quite sick corners of the human psyche. But I guess that’s in all of us; we’re all aware of it on some level. Anyone who sits down and watches the news for ten minutes absorbs it, whether they realize it or not. So, for me, it’s almost a kind of catharsis to try and write about all that bile and stuff in songs. Hopefully people find it paradoxically beautiful and uplifting.
There’s a huge emotional well to your band’s music. That was what first drew me in, before I even began to appreciate the musicianship or even the lyrical content. It always seems like you’re drawing from a very deep place. You don’t seem to do casual well.
It all becomes about the personality of the person writing the music. How many songs have been written about love? Millions, yet we never get bored hearing love songs. If you have a fresh perspective on it then it can still be fresh. I love words. I grew up reading a lot of books and I love playing with words. I think there’s a lot of interesting ways to deal with subjects using words in a really fresh way, not relying on the clichés and platitudes you hear in most love songs. There’s a song I like called “Drawing The Line” [off The Incident], which uses not flowery but quite elaborate language and beautiful images, and it’s a love song. That’s what it is at the end of the day.
You write some fairly complex music, especially for a field like rock ‘n’ roll. The studio is one thing, where you can tweak and adjust to your heart’s desire, but do you ever think to yourself, “My lord, how are we going to pull this off in concert?”
Every single time I think, “What the fuck are we going to do to make this work?” And [The Incident] was no exception. Every time it gets a little bit harder, not necessarily more complex musically but, getting back to that idea of the architecture, more complex in the way it flows. We’re trying to perform the whole of The Incident, which is the first disc of the new album, with only one pause for breath. Just logistically, I change instruments about five times in the first 20 minutes, from piano to electric guitar to baritone guitar. Every five seconds it seems like my guitar tech is bringing me a new instrument. So, there are a lot of logistical complexities in presenting long, continuous suites of music. I think that’s where it gets hard.
In terms of the music itself, it’s not complicated. The complexity is in the structure. If you take any individual part of Porcupine Tree music they’re quite simple. I’m not capable of writing music in the style of Gentle Giant or Frank Zappa. I write simple songs, simple melodies.
I appreciate that there’s a bit of gut-punch to your music, a bit of snarl. A good portion of the music you’re lumped in with – rather wrongheadedly, I may add – can be a touch genteel. I think there’s a value in having some rough oomph, especially when you crank it up. Porcupine Tree can be quite visceral, where it’s not totally thought out and the music pours out in a purely emotional way.
You’re the germ of this music but I’m curious what the other guys in Porcupine Tree bring to the table.
Well, I really don’t consider myself a musician. I’m a songwriter, and I guess I’m in charge of the philosophy of the band. The ideology of the band came from me because it started as a solo project. But, I’ve never been about being technically gifted. For me, an instrument is a tool. I’m about to do an interview with Guitar Player magazine and for me that’s a bit like interviewing a writer and asking him about the pencils he uses. It seems ridiculous to me. On the other hand, I do hear in my head things that are quite musically sophisticated, so I need to work with musicians that are very gifted at fleshing out my very basic ideas. That’s where the other guys come in.
I don’t tell Gavin what to play on the drums. I don’t tell Richard what sounds to play. They come up with these incredible things that make the music, flesh it out and give it the level of detail where you can listen to it 50 or 60 times and still be hearing things you didn’t hear the first 50 times. Richard is really the secret weapon in our band. He’s totally unique. No one else could come up with those sounds. It’s almost because he approaches keyboard playing in terms of pure texture and pure sound and not technique and chops. We’re all about texture and sound in Porcupine Tree.
Porcupine Tree is on tour now; dates available here.
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