Porcupine Tree: Great Expectations

By: Dennis Cook

Porcupine Tree
Inside The Warfield in San Francisco, a full house is tensed and alert like bloodhounds that’ve caught the scent of fresh game. Onstage only a few minutes, Porcupine Tree is generating a thick, hypnotic atmosphere as they move through The Incident, their tenth studio album, released September 14 on new label home Roadrunner Records, just four days prior. The lack of familiarity seems to matter not a bit to the rapt audience, who are floored by the rush of sound and barrage of evocative imagery blurring by on the screen above the stage. In the 18 years since their 1991 debut, On the Sunday of Life…, Porcupine Tree has built up a rapport and respect with their fans that allows them to take chances, like presenting a brand new release in its entirety before most have had an opportunity to absorb it in more than surface ways. Such is the force and seductive passion of their work that one is glad to go wherever they might travel.

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.

Porcupine Tree
Live, the group is augmented by stellar guitarist John Wesley, who’s worked with Marillion, Sister Hazel, and Fish, which further thickens their stew. Add to this dramatic lighting effects, an exhilarating, sometimes disturbing film/video element keyed to nearly every track in the setlist – much of it the product of the whacked, fevered imagination of Danish photographer/filmmaker Lasse Hoile, who has been crucial in defining the tone and image of the band for many years – and a commitment to full, enfolding sound production and you’ve got one of the finest touring units around. Like their studio releases, Porcupine Tree’s concerts strive to be an experience and not just another night on the town, and their fervent, ever-growing fan base worldwide speaks to the success of their efforts, despite an almost total non-acquiescence to traditional marketing schemes and consciously populist shaping.

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.

Steven Wilson – Porcupine Tree
Steven Wilson: The idea comes from the philosophy that the band has always had, which is the idea of the album as a musical continuum. Really, the idea is to extend that through the show in live presentation. There are precedents for this, mostly from the ’70s; this idea that you can do more than just record ten songs and throw them together, and that you can present a show that’s more than just a setlist of randomly ordered songs. I think there’s something about albums and shows like that if you get it right – the dynamics and flow and evolution of the music right throughout the show and throughout the album – you can really leave the listener with the impression that they’ve really traveled somewhere. It’s a bit like in a movie or a novel, where you go through many different moods, emotions, and feelings. You don’t often get that with music, so for me it’s almost a cinematic device to try and juxtapose different emotions and different styles of music across the scale to really take the listener on a journey.

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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The true horror, very often, lies very deep within all of us, and I believe one of the things about being an artist is you have to allow that to surface. Of course, many people bury it, but we all have this inside us – we ALL have this inside of us – and one of the things about being an artist is to allow this to surface without driving you crazy.

Steven Wilson

I appreciate that as a songwriter you’re willing to delve into darker material. You don’t flinch at much, and perhaps even make others flinch at times. You don’t do this in a melodramatic way, but you’ve dealt with some heavy subjects. I think The Incident shows even further growth as a lyricist, where some pretty deep stuff is handled in a fairly approachable manner.

Porcupine Tree by Grzegorz Chorus
One of the tricks with writing lyrics is you have to make the person listening feel they’re believable and sincere. The problem with a lot of music that deals with dark lyrical matter – and I’m talking mainly about metal – is you just don’t believe it. It’s very cartoony, and I think we’ve become desensitized to the whole darker side of life by horror films and metal music. The true horror, very often, lies very deep within all of us, and I believe one of the things about being an artist is you have to allow that to surface. Of course, many people bury it, but we all have this inside us – we ALL have this inside of us – and one of the things about being an artist is to allow this to surface without driving you crazy.

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.

Steven Wilson – Porcupine Tree
I don’t like fantastic lyrics. Let me explain what I mean by that. One of the clichés that goes along with the sort of music we supposedly play – art rock, prog rock, whatever – is the lyrics are supposed to be about starships or hobbits, and I don’t do that. I write very autobiographically from a deep, personal place. Most of my songs are somehow connected with relationships and how they’ve fucked me up, or my childhood and how that fucked me up. And that all comes back around to the sense of believability and credibility the songs seem to have. It’s something anyone can relate to; we all have this shared human experience where we wander around asking about things.

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.

Porcupine Tree
Totally, totally! I don’t like music that’s too intellectual, too exquisite. That’s actually not true. I do like some of that music, but I don’t like to make that kind of music. When it comes down to it, the music that’s really touched me over the years has found a middle ground between great melody, great songwriting, great emotional kick or resonance AND some degree of sophistication in the music and production – King Crimson, Pink Floyd, The Beatles – obviously – The Beach Boys. For me, the classic album artists straddle that line rather nicely. I like to think that we’ve found an area that’s somehow unique. We’ve done things in the tradition of what other bands have done but found our own little sound, our own little personality, our own little corner.

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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