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An interview with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree

By Joakim Jahlmar


23 March, Porcupine Tree played Sweden for the first time. The concert took place in the rock club Kashmir in Borås with the Swedish metal band Opeth as support. I had the pleasure of meeting up with the front man Steven Wilson before the whole thing started and here is the result.

JJ:
The last two albums have been, for a lack of a better term, kind of more commercial than your earlier stuff. I know that that has been upsetting some fans, I think it's a good way to move forward, but what will be your next step? Where will you go from here?

SW:
Back away from commercial, probably something much more dark. Well I should know, 'cause I've written the songs already. It's much darker and it's much more heavy. Move away from the more pop sensibilities of the last two albums. I guess the pop element has been replaced by more of a metal element. Still, recognisably Porcupine Tree, but just - you know - a further stage in the evolvement and the development of the band. I mean, we've never been interested in repeating ourselves. And every time the fans think they know how to categorise us, we take great divides and great pride in disappointing them... or not. Or surprising them, or however they look at it. Some people like it, some people don't.

JJ:
During a concert in Holland recently, you stated that Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled from Lightbulb Sun is not, contrary to popular opinion, about ecology but "the fucked up religions one can find in America."

SW:
Correct.

JJ:
Seeing that there is a strand of songs dealing with religion in you work - Intermediate Jesus (Signify, 1996), Even Less (Demo Version) (Four Chords That Made A Million - single, limited edition, 2000), and in What Colour Is God? which you co-wrote with Fish for Sunsets on Empire - what kind of role does religion play for you and for your art?

SW:
Religion is always one of those things which have fascinated me in a kind of negative way, if you like. It is something which has fascinated me in a kind of gruesome way. I think it's really disturbing. I'm not including all religions, I'm not including all people who have religious beliefs. Certainly organised religion, particularly really fundamental American religious cults I find extremely disturbing and this whole idea of TV evangelism and using, exploiting people's weaknesses, exploiting people's emotional insecurities, basically in order to obtain power, to obtain money, to obtain ego. And there's been a whole series of things like this, you know, the Waco thing. The particular track, Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth... is based on a religious cult called the Heaven's Gate cult. Very similar to a lot of other cults. They all committed suicide because they were told to by their leader. Their leader was an extremely disturbed man, who basically had problems with his own ego. Very insecure, didn't really have any purpose in his own life and he made the purposes of his life basically to have power over other individuals - weaker individuals than himself. I find that really disturbing and I find the whole concept of - it's not religion that concerns me, it's not people who have spiritual beliefs, but it's the politics of religion and the commercial side of religion. Which, in some ways, is the sickest and most disturbing form of politics we have on this Earth, because it masquerades as something else. It masquerades as something, a gateway for people to happiness and to an afterlife or whatever, when in fact all it is, is just people exploiting other people weaker than themselves for the purposes of power and money. I've always found that to be a great source of inspiration for me in writing, because I tend to write about things that I don't like, rather than things that I do like. That's in the most simplistic way, I find it easier to write songs about the negative side of the world than it is about the happy side of the world. And consequently can you say I'm quite miserable myself and our lyrics are quite miserable, and yes, they are. But it's not because I'm a miserable person, it's because I'm fascinated by the negative aspects of the world in which we're living.

JJ:
Is there any specific unifying theme to Lightbulb Sun as an album?

SW:
No, not as a whole. There are groups of songs that kind of belong together. There are at least four or five songs on that record which I call the divorce songs, the relationship songs, which are all about various stages of the splitting up a relationship, of dissolving a relationship. Russia On Ice, How Is Your Life Today, Shesmovedon, Feel So Low, I mean, the last track of the album. The period in a relationship, where the relationship is kind of... still exists, but it's in that period where, really, there is nothing left but hatred and despise - Hatesong is the other one. But then on the other hand, there are groups of songs on the album which are all about various childhood... nostalgic childhood reminisces, Lightbulb Sun and the first part of Last Chance To Evacuate Planet Earth, Where We Would Be. So there are kind of groups of songs. And then there's a couple of songs that don't have any relation to anything else. Four Chords That Made A Million doesn't have any relation to anything else on the album, or anything else I've ever written. It's just that.

JJ:
You were playing support for Dream Theater last year... How did that come to be?

SW: They... I'd never heard of Dream Theater, but I got an e-mail from the keyboard player, Jordan, and he said that he was a big fan of Porcupine Tree. He really liked what we do and, by the way, he was in a band called Dream Theater. I'd never really heard of Dream Theater, so for a long time I just filed it away and didn't think anything of it. And then I read... I started to hear a bit more about Dream Theater and I realised that actually they were quite a well known group. And then they announced they were coming to London to play quite a big show. And in the meantime, I'd gone out and bought the Metropolis album and I thought... not really my kind of music, but I thought, for what it was, it was very good. And I thought, you know, very good musicianship, interesting kind of approach to music. And I e-mailed Jordan back and I said, "look I know you're coming to play Hammersmith Apollo. We'd like to come and support you." And I got an e-mail actually back from Mike, the drummer, saying, "well we're all big fans of you. Why don't you come and do the whole tour with us." So that was that. And then we had a great tour and I think we reached a lot of new people. And we became good friends with them. So it was good.

JJ:
And while on the subject of metal... how did your work with Opeth start? Why did you produce their album?

SW:
I love metal. I mean, I love extreme metal. I don't like sort of commercial metal, but I love really extreme metal and death metal, and black metal particularly. And, of course, we're in the home of... Sweden and Norway are kind of a home of death metal and black metal. I got given, by journalist one day, a CD by Opeth, and he said, "these guys are really big fans of yours. I think you might like this." And I do get given a lot of CDs and demos, although usually I don't like them, but mainly because most of them are old fashioned progressive rock, which I'm not really into. But I put this on at a gig that night and I just thought that it was amazing - a really amazing group. And I just thought that... I didn't think there was anything I could do for them actually. I thought, well you know, "it's amazing already. There's nothing I can do." But I just dropped Mike, the singer, an e-mail to say, you know, "Oliver gave me a CD, I think it's really fantastic. So I wanted to tell you it's really great." And he mailed me right back and said, "we want you to produce our next album." And in the events, I think I did manage to put some of my own personality into it. Particularly with some of the vocal ideas and harmonies- Have you heard the album?

JJ:
No, I haven't.

SW:
OK. You should check it out. It's very-

JJ:
I've heard very good comments about it though.

SW:
Yeah, it's a great album, and I can't take any credit for that, because it was a great album long before I got involved with it. But we did some work on the vocals, harmonies on the melodic singing, made the guitars more textured, worked much harder on the intricacies of the production, create different levels. I mean, it's a very sophisticated record. It's not your average metal album by any stretch of the imagination. But for me, that's what real progressive music is all about. You know, taking a style which is really contemporary, like death metal which is totally now - you know, it's not something that happened 30 years ago, it's very now - and combining it with more progressive elements to create something new that's... that, for me, is what progressive music should be about. And I think that the album is a true, true progressive album.

JJ:
A question now, that I think a lot of people wonder about, is - will you work with Fish again in the future?

SW:
Um, I wouldn't rule it out completely, but I'm too busy these days. The problem is with... the thing is, it's not a problem. But the situation with Fish is that, when you get involved with Fish, it's very much like a major commitment, because you need... He very much relies on people he collaborates with to give him the musical identity, the sound of the music. Because he's a lyricist and a singer. So when you work with Fish, you basically have to get involved right from the beginning - in the song writing, the arrangement, the performance, the production, the mixing, and everything. And for me, on the album I did do with him in '96, it was about four to five months commitment. And at the time, Porcupine Tree weren't doing as well as we are now, and now I just couldn't afford that kind of time for a project like that. I mean, Opeth was like three weeks. That's about as much time as I can spare, you know, production-wise, now, because I have my own. And I have to give priority to my projects. So I suspect, never in that way again. I played guitar on the album after that, which meant I just went up for a couple of days and played the guitar. That's more likely to be the kind of involvement, just going there, playing the guitar. But then again, he's got a great guitar player now, so...

JJ:
Any other people active in the music industry you would kind of... love to work with?

SW:
Yeah, lots and lots. I mean, there's people I'd like to work with Porcupine Tree. There's an American producer called Andy Wallace. I just love the way his records sound. He was Jeff Buckley's producer, he produced Jeff Buckley's only studio album Grace. He mixes on a lot of albums, he mixed Nirvana's Nevermind. He just makes rock records that sound absolutely fantastic. If we ever could afford him, I'd love to have him come and produce and mix Porcupine Tree. As regards myself producing other artists... There's a Swedish band called Meshuggah - don't know if you know them?

JJ:
I think I've heard of them.

SW:
Meshuggah, I'd love to work with them. They're just fantastic. I'd love to work with Robert Fripp again. I worked with him once and I'd love to work with him again. Brian Eno, I'd love to work with Brian Eno. Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins, Björk... Yeah it's loads of people I'd like to work with. It's easy to get distracted, you know.

JJ:
I think that's always an easy thing, whatever you do.

SW:
Yeah.

JJ:
I've heard that you play your concerts with bare feet...

SW:
Yes.

JJ:
Why is that?

SW:
Well, I don't... I have a problem wearing shoes anyway. Always had that, since I was a kid. So I tend to go around bare feet quite a lot anyway... It's more comfortable and it's easier for me to operate my pedals. I got like... pedals, lots of pedals, and it's much easier for me to do that without shoes. But I just feel more comfortable. I have a carpet on stage and it's not like I'm walking on nails or anything. It just feels better to me.

JJ:
OK. Well I think you might need some resting time now, before you need to go. Thank you for the interview.

SW: A pleasure.

 

 


© text: 2001 - Joakim Jahlma (text) & Hester Stasse (pictures)