Interview with Steven Wilson
from Porcupine Tree
by Ed Sander
On a sunny Tuesday in August I met Steven Wilson, the frontman of Porcupine Tree who should need no further introduction among frequent visitors of DPRP, in a hotel in Amsterdam. Steven had a tight schedule. He was in Holland for two days and no less than 20 interviews. With only 30 minutes to spare I focussed on the questions about the band’s new album, The Incident. Regardless of the limited time it turned out to be an inspiring conversation in which Steven openly discussed the style of the new album, his fascination with the way the media cover shocking events, life-changing experiences from his childhood and his fascination (or frustration) with religion, trains and ghosts.
Have you got a lot of interviews today ?
I’ve had ten yesterday and I’m doing ten today, but you’re catching me still quite fresh.
There’s been a lot of changes in the style of Porcupine Tree throughout their history since the early nineties. Every couple of albums there’s often a change in direction. What can the fans expect of the new album ?
I think you’re right, there have been some shifts in style. But they’ve never been contrived ones. They’ve always been kind of a natural response to the music I’ve been listening to at the time. The metal for example began to come into the sound because I was listening to a lot of metal. And there was a shift to more song-based material around Stupid Dream because I was listening to a lot of song-based music. So, the output tends to be kind of a reflection of the input in a way.
I think what’s different about this record is the scale of the ambition in terms of the musical journey, the musical continuum that you’re going to be taken on with this record. If you look at the last couple of records there’s been a move towards longer pieces of music. On the last record, Fear of a Blank Planet, there was an 18 minute track, which was the first time we’ve included such a long piece of music on a album for many, many years. Kind of leading on from that – and I guess gaining in confidence from having made that long piece and to have it be so successful – is the attempt on this album to create almost an album-length piece of music in the great tradition of seventies conceptual album-length pieces. You know, Thick as a Brick or Sgt. Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve always loved those records, so in a sense it’s an attempt this time to create this album-length musical continuum, which is not something easy. And actually, to be fair, I’ve attempted this in the past and for whatever reason it hasn’t really worked out. This time it just clicked, and I think it’s a sense of having the experience and confidence to pull off something like this. So it’s definitely a very intense musical journey. You could say that about all our records I guess, but this one definitely is on a larger scale.
I noticed that style-wise there’s also a lot of reference to, say, the Lightbulb Sun period. More acoustic …
Yes, I think that on this record there’s also a sense of summing up in a way of all of the years of Porcupine Tree. The harder edge sound that came in perhaps two or three albums ago I think now has become more just a part of the fabric, part of the language that we’re used to speak in. I think people also are now more used to all of the various different aspects of Porcupine Tree. The acoustic, the metal side, the psychedelic side, the pop side, the ambient side; they’ve now all become elements that we use. With The Incident I thinks there’s a kind of almost a summing up of the whole history of Porcupine Tree in this one large scale way.
I read about the concept of The Incident. What incidents are you referring to in all of the different songs ?
Well there’s two kinds of strands on the record. The original idea for The Incident came really from external things, for example stories I would see on the media. I became fascinated with the way that the media use this word ‘incident’. It’s fascinating when you watch the news for example, certainly in England, that the way that the media choose to personalise certain stories and to depersonalise some stories … Let me explain what I mean by that. For example, an earthquake in India that kills 10.000 people will be described as ‘an incident’. It’s very depersonalised and very distanced. You’re not expected to relate very emotionally to the story. Michael Jackson dying on the other hand, the way the media portrayed that story was in a very emotional, very personal way. It wasn’t the same dispassionate coverage that would be used for an earthquake in India. Of course I understand why that is, because we all know who Michael Jackson is. We all feel like we have some knowledge of him as a person. So we can relate to him as a person in a way that we don’t necessarily relate to people in India that we don’t know.
When you start to watch the news you do start to notice these shifts in emphasis between the very dispassionate and the very emotional. I began to be fascinated with this word ‘incident’, the way it’s used to almost distance some of these in most cases very traumatic events like homicide, kidnaps, child abuse, natural tragedies. The word ‘incident’ was used in a way to distance. So I started to pick out some of these stories from the news and write about them, almost in an attempt to put some emotional resent back in. I took a story about a religious cult in America, a story about a body being found in a river, I took the original incident which was a road accident that I experienced first hand and I began to write about these things from a more personal perspective. So that’s where the original idea of The Incident came from.
That then let me further into thinking about incidents in my own life. Traumatic and otherwise, sometimes good incidents which had changed the course of my life and, if you like, after which things were never the same again. A kind of personal, autobiographical aspect came back into the music. So it’s a bit of a mixture in a way. I don’t want to say that this is a very strong concept, like Fear of a Blank Planet was a very strong concept. This isn’t a very strong concept, it’s a quite loose concept. It’s a loose theme that runs through, but for me the concept is in the music this time. The lyrical concept is quite loose, but still there’s a theme that runs through. A theme that I could kind of sum up as being ‘things after which the path of life has been changed’ or after which ‘things never will be the same again’ for the individual concerned.
The album starts with a reference to Occam’s Razor theory, which if I understand it correctly, says that one needs to discard anything that relies too much on assumptions.
Exactly! The whole thing about Occam’s Razor for me is that it’s like a prelude to The Blind House, which is the song about the religious cult. I’ve written a few songs over the years about my feelings about organised religion. Things like Halo and Sever on the Signify album. I’m not a fan of religion. I don’t believe in God. I believe in human beings. I believe God is inside us. I believe in spirituality but I don’t believe in worshipping. I’ve written many songs about this and the interesting thing about Occam’s Razor is that if you apply it’s principle to religion Occam’s Razor basically says that whatever the most obvious, the most acceptable and the most logical explanation than that’s the one you have to accept. There are many theories to explain something, you have to discard all the ones for which you’ll say there’s not enough evidence or it seems implausible and you accept the one that has the most scientific weight. If you apply that principle to the creation of the universe and why are human beings here, God and religion is about 50.000 on a list of plausible explanations. Darwinism and evolution is definitely the explanation that applies best to Occam’s Razor. So for me it’s just another theory that discards the whole idea, and as Richard Dawkins says if you believe in God you might as well believe in Santa Clause or the Spaghetti Monster.
You’ve read The God Delusion I guess ?
Absolutely ! I’m totally with him on everything. So that for me, if you apply the theory of Occam’s Razor to the creation of the universe, God and religion don’t even figure for a second. For me it’s kind of like a prelude to The Blind House. It’s instrumental anyway. I wanted to raise this theory I’m not sure many people are aware of. This theory or philosophy is an interesting one. It makes a lot of sense.
What are Great Expectations and Kneel and Disconnect about ?
Great Expectations is something about my own life. It’s about a very close friend I had when I was very young, like seven or eight years old. His family moved away, I lost touch, and then discovering 30 years later that he actually had a lot of mental problems. He’d been in and out of mental institutions and eventually ended up in prison. And the shock that I felt remembering my childhood friend and seeing how different the paths of our lives had been … and the sense of shock and sadness I felt about that. That’s what Great Expectations is about.
Kneel and Disconnect is about the day that I decided to be a professional musician, which is of course one of the events that changed the path of my life. It’s very short, there’s only two lines in the song but they basically concern this idea of choosing a new career. And it was a scary moment for me because I had a very good job. I was well paid, had a company car … I was very young but I had all this stuff. I had a good wage, regular security and all and I decided to give it all up and kind of step into the darkness and become a professional musician. And it worked out okay for me, but it may not have done. So that was a scary day.
Of course there’s also one of the recurring references to trains on the album in the instrumental piece The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train. It’s a bit of a weird psychedelic kind of piece. Can you explain the relevance?
Along with religion, trains are another thing that crop up many times in my lyrics, songs and titles. For me the train is a metaphor for a nostalgic childhood, the reason being that when I was young I grew up near a train station. I would very often go to sleep hearing the sound of trains moving in and out of the station. So for me, every time I hear a train now it sets of a chain of memories of childhood. A sound of a train for me can link to many, many, many other things like smells, sights, sounds, memories both good and bad. So the train can becomes a metaphor for almost looking back to my childhood and the song that follows, Time Flies, is an autobiographical song about my childhood. So it’s almost like leading you back. If you think of it in terms of movement it’s a train taking you back in history, moving you from one place to another into a very different place on the record. Because on the record, suddenly in the middle of the piece The Incident, Time Flies is a piece about me, about my childhood and it’s about growing up. About all the things that formed me, all the incidents if you like, that formed me as a person and created my personality. It’s almost like going back in time. It’s like when you’re in a movie this would be the incidental reason for the time travel sequence.
Is this why it sounds like a lullaby or almost fairground-like piece of music ?
Yes, it’s a very kind of nostalgic, almost sentimental, almost romantic idea, this notion of going back into the playroom. The toy box, the musical box. This sense of innocence and naivety and childishness. There’s almost a Victorian kind of quality to it.
Talking about Time Flies, it’s quite different from the rest of the songs. Was it composed together with the other songs ?
It was, it was composed with the rest of the songs. The whole album, the whole piece was composed in the sequence you’re hearing. So Time Flies was composed immediately after Yellow Windows of the Evening Train, immediately before the next piece. The reason Time Flies is different is because it’s supposed to be about me, my childhood, what formed me and also what formed me as a musician. The musical reference in it relate more to the music I grew up with. So you hear a very deliberate reference to Pink Floyd for example. The first album I ever bought was Animals. There’s a riff in there that’s very similar, just different enough to not get sued. There are also musical clues as well as lyrical clues to me growing up and to what created me as a musician, what created me as a person. That’s one of the reasons why musically it does take you into a different area perhaps to some of the rest of the record.
Another theme that is recurring on this album and which we’ve seen before, on Deadwing for instance, is your fascination with ghosts. There’s The Séance and if I’m not mistaking there’s a reference in the song The Incident as well. Can you tell us something about this fascination ?
I think ghosts for me, again, is another metaphor for the past, for memories, for impressions. I mean I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts in the way that people understand ghosts to be the spirits of people that have passed on. I’m not sure I believe in that, but at the same time I find it a very romantic notion that the past and memories are still somehow with us all the time. The ghosts of things that have gone are somehow still with us.
The Séance was something, again, autobiographical, one of the incidents from my own childhood. I did, with some friends, have a séance once and it was very scary. I don’t think it was scary because of something that really happened but when you get four or five people together having a séance there’s something about the energy that you’re all feeding off each other’s fear and tension. And it actually was very powerful, it was very scary and I never wanted to do it again. And I think it did change me as a person.
I did believe very strongly in ghosts as a kid. I was fascinated with ghost photography. I used to collect so-called pictures of ghosts and actually a lot of them have not been disproved as fakes. There was one picture I remember when I was very young that gave me nightmares for months, which is a picture of a husband and wife at a funeral of their mother, sitting in the front seat of the car. And in the back of the seat you can see the mother, looking out at the camera. And years and years and years later, about a few years ago, I found on the Internet a explanation for this picture. It was a double exposure. What had happened was, the previous picture on the reel had been taken when the mother was still alive and with the next exposure on the reel, for whatever reason the film hadn’t moved on, it had jammed. So the next exposure had been over the top and it just so happened that the picture fell exactly … I thought Christ ! I wish I’d known that. That picture scared me so much when I was a kid.
So I was fascinated by ghosts when I was a kid and I think again for me it’s a very romantic notion. And you know, you can think of ghosts in another metaphorical way as this idea of memories of your own past, the ghosts of your own history. The good and bad things that you always carry around with you are kind of your own ghosts, emotional ghosts if you like. Someone else will have to analyse me, I’m not quite sure
where it comes from.
Well, now that you mention, the new PR picture has the band looking like you’re all working in an asylum.
(Laughs) Right, because we’re all dressed in white !?
Was that deliberate ?
You know why we did that? It’s because we’re on Roadrunner, which is a metal label. And every single band on Roadrunner, when you look at their promotional pictures they’re always the same. Dressed is black, tattoos … and we thought let’s go in the opposite direction and let’s distance ourselves from that heavy rock metal cliché. I’m not sure about the pictures myself. I mean, the whole thing about promotional pictures of the band is kind of ridiculous anyway. Being photographed just because you make music is kind of ridiculous. I much prefer natural pictures, caught in the act pictures. This whole idea of posing for a picture seems slightly ridiculous. But what do you do. Anyway, so we tried to do something different with it.
Well, it does work. I mean, if you look at the Roadrunner page it’s all black black black and then there’s you guys.
Yeah, we look different. We stand out a bit. I’m not sure in a good way, but we do stand out.
What can people expect of the live performance of The Incident ?
We’re going to play the whole of the first CD, so the song cycle itself, about 55 minutes. That will be the first half of the show. Because, if I can use the analogy of it being like a book, it is like a novel. You wouldn’t read a novel by reading chapter 7 and then reading chapter 2, missing chapter 4. So the idea is to present the whole narrative, the story – the musical story, I don’t mean lyrical story – as a complete piece, then have an interval. We have a lot of new films. Lasse Hoile, our visuals guy, is working on new multimedia stuff for the show, some new films. There’s a very scary piece of The Séance for example. It’s going to be quite an experience the first half of the show and then the second half of the show is going to be, you know, a selection of other pieces. We’re not quite sure what yet.
You’ll definitely need that intermezzo, right? To catch your breath …
We’ll probably need 5 to 10 minutes. We’ll need a break. The audience will need a break. I kind of like the idea.
With The Incident there’s the additional disc with 4 more band compositions that cover about 20 minutes of music. Why was it decided to add that as another disc instead of doing another EP like Nil Recurring later on ?
Right, the reason is that we thought the pieces were very strong and if you do an EP or a mini-album on a later day, inevitably it never ever gets the same attention. It never sells the same amount as the album. The album is seen as the statement, all of the promotion will go on the album. This is the one that will reach the most people. I think it’s one of the things we realised when we did Nil Recurring because we thought those pieces were strong too and in a way it didn’t sell anywhere near as many as Fear of a Blank Planet, which sold something like a 180.000 copies while Nil Recurring sold about 50.000 copies. Simply because EPs, mini-albums – and because it came very late in the album cycle and all the promotion had already been done – sell more to the fan base. So a lot of people missed out on that. And I think with a kind of pragmatic approach in mind we thought this time ‘let’s actually put these on the album’. Because we thought the pieces are really good. They don’t belong to the main song cycle, but if you’d like to continue the book analogy they are like the short stories. You’ve got the novel on disc one and you’ve got a very different listening experience with a book of short stories on disc two. And I think the songs are just as strong as the main piece. They just – for whatever reason – didn’t fit in with the main song cycle. It’s a very different listening experience. So basically to answer you’re question, it’s because we want those songs to reach the same people that the main album reaches.
But there wasn’t the urge to go for a full-fledged double album ?
Not for the sake of it. At the end of the day, the music that we produced was the music that we produced. It was about 75 minutes of music. We could have put it all on one disc. I didn’t want to do that for the reasons we’ve already talked about. We could have gone back into the studio and started writing new music but it would have been just for the sake of quantity. And music should never be about that. You don’t make music by the yard. You make music because it comes to you, you don’t make music for the sake of quantity. Some people do, having said that, but that’s not what we do. We worked very hard and we produced that amount of music. So be it. Now you find the best way to present that music. So the full length album and the EP or the novel and the short stories is the way it worked.
The song that I found standing out most was Bonnie the Cat. Especially because reading the title you expect something like a very sweet kind of song, but it turns out to be a very menacing piece. What’s behind that ?
It’s named after the studio cat. The title has got nothing to do with the music. Basically what happened, which is what all bands do, when you’re working on a piece of music you have working titles. Like for example when I was working with Opeth all their tracks were called things like Zeppelin and Tool. So they were all named after the bands the pieces reminded them of. Before the lyrics, our pieces all had working titles. Some of them were pornographic and some of them were named after bands. This piece was named after the studio cat, Bonnie. And I just grew to love it as a title. I thought it was just really funny to name this very dark piece Bonnie the Cat. It sounds like a super hero, Bonnie the Cat. She’s a very sweet cat, so we like the idea of naming a piece after a pussycat.
It doesn’t sound sweet …
No it doesn’t. But I like that. I always like that sort of irony. I’m very perverse that way.
What kind of formats can people expect of the new album?
Right! Regular double CD. Special edition, which is going to be amazing. Did you see the special edition of my solo album?
Yes I have …
It’s like that, except even more. It’s like the 120 page hardback book with the photos and lyrics and the three discs. Two disc and a DVD with the surround sound mix. Then there’s a second book of drawings by this German artist who’s interpreted The Incident in amazing drawings, very kind of violent passionate drawings. Both of those books are housed in a hard heavy duty slipcase box, again beautifully designed. That’s the special edition. And then there’s going to be a double vinyl which again is going to have a very different packaging concept, which is three separate vinyl sleeves all housed in a transparent slipcase with the title of the text embossed in white on the transparent sleeve. A bit like we did the original Lightbulb Sun years ago. So three editions.
The DVD audio version, is that going to be available outside the limited edition ?
Later it will be. A bit like we did with Blank Planet; first the special edition will have a version of the DVD and then later on we’ll do perhaps an enhanced version just to sell through mail order.
There’s some people that have been saying that the limited edition is probably very cool but they don’t have $106 to cough up for it.
Is that how much it is ? How much is it ?!
106 dollars …
106 dollars ?! Is that including shipping ? Wow … that’s expensive. I didn’t know it was going to be that expensive.
Yeah, there’s a lot of noise on the forums about it …
There always is. I remember when I did the special edition of my solo album I remember people were furious about the costs. And it was 34 pounds I think, plus shipping. But they all shut up when they saw it, when they realised what they were getting. Those cost me about 30 Euro each to make. Unfortunately with special packaging it is very expensive to make. I think it’s worth it. And speaking as a collector myself, if something is really special … I mean, I buy all of the specials. The Sigur Ros, that was about a hundred dollars, and that was just a book with two discs. But I didn’t feel bad about buying it because I know it’s something I’m going to treasure for the rest of my life. But I know not everyone has the money and it’s unfortunate but the bottom line, the reality is that it’s expensive to make these things. Really expensive. With hardback clothbound book, another book, a slipcase, three discs … maybe it’s costing right around that to make it. I’m guessing it’s costing them a lot to make. But I didn’t realise it was going to be that much. But you know, at the end of the day record companies are also in the business of making money. I guess they probably added a fair amount to what it cost them to make it. I imagine it will cost them at least 50 to 60 dollars to make anyway. I’m sorry they won’t be able to get hold of it, but that’s life unfortunately.
One final personal question to close of with. One I’ve been wondering and arguing with others about for a long time. What’s the 60 ton angel that falls to the earth in Trains?
The 60 ton angel is a train ! I don’t know how much they weigh, I think I just guessed. 60 tons sounded about right. I think it’s a train … it’s a long time since I wrote the song. The idea is that a train is this kind of angelic heavenly thing that’s come to earth. It’s a romantic notion of this train falling from the heavens … I think. It’s a long time. Sometimes I forget what I meant when I wrote things. But I’m pretty sure I was talking about a train.
Thank you very much for your time Steven and looking forward to seeing you on the road.
Interview for DPRP
by Ed Sander