Last year, Porcupine Tree released the critically acclaimed album Fear Of A Blank Planet (Duo Review of the CD here and review of the DVD here), toured the world twice over, released an EP Nil Recurring, finally got recognition in mainstream press and a Grammy award nomination to top it off.
There is no denying that 2007 was the year for Porcupine Tree, and 2008 is set to become another year full of surprises from Steven Wilson & Co. with a live album, a new No-Man album and last but not least a double solo album by Wilson himself.
DPRP sat down with all members of the band to talk about the past, the present and the future.
Over the recent years your music has become quite a bit heavier.
Richard Barbieri (RB): Yeah, everyone says that.
Colin Edwin (CE): It's probably a continuation from last one, I think.
Steven Wilson (SW): I'm not sure it's that much heavier. Is it heavier than Deadwing?
Gaving Harrison (GH): Well, it's been getting heavier since In Absentia, but not that much...
SW: I think Fear Of A Blank Planet gives the impression that it is heavy because it starts with a long heavy song, and then there is Anesthetize which has this long heavy section. But I don't know, you'd have to analyse it. My Ashes is pretty mellow as is the last section of Anesthetize. I think all our albums have had a bit of sense of light and shade on it. And perhaps we do some heavier bits here and there, but I think in general...
People ask questions all the time "why do you do this, why do you do that", but it's not self-conscious as such. It is more a question of just letting the music come and whatever comes naturally. The sound certainly got heavier a couple of albums ago, but that is partly because I emerge myself more in metal music and got back into riffs and stuff like that. And I think that has continued because Gavin obviously is a very powerful drummer and that side of things as well. But that's always been kind of there, that sort of heavy thing has always been bubbling underneath.
RB: Maybe so... I think it's more kind of rock.
CE: Heavy, as opposed to metal. Heavy!
RB: Well, that's the thing with guitarists you see.
You had nothing to do with it?
RB: I just try and find the space within it.
Your latest album, Fear Of A Blank Planet, is a concept album dealing with the deprivation of youth in our modern society.
SW: That's right, yes. You know as I was thinking about our world, this topic really hit me in the face. It is so depressing, the whole level of intellect of our youth. If you watch MTV for half an hour you get so depressed. It is all about getting famous. It is all hedonism. And of course it has to do with the fact that young people only communicate through/via their computer, their iPod, their mobile, or their PlayStations. They are addicted to their machinery and even I must admit that I can hardly live/function without my laptop.
Then there is their really weird attitude towards sex and drugs as they tend to use or rather abuse so-called medicines like uppers and downers. The result is: they get fucked up and they tend to get violent. Just take a look at that shooting in Omaha recently, which was so typical! The guy who did the shootings said that he shot those people because he wanted to become famous! So, you see, that is all that matters, becoming famous, how is not important. You can use American Idols, MTV, or Big Brother, as long as there is no need to develop and just become a little bit famous. That is something I find so depressing, and it is getting worse.
But I also see some groups rebelling against these kinds of programmes and ideas. Young people who visit our shows or gigs from bands like Tool, Opeth, or The Mars Volta already realise that there is more to our sort of music than to MTV clips. But, you know these young kids they were born in the computer age, so it is rather difficult for them to just enjoy good rock music. It is difficult for them to understand that there is more to life than computers!
RB: On previous albums, I kinda talked about lyrics with Steven, and was a bit more involved. I would give my advice on some words, and suggest maybe say this, or say that. But on the last two albums it was very difficult to have any input on the lyrics, because basically, Steven had this concept, this story. Steven actually took the lyrics of Fear... from a novel, called Luna Park by Brett Easton Ellis, and he had such a strong vision on how he wanted to adapt it.
Deadwing, as you probably know, was based on this film script. I read the script, so you can't really change anything about the lyrics then, you can't say you want to change the way the story goes, because it is in the script, you know? It's basically like The Lamb Lies Down, where the band had made this album, and then Peter Gabriel came in and said "alright, well this is the story".
On the epic track Anesthetize Alex Lifeson of Rush plays a solo. Why him in particular?
SW: Well, I have always been a great fan of Rush as I grew up with their music. I heard that Alex was a big fan of Porcupine Tree, so I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to play some guitar with us. He said: "of course, I would love that". So I left a special section for his solo on Anesthetize, and it worked out great.
That Magnus opus is hard to top, is it not?
SW: Topping a song is not really my goal. I think that the music of Porcupine Tree should evolve with every album we make. We must experiment and most of all surprise ourselves with new music. In fact Anesthetize is not my favourite song on the new album, although I am very proud of that track. I use new things and new experiences in my life to shape and compose new tracks.
On the previous album you also had some guest musicians playing solos, so has it now become a standard for Porcupine Tree to have a couple of guest musicians on each album?
RB: I think it's not key to the band. Steven had some e-mail from Adrian Belew. He thought Adrian kinda liked the material. And Mikael Åkerfeldt we've known for quite a while. Steven probably thought it would give a different flavour to the sound. I think maybe he wants to get another kind of sound or another take on what we are doing, at least solo-wise.
SW: Mikael was kind of a no-brainer, because I knew Mikael through the Opeth records. He's a good guitar player, he's just amazing. I wanted to have him on the record. And another reason is that Gavin replaced Chris and Chris was the only other singer in the band, so there's been a need to have other vocal textures to join with my vocals to make harmonies.
Of course, I had Wes (John Wesley - ed.) and he's been with the band playing live for a few years now. He's been on all the albums since In Absentia doing harmony vocals. Gavin did some things on In Absentia as well, but I wanted to use Mikael's voice for Deadwing. So that is how that came about. We have always worked very well together. I worked with him on his records, so I always knew I would want to have him on one of my records one day.
Adrian was actually kind of out of the blue, in the sense that we had already started working on Deadwing and we got a call from our manager to say that his manager had contacted our manager that he was a big fan of the band and that he would love to work with the band. I think he was putting himself forward as producer or co-writer or something, and I kind of sat back and thought: "well, very flattering." I'm a bit fan of Adrian and I love his stuff, but we had already started working on the album, would he like to play a couple of solos? Simple as that, really.
I think the best case of guest musicians is being borne out of mutual collaboration. It just becomes like having a friend over for dinner and "hey, do you want to play on our track over here". That is certainly how it was with Mikael, and with Robert as well really. Robert Fripp supported us on tour in America and we got along really well, so he added some of his soundscapes on Way Out Of Here on the album, which worked really well. Actually, he also played a lead solo on the Nil Recurring EP.
RB: Personally I have some reservations about using guest musicians. I'm not convinced it is the best way to do stuff. You have a band, and everybody plays their specific instruments. I am not sure why you need guest-musicians. I certainly don't like having a guest keyboard player on the album. Or a guest drummer. I can understand if you bring in instruments like a saxophone, but not something which is already covered within the group.
Well, in the case of Deadwing, there was a guest bass-player on the album as well...
CE: [laughs] Well, Steven played a lot of stuff with pick, which is something I never did before. I played some stuff using the standard technique, which is how I used to play bass. We argued about it and I lost the argument. So I had to learn to play with a pick to be able to play the stuff live. And it is something I never did before. It is a very different technique. For me, it was like going back to stage 1, and train all over again. But it was something I was glad to do, because I quite like it now. It was not something I wanted to do at first, because it was not really my thing, but some sounds you can't get it in the same way. Now I understand you can't get the same kind of attack when you play without a pick. Some context of the music really needs that attack, that heavy sound. So it was something new to work on for me.
How does the recording of a Porcupine Tree album go? Do you write and record together as a band?
RB: This one was a bit different really. We all got together and wrote some material as a band. And then we took the stuff out on the road before we recorded it. So we did the tour and then the actual recording of it happened in stages in different studios at different times. For example, I always like to go off on my own, into the countryside in my little studio and do my stuff, so that I can get away from everything that has to do with home. So I went out there for about seven or eight days and did most of my work there. Some stuff Gavin did at home, the drums, then it went in various studios.
GH: In Absentia was recorded in New York. With the record label behind it, I think they wanted to make this big splash at the beginning. In New York we spent an incredible amount of money. The next record we practically made at home. Not for budget reasons, but we like working at home. We've all got home studios. To me there's a lot of difference in the sound. The style of working at home is in many ways very comfortable, especially for me, because I can do as many takes as I want and there isn't a clock ticking, there's no money going out the window. It's without pressure really.
With In Absentia we had like 10 days to do the drums, in this expensive studio in New York. I didn't want that anymore, and I did the last two at home.
SW: It's not like we did it that way to save money, but we just wanted to see if it worked that way.
GH: And in many ways it is more comfortable like that.
CE: It evolves more that way.
What is the main difference between the old record label Warner and the new one Roadrunner?
SW: The Warner offices are all kind of independent in their own country and so the promotion activities differ from country to country. As far as Porcupine Tree was concerned, in Germany they did a great job, however in the UK they really had not got a clue what they were doing; I doubt they even liked our music ... Roadrunner is a much smaller company and they really work hard to promote their bands and so far everything is working out great.
I heard that in 2008 you will release another Porcupine Tree live album?
SW: You are right, but maybe it will turn out as a live DVD with a live audio CD attached.
Talking about DVDs, are you satisfied with the recently released Blackfield DVD?
SW: Well, it is a good document from where the band is at this moment. Blackfield is still in its beginning stadium. The sound of the DVD is quite good but the location was not really that great. We have a long way to go there as Blackfield still plays in very small clubs in comparison to Porcupine Tree obviously.
Could you elaborate a bit on how this unique collaboration started? I understand Aviv originally invited you to Israel to play a gig?
SW: Aviv was a fan of Porcupine Tree. It started with Aviv inviting the band to play in Israel. We met up a few weeks before in London and just hit it off really. We got on very well straight away and he gave me a backing track of a track, an instrumental track he was working on. I took it away and wrote some vocal melodies and lyrics for it and that became the first Blackfield track, which is Open Mind, the first track on the first album. Although it developed a bit more over the period of time, but that initial demo was basically the origin for Blackfield. Porcupine Tree went to do the shows and we continued that friendship and eventually that led to a longer term collaboration.
The Blackfield albums feature compositions by you both. Aviv wrote some songs, you wrote some songs and then there are some songs that you wrote together. You live quite far apart, do you send each other tracks over the Internet, or do you prefer to sit down together in the studio?
SW: No, I spent some time in Israel and he came to London. We like to make music in the way that they used to make music, so we always felt that we had to write and create music face to face.
My favourite Blackfield song is Cloudy Now. I understand this was an older song from Aviv which you reworked for Blackfield. Are the lyrics a literal translation?
SW: That's one of Aviv's songs, and with Aviv coming from Israel... There's two things about Aviv. First, he comes from Israel which is a country of lots of problems, as you are probably aware, political problems particularly, and problems with peace. The state of life in Israel is not as easy as it is for a lot of us. And the other thing is that he came from a very traumatic family, childhood, you know his parents and all that stuff.
That song is very much about him and his childhood and his upbringing and his country and as you know it kind of climaxes with a kind of primal scream "we are a fucked up generation". I particularly wanted us to redo that song because the song is 15 years old and originally in Hebrew. I wanted to redo it in English, because I think it is something which people all over can relate to.
We ARE a fucked up generation. You know, we are the first generation that has more time to wait, to stand, and more money and more leisure time than any other previous generation, and yet what do we do with it? We go to McDonald's, we watch MTV, we spend time downloading cell-phone ringtones, we spend time pissing about on the Internet. We have all this time and all this money and we don't really make use of it. I'm really worried about the younger generation that is brought up in this world. They're so kind of shallow in their appreciation in life and the deeper things in life. Hollywood is so dominant, American culture is so dominant, American junk-food is so prevalent. You know, we are really fucked up, and that song was so universal, it deserved to be taken out of Hebrew and out of Israel and given to the world. I think that song also paved the way for Fear... really as the idea really interested me.
Is it translated literally?
SW: No, it wouldn't be possible to translate it literally, because if you translate things literally they don't rhyme anymore and they don't sound as good. So I tried to take the feelings and wrote new lyrics for it. I tried to put myself in his thoughts, you know.
I can relate to Israel, reading the lyrics, but as you explain now, it can be used for any country.
SW: I'm glad you feel that, because that was the idea behind it.
Do you see it as a political song, or a political statement?
SW: We made the choice to keep politics completely out. But I think we are all aware that just the fact that an English musician worked with an Israel is already implicitly political, so just the fact that we collaborated is already a political statement. It is unavoidable, you know.
So in terms of the music and lyrics we said "no, we're not going to make anything remotely political, nothing topical, nothing about the situation in Israel, not anything that is going to date the album to a particular era in time". You know, we wrote it about all the universal themes that songwriters have always written about, you know, loneliness and sadness and love and hate and all these things. The aim for Blackfield was to create an album which would feel internationally, not just now, but also for times to come.
The music of Blackfield is not miles different from what you do with Porcupine Tree. Perhaps it is a bit more radio-friendly, more commercial.
SW: I think if you hear Aviv's stuff you would hear it is very much a fifty-fifty thing, the sound is perhaps more Porcupine Tree, but the melodies of the songs are more from Aviv. The discipline of the three-minute song and the strength of the melodies is very much coming from Aviv. The sound of the arrangements, yes, I suppose that is more what is associated with my sound. But it is very much a fusion of the two sounds and the two styles.
So with the music of Porcupine Tree getting heavier over these past three albums, is Blackfield a way for you to get the commercial stuff out of your system?
SW: Kind of, yeah. It's is nice to have a project which is more about the acoustic guitars and the harmony vocals and the warmth and the melodies and the songs. Porcupine Tree is becoming more heavy and more complex I guess. Blackfield is a way for me to channel the more direct song-writing approaches I have in music. It is as you say much more radio-friendly, much more commercial, but in a very classy way. I think in the past when I tried to dabble with radio songs and more commercial melodies, I guess it sounded kind of cheap. But it doesn't with Blackfield.
For some reason, it just sounds really good, and that's a real first for me.
As you pointed out, Blackfield is a lot more radio-friendly. I think there are a lot of people all over the world that always wanted to be able to play Porcupine Tree... or to play my music on the radio. But they couldn't really because their bosses wouldn't let them, because it's not three minute pop songs. And suddenly Steven Wilson comes along and is part of this new project called Blackfield and it kinda got the Porcupine Tree sound, it's got elements of that, but they're great pop songs so then they're like "great, now we can play this all the time". A lot of friends that I've made over the years in different countries now are able to play my music and his music. They play it a lot, and as you say, it is a real different experience for me.
RB: I have to say, there are aspects in Porcupine Tree music that can work on that level too. Our label Lava tried it with the last album. You know, a track like Lazarus could be played on the radio, I would have thought. It's not far away from Coldplay, you know, it is just a lovely kind of pop song. And Shallow actually did really well in the States, especially around the Southern States, because it is a kind of real rock, kind of classic sort of rock song. Really kind of Led Zeppelin-ish. So I think it can get played on the radio as well. With Fear..., we didn't really go down that road though, maybe because these songs work better on an album format. Though I think Way Out Of Here could also work as a single.
Another one of your mellower side-projects is No-Man. What will we be hearing from No-Man in the near future?
SW: Well, glad you ask that because there will be a new No-Man album in 2008 as well. I already have some beautiful material for that CD.
And you will be releasing a solo album. What can we expect?
SW: Well, I would like that album to be as much solo as possible as I will do everything by myself. It will be an eclectic album filled with all kinds of music like rock, hip hop, metal, disco, electronics, singer-songwriter material, and even some cover versions. It will be a very diverse double album that I can only listen to myself for the entire time. This is something that I really want to do now, as this massive album will show what I am musically all about. Because Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, and No-Man only show small parts of me but this new solo album will show it all. So, you can really expect a non-commercial double album filled with surprises.
You recently started writing album reviews for Rolling Stone. You have also produced many albums for others, and you say in general you listen to a lot of music. Other musicians I have interviewed in the past have often said they don't follow the current music scene at all, so it seems somewhat unusual what you do. How does other people's music influence your writing?
SW: It's a kind of misperception that musicians are only influenced by other's music. I think it's very hard analyse what actually influences you after 20 years of making music. My style is very much a product of the type of music I listened to as a teenager, which was a lot of progressive rock. And I don't listen to progressive rock anymore, or not as much anyway. I haven't for many years, and none of the other guys in the band like progressive rock either, and yet we're known as a progressive rock band, which is kind of bizarre. I can see why though...
But that influence came to me as a young kid, and now a lot of music I listen to doesn't influence me. Or if it does, it influences sort of my other projects like Bass Communion or what I want to do with my solo album. I don't listen to a lot of music that has a strong influence on Porcupine Tree. To be honest the other guys in the band have more influence on the sound now than anything I listen to. Such as when Gavin joined, which had a strong effect on the direction of the band.
GH: I listen to a lot of jazz, I grew up listening to jazz. What Steven says is true I think, that the music you listen to in your teens is what influences you the most. You never get rid of that part of you. I listen to quite a lot of hardcore jazz, which is nothing like the music I play. I'm like a death metal drummer. [laughs]
Hearing all this, I can only conclude that you are a true workaholic, right?
SW: Yes, I probably am. But I still feel that it is a privilege to make music. If I have not done anything for two days, I go crazy!
Crazy Little Thing Called Prog
Rumour has it that you hate interviews, but we have been talking for so long now already that I can only say that it is a rumour indeed.
SW: Who said that??? That is absolutely not true. I love interviews, I could talk with you for hours. I am especially interested in the history of music and I really enjoy analysing music and discuss music with lots of people; any kind of music.
Even prog? In the past you have become quite furious when people called your music progressive rock
SW: [raises voice slightly] Well, not furious, but... what I have been is... I... [calms down] yeah, OK, I mostly refuse if I'm being lumped in with so-called "neo-prog". I don't like to be lumped in with that kind of bands. Fortunately it doesn't happen anymore, but it used to happen a few years ago. I can certainly see how people can arrive at that conclusion. But particularly when I've been interviewed, I've tried to get the journalists away from progressive rock because for me Porcupine Tree is bigger than that, you know.
I think the ultimate goal of any band should be to create their own sound. You almost create your own genre. So the thing that really makes me angry is when we're described as "the new Pink Floyd" or something. For me that is so insulting because it insinuates that you are living in the shadow of some other band. I particularly never wanted to be the new anybody, I just wanted to be the old Porcupine Tree, or the new Porcupine Tree. And so that kind of pisses me off. It is a very unfortunate side of journalism, a lazy side of journalism that somehow reduced every band as a list of other bands. Like a cross between da-da-da, you know?
Well, we are supposed to do that because we have to refer to other bands to describe the sound.
SW: I know, yes, and I know in a sense that it is difficult for you guys too. How do you describe music? I write reviews too occasionally (for the Mexican edition of Rolling Stone - ed.) and I know how difficult it can be. It's like architecture, you can't really write about that either. It's actually ridiculous in the first place to be writing about music and to describe music that ultimately should be indescribable. I think real music is indescribable. You cannot describe the experience. So in that sense I kind of shied away from being stuck in a genre, or being described as progressive rock. It's kinda lazy. Obviously the band is so much more than that. The band can span everything from death metal licks to ambient to pop melodies to progressive rock.
But actually that is progressive rock what you are now describing; incorporating those different styles into one blend.
SW: You're right, but to most people progressive rock means the blueprint that was created 30 years ago and has not moved on. And no, you're right, genuine progressive rock, and I think there are some great progressive bands out, like The Mars Volta, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Tool, Sigur Rós, Radiohead - that's genuine progressive rock. But to most people progressive rock is still a style of music that was made 30 years ago. And that's the problem. Most people have a kind of immediate image of what progressive rock means and it's not always the right one, unfortunately.
RB: Steven has indeed tried to disassociate himself from progressive music. We all feel that what we are doing is not retrospective. We do look forward and we do try to find new ways of making music. We use modern technology. We try to be a bit experimental. On the other hand, the background does come from a classic prog-seventies kind of idea, which then was new and cutting edge.
The Heineken Music Hall gig was amazing, one of the best I have ever witnessed. How were your feelings about it?
SW: I really enjoyed the show, we had a great time. The venue was superb and we did not expect that many people, actually. Yeah, we love The Netherlands.
Did you adjust the set list for this evening as compared to the other gigs?
SW: Well, a little bit. It is great doing The Sky Moves Sideways, by the way.
For the last five years of so you have been making more and more use of rather disturbing background projections during your shows.
RB: They are done by a guy called Lasse Hoile, and he actually is a very disturbing, dark character. [laughs] He's a nice guy actually, but he has a bit of a warped mind. We were always looking for images to put on the record covers and such. He originally sent some images to Steven, and it was something we all felt really good about. These images fit really well with our music and lyrics. It felt completely right. It's like this guy from Pink Floyd.
CE: Storm Thorgerson.
RB: Yes, he is our Storm Thorgerson. His images really go well with the music.
CE: He's this big Scandinavian guy, we actually call him the Yeti. He's on the cover of In Absentia, you know, that blue face with no eyes, that is actually him. So you know how scary looking he really is.
RB: Yes, he looks just like that in real life, there was no editing done to that photo at all. [laughs]
SW: Lasse sort of has become the 'go-to' guy when it comes to artwork, or projections, or filming. He really understands what the music of Porcupine Tree is all about and we just work so well together.
You played the Heineken Music Hall before, when you were supporting Marillion in 2001. Since that time you have become a well-selling major act. Can you see yourself doing support tours again for larger bands that are currently very popular, as to increase your profile?
RB: I don't know, maybe. I've watched a few things on TV and it's all a bit jaded and a bit amateurish. You can tell people can't really perform the records. And then I saw Muse in Glastonbury, and those guys are really talented, great music. I'd really love to support them actually, it'd be really perfect for Porcupine Tree. Though I'm not sure that that would happen, because we would probably be seen as not very fashionable. But I think musically it'd be great. And I think they are on the same agency as we are.
I think Muse and Tool kind of bands like that. When you see their shows, in a way they are putting on the type of shows we are. I mean, we have a small production, but we have a big production for this kind of type band. That is the kind of direction we are going now. In some future I could really see us support Muse or Tool or something like that.
Why do you always play Trains as one of the encores? It is not my favourite Porcupine Tree song...
SW: Mine neither, but if we do not play it, the crowd gets wild. They always scream for Trains. It is such a popular song, it is probably the most popular Porcupine Tree song, do not ask me why as it is not my favourite one either. We dropped the song for a short time but the fans wanted it back on the set list. Trains has turned into a classic Porcupine Tree song over the years.
Apart from the song Trains itself, there are a lot of references of trains in your songs. And if it's not in the lyrics then you use samples. Why is that?
SW: When I grew up I lived very near a train station. It is funny how certain things when you are a kid that seem very insignificant at the time, but they are always there and then when you grow up they kind of haunt you through your whole life. Well, not haunt you, but they always create some kind of reaction or feeling within you, which can be very nice. When I was young I used to lie in my bed and try to sleep I would hear this hiss from the train coming into the station and pulling out, all the time. This was a constant soundtrack to my sleep. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but now every time I hear a train or that sound it sets off an incredible chain of emotions, feelings, memories. So in some ways it's almost like a key to a kind of more innocent time. The key to my childhood. So trains do tend to pop up a lot in my lyrics.
Another recurring theme is religion, or rather how people abuse religion for their own gain, like Even Less or Halo.
SW: Well, Halo was on Deadwing, and Deadwing, as you probably know, is based on this film script I wrote. There is a religious aspect in the script, there is a religious cult in the script. But the song itself takes that as a starting point and develops into another kind of idea. It is about the born-again Christianity, the born-again religious parts, the self-righteousness of that kind of people.
Speaking of Deadwing, when the album was released you said that there would also be a Deadwing movie. How much work is already done for that movie?
SW: Well, the scripts are ready of course, I wrote it with a friend of mine, Mike Bennion, who's a film-maker, but he's never made a feature length movie. So the idea was for us to write something which he could ultimately direct as a feature length movie. It was always very hard to get funding for it, because for starters, we are completely unknown. Second, it is an extremely uncommercial movie. It has a pretty dark ending, it is pretty dark all the way through, there's lots of long shots in it, very surreal. But we both wanted to do something, as I've always done with my music basically, something that was completely uncompromising.
We need at least 1 million dollars and that maybe does not sound as too much, but it is very hard to raise that kind of money for this non-commercial dark piece of movie that Deadwing will turn into.
So, earlier in this interview you said that Anesthetize is not your favourite Porcupine Tree track. Nor is Trains. Which song is your favourite then?
SW: My favourite Porcupine Tree songs are mostly the songs that the fans would not consider to be their faves. I really have a different taste there, ha ha... From the last record I would really have to say Sleep Together. Stop Swimming is also one of my favourites because that one really is very emotional and beautiful. But Anesthetize would also be in my top 10, so...
You once called Stop Swimming the most depressing Porcupine Tree song of all. How come you often write such depressing songs?
SW: [looks surprised] Are they depressing?
SW: Do you find them depressing?
No, well, I love them, but...
SW: Why? I don't think they are depressing.
Well, that's perhaps the wrong word, but they are rather moody, gloomy.
SW: Melancholic, yeah. Uhm, yeah, why... [ponders] Why do I write melancholic songs...
Well, because, uhm, I don't see the point of writing songs that uhm... OK, now how do I say this right?
SW: No, no, it's a good question. An interesting question, and you deserve a good answer. Uhm, it's a comforting question, because it really comes down to what kind of person I am and how I choose to express my emotions and my feelings. And I guess I have always tended to...
Well, I think first and foremost music that is slightly darker and slightly sadder and more melancholic has always been the music that appealed to me the most. I don't particularly find that happy music says anything about my life. You know, the world is kind of... human beings spend most of their time in a state between sadness and happiness... just existing. But we have incredible moments of clarity of power. They tend to be either incredible moments of sadness or incredible moments of joy. And they don't feel far between, you know. You think of a year and the amount of time you actually spend on some kind of emotional trip - negative or positive - it is a very small amount of the time. Most of the time you just go into work, you go to the pub, you have your dinner, you watch your TV. You're not really having any great emotional swing.
The really strong emotional swings come very occasionally, either negative or positive. When you're happy, when I feel happy, I don't really feel inspired to write songs. But when I feel sad, I feel I need some kind of release, some kind of way to come to terms with what I'm feeling. It is like an exorcism of feelings, of thoughts, emotions, of negativity. And the interesting thing is that, I think, if you're a song-writer and you write very sad, very melancholic songs, there's an irony going on, which is that people, ironically, find that very uplifting. And I think the reason they find it uplifting is that it makes them feel like they're not alone. They're feeling that way, do you understand?
SW: So I think sad songs ironically make people feel more positive. And conversely, very happy music can make you feel very depressed if you're not in the right state of mind to enjoy that music. So I've always found when I was growing up, that I was gradually taken towards darker, more melancholic music. It made me feel good, it made me feel as if I was not alone in feeling those feelings and those emotions. I guess that's carried through to my own work in that I only feel inspired to write music when I'm feeling something negative that I need to somehow express, somehow need to exorcise from myself.
There are so many people that tell me they find those songs so beautiful and so uplifting and they can relate to them so much. And they make them feel better and more positive and not all alone and all that stuff.
It's a funny thing the way it works. If you think of all the classic songs of all time most of them tend to be ballads, you know, very enduring music, there's a lot of ballads and a lot of sad music. I guess it's because people always sort of relate to those songs better.
Success At Last
Porcupine Tree have been going since 1989. Have you achieved with the band what you wanted to?
SW: Well, artistically speaking the last two/three records were great, with -Fear..._ maybe the best one so far. But I am still not satisfied as there are still lots of people who have never heard of Porcupine Tree, so they still have not been able to make their mind up if they maybe like our music. Take a band like Radiohead, almost everyone has an opinion about that band and almost everybody knows if they like the music of Radiohead or not. And this is what I want with Porcupine Tree as well. I still come across people who have never heard of the band and everybody should form an opinion about our music, so we have lots of work to do. That is really one of my ambitions; to become more known to larger audiences. In almost 20 years we have not changed our music, as we do what we want to do. We experiment and in fact we are really self-indulgent when it comes to making music. Even better, I am quite snobby regarding my music, haha!
CE: It's probably interesting. I have known Steven for a very long time, before the band started. My initial involvement with Porcupine Tree was Steven telling me "I've got this record" and that was the first Porcupine Tree record, although I don't think it was even called Porcupine Tree back then. And he gave me a copy of it and said "I've been offered some gigs, do you want to do it?" For me, there was all this confusing and interesting music, and I said "ok, I'll do it". I had no expectations of it becoming a full-time band, really. Just a couple of weeks of work that we'd do together, a couple of radio stations, a few gigs in England, and that was it really. I had never expected that nearly 20 years later I'd still be in the band. I never thought that.
And even for the years after that... It was not until Signify that I started to think that actually it had some kind of future. The music to me just seemed like total... especially this kind of psychedelic stuff, at the time, was so minority, that I didn't feel that at the time it would ever pick up. And we certainly didn't think we would ever be on a major label.
But that just proves that nobody knows really. You can never tell what music people will enjoy, that kind of feeling that got through to people, and people wanted to see bands that make music that is a bit different. Basically, we kept going because we wanted to do it, we wanted to be refreshing and change ourselves every album.
RB: I knew, I felt confident that it would happen like that. I just never thought it would take the world this time, that it has taken to get to the point where we are now.
I knew for one, Steven is a talented songwriter, even though in those days with the sort of psychedelic space-rock. He had plans as a songwriter, he was very ambitious and this music is just different to the music you hear every day. That kind of enthusiasm just carries you along. I could see that something was going to happen, but all this time there was a record company or a management or the way things were going that was holding things back. And because I had already been through all this, I knew that we didn't have the right set-up. I knew we didn't have the right people surrounding us and working for us. So it was quite frustrating. I guess that I have always been the one to always complain about this, complain about that, which may be tiring for this group, but that's got gradually better and better. Of course, at the time people were asking "why are you playing with this band?" because we were playing these pubs, for about 20 people, 30 people.
I also quite justified the fact, now it has gone way beyond what the people who were saying "why are you doing this?" had ever thought possible. So you know, I have a 100% perfect track record, you see? I joined two bands, from nothing, and both sort of made it.
But I guess every band goes through that phase where they play for like 30 people. Actually, quite early on we had success in Italy where we were doing big concerts, and these kinda kept us going. Because it is hard to go through that process where there is only a handful of people.
Regardless of the music of the day and what's happening and what isn't happening, Porcupine Tree has grown and grown. Each time we pick up more fans. Last year, or the last two years really, since Deadwing came out, has been a big change. Just look at the audience. There is a much younger audience, there is much more diversity. Everywhere we go now we're actually selling out every venue.
SW: The first time we came to Holland 14 years ago, 40 people came. A couple of years later, 200 people were coming. A couple of years after that, 400 people were coming. Now we're having nearly 3000. So it's been real good. But it's also been very gradual. It's not like we all of a sudden shot up. We've been constantly making quality records and constantly touring. It has all grown in a very gradual, organic way.
We work better on a large stage. During the Amsterdam gig you could hear and see that Porcupine Tree is really an arena band as we have an epic rock sound, the light show is great and our movies are quite attractive.
Interview for DPRP by Martien Koolen and Bart Jan van der Vorst.
All live photos by Bart Jan van der Vorst.
DPRP Review of Porcupine Tree's Fear Of A Blank Planet CD (2007)
DPRP Review of Porcupine Tree's Fear Of A Blank Planet DVD-A (2007)
DPRP Review of Porcupine Tree's Nil Recurring (2007)
More DPRP reviews of Porcupine Tree