Interview: Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree

porcupine-treePorcupine Tree (Steven Wilson second from left. Photo by Diana Nitschke)
Founded in England at the onset of the 1990s, Porcupine Tree was originally passed off as a "forgotten" old-school prog-rock band. But yarn-spinning ceded to singer, guitarist and bandleader Steven Wilson's knack for reconciling vintage influences with contemporary sounds, while never forgetting the strength of a solid hook. The band's most recent album, The Incident, showcases a seamless 55-minute epic that combines Wilson's customary sophisticated arrangements and soaring melodies with the heavy crunch of progressive-metal bands like Opeth (led by Wilson's friend and collaborator Mikael kerfeldt). This Friday, Sept. 24, Porcupine Tree plays its biggest New York show to date at Radio City Music Hall. Via telephone from his home in England, Wilson spoke to TONY about the current prog-rock groundswell, the stifling qualities of contemporary life and Insurgentes, a gorgeously moody Lasse Hoile film spun off from Wilson's 2008 solo album of the same title. (The film screens at the IFC Center on Tuesday, September 21, followed by a Q&A with Wilson and Hoile.) Time Out New York: Every now and then you hear about a progressive-rock resurgence, most recently when Emerson, Lake and Palmer headlined England's High Voltage Festival. Is this convenient media jargon, or is there truth to the notion? Steven Wilson: I don't think it's ever really gone away, but there certainly is now a reembracing of ambitious, album-orientated rock music. That, for me, ultimately is what progressive music is. Into that, you can throw anything: Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Muse, Massive Attack. For me, these are all artists very much in the tradition of the original wave of so-called progressive bands. Let's not forget that none of those bands ever referred to themselves as progressive bands at the time; they were simply bands that had come out of the climate that the Beatles and the Beach Boys created with albums like Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, for ambitious music not necessarily conforming to the three-minute pop-song format. Bands like Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, ELP, Genesis, they had very little in common with each other except for that. They were trying to do something more conceptual, more ambitious with the album, and perhaps putting more focus—not all of them, I don't think Pink Floyd were, but some of them putting more focus on musicianship, perhaps, than '60s pop bands had. But even that, I think, is a moot point, because a band like Floyd weren't great musicians, and yet arguably were the most progressive of all of those bands. You used to read stories about Roger Waters supposedly thanking David Gilmour for recording the bass parts that won Waters some big poll as "best bass player." They weren't great musicians, but many people think of them as the kind of quintessential progressive rock band, in the sense that their music has proved to be much more timeless than most of the other progressive bands, mainly because there wasn't that emphasis on musicianship. It was purely an allegiance to doing something more creative with the album, the idea of the album as a musical continuum, a musical journey. Has that ever gone away completely? Certainly it had some dark ages in grunge and all those things. But I think that idea of the album as a musical journey as always been around, and it's probably more popular than ever before now—or not ever before, but since that original wave—because music has been liberated from commercial radio and MTV. Liberated is an interesting choice of words. What is most responsible for confining popular music to the three-minute pop song over the last 25 years is those two things. If you take those two things out of the loop, there's no need anymore to conform to the three-minute pop-song format, and I think that's one of the reasons why you've had a resurgence in music that doesn't necessarily think about commercial popular-music formats. The other reason is it's now possible to make music for a much smaller market and still survive on that by selling directly to fans through the Internet. So people don't have to think so much in commercial-radio terms in the way that perhaps they did in the '80s, certainly, which is when I started. You had to focus on getting things on the radio, because you weren't going to make a career otherwise. That's not true anymore. I think in that sense, a band like Rush from the '70s is the great model, a band that have just toured and made consistently quality albums, never really had big hit singles, never been fashionable, never been on MTV, and yet are bigger than ever. So I think they're really the model for what's going on right now. Yet working outside of the commercial mainstream, Porcupine Tree is playing Radio City Music Hall this week. How did you achieve that kind of success without much obvious music-industry support? One thing I realized very early on when I started making music as Porcupine Tree—which was in the early to mid-'90s, and I was just doing it as a solo thing at the time, doing it really for myself because I didn't think anyone else wanted to listen to it—is that there is always an audience out there for music with integrity, music that doesn't necessarily play by the commercial mainstream rules. In fact, some people are put off by what they perceive to be courting the mainstream. I consider myself one of those people. When I was growing up, I was always looking for the most willfully uncommercial music: Whether it was Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa or King Crimson, that's what attracted me. And if I felt for a moment that one of those artists was beginning to try and court the mainstream, that was the beginning of the end for my relationship with that band. This is where we come back to Rush as being a great example. Floyd is another, Led Zeppelin...both bands that never really released singles throughout their heyday. And I think Porcupine Tree is definitely in that tradition of a band that have kept faith with the fan base by never scaring them off with this idea that we might go for the almighty dollar. So it's been very organic, it's been very slow, but it has been always on an upward trajectory; for 20 years now it's kept going up, and there aren't many artists that can say that. It's been a very slow curve, but nevertheless it's always gone in the right direction.
steven-wilsonPhoto by Diana Nitschke
Your lyrics, especially on your most recent records, seem to express a kind of melancholy, a distrust and unease with the status quo of the modern world. Is that a conscious thing for you? Well, yes is the simple answer. Like anybody, I look around at the world that we live in, and I find it hard to be completely positive about everything that's going on. One of the things that I think has really hit home for me over the last five years, and over the last couple of records particularly, is how much being young has changed, even since I was young, which wasn't that long ago. I grew up in the '80s, and the example I give most people is the idea that I could go to my parents as a teenager, or even as a 10-year-old, and say I wanted my own TV would have been laughed out of the room. Now look at the situation: Kids not only have their own TVs, they have cell phones, iPods, Sony PlayStations, they have the Internet portal, which of course is a kind of gateway to...well, to everything. The good, the bad and the ugly. Yeah. I never heard people talking about kids being on prescription drugs when I was a kid. If your parents were having trouble with you, then that was a problem in the family, it wasn't because you had attention deficit disorder or one of these other catchphrases you hear. It's quite easy now to be—and here's the thing, this is the word that for me sums up everything—it seems very easy now to live your life without, capital letters, curiosity. And curiosity, I think, is the greatest, the most underrated human attribute. Without curiosity, you never look beyond the mainstream. You never look at what isn't being marketed to you, in terms of products, TV, film, music, whatever it is. And you never actually have the ambition to travel outside of your immediate vicinity. And these are all things that, for me, were so important as a kid. I couldn't wait to finish school, I couldn't wait to get out of my home town, I couldn't wait to travel. I couldn't wait to devour everything, all the books, all the music, all the cinema—the more obscure, the better. I wonder now with all of the things we've been talking about, the Internet particularly, whether that same sense of curiosity is already dead by the time kids leave high school. And that's what I write about. I know I'm generalizing; not everyone is like that, and I've met a lot of kids that are very passionate and very curious about life. But I was a big fan of Bret Easton Ellis, and for me he summed up the boredom of modern life better than anyone else. What about the liberating potential of the Internet for a kid stuck in a dead-end small town in the Midwest, who pokes around and follows links and discovers things like, well, Porcupine Tree? Well, absolutely, and this is where there's no black and white. In many respects the Internet is the great liberator. Unfortunately, the way I perceive it, and the way I wrote about it in Fear of a Blank Planet particularly, was that you have this incredible tool for knowledge and information, and 99 percent of us use it to download pornography and music. Again, I'm generalizing, but that seems to be the way the human race goes. The other kind of symptom of this for me is I grew up with great music journalism. I was reading music journalists and buying music papers: people who could actually enthuse you about music in the way that they wrote articulately, informatively, with context and all that stuff. Now I can go on the Internet and find a million reviews of my latest record—literally a million reviews of Porcupine Tree! [ Laughs ]—and it's just noise. It's just, "this album sucks," "this is the best album they've ever done," "this is the worst album they've ever done." It's just people expressing opinions as fact, without any real kind of insight or understanding. And that, also, I find a bit depressing. So I guess I'm old-fashioned in the respect that I find myself feeling slightly alienated from the modern world. Go back 15 years and you had OK Computer, which was about the same thing. Go back another 15 years and you had Dark Side of the Moon, very much about the same thing. So I'm not new in kind of feeling, getting to a certain point in my life and feeling that sense of alienation and confusion of being in this modern world. I used to cut out and save old print reviews and articles from Rolling Stone and Musician, about bands like Public Image Ltd. and Joy Division, who weren't covered anywhere else. Exactly. Let's just say that a kid is going to go out and discover Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica on the Internet today. Now, this was one of my Holy Grails when I was a kid, because I would hear about this album in kind of legendary terms, and it took me months to hunt it down. By the time I found that record—and I actually found it as an expensive American import, and I had to spend a lot of my pocket money to buy it—I had been searching for it for months. And I had such an incredible investment in terms of time, energy and money that even though I hated the record the first time I heard it [ Laughs ]—and the second time, and the third time, and then the fourth time it began to make some kind of sense—you can bet your bottom dollar I was going to get anything and everything I could out of that record before I gave up on it. If a kid wants to hear Trout Mask Replica now, he can go on the Internet and he can find it effortlessly, and probably download the whole thing in a few moments. Has he got the same investment of time and energy and money in that record? No, he has none of those things. So that likelihood is if it doesn't hit the first time—and as a p.s. here I would say most of the records that I love the most I didn't like the first time—if he doesn't like it the first time, is he going to persevere with it? Probably not. I'm not saying the Internet is a bad thing; it is progress, and it's great that people can go and find Trout Mask Replica easily. But at the same time, also, in the back of my mind I'm thinking it's too easy. It's too easy now to find music, and it's therefore too easy to dismiss music, particularly music that doesn't hit you the first time you hear it. Let's talk about Insurgentes, because you're participating in a screening while you're here in New York. How did that project get rolling, and how did it become such an elaborate multimedia concept? I'll try and cut a long story short. It basically came about because I decided I wanted to make a solo record. Now, early Porcupine Tree were de facto solo records anyway, so it's not the first time I've made a record on my own. What made this project different, what made me think this is the first time I want to actually put my own name to an album, is that it was the first time I felt that I wanted to try and incorporate all of my musical interests into one record. I grew up listening to bands like the Cure, Joy Division, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance—these are the bands that I actually grew up with, and I always had these things in my taste, too. And I always loved industrial music as well: I listened to Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire. And shoegaze bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. All these things were part of my musical world, which people had never really heard before in my own music. So I wanted to create this record which kind of incorporated for the first time all the aspects of my musical personality. And the other thing I decided to do, because making a record usually just means holing up in a studio and looking at the same four walls for three months, I actually said to myself, I don't want to do that; I want to travel the world and make this record. And as soon as I made that decision I thought, great to take a filmmaker with me and document this process. We went to Mexico for a few weeks; literally, we made it up as we went along. We went to Israel, to Japan, to America, Scandinavia, meeting musicians, writing on the road while I was traveling, being inspired and making this record. But what was very interesting is how the film went far beyond just being a making-of documentary. It became—partly, I think, because as you can tell I'm quite opinionated about the music industry today and I have a lot to say about it—it partly became a document of what it means to be a working musician in the music industry today. I don't mean like a Michael Jackson or a U2; I mean someone at the kind of grassroots level with a small but dedicated fan base. How do you reconcile download culture? How do you reconcile the death of commercial product and the death of record companies? How do you reconcile that all with being a working musician in the early 21st century? So there's a lot of talking about that in the film, talking about download culture, American Idol, the packaging of records these days, the resurgence in vinyl. And also talking to other musicians, and in one case a record producer: We spoke to Trevor Horn, who was a big influence on me. He's a guy that's always made great-sounding records; how does he feel about his records being compressed to shit, basically? How does he feel about the fact that 90 percent of the people listen to music now as MP3s on iPods, on teeny little iPhone headphones? So we talk about all those things in the movie, with other musicians. And so it took on a life of its own; it became much more than a film about me. It became a film about being a musician in this time. Extra: Check out the video for "Harmony Korine" from Steven Wilson's Insurgentes, filmed by director Lasse Hoile.