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Progressive Rock Interviews

Porcupine Tree

Interviewed by Steve Alspach
Interview with Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson from 2005
This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 4 at

Congratulations on the "Deadwing" project! It started out as a screenplay, so how's that coming out?
It only exists as a screenplay. As you can imagine it's very hard to get a movie off the ground. Basically the script was written as a vehicle for a friend of mine because he wanted to get a feature movie off the ground. He had never made a feature - he made pop videos, commercials. I basically sat down and we put the screenplay together. It's a very unique story - it's very European, very art house, and we're trying to get the funding for it, but in the meantime I didn't have anything specific that I wnated to base the new Porcupine Tree album on directly, so I decided to use the script as the basis for the record. I don't want you to think that the album is trying to be a concept album based on the script. It's not trying to tell the story of the script. But at the same time all the songs are kind of themed based on some of the characters and scenes and themes of the movie script.  

MSJ: I was wondering if the other songs were based on the script idea or that the songs came out on their own.
All the songs have been inspired by the script in some way or another; however, I have to say that some of the songs have taken ideas from the script further than the script itself. For example, there's kind of a sub-subtext about organized religion and religious cults so I've written a song "Halo" about religion, but the song takes it into a different area, and vice versa - there's a lot of stuff in the script that's not represented in the album. So the link between the script and the songs is there, but it's not as strong as some people might think it is.
MSJ: The title song is a bit Zeppelin-esque: agree or disagree?
It's funny - you're the first person to pick up on it. You win the secret prize! (laughs) I was thinking very much of "Achilles' Last Stand." I was thinking of something that would have that impact for an opening track. And that track is probably my favorite Zeppelin track.
MSJ: And in that song it sounds like you have the "Porcupine Tree rap" going on with those short lyric phrases.
Yeah, absolutely. I've always felt that if you're going to be a truly contemporary progressive band - and a lot of people have used that term in connection with us - then you should be absorbing everything that's going on around you musically. Porcupine Tree have incorporated into our sound - to a greater or lesser degree - things like death metal, trip-hop and hip-hop, and a slight relationship to rap.
MSJ: And you worked with Adrian Belew. How was that?
It was great! One of the flattering things about what Porcupine Tree has achieved over the years is that we include among our fan base a lot of other musicians. I guess we're one of those bands that other musicans relate to because we can play our instruments and the production is quite sophisticated, so a lot of musicians get into what we do and Adrian was one of those guys. He contacted us through our manager early last year expressing an interest in working with us so it was kind of a no-brainer. We had just started cutting backing tracks for the album so we had him play on two or three songs on the record. He's a great guy!

MSJ: It doesn't sound like "here's Porcupine Tree, now here's Adrian Belew with Porcupine Tree." He's well incorporated into your sound.
Well, it's one of those things that's come around full circle because Adrian is one of those musicians that I grew up listening to and his work with everybody from Bowie and Talking Heads to Zappa and Crimson, so in that sense my musical language is very much a product of who I grew up with, and now he's listening to us, so it makes sense that we would have an affinity and that the two working together would gel!
MSJ: You have the bonus track "She's Moved On" on the new CD which is pretty much a re-work of the original tune.
It was a song we recorded for an album we released a couple of years ago called "Lightbulb Sun" and the record never really did much in the states. We recut it during the sessions for "Deadwing". We recut it pretty much for fun - sped it up a little bit, tweaked it, improved it, and the record company originally said "We must put this on the record." And we said "well, no way, it's an old song, it doesn't fit in conceptually with what we're trying to do." But we decided that it would be nice to include it as a bonus track because the fans who already know the song would find it as kind of a curiosity and a new version of a song they already know, and the new fans hearing the band for the first time would hear a great song from a couple of albums ago.
MSJ: You're the primary source of material for Porcupine Tree. What do the others bring?
The sound of the band is the product of four very different musical personalities. I certainly don't tell them what to play. I have ideas and I can kind of guide them. In some respects I'm one of the weakest musicians in the band - there are much better musicians in the band than I, and they have some fantastic ideas, especially Gavin (Harrison), our drummer, and Rich (Barbieri), the keyboard player. In that respect the sound of the band - the makeup of the different musical personalities - is as much a part of Porcupine Tree as the songwriting. I like to feel like I've got some kind of direction for the record before I open it out to the other people, so the other guys do get involved in the writing process towards the end of the sessions. I always felt that it was up to me to find the basic core of a record - the direction, the feeling, the lyrical subject matter - and write the bulk of the material, because in that respect the band has always been cast in my image anyway. I started it as a solo project fourteen years ago, and the whole ideology and philosophy of the band was kind of laid down and was very much cast in my image, and so I remain the "captain of the ship" as it were, and the one thing that I have maintained control over is most of the songwriting. But the others are very much responsible for arranging and contributing their own sounds and ideas and that Porcupine Tree "sound", if there is such a thing, and I believe there is, is very much a result of four musicians.
MSJ: Good. I don't mean to make that question sound like "you write all the songs, what do you need those other three guys for?".
No, I understand what you're asking. I've had others ask me that question as well. I think it would be a very different record if it were just me, let's put it that way.
MSJ: Or you and any three other musicians...
...Or if I was using session musicians, it would be a very different record. In some ways it would be pointless for me to put a band lineup together if I wasn't going to allow the other musicans to have some creative input. I might as well do a Trent Reznor and bring in musicians and tell them what to play. I was never interested in that. Even as a young kid I was always interested in this kind of "romance" of being in a band, and the band all contributing and pulling their own ideas and energies to create something that was greater than the some of its parts.
MSJ: Going back to your previous album, "In Absentia", what do you think are the differences between that album and "Deadwing", or is there are any?
Well, there is a difference. Because of the film script idea, ("Deadwing") is a more cinematic record. It has more a film-ic, musical journey-like quality to it. You have to understand that when we made the last record ("In Absentia") there were a lot of changeshappening around the band. It was the first record we made for a major label, the first time we worked with a new drummer in Gavin Harrison, the first time we brought in a lot of metal into the sound. It was the first album we recorded outside of England - we recorded it in New York. So there were a lot of changes going on and I think that although I like the record very much I think that it was a stab into the dark for us. Plus it doesn't have the confidence of this new record for us. I do feel that this is more of a confident, bold, self-aware kind of Porcupine Tree. It's a band that has been on the road for some time and has gelled as a four-piece. In that aspect it's more of a consolidation of the style that we hit on with "In Absentia" - I think its in a more confident way. I think we're more fluent now in the language that we created with "In Absentia".

MSJ: How did you come up with the name Porcupine Tree?
Oh, that's the one question I never answer. Sorry, man. Even the band don't know the answer - that's how much of a secret that is.
MSJ: Do you ever find yourself thinking "we're getting a little too dark in our sound here, we may have to pull back here"?
Nope - you can never be too dark! (laughs)
MSJ: Really - "you can never be too dark!"
Well, I suppose it can be. If you go into a slightly, how shall we say, Hammer Horror type of darkness or with some of these death metal bands with death obsession which can get cheesy. For me, dark is melancholia. I have always felt that melancholy music is, for me, the music which is the easiest for me to enjoy and I find it uplifting. I think the reason for that is that melancholic music and sad music is the music that we all turn to when we're going through a rough time. We do, ultimately,have a shared human experience. We all know what it's like to feel certain things in our life, and I think, strangely and paradoxically, that happiness is something unique - it's more unique to various cultures - and sadness almost universal. I think that when you're going through a rough time and you hear a song that kind of relates to your experience, it does make you feel better. It makes you feel like you're not alone - that there's someone else in the world that's been through what you've been through. Personally speaking, I always write when I'm in that frame of mind. I don't write when I'm happy. For me writing is a kind of exorcism of negative feelings, but I think ultimately to create something beautiful and have something uplifting - something people can empathize with - that seems to be born out of the way that Porcupine Tree's audience talks about the records. They do seem to feel that. So what works for me seems to work for a lot of other people too - that sad music is ultimately the more uplifting and happy music is...quite depressing! (laughs) I think a lot of artists use that negativity as a starting point for inspiration. I think that anger, angst, sadness, and melancholia are the basis for a lot of great art with soul and depth to it. I certainly don't think I'm unique in that respect.

MSJ: You've been involved in a side project with Aviv Geffen...
Yes, Blackfield.
MSJ: And how's that going?
It's going really well! It's the first album we made and we made it without any great master plan. It came out first in Israel about a year ago and did phenominally well there - it's almost gone gold in Israel - and it came out in Israel a few months later and did very well there also. It's just come out in America in the last month or two. In some respects it's the most commercial thing I've done. In another respect it's almost like Porcupine Tree with all the heavier, rock side removed and more focused on thae art of the great pop song. In that respect it's been quite commercial proposition, certainly compared to a lot of other projects. It's picking up some airplay that perhaps Porcupine Tree wouldn't pick up. I'm very happy to have that side to me as well. I've never been ashamed to admit that I admire and I love to write great pop songs, and it's a very difficult thing to do. People underestimate the skill of writing a great three-minute pop song and Aviv is very gifted at that, so the combination of his writing and my production and singing has worked quite well.

MSJ: So it's the best of both worlds - you get the more pop access of this project with the more artistic aspect of Porcupine Tree.
Right, although it was never planned that way. I always enjoy getting involved with musicians that I just enjoy spending time with and I enjoy writing with. Like I said, with Blackfield there was no great master plan behind it, but with a lot of things that become successful that's probably true - there wasn't any great plan there, and if it becomes successful it's almost by accident which is the nicest way.
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