Hailed for many years as the "next big thing", can this influential and unique band break into the mainstream?
An intimate chat with Steven Wilson
By Pete Pardo
Not many bands in the underground music scene today can boast as large an audience or as diverse a reputation as England's Porcupine Tree. What originally started out as a sort of solo project for guitarist/singer/songwriter Steven Wilson in the late 80's, later became a full-fledged band that fused many styles, including psychedelic rock, ambient, alternative, progressive and space rock. This style has seemed to catch on with listeners, starting in the mid 90's, when grunge was beginning to falter and fans were longing for the sounds of classic Pink Floyd, but still wanted some bite to their music. After releasing a string of albums that featured long, sonic explorations amidst electronic sound effects, the band recorded the breakthrough Signify, which became a turning point for Porcupine Tree as it signaled a move towards more commercial and harder music, but still contained lots of instrumental passages that challenged the mind as well as the ears. Following Signify, the band shortened up its songs and added some Beatles influenced harmonies for the successful Stupid Dream. While some older fans of the band might have been put off by the slight change in direction, a whole new legion of Porcupine Tree fans were born. The trend continues on the bands latest opus, titled Lightbulb Sun, which features perhaps the best songwriting by the band, plus a heavier guitar and keyboard attack. While there are still many snippets of psychedelic and ambient textures, Lightbulb Sun is geared more towards the rock, and even the harder progressive rock audience, than ever before.
Steven Wilson ponders the constant changes in Porcupine Tree's music; " I always felt that one of the responsibilities of Porcupine Tree to ourselves AND to the audience must be to always try to move forward with each new release, to reinvent our sound and continue to "progress". Inevitably that means that some of the older fans don't like or approve of the direction we move in and consequently they drift away from the
band. But at the same time each release brings us a whole new audience. Having said that the majority of the older fan base do seem to be prepared to follow the band's evolution, even if it takes them a while to adjust. With Stupid Dream we did lose some fans that did not enjoy the more song orientated direction. Lightbulb Sun was less of a surprise in that in continued this style, so a positive reception was more immediate. Both
albums have certainly brought us a whole new audience that are not necessarily interested in any particular genre, but just enjoy a more sophisticated approach to rock music - I guess you could call that the "mainstream"."
Mainstream acceptance also means spotting Porcupine Tree CD's in your local retailer, on-line shops, as well as seeing the band mentioned in music magazines, or playing a concert in your home town. Even with the increased exposure globally, as with most bands, success varies from country to country. "The sales base is pretty even across most countries - at the moment 5-10 thousand in each major territory," states Wilson. "However, I think there is more potential for the band in the USA than I do in the UK for example. We have toured a lot in the UK and still sell a relatively small amount of
albums, around 8,000 of Lightbulb Sun. However in the US where we have hardly
toured or been promoted at all we sold about 6,000, so I think the potential is there for us to be much more successful in the US given a little hard work and the right label behind us."
One listen to Lightbulb Sun and it is very obvious that the CD contains a few potential Porcupine Tree classics on it, namely the title track, "Four Chords that Made a Million", "Shesmovedon", "Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth Before it is Recycled", "Hatesong", and "Russia on Ice." I asked Steven how the songwriting of the band has changed over the years.
"Well, the songwriting has changed radically from the earliest days and I
find that as long as new things inspire me, whether it is music, films, books or life in general, then the songwriting continues to evolve too. On a more fundamental level my interest musically has shifted from abstract instrumental music to more concise and crafted songwriting and vocal arrangement. Everything really changed for me a few years ago when I went through my born-again Brian Wilson is God conversion!" exclaimed Wilson.
The band has recently released a CD called Recordings, which is made up of B-sides and leftover tracks from the last two studio albums. Steven explains, "Six of the songs are taken from singles that were released in 1999 and 2000. Sometimes tracks don't make it on to an album first time around not for reasons of quality (or lack of), but perhaps because they just didn't fit onto the album, or one member of the band wasn't happy with the track. Also perceptions can change and I think we all felt in hindsight that
these six tracks deserved to be heard by a wider audience." One listen to songs such as "In Formaldehyde" and "Ambulance Chasing" and it becomes clear that these songs needed to be officially released in a collection with other like tracks. Unless a fan is able to get a hold of import CD singles, these songs might go unheard. Thankfully the band has assembled these leftover and B-side songs, and combined them with three brand new, never before heard tunes for Recordings. As Wilson addressed these particular songs, "The remaining 3 tracks we recorded specifically for the album. "Oceans Have No Memory" is a new band recording of a demo that was originally issued on the B-side of the "Piano Lessons" 7 -inch single. "Access Denied" was written and demoed for Lightbulb Sun but no one liked it except me! So I took the opportunity to re-present it to the band for inclusion on Recordings and this time they let me do it. Finally "Buying New Soul" was a song recorded during writing sessions just after Lightbulb Sun was finished. I think if it had been written a couple of months earlier it would have been included on the album. We thought about holding it back for the next album, but in the end we felt that because the next album is probably going to be moving into different musical waters it should be released now."
Many of the older fans of the band were excited to see the release of the CD Voyage 34: The Complete Trip. I asked Steven what his thoughts were on this CD, and in particular this era in the history of the band?
"Well I have a very ambivalent attitude to all my past work," explains the guitarist. "I never listen to any of it but on the other hand I like to keep the catalogue well maintained. I went back to the tapes to remix the whole Voyage 34 cycle, but all the time I was resisting my natural inclination to completely rewrite and re-record it! At the time it was originally recorded PT was a solo project and I was forced to make use of drum samples rather than the real thing. It would have been nice to re-record the music with real drums and with the rest of the band adding their ideas as they do on the live version, but I feel that after a while music becomes a part of history and the circumstances (no matter how limited they may have been), are as much a part of the fabric of the music as the performance itself. In particular the Voyage 34 track was very influenced by the ambient trance scene that was happening at the time and so in some respects it may be an entry in PT's back catalogue that sounds more dated than the rest."
Voyage 34 is a pretty psychedelic listen from the opening moments to the careening climax. I asked Steven if the band is moving away from that type of material, towards a more rock/pop type of sound, as evidenced on Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, in which he replied, "Actually I would say that the future will probably see more experiment, but possibly less of the psychedelic influence." (Although there is still some psych mayhem on Lightbulb Sun, especially on the track "Russia on Ice) "With PT I've become more interested in tightly structured and arranged material and other
influences are coming in that are keeping the music fresh. For example, on the next record there is a stronger influence coming from metal. There's no reason why PT wouldn't return to psychedelia in the future, but it would happen in an organic way, as there's no premeditated plan for the way the band's sound develops. Also I should point out that I do still make psychedelic music - my IEM project have just released an album called Arcadia Son which is probably the most psychedelic thing I've done to date under any name."
Anyone who has read the many interviews Steven Wilson has conducted in the past knows his dislike for classifications. The band however, mixes such diverse styles as
rock, prog, psych, space rock, ambient, pop, and alternative, into one cohesive sound like no other band recording today. Due to the fact that Porcupine Tree has yet to break the Billboard charts, or film a video for MTV, someone reading this article might wonder just what this band is all about. Steven Wilson replies, "I would say that PT are a sophisticated / experimental rock band with an interest in the album as an art form rather than as a collection of unrelated songs."
Steven adds, "I think the success of bands like Radiohead and Tool has really helped other experimental bands get noticed. The market for ambitious rock music has definitely opened up again in the wake of the success of these two bands, and others like them."
Reading the CD booklets of the bands last few releases, once can't help but notice that Porcupine Tree has managed to keep a stable line-up for quite a few years. This is something that has always plagued many bands that perform this style of music. I asked Steven to talk about his fellow band members and how he came in contact with them to join the group?
"They were all musicians I had worked with beforehand," states Wilson, "so I was in the
fortunate position of not having to search for people for the band. Colin was actually at school with me, although he is a few years younger. Richard and Chris had both played as session musicians with No-man, who was a band I was (and still am) a member of. I knew Richard had an interest in the kind of musical areas I was working in. Colin was very into the space rock and song orientated aspects, less so the progressive aspect. Chris didn't really connect with the music, but he is a very gifted drummer whose natural style seems to lend itself to playing PT music and he tends to be the kind of musician who can enjoy playing whatever he's involved in."
A constant line-up usually means that a band can record regularly without too many diversions or delays. The same goes for touring. Seeing that Porcupine Tree has had a few years with the same line-up to hone its live skills, the US and Europe has seen the band play an assortment of live shows, including NearFest 2001 in Bethlehem, PA this past June. "Apart from the shows the other reason we came to the US in June was to
try sort out a domestic record deal for PT" states Steven. "The lack of funding and
promotion from a US label has meant that it has been very difficult for us to do prolonged touring in the US in order to raise our profile." He also adds "However, the visit was successful on this front and we hope to announce details of a new record deal very soon. When this happens we hope to be playing in the US regularly."
This sounds like a possible situation that will make a lot of people very happy, plus will enable those who have not experienced the sounds of Porcupine Tree easy access to the band. Hopefully, if all goes according to Steven Wilson's plan, the next few years could very well be the "Year's of the Tree!"