I live in the general vicinity of Washington, DC, and I'm always in the
bookstores, music shops and record outlets looking for CDs of the genre of music we cover
here on Sea Of Tranquility. And I'm always disappointed. With a few exceptions,
I never find any progressive music. You buy it online or you go without.
So it's clear that I and a dozen or so friends are the only people in the
entire mid-Atlantic region who appreciate good music, right?
Then I met Steven Wilson and attended the inaugural concert on
Porcupine Tree's current American tour. There were over 600 people in the
9:30 club that night and almost every person there knew every word to
every song. They sang along, they knew the tracks on the new album released only
2 weeks ago – and their applause and their demand for an encore lifted the roof!
Sea Of Tranquility's Duncan Glenday reports.
Prog is coming back, folks, and you can witness its resurgence on Porcupine
Tree's Deadwing tour. But be careful when telling Steven Wilson that you thing his
music is 'progressive'.
Duncan Glenday and Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson
"I think most bands that are overtly 'progressive' have locked themselves
into a given genre, and by definition, they're not really progressing, are
they? I mean look at bands like The Mars Volta, Sigur Ros, Tool, Radiohead, God Speed You
Black Emperor, and a lot of others. They're doing what the real
progressive bands did in the '70s, they're mixing genres that really aren't
supposed to go together. I mean Radiohead risked everything with their
latest album - and it's paying off." He admits to being inspired by the
early progressive acts, though, and cites Zappa and Bowie among his early
So talking of genres and styles, I ask the obvious question about Deadwing. Porcupine Tree's previous album was In Absentia, and in my opinion the
Pink Floyd influence was sacrificed in favor of something approaching progressive metal, whereas the
new record settles somewhere in the middle. "Yes, I suppose-" Wilson hesitates,
"I suppose that metallic aspect is a part of the vocabulary now, but I'll agree
that it's less pronounced." The last time Wilson played Washington's 9:30
club Porcupine Tree was touring In Absentia and Opeth co-headlined with Damnation
- and it was fascinating to note that death-metal Opeth's was more
mellow than Porcupine Tree's set.
"Yeah - there was a lot of heckling on that
tour, but I think Opeth got it more than we did. Some fans just do resist
change", laments Wilson. "An artist tries to change the sound on every new
release. That's the difference between art and entertainment. I mean - I've
waited 7 years for the new Nine Inch Nails album - and it's exactly the same as
their last release. I could never be like say AC/DC, producing the same
record 15 times over. It's very good, but I'm not sure I'd get a new
record by them. It's as if I already have it."
My wife Arhlene
postulates that the audiences looking for entertainment, as opposed to art, are
looking to rekindle old memories, and that the music reminds them of better times. I think it's a special type of audience that appreciates special music,
and ordinary audiences like ordinary music. Steven agrees with Arhlene.
"So what does a band like Porcupine Tree have to do to be really successful?"
"Easy - you need really simple, catchy tunes." So does that mean
Wilson's complex proggy songs will be forever relegated to the backwaters of music's successes? Far from it. Porcupine Tree's record sales currently stand at around 400,000.
"Deadwing debuted at number 132 on the billboard", he says
modestly. "The first time we've had a top-200 record." It's at number 113
in England, 100 in France, 54 in Italy, 51 in Germany, 26 in Sweden, and number
9 in Poland. "And with Blackfield we've had two songs hit no. 1 in Israel. That's a very small
market, of course, and almost everything Aviv does sells very well in Israel. But it's a nice feeling to know that we've been no. 1 somewhere."
The sales of Deadwing will of course be augmented by the tour - but
success means different things to different people. Like so many other
English acts, Porcupine Tree makes money on their European tours but lose it all
in the U.S. But the idea is to build the fanbase and to sell
merchandise and to promote the new record - and promote they will, with a
The band has just completed a European tour
where the concerts sold out, and some had to be moved to larger
venues. They'll be in America for 5 weeks and will be joined by the
legendary King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp for at least three West Coast
shows. Then it's back to Europe for another
month. They'll be off for a bit less than 2 months, then back in America
in October and another 5-week European stint in November. "And back home
for Christmas", he says. "Hopefully!"
"People don't realize - touring
is very stressful - especially in America where there's so much traveling, and
such big distances. With the closed air conditioning system on the bus -
if one person gets sick, you all get sick. You don't get regular sleep or
regular meals, you get homesick - it's a 24-hour job! And the worst is the
hanging around. But there are good points, too, which is why we do it. Meeting people, playing to your fans, playing the new music, seeing the country
.... you have to hope that when you get a day off you're somewhere like San
Francisco, and not some little place with nothing happening..."
Describing Deadwing, Steven tells of an
'un-read movie script' which is
a "ghost story - supernatural, very European and melodramatic," he says. "Each song picks up on an idea from the script - sometimes it's just an idea,
sometimes it directly describes an event in the story. So there's a theme
- it's about something, as all of my albums have been about something. But it isn't a concept album. When you do that, the music becomes a slave
to the story - it's too restrictive."
Having spent many hours with
Deadwing prior to meeting Steven I can assure you there are no restrictions
to this music. It flows from ballads to a metallically-tinged single to a
10-minute multi-layered multi-sectioned piece that recalls the intelligent,
accessible sounds of the band's earlier works. Standouts are "Mellotron
Scratch", a mellow 7-minute mini-epic with elegant overlapping harmonies; and
and "Halo" which features King Crimson's Adrian Belew on guitar. Opeth's
Mikael Åkerfeldt also contributes to the album, and new drummer Gavin Harrison's sophomore effort with the band is an inspired performance.
Our discussion was interrupted by an urgent call for another soundcheck. Steven
left immediately - no time for a 30-second photograph "But stay here - I'll come
and find you," he says.
While the band warmed up to "Blackest Eyes" and the
soundboard was re-callibrated, The club's multi-tattooed manager found us - and
had no idea who we were. I told him we were talking to Steven, and got a surly
"I dunno who Steven is, but I'm telling you how things work here." He took
exception to the fact that Porcupine Tree's tour manager had let us in without
his approval, and we were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk, in the
The sound checks finished, and within a minute the club manager- now with
an apparently renewed respect - asked us to come in because "Steven wants to
continue the interview". I've done interviews exactly like this, at the 9:30
club, a half dozen times. While I was clearly disappointed with the club's
handling of the affair, that isn't the point.
The point is that when sound
checks beckoned, Steven Wilson was up and at them immediately. When they were
over, true to his word, he sought us out and continued the conversation. That is
the mark of a professional - and that is why Porcupine Tree will continue to be
successful. Wilson is a serious artist who lives and breathes for his craft and
has refined it with hard work and extraordinary talent, and has built a strong
and loyal following.
The show was truly excellent, and I strongly recommend that you see Porcupine
they come anywhere near your town. The setlist included a lot of pieces
from their back catalog, all the way back to Up The Downstair - which is
about to be remastered. You'll have to go a long way to beat Porcupine Tree's
live show for its musicianship, the wonderful keyboard work of Richard Barbieri,
the excellent guitarwork of guest artist John Wesley who opened here for
Marillion a few months ago, the videographics projected behind the band that
provided texture to each song, and above all, the lump you'll get in the throat
when you hear that crowd singing along to prog tunes.
Bearing Testament To Prog Music's Gradual Resurgence,
A Crowd Of Over 600 People Sing Along To Porcupine Tree's Songs
Porcupine Tree's known tour dates, at the time of writing, are:
5/13/04 Washington, DC, USA, 9:30 Club
5/14/05 Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, The Stone Pony,
5/15/05 Montreal, Canada, Le Tulipe,
5/17/05 Syracuse, New York, USA, Club Tundra,
5/18/05 Somerville, Massachusetts, USA, Somerville Theatre,
5/20/05 New York, New York, USA, Iriving Plaza,
5/21/05 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, Trocadero,
5/23/05 Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, Intersection,
5/24/05 Toronto, Canada, Mod Club,
5/25/05 Cleveland, Ohio, USA, House of Blues,
5/26/05 Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, The Madhatter,
5/27/05 Chicago, Illinois, USA, Park West,
5/28/05 Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, Shank Hall,
5/29/05 Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, Fine Line,
6/1/05 Boulder, Colorado, USA, Fox Theater,
6/4/05 Seattle, Washington, USA, Crocodile Café,
6/5/05 Portland, Oregon, USA, Aladdin Theater,
6/8/05 San Francisco, California, USA, The Fillmore, Special guest artist -
6/10/05 Los Angeles, California, USA, The Wilshire Theater, Special guest artist
- Robert Fripp
6/11/05 Anaheim, California, USA, The Grove of Anaheim, Special guest artist -
6/14/05 Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, House Of Blues,
6/16/05 Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Roxy Theatre,
7/3/05 Weert, Netherlands,, Bospop Festival
7/21/05 Athens, Greece, Lycabettus Theatre
All photographs credited to
Duncan and Arhlene Glenday.