Steven Wilson: The Power Behind Porcupine Tree

Steven Wilson reclines in a chair in his conservatory, and mulls over what has been an enthralling and perhaps defining 14 months or so for Porcupine Tree. Outside the winter chill pervades the rural Hertfordshire early evening gloom, but the atmosphere in the musician’s house is as warm as one might expect. In case you were wondering, yes, Steven is trademarkedly barefoot.

“When I remember we were playing to two, three hundred people a night and it tended to be a kind of older, male audience…” Wilson’s voice trails off, as he allows himself a slightly disbelieving touch of a grin. “I think I would have been very surprised to learn that in 10 years we were going to be playing to 2,000 in New York at Radio City and 3,500 in the Albert Hall. It’s just amazing.”

Wilson is, as ever, being modest. Porcupine Tree’s manager Andy Leff told Prog after that aforementioned Albert Hall show that, had Cliff Richard not have booked himself in to celebrate his 70th birthday with a series of gigs, Porcupine Tree could have easily sold out another night at the celebrated venue. Considering the band had played London’s Hammersmith Apollo at the beginning of their The Incident world tour, and the perceived norm is for a band to perform at the larger venues first, then return to a slightly smaller venue towards the end of a tour if demand dictates, it merely adds to the sense of the band’s growing achievements.

“I’m not trying to suggest that the whole reason for doing the Albert Hall is to show off,” Wilson intones earnestly. “The thing about playing there is that for a band that are supposedly non-mainstream – almost to a fault, you know, and off the radar – to have sold it out is very satisfying, and an indication of all our hard work. We’re not fashionable, so to sell the venue out six months before the show felt like a kind of acceptance.”

Wilson began his musical journey not far from where we now sit, at his parents’ house down the road in Hemel Hempstead, as seen on the recently released Insurgentes DVD. Footage used includes showing Wilson in his old bedroom studio as his parents proudly discuss their son’s musical journey. Even better are the clips of Wilson and his father discussing various instrumentation and equipment they’d made together back in the days when the then-12-year- old Wilson had already moved beyond just playing in bands and was developing a fondness for experimenting with sounds and studio recording.

His earliest bands were with school friends, now lost in the mists that still roll over the undulating hills that stretch out beyond the confines of Wilson’s back garden. At 15 he formed Altamont with Simon Vockings and they released the Prayer For The Soul cassette album. Next Wilson formed Herts prog rockers Karma whom this writer recalls featuring in his own fanzine, Court Jester, at the time. The band’s 1983 debut cassette album The Joke’s On You featured early versions of Porcupine Tree’s Nine Cats, Small Fish and the title track, with writer Clive Rudd proclaiming it to be “the best demo I have ever heard”. The band would go on to release The Last Man To Laugh in 1985, before Wilson would join forces with original Marillion keyboard player Brian Jelliman and bassist Diz Minnitt in the melodic prog band Pride Of Passion (later The Blazing Apostles), before his ever-expanding musical ability and sense of direction sent him careering towards Manchester-born Tim Bowness, with whom he would form No-Man in 1987.

“I think when you think when you first fall in love with the idea of being a musician – and maybe fall in love with the idea of the life of a musician – of course your immediate vision and dream for the future is groupies and the perceived rock and roll lifestyle,” he muses. “It’s a crass idea, and maybe for some it happens like that. But the more realistic working musicians who’ve spent 20 years in the industry, they’ve learned the hard way that it’s not easy.

“In this business you can always look at the glass half-empty or the glass half-full, and I try and look at the glass being half-full. Considering the kind of music we play, having made very little compromise, and not played the games that you’re supposed to play in order to attain success, what we’ve done is an incredible achievement.

“But if you look at the other point of view, the glass half-empty, it’s taken 15 years of touring to get to a point that some bands get to almost in the space of a single album. And that’s frustrating. Look at a band like Muse who are arguably the biggest band in the world right now. They’re not dissimilar to us, and they’re doing your average stadium tours within two or three records. But I’m aware there’s a lot of musicians that are playing music in a similar style to us playing smaller venues than we used to, so I have to be happy with where we’re at.”

As Prog looks at the glass starting to brim over, the past 14 months have surely established Porcupine Tree as the forerunners of progressive music. The band have never been ones to look back, but have flourished since signing to Roadrunner Records for 2007’s Fear Of A Blank Planet. Last September, however, in typically uncompromising Wilson style, they released The Incident, a two-CD set that featured one 55-minute suite of music and four shorter selections. It proved to be the band’s most successful, garnering Porcupine Tree their highest album chart positions in the UK and US (23 and 25, respectively). Prog was even contacted at the time by the BBC to explain just why this ‘hitherto unknown’ act found themselves, as well as Muse, who hit the charts the same week with The Resistance, so popular. On top of the band’s enormously successful world tour, they also released the in concert DVD Anesthetize, which Prog writers saw fit to place as their DVD release of the 2010, above Rush and Opeth.

It’s a far cry from the days when Wilson wrote of characters like Linton Samuel Dawson (LSD – see what he did there?) on early cassette albums such as Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm (1989) and Love, Death & Mussolini (1990). Those early cassettes were partially combined for 1991’s On The Sunday Of Life… after Wilson had signed with Richard Allen’s Delerium label (itself a veritable treasure trove of psych-minded bands at the time). 1993’s excellent Up The Downstair, 1995’s The Sky Moves Sideways and 1996’s Signify were the studio albums that Wilson released under the Porcupine Tree banner on Delirium, all the while growing slowly, but surely, under Wilson’s intense but forward- thinking musical vision. The latter album was the first Wilson chose to record with an actual band – bassist Colin Edwin, ex-Japan keyboard player Richard Barbieri and then drummer Chris Maitland, and proved to be a pivotal point in Porcupine Tree’s evolution.

Two albums for the Snapper label followed, Stupid Dream in 1999 and Lightbulb Sun a year later, which saw Wilson toying with slightly shorter song structures as he perhaps reacted to the prog tag the media always foisted upon the band (more of which later). However perhaps the most important point in Porcupine Tree’s career came in 2002, when the band signed with US-based label Lava. Lava had been formed by US A&R whizz kid Jason Flom, who had been responsible for signing the likes of Skid Row, Twisted Sister, Tori Amos and White Lion. As a label, Lava were responsible for bringing to prominence the likes of Kid Rock, The Corrs, Matchbox Twenty and, more recently, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. And perhaps most significantly, Lava were aligned with the massive Atlantic label.

“I suppose that was a very important time not just because of the signing to a major label, but because there were two other major changes at that time,” Wilson points out. “Firstly we kind of embraced metal as part of our vocabulary, and I don’t think you can underestimate just how important that was. Literally overnight our audience went from being predominately male, guys wearing our T-shirts, of 30, 40, 50 years of age, to suddenly seeing kids in Nine Inch Nails and Dream Theater T-shirts.

“I’m not trying to say it was contrived, it wasn’t. The embracing of metal was very natural. Through bands like Opeth I rediscovered my love of metal and it became part of the lexicon. Through no contrivance we found that it blossomed into something much more eclectic. And girls were coming to shows for the first time.”

The second major change was that the band replaced Maitland, who would later surface in John Mitchell’s Kino, with Gavin Harrison.

“Gavin, apart from being one of the most remarkable musicians on the planet, definitely gave the band a more contemporary edge,” he surmises. “He’s a very powerful drummer. He’s got the chops of the progressive rock drummer, but he’s not really interested in progressive rock. He didn’t grow up listening to prog rock, he has a much more contemporary, disciplined edge to everything he does, so I think those two things conspired at that time to place us on a different path that we’ve arrived at now. Again, it wasn’t contrived, it happened in a very organic way, and don’t forget, In Absentia and Deadwing didn’t really sell that much better than the other albums, but over a period of time, they gradually did reach people.”

It will hardly come as a surprise to prog musicians and fans alike, Porcupine Tree discovered that despite making a fine album in 2002’s In Absentia, and a truly excellent one in 2005’s Deadwing, their tenure with Lava/Atlantic might have helped bolster the band’s standing somewhat, but it equally proved that major labels do not truly understand how to ‘work’ bands such as Porcupine Tree.

From IQ to Dream Theater the past is littered with progressively-minded acts who have failed to find a major label with a mindset that can understand the workings of a prog band, while even grand successes like Muse and Radiohead tend to demand to be left to their own devices. If the band’s time on Lava meant that all they learned a lesson and it pushed them towards the current UK deal with Roadrunner, then it’s not difficult to see why it proved the most pivotal in their career.

“I always thought actually that it was quite accessible music,” says Wilson of the idea that either Porcupine Tree’s music, or even progressive music in general, be viewed as awkward or difficult music for a label to work with. “Some of the band’s music was a bit more involved and a bit complex but at the same time they were always, I thought, good songs – and really good pop songs.”

Prog points out that there certainly was a time when Wilson himself deliberately shifted his musical approach from the lengthy epics which Porcupine Tree had become known during their Delerium days.

Stupid Dream was the first one, and again, one of the things about changing in this business is that the fans are always very ready to accuse you of doing things for reasons other than musical.”

Indeed, and prog fans, like their metal counterparts, are often more eager than most.

“I think there’s a paranoia within the community of the progressive music fan that the bands that started out making complex art rock will ultimately water their sound down and start making commercial pop. It’s almost an inflammatory gesture in doing that, and when we did Stupid Dream the songs got a little bit shorter and more compact. It was purely because I’d stopped listening to perhaps the music that I grew up with.

“I was listening to Brian Wilson, I was getting obsessed with the idea of harmony vocals. And I’m a big fan of ABBA, always have been since I was a kid, and great pop songs for me are just as much an art form as writing complex, 20-minute songs. So I guess that began to manifest itself more then, and I thought songs like Piano Lessons, Shesmovedon from Lightbulb Sun and Lazarus on Deadwing, I thought that in another world there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be played alongside the new Coldplay song.”

Given that Chris Martin and co. have just announced that their next album will be a concept album, maybe Wilson’s on to something.

“Except,” he continues, “there is a reason. Which is the perception of who you are and what kind of band you are, which can, unfortunately in the music industry, count for so much. Let’s just say that certainly with Lazarus, if that arrives as a single on the desk of the controller of Radio Two, he already has some idea of what Porcupine Tree are, and he’s already decided that he can’t possibly play this band. The hard lesson to learn is that the actual quality of the music counts for very little.”

Here perhaps we find the root of Wilson’s well-documented aversion to the P-word. As he admits to Prog earlier over lunch, some people assume he’s arrogant. Having known Wilson for many years, Prog agrees with his assertion that he is, in fact, simply honest. If someone asks Steven Wilson a question, he will give them a straight answer. Straight answers aren’t always what people want to hear, however.

Having, over the years, witnessed this aversion first hand, even at the time, one could understand Wilson’s strength of feeling. Prog itself was a downtrodden genre and a definite swear word while Porcupine Tree were beginning to make serious headway through the gnarled roads of the music business. Little wonder Wilson felt such a tag was a hindrance. Equally, as he is so fond of pointing out, the prog greats such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, ELP, Tull and King Crimson never referred to themselves as prog bands. Neither, for that matter, did many of the neo-prog bands of the 80s revival. Although their reasons for doing so probably are more in tune with Wilson’s own aversion to the tag.

However, for all that, with the enormous cultural shift in favour of most things progressive, even progressively-inclined music has come to find favour with Wilson himself.

“Certainly the influence of progressive music has never been stronger since the heyday than it is now,” he concedes. “Even back in the 90s people were asking what sort of progressive music was I listening to and I used to say, well, Massive Attack. You listen to a Massive Attack album and it’s very dark, very brooding.”

Massive Attack certainly display a very atmospheric dynamic in their sound. “Atmospheric,” he repeats. “The lyrics are very conceptual and serious, they combine a lot of different genres. Okay, they essentially come from a hip-hop background but they’re also using textures, they’re using very ethereal vocals. That, for me, in a way is progressive rock right there. And I think if you do expand your definitions of what progressive is, to just being music that is about an allegiance to making albums rather than simply pop songs. An allegiance to something a bit weightier, and something a bit more sophisticated than your average throwaway pop music. Something that encompasses so many different things. The original prog bands were simply bands that I guess had been turned on by Sgt. Pepper…, by their first prog album, to the possibilities of making album-orientated music.”

It was, Prog points out, a time unfettered by commercial and financial dictates. A time of enormous creativity. In a way, we are now seeing something similar with many of today’s newer progressively-inclined bands. The difference, of course, is that back then it certainly opened doors to rewards untold. Today it seems like a perpetual struggle against a creaking and decaying machine.

“Exactly,” he starts, warming to the theme. “You could take jazz and you could combine it with rock, which bands like Jethro Tull did. Classical music and rock music, as ELP did. The blues, as Pink Floyd did. None of these bands were remotely similar, and yet now, for many years, they are progressive rock.

“I think that progressive rock made in the late-60s, early-70s could be incredibly broad. In the 80s it became incredibly narrow, and that propelled into the 90s. And now, finally in the last 10 years or so, progressive has flourished and really what I call the pre- and post-Radiohead OK Computer-era, because for me that’s a watershed it’s almost like the Trojan Horse that snuck in under the radar of the mainstream press. They were falling over themselves to say what a masterpiece it was before realising that actually this is what we know as progressive rock, and that enabled bands like Muse and all these other bands to suddenly come through to the mainstream. So I think there’s definitely a moment there where prog could start to be quite progressive again.”

There is equally, Wilson concedes, a shift in the manner in which the media perceive progressive music these days. We’re not just talking about how the genre has a mouthpiece like Prog, but outside of the genre’s own web of forums, fanzines and websites, prog is no longer a dirty word. It’s as if those old, embittered NME journalists have finally given up the ghost.

“I think the whole problem with progressive music is, more so than with any other style of music, its reputation has been dictated by a very small group of people running the mainstream media,” Wilson concurs. “Because I remember about 10 years ago there was a feature on what was the then- [BBC arts programme] The Culture Show, and they were talking about progressive rock and the usual suspects came on. Paul Morley sort of sneering down at prog, and Pete Shelley from Buzzcocks was on there. The Buzzcocks, one of the quintessential punk rock bands, and he was talking about what he thinks about Brian Eno and saying ,‘Well, Genesis, I still love them’. That was a conversation killer…”

Of course, old punk rockers professing their admiration for the music they were supposed to hate isn’t exactly news to Prog. Our pages have been littered with them, as well as musicians from other genres, declaring their passion for prog rock.

“It’s funny,” he laughs, “but the Joy Division book that the film Control is based on, is the book Touching From A Distance, written by Ian Curtis’s widow Debbie. It’s got a little photo supplement in the middle, and there’s a picture of Ian Curtis aged 15 standing in the back garden wearing a Nektar T-shirt. This is the sort of thing that would make journalists have a fit. Your Paul Morleys and your Tony Parsons of the time, they did everything they could to create this myth. I think you’re right, it’s eroding gradually, but sometimes still prevails. But when I hearJoy Division now, it sounds closer to Pink Floyd than it does the Sex Pistols.”

So what was it about music that turned the young Wilson on to the extent that it has become so all-encompassing in his life?

“When I was a kid the first things I heard that really turned me on were from my parent’s music collection, and I think they are really the basis of everything that I like about music,” he admits. “My mother listened to contemporary dance music, disco music, but some of the records that Giorgio Moroder produced for Donna Summer were long complex musical pieces. Love To Love You Baby is a disco symphony.

“At the same time my father was listening to Tubular Bells, Dark Side Of The Moon. The first band I ever got into in my own right was Electric Light Orchestra. Out Of The Blue was the album, and what I loved about those records is that it seemed to me the person who was making those records, Jeff Lynne, approached every song as if it was creating a whole new world in production. In the approach of creating a musical journey over the course of an album. And what bothered me about the punk music that was happening at the time was that every song was the same it seemed. I actually fell in love with was the idea of being a producer or an auteur – someone who could create one of these musical journeys, and hold it in my hand and say ‘I made this’.”

Hence, no doubt, the way many Porcupine Tree albums have been created. And of course Wilson’s oft-stated love of the album itself as a concept (rather than a concept album) - and of his well- known distaste for downloading and all manner of iPoddery.

“Yes,” he agrees. “That’s why I’m still so passionate about this idea of the tangible physical form of vinyl as well, because for me it’s about the romantic, nostalgic experience of holding a gatefold sleeve, the lyric sheet, reading the credits, reading the lyrics, watching the needle go down. Real sad trainspotter stuff, I know, but I’m not the only one.

“Kids are bringing vinyl to the shows – I say kids, I mean young people in their 20s are bringing me vinyl to sign, people who could not possibly have been around when vinyl was still the primary format for music. Some people can barely remember CDs, and yet they’re getting into vinyl, and I think there is definitely a sense that now people are beginning to think again about packaging. And therefore treating music as art and presenting it as art and not presenting it as software. Now what we’re seeing interestingly, the reaction against that, is the whole idea of the special edition release.”

These ideas open us up to the fact that Wilson is often as active outside of the confines of Porcupine Tree as he is within. There exists other musical collaborations, his own solo career – a new album is being worked upon at the moment – his production work with bands from Anathema (Wilson mixed We’re Here Because We’re Here. This was chosen by Prog writers as album of 2010) all the way through to working with über-progmeister Robert Fripp on the recent King Crimson reissue campaign. And of course there is the much-vaunted project with good friend and Opeth mainman Mikael Åkerfeldt (Storm Corrosion). How does he fit it all in?

“The easy answer to your question is I work every day,” he says, smiling the smile of someone who’s answered this poser many times before. “People say I’m a workaholic but I’m not really because I don’t feel I work. When I’m making music or helping other people create music, that’s not work, is it?

“I tend to make, in some capacity or other, three or four records a year. It doesn’t seem like that much to me. I mean making a record could take between six weeks to three months, so if you added it all up…

“Last year I was actually on the road for the whole time, I didn’t do any records. There’s a big back catalogue that’s now constantly being curated and revived and reissued and it’s ever-growing, but this year, apart from the DVD, we had no new music at all. There’s a lot of reissues, so it looks like we’re as active as ever, but The Incident, which was now 14 months ago, was the last new record I released. But next year there’s gonna be two or three new records.”

So what can he tell us about the proposed Akerfeldt collaboration? When word first leaked on to the internet, there was a suggestion that it might be a prog metal supergroup featuring former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. This, it seems, is no longer the case.

“As soon as we started writing we realised that this was not something that Mike would be right for, and to be fair, he wouldn’t be interested either. Mikael and I both sat down and looked at each other and said ‘Nah!’. A prog metal supergroup? It’s almost too easy, too obvious to do.”

So what will it sound like then?

“You know why I’m a big fan of Scott Walker?” he asks. “His approach to making music is very out there. It’s almost about creating music in a theatrical way. You can have something very beautiful happening, and then suddenly he’ll destroy it with something very cinematic.

“What’s the main difference between music and film? For me it’s this; most music, if you listen to a song, has a mood, be it sadness, anger, and it will maintain that mood. Movies aren’t like that. Movies are constantly juxtaposing. You get a happy scene. Then you have a tragic scene. We’re not making progressive music, we’re making almost orchestral, film score music.”

In March, Wilson will release a new album with Blackfield (Welcome To My DNA), his progressive duo with Israeli singer-songwriter Aviv Geffen, in which Geffen writes the majority of the music. Then there’s his longtime collaboration with Tim Bowness, No-Man, which actually pre-dates Porcupine Tree, although with Wilson’s plans for the year ahead, along with Bowness’ involvement with the intriguing Memories Of Machines there’s likely to be little in the way of serious action. And also the relatively little-known drone outfit Bass Communion, seen performing live in the Insurgentes DVD, and which Wilson calls “my labour of love, my biggest passion musically these days”. And of course his second solo album. When we chatted at the Albert Hall gig, Wilson told Prog that it was “some of the most proggy material I’ve ever recorded”.

“It’s a double CD and it’s very eclectic,” he now reveals. “It’s got everything from death metal to piano ballads. Half the record is this very, in a way nostalgic look at progressive rock but not in the way we were talking about at the Albert Hall. It’s more about the darker, more perverse side of progressive rock, your Crimsons, your Van der Graafs.

“I think also I’ve got to the stage now where whatever I do, even if I’m completely ripping off or pastiching something, as I was on The Incident with Time Flies it still sounds like me. I hope that’s the truth.”

We await with baited breath then. In closing, Prog asks if given the scope of all that we’ve covered whether Steven Wilson ever stares out at the rolling countryside stretching out from his house, and wonders if Porcupine Tree had happened five to seven years after it did, would things have been different?

“I’m sure they would have been, but it may have been even more of a struggle,” he ponders. “The problem with the whole kind of internet generation, and download culture, is there are now more people making music than ever before. That’s great for the fans of the music, there’s so many great bands out there. But there’s eight million bands on MySpace, and I think the problem is getting yourself heard above the noise.

“I look at some bands and I think ‘This band should be enormous’. But they aren’t and partly it’s because they did start five or 10 years after Porcupine Tree. In the early 90s, when we went out on tour, there weren’t really a lot of what you might call psychedelic or progressive bands out there on the road. I think that really helped us.”

Through a combination of supreme talent, hard work, astute decision making and some amazing albums, P-Tree are at the very top, voted for in huge numbers again by readers of Prog for the second year running in our Readers’ Poll. So what next then? 2011 will be taken up with Wilson’s extra-curricular activities. But inevitably the big train, Porcupine Tree, will start rolling again. Surely someone as meticulous in detail as Steven Wilson, will have some idea of the route the band will take?

“The simple answer,” he concludes, “is that I don’t know. And I like the fact that I don’t know. It might be a couple of years and so much will have happened. Sometimes I think that the fans think I do sit down and say, ‘Okay, the next record’s going to be 25 per cent this…’. Like baking a cake.

“But you just sit down and write and what comes out comes out. And it’s always a combination of many things that have happened in your life over the previous year. And that’s what makes it exciting.”

This was published in Prog issue 14.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.