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The real story behind the return of Porcupine Tree: "We’re old geezers getting together"

Porcupine Tree
(Image credit: Alex Lake)

Back in 1988, at a band competition in Hemel Hempstead, Gavin Harrison went on stage with a bass guitar and a bag over his head. Three other bass-carrying musicians, including future King Crimson guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, accompanied him in similar attire. Written on the bags in felt pen was the band’s name for the day: ‘Sainsburys’. 

For Harrison – now one of modern rock’s foremost virtuosic drummers, with positions in King Crimson and The Pineapple Thief – it was a natural extension of the record he and Jakszyk made as Frank Zappa parodists The Kings Of Oblivion (an obscure psychedelic affair titled Big Fish Popcorn). 

Unbeknown to Harrison, his future bandmate, a self-taught musical polymath named Steven Wilson, was also on the bill, with singer and good friend Tim Bowness. Around the same time, while working as a computer software salesman, the 19-year-old Wilson would start another project, inspired by the obscure 70s rock records he loved. Like Kings Of Oblivion, this project was conceived as a joke, in the vein of XTC’s Dukes Of Stratosphear. Unlike the Kings Of Oblivion, Wilson’s joke – which he christened Porcupine Tree – took off. 

But first back to Hemel Hempstead and the four bass players of Sainsburys with bags on their heads. “…And they won!” Harrison says of Wilson and Bowness’s performance. “We were in the same room, though I didn’t realise it because I couldn’t see through the bag!” 

There’s a perception of Porcupine Tree, for better or worse, as very serious men. Cerebral musicians. Unsmiling guys dressed in a chin-stroking palette of black and dark grey, as seen in their new photos. Cool progressive minds who wanted to be Radiohead but were labelled “the 90s Pink Floyd” (without actually filling those shoes). They vanished after a final showdown at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010. 

Such snapshots reflect part of who they are, but miss a good deal more. 

Oh and yes, there are new photos. Following 11 years of silence, speculation and separate ventures – including a solo career that made Wilson more of a ‘name’ than he’d ever been – Porcupine Tree have a new album and a tour in the diary. 

Comprising seven long yet lean, immaculately honed tracks written by Wilson, Harrison and keyboard player Richard Barbieri (bassist Colin Edwin is absent, but more on that later), Closure/Continuation is a stunning distillation of the band’s most incendiary qualities. Dextrous drums. Gnarly riffs. Strange, dreamy soundscapes. Perfect pop melodies. Ingredients from across their catalogue, free of any excess fat. 

After such a long gap, anticipation is high. The years have generously bolstered Porcupine Tree’s legend, feeding a new generation of listeners (including fans of Wilson’s solo work) and galvanising the existing ones. Qualities that once rendered them unfashionable will now see them headline Wembley Arena in November. 

“We’ve had longevity,” says Wilson, between working on his next solo record, The Harmony Codex (currently due in 2023) and the myriad other plates he tends to spin. “We’re not attached to a particular era, or a fashion or zeitgeist that was happening at any particular time. We have existed outside of those things for most of our career. All of our career, really. Porcupine Tree created their own musical universe, and we now exist in that musical universe. I know lots of bands say: ‘‘Oh, we don’t label ourselves…’” 

He pauses, considering his words before finishing: “I know it’s a cliché to say that, but I’m saying it anyway.”

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As with so many serious artistic universes, Porcupine Tree’s roots were in no way serious. No-Man was Wilson’s ‘real’ band. Porcupine Tree served as a light, frothy distraction. As Wilson puts it in his new book, Limited Edition Of One: “It was probably raining that afternoon, and we’d run out of biscuits”. 

Still, not-plans have a way of lasting a long time. “People put their bands together all the time just to hang out with their mates and have fun,” Wilson offers, “and sometimes those things end up becoming careers and meaning a lot to a lot of people all over the world. And I suppose this is an example of that.” 

That spirit of fun is what has fuelled so much of Closure/Continuation, and it’s what was missing in Porcupine Tree by the time they played their last (or at least first last) show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2010. Wilson, Barbieri and Harrison all agree on this. Thoroughly worn out after 14 gruelling months on tour, following 2009’s The Incident, they were ready for a break.

“It wasn’t going well,” Barbieri says, without hesitating. “The atmosphere wasn’t great with the band. We’d been touring too long; we should have had a break much sooner.” 

“There’s always record company, management, agents, promoters pushing you to do it,” Harrison says in agreement. “‘Yeah, boys, go and do another ten weeks!’ But you’re the one having to do it. The last push was to play Radio City [New York], then the Albert Hall. Those two shows were probably the pinnacle of what we did, but we were just too burned out to enjoy them.” 

For Harrison, who joined Porcupine Tree for the making of In Absentia (which many would say is their best record) in 2002, life in the band came as a culture shock. He’d received the call from Barbieri – an old friend, who he met through Italian singer Alice Visconti in the early 90s – asking if he wanted to join, following original Porcupine Tree drummer Chris Maitland’s departure. At the time, the band had been grinding it out for almost a decade, finding small pockets of passionate followers but a lot more deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Harrison had grown accustomed to packed stadiums, five-star hotels and Business Class flights through years of working with Claudio Baglioni (“sort of Italy’s Elton John”). Since leaving school his world had been one of function bands, TV performances, and touring with pop stars. Porcupine Tree circa 2002 was a very different animal. 

“We were driving around in a little van for hours on end,” he recalls, “like a bunch of teenagers from school going out on their first tour. Suddenly playing small clubs in front of very few people, and really roughing it.” 

Still, there was an alchemy between him, Wilson, Barbieri and Edwin. Over 10 years they made four albums together (in addition to the more psychedelic six between 1992 and 2000), marrying metal, progressive and electronic components like no one else. 

Deadwing was a heavier, riffier work that pulled in more rock and metal fans. The darkly conceptual Fear Of A Blank Planet, inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, saw them twisting into commanding shapes – ominous, beautiful, compulsive. By 2008, despite a sizable cult following and promises of guitar-shaped swimming pools (from well-meaning but over-zealous American management), they still hadn’t ‘broken through’. 

What started as a joke was now the central commitment in Wilson’s life. He made his first solo album, Insurgentes, which gave a tantalising taste of the possibilities elsewhere. With all this in mind, the Albert Hall show in 2010 was tainted not just by tour exhaustion, but by a creeping sense that Porcupine Tree’s music was becoming formulaic. 

“It felt like I was being defined by Porcupine Tree, and yet it was always just this one facet of my musical personality,” Wilson says. “The Incident [2009] was the first album I think we made – and I know Richard agrees with me, and Gavin, too – where we started to repeat ourselves in a not particularly creative way. We’d fallen into that pattern of giving people exactly the album they expected, and I’ve always found that to be a little bit of a red flag.” 

It’s well established that Wilson didn’t enjoy the Albert Hall as he “should” have. The fact that the fans seemed happier than ever was of little consolation. If anything, it was a worry. To the outside world, though, the band’s hiatus seemed to come just as they were finally getting somewhere. The Albert Hall show received rave reviews. The Incident was their most commercially successful record to date. And despite all the fatigue and frustration behind the scenes, there was some positive feeling. 

“I kind of put all that to the back of my mind and really enjoyed those last two shows,” Barbieri says. “I thought the performance was good, I enjoyed it.” 

Perhaps he knew that there was something worth fighting for, even if he didn’t realise how long it would take to bring it back.

When Richard Barbieri joined Porcupine Tree in 1993, he’d tasted serious success with 80s stars Japan, followed by the evaporation of that band and lead singer David Sylvian – deservingly or not – taking the lion’s share of support from management, labels and other personnel. 

It was, the softly spoken keyboard player/sound designer tells us, an unusual way to spend his late teens and 20s, some of which resurfaced through panic attacks during lockdown. All the people in Japan’s lives were adults. They travelled the world. Pressure mounted. As their stock began to rise, management sent them to have their (healthy) tonsils removed. 

“I think they didn’t want any cancelled shows or tours,” Barbieri remarks dryly. “It’s all part of the system of control.” 

A natural team player, he loved bouncing off the charismatic Sylvian. In Wilson he found a similar compadre. They bonded over eclectic tastes and a love of interesting, electronic soundscapes and films. 

“We both like ABBA and Aphex Twin,” he says. “We can go to extremes. We’ve always been like that; we can talk about certain records and understand what each other means.”

Despite having experienced different childhoods, and there being a sizeable age gap (Barbieri is 10 years older than Wilson), their history of musical openness was remarkably similar. Raised in a half-Italian, working-class household in Catford, Barbieri inhaled a hot mix that ranged from Roxy Music and David Bowie to Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath

While Wilson’s first influences came from his parents, Barbieri’s eccentric actress aunt was an early mentor. “She let me stay up all night listening to her music. She thought every single man in the area was after her, so she used to send me round to them all – the butchers, the grocers – to tell them she wasn’t interested in them!” 

From the beginning, music was all about escapism. As youths, Barbieri and his bandmates wandered the suburbs of south east London in New York Dolls make-up. 

“We liked the American punk scene because it was more interesting and it was further away,” he says. “Bands like Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, they were singing about interesting stuff, whereas in England it was just singing about how crap everything is."

Japan folded once, and then again after a rebirth in 1991 – for which they were renamed Rain Tree Crow, and released one album – proved short-lived. With such a career history, Barbieri’s trepidation over early signs of a return to Porcupine Tree is understandable. 

“At that point I thought: ‘Well, it’s dead in the water,’” he recalls of the day Wilson suggested he use the song ideas he’d sent over, written with Porcupine Tree in mind, for his own solo albums. “And reading the interviews as well, he was quite down on Porcupine Tree, because he wanted the focus to be on his solo career, naturally. So at that point I emotionally let it go. Completely forgot about it. Started making my solo albums, which I really got into.”

And of course, as is so often true, the moment he let it go was when it came back.

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In truth, new activity was brewing as far back as 2012. Wilson and Harrison, who lived close by, had started jamming together, with the former swapping the guitar for a bass. It was a stimulating change. Tellingly, the album’s first track, Harridan, opens with a standout, funked up bass solo from Wilson. 

“As soon as I picked up something that wasn’t my normal instrument for writing on, I found all these ideas flowing through me,” he enthuses. “It was a very creative process to be writing on an instrument that wasn’t necessarily my first.” 

There was another driving factor behind those first jams. In the year that followed the final Porcupine Tree gig, both Wilson and Harrison lost parents. For Wilson it was his father, a quietly pivotal figure in his life: an electronics whizz who built him his first sequencer. Soon after, Harrison’s mother died (his jazz trumpeter father had passed away some years previously). Naturally, it brought them closer. 

“We would get together and have a cup of tea and talk about life and things,” Harrison says. “Eventually, every time we got together I’d say: ‘What do you think about Porcupine Tree?’ And Steven would say: ‘Oh, I’m just concentrating on my solo career at the moment.’ One of the times, I think it was November 2012, I said: ‘You know what, Steve, something we never tried to do is have a proper jam, where we just improvise until we think something good is happening.’” 

It turned out to be a masterstroke. But the next decade brought fresh trials for Wilson. He came out of a 25-year relationship with ‘T’, as she’s known in Limited Edition Of One. In 2019 he married an old Israeli friend, Rotem, and became stepfather to her daughters. Life had escalated dramatically for the shy boy from Hemel Hempstead, who learned to talk confidently in public through computer software sales training in his teens. 

“It was quite painful,” he says now, “falling in love again, getting married and inheriting stepchildren, buying a new house, moving back to London. So there’s been both negative and positive things going on in my life, there’s been tragedy and there’s been elation. Even if you look at it in global terms, it’s been a very traumatic period of time.”

Meanwhile, Barbieri had begun to email Wilson pieces of music. Concurrently, Wilson continued to jam, on and off, with Harrison. He stitched these two streams together. Slowly the seeds of Closure/Continuation grew and, with Wilson now playing bass and original bassist Colin Edwin having been phased out, the line-up was down to Wilson, Barbieri and Harrison. 

“I think that’s always been the creative core of the band anyway,” Wilson reasons. “If I had to describe the band to somebody, I’d say it’s this combination of Gavin’s interest in rhythmic complexity, Richard’s approach to sound design and texture, and those two things filtered through my approach to songwriting and arranging.” 

On the forthcoming tour, the live band will be completed by bassist Nate Navarro and guitarist Randy McStine. Wilson tells us he hasn’t spoken to Edwin since they left the Albert Hall in 2010. 

“And that’s not to say that we fell out or anything,” he adds, “it’s just the way it happened. I heard from Richard and Gavin in the months afterwards. I never heard from Colin, and I think Colin is just that kind of person; he’ll wait to be invited to be involved in something. And I think that’s significant here, because Richard, Gavin and myself are always pushing things forward… Again, no disrespect to him. That’s why he was in the band so many years, he was quite easy-going and easy to work with, but I never had a message from him to say: ‘Are we gonna do something?’” 

Come March 2020, as the world shut down, Steven went for a walk with the bulk of the record in his headphones. It was then that he knew they had something special. That it was worth using this at-home time to finish it properly. If they were going to come back, they would do it right. Although their respective parts were recorded separately (with no additional musicians), the trio’s friendship has quietly re-blossomed. They go out for dinner from time to time. They compare notes on respective projects. They talk about he changing music industry, movies they’ve seen, life. 

“We’re old geezers getting together,” Wilson says with a laugh, “so we talk about aches and pains: ‘What pills are you taking?’”

There’s one thing that explains the meaningful manner of Porcupine Tree’s return, and the impassioned, non-throwaway nature of the new music: it’s a truly collaborative project. For Harrison, who still drums with King Crimson and The Pineapple Thief, there’s a magic to these collaborations. 

“When you work with lots of people,” he says, “maybe once every ten years, you work with somebody and you think: ‘Wow there was something greater than the sum of the parts going on here.’ I always felt that with Steve Wilson. There was something special. I felt the same way when I met Bruce Soord from The Pineapple Thief.” 

As the Closure/Continuation title deliberately suggests, this album might be their last. Then again it might not. Right now all three members are keeping an open mind, excited about the select run of large-scale gigs and the loving reception that certainly awaits. 

“A lot of people I knew said: ‘Why are you doing this?’” Barbieri says, remembering his first days in the band all those years ago. “But I’ve proved them wrong. We’ve gone from three men and a dog in Gillingham, to Wembley Arena.” 

It’s no secret that Steven Wilson has wanted more. More for his records. More from his career. He would like to have been a bigger star. But with his next solo album cooking, and a democratised Porcupine Tree to participate in, rather than dictate (at least for now), something seems to have shifted. Even if just a little. As the last line in Limited Edition Of One reads: “Mostly it’s been enough.” 

“There’s always the sense that you arrive somewhere and all you can see is something else you want to reach,” Wilson muses. “That’s life, isn’t it? Without wanting to be too pretentious, I think a lot of that is analogous with life: moving forward, always wanting to have new experiences, and never being completely content. I think part of the human condition is to never be completely content. That’s what drives us on, isn’t it?” 

Closure/Continuation is out now via Music For Nations/Sony. Porcupine Tree tour The US from September and Europe in October and November. Tickets are on sale now (opens in new tab)

Polly is Features Editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage) and writes a few things. She also writes for Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer, and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.