Monday, September 14, 2009

Interview: Porcupine Tree

A nice little interview just in time for the release of The Incident.


More on: Porcupine Tree

Hemel Hempstead progressive rock dynamos Porcupine Tree are gearing up for the release their new double CD album 'The Incident' on 14th September, which showcases a mammoth 55 minute title track. We caught up with their mainman Steven Wilson to share a few words on the band and their new release.

For someone who hasn't heard of you, how would you describe your music and why should they listen to you?
Well if you like the idea of a movie as an adventure - or reading a novel from beginning to end and being taken on a emotional trip – or the idea a journey through different sounds, textures, atmospheres and feelings, that's what Porcupine Tree is all about. We don't write ten pop songs and throw them together – not that there's any problem with that idea, but that's not what we do. We're more interested in this idea of the musical journey, Our albums are like movies in that way, or a great novel, so you're expected to engage in the music in a way perhaps that is a bit of a lost art these days - to sit down and listen to the record from beginning to end.

How does 'The Incident' compare to your last album?
The last album, 'Fear Of A Blank Planet', was very much driven by the concept and its lyrics. It was very difficult to listen to that record without engaging in some the way with the ideas behind it, and I don't think that's true of this record - it's more about the music. Another difference is that it's conceived as a long song-cycle, so it is meant to be listened to from beginning to end in the way you'd read a book in that respects. But lyrically there's no narrative, no story to be told in that respect. The story is in the music.

Was this shift in your approach to lyrics and music a conscious change?
I think it was a bit more organic than that. It was simply that I didn't necessarily have anything that I wanted to write about on this record whereas I did on the last one. I came to the decision early on that I wanted to set myself a challenge and do something a bit different - I didn't want to make another record in the same style.

Are you worried this might alienate some fans?
I think if was worried about that then that's something a little creatively arresting. If you're always considering what your fans want, your record company want and what your manager wants, for me that's not the definition of a truly creative artist. An artist is someone in a way very selfish. I think all the great artists – painters, writers, film makers or musicians - one thing they have in common, or most of them anyway, is basically that they were very selfish about the way they made their art, and luckily, for whatever reason or not, they managed to connect to an audience.

So you create music for yourself?
Well I think the definition of all good art is that it is created purely to satisfy the person who created it - it's almost like holding up a mirror. And you can hold up the mirror to the rest of the world and say, well, do you see yourself in that too? So far in my career I've been fairly lucky in that enough people have recognised enough of themselves or seen enough that they like in that I do to respond to it, but I believe that's what all great artists do. Not that I'm a great artist, but that's what they do and I try to find that tradition.

Do you have any personal highlights on the new album?
I'm fed up with all of it at the moment. I've spent the last year of my life writing recording, mixing and mastering it so right now, although I'm very proud of it – I don't want to give the impression that I'm not – from a listening perspective it's very hard for me to be objective about it. I think it's the same with any musician or artist who has spent a long time working on something - you're almost too close to it to be objective about it.

Are there any specific influences that shone through on the album, or is it purely Porcupine Tree?
As you get older and further into your career, the most important influence does tend to become your own history in a way - the mistakes you've made and how you don't want to repeat them, wanting to continue evolve and develop as an artist. My major influences when I was growing up, which are still very much part of my DNA, was '70s - progressive music, art rock, kraut rock. It was a great era for albums, which lasted pretty much for about 10 years between say 'Sgt. Pepper' and the beginning of punk rock, so you have that window between '67 and '77 when everything became about making the album as an art form. Of course in the last 30 years we've had the return of the dominance of the three minute pop song and how you can sell yourself in a three minute video or song, but I still come from the tradition of people who think about the album as a musical journey, a musical adventure.

Have you ever come close to bowing to industry pressure and in turn compromising your sound?
Luckily, no. I think the reason is because I started off on a very small label that was specifically focussed on niche market music anyway, and the band proved itself on that level of being capable of attracting a fairly large audience, much bigger than anyone expected. So subsequently when we moved to major labels we were in a position to say look, this band already sell a lot of records, wouldn't you be really stupid to mess about with their sound, but hey, if you put more money into marketing then you could have a really big success here? Luckily most of the labels have taken that on board so we're in a very fortunate position where we deliver finished records to our record label and that's the first time they've ever heard them. At that point the label always have ideas about what's the single and the best way to market it but the important thing is that the music is made in a vacuum, in an uncompromised way.

Is it fair to say that in Porcupine Tree most of the money is made touring, not through sales of music?
Most bands do these days I think. When you look at the decline in commercial music and certainly selling albums through retail, then you have to expect that touring bands that can sustain a long touring career will make a lot more money from that. Going to see a live experience or live concert is not something you can download or digitise, so in that sense bands that have been able to sustain themselves through touring are probably in a much better position to ride the so called death of commercial music. And that certainly seems to be case with us. We do very well on an international level - we don't fill stadiums in any country, but we can pretty much go to any country and play to two, three, four thousand people. We're very fortunate to be in that position.

You play at a lot of big venues but in the mainstream you're largely unheard of. Does this bother you, or are you happy with it?
It's frustrating in a way not to have more mainstream recognition, but on the other hand mainstream recognition can be very fickle - you only have to look at the turnover of bands in the same mainstream, particularly in the UK press, to see that it's not always a great thing. Bands that were getting all the front covers in magazines five years ago have disappeared, likewise the bands of 10 years ago, or 15 years ago when we started. All the bands that were getting incredible accolades have all disappeared, stopped selling records and given up, so in that sense we've come in like a Trojan horse through the back door and gradually, piece by piece and mainly by word of mouth. Ultimately that seems to have been the best thing that could have happened for us in the sense that we don't have a fickle audience. People who have discovered our music have discovered it through word of mouth and that kind of thing and I think that means they're much less likely to lose interest in the band – it's as if they're part of an exclusive club. There are many bands like that over the years. Think of Grateful Dead in the USA, who had a massive following and were one of the biggest touring attractions in the world, yet mainstream media gave them virtually no attention whatsoever. They're part of that tradition, and it's something that seems to have given us more longevity than we might have had, let's put it that way.

Do you think 'The Incident' will push Porcupine Tree closer to the mainstream?
I do wonder. The history of the band shows that the more wilfully obscure and the more self indulgent we get, the better we seem to do. The last record was pretty indulgent, pretty angry and a dark conceptual album and it was our best selling album. And this album in many ways is even more uncompromising, so we'll see if that trend continues. There certainly seems to be more buzz about the band than ever before, which is very gratifying but again it's not through design.

I see similarities between Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater. [progressive metallers whose popularity has risen and risen despite having been around for 24 years]
There's another band that seems to be doing better than ever. I wonder if it's because a lot of the mainstream music scene is falling away a bit, and bands like us and Dream Theater are getting more attention because we are bands that can go out and play live, we are real musicians, it's not about the artifice, it's not about the image or the pop videos. It's about, in some ways, a very old fashioned model – we make an album and we tour, we make an album and we tour and we build up a fanbase that way. And it does seem to be a return to that model now, partly I think due to the impact of download culture, which again works very well for us.

Have you felt a first-hand impact of the internet generation then?
Absolutely. It's one of those things where if we hadn't had the Internet in the last 10 years - or longer, I think there were fansites dedicated to the band in the mid '90s – if we had not had those ways of reaching new people, in other words people actually sharing their love of the band by setting up websites and sharing files, then I don't think I’d be sitting here speaking to you today. During that whole time we had no radio play and no support from the media, so the internet has been a great help to us. But at the same time I have to recognise that it is partly responsible for changing peoples listening habits, perhaps not in a good way. iPods for me, in terms of quality and the experience, are never going to match up to a beautifully mastered CD or vinyl on a good stereo at home. So although I'm ambivalent about iPods in that respect, I also have to recognise that more people are listening to more music than ever before – they're not paying for it, but at least they're listening to it, and music is ultimately there to be shared with as many people as possible, so that's got to be a good thing.

Are you a musical perfectionist? You often release, for example, surround sound editions of the band's albums.
For me, a perfectionist is someone that's never happy, someone who will spend ten years making one record, and as you see I'm quite prolific - I release two or three ablums a year and have already released a solo album this year – so a perfectionist would never be able to maintain that degree of output. But what I am is someone who loves good sounding records. I'm very much an advocate for sonic quality in recorded music. I grew up loving great producers who could make beautiful sounding records that you could just lose yourself in, with all their textures and the atmosphere, and MP3s unfortunately render that in some ways a lost art - MP3s are a very nasty sonic standard. But as time goes on, I think what we'll see is MP3s disappearing. The need to compress audio will disappear because as internet speeds get faster and hard disk capacities get bigger and bigger, the need to compress audio files will disappear, so people will have full resolution files on their iPods instead of these little horrible compressed MP3s. So I think in time that quality issue will become probably irrelevant, and so people like me who really care about audio quality and sonic superiority will hopefully not have as much to get concerned about.

So do you see a distinct connection between your music and art, cinema, etc?
Well I've always had a strong affinity with cinema. I particularly like European cinema – I'm not so crazy about Hollywood films, but I love European cinema and the idea of a slightly more surreal approach to narrative. Hollywood films tend to be all very neat and the plot is carefully laid out and everything ties nicely up in the end, but I love the more surreal, almost being inspired by dreams and taking the listener, or viewer in the case of cinema, on an unexpected journey and into areas that they didn't expect to go to. I've always liked music like that - something a little unexpected. Generic music does nothing for me, I don't like music that sounds like other music, I'm always looking for something that sounds different to anything I've heard before so in that sense I've always looked at cinema in particular and some of my favourite directors to give me ideas and inspire me.

Is that reflected in your live shows and the band's visual back-drop?
The visual side is very important to us and always has been. When I'm writing the songs I'm always thinking in terms already of what's going to be on the screen and how can we present a visual interpretation of the song. I guess that comes from my love of the cinema. I've always felt sound and picture together is the strongest combination - stronger than either in their own right - so I guess it's the next logical step for me to try and move into soundtracks for movies or trying to write my own scripts, something which I've been doing recently.

Chris Cope

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