Porcupine Tree is growing and things seem to be going very well. The band was already signed by a large label (Atlantic Records' Lava imprint), but now they are signed directly to a major label, RoadRunner Records. The album is doing well in the charts and many of the shows on the current tour are sold out.
Since Porcupine Tree had a show scheduled in my hometown of Eindhoven (The Netherlands), I took the opportunity not only to see the band, but, thanks to RoadRunner, also to meet Steven Wilson and talk to him about the tour, the album and iPods ?
Marcel Haster: On the website it is announced that many shows are sold out. So the tour is going well?
Steven Wilson: Something happened with this record and everything has seemed to move up. I don't know why, but maybe it is one of those things where Porcupine Tree is doing what they have been doing for 15 years almost and for a long time we were really out on a limb. We didn't have any other bands that we felt an affinity with, the press weren't interested in what we were doing. And what's happened in the last two or three years is that the kind of music we make, whatever that may be, some call it progressive rock or something, seems to have come back into the mainstream, with bands like The Mars Volta, Tool, Opeth, Radiohead and Flaming Lips. There is a real sense that being ambitious and reaching for something pretentious or more epic is no longer as desperately unfashionable as it was even five years ago, when we made In Absentia. It was still very hard to make In Absentia; even though we were on a major label, it was still very hard to get press.
And this year we did two festivals in Germany and we played alongside Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam and Placebo and it seems now the kind of music we make is no longer been put outside the mainstream. And what we found with Fear Of A Blank Planet is that we are touching a lot of people who two or three years ago would never have listened to our music. I don't know why?
MH: Linked to that, I also noticed the album is doing well in the charts. Are charts important for you?
SW: I would be lying if I said I no. To be honest, it is a real thrill to see yourself in the charts. I believe in the Netherlands we are at number 13 or something. And that's a thrill, because I grew up being obsessed with the UK pop charts. When I was this 10 year old kid, I would obsessively listen to the charts to see who's number one. So charts, although they don't really mean anything in the longer term, it's great to be able to say "Oh yeah, our album's in the top 20 charts this week."
MH: I know Marillion also put an effort to get a single in the charts?
SW: But we didn't put any effort in it. They kind of like get their whole fan base focused on getting that single in the charts. We didn't do that. Our fan base is growing all the time and they have the power to get the album in the charts.
MH: FoaBP was released two years after Deadwing was released. In the meantime you recorded a new album with Blackfield and toured with Blackfield. And you have several other projects going on. Where do you find the time to write and record a new album?
SW: I can even give you the exact time line if you like. The Blackfield album was recorded between February and May last year. I would get up in the morning, I would start to write for Porcupine Tree, get to the studio in the evening and record with Blackfield. So I was writing the album while I recorded the Blackfield album. The Blackfield album was finished in June, Porcupine Tree did a bit more writing, in July and August. We went on tour in September and we played all the music I had written and the band had written, then we recorded it between October and December. When I explain it like that, it doesn't sound so strange anymore, does it?
MH: Isn't it difficult to have two different things on the same day?
SW: It is getting harder. Like for many years I have been doing No-Man and Porcupine Tree. Now I'm doing Blackfield as well. I am also making records as Bass Communion, working on solo songs as well, hopefully going to make my first solo album next year. Up until two-three years ago, I was also producing, but I stopped that because I simply don't have the time. And I have had to make some tough decisions about things that I am simply not able to do anymore. Production is one of the things that I love doing, but I just can't do it anymore. I hope one day I will be able to do it again. But the last two or three years it has been harder, as Porcupine Tree is doing so well. And every time we make an album, we are expected to tour for longer, in more and more countries, and we are expected to do more promotion. And I am very happy about it, it is a great problem to have. But it has meant I had to put other things aside.
MH: Is the fact you are signed to a large label putting extra pressure on you, to do more promotion and touring?
SW: Yes, the better the label, the more promotion they will get for you. I have done a lot of promotion for this record already. Because at the same time as it is quite tiring, I am also very keen for this record to reach as many people as possible. And so I relish the opportunity to promote the record as much as possible. Touring, interviews, anything ? and it seems to be working.
MH: On the Porcupine Tree mailing list was a lot of talk about the album when it was announced. And the title caused quite a stir. Did you listen to the Public Enemy album?
SW: Of course. [smiles]
MH: Was it a deliberate choice?
SW: Of course ? Fear Of A Black Planet was a big album. When I was a teenager, Fear Of A Black Planet was an album you had to own. It was a very important seminal album of the 80s. It was a time when rap music, hiphop music, was a real creative force. Personally I think hip-hop music now is dead. It is so generic, so boring. But in the 80s you had bands like Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest. Hip-hop was really special, refreshing, even for musicians like me, who listened mostly to rock music.
And that album was important, particularly because of it's message. In the 80s, racism was a real issue with young people. You remember the Live Aid concert, the Nelson Mandela concert; in England there were a lot of Rock Against Racism shows going on and there was the Rodney King thing in Los Angeles in the early 90s. So racism was a real issue. And I think one of the reasons why I like the title so much is because to me it seems in the 21st century there is a whole different issue now for young people. It's really this whole issue of information technology and how it is affecting them: Attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, prescription drugs, American Idol, Big Brother, reality TV. The whole explosion in information technology, iPods, cell phones and how these things affect young people.
And unfortunately, what we are seeing right now is a lot of blankness, a lot of young people right now who don't have the sense of passion or curiosity that my generation had, and that is very sad. I think there are a lot of kids who do, I'm not suggesting this is a complete, 100% issue, but it is a worry to me how all this technology and this information technology and all this information is creating this kind of wall of noise that is very hard to get through now with anything. Because young people, by the age of ten, they've seen everything. They've seen the most hardcore pornography you can imagine, they've been able to download any kind of music, see any kind of movie. They have access to everything. When I was a kid, when I wanted to discover new music, I had to save my pocket money and search the record stores. And I think it is in human nature that the things that come easily to us, we don't really appreciate. And it's the things we have to search for and work hard and invest our time and money and energy in, those are the things we appreciate.
So that is where the title really comes from. Yes, in some respects it is a little joke, a play of words on the Public Enemy album. But it does have, as their title has a very serious message, I think this album title also has a very serious message.
MH: It's interesting you mention the iPod ? I also found it in the lyrics. And on the mailing list I did find a link to an interview where you say you don't like the iPod, yet in another you say you have one?
SW: I don't own an iPod ? I must have been misquoted ? I don't have an iPod, I'm not interested in having an iPod and I'll tell you why I am not interested in having an iPod: What I don't like about the iPod mainly is the whole jukebox mentality, the idea you can download all your favourite songs onto the iPod. To me, the beauty of music, or the music that I love, are albums. Albums where maybe you don't love every track on the album. But the point is that the album is sequenced as a whole, it's supposed to be listened to as a musical journey. And the problem now is that a lot of kids are walking around with Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and "Stairway To Heaven" and they call themselves Led Zeppelin fans. And when you say to them "Well, what's your favourite Led Zeppelin album?," and they say "Well, I don't have any albums, I just have?" And that whole idea you can be a Led Zeppelin fan just by having three or four songs on your iPod seems to me totally different to the way I listen to music, which is, I like to put on a piece of vinyl or a CD and experience the album and look at the artwork and that whole tangible relationship you have with a record. So I really don't like iPods and can't imagine ever wanting to own one.
MH: It has been some 16 years since On The Sunday Of Life was released and a lot of things have happened since. How do you look back on that time?
SW: I'm very proud of the fact that Porcupine Tree are continuing to grow and continuing to evolve and the fan base continues to grow. And I am very proud of the evolution in music. It was always important, right from the beginning that, if Porcupine Tree were going to continue, they would never stand still musically. All the musicians that really inspired me, whether it was Frank Zappa or David Bowie, were people who constantly re-invented themselves. And I wanted Porcupine Tree to be the kind of band that -- not with every album, of course, obviously there is some continuation of what was before -- but always a sense that if you buy a Porcupine Tree album, you would not quite know what you're gonna get. And some people don't like that. Some of the progressive rock fans would have liked it if we had stayed making the Sky Moves Sideways style of music. And actually that is always one of my least favourite albums, because I felt it was generically progressive rock and I never wanted to be a generic progressive rock band.
And I'm very proud of the fact that the band has continued to evolve and have upset people and have disappointed people, because I think that is part of the process of being creative. You do risk always disappointing your fans, but at the same time you continue to create new fans and you hope that some of your fans will stick with you and give you a chance to evolve and to develop, and that is the thing I'm most proud of.
Some of those early records I can't listen to. I mean, On The Sunday Of Life sounds to me like a very primitive ? I quite like the fact that in some ways it is so different, but I wouldn't listen to it myself now. I'm very happy about where we are right now?
MH: And the future?
SW: Who knows? That's part of what is exciting for me, that I don't actually know. I don't know where the band is going ? I don't know what I'm going to hear, what I'm going to see, what I'm going to learn, what experiences I'm going to have in my personal life, over the next year, before I am going to write the next album, and those things will all have a impact on the next album.
And there is another EP going to come in September, from the same sessions as Fear Of A Blank Planet
MH: Ok. Thank you very much for your time and all the best for the future.
As of this writing, Porcupine Tree are currently touring Europe through the middle of July. Their first-ever appearance in Mexico is scheduled for October 6, 2007 at the Teatro Metropolitan in Mexico City, and so far a pair of November dates have been scheduled for the UK.
On The Sunday Of Life... (1991)
Voyage 34 (1992)
Up The Downstair (1993)
Voyage 34: Remixes (1993)
Staircase Infinities (1994)
Moonloop E.P. (1994)
The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)
Coma Divine - Recorded Live In Rome (1997)
Stupid Dream (1999)
Voyage 34 - The Complete Trip (2000/2004)
''4 Chords That Made A Million'' (2000)
Lightbulb Sun (2000)
Lightbulb Sun - Special Edition (2001)
Stars Die: The Delerium Years 1991 - 1997(2002)
In Absentia (2002)
In Absentia (European version) (2003)
Fear Of A Blank Planet (2007)
Arriving Somewhere... (DVD) (2006)