by Alexander Laurence
Porcupine Tree began in 1987 as the musical explorations of Steven Wilson into psychedelic music. Wilson created an entirely fictional history of this legendary seventies group complete with non-existent band members and an absurd discography. To back up the story, Steven recorded several hours worth of music supposedly by this imaginary band. These tapes built up an underground interest in the name that was added to Delerium record label's first compilation album. Shortly afterwards Steven was invited by the new label to be one of the first artists to sign to the Delerium label.
While this was happening, Steven's other group NO-MAN had signed a record deal with One Little Indian (home of Bjork and The Shamen among others). The first release was a 30 minute single that fused the Orb and liquid rock guitar soloing, all strung together with a narrative taken from sixties LSD propaganda. It was a major underground hit. This fueled many a drug session.
In December 1993 Porcupine Tree became a live unit featuring Steven, with Colin Edwin (bass) Chris Maitland (drums) and Richard Barbieri (keyboards). All three new members of the group had worked with Steven on various projects over the years and all were excellent musicians sympathetic to the sound and direction of Porcupine Tree. "Signify" was the first album to reflect the powerful live sound of the band, blending numerous rock and avant-garde styles.
After several successful albums, Porcupine Tree announced that they had signed a new international record deal with Lava/Atlantic Records. In February 2002 the Porcupine Tree's first ever line-up change occurred when drummer Chris Maitland left after 8 years with the band. In March, as a major retrospective box set of their early work, "Stars Die - the Delerium Years 1991-97" was released. Their first big American release is "In Absentia" and it has already stirred the imaginations of legions of American fans who have been faithful to them in their underground years. This past July, Porcupine Tree finished a short American tour to give people a taste of the new direction. With "In Absentia" out in early September, Porcupine Tree will be doing a more massive tour in America in the Fall. I spoke to Colin and Steven recently on their tour.
AL: Where did you meet Steven?
Colin: I know him from school. We are both from the suburbs north of London.
AL: Did you grow up liking punk rock and techno?
Colin: Yeah. I grew up playing things like the Stranglers. Much of my teenager years were spent listening to that and then eventually you start to get into different things. Steven was instrumental in introducing me to several types of different music. He's a few years older than me. So he had left school and had a job and the money to buy records. He has a massive record collection. He had so many at one stage that the shelf fell down in his bedroom. He was a big music freak. So I became one too.
AL: Has it always been a rock band?
Colin: Steven started Porcupine Tree by himself. He has always had the money to have his own studio. It was just having fun in the studio. He did the first album on his own. A small label put it out and things started from there. After that he came over my house and asked me if I wanted to play bass on this record that he was doing. I was on some tracks on the second album. At that point he was offered to do some gigs but he didn't have a band.
AL: What was the recording studio like?
Colin: I think he started with a 4-track. Then he moved on to an 8-track. He did all the early stuff on a reel-to-reel. You don't know what you got till you lose it. When you are recording on tape you are thinking "I can't do this, or I can't do that." With recording technology now, you do a lot of things because you can. In the old days, if I was playing bass on tape, I would do a good take and a few drop ins. These days with Pro Tools you can do four or five takes and assemble something from those takes. You end up with something that you haven't played because it's pieced together. It's theoretically the best bits to make a perfect track. It gives you freedom because you can try a few different things. You don't have to worry about it.
AL: Are you known as a studio band or a band who can deliver on stage?
Colin: We are a live band. We have a reputation. We never do a bad show. When you see Porcupine Tree, even if we think it's crap, people love it. Some venues are naff rundown places and maybe they can't accommodate what we need to perform. It might be the desk or the monitor system is bad. We always pull through it.
AL: What do you think of the new album? Is this representative? Is this a good place to start for people who may not have followed Porcupine Tree over the past ten years?
Colin: I think so. Porcupine Tree, from my perspective, started off as an instrumental band. There were fewer songs. There were longer pieces. Over the last few albums the tunes have gotten distilled into shorter songs. Steven has written shorter things so it's more accessible because people's attention spans cannot stretch over some of the things we used to do. There is an audience for it but it's not very big. It's a natural thing to do.
AL: Do you think of songs as singles, or in terms of albums?
Colin: A lot of thought goes into the sequencing of albums. We have discussions about that so the album is a flow from beginning to end. That's the ideal thing. The fact is that singles are what get you airplay. People hear songs. They aren't going to play a whole album on the radio. There are singles that I hope stand on their own. If people want to take a dive into the album, there's a thread running through the album that people can latch onto, that people can listen to as a whole experience. The album is not a collection of separate things. It's meant to be seen as one whole thing.
AL: How do you work together in the writing of songs?
Colin: I like to think about like this. Steven offers us a framework. We work within the framework and that fits around his concepts. There is a lot of a freedom as a bass player. Most of the tunes he has a demo. There is nothing more I want to add to it. I have experimented with other instruments, especially on previous albums. I am a big fan of going to foreign countries and picking up instruments. On one tune I play a Saz which is a Turkish lute. Also I like this Moroccan three-stringed bass. There's room for instruments where there might not be in other bands. It can't sound like it's a novelty thing. If there is a banjo, the song should sound like it's meant to be there.
AL: What is Steven like? I haven't met him yet but will when he gets done with the sound check. Is he like a benevolent dictator?
Colin: That's exactly the phrase I use when describing him. He has definite ideas. But he's open to things. It's like any band where you have to fight for your cause. Steven used to sit by me the whole time I was playing and doing a take and make comments. Now he leaves me alone. I'll go around to his place and play the bass. He'll go off and make tea for me because he doesn't drink tea. He lets me do my own thing. Then we'll discuss it once I come up with something. We recorded this last album in New York City at Avatar. It's a great studio. Most of it was done in New York. Then we would go back to Steven's studio and do some overdubs. We got a fantastic sound.
AL: When people come to see you in September and October what should they expect to see?
Colin: We are working with Jasper who is our lighting guy. We are going to work with visuals. I can't say too much about it. We have big ambitions. We will be playing a lot more new stuff and focus on the new album.
(Now we get to talk the leader Steven Wilson)
AL: Does the band have a philosophy? If so, which philosophers would support the band?
Steven: Which philosophers? We have our own philosopher. That's me. We have a philosophy. It's not as if it's a new one but it's not a philosophy that people have much these days. It's more like how it was in the 1970s in that we are more interested in making albums as complete artistic statements than we are in making ten attempts at writing a big hit song. For us the album is paramount. It's very important that the album has a shape and a completeness of its own. The journey we take the listener on makes sense over fifty or sixty or seventy minutes. Whatever. That is not something that you don't hear very often these days. The CD generation and the MTV generation are tending to remove that from the scene. It should be the norm but it's not.
AL: It's like reading a short story as opposed to a full length novel.
Steven: Exactly. I grew in the 1980s. That was a terrible decade for music I thought. So I went back to the 1970s to find the music that I loved. In the 1980s there was the advent of the pop video. The pop video made it so that everything was about image and artifice. It was all about location the video was shot in and a dance routine. It was a return to the idea of the three minute pop single. Porcupine Tree was never about that.
AL: You released some singles that were thirty minutes long. Was that like sadism?
Steven: It was an anti-single. It was a thirty minute single about drugs and it had no vocals in it. I thought that no one is going to play this. But it charted anyway. It was the ultimate "fuck you." We have released four minute singles since then. But for Porcupine Tree to release a single is like an oxymoron. It's very difficult to take out a four minute chunk from an album and say "Here we are. This totally encapsulates everything Porcupine Tree are about." It's never been satisfactory to me to release a single. If you know the group, you know that from one minute we go from extreme metal riffing to ambient texture, the next minute we'll have a pop hook, the next minute we'll have some avant garde sample. All of these things are part of the album. How do you take a chunk of that? To me it's totally unrepresentative.
AL: So if people listen to the new album and maybe "Stars Die - the Delerium Years 1991-97" in their entirety, they are experiencing the full weight of the band?
Steven: That will give you a good picture. If people listen to the new album that will give you a really good picture. If people then are curious to see how the band started, the Delerium box set is a very good introduction and shows the passage of time. It shows the trajectory that Porcupine Tree has followed. Yeah.
AL: What is your studio like?
Steven: When people hear about "my home studio" they probably think it's a computer and a few chairs. It's not like that at all. It's a full hard-disc professional recording system. The transition to a proper commercial recording facility was not that great. The big thing was that we had a really great room to record drums in. We used a top level engineer. I'm the first to admit that I don't know what the best microphone to use on a snare drum. How far to you place a microphone away from a drum set. This is the first time that we worked with a person that knew how to do all that stuff. That made this record that much better sonically than anything we had done before.
AL: Do you collect analog synths and old recording gear?
Steven: My father is an electronic engineer and he used to make me some fantastic recording stuff. I was twelve years old and first getting into music. He made me my first multi-track tape machine. To have that sort of equipment when you are that age is amazing. There is no way that my family could have bought me that sort of stuff. It would be so expensive for any kid. I immersed myself in the world of overdubbing and multi-tracking and the whole possibilities of studio recording. I did this long before I should have been able to. This has always been my first love. I love analog gear.
AL: Do you collect analog synths?
Steven: The keyboard player, Richard Barbieri, has some terrific analog stuff and Arps. I don't collect them myself and I don't play keyboards. He has had most of it since his days with the band Japan. We were able to hire some gear. We had a Mellotron and a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes, the real stuff.
AL: What were some of the experiments you did in the studio?
Steven: I was interested in different ways to get sound by mistreating equipment. I would record stuff backwards. I would record stuff at varying speeds. I was creating different textures and sounds with whatever recording technology. When you are young you are always trying to transcend your limitations. I had an old Farfisa organ. I would feed it through some echo stuff and distortion and wah wah pedals.
AL: How do you start writing an album?
Steven: It varies. The important thing with Porcupine Tree is that all our songs have a unique sound world that they inhabit. I don't like the idea of any song sounding like any other song. So most of the time it's a case of finding the sound world first whether it be a texture or a drum rhythm that sets you off on a certain musical path, or particular musical atmosphere, or flavor. That could suggest a melody or lyrical concept. Before every album I usually buy myself a few new instruments. The last few albums I have used a Hammer dulcimer and a banjo. Both of those instruments suggested pieces of music.
AL: What qualities do you like about music?
Steven: I like uniqueness and people who say "Fuck off" to the industry. I love Squarepusher and Aphex Twin and most of the people on Warp because they said "We are not going to release singles. I'm not going to be in the video. If we release videos, we are not going to be in them." I love that whole thing. It comes from Frank Zappa for me. It's that thing where you create something out of nothing. I like the will to be different. You should not look at what other people are doing or what record companies want. We are not looking at other pop stars and think "Oh that's how they do it, maybe we should do it that way too." That's the way people should do it. Then we would have a lot more uniqueness. Instead of catering to expectations you should create a new audience from scratch. That's why it's taken us eight years to get to this level.
-- Alexander Laurence
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