Steven Wilson isn’t the first musician to lament the age of the MP3. But he’s certainly one of its fiercest critics.
He’s also among those most willing to put money where mouth is: Wilson’s band, Porcupine Tree, is on the vanguard of high-end audio and packaging, dedicated to the proposition that art should be treated like art.
“How would you rather see a great painting — in a gallery where the textures and light come off the canvas to convey the subtlety of the work, or a thumbnail JPEG on a cell phone?” says Wilson, the band’s founder, guitarist and lead songwriter. “It’s a no-brainer to me, and yet so few people seem to think that way about music now. Music should be presented as art, not as software and content. Convenience has triumphed over quality and experience.”
Where other rock acts are content to tally streaming Web hits and iTunes sales, Porcupine Tree has earned a reputation for releases that go above and beyond. The band’s albums are typically accompanied by high-def surround versions and handsomely crafted vinyl packages; last fall’s “The Incident” was released on DVD-Audio and a $100 vinyl edition that included two books of photography and illustrations.
Wilson, who founded the English band in the early ‘90s, is increasingly recognized as a go-to expert in the field: The 42-year-old is a regular contributor to audiophile magazines such as Sound & Vision, earned a Grammy nomination for his 5.1 surround production of Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet” album and was recently handpicked by Robert Fripp to create 5.1 mixes of the vaunted King Crimson catalog.
“I grew up loving music and fantastic-sounding records,” says Wilson. “So I’ve always aspired to making fantastic sonic experiences that people can immerse themselves in.”
In that sense, Wilson and Porcupine Tree harken back to heroes such as Pink Floyd, whose decades-old albums still serve as fine-tuning reference discs for audiophiles and studio technicians.
“That’s still the golden era,” he says of the decade that followed the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — a period when “every album was inspired by the idea that it could be more than 10 pop songs thrown together.”
So it’s more than the high-end sonics: Porcupine Tree’s imaginative, cerebral art-rock is conceived with an old-school approach to the album as a thematic statement.
“There are still some people committed to the album as a kind of musical journey, very much the antithesis of the iPod shuffle mentality. Bands like Porcupine Tree, Mars Volta, Radiohead, Opeth, Muse — in addition to specializing in an artful form of rock music, we’re committed to the idea of the album. That’s the other side of the MP3 coin: You’re not only listening to (crappy) sound — you’re not hearing albums the way the artist intended.”
Wilson’s war on the iPod isn’t just rhetoric. He’s drawn thousands of views for a YouTube video series that shows him gleefully destroying the MP3 devices with all manner of weaponry: a rifle, a blowtorch, a sledgehammer. The clips have produced an inevitable pushback from some young viewers and Apple aficionados, but Wilson has also been heartened by the response.
“What was also encouraging was seeing the news that sales of vinyl are on the rise again, including kids who appreciate that tactile experience,” he says. “People are happy to feel they have something they can treasure and cherish.”
With “The Incident” having peaked at No. 25 to become the band’s top-charting U.S. release, it’s been a long, steady upward trajectory for Porcupine Tree since its 1991 debut, largely driven by word of mouth among music connoisseurs.
The group is often tagged with the “progressive rock” label, and indeed, its audience is heavily composed of fans from the prog-rock and metal worlds, where Wilson says listeners “are instilled with an appreciation for people who can play their instruments.”
“I don’t think you come to a Porcupine Tree show expecting a party,” he says. “You come ready for something a little more intense, ready to engage more than you would with an AC/ DC concert.”
Still, there’s a softer, more pristine edge to much of Porcupine Tree’s music, and Wilson says the band strives to craft songs that are as accessible on the surface as they are deep underneath.
“I’ve never been one to be obscure for the sake of being obscure, or complex for the sake of it,” he says. “I think there’s a way to strike a balance between classic songwriting and a performance that has many levels to it, so you can immerse yourself in the musical landscape on many different levels. Those are the records I loved when I was a kid — sometimes you’d just sing along, and sometimes you’d immerse yourself in the whole of a beautifully produced musical experience.”