There are very few things I find more pleasure in than discussing music with people who appreciate it as much as I do. Tastes needn’t be aligned to have a thoughtful discourse on genres, tastes, influences, or the overall mess that is the modern recording industry. To some, music is something that fills the silent void on a car or subway commute to work. To others it is a soundtrack to zone in on while exercising. But to others like myself, music can be as thoughtful and responsive as a lover. It can set an agenda for your entire day. The playlist of my day is the audio equivalent of wearing my heart on my sleeve, but lately I have begin wondering if I am adapting to my music selection. Like John Cusack’s character theorized in High Fidelity—“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” After many rescheduled attempts, I finally speak to Steve Wilson, the lead singer/songwriter of British rock band Porcupine Tree, and I am immediately drawn to him because he is as enthusiastic talking about music in general as he is about is very own.
When Steve Wilson and Malcolm Stock formed Porcupine Tree in 1987, they began with the comical intentions of forming a fictitious band. Calling it a “lost band” from the ‘70s with prog rock inspirations, neither expected the music to be heard much less taken seriously. Wilson, however, went to lengths to support his fantasy by compiling hours of “lost recordings” as a gimmick before handing out cassettes to interested fans. The gimmick proved to pay dividends, as Porcupine Tree has become a staple of the underground psychedelic British rock scene today. Through the years they have amassed over a dozen albums in their discography, tackling everything from shoegazer rock (Stupid Dream) to nit and grit metal (the most recent Deadwing) while collecting critical adulation and a cultish following. Porcupine Tree’s fans are some of modern music’s most loyal but faceless; journeying with the band from one stepping stone to the next, no matter how distant their evolution finds them straying from their last effort.
“We survive on word of mouth exposure,” says Wilson when we speak over the phone. “There is no hype, no marketing. It is usually a friend telling another friend that ‘Hey, I have this band you have to listen to,’ kind of thing.” I mention to him that this is precisely how I was introduced to his band a few years back and it took me over a year, a few listens and the right time in my life for it to really click with me. He responds, “I like how music is often taken in that way. Some of the music that means the most to me is that which I didn’t really like or understand at first. Part of you tells you to keep going back to it because you will find something there. You must persevere through it. There is a certain magic to that.”
Wilson has collaborated with many bands and has a handful of side projects going at all times but his main focus is Porcupine Tree. Though he says he has no rules about what ideas he uses in what forum, he is essentially writing for PT by definition. Recently he worked with Swedish death metal band Opeth, and I was curious if his time with the band lent a hand to the aggressive metal sounds on Deadwing or if it was just a natural progression the band took naturally. “All of the above really,” he said. “It’s like the chicken and the egg. I worked with Opeth because of my long-existing interest in extreme metal. I really learned a lot from working with them.”
He is quick to point out that he feels his band’s longevity and loyal fan base is a result of their uncompromised attitude to exploring new sonic territories and their refusal to ever become common and generic. “It seems that many bands, once they are discovered and hit mainstream, they refuse to move on to something else. They stick with a formula. Can you tell me a difference between the last two Korn albums? Can you tell me the difference between Korn and, say, Papa Roach? If a fan can get the same type of sound elsewhere, what is to say that it will be your band in this larger genre that will keep them close?”
I tell him that he makes a great point, but still the formula sells records and records make money. But would he trade in all the love from the critics for a multi-platinum record and huge stadium tours?
“That’s a tough question. But I guess I would have to say that we strive for something more important than both. We all want our band to have a place in history. We want to be something unique; transcend time. I am not trying to sound pompous. If you create something you want to express your creativity to as many people as possible. Being successful doesn’t have to have this dirty tag—sell lots of records so you can go out with Gwyneth, sleep with groupies. I think our music is special but record sales simply act as vindication.”
For a band whose prog rock beginnings were rooted in the past, Wilson is keen to point out his vision of the future. But that doesn’t mean he is sporting a trendy iPod. “I am not the biggest fan of the iPod. I mean I appreciate the intention and accessibility but I am listening to new stuff all the time (including the latest from Brian Eno, Craig Newman, and Nine Inch Nails) and I like to listen to albums as they were intended—from beginning to end. I don’t agree with the ‘jukebox mentality.’” He predicts the future success of music rests in new technologies including satellite radio and the download culture.
“Downloading is an issue that is effecting the major [labels] the most, and as a result I think this will cause them to better adapt to the consumer and in turn do good for the entire industry. This is an issue that is going to hurt Britney Spears; not me. Teenage girls can download their favorite Britney song instead of buying the album, but with our fans they are going to want the real deal—the artwork, the packaging. We are fortunate to have that type of fans.”