Outcast from the Mainstream: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Porcupine Tree
The Incident

Over the past 20 years, songwriter Steven Wilson has launched more enterprises than Richard Branson. In addition to solo releases under his own name and an ambient music project dubbed Bass Communion, Wilson is also the musical director of the art-rock band No-Man, one half of the pop duo Blackfield, and is recording an avant-garde rock record titled Storm Corrosion with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt. (And you thought Jandek was prolific.)

Most significantly, Wilson is the founder of Porcupine Tree, perhaps the biggest rock band most people have never heard of.

The British group’s obscurity is odd given that it has spent the past 12 months hidden in plain sight. Last September, Porcupine Tree’s 10th album, The Incident (Roadrunner), debuted inside the top 25 album charts in the US and UK. A subsequent year-long tour included slots at prestigious festivals such as Coachella and took in destinations such as Australia, India, Europe, and the Americas. As a testament to the size of its following, Porcupine Tree is about to headline New York’s Radio City Music Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Yet Porcupine Tree has never been covered by newspapers such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, let alone been granted a feature in major US music magazine. The band has been roundly ignored by music bookers on late-night television talk shows. Its hooky singles are seldom, if ever, heard on the airwaves.

The reason, perhaps, is that Porcupine Tree hails from a tradition long-ago banished to the bottom of music’s caste system: progressive rock. When it comes to mainstream exposure, Porcupine Tree is paying for the sins of its prog forefathers even though it has never indulged in widdly displays of virtuosity, written songs about Middle Earth, worn capes in concert, or painted album covers that inspired a hoary James Cameron space opera.

The band’s sole crime against music fashion? The temerity of its ambition. The quartet, which consists of Wilson (guitar, vocals, production), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), Colin Edwin (bass), and Gavin Harrison (drums), boasts a stylistic range as expansive as the Dewey Decimal System. Here’s a band that uses extreme metal as an occasional texture, limns its aural landscapes with bucolic electronica, and infuses its variegated tunes with choruses that somehow eluded the imaginations of Lennon and McCartney.

In short, Porcupine Tree is not your father’s prog rock. And Wilson is no ordinary rock star. Erudite and thoughtful, Wilson is renowned for espousing often controversial opinions on both the creation and consumption of music in his monthly columns for Electronic Musician and in his documentary Insurgentes (released to DVD Oct. 25).

Wilson took a break from recording his latest solo record plus remastering the King Crimson back catalog to chat with PopMatters about Porcupine Tree’s exile from the mainstream, why heavy metal is passé, and why today’s musicians lack the mystique of earlier rock stars.

Why is the media establishment so resistant to covering Porcupine Tree?

I have several theories. Part of it was that we weren’t discovered by the media and the media hates the fact that there are certain bands that can become successful without their help. And once you’ve done that, they’re very reluctant to retroactively embrace you.

The best example I can give of that in terms of historical precedent is a band like Rush. Now here’s a band that are possibly one of the biggest bands in the world and yet they were not discovered by the mainstream. They were discovered by the fan base and they were broken by the fan power. Consequently, I don’t think they will ever be embraced fully by the mainstream.

The second theory I have: People talk all the time about how what we’re doing isn’t so different from what Muse are doing, what Radiohead are doing, or what The Mars Volta are doing. The difference is this: All those bands came from the alternative-rock tradition. We didn’t. Right from the beginning we were honest. We came from ’70s progressive music, ’60s psychedelic music, and Krautrock, and space rock — all things that, at the time, were persona non grata in the mainstream in the early ’90s.

Certainly in the UK, [music journalists] have always been obsessed with this idea of Iggy and the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground, sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. And if you don’t come from that tradition then there’s something terminally unhip about you. It’s silly really because the golden era for classic rock music — from ’67 to ’77 — produced music that was just as radical and just as experimental, if not more so, than the music they cling to.

Led Zeppelin were reviled by the music press in the 1970s.

I know, and Black Sabbath, too. Arguably one of the most influential bands you could possibly conceive of in this time in history. The influence of Sabbath on other bands — particularly the metal scene — is irrefutable.

There’s that theory that music of 10 years ago is the least fashionable and the music of 20 years ago is just beginning to be reevaluated. I think we’re in a period now where the music of the ’80s is just about done being reevaluated. They’ll probably start the reevaluation of the music of the ’90s any minute now. There’s that kind of cycle all the time. Recent history is always considered the least cool.

How would you sum up the 12 months since you released The Incident?

It wasn’t an easy record for people to accept. So the fact that we made one of our most willfully uncommercial gestures and still managed to step it up is something I’ve got to be pretty pleased with really.

At your upcoming special shows at Radio City Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, what can we expect?

For the show in America and the show in London, we’re very much focused on doing something we’ve never done before which is a lot of material from the ’90s. A lot of people only discovered us with Fear of a Blank Planet (2007), In Absentia (2002), or The Incident (2009). They don’t know a lot of the early stuff. Then there’s a lot of people that come along whose favorite era is a lot of the early stuff. They’ve stuck with the band but they’ve still got a fondness for what we did in the early days. We’ve not really given those people a lot to go on in the past few years. So we’re going to try and make it up to them in a way.

Of late, you’ve made comments that suggest you’re very bored with listening to heavy metal. Do you imagine Porcupine Tree’s next album will pare down the metal element?

Right now I’m working on my solo record and there’s very little influence from metal on this record. I’m trying to create heavy music without heavy guitars, without using the traditional vocabulary of heavy music, which has just become ubiquitous, overused. It’s just become noise.

The last 15 years have been quite fertile for heavy music. A lot of very sophisticated metal music has been made and it’s fractalized and developed into various sub genres which have been very interesting — like doom metal and industrial metal. But I think it’s gotten to the point now where there’s no need for another heavy metal band to come along. I don’t see what more you can do with that particular musical vocabulary. It has to go underground again to be reborn again. One of the things about heavy rock is that it has the capacity to do that. Think of grunge music as a rebirth of heavy rock, and then progressive metal and death metal. These are all ways that the music regenerates itself.

Personally, I’m looking towards the past a bit more. I’m going back to records I grew up with and trying to get more inspiration from the really creative period which, for me, is the early part of the 1970s when musicians were so experimental and so committed to doing something new with the album form. To me, that’s been lost a bit.

What are those touch point records?

Working on [remastering] the [King] Crimson albums was a real watershed. I began to understand what I loved so much about those records. Those records had a sense of otherness. Something that almost sounded like it was from a different planet, somehow. Something you couldn’t put a finger on. The problem with a lot of contemporary music is that I can immediately hear and understand that their reference points are this, this, and this. That’s boring to me now.

When I hear those Crimson albums, I still cannot understand where that music came from. But I can begin to understand a little bit more about how it was created, having worked on those records and having had the privilege of being able to discuss it with Robert [Fripp] who made those records. I’m trying to find that sense of otherness.

In one of your recent columns for Electronic Musician, you bemoaned the lack of mystique in music nowadays because in the social-network age, musician’s lives are so open and accessible and it undermines some of the mystery artists were able to maintain back in the vinyl era. With that in mind, how did you approach the making of your own Insurgentes documentary?

For me, the movie is a surreal road movie. What you will not see in the film is a lot of footage of me making the records. There are very brief glimpses of me working, but nothing that would demystify the process. Second, you won’t really find out a lot about me in relation to anything other than the music. One of the problems I have with coverage of contemporary media coverage of pop stars — and not only that, but also a lot of self-published stuff you have going through Facebook and blogs and Twitter — is that a lot of it is about the personal nitty gritty, celebrity chit chat. Stuff that I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know what Britney Spears is having for breakfast. I don’t need to know that Jimmy Page is suing his record company for royalties, or whatever it is that they do. For me, that’s the stuff that begins to erode the sense of mystery that those artists have.

In the movie, I talk about my relationship with the music and the kind of things I would talk about normally in interviews.

Part of the magic of being a fan of the artist is the belief that they aren’t somehow human. The more we know about the banal side of people, the mundane side of people, the harder it is to look at the music with that sense of awe and magic.

I do live in a world where the Internet is, unfortunately, a necessary evil. You can’t exist as a musician these days without embracing, to an extent, the social networking side of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. That’s where people go now for their information about the musicians they love. So I think it’s a matter of balance. You can keep people informed, you can discuss your creativity, you can discuss your muse, but there is a line that you don’t cross. I try to keep a balance between having a good relationship with the fanbase but not too chummy. There are bands now that go out and do meets and greets with their fans every day. We don’t do that stuff. Because I think they’d be disappointed if they met us in reality! They’d be expecting something that they’re not going to get.

You recently enjoyed Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. I wonder whether that documentary will change perceptions of the band and its musicians.

I think that’s an example of a documentary that got the balance absolutely right because we don’t really find out anything about their personal lives. We don’t meet their kids, we don’t meet their wives, and apart from a very, very brief and tasteful mention of the tragedy that Neil [Peart] had with his wife and his kid [both died within a year of each other], it’s all about the music. It’s all about the relationship between those three guys. I thought that was a documentary that didn’t demystify them. I think we always knew they were nice guys.

Why do you think it is that, generally speaking, men seem to have a different relationship to music than women?

Porcupine Tree’s audience is predominantly male although you can at least claim to have more female fans than Rush. Why do you think it is that, generally speaking, men seem to have a different relationship to music than women? Men tend to be very geeky about music — as exemplified by the characters in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity — and it’s a vital component of their lives whereas women, for the most part, don’t obsess over music.

Women don’t obsess about things they way men do. They obsess about people in a more emotional way. Men obsess about inanimate objects — collecting CDs or DVDs or stamps or trainspotting. That’s part of gender/sexual politics. You’d have to ask a psychologist or sociologist exactly why they think that might be.

I have to correct you on one thing, though. We don’t get a lot of females in America, but America is unique in that respect. We’ve just been to Greece and we played to as many women as we played to men. Here’s the difference: In Greece and certain other places where we get much more of a mixed audience, we do have more mainstream exposure. I think men, because of the aforementioned sense of geekiness, are more likely to search out something not in the mainstream. They will trawl the Internet and find those more obscure, underground acts.

I think women respond more to the songwriting side of the band, perhaps less to the complex, progressive side of the band. But women love songs such as “Lazarus”, “Trains”, and “Time Flies”. I think that makes sense because these songs are easy to enjoy. I think that’s part of why I think Porcupine Tree has a broad audience. At the end of the day, at the root of what we do, I hope, is a greater quality of songwriting. That separates us from some other bands that you could say are progressive. But then, I don’t know why that isn’t true of Rush, too, because I think Rush have written some great lyrics and pop songs over the years.

Another thing I’ve noticed — and this might explain why Rush don’t have a big female audience and Porcupine Tree have at least a large one — is lyrics. Women care about lyrics. More so than men. If I’m doing an interview and I’m asked about the lyrics, it’s more often than not a female asking. Men tend to focus on musical direction [and] the concept. I think one reason why females have got into the band, and not so much Rush, is that Rush lyrics tend to be perhaps a little bit less emotionally raw than mine. I’ve never written about space or sci-fi or any or those things that people think you must do if you’re in a progressive rock band. I’ve always written about women and emotions and love affairs.

Well, my next question is actually about lyrics. You’re written many songs with social and cultural commentary but, unlike your Israeli partner in Blackfield, Aviv Geffen, you’ve never written a purely political song. Is that something you’d consider doing at some point?

Well, it depends what you mean by political. If you mean political in the sense of sloganeering, I can’t imagine I’d ever want to do that. But I have written songs about the politics of the industry I’m in. A song like “The Sound of Muzak,” for example, is very much a critique of the music business we’re in today.

“Four Chords that Made a Million” from Lightbulb Sun is another example of that…

These are songs about the politics of being in the music industry because these are things I know about. I don’t like the kind of artist who feels they have a right to tell people what you should think, who you should vote for. The difference between me and Aviv is that I didn’t come from a country with such a traumatic history. I’m sure I might feel differently if I had grown up in Israel. But I didn’t, I grew up in a very comfortable middle-class world. I guess I’m more focused on how human beings interact than I am on how politicians try to run our lives.

Since Fear of a Blank Planet, which you’ve said was a very lyric-driven album, you seem to have become less focused on lyrics in your songs and put the emphasis on the music itself. Is that because it’s harder to bend the music to fit a lyric than writing a melody first and then coming up with a vocal part?

Music is peculiar in that lyrics can be almost irrelevant. If you look at some of the greatest pop songs in history, the lyrics are incredibly banal. It’s not about the lyrics, per se, it’s about the musicality of the lyrics. It’s about the way that the sound of the lyrics integrate with the music. Many people have tried to invest their lyrics with something that does read off the page as poetry. But there comes a point where the lyrics as poetry begin to have a negative impact on the musicality. I try to strike a balance. If something works and its quite banal, I’m quite happy to leave it.

It’s interesting because on both the solo albums I’ve done — the one I’m doing now and the one I did before — my approach was just to use stream-of-consciousness words. I didn’t try to write lyrics and I didn’t try to retrospectively think too much about what I’d sung and what I’d said in the lyrics. That worked really well for me. It’s very different from the way I work in Porcupine Tree, which is very considered. I try to make every line at least stand up on the page.

It’s the idea of the voice as another instrument, isn’t it? It’s the feeling in the voice and the natural emotion that carries through.

Exactly! The epitome of that is one of my favorite records of the past 10 years: Sigur Ros’ second record. He’s singing in his own language. Not Icelandic. His own language! He just sang gobbledygook. But the feeling and the power of the voice is so strong. You go back to Marvin Gaye who could just sing, ‘Baby, baby, baby’ ad infinitum and it felt like the most moving thing in the world. Then you have singers like Bono who can write pseudo-political preachy lyrics and they’re just so pompous. They don’t touch you emotionally any way at all.

You’ve declared your love for pop music such as Donna Summer or ABBA. What do you make of the contemporary pop music landscape dominated by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry?

Pretty depressing, because it’s all generic. You can buy boxes that can make you sound like you sing in tune, even if you can’t. You can buy boxes that, at the push of a button, can give you the drum sound from a record that you like or a particular keyboard. It’s too easy, now, to sound like other people.

The epitome of that is American Idol where everyone appears to want to sound like Mariah Carey or Kelly Clarkson. That kind of style of singing has become a blueprint and so many people try to emulate that. You ask yourself how well someone like Tom Waits or Neil Young or Nick Drake would do if they went on American Idol. They would be laughed out of the audition. So we have a generation of artists coming through now believing that they should aspire to being generic. What I loved about pop music of the past — particularly artists like ABBA or The Carpenters — was that they were so unbelievably distinctive. I’m thinking back to an era where Marvin Gaye sounded nothing like Stevie Wonder, nothing like Aretha Franklin, nothing like Otis Redding. Now, even the white singers want to sound like that generic black R&B Soul voice. It’s boring.

There are some interesting pop acts coming out, but they do tend to be coming from the underground. Everything Everything make incredibly complex pop. Very ’80s, almost like Scritti Politti.

In the ‘80s when Madonna — the forerunner, the prototype to Lady Gaga — was around, there was also inventive, creative mainstream pop. Bands like the Police, the Talking Heads were riding high at the top of the charts. Now, the top of the charts are dominated entirely by the American Idol/Lady Gaga end of the music industry. We don’t have a creative mainstream anymore.

Of course, being cynical, I relate it all back to the whole download/iPod generation. People don’t have the patience anymore to stimulate themselves a bit more intellectually.

Did you see any other exciting bands at the festivals you played this summer?

I was able to watch LCD Soundsystem from the side of the stage at Roskilde. I’m a huge fan.

Where did you get your musical ethos of constant artistic development from?

I get it from the bands I grew up liking the most. Because they reinvented themselves time and time again. I grew up with King Crimson, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Pink Floyd — artists that were constantly reinventing themselves, almost from album to album. I loved that. I loved that sense that I wasn’t going to be disappointed and get more of the same when I bought a new King Crimson or Bowie record. And that sense that sometimes you had to work a bit harder to get into a new record because it wasn’t more of the same.

I also got that from moviemakers. Stanley Kubrick! This was a guy who never made the same genre twice. He made the greatest sci-fi movie all time. He made the greatest black comedy of all time. He made the greatest period drama of all time. He made the greatest horror movie of all time. He made the best Vietnam movie. Ok, maybe not the best one, but certainly up there. He was a big inspiration to me, too. His whole ethos. I feel the same way: ‘I made that kind of album, now I want to make a different kind of album.’

How have you managed to maintain that ethos when so many others have become stale or devolved into nostalgia acts?

How I keep that up, I think, is about still being very passionate about listening to music. Not just listening to music, but also experiencing new things all the time in my life, from traveling or seeing new movies or reading books. I understand, in a way, why some artists lose that. They start families. I totally understand. Once you’ve got a family, your priorities change and your focus changes. You no longer have the time for the so-called frivolous things in life. I don’t have a family. I’m not particularly interested in having one. I’m free, in a way, to stay like the way I was as a kid. I’m still passionately searching out things that will inspire me, to keep regenerating my own muse.

I interviewed Robert Plant recently and he stressed the idea that he always wants to remain curious about things and learn new things. Consequently, every record of his career sounds completely different.

It’s interesting that he used the word ‘curious.’ In the movie [Insurgentes], I say I believe that curiosity is the most underrated and undervalued human attribute. So many people lose it, and lose it very early in their lives. Think about how many people you know, and that I know, whose musical tastes have arrested about the time they stopped being a teenager. It’s almost like their curiosity or their sponge-like ability disappeared overnight. By sponge-like, I mean the ability to soak up new ideas or sounds or new things. People become hard. They end up searching for the things that they have already absorbed.

Aging isn’t just a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. So often you’ll see people retire from work and once they start sitting around and doing nothing, mental atrophy sinks in.

I think there’s a stigma attached to curiosity as if it was almost a sign of immaturity. In a way they’re right, because curiosity is something we associate with childhood, when we are naïve and approach everything with that sense of wide-eyed innocence. As we get older, we feel like that’s almost a sign of immaturity.

If you think about it, curiosity is that admission to yourself that there’s something you don’t know and you don’t understand but you would like to know more about it. The majority of people, when they grow up, associate that with being a kid and they should somehow be above that. That, unfortunately, is when — to use your expression — ‘mental atrophy’ starts. You have to stay in touch with your inner child. I sound like a hippy now! I’m kind of like a big kid in a way. All of the good things I associate with being a kid, the innocence, the curiosity, that passion for life.

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Portions of Steven Wilson’s conversation have been abridged and edited for structure and flow.

Stephen Humphries is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer for magazines such as Filter, Under the Radar, and American Way. He is currently writing his first novel.