Outcast from the Mainstream: An Interview with Steven Wilson

Stephen Humphries
Photos: Lasse Hoile

Steven 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.

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.

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