A few weeks back I had the absolute privilege of speaking to Steven Wilson. If you're a regular round these rantish parts, the name should seem familiar. He is the front man of my favourite band (next to Radiohead, of course) Porcupine Tree, as well as a vast array of side-projects including Blackfield, No-Man and Bass Communion; even moonlighting as a producer.
It's amazing he even had the time to getting around to his first proper solo record, the brilliant Insurgentes - which offered what its creator calls "the complete picture of Steven Wilson." In fact, if one wanted to, you could base your musical diet entirely on the tireless output of Mr. Wilson's discography (and one very nearly does).
Anyway, my sycophantic tendencies are getting the better of me. I was afforded the opportunity to speak to Steven Wilson (again) thanks to Beat Magazine, about the imminent release of Porcupine Tree's eleventh studio album: The Incident. A double album in which the first disc is a 55-min song cycle, and the second disc consisting of an EP's worth of standalone compositions.
I've drooled over this album's release for a while now, and what better way to prepare for my interview than a streamed preview of the album? Thank you very, very much Roadrunner records, but further thanks to Porcupine Tree for crafting another brilliant release.
Rest assured, I'll be covering the album in full in the near-future, and the resulting article from my interview will appear in Beat, but I thought I'd use this opportunity to show off the complete, un-edited interview with one of music's most talented and treasured individuals. Waiting after business hours in the back-room of my humble games retailer, my phone rings, a crackle down the line and then the sound of a familiarly accented voice, "Hello?"
Hello Steven, first of all I wanted to say - your record publicist gave me a link to a stream of the album last night, and i've got to say congratulations. It's another excellent record and it stands shoulder with your best work.
Well thank-you, we're pretty proud of it so it's good to hear positive feedback
You’ve had a wealth of material for your recent albums, yet held off a double album. Such as Fear Of A Blank Planet and the accompanying Nil Recurring EP – why the decision to release a two disc set as opposed to that format?
The answer is simply in terms of reaching the most people possible, there’s nothing like the album [format]. You never get the same attention from the record label and the public on an EP that you do on an album. We learnt that from the Nil Recurring EP, it just didn’t reach the same amount of people as the album [Fear Of A Blank Planet].
Because this was a two disc set, we wanted both sets of songs to receive the same exposure, the same attention. So it was a pragmatic decision really, the short songs were just as strong and we wanted them to get the same attention.
I don’t want to pigeon hole you by any means, but many will view a 55 minute song cycle as very prog rock. Would you say that progressive rock is becoming more overt and accepted by the mainstream?
Ambition is no longer a dirty word as it has been for so many years. Even in the early days of Porcupine Tree, in the early 90’s, grunge was in and the very idea of the guitar solo was just out of bounds. And there I was doing these twenty minute guitar freak outs. As time goes an, we’ve seen more and more of this kind of ambition and pretentiousness – whatever you wanna call it – coming back. And I think that if bands were allowed more to be more ambitious and pretentious, the music industry would be in a much healthier state. More bands and music seems to be liberated from major records labels and mainstream media and are becoming more ambitious than just fitting into a three minute pop video.
The climate has inclined our way, and there are a lot more bands that are progressive, or at least progressive as a synonym for ambitious or conceptual work that treats the album as art form.
This may be due to bands such as Muse, The Mars
... even the likes of Mastodon and of course Opeth. Do you feel like Porcupine Tree's approach has influenced these bands at all, or is part of an overall movement?
I’d like to think… well, there’s definitely an element of many bands now looking back to the 70’s influence of making records.
I’ve listened to bands like The Mars Volta, Radiohead and Meshuggah and they’ve inspired me in a way, I feel like I have an affinity with them, I listen to them… I know Mastodon have said they’re Porcupine Tree fans. But yeah its great to feel like a part of a wave or movement now; because remember in the early 90’s when Porcupine Tree was starting out – we felt like we were out on a limb, outsiders doing our own thing because it was so different to what was accepted. So it’s great to hear that guys like Mikael from Opeth listen to us and respect us, and I listen to them and there’s a mutual empathy between bands doing what we do.
I think what ties them all together is a changed perception of progressive as something that isn’t necessarily old fashioned. All those bands [you mentioned] make progressive music but its also contemporary, they’ve removed the stigma of progressive music being old-fashioned and redundant and incorporated all these new ideas and that’s what true progressive music should be.
Yes, I’ve heard of Cog because someone gave me their CD, and also the band that supported us on our last tour, Sleep Parade. It’s good to see that they’re all bands that are very progressive but also contemporary.
Turning back to the The Incident now; How did your experience in making Insurgentes [Wilson's solo album] affect this album?
It was very liberating making Insurgentes, there are always a lot of things that are part of my musical personality that I couldn’t play with the band. That’s what makes the band so great, this exchange of ideas but there’s always things that I felt outside of them.
Because Insurgentes felt like a complete picture of Steven Wilson it liberated me from those fascinations and aspects of my musical personality. I think if I hadn’t done that there’d still be an element of frustration in wanting to exorcise those aspects, but Insurgentes managed to express those.
As a result, it liberated me and felt like ‘right, now lets come back and write a classic, great, Porcupine Tree record. I’d like to think there’s a freshness in coming back to a Porcupine Tree album too, like this is the definitive Porcupine Tree record.
It’s interesting you call it the definitive Porcupine Tree record, because I felt that recollection in listening to it – it harkens back to a lot of your albums, stretching right back to things like Up The Downstair through to Lightbulb Sun and your recent metal records.
Last time we spoke you mentioned something called “conceptual continuity” in which “certain things do re-occur in a different context”. I hear lots of Porcupine Tree’s past albums in certain ways across The Incident, would you say this is more ‘conceptual continuity’?
Yeah, there is, but it wasn’t intentional. But I think it was due to a number of things. Firstly, I turned 40 between making Insurgentes and The Incident, and there was a sense of reaching a landmark or a turning point in that age, and time to reflect and in taking stock. Not feeling such a pressure to shock and keep the sound… well the sound is still developing – but to just take stock of Porcupine Tree and our history.
Encapsulating everything that’s great about Porcupine Tree while keeping it fresh.
Plus I hadn’t experienced new forms of music like I did with metal a few years ago, so there’s no new drastic element to the sound of the band. There was a chance to meet what people recognise already, which wasn’t really dull, god know its eclectic enough already, but yes I feel it’s the definitive Porcupine Tree record.
Lyrically much of the album is written in first-person, dealing with a variety of ‘incidents’ you drew upon from the media, to humanise them in first-person - was it affecting to write in such a manner?
Well when you write a song, in a way it doesn’t matter what you’re writing about. So even when you’re dealing with things that you’ve never experienced you draw on your own experiences to make it believable. There’s not that big a divide between autobiographical and the fictional, I think there’s a little bit of fiction in autobiography and vice versa.
When creating something [like this], you have to bring the dark side of the human psyche to the surface to make it believable, like drawing on your emotional well. The things I was writing about were ugly – child abductions, religious cults, homicides – so ugly that one day I just sat down and began playing and these words came out “I was born in ‘67/the year of Sgt. Pepper”. I started getting nostalgic and exploring my idyllic childhood, these summers that stretched on forever. I guess it was a reaction to the other side, like an oasis in the desert of ugliness.
The music poured out, and I didn’t rewrite or edit I just let it flow. It became Time Flies, which I think is the heart of the record that everything spirals out from. And I think it makes the record work, it gives it balance.
Indeed, it certainly feels like the record's centrepiece. With auto-biographical material, such as Time Flies, were you concerned with the lyrics that are actually personal and those that are integrated as a first person view of incidents getting confused?
I didn’t think about it, but I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone. Like I said, there’s an element of autobiography and fiction in everything, so there’s even a little bit of fiction in things like Time Flies and vice versa. There’s a little bit of me in all the other songs too, It’s not always clear-cut but I think it’s pretty obvious what content is which.
The second disc of four songs from the same sessions, is there a separate theme that links them also – or are they standalone compositions?
Pretty much, there are themes on there – that I keep coming back to again and again and again, but they’re all different from the main part of the record. They were unplanned children. They were pieces of music that came out of writing The Incident but simply didn’t fit into that scheme and were too good to throw away. The analogy I use is that the novel is on one disc, on the other you have short stories.
As it is a 55 minute song cycle – how will this affect the performance on tour, will you be performing the work in its entirety or just specific movements?
We’re going to start the first leg of the tour, which runs up to new year with the first half being The Incident in its entirety and the second half being back catalogue. We wanted to perform the whole thing and retain the intensity and musical journey of the record, and there’ll be lots of new films for The Incident too.
Will you be touring in
Absolutely, probably January or early Feburary. (Hell Yes!)
You’re a prolific worker – your solo album, your production work, the King Crimson re-issues - can we assume that you’ve already started work on your next project?
Actually, I haven’t. I need a bit of space. I’m moving out at the moment, and there’s other things going on in my life… it was a very intense period from doing Insurgentes straight into The Incident, so I think I’m going to take a bit of time off, recharge the creative batteries
Fair enough too, as his intense labour has borne very sweet fruits indeed, if anyone’s earnt their rest - it’s Steven Wilson.
The Incident is due out tomorrow and if you're still not convinced of its greatness then check out the Roadrunner Records website, including the edited Time Flies video as well as interviews with the entire band.
Now, if you'll excuse me... i'm off to take that amazing musical journey again.