Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson Discusses His Heavier Side
Band Photo: Porcupine Tree (?)
Until now, Steven Wilson has led a life of musical schizophrenia. Best known as the singer-guitarist-songwriter-producer of Porcupine Tree, a progressive metal band signed to Atlantic records, Wilson has multiple musical personalities -- and multiple bands to house them all. Bass Communion, for instance, is an outlet for Wilson’s love of textural ambient music. Blackfield, a collaboration with Israeli superstar Aviv Geffen, affords Wilson an opportunity to showcase his pop forte in a rock context. And No-Man, a long-running project with singer Tim Bowness, creates ambitious art-rock soundscapes.
As Wilson puts it, “Some days I wake up and want to make drone music. Some days I wake up and want to make pop music. Some days I wake up and want to make progressive music or heavy metal.”
The British musician has finally found a way to reconcile his disparate identities: a solo album. The just-released “Insurgentes” (K-Scope) showcases Wilson’s uncanny knack for crafting memorable hooks even as it serves as a portfolio for Wilson’s wide range of influences. With one conspicuous exception, that is. The death-metal riffage of recent Porcupine Tree records is notably absent. “I don’t know why that is, actually,” muses Wilson, before noting, “There are heavy moments and it’s a very dark and twisted record.”
Indeed, “Insurgentes” is not for delicate ears. There’s a pronounced drone-metal influence on several tracks and the guitar riffs on tracks such as “Salvaging” and “No Twilight in the Court of the Sun” could split your stereo’s speakers asunder. Ever the master of light of shade, Wilson also includes quieter moments of melancholic piano and symphonic orchestration, though those bucolic moments often unexpectedly give way to brutal assaults of industrial noise.
Porcupine Tree fans are already accustomed, to some degree, to Wilson’s musical mood swings. At times, Porcupine Tree soars into the celestial constellations Pink Floyd once explored; at others it plunges into the atramentous abysses once mined by Slayer. Amid those two extremes, the band will throw in vocal harmonies as gorgeous as anything on a Fleet Foxes record just for good measure. As Wilson likes to say, Porcupine Tree doesn’t easily fit into any one genre, and that’s evidenced by how T-shirts at the band’s concerts range from Tool to Radiohead, from to Yes to Opeth, from Nine Inch Nails to Muse.
Given the success of Porcupine Tree’s ninth album, 2007’s “Fear of a Blank Planet” (Atlantic), which propelled the once-underground band to theater-sized venues in the US, “Insurgentes” is attracting a fair bit of attention. In Rolling Stone, for instance, veteran rock journalist David Fricke praised how Wilson fuses the “strong-bone riffing and oblique-hook strategies of progressive rock and art metal into a decisively melodic melancholy, like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke without the aversion to grandeur.”
I recently called Steven at his home outside of London to talk about his love of metal, the impetus behind his solo record, and why Porcupine Tree’s next album, due later this year, will be its most audacious.
Stephen: You’re in so many bands and you’re probably the main musical director in most of them, so what was the impetus to finally create a solo album after all these years? What did you hope to achieve musically that you couldn’t in your other projects?
Steven Wilson: What I wanted to do for the first time was create a record that would be a complete picture of me and all my musical personalities. It’s not something I think I could have done at any other time. I think it’s taken me a long time to make a record where I could bring all those seemingly disparate elements together.
It’s not something I think I could have done at any other time. I think it’s taken me a long time to make a record where I could bring all those seemingly disparate elements together. I mean, we’re talking about a record which does span everything from piano ballads to pure industrial noise to prog rock to psychedelic to pop to shoe gazer anthems. It’s a very eclectic record and I think it does hang together and it is a cohesive piece. I don’t think it would have been even if I made it five years ago. I think it would have been too eclectic for its own good. It takes a certain amount of experience and a certain age of a musician to be able to pull off that record, to make it work. I hope it does work.
Stephen: I think you follow the Robert Plant model, as it were, of always looking for new musical territories to explore rather than looking over your shoulder at the past. A lot of other musicians are content to stay in a comfort zone and make variations of the same record over and over again.
Wilson: If I was still making the same records as I was when I was a teenager -- a completely different person -- that would be very bizarre, wouldn’t it? And yet there are some bands, like AC/DC, still making the same record. I mean, Angus [Young] was 17 when they made their first record. He’s now 53, or whatever, and he’s still making the same record. That seems bizarre to me. What I’m doing doesn’t seem strange. The people who don’t change, that does seem strange to me. Or maybe that’s just me.
Stephen: A constant theme in all of your projects is playing up musical contrasts, exploring light and shade in music. “Insurgentes” experiments with a lot of dissonance and noise -- where has that influence come from and why has it crept into this record in such a big way?
Wilson: I’ve always loved dissonance. When I was very young I discovered people like Karl Stockhausen, the German avant garde composer, and Ligeti, and the way Stanley Kubrick used those kinds of composers in “2001” and “The Shining.” So, for me, maybe it is something that does come from cinema and the fact that I do think of music in very dramatic and cinematic terms.
The whole device of taking something very beautiful, like in the case of “You Get All That You Deserve” on the album, a very beautiful piano ballad, and stamping on it with noise is a very cinematic thing. It’s not often you hear a piece of music which tries to play with your moods in such an extreme way. Most pieces of music we hear, we can say, “It’s a happy song, it’s a sad song, it’s an angry song.” It’s not very often you can say, “Well, the song starts off happy and then it becomes sad, or it becomes aggressive.” The idea of sound design to stimulate emotions and feelings is something very close to my heart.
Stephen: The very first Porcupine Tree album, “On the Sunday of Life,” was essentially a solo record as you played everything on that record. This time around, you’ve brought in other musicians rather than trying to do it alone. You seem to enjoy giving other talents a chance to shine, too.
Wilson: We’ve got a wonderful English guitar player called Sand Snowman, who I discovered last year. He exclusively plays acoustic guitar but puts it through all sorts of effects and it has very psychedelic textures.
I have the Irish singer Clodagh Simonds, who I’ve been a big fan of for years. In fact, ever since I heard her sing of Mike Oldfield’s “Ommadawn” in 1975. She’s an incredible singer and her projects in Fovea Hex just totally blew me away.
We have Tony Levin on bass. Most of the people I’ve know for years, mostly through touring. His band opened for Porcupine Tree in America a couple of years ago. So, I knew him. Same goes for Jordan [Rudess] from Dream Theater. Toured with them and have stayed in contact with Jordan. I’m not a fan of Dream Theater but I am a big fan of them as musicians and it was great to be able to give Jordan the opportunity just to play in a different context, just piano. And he plays so beautiful, it’s just really magical.
The Japanese Koto player, Michiyo Yagi, who plays on the title track. Again, someone I met on tour. I’ve been wanting to work with her for a few years and finally had the chance to do so.
Stephen: You really get to cut loose on the lengthy guitar solo on “No Courts in the Twilight of the Sun” and then there are some insanely speedy guitar runs by a second guitarist named Mike Outram -- who is he and how’d he get so good?
Wilson: He’s actually a jazz guitar player. Another guy who plays on the record is Theo Travis, who I have quite a long working relationship with. Theo has is own jazz quartet -- the Theo Travis Quartet -- and Mike is the guitar player in the quartet.
Very interesting thing about Mike is that he is a jazz musician, but he’s a jazz musician that has obviously grown up listening to rock music. He’s comes out of the rock tradition. So he has the kind of chops of a [John] McLaughlin, but like McLaughlin, he has that violent, aggressive rock aspect to his playing as well. He has some of the feel of the great rock players like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, at the same time his musical language, his musical vocabulary very much comes from jazz. I’ve always loved players like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck and how they fuse jazz and rock.
I’m not a big fan of the standard blues approach to scales. That’s not to say I don’t love Jimmy Page or David Gilmour -- they play beautifully in that kind of style. But I think it’s hard now to do anything really fresh now with those scales. So what I love about someone like Mike is that in the context of a rock album his playing is quite fresh and unusual.
Stephen: The past few Porcupine Tree records have included guests such as Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew of King Crimson, and Alex Lifeson of Rush. Can we expect any guests on the next record?
Wilson: I don’t think so, actually. Not for any reason. The timing on the last record was interesting. We’d just been on tour with Robert Fripp and we knew we wanted Robert to play on the record. I just found out that Alex was a fan when we started recording, so there wasn’t a great plan there necessarily. Maybe something similar will happen this time. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find out someone is around and willing to play on the record.
Stephen: What are some of the best metal records you’ve heard recently and what are some of your formative metal influences, some of the classics?
Wilson: The first music I really got excited about was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. When I was 10, 11 years old, there were bands like Iron Maiden, Diamondhead coming out for the first time. I loved both those bands. I also liked bands like Saxon and they would come through my little town outside London. We’d go see them play live, me and my friends.
And then, to be honest, I really lost touch with metal for about 20 years. I got into progressive music and Kraut rock and psychedelic music and really lost touch with metal music. I probably didn’t give it much credit for being musically sophisticated. Then, around the turn of the century, the turn of the millennium, in 2000, I suddenly got turned on to this whole scene of extraordinarily ambitious metal groups. It almost answered a question that I’d had, which was, “Where are all the interesting musicians going now?” Because they certainly weren’t forming interesting progressive-rock groups.
I found most of these guys were forming extreme-metal groups. And I’m talking about bands like Meshuggah. And Meshuggah was the band, more than anything else, that turned me back onto metal and the idea that you could have brutal music that was also complex and groovy. It wasn’t necessarily clever or flashy, it was just brutal and powerful but also had sophistication.
Then, of course, I got the invitation to work with Opeth and discovered their music. Meshuggah and Opeth are the two most significant metal bands I’ve discovered. The French band Gojira, I think are really special. If you like Meshuggah, Gojira are definitely taking that kind of road, as it were. I like Mastodon a lot. I think they’re a very special band.
Stephen: They’ve got a new record coming out at the end of the month…
Wilson: I heard it’s a bit of a progtastic record.
Stephen: And Isis, I‘ve seen on your play lists on your website (www.swhq.co.uk).
Wilson: I like Isis. That’s what I would call subterranean metal. If you want to go into that kind of area, I’m a huge fan of Sunn O))). Their idea of using metal guitars in a more textural, droney way, I think that’s one of the few innovative things that’s happened in music over the past 10 years in music. I’m a huge fan of that whole approach and that scene.
Stephen: Sunn O))) was a huge influence on the last Portishead album, “Third,” oddly enough.
Wilson: Was it really? They’ve admitted to that, have they?
Stephen: Yep, they talked a lot about that in interviews.
Wilson: I never would have guessed, listening to that record. I mean, I love that record. It’s interesting because I did a track on “Insurgentes” that was kind of a cross between Portishead and Sunn O))). It was a track called “Abandoner,” and it starts off as an electronic, almost Trip Hop kind of feel, and then about half way through, the big Sunn O))) behemoth guitars come in. So, that’s interesting that Portishead were into that. That makes a bit more sense now.
Stephen: What can we expect from the next Porcupine Tree album? I hear that it’s a continuous piece of music over 55 minutes.
Wilson: I wanted to do something a bit different this time. There was a track on the last record called “Anesthetize,” which was 18 minutes long. I wanted to take that as a starting point for something even more ambitious in terms of its duration. I’ve always been a big fan of Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick,” do you know that record?
Wilson: It’s a masterpiece. A continuous 45 minutes of music. I’ve always liked those kinds of records. It’s not easy to create a continuous piece of music that has the right flow and narrative. In a sense, you could say that most of the records I’ve made are close to that anyway in the sense that the individual tracks are sequenced in a way that is intended for continuous play. But it’s the idea of taking that to the next level and constructing the music as a continuous flow that is a little bit different.
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