If Porcupine Tree is an unfamiliar name to most American hard rock fans, itís no wonder. For almost a decade, the English band was anything but hard rocking óand rarely ventured anywhere close to the United States. Instead, Porcupine Tree lurked at the fringes of the English art-rock underground, concocting a wildly experimental blend of progressive, electronic, industrial and psychedelic elements that eventually earned the band a decent-sized cult following.
But that all began to change when a then-obscure Swedish death metal band called Opeth hired Porcupine Tree frontman Steve Wilson to help them realize the sonic ambitions of 2001ís Blackwater Park, an album that brought greater emphasis to its mellower, more psychedelic side. When Porcupine Tree issued its American big label debut, In Absentia, on Lava/Atlantic a year later it boasted a decidedly harder edge than anything the band had done previously ó although, despite its punchier guitaring and more streamlined songs it would be a stretch to call it ďheavy.Ē
Wilson teamed again with Opeth for the bandís 2003 Jeckyl & Hyde companion albums Deliverance (which was monstrously heavy) and Damnation (which was sedate to the point of being folky). Porcupine Tree and Opeth later toured the states together.
In April, Porcupine Tree released Absentiaís follow-up, and the bandís eighth overall, Deadwing. And this time, it is ďheavy.Ē Sure, there are plenty of Beatles-like vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars, keyboards and expansive, Pink Floydian trippiness, but Deadwing also boasts loads of tasty, crunching riffs ó the first single, ďShallow,Ē rocks mightily and parts of the 10-minute title track and 12-minute ďArriving Somewhere But Not HereĒ are downright brutal ó and a genuine sense of menace and creepiness most death bands would kill for.
No oneís going to mistake the band for, say, Hate Eternal, but when it comes to combining brains and brawn, Porcupine Tree does it better than just about anyone. Guest appearances by King Crimson guitarist (and former Nine Inch Nails hired gun) Adrian Belew and Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt only make things better.
Wracked by the flu bug and about to fly home after an abortive tour with his sideband Blackfield, the nevertheless good-natured Wilson phoned from Tampa International Airport to offer his thoughts about the enigmatic Porcupine Tree, working with Opeth and the current state of modern rock and metal.
KNAC.COM: I heard there were some Visa problems that messed up the Blackfield tour, did you have to do the whole thing as two-piece doing acoustic sets?
STEVE WILSON: : We were supposed to come over as a band to do four shows to promote the American release of the album, but we ended up doing it with two guitars and two voices [Wilson and Aviv Geffen]. We did get some help from Jordan Rudess [Dream Theater keyboard player] who came along and played some piano and keyboards with us, which was really great. It was good fun, actually, it kind of worked out in the end pretty good because it was all the more special for having been a bit thrown together.
We played as many songs as we could, we did play a couple of cover songs to fill in the spaces. We tried to make it as close to the real show as possible in terms of the repertoire and we busked our way through it as best we could. I think everyone enjoyed it ó at least I hope they did (laughs).
KNAC.COM: Was this one of those post-Sept. 11 problems a lot of foreign musicians have been encountering here, or just a plain old screw up.
WILSON: : I donít know really. Things have certainly gotten tougher here with immigration. We had planned it well in advance and thought everything was in order. I donít know if the fact that the musicians were Israeli had anything to do withÖ I guess weíll never know.
KNAC.COM: I assume youíll be focusing on Porcupine Tree stuff after you get home?
WILSON: : Absolutely. We start rehearsals for the Porcupine Tree tour next week. Then weíll do a tour of Europe for about a month, take a couple weeks off and then weíre coming to America for a month just after the album comes out, and then festivals over the summer and then I expect after that weíll be touring for the rest of the year.
KNAC.COM: Now that youíve been around the block with a big label album in America, do expect things to go better for Deadwing?
WILSON: : They already are, much more so, surprisingly so. Just to give you an example, last time it was a struggle to get any airplay at all. But this time some active rock stations have been falling all over themselves to add the record [ďShallowĒ].
Itís been funny. We kind of felt like with the last album didnít quite achieve what we wanted it to achieve with it, just in terms of reaching people. But now itís kind of all coming back. All the contacts and the good will that we created last time is coming back on this album and everyone seems to be waiting for it. There seems to be ďmuch more of a buzz on the streets,Ē as they like to say in the trades (laughs).
KNAC.COM: Want kind of audience were you able to build over here? Was it mostly art-rock fans or hard-rock fans?
WILSON: : I think it was everything really. Certainly we picked up our share of the hard rock crowd, especially on the tour with Opeth, and the prog fans have been there since the beginning. But weíre also picking up people who like album-orientated rock and thatís a very broad spectrum of people, from young kids just discovering bands like Led Zeppelin from the Ď70s, or Pink Floyd or the Beatles, to people who remember that stuff from the first time around who kind of grew up in the golden era of album rock.
So we found it was very diverse and it was really gratifying to see that kind of range. The main thing for me is always trying to avoid being generic in any way. So to see that kind of range in the audience tells me we must be doing something right, creating an audience from scratch rather than just appealing to the herd.
KNAC.COM: Still, thatís quite an uphill battle these days where itís all about instant gratification?
WILSON: : Itís pretty hard, yeah. But the good thing about Porcupine Tree, everyone involved in the project ó the band, management company, record company ó made it their mission to break the band. In our own little way, we liked to think we could break through kind the corporate lethargy and perhaps open up the scene to other people. Itís a pretty high ideal, but if youíre going to set goals for yourself, you might as well aim high.
The last time a band really changed things for the better, albeit for a short time, was Nirvana and the Seattle scene. Itís been a long time since a rock band really changed the face of popular music. So who knows, maybe a band like Porcupine Tree, or someone else, can break through and perhaps shake things up on the corporate side of the industry and create a little bit of uncertainty again so the bands that arenít necessarily generic can have the opportunity to get some exposure.
But youíre right, itís truly tough to be the band to do that. But I think weíve made some real headway. Itís still early yet, but itís looking good, weíre getting some opportunities and airplay that we never dreamed of having two or three years ago when we signed to an American label.
KNAC.COM: Have you encountered any other bands of late that you think could also be that breakthrough band?
WILSON: : The Mars Volta is one that comes immediately to mind [and indeed Frances the Mute, the second album from the mind-bending At The Drive-In offshoot debuted in the Top 10 in early spring]. And Opeth, who Iíve worked with a couple times in the last few years, they are very experimental, but they might be a bit too extreme. There are not too many or if there are I havenít come across them so far.
I think the problem is whatís happened over the last 10 to 20 years is the distance between the mainstream and the underground has become wider and wider and wider. So what you have is bands that are doing really interesting music but their music is so willfully experimental that thereís no chance they will ever cross over to the mainstream. Iím thinking of bands like Sigur Ros and God Speed You Black Emperor, great bands, very experimental, but they donít really have any ambition to get beyond the underground. They will always be there.
Whatís missing for me is the sort of bands that are experimental but can kind of appeal to a mainstream audience. When I was growing up in the Ď80s there were bands like The Police and Talking Heads and those kinds of bands who had big hit singles, but in their own right were very radical and very experimental and very cutting edge. You donít see those bands anymore. The only one I can think of is Radiohead that have had big hits whilst being very ambitious with their music. But they are really the exception to the rule.
Where are the Pink Floyds and Led Zeppelins of the 21st century? Bands that can sell millions of record without pandering to the commercial marketplace. I guess I kinda hope Porcupine Tree could be a modern equivalent to that, but the climate is so much more against that than it was 10 or 20 years ago and itís 50 times harder.
KNAC.COM: The new album sounds rather ambitious, based as it is around a film script you had written earlier. Just how close a relationship do the two have?
WILSON: : The screenplay was written obviously with the idea of having it be made into a movie. But what happened when we finished is we were sending it out to people and itís very hard to people to read it, so we figured it was going to be very hard to get it off the ground. In the meantime, I was starting to work on the songs for Porcupine Tree and I figured, ďWell I donít have anything specific I wanted to write about lyrically, why donít I just use the script as inspiration for songs.Ē
So the album isnít trying to tell the story of the film, itís not trying to be a companion or a concept, but certain scenes, certain themes, certain episodes from the screenplay are starting points for the songs and kind of running with the subject. So thereís a lot of stuff on the album thatís not part of the script and vice versa. But at the same time there is a strong relationship between the two and the pragmatic side of me thinks that maybe if the album does well it well help us to get funding for the movie (laughs).
KNAC.COM: Whatís the basic storyline of the script?
WILSON: : We describe is a surreal ghost story. Itís not by any stretch of the imagination a real shocker, itís got a more dream like quality. If you could imagine a visual equivalent of Porcupine Tree, you wouldnít be too far off the mark. Very melancholy, very surreal with a strong narrative, we were very influenced by European cinema when we were writing it.
Weíre not big fans Hollywood movies, but having said that our two favorite European style directors are American: David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Itís kind of weird and kind of odd and offbeat, but itís got a strong story to it. Itís not willfully obscure.
KNAC.COM: Since the band was much more progressive or ďart rockĒ early on, has Porcupine Tree now evolved into hard rock band, or is that side of it just a phase that could change just as dramatically in the future?
WILSON: : I donít really think about it when Iím writing stuff, itís not something Iím conscious of, ďwe must go in this direction we must go in that direction.Ē Whatever comes out comes out. I really enjoy the heavier side of the band now that it was really introduced on the last record.
I guess this time itís more integrated into the fabric of the band, it was kind of shock to people last time, especially to people who had been following us from the proceeding albums. We loved it. I always loved the heavy stuff, since I was growing up. The first music that really inspired me was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back in the early 80s. That was what made me get into music in the first place.
Itís always been part of my personality and I guess working with Opeth and getting more into that kind of music gave me the buzz again to start exploring that side. And luckily the other guys were into that too, so I guess weíve just consolidated that on this record and I think weíre bit more fluent in it this time. Last time it was an experiment, but it was an experiment we felt went really well so this time we had to confidence to carry on in that direction and be more in your face with that kind of rock stuff.
KNAC.COM: How was your tour here with Opeth for the last album?
WILSON: : It was great. We alternated so one night we would go on first and one night they would go on first, so it was a true co-headline tour. The audience, it was a real mixture, so we picked up some younger metal kids and they picked were picking up people who before that would not have considered listening to such an extreme metal band.
It was almost the perfect combination. In some respect, itís almost pointless going out with a band you a very similar to, because you will attract the same audience. And at the same time, itís pointless going out with a band that so dissimilar from you thereís no chance that their fans will ever like what youíre doing anyway. The two bands were linked anyway, with me having produced their last three records, there was a familiarity on both sides. And the music is not so different that fans of one couldnít appreciate the other band. So I think both bands benefited enormously.
KNAC.COM: Was this when they were doing the Damnation set that wasnít quite as brutal as their normal set?
WILSON: : Yeah, they were playing that set, so they only did a couple of their real heavier songs, it was predominantly biased toward the mellower side of their sound. The irony was that Porcupine Tree was by far the heavier band on that tour, but it was a nice tour and it worked out very well.
KNAC.COM: Aside from Opeth, are their other extreme bands you like or do you not pay attention to the contemporary metal scene?
WILSON: : To be honest, I went through I phase three or four years ago when I was writing the last album where I completely immersed myself in it. And I tend to do this because itís just my personality, I tend to immerse myself in a particular style and absorb a lot of stuff rather quickly. And early on I found bands like Opeth, Meshuggah and Dillinger Escape Plan, bands that really made me think ďwow, this is where the real shit is happening. This is where all the really experimental music is and where all the really talented musicians are going these days.Ē
But the more I got into it the more I found that a lot of it was quite bad (laughs). And like anything thereís a few bands that are really amazing and a lot of bands that are formulaic and very generic. But a few bands made a big impression. Morbid Angel, Mastadon, Tool, some of the really early, really primitive black metal stuff like Bathory and Burzum, I found quite powerful. Anything that I found that had a real strong personality and strong range.
So much of metal is so generic and so boring, for me, so itís always a question of finding the bands that are a little bit out there, a bit on the edge and trying to do something different, and the bands I mentioned really hit the mark for me.
KNAC.COM: You wonít be producing the next Opeth album?
WILSON: : Unfortunately, I canít because theyíre recording it now and Iím going to be on tour for the next six months. Iím kind of gutted I canít do it, but itís unfortunate timing and Iím kind of a victim of the success of Porcupine Tree or the ascension of the band in the sense that the more demands I have in my own projects the less Iím able to get involved with other projects.
KNAC.COM: Their Lamentations DVD has a pretty long in-studio segment and it looks like you worked very well together. There was a lot of collaboration.
WILSON: : It was great fun. I think we really did some good work and really created something new, we really did some different things and created depth to perhaps a metal record that hadnít been there before. When I met Opeth they were pretty much unknown and the three albums we made together catapulted them I think to perhaps the most critically acclaimed and well known underground metal band there is at the moment and Iím very proud of that and what weíve achieved. Iím disappointed that I canít continue on the new record, but theyíre going to make a great record anyway and hopefully next time around weíll be able to get back together.