Interview: Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree

The main dichotomy in popular music has always been between simplification and elaboration. In the 1950s, the popularity of rock represented a 'dumbing down' of musical tastes in favor of something basic and raw. Gradually, during the 60s and 70s, rock and pop became increasingly complex, until once again, there was a reaction in favor of something simpler – Punk and Disco.

The most complex form that popular music ever achieved was something called Progressive Rock or 'Prog Rock,' a style that owes as much to Classical music and Free Jazz as it does to the Blues, and which reached its peak of popularity in the 1970s, when bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis were filling stadiums and topping the album charts.

In the reaction against this musical style, spearheaded by Punk, 'Prog' became a negative term, symbolizing pompous, over–elaborate and over–ambitious music. But, more recently, Prog has started to achieve respectability again, with bands like Porcupine Tree, who tour Japan later this month to promote their new DVD release Arriving somewhere… that is now winning critical acclaim and attracting a growing audience.

I spoke to Steven Wilson, the band’s founder, main songwriter, singer, and multi–instrumentalist by phone from his home in England, where he was recovering after an exhausting US and European tour, to find out if he was happy with the 'Prog' label.

"It really depends on the definition of the person who's asking that question," he replied. "Five years ago when you used the word Prog Rock, it tended to be a fairly derogatory term in that it meant something old–fashioned, something that was taking its lead from the kind of music that was popular thirty years ago. Nowadays, that is no longer the case. I think with the bands that have come up in the last few years, bands like Radiohead, Tool, the Mars Volta, the Flaming Lips, Opeth and Porcupine Tree. Those bands have taken progressive rock into a new area."

Like the other bands he cites, all of which include influences from the original wave of Progressive Rock, Porcupine Tree’s music is hard to dismiss as backward–looking. This is largely because, despite referencing older bands, Porcupine Tree's music changes with every album and remains hard to define in a way that older Prog wasn’t.

For example, the band's first studio album, On the Sunday of Life (1991), was whimsical, Pink–Floyd inspired psychedelic rock, while later albums were "more space rock," according to Wilson. The last two albums, In Absentia (2002) and last year’s Deadwing, have confounded easy expectations once again by veering towards a heavier rock sound, which the band skillfully alternate with their more plaintive and delicate sound on songs like Open Car.

"That's really just a reflection of my own evolution as a writer and my listening tastes as well," Wilson explained. "I think everything that effects the input of the artist also effects the output of the artist. What I mean is that if your own diet in music and movies and books, and your own experiences in life, are always changing, then that should ultimately effect the music or the art that you produce."

Stressing the importance of influences may lead to charges of unoriginality, and anyone with a lengthy acquaintance with rock music is bound to notice the occasional guitar line or chord change that evokes, say, an old Pink Floyd album or Marillion song. Indeed, you may well catch a hint of the atmospheric keyboard sound reminiscent of 1980s New Romantic band Japan, as that band’s keyboardist, Richard Barbieri, is now with Porcupine Tree.

"It's almost impossible now to be completely unique," Wilson frankly admitted. "It's difficult to imagine any band that can burst onto the scene with a completely fresh indefinable sound that has no precedent in the past. Rock 'n' Roll, in the last fifty years has pretty much visited every possible permutation and combination of music."

So, in a crowded musical genre that has been thoroughly explored, how does an artiste continue to make music as potent and fresh sounding as each new Porcupine Tree album?

"If we agree that it is now impossible to do something completely original then it all really comes down to your personality," Wilson commented. "You can invest your own music and your own style with a personality that makes it somehow unique and original and which somehow transcends your influences. We can all listen to Radiohead or Bjork or Sigur Ros, and we can figure out what their influences might be, but, at the same time, these are all artists who transcend their influences. Through the strength of their personalities, they have created something that sounds uniquely theirs."

Exactly the same may be said of Porcupine Tree.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
3rd November, 2006
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