PORCUPINE TREE – Steven Wilson; Helsinki, 2007

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1991

This interview has been conducted for Terrorverlag Magazine during the Fear of a Blank Planet Tour in 2007 at Garage in Saarbrücken, Germany.

You’ve been on tour constantly since October now and it’ll continue till mid December. How’s the tour going so far?
Actually it’s since April. We had four weeks off in the summer, but we started touring in April; we did festivals in July and August and have been back on tour since October. How’s it going? It’s going great! Its been a very good year for us. Because this album [Fear of a Blank Planet] definitely seems to have reached a new level of audience for us and we definitely seem to have progressed up to the next, according to people coming to shows and record sales and stuff so, yeah, its been great!

I’ve read that lots of venues are selling out or have sold out?
Yes, lots of venues have sold out. Actually Germany is one of the exceptions – they haven’t sold out here, but we’re doing quite big venues in Germany. Like, for example, in Cologne playing for 4000 people – dunno whether that’s going to sell out… Bielefeld, 3500. But I mean, in terms of ignoring the fact of whether venues are selling out or not, the number of people coming to the shows keeps on going up and up. We started playing for 400-500 people and now we’re playing for 1500 or so, so that’s great.

What are the differences between the audience here in Germany and, let’s say in the US, for example?
There are differences, but to be honest you can’t really ask the question country to country – you actually have to make it city to city, because I’ve always found that the differences between cities can be phenomenal. Like Stuttgart and Munich – completely different! For atmosphere, people attending the show, etc. They might enjoy it equally, but they don’t show it.

In America we have the same thing. You can play in New York or Philadelphia – which are like an hour and a half away by car – but the atmosphere can be completely different. New Yorkers are very passionate, very noisy, and Phili is very kind of reserved and carefully listening and they don’t show anything. So it’s a difficult question for me to answer… but I answered it anyway, haha.

We recently read that you just won the Classic Rock Award – congratulations! What does it mean to you? Is it important?
It’s great! Is it important to us? Yes! It’s great to know that your work is somehow being appreciated at a critical level. I mean, the votes were raised by the readers of the magazine, but we’ve got lots of supporters in the mag, among the critics and journalists, and I like that what we do is somehow going to be remembered as something unique. I don’t like to hear that we’re just one of a thousand bands that sound like Porcupine Tree. I like the idea that PT has something special and that people begin to recognize, that we have been doing this now for a long time – 15 years – and acknowledge that we have a very distinctive sound and hopefully begin to inspire a next generation of musicians following in our footsteps.

You’re all pretty busy with side projects. You’re, for example, producing other bands. How do you set your priorities – is Porcupine Tree #1?
To be honest, whatever I’m working on at the moment is always my priority. I mean, there are other considerations for Porcupine Tree, like the fact that there are many people involved – managers, agencies other band members. I have to consider them. I can’t say, “I don’t want to go off on tour now with PT, cause I‘m busy with something else.”

So I guess PT becomes a priority, when it comes to having to put other things aside. But in my head musically I’m always most passionate about what I’m doing right now. So if I’m in the studio working with another band, I’m totally focusing on that. I can’t think in terms of, “Oh this is my favorite project and this is my priority project.” But of course whatever it is, when life takes over and certain things become more successful than other things and more people depend on them, fans are waiting for you to make the next record, so in that sense, yes I suppose PT is the main priority at the moment; my most time-consuming project.

Speaking of other projects, I’ve read about this project you wanted to do with Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater). Is there anything happening there?
There’s nothing really to tell at the moment. Mikael and I have been talking about doing something together almost since the day we met, which is now 7 years ago – just before I worked with them on the Black Water Park album. Even the first time we met, we were already talking about “let’s do something together,” and we’ve kept on saying so every year – “Yeah, we’re going to do it this year” The problem is – well it’s a nice problem though, but it has meant that we never got together – each of us has become more and more successful and more and more on demand with our own bands and career.

So right now, Opeth are in the studio making a new record and they’ll be on tour early next year, at the time when I’m probably going to have a break. So when I’m busy, they’ll be back and so on. So we never seem to be able to find some time to hook up and start doing this record. But I hope one day. I think it’ll be quite exciting and hope the fans don’t expect too much. There’s always this sort of feeling, you know, if you love Opeth and you love PT. people might think we’re going to create something even better. I hope we do, but you know, we’ll just enjoy working together and we’ll surely have some fun.

Yes, I think there’ll surely be something nice coming out of this collaboration.
Yeah, I think it’ll be fun, whatever it is!

When it comes to the writing process, is it only you doing everything, or do the other band members participate in the process as well? Do you just sit down like, “Ok, I’m going to write something now,” or do you just write stuff when it comes to your mind?
Well no, I have quite a strong discipline when it comes to writing. I’m not the kind of songwriter who wakes up in the middle of the night like, “Ah, I have a song in my head.” I can’t do that. I go to the studio when I need to write music and I sit down and work very hard, 6-8 straight hours a day for a few weeks trying to create new material that doesn’t sound like stuff I’ve already done and that is interesting to me, that sounds fresh and feels like there is an evolution and all that. But what we got into during the last couple of records is a pattern, where I start off writing maybe 70-80% of the material and I come up with the concept of the record and a kind of overall direction. At the latter half of the writing process we all get together and we try to create some music together to complete the record. That happened twice now on this new record. That is one where we wrote stuff together and completed the record.

On the last one, we wrote a song called “Halo” and another song on the record together with the band. I like that, because once I get to the point where I’ve got the main body of work, when I’ve got the whole concept, then I can relax more and just work with the band. I think writing together with the band… I know some bands do that, but I think it’s very hard to write as a committee. I think writing great songs tends to be a singular kind of vision. At least it always felt like that for me. I find it very hard to be in a room with like three other guys and say, “Hey you know what we’re gonna do?” It has created some interesting pieces for the last couple of records, so… I think we can do both.

Do you collect ideas while you’re on tour, or do you have more of the mindset that, “Ok I’m on tour right now, no new stuff.”?
Pretty much, yeah. I don’t find touring very inspiring from the writing point of view. In a way it’s a shame, because when you’re on tour, you have an enormous amount of time and very little to fill it with – watching TV and eating whatever. You think, “What a great time to use it for writing new material!” and actually it’s a very uninspiring situation to be in, sitting on a bus on a rainy day in Bochum or wherever, you know, or Helsinki. It’s not the place where I’d want to write. I find that I get most of my ideas when I‘’m at home surrounded by my own environment, by the people I love, by my CDs and my own DVD collection, and I can get inspiration from my own environment.
How have the overall reactions to the album been so far?
I think very good. I mean I don’t know to be honest. I don’t pay much attention to what other people think. Deliberately though, because I know that if I did, it would probably wail on my mind too much. For example, I don’t read any of the PT fan forums and I know that there are two or three of them. I don’t look at them. Occasionally I hear people say, “Oh I read on the PT forum blah blah.” So, I don’t read those. I don’t read reviews – occasionally people send them to me, but I try not to read them.

At the end of the day, everybody’s got an opinion and I think the beauty in being an artist is that – being an artist, musician, filmmaker, writer, painter whatever – it’s actually a very selfish pursuit, and it should be, because that’s actually why the fans respond to in the first place. It’s because they see something unique and special and with a strong personality, but they feel it reflects something of themselves, almost like holding up a mirror. So I think it’s almost like the duty of an artist to not pay any attention to what other people say. But having said that, from what I understand, this album has been well-received and a lot of people think it’s our best work. I think it’s one of our best works, if not the best album.


Let’s talk a bit about the lyrics. They’re all quite pessimistic or even sound a bit frustrated, which is maybe the wrong word. What are those lyrics about… the youth and emptiness and that they don’t know what to do, etc.?

It’s what I see. I mean, I see other positive things too. But I see a lot of things that I write about on this record. You only have to turn on MTV and watch it for an hour – if you can stand it – and see so much ignorance, so much stupidity, so much shallowness. Reality TV shows with 15-year-old little rich kids who try to emulate black gangsta rappers even though they come from the white middle class or whatever. You know this is just one example. I see kids who can barely communicate with words because they spend way too much time in front of the PlayStation, on the internet, downloading music, downloading pornography, downloading movies, updating their iPod or their cell phone, communicating with messengers.

People who don’t even know… well, kids who don’t even know, like how to read a book. The concept of reading a book is kind of completely anathema to them, to use the name of another band here [Anathema were supporting them on this tour in 2007]. It’s such a depressing thing to see that. It’s that I not try to see the other side as well. I mean, some of the kids are coming to our shows now – very young kids. They’re very passionate about music, passionate about life, and they’re like the opposite side of the coin and that’s very good to see. But at the same time, when I switch on the TV and see American Idol, Big Brother, I see Cribs, I see Pimp My Ride, I see Dismissed, I see all this really white trash, ignorant, shallow TV, and I know that quite a lot of people in the world like that and that they don’t really have any kind of aspirations intellectually at all. I don’t mean to become like a scientist, I just mean, for God’s sake have some… you know, motive, some ambition of intelligence and intellect and travel the world.

There’s a very famous statistic that is very often quoted and it says that only 10% of Americans own a passport. It’s a very depressing fact and apparently it’s true. It means that 90% of Americans have no interest… and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other 10% have ever been outside the country. Maybe they’ve been to Hawaii or Canada, but never been to Europe, never been to the Middle East, never been to Asia… I saw the majority of Americans – ok I’m not only picking on the Americans, that applies to Europeans too – but that’s a very depressing statistic because it means that the majority of the people on this planet don’t have curiosity, and curiosity is the key here, because I think what you see when you turn on these dumb MTV shows is that lack of curiosity and that lack of… the will to better yourself. I found that very depressing and got depressed and started to write about it and it became Fear of a Blank Planet. Then the school shootings came in and the idea of kids as young as four taking pills for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) all this kind of stuff got mixed in my head and came out in this rather depressed record.

It’s all depressing indeed, but I think you did a good thing. I’m sure you made quite a few people start thinking about all these things you just mentioned and hopefully you’re reaching them.
I hope so, because I think all you can do when you make a record and write lyrics is hope that you hold up a mirror to your fans or to the people who listen to your records and say, “This is what I see. Do you see yourself in this or do you see this in your friends or do you feel like that?” To be honest, when I say this it’s not just humility. I mean, I see a lot of this in myself too. I’m way too attached to my cell phone, I’m way too attached to my laptop…

Everybody is, I guess.
Yeah, everybody is, so I’m not trying to patronize just one group of people. I’m saying that this is a kind of global issue now and that it has pretty much come about because of the explosion in technology, the internet, in download culture, cell phones, iPods, in the amount of music that is available for free and all the pornography that you can just download… Kids as young as 4 can just download pornography. This is all affecting everyone; it’s not just the kids I’m talking about. So I think it’s like holding up a mirror and if it makes people think and question, that’s all I can hope to do really.

I’ve read that you played songs live for the last album before the release and that you changed some of them later on, according to the reactions from the audience. Would you do that again?
Yeah, we had a really good experience with that! We actually came here to this very venue [Garage in Saarbrucken, Germany] a year ago and played the album before it was recorded and it was really good, because it allowed us to get many things straight in our head about where the album is going, where to record the album, which songs were stronger than others. It’s nice to get some audience feedback even when I just said I don’t pay any attention to the audience. I do in a way. You know, you can’t help it – you can see whether you’re hitting the target and it was great and I think we will definitely do that possibly every time from now on. I think it was good for the fans to come along, and rather than to see the old songs, to hear a premiere of some 40–50 minutes of completely new music. And it was great for us, it was a lot of fun to be playing such fresh music.

I hate to ask a question you’ve already heard several times, but how do you get along with your label, Roadrunner Records? Some people might have said “Oh no, a Metal label!” but it doesn’t seem like you’ve turned into a strictly metal band.
Metal has always been a part of our music vocabulary. There’s no doubt that we use metal, but no one could describe us as a “metal band.” I mean, Roardrunner’s biggest band is Nickelback, you know. This is the band with whom they make most of their sales and Nickelback aren’t a metal band, they’re an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll band. Now they’ve signed Dream Theater. Again, another band you couldn’t clearly describe as pure metal. I think that they’re trying to diversify, to get away from the idea that they’re just seen as a metal label and I think it was a very good loop for us, because we’ve reached a lot of fans, perhaps, from the metal scene. And what I think, about metal fans, is that they’re very open to other kinds of music. They may not start off that way – ’cause I was the same when I was very young; I only listened to metal. But the thing about metal fans is that they come to a point where they definitely start being curious about other forms of music, because metal music at least encourages you to appreciate musicianship, to appreciate bands that can actually play live, bands that maybe think more about albums as opposed to singles, bands that don’t put so much importance on how they look, and all those qualities hopefully lead young metal fans into appreciating music of other kinds too. I think PT is a band that definitely is almost like a gateway for people, maybe looking now into other kinds of music. So maybe we’ve picked up a lot of younger fans that maybe haven’t taken notice of us when we were recording for Atlantic Records. So it’s been great for us and it’s been good for Roadrunner too.

Speaking of music, I think that you can’t categorize your music that easily. It stands in contrast to our nowadays, as I like to call it, “throw away” -music. MTV, some hip-hop, pop music… what do you think of music in general? Do people start appreciating more complex and handmade music more and more?
It doesn’t have to be more complex, it has to have more personality. But the problem with a lot of music is, to point it out, that it’s very generic – it could be anyone. If you’re listening to a hip-hop track, RnB track, and even in the world of metal, lots of it is very generic. You could be listening to anyone of a thousand metal bands, black metal bands. What’s really interesting now is, I see a new wave of bands coming through. They almost sound very different to each other, but actually are very unique. What I’m now talking about is bands like Opeth, Mastodon, Radiohead, Tool, Flaming Lips, The Mars Volta, Mercury Rav, Sigur Ros. There’s a whole new wave of bands from the last 5–6 years that are definitely more interested in making great artistic albums and building a fan base, almost in a way that bands used to do in the 70s. You know, the way that bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd built a fan base. Not by releasing catchy pop singles, but by making great albums and by touring. That, what you’re seeing now, is a return to that.

I mean, I’m still not interested in most of the so -called very generic music, but the thing about that music is that it doesn’t stand the test of time. I think that it’s the bands that really are unique that you’ll still be listening to in a hundred years. We may not sell as many records as 50 Cent or whatever, but I think people will not be listening to 50 Cent in 10 years or 50 or 100… but I think people will still be listening to Radiohead records, they’ll still be listening to Flaming Lips, Opeth records, and I hope they’ll still be listening to PT records. And they won’t be listening to Papa Roach or Korn – ok Korn is quite a good band… well, you know, what I’m trying to say is, all that kind of generic “I hate my mom, I hate my dad, I wanna die, heavy metal” bullshit is a very “transy” and short-timed thing. The same with RnB, the same with hip-hop, and most chart music.

Do you plan to release another live DVD?
I don’t know when we’ll do another one. I hope we’ll document the tour. We may not release another DVD. I don’t want to get into this situation where we release too much live material because I see bands that put out a live album and a DVD every album cycle and think… I like the 70s kind of thing where every three or four albums you make a live document of that period. So I think we’ll probably do another DVD in 2 or 3 years, but I might change my mind.

When looking back at all the years, how would you describe the development of the band and where do you see Porcupine Tree in, let’s say 5 or 10 years?
The way the band developed, I think, is a very slow and organic way. It’s very much word-of-mouth, which is a good way to build a following. It’s just a very slow, painstaking way to build a following. It’s also not been helped by the fact that we tended to change our direction quite a lot. We started out as a very different band musically then where we have arrived at now. In 5 years’ time… I really don’t know and I like the fact that I don’t know because it’s a surprise to me too, when the band started to develop into a different kind of direction and it’s a shock to me too. When I’m writing the music, I’m still surprised at what can or cannot be PT music. So where do I see ourselves in five years? I hope we’re still making records, I hope we’re still building a following, we’re still reaching new people, and we’re still hopefully being considered cutting edge and unique in some way. If not, we’ll probably stop.

Hopefully not…
I hope not too… I don’t think so.

When and why did you decide to become a musician, if that was a decision, strictly speaking?
I never actually decided to become a musician; I decided I wanted to make records. There’s a difference there. When I was like 9 or 10 years or… whatever I was. I think I was 9 or 10 years when I first got the idea, when I first got this bug inside me, that I want to be in the music business. It wasn’t because I fell in love with being a big rock guitar player on stage or be a big rock singer. I fell in love with the idea of making records. And I was looking at records wondering, “How did this piece of plastic – vinyl days – come to exist?” I started to read all the things on the back notes. “What does production mean? What are all these instruments? And what are those lyrics?!” I was 10. I didn’t know any of that, but I knew that I wanted to create something like this.

So actually, I really fell in love with the idea of being a producer and songwriter. All the other stuff, like having to learn how to play the guitar, keyboards, sing, write lyrics, that’s all part of doing that, but it’s not what I really wanted to do. Someone said to me, “You’re a guitarist!” I’m not a guitarist. Guitar… it’s a tool I use in order to make records. I’m a producer and a songwriter and that’s what I really feel passionate about: making records.

So it was also the “curiosity thing” you mentioned earlier that brought you here?
For sure! Yeah, absolutely, the curiosity about how something worked. I mean, this was a very romantic thing to me, holding this piece of vinyl in this beautiful gatefold sleeve. It was a very romantic notion to me. How did this piece of art come to exist? It IS a piece of art and it should be a piece of art and that’s a problem. Unfortunately, with a lot of downloading culture, it’s reduced from a piece of art to a piece of software and that really sucks!

So I was very struck with that romantic kind of notion – the LP as a piece of art, like a painting. I wanted to learn whatever I needed to learn in order to make these things. I didn’t care so much about being a great guitar player, singer, keyboard player. I just wanted to know enough to get what was in my head.

As time is unfortunately running out, I have one last question. It’s always quite interesting to see what musicians listen to… the stuff besides their own music. What are your top 5 albums at the moment?
I can tell you some records I really love to share! I love the new Radiohead album – I think it’s their best album ever – In Rainbows. I think it’s an amazing record. I love the new Nine Inch Nails record, Year Zero. It came out back in April, just like our album. I’m a big Trent Reznor fan. I mean that you can see fans of those people, who tend to be this kind of people that create their own world… and again he’s not a musician, he’s not a singer; he’s a producer. He has this sound, and it’s an incredible sound, that is totally his sound. So we have NIN, we have Radiohead… what else to share? I really like… there’s a band from Mercury, LCD Soundsystem, who I really love. They got an interesting mix of 70s, almost like disco, kinda American new punk-funk. I like their last record Sound of Silver. Do you know the kind of drone rock bands like Sunn O))) and Boris?

Yep, great stuff!
Yeah, I love these kinds of bands. So I really love the last Boris album, Drone Evil, and the last Sunn O))) record and the collaboration they did together called Altar, really great. I do love other bands, too, that do that. More underground bands like Blackboned Angel, the whole scene I love. I made a record in that kind of style myself. So those are the records I’m listening to a lot. I think those are the main ones.

So very varied as well.
Always! You know, people said to me, “What kind of music do you like?” and I said, “I listen to the music I like!” I like good music. I find the notion of listening to just one kind of music to be something you grow out of. I mean, when you’re young – like 13-14 years old – it’s very important to define your personality by just listening to one kind of music. “I listen to metal, I’m a metal kid.” But as you get older, 20 or so – I mean, I’m 40, just turned 40 two weeks ago – the idea that I would listen to one kind of music is just ridiculous. I can never predict what kind of music will click with me. Could be a jazz record, could be a funk record, a metal record, it could be a classical record. So I just like the music I like and I think that’s something typical when you start to get a bit older, as I am. I’m not saying I’m old, but…

I get it, and I’m only 24.
Right, there you go! I was like a lot of kids that loved metal when I was like 14 years old and I only listened to metal and things like Neil Young, Pink Floyd, John Denver, the BeeGees, ABBA, and Beethoven was all pussy music to me. But now of course nothing could be further from the truth; I appreciate everything.

Well thank you so much for the very informative interview!
Yes, thanks to you too.

Interview: Cornelia Wickel | Photo: Jana Blomqvist | Ed: Amy Wiseman

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