Porcupine Tree still sharp, edgy


November 15, 2002



Born in London in 1967, singer, songwriter and guitarist Steve Wilson was too young to experience the initial flowering of psychedelic rock. But for the last 15 years, he has devoted his career with underground heroes Porcupine Tree to taking the sounds from the vaunted Summer of Love in new and exciting directions.

Thanks to lush and otherworldly efforts such as "Up the Downstair" and "Stupid Dream," Porcupine Tree has long been a cult favorite among fans of psychedelic and progressive rock. Now the band is poised to reach the largest audience of its career thanks to a strong new album, "In Absentia," recently released on Atlantic.

I spoke to Wilson from his home in England as the group was preparing to undertake its first extended American tour.

Porcupine Tree

* 8 p.m. Sunday
* Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln
* Tickets, $15
* (312) 559-1212

Q. Porcupine Tree has been in existence since 1987, but this is your first album for an American major label. It must seem like a long time coming.

A. Yeah, it's kind of surprising to have happened at this stage in our career. Then in other ways, it's not so surprising because I think the musical climate has changed. Increasingly, even record companies are getting kind of fed up with the predominance of ephemeral music. I speak to so many people in the industry and I think everyone agrees in principle that music is not as sophisticated as it was, and the time is right for some kind of move back toward more kind of cerebral rock music--rock music that you can put a pair of headphones on and get totally into it and obsess over the lyrics or the art work and all that stuff. That's what I grew up on. I kind of grew up in the '80s, and that was a terrible decade for music, so I found myself going back to the '70s, and that's what the '70s music was all about. I think that tiny change in the climate and the success of bands like Radiohead and Tool certainly helped--the fact that they've made apparently uncommercial music and yet still managed to sell a lot of records.

Q. The band has been embraced by both the progressive-rock and psychedelic-rock undergrounds. Do you have any problems with either of those tags?

A. Both of those things are certainly a part of our sound, but as you point out, they're totally inadequate to describe the whole spectrum of sounds and influences in the music. That has been a problem. Any record company that's gonna sign Porcupine Tree is a brave record company in the sense that we're not an easy band to market because there really isn't an existing demographic for the kind of music that we play, a sector of music lovers that is easy to market our music to. It could be anyone and it could be no one. We're not a hip-hop band, we're not a metal band. The only real way to market our music is by working very hard and getting to as many people as possible. And we've picked up people from the metal scene, from the progressive scene and psychedelic scenes, and we've picked up people who just love good pop songs.

Q. How did you approach making "In Absentia"?

A. When it comes to writing, I'm very intuitive. It's not something that's very considered or consciously moving in any direction at any time. I think the thing that distinguishes this album from any of the previous albums is it's probably heavier. It's got more heavy guitars and more riffs than anything we've done in the past, which to me makes it a more in-your-face kind of rock album. We did make one conscious decision with this album, which was to record it in America, and for that reason it does have slightly more of an American sensibility. But it's all relative. Most people when they listen to Porcupine Tree records probably still hear something that is light years away from what they consider to be rock music, which may be Korn or Slipknot.

Q. Many critics have said that Porcupine Tree is making the sort of albums Pink Floyd would be making if Pink Floyd was still making good albums.

A. It's a compliment, but it's kind of irritating at the same time. It's a compliment because they're a great band. Musically speaking, there is very little similarity, but on a kind of ideological level, there are a lot of similarities. I think the fact that they kind of made the album an art form--the continuity, the flow, the architecture of the record was as important to them as the individual songs that made up the record--and that's certainly true of Porcupine Tree as well.

Q. Do you think the album as an entity still means anything today in this era of digital downloading?

A. I think there are an increasing number of people who lament the fact that people don't take more care to craft albums now. I am constantly surprised when I talk to people like yourself and other people in the media and the industry who are waiting for the event album to return. I'm a strong believer that in the '70s, when albums were about 40 to 50 minutes long, that actually is about the ultimate attention span of most people for listening to the same band and the same sound. It's unfortunate that the advent of the CD generation has kind of pushed the length of albums up over the 60- or 70-minute mark. I'm as guilty of that as anybody--this album is 70 minutes long--but I like to think that because of the fact that we have put so much thought into the architecture and the dynamics of the record, that it doesn't feel that long. Whereas when you put on a Korn record that's 70 minutes long, and that's a long record! A lot of bands these days have the one sound, and the kind of ennui sets in really quickly. The advent of MTV really moved the whole pop world away from the importance of albums.

Q. Let's go back to the psychedelic influence in the band. Do you think an artist needs to have taken psychedelic drugs to make psychedelic rock?

A. I think that what most people tend to get wrong is the correlation between psychedelic music and drugs. I've never taken drugs, but for me, if you look at some of the most bizarre and creative music that's been made in the history of rock music, it's been made by people like Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp, who are famous for their abstinence. The drugs are like a facilitator for achieving that, but I would say that an even more powerful facilitator is dreams. What goes on in dreams is potentially far more surreal than what goes on under the influence of drugs. I don't remember all my dreams, but what I do remember is utterly bizarre, and it does inform my work. Some of the more surreal aspects of my work comes from what I call dream logic. I've always felt that the word "psychedelic" has much more relationship to what goes on in our dreams than it does to drug culture. That's the way I relate the psychedelic element of Porcupine Tree, to that dream logic.