Somewhere in the hedgerows that separate the fields of progressive rock, ambient music, avant-garde sounds, heavy metal and good old-fashioned pop lurk Porcupine Tree. Innovative, genre straddling and increasing in popularity (their 2004 album In Absentia had sold 120,000 copies by this point), the London-based group had already existed for more than a decade, and they might well have been the most important band you’d never heard of.
Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri on the magic of Porcupine Tree
Meet the band whose modern take on ‘progressive’ rock is bringing the genre out of the past and giving it a future. Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri talk about an accidental success
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock issue 77
Many who'd heard their sumptuous aural landscapes lumped them in with the hobbit-and-goblin-obsessed ‘pure’ prog brigade. But such an inclusion still caused exasperation; indeed, uproar ensued among the scene’s hard-liners following a 1999 interview with Classic Rock in which Yes were summarily dismissed as “absolute fucking excrement”. The world that Porcupine Tree inhabited then was certainly a mysterious one.
Steven Wilson – the band’s vocalist, guitarist, keyboard player and guiding light – cloaked himself in subterfuge right from day one. At the time of the band’s 1987 birth, he even concocted a fictional biography of his so-called “70s group”, complete with lengthy ‘discography’. Along with friend Malcolm Stocks, Wilson also recorded hours of music. In reality, however, Porcupine Tree were actually intended as “a joke” – little more than a diversion from his main focus, art rockers No-Man. But the Tree’s growth was so sudden that Floyd freak Wilson hastily switched lanes.
“Like most people who are serious about music, I put together Porcupine Tree to entertain myself,” Wilson explains. “There wasn’t enough irony in the joke for some people, who advertised for these ridiculous ‘albums’ of ours in their wants lists. It was a bit like XTC, who had the Dukes Of Stratosphere [XTC’s fictional neo-psychedelic combo]. But in pursuing my own fake band I stumbled upon something that had real potential.”
Porcupine Tree’s debut album, On The Sunday Of Life..., was put together from material originally available on two limited edition cassettes: Tarquin’s Seaweed Farm and The Nostalgia Factory. A hypnotic, perversely commercial concoction blended from spacey synthesisers, Wilson’s anaemic vocals, Steve Hillage-style glissando guitar, trippy lyrics and whispered monologues, Sunday... was released in early 1992 via Delerium Records, a fledgling label run by the owners of UK underground magazine Freakbeat. And nobody was more surprised than Wilson when the record’s 1,000-copy, vinyl-only run was snapped up, prompting an instant reprint. Since then the album had sold in the region of 30,000 copies. But its diversity and relative success created an instant headache.
“Stylistically it was all over the place,” Wilson says. “The track Radioactive Toy was the one that got picked up on, but the album could’ve spawned nine or 10 bands in as many different styles.”
He has since confirmed that another of the album’s standout songs, Linton Samuel Dawson, was about LSD, although the lyrics were written by early collaborator Alan Duffy, who was “very immersed in acid culture and psychedelia – it was a Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds-type thing; a lot of what we were doing were shameless pastiches.”
But, as unlikely as it might sound, drug taking has never been an important activity for Wilson himself: “The subject does fascinate me,” he admits, “but as an outsider. People say that a lot of great artists made their best work by using them. I don’t believe that; drugs allowed them to tap into the power of dreams. But I can do that without chemicals to facilitate the process.”
By the time of Porcupine Tree’s debut, No-Man had already signed to Björk’s label, One Little Indian, which enabled Wilson to give up his job in the computer industry. But it was the second Porcupine Tree album, Up The Downstair, that really showed the way forward in 1993. Not dissimilar to the work of ambient house music pioneers The Orb, it thrust the group into the independent Top 20 chart for the first time. The record also had contributions from former Japan keyboard player Richard Barbieri, with whom Wilson had been working in No-Man, and Colin Edwin who would become their long-term bassist.
“Richard and I both had this wide-ranging love of classic rock music from the 1970s,” Wilson says of expanding the line-up. “He loved Bowie and Roxy Music, whereas I came from the progressive end, but we also crossed over in a big way. I’d grown up living around the corner from Colin, who was a big fan of bands like Gong.”
“My job isn’t to do what most typical keyboard players in rock bands do, though of course that’s part of it,” Barbieri explains. “I’m more into abstract sounds and electronics. At the time, Porcupine Tree were playing trance-orientated stuff, almost in a contemporary club style. That fascinated me.”
Barbieri had no qualms about getting involved in something that was dominated by one individual: “Some people can deal with it, some can’t,” he says. “It’s never been a dictatorship. David [Sylvian, Japan vocalist] was a similar character to Steven, but Japan didn’t feel any less my band.”
In late 1993, after bringing in drummer Chris Maitland, Porcupine Tree made their live debut. Barbieri describes the earliest shows as “grim”. But it was during their first gig at The Nag’s Head in High Wycombe that Wilson began to fully appreciated the group’s potential:
“It was sold out, and to a lot more people than I was used to with No-Man,” he recalls. “Everybody knew the songs, and the reaction was rapturous. I started to think this could be a great band, maybe even with longevity.”
However, things thudded back down to earth again a few nights later when they played The Borderline in London. Once again the band played better than anybody hoped, but just 30 fans turned up at the 275-capacity venue.
“So many people claim to have been at that gig,” Wilson laughs. “It’s like all those who say they saw the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club – there was no possible room for them all. Of course we were disappointed that night, but almost 10 years to the day afterwards we were headlining and selling out The Astoria [which holds 2,000], so it worked out okay.” The next album, 1995’s The Sky Moves Sideways, wasn’t recorded by the Tree as a whole band. The record polarised the opinions of artists and fans; Wilson has since dismissed it as “too derivative”. But its Hipgnosis-style sleeve of a London telephone box on an alien landscape contains what is considered by those in the know as a prog masterpiece of Floyd-esque magnitude.
“Despite pressure from the record company, it made me understand that I didn’t want to take the easy option and cater for that market,” Wilson now shrugs. “I liked The Sky Moves Sideways at the time, but straight away I knew what we did next had to be more edgy and contemporary.”
I put together Porcupine Tree to entertain myself. But in pursuing my own fake band I stumbled upon something that had real potential.
Each of Porcupine Tree’s first three albums was dedicated to a deceased hero of Wilson’s: fellow musicians Miles Davis and Nick Drake weren’t entirely unexpected choices, although film director Orson Welles was perhaps more surprising.
“They were all uncompromising individuals whose inner strength made things harder for themselves,” Wilson says by way of explanation. “Orson took on his whole industry because he couldn’t get his first film [Citizen Kane, a commercial failure in 1941, but now regarded by some as the best movie of all time] shown as widely as he wanted. I’ve always admired that spirit. Porcupine Tree have done so many things wrong in our career but still persevered to carve out our own niche.”
In 1996, the band presented their most song-oriented album to date, Signify. More forwardly focused, its incisive blend of psychedelia, heavy rock and melancholy pop was further sharpened by Wilson’s imaginative production. With that album picking up their first reviews in the mainstream, Porcupine Tree struck while the iron was hot by recording a live album, Coma Divine, in Rome the following year.
Re-released in 2004 as an expanded two-CD set, it included the group playing several songs from Signify but concentrating on older, more elaborate pieces like The Sky Moves Sideways, Moonloop and a 13-minute Radioactive Toy. But Porcupine Tree’s first chapter was about to close.
“I call those our ‘R&D years’, because they were all about research and development,” Wilson muses. “Until Coma Divine, our studio albums were all over the place. By then we were able to make the songs sound like they were all by the same band. But I’m not really in the habit of listening to anything of ours that’s more than two or three years old.”
Summing up the pair’s state of mind, Barbieri says: “They were best performances of that early material. Coma... was probably a great live album, but it’s not a chunk of our time that I’d necessarily enjoy hearing again now.”
Sea change for Porcupine Tree was on the horizon, and a number of larger record companies were now eyeing them with interest. Suspicious to the motives of major labels that courted them, the band signed instead with leading independent Snapper, who gave them their own imprint, K-Scope. Sales continued to rise but as Steven points out, the band still hit brick walls, especially in getting their music on radio.
To the ears of most critics and fans, 1999’s Stupid Dream album initiated the process of simplifying their sound. Wilson, however, disagrees.
“I take your point, and some of the album’s more horizontal song structures were a lot more digestible,” he concedes, “but the more vertical ones became more complex. The vocal harmonies made the arrangements a lot more complicated; they were just placed into a shorter, more direct format. We were accused of selling out – it wasn’t the first time – but all I was doing was responding to my own listening diet, and I’d become totally obsessed with Brian Wilson [former Beach Boys leader] and The Byrds. For two years my goal was to perfect the ultimate two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony.” True enough, the band definitely sounded more like The Verve or Radiohead than the one that had made The Sky Moves Sideways, and remained unrepentant for it, but then along came an extra problem: the press were starting to sniff around. From the start, Wilson hadn’t bothered to dilute his sometimes outspoken opinions (he once called The Who’s Tommy “a very poor record”), but suddenly people were listening. Wilson justifies his infamous comments about Yes by that band’s descent from classic works like The Yes Album and Close To The Edge to 1996’s semi-live album Keys To Ascension (“dire”). The comments weren’t mentioned by anyone from Yes when Porcupine Tree opened for them in the US in late 2002, but Wilson and Barbieri both got the distinct impression that the headliners knew what had been said about them.
“We weren’t treated very well by Yes at all,” Barbieri recalls. “They didn’t seem particularly happy either; everyone had separate dressing rooms. Their shows were great though.”
By Wilson’s own admission, Porcupine Tree went too far on their next album. 2000’s Lightbulb Sun included string arrangements from his hero Dave Gregory of XTC, but the record was previewed by Four Chords That Made A Million – a single that took them dangerously close to pop territory.
“That was a terrible track,” he sighs, with commendable candour. “It was one of the few times we did something for the wrong reasons. The record company felt it would be a hit. It really didn’t belong on the album.”
Realising that a proportion of the band’s audience was still playing catch-up, the next album, 2001’s Recordings, was an out-takes-and-extras collection good enough to have stood in its own right.
“We had such a wealth of quality material that doesn’t always make the records,” Wilson says. “Two or three are usually left over, and they’re of a good quality. Which makes it doubly annoying when something like Four Chords That Made A Million gets released.”
Perhaps the signing of a new deal with the Atlantic Records offshoot Lava in mid-2001 caused that slightly sour taste to fade. Several months later the eight-year stay of Chris Maitland ended in uncharacteristically ugly circumstances; there were even rumours of physical violence – hard to believe, given Wilson’s wiry frame. More intriguingly, Maitland later re-emerged as a member of the guitarist’s highly regarded side-project Blackfield.
“I’m gonna sidestep the subject of what happened with Chris, except to say that nowadays we’re great friends again, and what seemed important then doesn’t seem so vital now,” Wilson says carefully. “Due to the Atlantic deal there was a lot of pressure on us at the time. We really had to stand up and be counted in terms of professionalism and commitment. The saddest thing of all was losing Chris just as the band was on the verge of some kind of breakthrough.”
Lava gave the new-look band (completed by new drummer Gavin Harrison) their biggest recording budget so far and despatched them to New York to work with Rush/Ozzy Osbourne engineer Paul Northfield. The result was In Absentia, a broad-based album that displayed all the band’s usual lightness of touch, but also benefited from a tougher approach inspired by Wilson’s production of extreme Swedish band Opeth.
“I definitely brought back some of what I learned from those guys,” he confirms. “We also toured with Opeth, and there was a great deal of cross-fertilisation between both bands.”
Although their Atlantic deal is a worldwide one, Porcupine Tree were signed to the label’s New York office – the kind of arrangement that has undermined the commitment of labels towards British acts in the past. But Wilson is quick to downplay the potential dangers of his band entering the corporate boardroom: “The downside of the arrangement was that in the UK we had a lower profile than on Snapper,” he acknowledges. “The Warner UK office didn’t give a shit about us, they just put the record into the stores. Hopefully we can fix that this time. But in so many other territories, including America and Germany, our sales went through the roof.
“Of course, it was claimed that we’d sold out, which made us smile wryly because we knew the reality,” he adds. “Andy Karp, who signed us, was a fan of ours for years and had wanted us since Lightbulb Sun. One of the first things we told the label was: ‘Look, you’re not even gonna have a say in what we do.’ And they agreed.”
Sales of 120,000 for In Absentia show that the wisdom of the arrangement has paid off. Even so, Wilson admits that he’d have laughed at anyone who, back in 1992, had suggested that, more than a decade down the line, Porcupine Tree would be one the verge of releasing their second major-label album – Deadwing was released on March 21 2005. “Each stage we reach is more unexpected than the last, but it keeps on rolling,” he smiles. “That said, we’re not ashamed that there were strong commercial possibilities for our last few records. And as the years go by we’re starting to realise that – as pretentious as it might sound – this music is becoming more and more needed as an alternative to what’s out there.”
Six years on from the Yes ‘incident’, a more media-savvy Wilson answers carefully when asked his opinion of Dream Theater, one of the few genuinely popular bands perceived to be driving progressive music onwards, and with any degree of integrity.
“Um... as people we like them a lot,” he offers eventually, before passing the question across to Barbieri, who responds more decisively: “I don’t like their music at all. It doesn’t do anything for me, unfortunately.”
Another thing that annoys Porcupine Tree is an audience’s judging of a song by duration alone: “It’s absurd,” Wilson huffs. “I recognise that long tracks can be a sign of ambition beyond the norm – or used to be so. Nowadays labels specialise in bands that record long tracks, so it’s no longer a novelty, more a sign of creative bankruptcy. Stringing lots of long sections that don’t belong together isn’t being weighty, it’s called being bereft of proper ideas.”
Deadwing doesn’t lack epic material like Arriving Somewhere But Not Here and the sprawling title cut, but the album is balanced by shorter tracks like the hauntingly spiritual Lazarus and several potential hits, with first single Shallow a prime example. It also includes guest appearances from King Crimson’s Adrian Belew and Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth.
Tree were, justifiably, full of confidence that Deadwing was their best album to date. They were almost (but not quite) as certain that Atlantic’s backing gave them a realistic chance of reaching the next level.
“It’s all about luck, and if that comes you’ve gotta be ready,” Barbieri says. “Perversely, radio play is also crucial. But we’ve now played in America and got a decent following, and Atlantic have the machinery. Something might happen.”
“This record is very ambitious, it might fluke and go through the roof,” Wilson offers. “It’s extremely demanding, but it exists for the fans and ourselves. Twenty-five per cent of me believes that Deadwing might infiltrate the mainstream, but such things really have nothing to do with the music, so we fully expect it to fail. We’re such miserable fuckers.”
Bonsai Tree: The Japan Connection
Admirably, Porcupine Tree haven't actively attempted to exploit the fact that their keyboard player Richard Barbieri was a co-founder of Japan, the influential glamsters turned art rockers. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“It’s actually been an irritant, not a selling point,” Barbieri insists. “We’ve even had clauses in gig contracts to prevent them from saying ‘ex-Japan’. But now the lines seem to be blurring. Porcupine Tree fans have gone back and belatedly appreciated Japan, so it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.”
Influenced by Bowie, Roxy Music and the New York Dolls, Japan were put together in 1974 by Barbieri, vocalist David Sylvian, guitarist Rob Dean, bassist Mick Karn and drummer Steve Jansen. Four years later their Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives albums brought them cult success, although with 1979’s Quiet Life the focus shifted from guitar to synthesisers, Karn’s mercurial fretless bass playing and the sultry vocals of pin-up Sylvian.
Japan reached their commercial peak with 1981’s _Tin __Drum_ album, but Sylvian set the cat among the pigeons by moving in with Karn’s girlfriend just as the single Ghosts – its sophistication incongruous with the group’s raunchier early work – hit the Top Five.
An abortive reunion attempt in 1991 saw them record again as Rain Tree Crow, and various ex-Japan members have since collaborated in solo capacities. But don’t hold your breath while waiting for them to try again. If it was going to happen, the most logical time would have been to promote last year’s catalogue revamp.
“We never thought quite as logically as that,” says Barbieri, whose own favourite Japan albums are Tin Drum and Quiet Life. “A full-blown reunion’s pretty unlikely, though various permutations will probably continue to work together. David and I are now talking again, and I’ve always been close to Mick and Steve. The bond between us has weakened as we found our own paths in life, but musically the chemistry’s still there. Personally, I’d be up for it any time.”
Branching out: A bluffer's guide to Porcupine Tree's side projects.
WHO? Steven Wilson and vocalist Tim Bowness.
STEVEN WILSON: "Self-indulgent, but it'll take you in the stratosphere."
CHECK OUT: Together We're Stranger (Snapper, 2003)
Visit the No-Man website for more
WHO? Steven Wilson and Israeli singer-songwriter Aviv Geffen.
WILSON: "Focused on the art of the pop song. Aviv and I have different perspectives on music, which is why it works."
CHECK OUT: Blackfield (Snapper, 2004)
Visit the Blackfield website for more
WHO? Steven Wilson and various collaborators
WILSON: "Long soundscapes; no melody, harmony or rhythm."
CHECK OUT: Ghosts On Magnetic Tape (Headphone Dust, 2004)
Visit the Bass Communion website for more
WHO? Steven Wilson and various collaborators
WILSON: "Weird, cosmic jazz, mixed with krautrock."
CHECK OUT: Arcadia Son (Headphone Dust, 2001)
Visit Steven Wilson's website for more
WHO? Porcupine Tree keyboard player
RICHARD BARBIERI: "My first solo album, Things Buried, focuses on lots of areas I've previously worked in.
CHECK OUT: Things Buried (richardbarbieri.net, 2004)
Visit Richard Barbieri's website for more
WHO? Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin, with saxophonist/flautist Geoff Leigh and drummer Vincent Salzfaas.
WILSON: "All about Colin's interest in ethnic instrumentation."
CHECK OUT: No Grey Matter (Hidden Art, 2000)
Visit the Ex-Wise Heads website for more
WHO? Porcupine Tree drummer, plus Barbieri, Mick Karn, Egg/Hatfield And The North's Dave Stewart, and Jakko Jakszyk
BARBIERI: "Unbelievable drummer, miserable bastard."
CHECK OUT: Sanity And Gravity (Resurgence, 1997)
Visit Gavin Harrison's website for more