Interviewed by David Felix
Questions by Carlos Rodrigues
Date: May 12th, 2005
So how has the tour been going so far?
The tour has only passed through Europe so far, we just start our U.S. tour tomorrow (05/13) in DC. The European leg was fantastic. I just talked to the record company today about this; trying to understand why in the last couple of years everything seems to have changed so much. We made ‘In Absentia’ and it was a real struggle just to get people to even listen. It seems like this time around there’s definitely been a shift - it’s almost like people really seem to need this music this time. We’ve really seen that reflected in the shows; all the shows were sold out, some of them got moved to bigger venues - pretty unexpected but it’s a nice problem to have.
That’s great, congratulations. I see that Robert Fripp is going to be opening for three of your California shows, does that have anything to do with the fact that Adrian Belew played on your last release?
Not really, no, Robert is represented by the same agent that we are, King Crimson’s booking agent, and it’s a pretty cool idea as far as I’m concerned. I’m a big fan of Robert, he’s one of my idols really. Adrian really came to us independently; he contacted our management media last year. He was a big fan, and wanted to work with the band. I don’t know, maybe those two guys had talked about us - wouldn’t surprise me if they had - but as far as I know there is no connection at all.
I heard you were having some trouble with your sinuses during the Polish leg of your tour, how are you feeling now, and has that affected your performances at all?
It certainly did affect a few performances. I have always had terrible problems with allergies and when I go on tour that’s exacerbated by the fact that: you’re sharing a bus with twelve other guys, one of you gets ill, then all of you tend to get ill, you’re going through very different kinds of climates from week to week, you’re singing for two hours every night, you’re inhaling smoke, etc… I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a terrible lifestyle, because it’s not - I enjoy it. It’s not the easiest lifestyle to maintain and maintain a healthy state as well because I suffer particularly from sinus problems. It can be a problem for me sometimes. Luckily I’m not the kind of singer who has to do stunt vocals every night. My vocal style is quite laid back anyway, but it does affect my performance and no one likes to play when they’re not feeling 100%.
How did you happen to start working with Opeth?
Well, I’d never heard of them until a French Journalist actually gave me a cd and said that he’d interviewed Michael (Ackerfeldt) from the band a couple of days earlier and Michael had said "Please give the cd to Steve, I’m a big fan". So that was my introduction to them. I get given a lot of cds when I’m on tour and usually they don’t particularly blow me away. But this one completely blew me away to the extent that I just dropped Michael a line an said “I was given your cd and I really love what you’re doing.” Then I got this e-mail back saying “Great! Because I’ve been trying to get in touch with you; we need you to produce our new record – we’re going in on Tuesday.” Luckily at the time I was available, so I ended up going in with them - having just met them - and making the record ‘Blackwater Park.’
I like to think, and I know some people agree, it really set a new precedent, a new kind of benchmark in producing extreme metal music. I think we really did something special there. We brought a new level of production – a depth to the production - that I don’t think we’re used to hearing in metal music; all the different textures and colors we put into the sound. So that was it really. We became very good friends. Sweet guys, great guys, amazing musicians, great songwriter, Michael is, and he returned the favor by playing guitar on ‘Deadwing’ as well.
Are you going to be working on other metal projects in the future?
Well, the funny thing is - since I did Opeth, I get invited probably once a week to work with a metal band of some variety. The problem I’ve got at the moment is that I’m so busy with my own stuff, which is kind of a nice problem to have because I really enjoy production. There are quite a few bands that I’ve been approached by that I would have loved to work with, but there aren’t many bands with the quality of Opeth - in my opinion. Once you’ve worked with Opeth, there’s only a few other bands that I feel are in that league. I think one day soon I’m going to have a little bit more time on my hands and I will be able to take the next step into that area – maybe even do something in that style myself.
You’ve worked with quite a few people of different genres, most recently with Adrian Belew (King Crimson, David Bowie) and Michael Ackerfeldt (Opeth) on the new album. If you could choose, who would you like most to collaborate with on a future project?
Oh, Man… that’s really tough. There’s another Swedish band I really love called Meshuggah. They’re another very extreme metal band and they’re probably the most accomplished musicians working in the genre… or working in rock music at all. Incredible, incredible standard of musicianship and incredibly heavy music. I’d love to work with them. I’d actually like to do a project with Michael from Opeth – the two of us writing together, I think that would be quite interesting.
Other than that… I’m not a big fan of the kind of ‘super group’ concept. I don’t believe, a lot of the time, that just getting together and working with your favorite musicians necessarily makes for great music. I think that what makes great music is having a band that really communicate well together, have a history together, have an understanding together and have practiced and developed over a period of years together. I think that just throwing together musicians that you want to work with is not always the best thing. So, I’ve always been kind of very ambivalent about that whole kind of thing.
Trent Reznor I really admire a lot for example – I guess I’d love to work with him sometime. Richard James, the Aphex Twin, I’d really love to work with him as well. There are a lot of filmmakers I’d love to do soundtracks for as well… that’s another area I’m very interest in - film.
Your first Lava Records release, 'In Absentia', sold rather well worldwide. Now that you’re releasing your second album on the label, do you feel they’re promoting the band well not only in Europe but in the US too?
Well, certainly in the US I’m pretty happy with what they’re doing. The thing is - on ‘In Absentia’ we did make some mistakes early on. The record company and the band both made some mistakes. This time around I think we got it right. We’ve identified now where the potential of the band’s audience is and I think this time it’s going to be a lot better – like radio, for example, and press has been better this time too. The first week’s sales put us into the Billboard 200 relatively high – #132; we didn’t chart at all last time.
So things have definitely stepped up a gear since the last record and I think there’s a general sense that the mistakes we made last time… because you have to understand that when Lava signed Porcupine Tree it was a very brave thing for them to do. For a label like that to sign a band: that essentially made albums not singles, that were all in their mid-thirties, that were a touring band, and that didn’t make ‘glossy’ MTV videos, that held dear a philosophy that was very popular in the seventies, and that kind of stuff… That was a very brave thing of them to do and ‘In Absentia’ was a tough first step. But having gone through that, it feels that with this record, there’s a momentum there this time - and that we got things right, we got some direction and that everyone’s moving in that direction.
You’ve worked on quite a few of your own side projects such as Blackfield, IEM, No-Man, and Bass Communion. Do you feel that if ‘Deadwing’ becomes a commercial success, you’ll feel more pressure to work on Porcupine Tree material and less so on your other projects?
You know what – I probably will be under more pressure, but I just don’t work like that. That’s not the way I work. And I think all the people around the band really understand that. Put it this way: When we signed to Lava, we would only sign to Lava on the understanding that there was going to be no interference in the artistic side of the band.
I think for the same reason people understand that PORCUPINE TREE records will come when we’re ready to make them. And we’re not going to respond to any kind of pressure to come out with radio songs or another piece of product next year or the year after even and that things come when they come. There is a sense that we’re not in the ‘entertainment’ industry – we are artists. It sounds very pretentious I know, but in that sense it’s true - that we’re ‘artists,’ we’re not ‘entertainers’. So we can’t be expected to perform like monkeys…
Also because we’re all a bit older, I think we’re all kind of a bit more realistic, a little bit more stoic, and laid back about our careers. We also have families - which are important to us as well. So we’re not the kind of people who are desperate for success at any odds and are going to go into the studio and ‘bash’ out product for the sake of maintaining something – whatever that may be. But I also believe at the same time that PORCUPINE TREE is not the kind of band the audience would drift away from over a two or three year period. I don’t think our audience is fickle. I think that once you get into the band… you know, the same way that artists Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush maintain their audience over literally decades of inactivity - Simply because they are so unique. I believe PORCUPINE TREE is that kind of band. That gives me the confidence to take my time coming out with more music. I want to be good, I don’t want to disappoint them.
Do you think that not being able to classify your music into a certain genre hurts your ability to promote the band and attract a new audience?
Oh, completely. I’ve always said it’s our greatest strength and our greatest weakness that we cannot be categorized. It’s a great strength that basically what we do will still be unique, in 100 years from now. People will still be listening to the records and saying ‘Wow, they really had something special’… But at the same time it’s a great weakness in a sense that it’s very hard to promote a music for which there is no existing market or existing demographic. There are no magazines that specialize in writing about what we do. There are no radio stations that specialize in playing the kind of music that we play. We have connections into all sorts of different pies.
If you’re a heavy metal band for example – If you form a generic heavy metal band tomorrow, the day after tomorrow you can be in a hundred different generic metal magazines; you can be on a hundred different generic metal stations. PORCUPINE TREE didn’t play any specific kind of music from day one, we just played PORCUPINE TREE music. And because we didn’t fit into any genre or category or existing demographic or market – we had to build our audience literally from the very first person on. We didn’t suddenly arrive with a ready made audience of 20,000 people who would buy any record made in a heavy metal style for example.
So, that one of the reasons it’s taken us twelve years to get even to this stage. It’s been really tough from time to time, but I do believe that ultimately, if we do make it big into the mainstream, we can be very happy that we’ve done it on our own terms and that the audience is not going to be fickle and is not going to drift away because there’s no one else that sounds like us.
I’ve read that your current tour is being sponsored by Panasonic and that you’ll be using state-of-the-art audio & video projections. Does that mean you’re doing surround sound in smaller venues?
Not this tour… We’re actually going to experiment with surround sound on the next American tour. I think it was one too many things for us this time around. We do have a lot of multimedia aspects to the show and the sound is very important to us too. We have actually done a surround sound mix of this record which I’m very happy with. But in terms of actually presenting a live surround sound experience, I think that’s something we’re going to look at probably over this summer.
It’s going to take a lot of planning. I don’t want it to be rushed – I want it to be right; I want it to work. A lot of bands have tried this in the past and given up on it, so we’re not under any illusions – it’s not going to be easy. They’re (Panasonic) very keen, we’re very keen... and I believe later in the year we certainly will present some special shows of that nature.
You sold out just about all your shows in Germany a few weeks ago, how do you think playing in the US compares to touring in Europe?
Well, all the US shows are pretty much sold out as well too, so we’re very pleased about that. To be honest I think sometime the difference between countries is overstated. I don’t believe there is a great difference in a band’s potential for appearing in Germany and a band’s potential for appearing in America.
There are people who love classic, sophisticated, album oriented rock music all over the world. We’re definitely seeing an upswing in interest and need for this kind of music all over the world. The world gets to be a smaller place everyday with the internet now and media, I think pretty much people can be aware musically in other countries almost immediately. PORCUPINE TREE, really over the last four or five years, has built a following by continuing to make good quality albums – particularly in presenting these multimedia live shows. Which, I think, people really go away and tell their friends about and that’s been a real difference for us.
We may have played shows to 300 people in Germany three years ago, but when we did the tour this year, those 300 people came back - but they also brought three friends each with them and they all got into the band in the mean time. Again, that’s why it’s taken us so long to build a following up – because it has been a lot of word-of-mouth as opposed to hype and media attention. Ultimately, again… I think that’s the best way to build a following; it’s the most organic way to build a following. I think that’s going to happen in America as well. It seems to be happening already.
I hear that you play barefoot on stage, that’s pretty unique… how did you first start doing that?
To be honest, even as a little kid I’ve always had a problem wearing shoes and I’ve always gone around with bare feet. There was no great plan; there was no great statement I was trying to make. I just carried on playing the guitar with bare feet as well. To the extent that, when I actually had to go up on stage and play for real, it was very uncomfortable for me to be wearing shoes… it just didn’t feel right. So in my entire career, I think I’ve only ever done one or two shows where I had to wear shoes for whatever reason. But that’s it. There’s no great story behind it… I’ve always been sort of a hippy you know (laughs)…
Do you ever worry about stepping on something or have something falling on them?
All the time… and I have. I mean, I’ve stepped on nails, screws, drawing pins, stubbed my toe, I’ve come off stage with blood just coming out… I mean, I’ve had it all mate, but to be honest, nothing’s going to stop me.
When you’re in the US, to you guys get a chance to do some sightseeing or is it just mainly traveling from venue to venue?
It depends… we have days off occasionally, but unfortunately, Sod’s Law is that whenever you have a day off it’s somewhere where there’s just nothing to see. I’ve traveled a lot to New York anyway, so I’ve done the tourist thing in New York, but as it goes to the rest of America - no. It’s still pretty much an undiscovered territory for me. One day I’m just going to take a month off and travel around.
What bands do you listen to when you have time and what album is currently your favorite?
Oh man, I listen to so many different kinds of things. One day I can be listening to a Carpenters album and the next day I can be listening to Slayer. It’s very hard for me to say. Right now… I really love the new Secret Machines album. I love the MIA album, the Sri Lankan rapper girl. The new album by Autecha – the UK electronic guys. The new Meshuggah album. There’s a few.
Do read reviews about your music and does that have any influence over your creative process?
I try not to read reviews either good or bad, because ultimately, it’s very hard to disassociate yourself completely from what other people are saying about you. At the same time, I try as hard as I can to make the records in a vacuum and not really pay any attention to what critics, or the fans, or the record company, or anybody telling us what we should or should not do. It is hard so I try to avoid it as much as I can.
Is there anything you’d like to tell people who never heard of Porcupine Tree?
Well, I think anybody that is interested in albums as opposed to singles, anyone that is interested in the idea of an album as a musical journey – a movie for the ears… Something a bit different. It’s almost a fusion of everything that’s going on. Porcupine Tree music can encompass anything from Death Metal to ambient to psychedelia… occasionally even sort of proto trip hop. If people are open to music that is sort of cross-genre, then I think PORCUPINE TREE is going to hold something special for them. I hope so.
Thank you very much Steven for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us and we wish you the best of luck!
Rock Eyez Review of 'Deadwing' by Porcupine Tree.
Editor's Note: The pictures were taken at a Porcupine Tree signing at Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ on May 14th, 2005. Steven Wilson and John Wesley (part of PT's touring band) were in attendance signing memorabilia for their fans. Rock Eyez would like to thank Steven and John for allowing us to take those pictures.