Since the 1989 release of On the Sunday of Life, Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson has seen his band grow to become one of the most respected and equally intriguing bands of the modern rock era.
Along with sold-out shows across the world, a Grammy nomination for the 2007 album Fear of a Blank Planet and a string of successful side projects, Wilson’s reputation as one of the strongest creative forces in modern music is virtually indisputable.
In what has been described as “a compelling album that’s diverse and full of drama”, Porcupine Tree’s 10th studio album The Incident is a 55 minute ‘song cycle’ that explores feelings of love, affliction, jubilation and fear.
In an interview with Reverb magazine’s Lilen Pautasso, Wilson took the time to reveal how The Incident is not only some of the band’s most original work, but an album that led him to many personal discoveries.
Hello Steven, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Let’s get right into talking about your latest album. You’ve previously described The Incident as being an exploration of how the word ‘incident’ can be a very detached and mechanical word for what is, in most cases, a very traumatic experience. What is it about this concept that appealed to you?
I think for me it’s a further reflection of the distance these days between the world around us and reality and this sense of alienation we all feel from this incredible information overload that we have. The whole thing about The Incident and the use of the word ‘incident’ or other words of a similar nature is to kind of give us a license to detach ourselves from the horrific things and dramatic things that are going on around us all the time. The thing is, I totally understand why the media should do that because if we had to feel some kind of emotional response to all the horrible things going on in the world we’d all be emotional wrecks but at the same time there is something fundamentally twisted about that, about the fact that we can detach ourselves from seemingly very serious and very traumatic events and at the same time apparently feel such emotional unity over the death of a pop star. It’s almost like the media expects those kinds of moments. It’s what I call the Princess Diana effect – somebody who possibly hasn’t had any real influence or impact in your life, once they die there’s almost this encouragement to feel this incredible wave of sadness and mourning and emotional empathy – as we saw with Michael Jackson. But at the same time there are incidents on the news every day that are far more serious and effecting far more lives in far more traumatic and dramatic ways that we don’t have any kind of empathy or emotional resonance with at all. And I think that’s the fundamental human nature I’m trying to get to the core of by exploring these things.
You’ve described The Incident as a darker, expansive and more experimental album. What is it about this album that separates it from other Porcupine Tree albums, particularly those that have also dealt with darker themes?
This obviously is an album that has…two aspects – it has an aspect which is extremely autobiographical, possibly the most autobiographical stuff I’ve ever written. That part isn’t particularly dark, it’s quite sentimental in some ways [because] it’s talking about my childhood and the incidents that affected my life. Then at the same time there is this other side which is talking about extremely dark things that have absolutely nothing to do with my life and in that sense I have the same detachment from them as I do watching the news. But, at the same time, I have tried to put back some of that emotional resonance by perhaps fictionalising the background and the details of these stories and trying to get to the core of these things, things that ordinarily I would flip over on the TV or the Internet. So I’m writing about things like homicides and religious cults and child abductions and these are all quite disturbing subjects, and obviously Porcupine Tree have a fairly dark and melancholic sound anyway, but these are things that actually have a certain sickness at the core of them so to write about them and try and put them across in an emotional way can be quite disturbing for me as a writer and as a listener too.
So would you say that you’re trying to, despite the fact that you’re dealing with dark themes, trying to find a balance by including anecdotal experiences into the songwriting?
Well I think so, it wasn’t a conscious thing but there was definitely a feeling that while I was writing this music I needed, in a way, to write something that had more of a personal, autobiographical element to it in order to bring some light into my life and the lives of people listening to the record. So it’s not relentlessly dark. You know, there are parallels between the incidents in my life and the incidents I’m writing about, some of the things in my life that have changed the path of my life and the way I think certainly have to do with the darker side of things – people always say to me ‘your songs are very dark, your music is always kind of very negative’. And I don’t have any particularly traumatic things in my life that I can draw upon for those experiences, I’m lucky I’ve always had a fairly comfortable and happy life but at the same time, for some reason I’ve always been attracted and drawn to the darker more twisted sides of life, and I suppose starting to write in a more autobiographical sense was to try to get to the bottom of why that should be. Is it because my life was happy that I was always looking for the other side of life or is there something more fundamental in my psyche and personality? I’m not quite sure. So, writing about these autobiographical things was to try and make sense of that in a way.
The album features songs that transcend through heavy riffs, acoustic interludes and electronic sound scapes. How do such contrasting sounds contribute to the overall concept of the album?
Well I think that is Porcupine Tree. When people are looking for a way to somehow analyse what Porcupine Tree do that is different and is special and what gives us our sound, it all comes really back to that, that idea of fusing together musical elements that perhaps haven’t been fused together by anyone else, certainly in recent years. It is very much a reflection, a natural reflection, of the music that I listen to, the music I love and its not something very self-conscious I don’t sit down at the beginning of a project and say wouldn’t it be great this time if we had 25% metal and 10% electronic and 30% pop and I don’t do that, I mean the music just naturally comes out in that way and it is a very natural reaction to my own musical diet. I love all different kinds of music everything from death metal, to ABBA I can listen to in the same day and I doesn’t seem strange to me to listen [to music] in that way. I think it’s mainly people outside that consider the kind of musical combination, if you like, to be quite unusual. To me it doesn’t seem unusual, and I think that’s partly a reflection of the fact that, I’m not expected to be this way but it’s certainly different that my musical taste is incredibly diverse. I don’t see any difference between listening to pop music or death metal or jazz music or classical music or ambient music. To me there is only one kind of music, there is music I like and music I don’t like. Or there is good music and there is bad music, and I’m never really thinking in terms of genre or being generic, and I think that’s what comes through most in the music and that in a way is what gives the band its strong identity.
Let’s talk about the structure of the album. If all songs within the song cycle deal with different events, why the decision to put them together in a single 55 minute track that is supposed to be listened to as a whole?
Because I love this idea of the musical journey. For me, the best analogy I can give is if you’re a writer, then you can write short stories but you can really do something special with a long form novel that you can not do with a short story, and that is you can take the listener or the reader on a journey through different emotions, different textures, you can really get to know the characters, you can get to develop the plot or a longer period of time, such that when you get to the end of that novel you really feel like you’ve been on some kind of emotional journey and you’ve learned something. That’s more difficult to so in a short story [because] short stories are a very different discipline. And it’s the same with film, you know, short films as opposed to a long form feature length movie. There is something you can achieve over a longer period of time with those various chapters or scenes or songs or parts of a longer piece that I think can really give people a better insight into the human condition than, [more so] than just these little short stories or short pieces of music. And all of the albums I’ve made with Porcupine Tree and with my other projects have always been very much structured to give this idea of musical journey, or kind of taking the listener [and] telling them a story through music and taking them through these different textures and ideas and feeling and emotions, so that by the end of it they really feel that they have arrived somewhere. And so I think maybe the idea of weaving all these various incidents altogether, autobiographical, fact and fiction, into one long stream of music is to try and give that almost cinematic sweep, that idea of cinematic narrative or the narrative that you would get from a novel. A fairly strange surreal one admittedly but still that’s the kind of scale I’m looking for.
You’ve expressed that each song tries to humanise the detached media reportage of the incident at hand. How does the new album achieve this?
Well really by putting myself in the first person. So for example, the first song you hear on the record is called The Blind House and this was inspired by a story I saw a couple of years ago about a religious cult in Texas where most of the members of the religious cult were teenage girls. They had never ever been outside of the compound and they were finally being evacuated into the “real world” whilst well into their teens. And I just found this to be an extraordinary, affecting story because what kind of an experience that must be to go into the world that we know having never been out of this religious compound. And I put myself in the position of one of the people in that compound and wrote from the perspective of that person and also from the perspective of the person running the religious cult and their kind of, perverse motives for doing this. And let’s make no mistake, they were extremely perverse motives. So, in a lot of sense it’s taking a story you might hear as a very detached, impartial third party [report] and actually writing a song about it from the perspective of the character. Of course that becomes very much a flight of fiction because I’m taking the facts and I’m adding my own, sort of, ideas and imaginations to that situation to create something that is, hopefully, believable, but at the same time humanises or gives back some of that emotional resonance to that situation.
You’ve described the song Time Flies as the ‘centrepiece’ of the album. Why does this song stand out more so than the others?
Well, that song really became the centrepiece of the long cycle in the sense that it falls almost halfway between, but most importantly it’s the most autobiographical song and possibly the most autobiographical song I’ve ever written. I think there was a sense of, like I alluded to before, of having so many of these third party situations and a layout of all this negative energy in a way…I felt like I wanted to write something that was almost the opposite to be the centre of the record, something that was very much about my childhood, about my rather romantic feelings about the past, about growing up, about the time I was born, about the place I was brought up in, about the first music I ever heard. And it became a very sentimental, almost romantic song about my own past. I think it is simultaneously the centre of the record and, in a way it’s like a piece of relief in the centre of the record because spiralling out from the centre of the record are all these fairly negative things. So, what you have at the core of the record is something with a lot of positive energy, something quite nostalgic and something quite sentimental, but at the same time still is, for me, a very significant part of The Incident because the incidents in my life have shaped me as a person and made me the kind of person I am, made me like the kind of music I like, all those things, so it’s like an oasis in this desert of negativity and horror in a way and it somehow seems to work. When you get to that point in the record and you hear those lines “I was born in ’67, the year of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘Are You Experienced’” it’s almost like coming into the light after all this darkness. It wasn’t planned that way but it just seems to work so well in this respect.
Let’s talk about a song which is actually a bit more of a contrast and that’s the very electronic and industrial sounding title track The Incident. This song represents possibly the biggest leap from the more recognised sounds of Porcupine Tree. What drove you to creating a song that is so drastically different to other Porcupine Tree material?
Well, that’s interesting because that was really the first piece that kicked off the whole ‘incident’ idea and it was at a time when I’d written about 30 minutes of music but I didn’t have any lyrics or themes going at all and I was driving home one evening and I saw this word ‘incident’…on the street saying ‘slow down, police incident’. After I saw the word I started to ponder, for whatever reason, about what ‘incident’ actually means in this context and I realised it was a very dispassionate, detached word and that it was referring to something very horrific which was a fatal car accident in that case. And I had a very poetic moment; I kind of felt a sudden presence of the people that had died in the car accident and in contrast to this very dispassionate word ‘incident’ and that set me of on this trail of looking for the word ‘incident’ in other media stories and how it’s used to frame these things in various dispassionate ways. The electronic side of things, again it wasn’t very conscious, preconceived or planned really, but it had something to do with the situation, the scenario, the feeling which was very dark and ghostly and a bit creepy. But also, I’ll say it again, the music I listen to often comes out in a very natural, organic way I’m not necessarily planning for things to be a particular way. I’m a big fan of electronic and industrial music, always have been, and I guess it doesn’t come out so often in the work but occasionally it does and again it’s purely out of a passion for that kind of music. And I never think to myself ‘maybe it’s a bit weird to try and bring this particular musical style into Porcupine Tree’…I always just think ‘this is right for the song, this is the way I feel, this is what I want to do today’ and somehow, I guess it’s a question of doing it with enough conviction and personality, that is all somehow seems to fit together in the end.
The Incident isn’t the first Porcupine Tree album to revolve around a concept. Voyage 34 followed an LSD trip and Fear of a Blank Planet dealt with a youth’s destructive alienation. Why choose to write another concept album? Is this just the same as what you alluded to before that it’s a natural, subconscious thing?
I think it’s just my preference. As I said before, I love this idea of the novel and the feature movie…The thing is there are truly hundreds of bands out there right now that are writing 10 songs and putting them on a record. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I guess I’ve always been more interested in doing something a little more ambitious and pretentious and self-indulgent…because then I haven’t just been doing that tried and tested thing with pop songs where you just throw things together, I prefer conceptual work but on a big scale, I always have, I love those big gestures. And I suppose it’s one of those things that make Porcupine Tree special and different. As you say, there is a conceptual theme running through most of the albums and I believe it’s one of the things that make us different to other things and that’s got to be a good thing!
Absolutely Steven, well it’s been an immense pleasure speaking with you. One final question, are there any plans for Porcupine Tree to tour Australia soon?
Yes we’re coming at the end of January or beginning of February. It hasn’t been confirmed yet but that’s the plan.
Thanks Steven, good luck with the new album!
Thank you very much, goodbye now!
© Lilen Pautasso.
Interview held on 27th August, 2009 by Lilen Pautasso. Steven Wilson features courtesy of Roadrunner Records Australia.