Interview: Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson

Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson at work in the studio
Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson at work in the studio

Grammy-nominated UK progressive rockers Porcupine Tree recently ended their long tour in support of the band's 2009 LP The Incident in fine style, playing their biggest UK headline show to date at the Royal Albert Hall.

Just a few hours before stage time, we caught up with Porcupine Tree mainman Steven Wilson to find out what's next for the band, discuss drummer Gavin Harrison's recent placing at number three in Rhythm magazine's Greatest Drummer Of The Last 25 Years poll, and find out what Wilson regards as must-hear albums for people looking to broaden their musical horizons.

You must be excited about the Royal Albert Hall show tonight... Should fans expect any special guests or surprises, or will you approach it like any other Porcupine Tree show?

Steven Wilson: "Well, neither in a way. We're not having any special guests. The show is all about the band really. We didn't want to turn it into a sort of 'lovey' fest, you know, bringing out guests and stuff. But what we did want to do is surprise people with the selection of material, so we're playing a lot of music that we have never played - or that we have certainly not played for 10 years or more.

"I think that Porcupine Tree are one of those bands that people discover - new fans discover us with every album and they tend to go back and explore this extensive back catalogue, so they do get to hear a lot of music that we - for many years - haven't played. So I think the idea with this special show and the one we did in New York a few weeks ago was to go back and pull out a lot of material from the early, early days that perhaps people would never expect that they would get to hear us play live.

"So it's certainly not 'another show' for us, apart from the fact it's a London show so all our friends and family will come too so that always makes it a little bit more special. And a little bit more stressful 'cause you know the one show you don't wanna trip over your guitar lead or fall flat on your face or break a string is when you're playing in front of all your friends and family. So there's that extra level anyway, but also the fact that we're playing all of this music that almost seems like a lifetime ago in a way.

"We were playing this stuff in the '90s in small clubs sometimes to 20, 30 people so it's kind of surreal to be playing it in front of four or five thousand people. That music's never been in heard in that context before. And I'm happy to say it it does work; it fills the space. In a way I was thinking in terms of 'stadium rock' (laughs) even when I was playing to 10 people. The music was always kind of designed, in a way, to be big and epic."

Have you witnessed any classic Royal Albert Hall performances as a member of the audience?

"I haven't seen a lot of bands here. I came to see Opeth here as a guest which was a fantastic night. They did something very similar to us - they stole our idea (laughs) - no we stole theirs, Noo I think we both came up with the same kind of idea at the same time (laughs) anyway, but apart from that, I think I've seen Dave Gilmour play here which was amazing also, and I don't think I'd ever been here before that.

"I think it's one of those places that I've probably driven past a million times and never actually seen a show here. It's only the Gilmour show and the Opeth show I've seen here so far. Of course you see it on TV all the time but that's not what it looks like…"

Gavin Harrison was recently voted the third greatest drummer of the last 25 years by Rhythm Magazine readers, what is he like to work with?

"Gavin's amazing. Gavin's the musician of the band, in the sense that none of us are really what you'd call… none of us are technically... I mean, I don't even know the names of the chords I play, you know, so it's a very intuitive kind of approach to music and it's more about for me, you write the song, and then you do what's needed for the song.

"Gavin's whole thing is the about the craft of being a musician and how can he find new ways to approach the art of playing drums in a rock band which is a very established, and some might say, very kind of generic form, so he's always about breaking those patterns. Quite literally.

"Joey Jordison is not better than Gavin, I'm sorry. I'm sure he's a good drummer but he's not better."

"That's very inspiring because I write songs with a kind of 'dang dong dang' standard kind of beat and Gavin comes in and says, 'Well how about if we displace this and try this?', and then suddenly the music shifts into a more interesting area and I love that because I'm all about trying to avoid being generic, and he is too, so we kind of really bond on that level.

"He's also an extraordinary technician. His timing is perfect and it really makes you raise your own game to another level; it's not enough to just to go on stage and play sloppy rock 'n' roll guitar. You've gotta be on the case; pretty on the nail with timing and everything. But you know that whole thing about Gavin being voted... he's better than the guys that were above him there's no question, but it's all about fan power.

"Joey Jordison is not better than Gavin, I'm sorry. I'm sure he's a good drummer but he's not better…Those polls are kind of silly in a way. I mean Gavin would be the first person to tell you there's people who have got hardly any votes in those polls that are better than him and that he looks up to. People like Steve Gadd, you know. Those competitions are sort of popularity contest. Who has the most fans on Facebook? No surprise it was Joey Jordison."

You recently played some dates with Oceansize, we're big fans of that band on MusicRadar, do you think they went down well with Porcupine Tree fans?

"They do go down very well with Porcupine Tree fans. It's funny, I was having this conversation with Mike, the singer, and they've been out and opened for Faith No More and Coheed & Cambria and they've gone down quite badly with those fans.

"I think Porcupine Tree fans, because of the style of music and the fact that the audience tends to be a little bit older... it's more about people who are just very open minded about music. And they are music lovers. And I'm not suggesting that people who go and see Faith No More and Coheed & Cambria are not music lovers too but certainly i think the Porcupine Tree audience are more open minded to what you might call, more experimental music; more about songs that go through clever time signatures and songs which ramble on a bit and go through different moods and textures and that idea that the music is a kind of musical journey which they definitely have.

"I'm not sure that your average Faith No More fan would respond well to that. But our fans really dig them a lot. They've been out with us two or three times and they keep coming back and I think the reason they keep coming back is because they make new fans every time they come and play with us. And in some ways that's the biggest thrill of all for me to know that we can introduce music that I love, that we love - and I'm a huge Oceansize fan - to new people and to our fans, I mean they're super nice guys, it's always a pleasure to tour with those guys."

What's next for you and the band? Will you be spending time on new projects such as the reported collaboration with Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)?

"Yes, I've got three new records all in various states of progress at the moment. The first one is a new solo record which is a very diverse, eclectic record. I've got lots of guest musicians on the CD, everything from death metal to almost… film music to huge, long prog rock things, industrial all mixed up you know; it's sort of a users' guide to all of my different styles.

"It's a very experimental record, it's going to blow a few minds."

"Then I have the next record with my project Blackfield which is a collaboration with an Israeli musician/songwriter, and then the third record is the one with Mikael, which is finally in progress after 10 years of talking about it. We finally got down to it in March. There's no time pressure in that sense because it's not like anyone's working to a deadline on this record. You know we've been talking about it for 10 years so we're going to take our time and make sure it's exactly what we want it to be.

"It's a very experimental record, it's going to blow a few minds. It's not what people expect. There's no metal on it, it's not orchestral. [There are] very experimental, long pieces of music... almost theatrical in a way, it's something we're both very excited about we're both very proud of what we've done so far. So yeah, the next year for me is really about studio work, and then maybe get together with the 'Tree again this time next year start thinking about the next stage, the next level."

Finally, as a fan of experimental progressive music, what are the must-hear records for anyone looking to broaden their musical horizons?

"That's a really big question. I mean, I'm still discovering records now, that I've never heard before, that are blowing my mind and y'know are just kind of, expanding my musical horizons, the thing about progressive music is that progressive, unfortunately, like a lot of things, has become a kind of capsule for a certain blueprint. A certain type of music. And that's not really what progressive music was about.

"Progressive music, in the original sort of wave of, late '60s early '70s, was about the kind of bands that had the same idea as the kind The Beatles started with albums like Sgt Pepper, The Beach Boys started with Pet Sounds; this idea that the album could be more than just ten pop songs. That it could have own sense of flow, sense of dynamics and it could be greater than sum of its parts; it could be like a musical journey.

"There are many records like that both within, and outside of, the progressive genre. I think the progressive bands that I think are very important to listen too are King Crimson, Pink Floyd, those were my two favourites. But as I say, there are many other albums outside of the immediate prog genre that I think are just as important if you want to listen too an interesting span.

"Everything from Captain Beefheart to Frank Zappa to Scott Walker to those classic Beach Boys and Beatles records, even to bands like ABBA! If you listen to ABBA's music from the '70s, if you wanna understand about how to produce great records, great pop songs, write great pop songs, listen to ABBA. They're amazing. No really! For me it's like the mechanics of writing great pop music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, ABBA. And Mikael from Opeth is a huge ABBA fan too, and we kind of bond on that.

"I think people are surprised by that and they kind of smirk when you say it and I'm not joking (laughs). These guys, yes, they wrote cheesy pop music compared to say, the serious music of Frank Zappa and King Crimson, but they did it at the very highest level and you can learn a lot from listening. And I think you can always tell, and it irritates me, but I think you can always tell when a band have a very limited listening diet.

"There's nothing duller than a band that have chosen to read the blueprint and have stuck to it."

"It kind of gets boring for me quite quickly if they just listen to death metal all day or they just listen to hip-hop all day. What's nice is when you hear a band and you think, 'Fuck knows what they listen to!' (laughs) I like bands that really confront your expectations and that really comes from having an interesting listening diet, and not just listening to prog rock. I think people think we just listen to Yes and Genesis records all day. Yes, there was a time when I was a kid and you know I did completely immerse myself in that world but I haven't really listened to that music a lot over the past 20 years and that's what you hear when you listen to Porcupine Tree.

"You hear those death metal riffs and those industrial rhythms and those pop songs and those harmony vocals and those ambient sections because I don't just listen to prog rock and I think it's great - I think it's very important - I think everyone should listen to some classic progressive records - some Crimson records, some Floyd records, maybe some of the early Yes records - those are extraordinary records and they were records that were really reaching for something... reaching for the stars, y'know?

"Unfortunately British music has a tendency to make fun of those bands for overreaching themselves, and being pretentious and pompous, which is ironic when you go and see Muse, but anyway... (laughs) And I love Muse, by the way, but I mean that's a band that are reaching for the stars too and they're getting there some of the time and that's when music becomes exciting, when you get musicians that are almost, overreaching because there's nothing duller than a band that are just happy to play by the rules, for me. There's nothing duller than a band that have chosen to read the blueprint and have stuck to it. I wanna see bands that are reaching beyond, even what they think they're capable of, and that's what's really important."

Special thanks to Roadrunner UK

Chris Vinnicombe worked with us here on the MusicRadar team from the site's initial launch way back in 2007, and also contributed to Guitarist magazine as Features Editor until 2014, as well as Total Guitar magazine, amongst others. These days he can be found at Gibson Guitars, where he is editor-in-chief.