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The Incidental Success of Porcupine Tree

Twenty years into the music scene and ten albums old, no other act outside of Radiohead has quite ridden the changing tide of the musical climate like PT and come out on top

Deepti Unni Feb 11, 2010
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10 years ago, Porcupine Tree were barely even a blip on the musical horizon of progressive rock fans in India. Back then, the band had just begun get noticed outside of the murky underground prog community for their breakthrough album Stupid Dream (1999) that was at once intellectual and accessible. A decade and five albums on, their music’s explored everything from death metal to Krautrock to Radiohead-style electronica, all of which finds resonance on their latest album, last year’s arty, bombastic 55-minute opus The Incident. The album outdid all expectations and sensibility to find itself a place on the Billboard charts catapulting the band into the near-mainstream, which seemed inexplicable for a band that in its 20-year career always found itself skirting the edges of fashion in the music scene. But what Porcupine Tree implicitly understood and invested in was the power of its growing fanbase and its success is a study in how literally taking music directly to the fans can pay off big time. Street teams, special packages ”“ the band ran the gamut of public options aided by their label Roadrunner Records and literally used their existing fans to bring in more fans. That is, partly, what enabled the band to release as self-indulgent an album as The Incident without trepidation. Now, after their first show in India, Porcupine Tree have just added another quarter of a million people to their expanding fanbase. Frontman Steven Wilson talks here about the ideas behind The Incident, using trains as a metaphor and his love for Israel.

You have admitted to The Incident being one of your most self-indulgent and epic albums. How did the idea for the record come about?

My initial kind of idea was that I wanted to create a continuous musical journey, in the sense that I wanted to create an unbroken sequence of music. Now this was something that I had an idea about long before I had any idea about what to write about lyrically or conceptually; I had no particular theme I wanted to write about. And that’s very different from the last album because Fear of a Blank Planet was a very concept driven, very lyrical album. It was hard to listen to the album without engaging with the lyrics at some level. I don’t think that’s true of The Incident.

I think The Incident is more spacious, it’s more about the music, and the story, if you like, is told in musical terms rather than lyrical terms. But, having said that there are lyrical themes going on in the album. The main idea behind the album came one evening when I was driving back home from the studio and I saw a sign above the road saying “Police Incident” and for whatever reason ”“ I’m not quite sure why to this day ”“ but on that particular day I began to dwell on this word “incident.”  It’s one of those words that really don’t tell you anything, it doesn’t really relate any information to you. A traffic sign had fallen over, or a small animal had crawled off the road, I mean it could have been anything [laughs]. But as it turned out, as I was moving through this traffic jam, I realised that this incident was a very very serious traffic accident; fatal, in fact.

And it made me start to think about the fact that very often language is used in a very kind of detached, dispassionate way to almost distance us from the reality or the horror of what it refers to. And I started to notice, specifically in the media, how very often this dispassionate language is used in order to almost absolve us of the need to feel any kind of emotional empathy for the events that are being related to us. A child abduction would be related to us as an incident, or a homicide, or even an earthquake or a tsunami, or something terrible that’s killed thousands of people will be related to us by the use of language in a very kind of detached way, such that we’re not expected to feel any real empathy with the people involved and that’s very interesting. I understand why we need to have that kind of language because we simply cannot have empathy for every horrific thing going on in the world, otherwise we’d all be emotionally wrecked. But at the same time there’s something quite twisted about that in the basic human psyche. What really brought it home to me was the fact that media are also capable of doing the complete opposite, and the best example I can give you of that is when Michael Jackson died.

Michael Jackson is a single pop star who, one might argue, hadn’t made a good record for a very very long time and even when he was in the news it was usually in a negative context. And yet, when he died, the media went hysterical! I don’t know what it was like in India, but it was absolutely hysterical. It was almost as if we, in the real world, were expected to feel like a member of our own family had died. It was ridiculous. And that to me was the complete opposite of the way they’ve used language like “the incident” to depersonalise things. They almost went in the opposite direction with that and tried to make it feel like this was some event of such incredible, grave tragedy that we should all enter some incredible wave of communal mourning for the death of a single pop star. I’m not trying to be callous, because I did feel sad about the death of Michael Jackson, I’m sure most people did, but at the same time there are other things. Possibly even in the same news bulletin that Michael Jackson’s death was being talked about there were probably much more tragic events but they were related to as incidental. And child abductions, rapes, homicides and earthquakes, these things you were not expected to feel anything about and I think there’s something a little bit twisted about that.

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So the idea for the lyrics kind of came”¦ I started to take these news stories that I felt was almost being brushed under the carpet in a way and I started to write songs about these events almost as a way to kind of put back some of the emotional empathy that I felt was missing from the way that I’d been presented the story. So I took a story about child abduction, I took a story about rape, I took a story about a religious cult, I took a story about a body being found in a river in America and I started to try and write in a more human way about those incidents. What was very interesting was that it very naturally led me to writing songs about my own life and about these so called incidents in my own life that had really changed the path of my life, sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in a negative way. It’s a fairly loose concept: The incidents range from incredibly autobiographical things to things that I literally just took from the media but the idea is the same. I think they’re all events or incidents with a very significant impact on the people involved.

Since this was your central idea, how did the rest of the band approach the album musically?

Well the rest of the band ”“ I would describe it this way ”“ they’re the proper musicians. I’m not really a great musician but they are. I think my role is to almost be the architect or the ideologist or philosopher of the band in the sense that I’m bringing the overall concept and overall idea for the sound and direction of the band and I think that tradition is fairly well established. Look at almost any band or certainly the classic bands that have had a kind of timeless quality and there’s always someone who’s kind of the captain of the ship and usually they’re not the necessarily the good musician, they’re usually the guys with the ideas and they kind of rely on the other people to flesh out their ideas and give them musicality. And that’s certainly the way Porcupine Tree works. The sound of the band is very much the personality of the four people involved. I don’t tell them what to play, I very much rely on them to respond to the songs, the structures and the ideas I’ve had and stamp their own personality [on it]. So Porcupine Tree is very much a combination of four different musical personalities and the sound of the band is very much defined by where those four people come to meet.

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Going back and doing a sort of retrospective, this has been, in many ways, the decade of Porcupine Tree. From relative obscurity you gained some serious underground momentum and more and more bands are now quoting you as an influence. What do you think were the most significant events of that last decade for you?

The most significant thing for me was really that the whole musical climate shifted from the beginning of the 21st century to where we are now ten years in. The shift has been huge and it’s very much gone in our favour. We’ve kind of always done what we’ve done ”“ we’ve always made this kind of album-oriented music, very epic, pretentious in a way I like, progressive, very arty. And at the dawn of the 21st century, that kind of music was still very very much considered to be unfashionable, unhip”¦

Although I think the process did begin to start with the release of OK Computer by Radiohead. There was a process that began with that album which has really reached a point now where ambitious music, experimental, album-oriented music began to be embraced again by the mainstream. And you have to really credit Radiohead with being the band that almost acted like a Trojan horse. They started out by being a fairly conventional indie band and managed to get very fashionable with the music press and the music media and then started to make this quite pretentious, quite progressive music and the music press embraced it before they realised quite what they were embracing. And I think that was important because from that point and certainly over the last 10 years we seen a band like Muse, for example, come through. Now Muse, I don’t know what they do here [in India] but they’re the biggest band in Europe right now. Arguably one of the biggest bands in the world and yet here’s a band that 10 years ago you could not even have imagined selling any records. Their music is very bombastic, pretentious and self-indulgent and yet they’re selling millions of records. I think that what we’re seeing ultimately is a re-embracing of the idea that you can be ambitious; you can be arty in a way that you could never have imagined when grunge music was fashionable or when DJ culture and hip-hop music was at its strongest. Those kinds of music really were killing ”“ not completely because there was a lot of ambition in some of those artists too ”“ really stifling ambitious rock music, I think. Grunge was very much about a return to basics, almost the punk rock aesthetic ”“ guitar-based drums, no solos, just passion, very simple ”“ it was kind of the opposite of what I, what we were doing at that time. So it’s great to see that shift gradually back in our favour.

Your albums, musically and lyrically, also seem to have become steadily darker over the decade. Is this a reflection of the times?

Well, I’m not sure. Lyrically, I feel the subject matter has always been fairly melancholic. I think possibly it’s become a little bit more angry. Certainly with Fear of a Blank Planet there was a sense of anger in that record. I think it’s partly just getting older and becoming more cynical. I think what you’re picking up on is that there’s been more of a sense of cynicism that’s coming which I think is inevitable. I mean, it’s hard not be cynical when I look and I see what is being presented to the younger generation now in terms of mainstream culture.

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But that’s also the same generation that’s embracing changing music, that’s helping to make your music fashionable again”¦

It is, and I think that’s really interesting that you have this kind of equal and opposite reaction every time. And rebellion and reaction is very important. So yes, you turn on the TV and you see constant stream of reality TV shows, so-called musicians that have been created by shows where it’s all a sham, it’s all basically fake and still that now seems to have become the mainstream. So it’s hard not be cynical but I think you’re right, young people are also rebelling against that. And I’m seeing it. We’re seeing a lot of kids at our shows that are starting to buy vinyl even. Buying a format that wasn’t even around when they were born, that was long dead before they were born. And yet they’re discovering it because they think it’s more organic and more special and they’re right, it is. I mean I grew up just at the end of the vinyl era, so I was buying records when I was a kid but I never thought I’d see the kids now buying it but they are! So that’s great.

There also seem to be recurring themes/metaphors in your music ”“ trains for one. What other themes find resonance in your music time and again and what is their significance?

Well, it’s funny, sometimes, you don’t even notice it yourself [until] people say to you. I didn’t realise trains were there so much until somebody said to me one day ”˜Why do you always write about trains?’ and I started to think about that and assimilate that fact and realise that it was because trains for me was almost like a gateway to my childhood and the memories of my childhood. And the reason it is so is because I grew up very close to a train station and trains very unconsciously became a part of my childhood. And so now it’s almost like that thing where, it’s like that Marcel Proust thing where something very insignificant can trigger off a whole stream of memories and for me it’s the sound of trains. And the sound of trains is almost like a trigger to all these memories about my childhood. Of course I never planned it that way. I could never have thought about in those terms and yet I began to realise that’s the reason because trains for me is almost like a metaphor for my childhood. This sense of innocence, naiveté, sentimentality about childhood, and the fact that I think when you’re a kid, it is the most special time of your life because everything is new but at the same time you don’t really appreciate it at the time. You can’t wait to grow up, to be an adult. But when you become an adult you realise that your childhood was the most special time of your life. So I think it’s almost that kind of nostalgic, retrospective, sentimentalised idea of childhood and it is because of that sense of realising that something is lost. So it’s this kind of bittersweet memory, the melancholia that goes with that sense of loss that you have for your childhood as you speed irreversibly towards your death.

All your curiosity tends to fade as you get older, but I”˜ve tried to hold on to that as much as I can because it’s so easy to lose. I see a lot of people I was growing up with when we were kids. I meet them again now, they’ve got families, they’ve got their house, they’re very comfortable in their situation. I’m very lucky the job I have still enables me to act like a kid. It’s true! Being a musician is almost a license to continue to act like a child. And you also get to travel: I get to come here, for example. Maybe I would never have had an opportunity to come here if I wasn’t a musician.

What would you have been if you hadn’t been a musician?

Well, I probably would still be doing what I did when I left school, which is I worked in the computer industry and I had a good job, you know. But, I became a musician and I began to see a lot more of the world and I began to appreciate a lot more about the world, good and bad, than I probably would ever have managed to see or experience otherwise. For example, seven years ago I went to Israel for the first time. I never would have gone to Israel probably ever! It was not on my list of places to go. Like a lot of people what I knew about Israel was what I saw on CNN. So, it was way down at the bottom of my list of places to go. But we got invited to do three shows there, we went there and I absolutely loved it. Not only did I love it, it changed me as a person in a way that I can’t really explain very well except to say that Israeli people are so different to English people. English people are very quiet, very reserved; Israeli people are very loud, very rude, and that was missing before. But you know that’s a great example. I would never have gone to Israel if I hadn’t been a musician. And now, I feel maybe India could be a similar kind of thing, you know. It’s a total different experience. It’s culture shock and I love that! And I look forward to those kind of things. Curiosity, that’s so undervalued as a human quality. You have it as a kid and you don’t even know it. You’re full of it, you’re overflowing with it.

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