Facebook exclusive interview of Porcupine Tree Songwriter and Musician Steven Wilson (April 28, 2010, Charlotte, North Carolina)
Interview conducted by: Brent Mital
SUMMARY: Steven Wilson talks about the contemporary music scene and the golden age of rock music; Porcupine Tree's U.S. and European fan base; the role of lyrics in music; the costs of touring; and the decision-making behind special packaging and limited edition releases of Porcupine Tree's musical output. Additionally, he opines about religion and how a past U.S. polygamist cult scandal influenced the Incident track of The Blind House. He touches on his upcoming solo album and discusses the role Mexico played in his past solo work Insurgentes. Stevenfurthermore converses about what he does during free time while on U.S. tour. He describes his fascination with cultures distinctly different from the English citing the Israeli, Japanese, and Mexican as examples. Without any paraphrasing, here's Steven Wilson in his own words. See for yourself!
The interview begins with Steven Wilson explaining the creation of his Facebook fan page.
SW: it's a fan page. So you don't have to....
B: Do you personally run it or...?
SW: Well, I do it when I can. It's not my MySpace page and the website. It's run by a friend of mine now. But I mean I kinda go in and have a look. He leaves anything that he thinks I should be interested in seeing he leaves it for me to read. Kind of, yeah.
B: Yeah. It's the new generation whether the people like it or not.
SW: That's it really. It's the best way to get information out there really.
B: Yeah it is. Alright, um. It's cool if we get started?
SW: Of course, yeah.
B: Alright. Well, first off, congratulations on the success of The Incident.
SW: Thank you.
B: Some songs on The Incident appear inspired by recent events surrounding polygamist cults in the U.S. How and why did you decide on this theme?
SW: (moans) Did I decide on it? I'm not sure I decided...You know... it's one of those things where you don't necessarily choose what you're going to be emotionally affected by and when I say emotionally affected by, I mean, you don't choose something's gonna make you angry something's gonna make you depressed, something's gonna make you happy. I don't choose what I'm gonna be angry about, but anything generally to do with organized religion really makes me really fuckin angry. Just because I think it's...well, firstly, I think it's religion generally speaking, organized religion and I'm not talking about people who for whom religion is some kind of comfort, you know, very quiet, law-abiding people for whom religion means something. Listen, I think they're living a lie, but, you know, OK, if it makes them happy, that's fine. But when I really get angry is when people with narcissistic, egotistical complexes, insecurity complexes use religion as a means to control other people either for their own personal sexual gratification or just because, you know, feelings of power, domination. And religious cults is for me the sickest of all, is the kind of, it's the pus at the top of the boil, you know, it's just so repellant. For me that and TV evangelists. They're the things, I mean....When I come to America I turn on the TV I see these TV evangelists it makes me so angry I switch it off after ten minutes. How can people be fooled by that? And yet they are and that's what's upsetting at the end of the day. And so I think there's two things which is the, firstly the whole nature of the person that would kind of create a cult like that, what would be their motivation, what would be their need to do so, what has damaged them to the extent that they would get to that stage where they would need to control people in such a way and be so disillusioned and insane basically and, on the other hand, the pathos you feel the empathy you feel for the people that are...sometimes there are people who are drawn into that situation and sometimes you think, well, it's their funeral if they're going to be that stupid, it's their own fault, but there are other people who are born into that situation and there was the particular evacuation out of ... I forget where it was now, it was a few years ago now, just about the time I was starting to write the album there was the incident...
SW: Texas. I think it was Texas. I think it was Texas, yeah. And there are all these young girls. There was these pictures on the news of these young girls being led out of the compound and they'd never been out of the compound, they'd never been out of their compound and there was this kind of bewildered look in their eyes, you know, and living inside this compound was all they'd ever known so it wasn't their fault at all. They were completely innocent victims. It wasn't through their own gullibility or stupidity or insecurity that they had been sucked into it. They were born into it and that was the saddest thing of all for me. So The Blind House came from really starting with just these pictures, which we kind of recreated for the booklet of these rows of people being, you know, being marched out by U.S. marshals and whatever and just they were looking into the camera they might not have ever seen a camera before. They were just looking at this thing wondering what the hell's that, looking into the camera and there's this kinda look in their eyes just kinda got to me. So, that was the start of that strand of The Incident, yeah.
B: Now switching over to your solo work, why did you choose Mexico as an influence for Insurgentes?
SW: Again, I really didn't ...it's not like I chose it. I'm a very curious person and I wanted to go somewhere that I didn't know much about. I wanted to go to a number of places and use the opportunity, use the process of making a record to learn a bit more about other countries too and Mexico was kinda one of the places at the top of my list because we'd been there very briefly to play a show in, I think, in 2007. Late in 2007 we'd been there to play a show just one show in Mexico City and I really liked what I saw. It made me... it piqued my curiosity and I wanted to go back and I realized I knew nothing about Mexico. I realized I knew nothing about the people, nothing about the culture, nothing about the geography, nothing about the politics, nothing about the crime. I knew nothing about it at all. And as opposed to somewhere like the United States where, you know, you come to the United States if you're a European and you come to the United States for the first time you kinda know a lot about it already just by virtue of watching movies, TV shows. But Mexico is somewhere I realized I didn't know much about and I decided let's just go and spend some time there and I ended up spending a lot more time there than I anticipated because I loved it. It was an amazing place and very strange in some ways. Some of the locations we found were like movie sets almost like the Island of the Dolls, an unbelievable place and, you know, I've said it before I'll say it again: that Island of the Dolls if that place was in America or in Europe you can bet your bottom dollar every fucking death metal band in the world would've shot their video there 'cuz it's that kind of place. But as it was because it was in Mexico no one, no one had filmed there, no one, you know, it's a tourist attraction, but a lesser known one and no one had filmed there, which I thought was extraordinary because it's like a cinema, it's like a movie set, it's like a set from a horror movie. Thousands of dolls strung up by their neck hanging from trees rotting away with insects or the elements and because it's Mexico we were able to just give the guy who runs this place like 500 pesos and we had the run of the place for a day. It was amazing! And that kept on happening, that kept on happening. We got access to locations and places that were really fuel for the imagination and inspiring places and I know that if I'd been doing that in America or in the UK there'd been so much red tape and politics and we'd never have got access to those kind of locations. And anyway I know all those...you know, in Mexico there were surprises. There are no surprises to be had in coming to America or to Europe any more for me. So I wanted to go to places. So we went to Mexico, we went to Japan, we went to Israel, we went to Scandinavia, places that are a bit more unknown to us. When I say us, I'm talking about me and the filmmaker, Lasse. So, places that are a bit more unknown, that we knew that more unpredictable things might happen and so it proved to be.
B: Do you have any plans for another solo album?
SW: Yeah. I'm doing it now. It's the next major thing for me. I've written about I'd say about 70% of it and it's going to be very different from the first one. Still very, very dark, very twisted, but lots of guest musicians, but yeah. It's my next major thing.
B: How do you view the current rock music scene in terms of inventiveness and talent in the U.S., Britain, and Europe?
SW: In the U.S.?
B: Britain and Europe.
SW: Oh, as a whole. As opposed to versus. (laughs). OK. How do I look at it? I mean I... It's very difficult for me. I still believe that the golden era for rock music was between 1967 and 1977, that the era between what you might call the birth of ambitious rock music with Sergeant Pepper and Pet Sounds and The Who Sell Out, the first sort of conceptual, progressive-whatever you want to call them- intellectual art rock albums, Are You Experienced?. You know, all those records that came out in 1967 and then Punk Rock coming along in '77 and kind of ending that. Now you've got that ten year period there. I don't think that will ever be bettered. I can't imagine that period in rock music ever being bettered, you know, because it was a period of exploration. There was still a lot of things that hadn't been done so there was a lot musicians could do in terms of uncharted territory, innovation, invention, experiment. What we have now in the 21st Century, we have a situation where everything's been done. Everything. From the most extreme Industrial noise music to the most minimal, ambient music, hybrids of Country and Rock and R&B and Death Metal. It's all been done. There is nothing you can think of. There is nothing. I mean I challenge you. There is nothing you can think of that has not been done. And if you can think of something that hasn't been done, there is probably a reason it hasn't been done. But now there's very little you can do now that hasn't been done. So, in that sense, the real excitement of rock music has gone probably forever. For another reason, which is that now also not only do we not have that excitement of innovation and experimentation, we no longer have the events of a release. Because of download culture there is no such thing anymore as the release date and when I was a kid, there was still that kind of excitement the day a new Led Zeppelin album or an by the Cure would come out. When I was young there was still this thing, you know, the release date, so there would be this massive amount of excitement leading up to the release of a new record by whoever it was The Cure or you know whoever it was and that's gone too now. Release dates are almost irrelevant because by the time an album is released everyone's heard it. So there's a sense that there's no longer that excitement about, there never will be that excitement about the release of a new Coldplay album as there was about the release of a Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin album in the '70's, for example, or a Beatles album. There never will be again. In some ways, you could argue that that's made rock music more democratic because now it's easier to make music than ever before. Music technology is cheaper than ever before. Almost anyone can invest in enough equipment to be able to make a fairly high quality recording in their home if they want. But, at the same time, does music get any better? I don't think so. I think, you know, there's more music than ever before, but there's more shit music than ever before. Go on My Space and there's three million bands on My Space. Three million bands! Who has the time to listen to any of them? No one. Three million bands, we don't listen to any of them because there's no time. So, it's so diffuse now that I think it's even harder if you do try and do something genuinely interesting, it's harder and harder to get through. Having said all that, which is quite negative, there's some great music around as there always has been right through the history of music. There's always great bands in every era. There's musicians that are prepared to do music that they believe in regardless of the consequences, commercial or otherwise. They don't care whether they sell records. They're doing the music because that's what they have to do and some of those bands do manage to break through, a band like Radiohead, for example, I'm a massive fan of, you know. I don't think Radiohead make music for any other reason than they want to make it. And they've been very fortunate to reach a massive audience. I can't say the same of most contemporary music, you know, but there's some great bands around, but I must admit I probably find myself still inspired most by the music of the past. I like the sound of '70's records. They just sound golden somehow.
B: How do you maintain yourself up-to-date regarding musical techniques, modes of playing different instruments, music trends, just practicing in general?
SW: Listening, I listen. I don't practice ever. I never practice cuz I'm not interested in being a musician. I'm interested in being a producer and a writer and I suppose that technique for me is irrelevant because I can call on musicians that have technique. If I can't do something, then I can call on someone that can. But the important thing is hearing in your head first. I hear things in my head and I hear sounds in my head and I want to create those sounds and a lot of that comes from just being, I think, being open to listening to not just music but to movies, to books, to life, to experience, to traveling, to knowledge. And I think you can very often with certain musicians you can hear from their music the listening diet is very narrow. And I hope that when you listen to any of the music I make you can hear that it is quite wide listening. I mean I listen to everything from death metal to jazz to classical music to minimalist music to industrial music. They're all kind of in there somewhere. Porcupine Tree is obviously a manifestation of my more progressive inclinations, but my solo album, for example, was much more influenced by the music I grew up with, which is bands like Joy Division and The Cure and XTC and I try to get a lot more of that in there. So I still think it's important to be open. Although I said in the last question I wasn't that inspired by a lot of modern music, I still listen to a lot of it and I still find things that do inspire me to try things, you know. We were at Coachella last week and there are some great, you know, some great bands, really good bands
B: Did you guys see Faith No More?
SW: I saw Faith No More. They were fantastic. Patton was fantastic. The band, the band was OK. I mean.... Patton was amazing. Yeah, but he's always been amazing. He's been amazing for 25 years now. I thought LCD Soundsystem were amazing, an amazing band. Muse were great, too. I'm not a big fan of Muse, but their live show was fantastic. Really good. So, you know, it's still quite exciting.
B: Some people tend to overanalyze lyrics, seeking esoteric meanings, intensely personal or highly subjective messages in them. Do you think this applies to Porcupine Tree lyrics? Why or why not?
SW: Um, I try to make the lyrics have some depth, yes. I mean I don't want the lyrics to be trivial. I want them to carry some weight in their own way. What I don't want is people to read them like poetry or something, but, at the same time, they have to be in service to the music. I can't stand it when you hear lyrics that have been obviously written before the music so crammed into the music. I write the music... I write the lyrics to fit the music, but, at the same time, I try to make them, at least, thoughtful and something that people can discuss and interpret and to raise certain issues, but they are by definition very personal, you know. I don't expect everyone to agree with my views on, you know, religion, media, and ipods and download culture and prescription drugs and modern culture and all that stuff, but a lot of people do, you know. And some people say to me, you know, "you hit the nail on the head there with that song" and " I really think that's great that someone said that" and "it's so true." And other people say, "I don't agree with you at all" and, I think, in that sense, lyrics are just a mirror, in the sense, that you're kind of holding up a mirror and you're allowing other people to look in the mirror and if they see any of themselves reflecting back at them, then that means you've kind of.... you've tapped a cord with them, you've kind of hit a nerve with them or whatever. Some people don't recognize anything of themselves in the mirror, but they still can, you know, relate to the music. I'm sure we have fans that are Christians and.....I know we do, you know. That's not something lyrically I think they could ever find sympathy with or I could, but musically they must love the music. So, I think that the bottom line for me is that lyrics have to be in service to the music, not the other way around, but there is still a lot of scope to make them, you know, have meaning and purpose and raise discussion and a lot of people do interpret them in different ways. Some people have come up to me and said, "Oh, I love that song, you know, it's about this and about that, isn't it?" and I'm like, "Well, noooooo," but you know what? It's one of the nice things about music and lyrics is that it requires a lot from the listener as well as from the person who creates it. Music is still very much a two way pact between listener and creator. It's not like a movie or a book. Movies and books, everything's there. You know what the characters are thinking. You know what they're doing. The plot's all laid out for you. It's a very passive thing. Going to see a movie is very passive. Reading a book is very passive in a way because "he thought this" and "he did that." Music is not like that. Music is something that has to be engaged with, I think. So, it's still..for me it's why it's still the superior art form. You wouldn't think it lookin' at the world we live in that music is... for me it's still the only art form, well, not the only art form, but, certainly in popular culture the art form which still has that kind of interaction between or can have that interaction between creator and listener.
B: In 2004 Gavin went back and re-recorded drums for Up the Downstair. Was there ever any consideration for doing it for On The Sunday of Life? Why didn't it happen?
SW: Right. I'll tell you exactly why. Up the Downstair was an album where I tried to make samples sound like real drums as distinct from the first album On The Sunday of Life, where I was using drum machines in a kind of more impressionistic way. What I mean by that is that when I did the first recordings On The Sunday of Life I was not trying to make the drum machines be anything other than machines. It's like if you listen to electronic music or Kraftwerk, they're not trying to make the electronic drums sound like real drums. So that I wasn't doing on the first album. So I was kind of deliberately making the drum machines sound almost like toys and machines and it kind of worked for the more psychedelic. When I got to Up the Downstair, I started to try and.... I still couldn't afford to employ a real drum or even go into a studio, so I still had to do everything at home myself. But I thought, well, this time I'm going to try to make the drums really sound like a real drummer played them. But you can't. You can't really do that. I mean you can spend hours, you can spend days and days, which I did. I spent days programming drum parts. It still sounds a bit fake. So, the first opportunity I had I wanted to go back and replace them with the real thing.
SW: Does that make sense?
B: Yes it does. Alright, this one is for the collectors out there. With a lot of Porcupine Tree and solo releases recently receiving special or limited edition treatment, the choice of what the edition contains and how limited it is does not please everyone. With that said, what is the decision-making on deciding what to include and how big the size is and do you play a part in that?
SW: Right. Yeah. You can blame me entirely really. I mean the thing is what I think a lot of people don't understand and I don 't blame them. I'm not surprised they don't understand cuz there's no reason why they should know this is that when you do special packaging, it's fucking expensive and, not only is it fucking expensive, but the more copies you do, the more cost effective it becomes. So, for example, we've just done a special edition of the new DVD. Now you have to kind of try and guess in a way because of what the demand is going to be in a way because it's very expensive. Each of these cloth bound books is costing like twenty dollars to make. Now when you add on all the other it costs, the cost of the Blu-Ray, the cost of the DVD, the cost of the disk, the cost of the author, and the cost of the filming of the DVD, authoring, mastering, it's a pretty big investment. So, when we decide to do the book, we go to a publishing company, a company that makes these things and we get some prices and they'll say, "If you make a thousand, they're gonna cost you 50 bucks each. If you make two thousand, it's gonna cost you 40 bucks each, If you make five....In other words, the more you make, the less your unit price is. But, at the same time, you can't go and make ten thousand because you might get stuck with five. So, it's always a bit of a guess. Now, sometimes I've got it right and sometimes I've got it wrong and, not only that, the pricing issue is also quite sensitive like, for example, on my solo album Insurgentes I ended up losing money in every copy I sold, sort of 30 something pounds I think and I made three thousand and they cost more than that to make. But I was worried. I thought, "No one's gonna buy this. Who's gonna buy this? No one's gonna buy this." And I was really worried. So, I thought, OK I'll price it really low and, hopefully, I'll get rid of them. And as it was, they went in about a week and I was left with the other problem which is people complaining now they were having to buy it for 200 dollars on EBay. So, you learn by your mistakes. This time we've done 5,000 copies of the DVD and it seems to have been about right. I think it's just about to sell out now. But, you know, they'll still end up on EBay. There's no way around that, unfortunately. The limited edition's thing is because of a passion really for beautiful packaging, but it's not feasible to make beautiful packaging a standard. We couldn't make the standard edition of Anesthetize a 50 dollar, 128 page, four disk hardback book. There's no way to make that a standard issue. So, inevitably, it's going to be limited. It has to be limited. It has to be limited for financial reasons, logistical reasons....So, then, it just comes down to guessing how many should we make. If you make too many, you lose too much money. If you make too few, you create a market for an eBayer. I can't say I've ever got it completely right, but, trust me, it's not easy! I know there's a lot of people out there saying, "Why don't they just keep it available as long as people want it?" The reason we don't keep it available as long as people want it is 'cuz to go back to the manufacturer now and say we want one of the 500 copies, 500 copies come into about 60 bucks new(?), we have to do another 5,000 to get that same price. Doing 5,000 clearly we gonna end up with 4,000 sitting there unsold. So, there's no real surefire way to get it right, but we're getting better. I think the Anesthetize DVD, we probably did about the right number, 5,000.
B: That's good. They're beautiful and I love them.
SW: And also, but there's people complaining that they didn't get a red one. We did a thousand red and four thousand gray and there's people saying, "Ohh, I didn't get a red one." "Well, get a gray one, then!" "No, I want a red one." The reason we didn't do four thousand red and four thousand gray is because I thought the gray looked much better, so we did more of them, you know, anyway. There's sometimes a mentality that, because it's rare, that's the one they have to have.
SW: The gray one is, in my opinion, the nicer one. Anyways, go on...
B: From your vantage point, do you notice a difference in the U.S. fan base in comparison to your British and European fans?
SW: Well, the U.S. audience I think tends to be a little bit older and a bit more male dominated. I think those things usually is because we get less mainstream exposure in the U.S. For example, when we go to Mexico, we're on the radio, we're on the TV in Mexico, we're in the newspaper. So, we get loads and loads of young kids, we get girls, boys, old hippies, you know. Here, I think our audience tends to be more male dominated because males tend to be.... the slightly older males tend to be the ones that are more passionate about discovering underground music, you know. So, it's a little bit more male, slightly old. I don't mean old, but I mean like twenties, thirties, as opposed to teenage kids which we do see in some other countries.
B: During your concert tours you keep a very demanding schedule. How do you maintain stamina, energy under these conditions?
SW: Ummm. That's a good question. Nothing particular. Nothing special. Nothing special. Don't, don't drink a lot. I have a glass of wine occasionally. Don't hang out a lot. You know, I try to get as much rest and space and just trying to take it easy really. Just trying to take it easy.
B: What do you like to do in your free time on tour in the U.S.?
SW: Watch movies, catch up with a lot of movies, catch up with a lot of music, you know. I use the opportunity to being on the bus for hours on end sometimes to catch up on a lot of movies that I haven't seen, which I've always......, you know, things that you must go and see that and then never get around to it when you're (inaudible- hired, on tour? ) and I kind of catch up on movies. Books, same with books. I don't get a lot of chance to read when I'm at home, but when I'm on tour, I read a lot more. So, that's a good way to use the time.
B: What's been your most memorable experience while on tour in the U.S.?
SW: On tour in the U.S.? Ummmm. I think it's coming. I think it's coming in September (2010). Radio City Music Hall, yeah. And that's gonna be a nice, memorable experience. We need to wrap it up.
B: You vacation a lot in Israel, what in particular has attracted you to that country?
SW: I think same answer to your first question about Mexico. I didn't know a lot about it. The people there are very passionate. They're all crazy in a good way. It's a small country. It's fascinating to me. In many ways, the more different people are to English, the more fascinating they are to me. I guess the Americans aren't so different ultimately to the English, but the Mexicans are, the Israelis are, the Japanese are. I find this fascinating. So, I kind of fell in love with the people and the way that their kind of personalities rubbed off on me. Israelis are very...they're very full on, they're very passionate. They're quite blunt. English people are, you know, ....It's a cliché, it's a cliché, 'cuz it's true....tend to be very polite, but they don't say what they think really, you know. If you're in a restaurant, you're having a shocking meal, the waiter comes up to you and says, "Is everything alright?" "Yes, it's fine, thanks." In Israel , they won't do that. They'll say, "No, it fucking sucks!" You know. And I like that, you know. So, that kind of honesty is something I really admire in the Israelis as well.
B: With that said, I know there's demand for Porcupine Tree in Central and South America. Is there a possibility of a tour to that area of the world?
SW: Well, I think that, it's something we've looked at a couple of times over the last couple of years and it's just a question of ...The one problem we have......it's not a problem, but it's the one logistical thing we have is that we aren't the kind of band that can just show up in a country and hire some gear locally. We have to have our own equipment and we have to have our films and our projections. And it's quite expensive to move the band around. So, we looked to this...actually, this Spring, we were looking to maybe start before we went to Mexico to start with five shows. I think we were going to do Argentina, Chile, Brazil, maybe Costa Rica I can't remember now. And, in the end, I think we just looked at the figures and it just was gonna lose too much money. Now we don't mind losing a bit of money. In fact, we've toured many times and lost money, but it was too much. It was like tens of thousands of dollars we would've lost. So, I think it's just a question of finding the right way to do it financially and the right offer from the right promoter.