Shadows and light
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson isn’t content with the status quo that tells us to shelve the darker sides of our personas in the wake of recent tragedies that continue to grip the world. His approach is to embrace the melancholic as catharsis and use it to propel his artistry forward. That thinking permeates In Absentia, the British act’s latest studio album. Its songs explore the psyche of society’s fringe elements, situated within thunderous metal riffs, complex melodies, multi-part vocal harmonies and ambient atmospheres. It’s the most direct and in-your-face record the group has released to date.
Porcupine Tree began in 1987 as a home studio solo project for Wilson, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, vocalist and producer. Over the course of the next 17 years, Wilson transformed it into a renowned, full-fledged group that also features ex-Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison. The band went on to release a plethora of albums, EPs and singles that explore its psychedelic, experimental and progressive leanings both independently and through smaller labels such as Snapper and Delerium. A worldwide cult following latched on to the group, causing major labels to take notice. In 2001, the band signed a deal with Lava, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records.
Since In Absentia’s release through Lava in 2002, the band’s fan base has grown exponentially. Many high-profile musicians have also taken notice, including King Crimson guitarist and vocalist Adrian Belew, a contributor to the forthcoming Porcupine Tree record.
“Porcupine tree represents an interesting combination of several things that I like,” said Belew. “It’s a little bit like King Crimson, Tool and Trent Reznor, English-style, but not the same as any of those things. Steven has a real strong vision of what he wants to do and it has a certain kind of power that’s really great. His voice is also very fetching. It’s unique and fits in very well with what he’s doing. Musically, what I really like about the band is they do a lot of odd time things that you don’t notice so much—they’re just in there. They fit together so well that they slide right past your ears, which is something some bands never attempt and when they do, it’s very obvious. Porcupine Tree also has really good players and the songs are really cool. I like everything about it. It’s just good stuff, custom-made for me. Steven has given me free reign and just guided me here and there and said things like ‘Play something strangely beautiful in this 17/8 area.’ It’s been a lot of fun.”
In addition to Porcupine Tree, Wilson is well-known for No-Man, his ongoing collaboration with singer-songwriter Tim Bowness. The duo explores the perimeters of the rock and pop world, infusing them with far-flung influences including neo-classical, jazz, dub and techno. However, No-Man's latest release, 2003’s Together We’re Stranger, is its most stripped-down yet. It’s a quiet, meditative record that occupies the other end of In Absentia’s sonic spectrum.
Wilson is also involved in a myriad of other collaborations. Blackfield, another duo Wilson formed with Israeli musician Aviv Geffen, has just released its self-titled debut record. It’s an album of concise, elegant, melodic rock that should hold a lot of interest for Porcupine Tree fans. Other projects Wilson has in the works include ongoing recording for Bass Communion, his ambient, electronic solo persona, and IEM [Incredible Expanding Mindfuck], his Krautrock and “cosmic jazz” endeavor. If all of this wasn’t enough, Wilson continues to serve as a producer for the likes of Anja Garbarek, Opeth and Theo Travis.
Innerviews began its conversation with Wilson by exploring Porcupine Tree’s move to the major label ranks.
Great things were anticipated for the U.S. release of In Absentia. Did it work out to your satisfaction?
I don’t think you can anticipate or predict anything in America. I don’t know if I had any particular expectations either. I’m in my 30s now and have been in the music industry on and off for 13 years, so I’m kind of cynical, but in a healthy way. Some might call that being realistic. You take each thing as it comes and expect nothing. It’s with that attitude that we entered into the major label scenario in America. I suspect if we had been 18-year-old kids we would have expected to have sold a million copies and be on top of the world. However, because we’ve all been around the block a few times, we expected things would improve, but didn’t really know how. Things have definitely stepped up. The record has sold in the region of three times what any previous record has. It’s done about 100,000 copies worldwide which is a lot more than we’ve done in the past. In terms of North America, we’ve gone literally from selling 2,000 copies to 45,000, so that’s a big step up. In Europe, sales have improved as well, but less so, because it’s been our primary touring and sales market previously. In terms of percentages, we’ve increased massively in America and significantly elsewhere.
At the same time, there’s a lot of resistance from certain parts of the industry that is stopping us from getting to a much higher level. I’m talking about radio and the media in America. We’re just beginning to make an impact on radio. “Blackest Eyes” got added to various major rock stations. We don’t really know how these things work. It’s been a real learning experience. It’s funny, in Europe, if a record hasn’t been a hit by the end of the first month of release, you can basically move on. It seems in America, you can still be working a record almost a year later. So, things are progressing and things are beginning to happen. With this record, it’s been a war of attrition for us.
A few years ago, you told me you had little interest in working with a major label. What changed your mind?
Finding the right label. To put this in perspective, every time we demoed a new record, pretty much from Signify in 1995 and beyond, we would do the rounds of labels—majors and independents alike. There was always a flurry of interest, particularly around the time of Lightbulb Sun. The band had a proven underground following and sales and we were being recognized as a strong live act. So, there was interest, but there was always a sense that the labels didn’t get it or weren’t expecting much of the band. So, what we really felt was if there was ever a scenario in which the band signs to a major label, it would have to be a “grade one” record deal in which they were really putting their money where their mouth was and giving us the resources to make a record that was expected to sell, with ambitions to hit a million copies, otherwise, there didn’t seem to be any point.
There was no point in signing to a label where we were the small fish in the big pond. With Porcupine Tree, every label we’ve worked with has made us a priority act. We couldn’t envisage a situation in which we’d be a major priority for a major label until we met Andy Karp [Senior Vice President of A&R] at Lava Records. He not only got the band and wanted to sign us, but he was a fan, actively buying our records since the mid-‘90s. He totally got it and was prepared to really give us the finances and marketing resources that major labels are capable of giving. He was committed to backing the band over a longer period of time. That’s really important. We have a long-term deal with Lava. They’re not going to drop us because In Absentia didn’t sell a million records. In other words, they recognize that we’re an album band and not necessarily a singles band.
When you and I spoke last time, I arrived at the conclusion that there was no major label that was suitable for Porcupine Tree and I’m happy to have been proven wrong. I think the other thing is the climate changed between 2000 and 2002. There was a significant change in the way major labels think. I think the downloading thing made them reconsider the short-term philosophy they’d pursued for the previous 20 years. In other words, you sign a band, have one big hit album and single and move on. The success of bands like Radiohead and Tool having number one albums without releasing singles has definitely shifted the spotlight slightly in the direction of a band like Porcupine Tree. Lava wasn’t the only label that wanted to sign us. There was competition going on in the American major label scene which was extraordinary and surreal for me at the age of 34. To get that kind of interest was very strange.
Your last experience with a major label was when Sony distributed No-Man in America. How is working with Lava different?
Yes, we were signed to Sony through One Little Indian, even though One Little Indian was still very much an independent label. At the time, they weren’t a company of the magnitude of the Time-Warner organization. Their financial resources were very limited in that they had to justify every penny spent. During the time No-Man was on One Little Indian, Tim [Bowness] and I traveled to America to meet the people from Sony around the time they were issuing the Loveblows and Lovecries album. The difference couldn’t be more dramatic. It’s down to being a small fish in a big pond as opposed to being a big fish in a big pond. I can’t emphasize enough the difference in being a priority act as opposed to just being one of a group of small acts that have been picked up in a job lot from an independent U.K. label. We had a guy who was supposed to be our contact at Sony, but we would never have got to meet the head of the label to discuss A&R, marketing or press policy. Having a good relationship with the various parts of a major label makes a major difference when you feel they are behind you. Lava are motivated and genuinely liked In Absentia. In contrast, there was probably one guy at Sony who even heard the No-Man record when it was released and that was very depressing. It was one of the reasons I got put off the major label thing for the next 10 years.
Are you surprised that in America, a large percentage of Porcupine Tree’s audience has turned out to be metal fans?
We seem to be picking up a lot more fans from that area, yeah. I think the fact that I collaborated with Opeth made a difference in that respect. It doesn’t surprise me because the band has, over the past three or four records, moved closer to a harder and heavier sound. I feel every record is a step forward and an evolution from the previous record in some respect. The major innovation on In Absentia is the fact that there’s some real metal and riffing aspects to it. So, it doesn’t surprise me that metal fans are interested in America, a place where rock music has never really gone away. In England, rock music comes back for a time every 10 years and then disappears again. The last time it was fashionable was the Nirvana era and it’s been wall-to-wall DJ culture since. In America, like in Germany, there is always an appetite for good quality rock music.
I was at the San Francisco show last year which was full of death-metal fans in goth outfits and make-up. I felt like an alien pod person amongst them.
I love a lot of the music they listen to. I’ve always loved metal music, particularly extreme metal music in the last few years, so I don’t feel like an alien pod person amongst them. [laughs] There are a lot more younger people, but the old fans are coming too. Maybe they aren’t as vocal in San Francisco as the young kids. What I find is if you have an audience that’s 20 percent metal kids and 80 percent music-loving, slightly older people, you can guarantee the 20 percent of metal kids will make it seem like they’re the only people there. [laughs] They tend to come to the front and make the most noise. We did shows on the last tour where we really felt like we were playing only to metal kids, but then you get to the end of the show and meet some of the fans and it appears to be more of a mixture. I think the older Porcupine Tree fans that come from the mid-‘90s tend to be quietly sitting on the sides or in the balcony.
In Absentia dealt with subject matter that explored your curiosity with the criminal, fringe elements of society. Perhaps that attracted the metal fans as well.
A lot of people ask me about the serial killer aspect of In Absentia and it’s there. I’ve admitted it, but I always stress that I’m not so interested in what these people do. What they do and have done is really the stock-in-trade of death metal, heavy metal and satanic bands. The one thing I felt had not been explored was what creates these kinds of people. What happens in their youth or adolescence that creates people unable to empathize and related to other people in the way the rest of us do?
“Futile,” one of the tracks from the forthcoming album’s sessions, recently appeared on a promo sampler specifically aimed at metal radio. Tell me why you took that approach so far ahead of the new album’s release.
What happened is we started working on material for the next record and one of the songs that came out was a very heavy piece called “Futile.” It’s probably the heaviest thing we’ve ever done. At the same time, Lava wanted to target metal radio. One of the problems Lava has with Porcupine Tree has nothing to do with the quality of the music or appeal of the music. Rather, it’s the eclecticism of the music. How do you market a band that one minute is playing metal, the next minute is playing trip-hop and the next minute is playing progressive rock? One of the solutions we’ve come up with is to put together samplers that target different aspects of the band’s sound to different radio formats. In America, you have this ridiculous radio format thing in which only certain kinds of music will be played on certain types of radio stations.
So, Lava have put together a sampler that focuses on the band’s metal side for metal radio. I don’t have a problem with this because at the end of the day, if it makes someone go out and buy the record, hopefully they’ll sit down and listen and think maybe it’s not exactly what they’re expecting, but get the whole picture of it and still like it. In terms of “Futile,” Andy Karp heard it and said they’re putting together this metal radio sampler and that it would be a great track to include on it, especially since it’s exclusive and not commercially available. He thought it might get the radio stations even more behind it. So, we finished it way ahead of the next album’s other material, put it on and it seemed to do pretty well. It was the number two rock song in New York at one point. Whatever helps, you know?
I understand the upcoming album is based on a film script you’ve co-written.
Yeah, it’s going in a very different lyrical direction to In Absentia. I wrote the film script with my friend in 2002. He’s a film director from America named Mike Bennion. He’s one of my best friends and makes commercials and short films. One thing he’d never done is make a full-length feature, so in 2001, we set out to try and write something he would want to film. That’s just the first stage. Next, you have to shop it around and try to find the financing to shoot it. I thought it was a good experience for me, because it’s a different artistic discipline to sit down and write a film script and try to create a narrative that works in that medium. We spent two years working on it. I would describe it as a very surreal ghost story. So far, the people that have read it have been impressed. I felt like if there was an album to go with it, there would be more of a chance of the movie getting made. So, I’ve started to base the new songs on it. I don’t want to create a concept album to tell the story of the film, but I felt there were certain episodes in the movie that lent themselves to being worked into songs as well. The script is called Lullabye. The album may or may not be called that.
Musically speaking, how does the album compare to In Absentia?
The album is more cohesive I would say. The metal element has now become more a part of the fabric of the music and the extremes of In Absentia will be more united on the new record. I'm very happy with the new music. I think it is again an improvement and advance on all our previous work. There are also some much longer pieces this time, as well as some very strong shorter pieces—perhaps it’s that Aviv Geffen influence rubbing off on me. This time we have way too much good music for a single record and I think it's going to be tough to leave songs off.
You once said you find it easier to write negative songs than ones that deal with happiness. Is that a bona fide dilemma or simply a preference?
It’s just what comes naturally for me. People ask me all the time “Your songs are so melancholic and depressing. Is that what you’re like as a person?” The answer is no. I’m not really like that at all. Because the songs are cathartic, they get the negative aspects out of my personality. I’ve always felt drawn to more negative and melancholic music since I was a kid. I’ve asked myself why that should be. If you come back to the metal world, you find so much of that music is very black and deals with the dark side of life, yet kids are so drawn to it. I think that’s because melancholic music is very uplifting. Why? Because it’s a shared experience. In contrast, I find music that is artificially happy or very joyful to be very depressing. [laughs] I can’t relate to that music. Life, most of the time, isn’t a particularly joyful thing. That’s not to say it’s a very depressing thing either. Ninety-five percent of life is simply existing. It’s the rare moments of joy or negativity that throw everything else into relief. Those are the things that almost make life worth living. So, I’ve always found melancholic and dark music to be the most moving and beautiful because it makes you aware there are other people in the world who have shared experiences. I can’t find any other rational explanation for that. Most people are drawn to sad music. Ballads are the all time classics for some people, whether it’s “Stairway to Heaven” or “I’m Not in Love.” It’s always the ballads that last for decades and decades and stand the test of time.
The perception is, for all intents and purposes, Porcupine Tree remains a solo project for you in that your vision and direction drive it.
Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a solo project. I think there’s this myth that in some respects the band is just me and whoever I choose to work with. If you look at every major band in history, you can say in almost every case that there’s someone who filled my role, whether it was Pete Townsend in The Who, Peter Hammil in Van Der Graaf Generator or Robert Fripp in King Crimson. You wouldn’t say those bands were their solo projects. Yes, I write most of the material for the band and produce the records, so in that respect, I consider myself to be the captain of the ship. I’m making sure it’s steering in the direction I want it to steer in, but in all other respects, the band is very much a democracy. We all make decisions about what goes on the record, how it sounds and where and when we go on tour. I don’t have that situation with any of my other projects, except for No-Man, where Tim is my partner. For me, a true solo project is one in which I’m truly only answerable to myself and that only holds for Bass Communion and IEM. I have to tell you, there are many things Porcupine Tree have done, recorded and released that I personally would have done differently had it been my solo project. That’s what part of being in a band is about. Sometimes you make compromises for the good of the band. You get outvoted on things and sometimes you realize you were outvoted for a good reason and other times you feel that if they’d taken your opinion, it would have been better.
So, you don’t have ultimate veto power?
If I did, they’d all leave. [laughs] It’s as simple as that. If I simply said “No, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to do it my way and I don’t care what you say” I don’t think they would be in the band. You have to accept sometimes that you can’t do what you want all the time. There are other opinions and sometimes they are valid. So, I don’t have final veto, except perhaps when we’re in the studio and producing the record. If somebody comes up with an idea or sound that I don’t think works, I would ultimately reach some compromise. But if I felt it really didn’t work, I probably would have ultimate veto there. I tell you, I’ve written songs that have been voted off the records that I really felt were some of the best I’ve written. There are a couple of songs that I wrote for In Absentia which for whatever reason the band didn’t like, so they didn’t get recorded. If it was a solo project, that would never have happened. I accept those things because there are a lot of positive things about having a democratic process.
A DVD-Audio version of In Absentia was just released. Describe the opportunity remixing the album in 5.1 provided and your take on the emerging high-resolution audio realm.
I was less interested in the higher resolution—as it's really only a minority of people than can actually hear the difference or have a system that is capable of revealing the difference—than I was in the opportunity to mix into surround. It's a medium perfectly suited to Porcupine Tree's music, which has many layers to the production that stereo really cannot do justice to. For example, being able to position the multi-part harmony vocals and some of Richard Barbieri's electronic sounds and textures all around the listener means that the music really does open out in a three-dimensional way. Once you hear something in 5.1, it really does render the stereo mix rather flat and uninspiring, especially with a band like Porcupine Tree. I'm happy to say that the 5.1 mix of In Absentia does seem to be becoming a benchmark of sorts for surround DVD-Audio, as I hoped it would. We put a tremendous amount of time and effort into getting it right, whereas most surround mixes are done as an afterthought without even the artist being involved much of the time.
You’ve compared the process of making Peter Gabriel’s Up to In Absentia as being the difference between an overlabored approach and production trickery versus sheer hard work and determination. Was there anything you could identify with in terms of Gabriel’s difficulty in birthing his record?
Not really, no. I can’t relate to that way of working because I’ve never taken more than a year to make a record. You might be quite entitled to say I’ve never made a record as good as Peter Gabriel though. [laughs] I don’t feel that’s true. I think In Absentia is a superior record to Up. I’m usually very objective about these things in the sense that I’m quite happy to admit that some of my past records are not as good as they should have been and that there were lots of records out at the same time that were much better. But I’ve heard Up and I feel it’s an overworked, overwrought record that doesn’t have a center. It does not hang together. The songs have been swamped in complexities of arrangement and there is no perspective. It just feels like he wrote the songs and spent so long working on them that the songs, which are ultimately the most important thing, got somehow lost, ignored and forgotten about. I think that’s a problem when you spend 10 years making a record or however long it took.
When you have a song, you have to create a sound world for it and give it the best possible context. When it becomes the other way around, in which the song is secondary to the production and the process of recording itself, I think you lose a lot of your artistry and I feel that’s true with Up. With In Absentia, we had the songs and we went in and recorded them very quickly and very well, I think. We didn’t lose perspective on what we were trying to do. We didn’t lose the shape of the album, the power of the hooks and the songs themselves. Up just collapses under the weight of its own overwroughted-ness.
Do you ever encounter moments of total blockage or indecision?
I have periods when I can’t come up with any new material at all. Everyone does. I feel like “Okay, that’s it, I’ve written my last song. I can’t find anything new. I can’t write anything without repeating what’s gone before.” I always encounter that sometime during every album cycle. There’s always a period when I feel I’ve got nothing left to say. Every time so far, touch wood, I’ve proved myself wrong. I’ve been able to wait it out or tap into some new inspiration that’s restarted the creative process. Yes, I’ve been in a situation where there are certain songs or recordings in the studio that no matter what you do with them, they don’t seem to sound right. You find yourself going in a vicious circle of scrapping what you’ve done before and starting again with a completely different approach. Then you start thinking “Well, maybe we can use a bit of that arrangement, a bit of this arrangement and a bit of another arrangement.” Then you start working in patchwork form. When that situation arises, it can be a trap. In my experience, you kind of say “It’s not working. None of these things are quite right” and you scrap it and move on.
I’ve got friends that have been working on the same songs literally for 15 years. What happens is they wrote these songs 15 years ago and have spent months and months trying to find the ultimate arrangement for them. By the time they’re done, the whole music scene has moved on and there’s some new fashion or sound, so their songs are out of date. They then try to recreate the songs in a more contemporary context and they’re always behind. So, five years ago, they’d be trying to recreate songs again in a trip-hop style. Again, the problem with that is they’re missing the point of the songs themselves in trying to make them contemporary.
I think there is one time No-Man fell into this trap. It was during the Wild Opera era in which we were enamored with the trip-hop scene. We started writing, for the first time in our career since Loveblows and Lovecries, in a generic way. We started to be influenced by what was happening around us and that may or may not be a good thing. For No-Man, it’s a bad thing. I think it’s better we exist outside of fashion and what’s happening in the music scene. Of course, by the time Wild Opera came out, the whole scene had passed and played itself out. I think that’s the problem with people like Peter Gabriel who spend 10 years making a record with so many different things in there. It just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s just me. I don’t know.
You’ve served as a producer for several artists. How would you assess your effectiveness in that role?
I don’t imagine I would ever be a good producer for somebody who came to me and said “We have this band and want you to make a hit record for them.” But if someone comes to me and says “I want to make an album. I like what you do and I want you to come and do what you do,” that always seems to work. That’s what Opeth and Anja [Garbarek] did. They just wanted me to be myself and do what I do anyway, which is come along and respond to the music in the way I would respond to my own songs. Typically, if you want to be a proper producer, you have to be able to work with all sorts of artists from different genres and adapt yourself to their sound and their expectations, as well as those of the record company. I’ve never done a project where I’ve had to do that. I just work with people who want me to do what I do anyway. So, in that respect, I’m not as versatile as a full-time producer. I only do things I really love anyway. I couldn’t sustain a career as a producer. There aren’t that many bands I like. [laughs]
How do you look back at the making of Garbarek’s Smiling and Waving record?
That was a very interesting experience for me. She was signed to BMG and at the time I was introduced to her, she had been working on the record for about 10 years with about 10 different producers by that point. She’d been in the studio with some very big names, including Chris Hughes and Mark Hollis from Talk Talk. It had never worked out. The reason is because no-one was letting her be herself. No-one was letting her realize the material in the way she wanted. For me, being a producer, that’s exactly what you should be trying to do. You should let the artist bring out what they want in the music and help them realize that in the purest form. BMG had been hooking her up with all these producers, trying to turn her into a Bjork, or in the worst case, a Celine Dion, which is absurd. She had a set of very quirky, very unique, semi-orchestral, semi-jazz pieces of pop music.
When I heard her demos, I said “Look Anja, these are fantastic. What do you want me to do?” She said “I just want someone to tell me that I’m doing the right thing in the studio and to let me do it.” In a sense, all there was to do was help give her the confidence that she’s going down the right road and tell the people around her “Let her do this. This is fantastic.” In the process, she got away from BMG and signed to Virgin, who were much more supportive. It became an easier process from then on. Musically, I added various electronic treatments and some more strange things, but pretty much, she had a very strong vision for that record. I think she felt part of the initial problem was she was a girl and had all these guys around her telling her she should do this and that. To have her producer say “No, just fucking let her do what she wants to do” is what she really needed. I’m really proud of that record. It’s really unique and beautiful. I can take very little credit for it.
You were considering working with an orchestra a couple of years ago. What became of that?
I got waylaid by my interest in metal. [laughs] I went in the opposite direction. I have cycles. I find there are certain periods when I’m interested in certain kinds of music. At this time, I am interested in very aggressive music, notwithstanding the No-Man album, which is not very aggressive. If I’m left up to my own devices, I’m leaning towards the more aggressive side of my musical personality. I know there will come a time again when I’m interested in textural music and working with quieter musical forces.
Do you have the chops to direct an orchestra?
I don’t have any musical training, so it would be a very intuitive thing. These days, it’s very easy because of the technology available. It’s possible to work out an orchestral arrangement in a purely musical way by just picking out notes on a keyboard, playing them into a computer and then having the computer print the music out for you. So, it’s not as if you have to know how to read or write music or even be aware of how to score music for orchestras. I have friends who know how, so I can go to them. In fact, on the last three albums, I’ve worked with orchestral arrangers and I’ve been involved in that process as well. They’ve handled the scores and arrangements because they know how to do that. I don’t know how to do that and I don’t really have any great interest to learn either.
Are you entirely self-taught?
Pretty much. My parents sent me to piano lessons as a kid and I hated it. [laughs] I kind of forgot about it all. I guess there was something left from that when I finally decided to be a musician. I’ve never been interested in being a musician. I’ve been interested in making records. There is a very strong distinction there. A musician is someone who will sit down and play their instrument out of pleasure for hours at a time. I don’t. I never, ever, ever pick up an instrument unless I’m writing or recording. I have no pleasure in playing the guitar or keyboards or anything. I have pleasure in writing and recording music.
Can you read music?
No. I don’t even know the names of the chords. My manager, who is a guitar player, constantly has to tell me what chords I’m playing. He finds it very amusing.
Tim once played me some very different versions of the No-Man tracks that ended up on Together We’re Stranger. I was surprised at how much more stripped down the final mixes were.
It was a very gradual, organic process. I kept taking things away and it kept sounding better. It just seemed right to keep removing things. There’s something about the simplicity of the arrangements and the space in them. Everything we tried to add seemed to detract from it. In the end, the mixes were very minimal and very beautiful. There’s a kind of spirituality in the music that comes from the simplicity. It’s very strange for me because I’m used to working on records where there’s incredible complexity in the production and lots of overdubbing and things to work into the mix. This was the complete opposite for me.
There were a lot of people that played on the record that were probably horrified when they heard the final mix. [laughs] We actually only used tiny amounts of what they’ve done. I remember reading an interview with Mark Hollis at the time Talk Talk had released Laughing Stock. He was talking about how they employed a huge, whole string section and worked with them for about a week. After the string section had left, at huge expense, they kept only one sound—the sound of the cello player dropping his bow on the wooden floor of the studio. [laughs] I always found that quite amusing. Part of the process of making a record is in a sense, disappearing up blind alleys and coming back, realizing you’ve spent the last two weeks on something you’re now quite happy to just hit the button and erase. You realize it doesn’t add anything.
In a way, all of this comes back to Peter Gabriel’s situation. Sometimes, you have to have the perspective to work on something for a long time and realize what you did in the first minutes of conceiving the song still sounds better than what you’ve got after two months of working on it. Tim and I found that very often we’d come up with something with just guitar, voice and keyboard texture and it would be almost instantaneous. In 10 minutes, we’d have something we could work on. We’d have various people come in and play on it. We’d collaborate on rhythmic ideas, song ideas and solos. Then we’d look at each other after a month and say “You know what? It was better when we did it in that first 10 minutes.” We’d then erase everything we’d been working on for the previous month. You have to have the ability to press a button and erase all of that work, blood, sweat and tears. Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking to do, but sometimes you feel cleansed and purified by removing these unnecessary or superfluous things.
Are you ever hesitant to tell the people who contributed to the work that you’ve erased them from the final mix?
People have got kind of upset, yeah. I’ve never fallen out with anyone over it, but there have been a few awkward moments. At the end of the day, you have to be true to the record and yourself, and make the record the best way you can. The guy that did all the rhythm stuff on the record was completely erased from the record. Ultimately, he still loves the record and feels it’s the right decision too, but of course, he put a lot of work and effort into it. This happens all the time.
What inspired you to pursue the Blackfield collaboration with Aviv Geffen?
First and foremost, we became friends when Porcupine Tree played shows in Israel in 2000. Although we are very different as people, we nevertheless share a lot of the same influences and a strong belief that music really was richer in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—something that is the foundation of the Blackfield production and sound. Also, I became very impressed with Aviv's ability to come up with music that had class and quality within the three minute pop song format—something I have always found very hard to do myself. I have great admiration for anyone who can write convincingly and make the three minute song format their own. So, I wanted to bring Aviv's songwriting talent to people outside of his relatively small Hebrew-speaking audience.
What is Aviv’s experience as a professional musician in Israel like given all of the political mayhem afoot?
Aviv is certainly a very famous figure in Israel, loved by many, but also disliked by some as a representative of Israeli counterculture—whatever that may be. His work is totally bound up with his politics and criticism of the Israeli government and military. I have seen him abused and threatened on the street a few times, but more often I have seen girls fainting in his presence and young people wanting to thank him for his music and his inspiration. Aviv is considered to be one of the most important and influential musicians in Israel.
You recently released a Web-only CD single featuring a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You.” What made you want to record that song?
I have this plan to release a series of cover versions in the style of good, old-fashioned seven-inch singles where you basically cut two tracks very quickly in the studio and in a few weeks they are available in a kind of generic, no-artwork, single-style, double-A-side package. I still love that whole seven-inch single thing and the fact that you can cut two tracks and have it on the market so quickly. With the cover version thing, each disc will have a cover version and the B-side, if you will, will be one of my own compositions that somehow relates to the cover version. The cover versions I want to do are all going to be songs that people would never, ever, ever imagine that I’d want to do. The reason I wanted to do that is that some bands do cover versions of songs you think are just so obvious, that it’s pointless—like Sepultura covering Black Sabbath or Oasis covering The Beatles. They do it so faithfully because they are so in awe of the originals.
As I’ve proven with Tim and No-Man, we pick cover versions that we take to completely different areas. There’s a group of songs I have in mind that people don’t give enough attention to as great songs. For whatever reason, the original artist recording them is not considered to be a great songwriter. Alanis Morissette is one of those artists. She gets treated with disdain by the music industry and a lot of music lovers, mainly because of the things she’s said and done. She seems to be slightly dismissed. I think the song “Thank You” is fantastic. I wanted to represent it in a completely different context so people would reevaluate it. The whole series of cover version EPs will feature songs that fall in that category—songs people dismiss out of hand. The next one I’ll probably do will be ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came.” It’s one of their last songs ever and it’s one of the saddest, most beautiful songs ever written. When I say ABBA, most people laugh, just as you’re doing now.
I don’t dismiss ABBA. I’m not about to buy an eight-CD ABBA boxed set, but I acknowledge they’re responsible for some very culturally important music.
That’s more than most people will admit, I have to tell you. The other thing about the cover version EPs is that I didn’t even tell people what the song was. The record was just called Cover Version.
During the first few seconds of listening to it, I thought perhaps there had been a mix-up at the pressing plant and that I was listening to another artist. I said to myself “Oh dear, it’s defective.”
[laughs hysterically] I like that. You don’t actually know what the song is until you get the CD. I know if I had announced what that song was, there would be immediate prejudice against the song and questions like “Why the hell have you done this? Why have you covered Alanis Morissette? Why doesn’t he do something good?” [laughs] I know I would have got that, not from everyone, but there would be a core of the fans that would find something to complain about. I’m pretty sure if I had told people what it was, there would have been people who wouldn’t have bothered buying it or would have complained that I should be covering obscure artists, not these major, mainstream, multi-platinum selling artists. They would have missed the point that it’s a great song I and I felt I could do something with it that that would put a different slant on it, which I think I did. I hope Alanis Morissette gets to hear it. I changed one line of the lyrics because I couldn’t understand it. I hope she wouldn’t be offended by that.
You’re very well known for your penchant for releasing a flurry of severely limited edition releases, to the sheer delight and frustration of your fans. Tell me about the philosophy behind these releases.
In terms of the volume of material, that’s really because of the range of musical interests I have. At the same time I might be working on a Porcupine Tree record, I might be making some completely ambient, textural music with Bass Communion. It’s very important to me to have these different musical personalities I can go to on any given day. That’s probably the reason there are so many records. Porcupine Tree make a record every two years now, but between every Porcupine Tree record, there will be things like singles, EPs, demos, outtakes and live recordings which get added to the discography. Fans seem to want this stuff. I enjoy releasing these things if they merit release. There are always occasions when you feel there’s something that should come out but it’s not for everyone. In those situations, you’ll decide to do it as a limited edition, so that once the hardcore fans have picked it up, it won’t go beyond that.
A good example is the Porcupine Tree XM Live CD which was a live in-the-studio broadcast we made at a Washington-based satellite radio station. We wanted to make it available because it is a good quality recording, even though it doesn’t have the atmosphere of a proper live recording. We decided to make it available in a limited edition of 1,500 copies. What happens when you make a limited edition is the hardcore fans find about it first, so they’re the ones that snap it up. There’s no danger the casual buyer who browses in Tower Records will pick up XM Live instead of In Absentia.
Another reason I do this is I’ve always loved the philosophy of limited editions and the more elusive, indulgent releases. I’m very much a music fan myself. I’m a collector of music and a lot of the acts I’m drawn to are very obscure and underground. Some of their releases are very limited and you almost get into this mentality like the art world, where if a painter creates a painting, it becomes a very unique, original piece and only one person can own it. There’s an exclusive thing about that. With some of my releases, I’ve tried to go down that route of making something very limited. There’s something more precious to the collector about owning something so limited. I speak for myself here as a music collector. I love picking up something that’s a limited edition of 300 copies. I’ve got a Muslimgauze four-LP box set and it’s limited to 300 numbered copies. It’s one of the most precious things that I own. It’s not like owning a CD you can pick up at a High Street store anytime you need. So, I guess I’ve tried to perpetuate that collector mentality within my own catalog. I love doing those limited things. Same thing with vinyl. I’m a big vinyl fan. And with vinyl, you have to make things limited because there isn’t a big enough market not to.
I find it curious that you’re remastering and remixing portions of the Porcupine Tree back catalog much in the same way major labels are approaching records made 20 to 50 years ago.
I think everyone is doing it now. It’s not just what major labels are doing with old catalogs. The process of remastering and reevaluating is speeding up. For example, there’s an artist I like from the ‘90s called Momus and his albums are about to be reissued with bonus tracks. Also, as recently as five or six years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing with mastering. I didn’t know how to make the best possible transfer from the master tapes to CD. When I listen to the remaster of Signify or Coma Divine, compared to those from five or six years ago, the difference is phenomenal. Maybe fans don’t care so much about that, but for me, this has been a really good opportunity to make the albums sound much better.
As for the bonus material, unfortunately, we live in a world where it is very difficult to get things into record stores. One of the only ways to get things into the stores and reactivate catalog a lot of the time is to do what’s called “add extra value” to the records. In other words, add extra tracks or change the packaging. In a sense, I do feel embarrassed about having to do that, only five or six years from the original album being released, but it’s the only way to get them to restock it. In my own defense, when we do this, we try to give very good quality in terms of the extra value stuff. With Signify, there’s a whole extra album of songs, most of which weren’t included on the final album. They sound good. It’s not like they are four track demos. They’re not far off from finished masters. So, I’m sure people will be happy to have them.
I must admit, I’m a terrible revisionist. I feel like my knowledge of recording and sound has come on so much in the last 10 years that when I listen to things I did even five years ago, I really feel like want to go back and remix and redo them. I do that a lot. I don’t know if fans get pissed off at it, but I can’t help it. One of the first Porcupine Tree albums, Up the Downstair, which is about 10 years old, has been deleted. It’s going to be reissued and virtually re-recorded because I hate it. When I listen to that record. I think “These are good songs and performances, but God, I hate those cheesy drum machines and samples!” The reason I did that at the time was because I couldn’t afford to go to a real studio and have a real drummer. So, I’d spend hours and hours programming drum machines to emulate what a real drummer would do, but of course, it never sounds the same. Now, I want to go back into the studio and remix and re-record parts of the album with a real drummer. At the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself as an artist and I really want to do this.
The Up the Downstair re-release really can’t be categorized as a reissue then, can it?
No. It’s a new recording. A lot of the elements will still be the same. It will have the same vocal performances and guitar parts, but it’s a complete overhaul of that record. The original version is being withdrawn permanently, so it’s almost replacing that record with a new version.
I understand the No-Man back catalog will be revisited in the future as well.
I hope so, yeah. The first few No-Man records have been unavailable for many years. If you look on eBay, you’ll see people bidding large amounts of money to get those records, so there is a need to reissue that material. Of course, in the process of reissuing that material, there are opportunities for us to remix, remaster and improve the sound and perhaps correct some of the decisions we felt were wrong at the time. One Little Indian were very much pushing No-Man towards coming up with radio friendly singles, as is always the record company’s desire. So, we made some very bad decisions at the time. We took tracks off the records that we felt were better than tracks we put on them because we were forced to include more commercially viable material. We now have an opportunity to reevaluate that whole era and extend the records with material that was just as good, if not better, than the material released at the time. We can also put everything in context to try and tell a story about where we were at that time in our lives. It was the first time we had a record deal, so like a lot of musicians, we made decisions we regret, artistic and otherwise.
As you mentioned, some of the rarer CDs you've released are fetching astonishing amounts of money in collector's circles. What do you make of the obsessive behavior your work is inspiring?
On one hand I understand it because I myself am obsessive about collecting music. But on the other hand, it is of course bizarre for anyone to become the object of such obsessive behavior, and part of me is still astonished that even one person would want to pay money for one of my records. I like to release a lot of limited editions in a variety of formats because it's fun for collectors. It's also pissed a lot of people off, but I can't help that—I always see the way I choose to release my music as just as much a part of my artistic personality as the music itself. One thing I have almost always striven for is to have a totally unique personality as an artist which extends to every aspect of my work. This is becoming increasingly rare these days. I think of people like Zappa, Bjork, Neil Young and Aphex Twin, as these artists inspire obsessive collecting because there is no-one else who can give their fans the same experience. How many generic nu-metal, old-metal, R&B, trip hop, hip-hop, indie, progressive and techno artists can say the same thing? Fans of these kinds of artists can move on to a thousand others with an almost identical sound and ideology in a second. So in that sense, I'm proud that the work inspires such loyalty among collectors. It must mean I’m doing something right.